Guest Post, Alan Cheuse: Revision

I don’t want you to take this as bragging, because it isn’t. It’s a description of what can happen if you keep on writing decade after decade for the love of the work, with a little bit of luck, that touch we all need, of course.

And I don’t want you to think this is yet another hoarse exhortation to revise, revise!

My first writing workshop instructor, the poet John Ciardi, back at Rutgers in the early 1960s, exhorted me enough for a life time.

Revise, revise!

(He said this in the same intonation that we find at the end of Frost’s wonderfully playful poem on old age, “Provide, Provide”. Yes, you’ve got it—Provide, Provide.)

Revise, revise!

“Writing is revising,” Ciardi reminded us, a wayward band of juniors and seniors, six of us in a workshop he conducted in the basement of the old Rutgers English house, a former residence on College Avenue which the university had taken over decades before.

“Writing is revising.”

I can still hear his voice in this advice, a slightly patrician-ized South End Boston accent that Ciardi must have worked on while one of the few local Italian boys attending Harvard (where he worked as a writer in residence, of sorts, supplying essays of his own devising for lunk-headed legacies who had the patrician voices but not the supreme intelligence about poetry and fiction that should have come along with it. In other words, he worked his way through college writing papers for his betters.)

I can hear that too.

“For my bet-ters.”

By then I had done more than half the work toward becoming something like this new hero of mine, the Southie poet now in residence at Rutgers, living in near-by Metuchen, New Jersey and also writing a weekly column for “The Saturday Review of Literature.” I had lived for nineteen years in North Jersey, where after an empty, and sometimes violent, middle school so-called education, and while keeping up a certain (small) ability at softball and an even smaller one at basketball, I threw myself into the reading of novels and stories that lighted up my present life and glowed forcefully on the horizon as well.

I read sea stories in grade school and science fiction through eighth grade and by sophomore year of high school I was trying to read Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (about which I understood almost nothing but loved the cadences of the lines) our chemistry teacher, a big doughy white-haired man named Pat White, tore from my hands during a study hour and never returned to me.

Something like happened to Ciardi and poetry early on in his working-class life in Boston.

So now all I had to do was write, and these two halves, living and art, might come together and make me a whole person. If you’re reading this you know the feeling. You live through immense sea-storms of language in books so great you barely grasp what’s going on inside them while at the same time plodding along in school, making fun of the feeble teachers who give you Julius Caesar to read or, worse, to listen to on recordings of “great performances.”

My greatest performance until then was to live as though I were a normal kid, even though now and then I would hole up with a science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or Dubliners (confiscated from me by my home room teacher before I could read it half way through). Oh, and also play ball, and commit an occasional small larceny (stealing cases of Coke from a delivery truck), and brawl—verbally, only, thank the gods—with my father, and attend class and sink into a vortex of forceful apathy that convinced me that there was no such thing as education in New Jersey, only place-keeping until such time as you could join the armed forces or get a job as a clerk and then a manager—or, if you were as lucky as I was, assumed like some prince of the lower-middle-classes that college was your due.

College became the intellectual equivalent for revision.

My slovenly class room habits turned more strict, my near-sightedness about life’s possible pleasures turned into long-range vision, and I began, however haphazardly, to regard my origins and my family as something interesting rather than a burden. Revise, revise! Though I hand no idea that I was doing it, I was doing it. Fiction, poetry, music, painting, architecture, dance—all art came together into a single force and wrenched open my eyes, as in the stunning moment at the end of Rilke’s great poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Years went by, nearly twenty, before I found a toe-hold on the climb up the rocky mount of revision, but the more I worked at it, the more natural it became. The sense of where you must begin a story rather than where you have first begun it. The sense of where you must expand a novel—open it up to further exploration—rather than where it now stands. The necessity to write more and more scenes to make a character’s psychology become more than mere statement. The numerous attempts to make the raw beautiful rather than pretty, and take the beautiful closer to the sublime.

To say this eventually comes to us naturally may cover over the fact that as natural as it seems it never comes easily. When I edited a collection of Bernard Malamud’s essays along with my dear old friend and fellow novelist and story writer Nicholas Delbanco I discovered Malamud’s painstaking method for making the natural seem a common occurrence. Here’s how he worked on a short story. You can draw inferences from his about how he approached novels.

First he wrote a draft in long hand and then typed it over and made corrections in the typescript. Then he wrote a second draft in long hand and typed it up to make corrections that comprised another draft. And so on, sometimes up to a dozen times, to make a finished story. In the page proofs for a magazine version of the story he made corrections with a pen. When he had enough stories for a collection he made further corrections in the galley proofs, and then again in the page proofs. When he had a finished book on hand, it was never finished. When he read a story in public he made further changes as he went along in the reading of it.

Ciardi and Malamud—not a one-two punch, more like a one-one thousand punch to help me to see how to make art better and better.

As I write these words I have just about completed one of the most fortunate endeavors a novelist can undertake. A new publisher has come along to bring out a new edition—this would be the fourth!—of a novel I wrote thirty years ago and published almost that long ago. Back then I called it The Grandmothers’ Club and this remained its title through its first three iterations, its original hard cover, and then two paperback editions. At the urging of this publisher—Frederic Price of Fig Tree Books–I took the time to revise it after all these many decades, and recast the punctuation, particularly the quotation marks. When I first wrote it I was in the throes of modernism, as if caught up in a fever that had a fever, something that’s cooled down a bit for me by now, to, say, a steady boil with now and flares of flame like sunspots. The book changed enough so that we changed its title. Now called Prayers for the Living it comes out in a new trade paperback edition in March.

Revise, revise! Have I changed my life? I don’t know, I don’t know. Have I changed my art? I invite you to come and see.

Guest Post, John Findura: I Was a Teenage Poet (And Other Small Confessions)

Garfield is a small city in northern New Jersey, not far from Manhattan, that sits on the Passaic River. This is the same Passaic River that William Carlos Williams wrote about in Paterson and the same Passaic River my grandmother repeatedly wanted us to throw her into: “I don’t want to be a bother – just throw me in the river.” Garfield is still a very blue-collar place with a large Polish population, enough so that the early Easter Mass at St. Stanislaus’ my grandmother would take us to was conducted in Polish. She was the only one of us who understood anything other than the three Polish words the rest of us knew: Jezus, Chrystus, and Amen. It was, and I imagine still is, an unusual place to find oneself thrust into poetry.

20 years ago or so, in Garfield, there used to be a bar on River Road, running along the Passaic, which tried very hard to be Tony Soprano-ish before there ever was a Tony Soprano. On one night a month, though, they hung a thin scrim to separate the bar from a small area with tiny circular tables and an even smaller stage and held poetry readings. My first dose of poetry outside of a high school classroom (and the worn copy of Oscar Williams’ Immortal Poems of the English Language that I carried around with me for years) was on those nights when I would sneak into that bar. I don’t know how many normal 18 year-olds sneak into bars to see poetry readings, and don’t actually buy a beer, but few poets that I know are what most people would categorize as normal anyway.

Immortal Poems of the English Langauge

Essence, the student-run literary journal from William Paterson College (now University) is still put out every year (to the best of my knowledge) and most of the readers were students whose work made it into those pages. The thrill of sitting in that bar, someplace I shouldn’t have been anyway, with the lights low, tea candles lit at the tables, and real live poets reading their work just feet away created a seismic shift somewhere inside of me that previously had been used for common sense and sound decision making. I had wanted to study film, or go to art school, but sitting in that bar, holding a copy of that little magazine filled with poets who were never heard from again but remain larger than life to me today, utterly convinced me that I was going to be a poet.

Of course back then there was never a thought of MFA programs or AWP or competing for residencies or fellowships. There was never even a thought of actually publishing a poem beyond making a bunch of copies of some 8 ½ by 11 sheets at the library to hand out to friends (and I’m not sure I even realized that there were magazines that published poetry). This was before email, so we would have to hand deliver or mail poems to each other and we kept them in different colored folders separated by which ones we thought were real poems and which ones were just cool. And then we’d occasionally sneak into the bar.

I vividly recall one night where one of my favorite poets (whose name I no longer recall and I doubt I even knew then) read a poem about waiting for a train, backed by a guy playing a standup double bass. It was like the poetry reading scene from So I Married An Axe Murderer. Later, another reader started reciting his poem from the back of the room, slowly walking towards the stage holding a lit candle. He finished the poem as he reached the stage, then turned toward all of us and blew out the candle. Our minds were collectively blown.

Of course as soon as I was a regular I got pinched by a new guy working the door and was told never to come back. I tried to explain that I was just there for the poetry. He laughed. Hard. So I drove away and found a diner to sit in and drink coffee.

Now, having two very little kids, I don’t get to as many readings as I used to, but I still manage to get to the KGB Bar in New York every other month or so. Some days I sort of miss that innocence, that feeling that everything ahead was going to be new. But that’s the beauty of poetry, even this many years into it: there is always something new. So even as I write this, waiting for the blizzard that will apparently slam into the entire Northeast, I’m thinking about finding a good poetry reading next week, and maybe trying to sneak in.

Splash of Red Literary Arts Magazine

Splash of Red is an international online literary arts magazine that publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art, interviews, and graphic narratives. They have published interviews with many Pulitzer Prize winners, US Poet Laureates, and acclaimed writers as well as some of the top editors and publishers in the country for their Industry Interview Series. What sets these interviews apart from others is that they focus on the readers of the literary magazine, many of whom are writers themselves. The interviews delve into writing processes of the interviewees, editing techniques, and strategies for getting around writer’s block. And the Industry Series investigates the other side of the table that writers rarely get a glimpse into in order to better their odds at getting their work published. But the meat of the publication is the fantastic submissions that come from all over the world.

The name of the publication comes from three inspirations: 1) the infamous red ink in draft after draft to get the best quality writing, 2) the blood and passion that goes into only the most skillfully crafted art, and 3) great work stands out just like a splash of red.
In 2010, Splash of Red organized numerous live events where authors came to speak with audiences for live Q and As. Some of the authors included Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz, famed writer Eleanor Herman, and Daniel Wallace – author of Big Fish, who spoke with eager audience members following a showing of the film based on his novel at a local independent theater. Additionally, the online magazine involved local communities by spearheading a special public mural on the New Jersey boardwalk in Asbury Park. Three artists chose three poems published on the website and created pieces of art inspired by and including those poems which were then painted in multiple large murals across the backdrop of the mid-Atlantic.

Interested fans can follow Splash of Red on Twitter, Facebook, or become a member and get email updates about newly published work and events. One of the things they pride themselves on is creating an online literary arts community where readers can post comments on anything published on the website, submit art inspired by splashes of red for their Red Gallery, and involving members in creative decisions and directions for the publication including suggestions for interviewees.

If you take any one thing away from this blog post, take this: check it out. The website is www.SplashOfRed.net and feel free to peruse, read, comment, and investigate at your own leisure. Make it your own and enjoy!

Splash of Red

Splash of Red is an international online literary arts magazine that publishes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art, interviews, and graphic narratives. They have published interviews with many Pulitzer Prize winners, US Poet Laureates, and acclaimed writers as well as some of the top editors and publishers in the country for their Industry Interview Series. What sets these interviews apart from others is that they focus on the readers of the literary magazine, many of whom are writers themselves. The interviews delve into writing processes of the interviewess, editing techniques, and strategies for getting around writer’s block. And the Industry Series investigates the other side of the table that writers rarely get a glimpse into in order to better their odds at getting their work published. But the meat of the publication is the fantastic submissions that come from all over the world.

The name of the publication comes from three inspirations: 1) the infamous red ink in draft after draft to get the best quality writing, 2) the blood and passion that goes into only the most skillfully crafted art, and 3) great work stands out just like a splash of red.
In 2010, Splash of Red organized numerous live events where authors came to speak with audiences for live Q and As. Some of the authors included Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz, famed writer Eleanor Herman, and Daniel Wallace – author of Big Fish, who spoke with eager audience members following a showing of the film based on his novel at a local independent theater. Additionally, the online magazine involved local communities by spearheading a special public mural on the New Jersey boardwalk in Asbury Park. Three artists chose three poems published on the website and created pieces of art inspired by and including those poems which were then painted in multiple, large murals across the backdrop of the mid-Atlantic.

Interested fans can follow Splash of Red on Twitter, Facebook, or become a member and get email updates about newly published work and events. One of the things they pride themselves on is creating an online literary arts community where readers can post comments on anything published on the website, submit art inspired by splashes of red for their Red Gallery, and involving members in creative decisions and directions for the publication including suggestions for interviewees.

If you take any one thing away from this blog post, take this: check it out. The website is www.SplashOfRed.net and feel free to peruse, read, comment, and investigate at your own leisure. Make it your own and enjoy!