Thursday, December 21, 2006

Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Lecture

The December 25/January 1 fiction issue of The New Yorker reprinted Orhan Pamuk's recent Nobel Prize lecture (curiously leaving out the final paragraph). The full text is available at It is essentially a narrative about his father, his father's unpublished personal writing coupled with his remoteness, and ultimately his father's support for and appreciation of his son's work. EXCERPTS (translation from Turkish by Maureen Freely):

This suitcase [containing his father's unpublished writing] was a familiar friend, a powerful reminder of my childhood, my past, but now I couldn't even touch it. Why? No doubt it was because of the mysterious weight of its contents.

I am now going to speak of this weight's meaning. It is what a person creates when he shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and retires to a corner to express his thoughts – that is, the meaning of literature.

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is: when I speak of writing, what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words.


The writer's secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind.


But once we shut ourselves away, we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought. We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other peoples' stories, other people's books, other people's words, the thing we call tradition. I believe literature to be the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors, and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signals that dark and improvident times are upon us.


All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre.


As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tough Choices

The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued its report (Tough Choices for Tough Times) on December 14. The executive summary is available here. This builds on and modifies the report of the original commission issued in 1990. Now, the New Commission notes that 16 years ago it was clear that unskilled work would increasingly be outsourced, performed by workers in developing countries, but that few anticipated that even skilled jobs would be performed efficiently and for lower pay in other countries such as India and China. Currently, an Indian engineer earns $7,500 annually as compared to $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications. The increasing prevalence of digitized work makes it possible for the Indian engineer to do the required work from overseas. At the same time, the digital revolution is increasing the number of unskilled jobs that can be automated.

The New Commission makes the case that creativity will increasingly be as important to the American worker as technological skill. It notes, "This is a world in which a very high level of preparedness in reading, writing, speaking, math, science, literature, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce." This sounds to me like an argument for a liberal education, an education in critical thinking and communicating, as well as in technical proficiencies.

The study group makes a series of recommendations, including the following:

  • A system of exams given at the end of 10th grade that would determine what path students take--to a community college, to further accelerated high school study via AP or International Baccalaureate course, or to a trade school.

  • Universal early childhood education beginning at age 3.

  • Recruitment of the best high school students to become teachers.

  • More open-ended, less multiple-choice testing.

  • More schools operated by independent contractors.

  • More state (vs. district) oversight of school financing, etc.

  • Easier access to adult education.

  • "Personal Competitiveness Accounts" for everyone to start at birth and to be available to use for educational expenses.

Monday, December 18, 2006

1776 and Christmas Trees

David McCullough
I've just finished listening to the tape of David McCullough's 1776, a gripping account of the events in that pivotal year (read by the author). As Commander-in-Chief, Washington made several major blunders in his attempt to defend New York, and had the British generals managed their strategy better, the war might have been over before it started. By December 1776, hope was dim, and the Continental Army was in sorry condition. Many soldiers had completed their terms of duty and were on the verge of returning home, but the promise of a bonus coupled with Washington's pleading persuaded most of them to stick it out a little longer. Against all odds, Washington's decision to cross the Delaware and surprise the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Day during a miserable spell of cold, snowy weather turned the tide and lifted the spirits of the country. Some stories claim that the Hessians were vulnerable because of their drunken partying, although McCullough points out that few contemporary accounts bear this out. Whatever the case, undoubtedly the Hessians had erected Christmas trees, transplanting that German tradition to U.S. soil. And it is possible that their carousing and inattention as they huddled at their trees were in part responsible for the rebel victory that turned the tide of the American Revolution.

This Year's Tree, a Douglas Fir
  • Many cultures, including the Egyptians and Romans, treasured evergreens as symbols of everlasting life or the promise of spring renewal. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at winter solstice, decorating with greens and exchanging gifts.
  • Druids used evergreens in winter solstice celebrations, placing mistletoe and evergreen branches above their doors for good luck.
  • Legend has it that 1,000 years ago St. Boniface, who converted Germany to Christianity, came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. He angrily cut it down, whereupon a fir tree sprang up in its place. He took this as a sign of the Christian faith.
  • From the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians brought evergreens indoors to show hope for spring. Martin Luther began decorated indoor trees with candles around 1500. The candles supposedly represented the light of Christ or the star of Bethlehem.
  • In New England, the Puritans banned not only Christmas trees but Christmas itself. So if the Hessians erected trees at Christmas in 1776, that was still an alien custom.
  • Queen Victoria visited relatives in Germany, where she met Albert, whom she eventually married. Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree tradition from Germany to England, and the custom, including the practice of hanging blown glass balls from the branches, caught on.
  • In 1851 Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. The Christmas tree tradition had begun to catch on. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and within 20 years, the custom was widespread.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Fran Mancuso and John Burrows

Fran and Steve
I've known Steve Jonas since 1969 when we both taught at Roosevelt Junior High School in Syracuse. He continued on as a teacher and school administrator in Syracuse and Fulton until he retired several years ago. He and Fran Mancuso lived briefly in Saranac Lake, and upon her retirement, they moved to Sciacca, Sicily. Janne and I last saw them in 2004 during our usual summer stay in the Adirondack Mountains near Tupper Lake (where Fran taught high school Spanish for many years). Early today, Steve sent email to tell us that Fran died on Tuesday following hospitalization for acute leukemia. It all happened very fast. We'll miss her and will do our best to stay in close touch with Steve. Fran kept a wonderful blog about their life in Sicily (Sicilianmama). Her incredible photos posted on Flickr are accessible at Sicilianmama.

John Burrows Sailing Into the Sunset

I've just heard about the loss of another old friend, John Burrows, who was my colleague at Tougaloo College from when I joined the faculty there until John and Suzie (and son Joey) moved to Miami in 1981, where they lived for a time on a wooden houseboat. John took a job running the Writing Center at Florida International University. We had been out of touch with them in recent years, though we've always exchanged Christmas cards. It was in this year's card that Suzie told us John had died of cancer in October. Earlier this year, his brother Jim had also died of cancer. John was a great friend and fellow poet. He, along with our colleague John Monro, introduced me to the discipline of composition--still in its infancy in the late 70's. We attended CCCC conventions together and talked for hours about the teaching of writing. He had worked with Mina Shaughnessy when he was doing his grad work at the City University of New York. John was a New Yorker, grew up on Long Island. He loved sailing, Ireland, and W.B. Yeats (on whom he wrote his master's thesis--the "Crazy Jane" poems). He could play piano by ear. For a couple years, John, I and our families met for breakfast each Saturday, alternating houses. Joey was Nell's age. John was a smoker, and perhaps that did him in.

Monday, December 11, 2006


This year's holiday photo collage, to be accompanied in the mail by Janne's annual list of extended family members, their locations, and occupations.

Here's Akane Igarashi, our "adopted" Japanese daughter from Sapporo, Japan. She enrolled at Francis Marion University, where I was introduced to her by exchange students from Russia and Ukraine. Akane subsequently transferred to the University of South Carolina, where she is majoring in journalism and minoring in photography. Her parents have visited us twice before and will return for Christmas--followed up by a trip to Orlando and then New York. Akane will graduate in May.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


In addition to the rhetoric and composition journals I subscribe to (College English, College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, and Writing on the Edge), as well as The New Yorker, Newsweek, and The New York Times Book Review (Do I subscribe only to weeklies whose titles start with "New?"), I take various literary journals, altering my choices year to year. My current subscriptions include Southern Poetry Review (edited by my friend Bob Parham), Tar River Poetry, Atlanta Review (which I like for its international flavor), Crazyhorse, and Iron Horse Literary Review.

The current issue of Iron Horse contains a series of "readings," by various well-known poets, fiction writers, and essayists. Each reading consists of a bio, a story/essay/series of poems, and a brief Q and A with the writer. One question to Kelly Cherry is "Have these poems undergone revisions?" She responds, "I started work on the sonnets in 1999 (though there'd been a half-sonnet from 1994 or thereabouts that I'd hung on to) and have rewritten all of them many, many times."

In contrast, Bob Hicok claims of his three poems, "These three were not revised, beyond how they were revised during composition. I tend to revise a great deal as I write, which is why I bow down to the computer.... While I don't believe 'first word, best word,' I trust the intention of that philosophy and want to come as close as I can to capturing my thoughts and emotions in a given moment. There's something lost for me once I rise from a poem into the day, something particular to each poem that I find almost impossible to get back. However long it takes, I try to finish each one on the initial go-round."

After her five poems, each motivated by a different line from a poem in Spanish, Leslie Ullman explains the origin of this series in her reading of a bilingual anthology of 20th-century American poetry edited by Stephen Tapscott. She chose this as a text for a poetry class. Then, she says, "My professionalism gave way to enchantment and then to irresponsibility as the energy in those poems entered me like a tonic and made me itch to write poems of my own rather than think about classes. I was particularly seduced by elements easiest to preserve in translation--swiftness of association, a delicious mixing of the senses, astonishing juxtapositions, and incantatory rhythms."

Reading this makes me want to return to my own free-form translations from poems by Eugenio Montale in Italian, a language I don't know. It also reminds me of the series of poems Melissa Morphew wrote in response to Pablo Neruda's questions in Libro de las preguntas (Book of Questions - 1974).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Pat Hoy

Pat Hoy
In an interview with Mel Livatino in the current issue of Writing on the Edge, essayist Pat Hoy says,
I usually start out with a problem. I usually start out with a question I'm trying to answer. I seldom start out knowing what my idea is. I discover that in the process of assembling the stories, or they allow me to discover it because they've already assembled themselves.

The images have already coalesced in my imagination and built up enough energy that they do what the Jungians call breaking the threshold of consciousness. And I have to pay attention to the images. They are presenting me with the thing I need to figure out. So I have to start with the image that's bugging me the most.
And later,
The joy and the value of the familiar essay is that it operates under the requirement that we deliberately see the writer's mind in motion. It is an illusion of the highest artistic order that we are actually seeing in the final form of that essay all of the writer's mind in motion. There are lots of things that get subtracted. There's a lot of shaping that goes on, but the requirement is that we retain the mind's movement, the reflection of it, so that we create the illusion that the listener, the reader, is actually getting to see the mind figuring out whatever it's figuring out. And the mind's got to be trying to figure out something other than itself.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


My friend Bill Sherling, who owns The Gnu's Room used book store in Auburn, Alabama, loaned me Ted Botha's book, Mongo. The term mongo, new to me, refers to any discarded item that is retrieved. Botha, himself something of a mongo hound, profiles people in New York City who regularly cruise the streets looking for useful (or not so useful) discarded objects. He interviews people whose apartments are packed with rescued items, methodical treasure hunters who have unearthed valuable loot in their wanderings, and book scrounger cart pushers who know just where they're likely to locate a pricey first edition or a packet of old magazines at 3 a.m. There's even a chapter on food scroungers, who have learned where the best castoff produce, tofu, or sweets are likely to be found.

This book reminds me of my own modest life as a mongo hunter in Hiroshima, Japan. There were occasional scheduled days in the neighborhood when "oogomi" (large trash) was put out for pickup. If you hit the narrow streets early on those days, you could salvage all sorts of useful stuff. Japanese houses and apartments tend to be small and cramped enough so that no one can afford to keep too much, so some pretty desirable items wind up on the curb. I had arrived for my year in Japan with only several bags,and I rented an unfurnished apartment, so I was a shameless scrounger. I found a bicycle, several useful tables, and a chair or two, all within several blocks of my apartment.
Poets tend to be verbal mongo hunters. I've just read Joel Brouwer's 2001 Whiting Award winner, Exactly What Happened. In it, he gleans poems from news headlines ("Kelly, Ringling Bros. Oldest Elephant, Goes on Rampage"), from the world of magic ("Houdini"), and Russian lore ("Krushchev's Shoe"). One good one is "The Plastic Surgeon's Wife," who
over the years was sculpted lovelier
and lovelier: lips pillowed, buttocks lifted
to a tight split peach. When her body

was flawless, pure leopard, he began
experiments. He tried time-release
injection--vanilla bean, lilac, rose--
Brouwer's second collection, Centuries, is a series of prose poems, each 100 words long. Here's half of one called "N"--showing the poet's mongo-loving lust for words:
So much that's not nice: napalm, nettles, nemesis, noose. Not to mention the basic no. Even the dictionary's blissful path from neck to nectar--a trembling fingertip fliding over her nipple, down around her navel--is choked by morbid vines from the intervening necro-root: -mania, -phagia, -philia. A few pages later, too fractious to define, six single-spaced columns of non-'s.