Guest Post, Tyler Sage: Some Thoughts on the Detective Novel, Form, and Politics

For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that we can distinguish between form and content in writing. The latter – content – could be taken broadly to include things like what happens in a book, who is involved in the action, and the way characters are depicted. The former – form – could be taken to include the manifold ways the story is told and shaped, along with the matters of “craft” the author brings to bear.

It seems that thinking about this distinction might be worthwhile, because in many contemporary debates about writing the focus is so squarely on matters of content. A great deal of potential controversy adheres to the questions of what race, gender and class our characters are; how they act, and whether these actions promote offensive stereotypes; how the other characters refer to them, etc. Because of these pressures, ours has become a world in which authors hire sensitivity readers to double-check the level of potential offensiveness of their work, and a world in which the ability of a person of one race to legitimately write a character of another race is regularly questioned. My point is not to argue the rightness or wrongness of these practices; it’s simply to point out that they posit the main point of importance in political or ideological struggles as being what happens in a story, rather than the way a story is constructed.

Often, this approach is taken a step further and it’s argued that talking about or teaching writing in formal terms is itself problematic, that formal discussion itself is somehow anti-political, a hindrance to the expression of oppressed groups, or to social critique. The MFA program workshop model, and in particular the flagship/Great Satan of that model, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has become something of a focal point for this line of thought. In focusing on matters of “craft” (read: formal techniques in fiction), the argument goes, this model neglects matters of history and politics. Further, arising as it did in the context of the Cold-War, the workshop model approach to fiction carries the necessary stain of American Imperialism and an ideological fixation with radical individualism and Modernist technique that is antithetical to minority experience and revolutionary (or any other) politics. It’s not simply that the slogan of “show don’t tell,” for example, is bound inextricably to white male privilege; any focus on the formal aspects of writing distracts from our ability to write politically, because it pulls us away from personal, historical, and identity-based expression.

Again, it’s not my purpose to take sides in the debate over the worth of MFA programs, to stake a position on the enormous problems faced by women and people of color in the writing and publishing world, or to argue for one notion of revolution over another. My purpose is to defend the notion that the political resides at least as deeply in form as it does in content, using the American hardboiled crime novel as an example.

Raymond Chandler rightly stands at the center of this tradition, and his novels are as good a starting place as any. In them a detective, Philip Marlow, is asked to solve a crime. He begins on this task; soon after, he discovers at least one other seemingly unrelated mysterious circumstance that will in the end prove not to be unrelated at all; he proceeds forward, following clues, getting beaten up, shot at, and lied to, until he closes in on his criminal; in the end, the identity of the killer is revealed, and the machinations of everything that has happened are made clear to us.

The general political critique of Chandler is easy to outline. These are stories that feature a white male protagonist, invested in violence, who solves other people’s problems; in the final pages it is nearly always a woman who is revealed as the scheming betrayer behind the crimes, and it is this woman who needs to be repudiated, if not killed, for justice to be done; minorities are either not present or presented in generally stereotypical and outmoded (and indeed often outright racist) ways. However, this critique rests nearly entirely on questions of content: who is involved, how they act, and how they’re portrayed by the author/narrator.

My question is whether there’s not another – formal – approach we could take to all of this, that would allow us additional insight and, more importantly, additional force in our own writing. One place to start might be with the question of whether, or in what ways, Chandler’s work (and the work of similar writers) could be seen as political. Often presented as a kind of knight-errant questing forward on the shoulders of his hero-detective, the truth is that Chandler was bracingly cynical. He ends his much quoted essay on the detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950) with a passage extolling knight-errantry on the part of protagonists in detective novels; he begins it, on the other hand, by noting that popular best-sellers are

“promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.”

This certainly sounds like someone who’s invested in the idea that the apparatchiks of capitalist culture might be putting their grubby little thumbs on the scale when it comes time to determine which books get published and which don’t. But Chandler’s argument in the essay is not that he’s writing anti-capitalist literature, of course; it’s a formal one. His goal is to distinguish a particularly American style of “realist” mystery writing – in contrast to what he sees as a more class-encumbered English one – and to point out that what his forbearers in that style, Dashiell Hammett in particular, did was to use it as a way of pointing out power relations in the world. “The realist in murder,” he argues,

“writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations…a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket…where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.”

To my ear, at least, there is a breathtakingly strange political mixture in this passage: an absolute condemnation of corrupt political power exerted against the common person goes hand in hand with a sardonic disdain for that common person and a Charlton Heston-esque support for good old law and order.

Confused? Perhaps. But one cannot charge it with not staking out political or ideological claims about our culture. And in a sense, its confusion is exactly the point. Language in writing – and especially the American language, the complexities of which Chandler was trying to tease out, a language that goes back through Dickenson, Mellville, Douglass, and the rest of them, and forward from Chandler through everyone who’s written since – is necessarily political in its form. The words that are chosen, the structures of the sentences, the level of diction: all of it is the ideological ground that lies beneath the content of those words and sentences.

For Chandler, the attempt of Hammett and the rest to re-tether the detective novel to the diction of “the street” was an attempt at a some sort of realist social politics. They believed that the literature of their time had obscured the assaultive horrors of much everyday life, and that these issues could be addressed at least in part through language. Do we agree that they were successful? Perhaps we do, perhaps we don’t; for the purposes of this essay, it’s enough to note that it may very well be the case that for a writer to neglect the formal aspects of the American language is for a writer to inhibit their own ability to write politically.

But the argument doesn’t stop at prose. To write and structure any novel one must think more or less formally; I think the emphasis on plotting in a mystery story makes it an easy place to tease out the connections between the formal moves of the writer’s technique and the political content of their work. Thinking through (or trying to write) a densely plotted crime novel leads one immediately to a realization of the importance of the kinds of things taught in writing workshops: handling of POV in terms of distance and person, showing versus telling, the structuring of scenes, the timing of reveals, etc.

In his famous interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock makes a distinction between “surprise” and “suspense.” He explains that if two people in a story are having a conversation and are suddenly blown up by a bomb, it’s surprising. If we see someone plant the bomb, and then the characters enter, sit at the table, and begin their conversation, it’s suspenseful. What Hitchcock is getting at, in our terms, is the technical question of the effect on the audience created by the manipulation of the formal aspects of storytelling: how much information does the reader have, and when do they get it? How much do the characters have, and how much does the narrator have? At first, this may seem to be simply a matter of using storytelling mechanics to entertain the audience; if we pause for a moment, however, it becomes clear that it’s a formal element that lies at the heart of some of the most political writing we know. By thinking through and controlling POV and the rest, we’re creating a world that feels a certain way, either surprising or suspenseful, and in shaping the world in this way we are in fact making an assertion about the nature of that world.

One obvious place to explore this (and an obvious comparison to the hardboiled novel) is the work of Kafka. The Trial and The Castle are both set up somewhat along the lines of a “mystery” story. A character navigates through an oppressive, claustrophobic, absurd landscape in search of a McGuffin (to use Hitchcock’s term) he’s destined never to find (the facts behind his trial; the authority in the castle.) On a technical level, at least a part of the impact of Kafka’s work arises from his astounding control over formal elements of the art form. Kafka asserted in a moment of self-denigration in his journals that his success came from little more than his ability to re-create the feeling of being in a dream; reading his work closely, we realize that one way to understand this ability is in terms of maintaining a relationship between the consciousness of his reader and his protagonist such that we experience the absurdity of the world exactly as K. does. In somewhat barbaric, reductionist terms, this ability is a matter of being able to manipulate POV and closely control the information the reader has. And it is this claustrophobia itself, along with the power it gives Kafka of projecting us into an experienced world of absurdity, that at least in part allows him to construct a savage critique of modernity.

The connection of this to the American school of crime narrative, and the reason I’ve taken this detour, is to point out that in the hardboiled novel the feeling of being at the center of a claustrophobic maze is one of the most important elements. In a way not dissimilar to Kafka’s characters, Chandler’s protagonists are stuck in a labyrinth, the end result of which is disillusionment. That is to say, if Kafka uses a deep understanding of POV and interiority to write novels that reflect our sense of modernity as a thing that controls us far beyond our ability to control ourselves, Chandler and his ilk use similar mechanics, along with a control of information and plot along the lines of Hitchcock’s distinction, to create the feeling of being caught in a maze-like mystery, with deception and avarice around every corner. The ideological cynicism of these books and their critique of the America of their time come at least in part directly out of these formal elements.

A final way to approach these issues might be to return again to the ways these novels are politically problematic, and to use this to think through ways that we might respond to them with a literature of our own. The work of Mickey Spillane, whose first novel I, The Jury appeared in 1947, provides a wonderful opportunity to do this. Spillane’s work is interesting because it unabashedly celebrates, indeed valorizes, the aspects of Chandler’s work can be seen as the most politically problematic. In I, The Jury the narrator and protagonist, Mike Hammer, declares that what he likes to do is just go out and murder the criminals that the cops are too soft on; in one scene he beats up an African American man he notes is a good-looking “high yellow” and then checks the man’s wallet to find pictures of all the women the man has seduced, and finds that, yep, one of them was white (the obvious implication being that Hammer has righted a miscegenistic wrong); he falls in love with a super-hot woman psychiatrist, finds out that she’s the criminal mastermind behind everything, and murders her as painfully as possible her at the end. The whole is almost unbelievably fascistic. Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand was defender of his work (and he of hers); perhaps even less surprisingly, he sold over 130 million copies of his books and was for many years one of the most successful writers in America.

How are we to critique a writer like this? It’s all well and good to point out the radical misogyny, racism, and promotion of blood-lust in the content of his work, but to find anything more interesting to say, either as writers or critics, we need to move almost immediately to thinking formally. Like the verbiage of Donald Trump, Spillane’s first-person narration is continually over-insistent about its own toughness, intelligence, dynamo sexuality, and animal attractiveness to women. The plotting of the book means that, contrast to Chandler’s Philip Marlow, Mike Hammer is always the master of the situation: it’s virtually impossible to imagine him being played for a sucker by a friend the way Marlow is at the end of The Long Goodbye. To really understand the politics of this – why Ayn Rand was attracted to it, why it was so popular with post-war audiences, the grounds it lays for ideas and narratives that are still with us today – we must think at least partially in formal terms: how is the language working? how does the plotting go to character? what is shown and not told, or the other way around? etc. What these lines of thought show us are the ways power – racialized, gendered, and class-driven – propagates itself in our entertainments and art, the way it seduces audiences, the way it flatters some and silences others, the way it seeps into the fabrics of our stories themselves.

Perhaps more importantly, how are we as writers to respond? If we believe that we can re-shape these stories simply by changing their content, I think we’re mistaken. If we were to rewrite I, The Jury making only substitutions along the lines of the race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the characters, the fascistically violent and power-oriented worldview would remain unchanged. But approaching these narratives on formal terms allows a world of possibility to open up. What would it mean to write a detective story in a language that eschewed the radical tough-guy voice that propels so much hardboiled work? What would it mean to construct a plot which, like Kafka’s, was not solvable and simply led the detective further and further into a maze? What would it mean to adjust our understanding of showing and telling so that we knew everything before the detective did or, conversely, the detective figured everything out but simply didn’t tell us or, conversely again (if that’s possible) the detective found himself unable to read the human gestures that the writer who believes in “showing” to the exclusion of all else depends on so heavily? In addition to an increased attention to the identity and depiction of our characters, might all of this not allow us to write a newly-political detective story? And, in conjunction with changes in content – the identity of the protagonists, the depiction of characters – might it not aid writers in continuing to reshape the literature itself?

I’ll close by noting that I think that, if we step back from the specific example of the crime novel, we see almost immediately that this formal reshaping is exactly what a great deal of American writing has traditionally striven to do. The examples are countless, but we might think through the anti-war constructions of Johnny Get Your Gun, Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, the way race is approached in the work of Langston Hughes, John Edgar Wideman, or Toni Cade Bambara, the way narrative itself is approached in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, the ways politics is investigated in Pynchon’s early work, history is flayed open in Beloved, gender structures pierced by Patricia Highsmith, and our relationship with the natural world is illuminated by Barry Lopez or Terry Tempest Williams. And on and on.

As much as their content, it is the formal awareness of these books that gives them their power. To neglect either – content or form – would be to rob ourselves of the ability to access that same power.

Authors Talk: Ruben Rodriguez

Today we are pleased to feature author Ruben Rodriguez as our Authors Talk series contributor. Ruben discusses the three poems which were published in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Ruben developed the poems from his memoir in verse. His poems are prose based and explore family memories from his childhood. He says of the poems, “The poems are meant to examine my coming of age, amidst my mother’s decline.” He talks of the way that family stories can become legends. The explanations that Ruben speaks about add another level to the beautiful imagery found in his poetry. Ruben plans to continue writing in this vein saying, “Moving forwward, I hope to write a couple hundred of these prose poems and whittle them down into a manuscript length.” 

You can access Ruben’s poems in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

 

Guest Post, Terese Svoboda: In Dreams Begin Responsibility

I hover in a helicopter over a beach where my two grown sons race to catch the spy-worthy ladder I’m dangling. Once they climb up (how do those spies do it, hand-over-hand, with a fierce wind at the rungs?), my husband seals the cockpit from the poison that’s building up below, I gun the motor to leave–but to where? We hover, using up valuable fuel. Out to sea where smoke billows over the Atlantic? Up or down the nuclear-blasted north or south?

My dream brain knows we can’t flee West. After 9/11, my father bought a truck that fit seven, certain he could drive to New York and quickly return us to the family homestead in Nebraska, sure bombs would reflect in his taillights all the way. Never mind that the SAC airbase in Omaha was where Bush hid until he was forced to make an appearance, that the cornfields of home lie a mere 300 miles away from the missiles – he would rescue us. Now my brother has commandeered my father’s truck, along with the deed to his house—and dumped him into assisted living. Home no longer exists.

I dream my homelessness, I hover and know that the helicopter fuel will run out, joining the realities of travel with the impeccable dream-logic of anxiety. I’ve had experience: the post-nuclear world of the fifties was filled with such dreams. My father – like most – never explained why he didn’t invest in a bomb shelter like the neighbors, was heedless of the rising inflection of the inquiring helpless child, busy ducking and covering at school. Well, we only ducked and covered once, were expected to remember forever (we did) not to look at the fireball. Oh, Orpheus! If we were attacked by night, were we supposed to run back the twelve blocks to school to hide under our desks? I imagined running in the dark, the school gone, I dreamt it.

Imagination is crucial to terror, and night causes the imagination to consolidate our rational daytime fears with our nighttime, the terror billowing out of control, forest-fire-wild, all light and shifting dark. Dawn sweeps the pre-verbal visions away, and holds terror at bay, no longer baying. The sun shines and the plants grow and those post-war children uncurl from their balls that they instinctively imagine protect them, never mind the desks. “In dreams begin responsibilities” according to Delmore Schwartz, whose book from the Fifties and Sixties chronicled disappointment with the American dream, reminding readers that they had to labor hard not to be pulled under by its false economic promise, its faux egalitarianism.

Nothing bad happened on American soil for two hundred and twenty-five years except 9/11, nothing compared to the rest of the world. Our complacency makes violence elsewhere hard to imagine, we have only the little sparks of fear that light up our brains after any one of the thousands of mass shootings in the last five years, nearly all of them committed by Americans. But such complacency is also the result of partial blindness and deliberate amnesia. We’ve had at-home bombings throughout our history, anarchists planted 44 bombs that brought on the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare 100 years ago, George Metesky set off dozens of bombs throughout NYC between 1940 to 1957 (he also slit open seats in movie theaters to hide explosive devices), Ted Kaczynski planted 16 bombs nationwide, fatally injuring three as recently as 1995. Our worst insurrection was also home-made: the Civil War killing 630,000 citizens, but mention should also be made of the 1921 bombing by Oklahomans of black Wall Street in Tulsa that left 10,000 people homeless and 300 dead. Are terrorists terrorists if they’re your fellow Americans, part of the family, as it were?

While I was teaching for the Summer Literary Seminars in Lamu, Kenya, my husband went on a trip up the coast to interview a man who had been imprisoned for two years by the Mossad. Suspected of working for Al-Qaeda because his sister married one of the most important operatives on the continent, he pled innocence. “He was just my sister’s boyfriend,” he said. “It’s true, at the wedding his family didn’t come but they were so far away. He played soccer with everybody else. Even my sister didn’t know.”

A terrorist can be in bed with you, dreaming, night after night.

My brother threatened to bring a gun to a meeting about the family farm. He believed (believes) in the right to bear arms wherever he wants. Does that make him a bully or a freedom fighter? It’s hard for me to understand how someone in my own family could redefine democracy so radically. Taking the benign concept of the family and delivering a gunman is a little like turning a plane into a weapon.  Of course the surrealists believed that whatever can be imagined becomes real. The most potent threat is the threat: the imagining of terror. The current administration is adept at promulgating imagined terror, posturing with North Korea, actually dropping bombs on Syria, political moves that create enormous stress, the opposite of what a government is supposed to provide.

Writers have a responsibility to use their imagination during times of stress. We need to imagine our survival and spread word of that imaginative act to others. I’ve always argued that novice writers have seen enough media violence to imagine any variation themselves, but when they need to imbue those scenes with emotion, they have to go to method-acting, and remember when their brother chased them around with a baseball bat, when their father’s hand was raised to hit them, or when the family dog turned, and magnify that response to fit the scene. Thank god, we survived it.

Writers also need to read and translate from countries that have lived through drone attacks and American terror to understand what they have gone through, to imagine whether that cost is worth our feelings of security. The proposed wall along our border also raises this question. What is the illusion of security worth? Fiction writers traffic in illusion, which is not alt-facts but seeks to establish the truth through accurate portrayal of emotion. Readers understand that. The domestic novel of an unhappy marriage can be a distraction, a method for relieving oneself of terror, but the story about a totalitarian brother making one’s father suffer is perhaps more apt.  The bluster of bullies is possible because they have never lost or never had the ability to imagine losing, they feel assured of their win because they can’t imagine otherwise. To imagine winning, we need to write out our fears with an urgency that makes them impossible to ignore, to make them real enough to act on. We can’t depend on twittering birds and daylight to trigger our survival instincts.

Sleeping at night has become a problem for me. Dreaming is always the goal, reorganizing those brain bits so they work faster, unconscious enlightenment, rest. Waking from the dream, having imagined the worst, panting in the dark, I recognize that even my personal psychic safety has been withdrawn. I can’t go back to sleep anymore than I can go back home. Home is imagined: I’m awake and I have to make home again and again. Ask any refugee.

Guest Post, Sean Lovelace: Literary homage

The publishing vultures (or more likely turkey buzzards) are circling my apartment balcony, but why begin in such a sour mood? A mild, morning hangover, not so unlike the lingering ribbons of a common cold/sneeze (at least to my thinking), yet the coffee is hot and science has proven many, many cups of caffeine won’t actually kill you. Thank you, science, you national mutt/political football/current turd. But there goes a cloud in shape of portobello, a puffy suitcase or two, shreds of cotton…Then jump-cut, an actual squadron of honking Canada Geese, a lost and demented species, seemingly as comfortable in a Walmart parking lot (probably eating Cheetos) as in a glittering city pond or even a natural lowland marsh. Look, there goes one smoking a cigarette while perched atop a city bus. I wave, no response from the goose. Most likely they are human.

Two books arrive (people send me books constantly, a sweet curse) like roadkill in the mail, pungent but a bit vulgar: A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand and Just Before Dark, Collected Nonfiction, both written by literary crow/mountain lion, Jim Harrison. Harrison died in the spring of 2016. Oh look, the spring of 2017 and two brand new publications. Editors of the post mortem. Ink stained vultures, New York hyenas, etcetera. So let’s not read them at all.

Instead, let’s discuss what I term, literary homage. An aside? No. Bear with me; just come along for a short yet hopefully fruitful ride through literary time and space. Consider this a metaphysical self-driving car, or maybe a horse (actually the first self-driving car, no?).

In 1925 Russian poet Sergei Yesenin is found dead at age 30, hanging by braided rope from a pipe in his hotel room. I purposely structured the sentence in this manner, hanging by braided rope. Was it a suicide? Who knows? Yesenin had recently pissed off the soviets in several ways (the details not so relevant here), and it’s very possible the government “silenced” him (much in the way a modern day critic of Vladimir Putin may awake one morning in London to a teacup of sugar and polonium-210). Yesenin’s final poem was found on a nearby desk, and written in his own blood:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

Let’s move to 1972 (as I mentioned, extra-stellar travel), to American writer, Jim Harrison, at age 35. He has a wife and a daughter and a literary career sinking into the mosquito bogs and chokeberry thickets outside his Upper Peninsula Michigan cabin. His poems and novellas are not finding publication (they will later; including Legends of the Fall). He’s broke and depressed. He’s drinking too much. But also obsessed with literature, currently of the Russian variety—Yesenin. So begins a correspondence in lyrical, confessional verse. Letters to Yesenin, notes to the dead poet, questions about poetry and depression and suicide and life…these missives published in 1973 by Sumac Press and republished by Copper Canyon Press in 2007 and still in print (like all of Harrison’s books, before and after Yesenin).

Time and Space, Space and Time—now to 2006. Return to Michigan, Grand Rapids…a southern boy stands shivering on a bridge above the Grand River. What are these frosty humpbacked boulders below, these jagged cracked platters of ice…these copper steelhead shards holding in the current, occasional smudge of trout? This alien confetti snow now swirling down about his red nose? Where is his family? His friends? Solitary meals in low-slung bars. Drinking silty beer (Michigan is truly a land of serious beers). Studio apartment the size of a van, more an aquarium, fourteen windows, some sort of exhibition case in some rarely visited museum…cracks in the panes. I am lost and in Michigan and teaching at Grand Valley University and stumbling upon extinguished night seas of an odd city and slippery ice and cobblestoned mind, I mean to say the moon, dark side…but one lonely evening I walked down the hill and into the city library and Jim Harrison discovered me in my illness and gave me courage to move forward, yes, to survive.

Spring, 2016: Jim Harrison suffers a fatal cardiac arrest. His body found in his Arizona home, on the Navajo rug below his desk. He died while writing a poem (this sounds apocryphal, but fact-checked). Harrison’s death affected me greatly, more than I would have thought or believed. And my response was to write him letters, in the spirit of his transmissions to Sergei Yesenin. Time and Space…they began with just one, a sort of goodbye. And thank you. Then another and another and today I continue writing in this literary respect:

Example here.

And here.

And here.

I will assume most readers of this site are writers or dancers or artists of some questionable shade/hue. Here is a concept that may excite you, or lead you to your next endeavor, or simply an idea to ponder, your own passing cloud to name and shape. Literary Homage.

  • First, select your artist. The one you mind-meld with; your totem, your token, your one-of-a-kind coffee mug, your favorite beer. Boom-boom! Thrill! Sex, love, religion, or death. Crushed Dexedrine or cute puppy or fast car or that time you made out with a Goth kid in the funhouse at the state fair. The one that made your heart pound, feet float down the golden boulevard, Kafka’s axes for the frozen sea within us, etcetera.
  • Read hard and vividly. Read seriously your artist. Over and again. I’ve read Letters to Yesenin maybe 50 times (and counting). Then dove into Harrison’s Selected and New Poems and The Shape of the Journey, the many novellas (that cad, Brown Dog), Sundog and Dalva and Farmer and Wolf, Harrison’s memoir, and his excellent book of food writing, The Raw and the Cooked.
  • Can you take it further? Yes, you probably can. Interviews, obituaries, various studies and source material. Letters. For me, I’m on leave from my job in the fall and will be repeatedly visiting (once again) Grand Rapids, Michigan, to dive deep into the Jim Harrison archives. You’re doing this sort of research correctly once the artist haunts your tangled dreams.
  • Another level? Personally, once I decided this would be an entire literary homage undertaking, I knew at once it would be essential to immerse (I know “immersion” is hyperbolic, but it’s the best word I can find) myself within the very life of Harrison. I suggest you do the same with your particular author. If selecting Simone de Beauvoir, date a philosopher, smoke cloves, and join a clandestine Resistance. If Haruki Murakami, collect vinyl and run long distances while hoarding cats. If Ikkyu, visit local brothels in your Buddhist robes. And so on. For me, this was simple. Harrison was a devout daily walker; I’m a devout distance runner. I already hunt and fish. I can read a river eddy or a neap tide, can differentiate a pirouetting dove from a flushed quail. Yes, I can skin a buck and run a trot line, etcetera. As for sensuality, I avoid strip clubs (one of Harrison’s obsessions), but—like Harrison—if I am offered a sexual opportunity, I usually take it. Love of drink? I’m basically an alcoholic. Occasional soft drugs? Why not? One thing does elude me—Harrison was a true gourmand, while I usually eat nachos. So this took some adjustment. I increased greatly my input of garlic (and still do). I bought olive oil and wooden spoons. And to kick off the project, I ate a Harrison dinner, an ordeal that dealt with multiple shipped packages of frozen flora and fauna and definitely sent my bank account into the suck-hole, but these things we suffer for art. The dinner was oysters, snails, a braised lamb shank (on a bed of eggplant, green and red peppers, scallions, a pinch of lemon zest, and a couple heads of garlic), fresh pork sausage made by the local Mennonites, a venison round steak, two strawberry Pop-Tarts, salt-cod chowder with a wedge of cornbread, pea soup, five fried mourning dove, breaded asparagus, a plate of Greek olives and basket of onion rolls, Baked Lays potato chips, macaroni salad from the nearby deli, sliced apples, and two bottles of a pretty decent Cabernet (Oliver winery, right up the Indiana corn-lined road). Followed by a shot of white rum for grit and a sleeve of Girl Scout thin mint cookies. For Harrison, this would of course have been only a light lunch.
  • Lastly, and the most important lesson for a writer during this literary homage is to understand form=function. My letters actually nod to Harrison’s technique, as Harrison’s own letters to Yesenin gave respect to that poet’s content and style. Letters to Yesenin are political (Yesenin writes about the soviets; Harrison rails against Nixon) and this gave me permission to write more about this country’s political climate, something I’d generally avoided. Harrison’s letters are chock full of literary references and so are mine, my brain being relatively well-read, since books are actually a necessary aspect of my job. Authors were weaved within. Finally, I noted Harrison’s wonderfully varied sentences, on a level I hadn’t seen since Annie Dillard. Harrison crafts sentences, prods them, twists and jerks them, smells and yells them, jolts them, songs them, unearths them…I tried to do the same.

I suppose that’s enough, a blog traditionally a flavor of compression/brevity. Initially planned on leading us through several examples of literary homage, from worthy Chinese poets (Tu Fu to Li Pai to Chu Shu-chen) to a lovely act of reverence by contemporary poet Bruce Smith to the epic (and epically attractive) Edna St Vincent Millay, who herself homages to Shakespeare… (I have a profound literary crush on Millay, if you didn’t know [and I don’t know why you would]). But way leads onto way, as Frost told us. At any rate, the NFL draft is tonight (upon this writing), a form of Christmas for any true fan. I have my plans. To sauté three cloves of minced garlic (slowly, slowly, let the herb express itself…), add black beans and rice, crumble in venison burger, and hit it all with Dave’s ghost pepper sauce. Skull-kicker, but in a good way. Serve with rotel dip (rotel and melted Velveeta) and tortilla chips. A shot of herradura and several bottles of Pacifico (one of Harrison’s favorite beers). Okay then. That should do.

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, Nicole Rollender: Thoughts on the Mother Voice

It’s disconcerting – one morning, coming downstairs to brew my coffee, I hear a higher-pitched female voice crooning, “Come on, baby, roll over. Roll over! You can do it, baby.”

Nicole Rollender bio pictureFrost still on the window, my husband’s playing home movies from when our first child was born eight years ago. The mommy voice making me cringe is mine: There’s my tiny daughter, belly-down, face scrunched up, struggling to overturn herself onto her back.

When she finally does it, her exposed umbilical hernia wiggling, my voice hits an even higher note as I say, “You did it! Baby, you did it!”

Why does this bother me so much, my vulnerability loud in my mother voice? Perhaps because my chosen persona is tough: dark, wild-haired, lots of silver rings and chains, black-studded motorcycle jacket, ripped jeans – a woman with swagger.

Yet, part of that swagger is in my mind: In real life, I’m carrying a blond toddler boy moving like a Tasmanian devil in one arm, and holding my elfin daughter’s tiny hand in the other as she tries to skip away.

My bent back, carrying the weight of two bodies borne from mine.

/

My first writing mentor, a prominent woman poet – she also never married or had children – studied with Anne Sexton, one of my muses. Mothering wasn’t enough to keep Sexton rooted here. Or did it uproot her?

During workshop, my mentor shared an anecdote about persistence: In her graduate school class, she was one of eight, and the only woman. Yet, she was the only student who became a poet of note, simply because, according to her, she persisted in her writing and submitting.

In graduate school (before marriage, before children), I fell into a pesky trap, thinking a woman poet must dedicate her life to art: living austerely, writing rather than eating, living alone rather than choosing a partner, not having children. Primarily: persisting in her art.

Yet, our lives go the way they go. I met a man and married him, and we had two children. I was still a writer, yet a writer with two small humans, constant, dependent. My breasts heavy with milk, stomach still loose from childbirth, always, always exhausted.

In an article on VIDA, “Report from the Field: To Go to Sea: Making a Place in a Male Literary Landscape,” Rachel Richardson writes about hearing confusing writing advice from a male writing program director while she was pregnant:

They had invited a prominent woman poet as the visiting writer of the semester; she wore rainbow knee socks and read juicy poems full of the body, childbirth, and children… During her visit, we all celebrated her work. But a few weeks afterward, my program director told me, “You’re a good poet. You wrote a good book. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t start writing mommy poems.”

I had no idea how to file this conflicting input. … hadn’t he invited this prominent writer, whom he now seemed to be dismissing as a cautionary tale? And what on earth was a Mommy Poem? Is a poet who is a mother not supposed to admit to that fact in verse? Does a child appearing in a poem diminish it? If the speaker’s body is a vessel, does her brain stop being interesting?

Is that really how it is, if your mother voice takes over a poem, the work is diminished? If your body is a creatrix for another body, that body swells into your art, depleting you? If you’re a mother who writes as a mother, you’re no longer a writer?

/

I published one of my first poems in Alaska Quarterly Review right after I finished graduate school, and then my first chapbook came out in 2007. Then I didn’t really publish anything until 2012. During those five years, I had my first child and I was writing, but not actively focused on submitting. My daughter and son were born four years apart – I had two difficult pregnancies; both were born early (my son nine weeks, my daughter three) and each spent weeks in the NICU. Those experiences catalyzed my writing, which contained a rawer love, grief, vulnerability and a frantic desire to create art, since time had become scarce.

A poem, “Necessary Work,” that I wrote about my daughter’s time in the NICU, when I was overcome with worry, won Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize in 2012, and was selected by Li-Young Lee, a poet I admire so much. That moment pushed my belief that mother/children poems do have a place in the literary world, and that’s good for me because so many of my poems now touch on the concerns of motherhood: how the mother-body fails a baby during pregnancy, the mother love and the mother guilt (I’m not doing enough, I want to run away), the immense and crippling love we feel for our children:

Your life starts with one word, sing, a prayer candle set
floating in my womb, yes, one word, then another. Hear this: Jug. Rice.

Tears on stone. Broken-necked lily. Hold on. Winged baby. Sing. While you’re
in the hospital, my kitchen is cursed: My hands are afraid to break apart

this bloody meat, to mingle my fingers with warm sinew and tendon,
to pat spice and salt into flesh. My grandmother set a place for the dead,

if her soft-footed brother might drop from heaven into the night kitchen,
looking for bread or sweet milk, the way the living look for love.

In “Baby Poetics,” published in The American Poetry Review, Joy Katz touches on one of the difficulties of writing the mother/child poem, which is that we as writers and readers both must find the baby or child trope “wondrous”:

People are expected to have certain feelings about children. A baby activates a set of cultural expectations that operates, in a poem, like subliminal advertising. For instance, babies are supposed to be wondrous. The fact that many people find them so, and that I am expected (by my mother, if not many others) to find them so, pressures the poem. The expectation is out there, daring me to find the baby other than wondrous. A baby in a poem always threatens to make me feel one of the things the world expects me to feel—if not wonder, then love, awe, tenderness. That pressure means the possibility of sentimentality is strong, no matter what the poem is actually doing.

It’s that expectation of sappy sentimentality that actually doesn’t permeate the work of mother-writers I admire so much: Traci Brimhall, Juliana Baggott, Maggie Smith, Jenn Givhan and Molly Sutton Kiefer, just to name a few. What does is the reality of life with children, how love and grief expand, about how our conception of time alters, speeds up, slows down.

A poem that does this so well, and that I return to often, is Smith’s “At your age I wore a darkness”, in which she considers depression, what she’s handing down to her daughter and her daughter’s life after she’s gone, framed against her daughter asking what’s beyond the sky:

 

What can I give you
to carry there? These shadows
of leaves—the lace in solace?
This soft, hand-me-down
darkness? What can I give you
that will be of use in your next life,
the one you will live without me?

 

Similarly, in a poem I published in Tinderbox Poetry Journal called “Somewhere, Another Woman Tells Her Husband Why She Doesn’t Want a Child,”  I write what I’m willing to do for my children after learning that a local girl has been brutally beaten and her body thrown in a dumpster:

 

They play (faces red in leaves)

happily beyond my shadow,
not knowing who watches
from the woods.

I’ll never know
their last moment

with me, as if the parting
of our bodies
in the delivery room wasn’t
already our most

binding pain.
I listen as my daughter prays
the Hail Mary, blessed are you

—in the hollow where I don’t
speak, I ask to take their place.

Someone must be given.

/

The mother voice can be keening and sweet, but it’s also hard-edged, ferocious, a storm growing at the edge of a field and then bursting overhead.