Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

This Year's Tree
(with oak table made for Jane Clare)
This Year's Family Photo
(taken at Thanksgiving)

This Year's Christmas Card Photo
(taken last May in Burano, Italy)

"Are you willing ... to own, that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness ... to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings ...? Then you can keep Christmas.” (Henry van Dyke)

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Year's Best

The Year's Best Baby: Max Driggers

N.Y. Times notable op-ed pieces of 2007 (See esp. the one by Dick Cavett.)
Top 10 visual illusions of the year
Best book cover designs of 2007
A.O. Scott (N.Y. Times) on the year's best movies
John Pareles (N.Y. Times) on the year's best pop CDs
NPR Critics on the year's best books
Roger Ebert on the year's best movies
Fimoculous: all the "best of 2007" lists, hundreds of them

The best books I've read this year

Ron Carlson, Five Skies
Annie Dillard, The Maytrees
B.H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest
Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat
Robert Haas, Time and Materials
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma
Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
John Williams, Stoner
The best movies I've seen this year

Charlie Wilson's War
The Children of Men
The Last King of Scotland
Letters from Iwo Jima
Michael Clayton
The Three Burials of Melchiades Estrada
The Valley of Elah

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"A Little Struggle," Tomkiw, Beasley

A Little Struggle

The older I get,
the slower words come.
I spend my time
making spaces
for the good ones,
sending runners
to bring them back
unharmed, still left
with a little struggle
and a strong heartbeat.
-- K.A.
A poem by Lydia Tomkiw in which each line is a palindrome, quoted by Paul Hoover in his blog:
Six of Ox Is

O, no iron, o Rio, no
red rum murder;
in moon: no omni
derision; no I sired
drab bard,
but no repaid diaper on tub.
O grab me, ala embargo
emit time,
Re-Wop me, empower
Eros' Sore
sinus and DNA sun is
fine, drags as garden if
sad as samara, ruff of fur, a ram; as sad as
Warsaw was raw.
Raymond Federman on writer's diaries:

I think all writers who keep a diary are insincere. They are aware that their diary will be part of their archives and that what they write will become public after they die.Therefore they invent things - they make up stories. One should almost read thediary of a writer as as work of fiction -- Andre Gide says that much in his Journal.Also it is possible that writers who keep diaries may censure themselves knowing thatwhat they write may injure their posterity -- or on the contrary they may write certain things to make people think they were better or smarter or more original or whatever than they were. They improve themselves in their diary. (from Federman's blog, December 13, 2007)
"The World War Speaks," a poem by Sandra Beasley in Slate

Monday, December 17, 2007

Arbus and Others

The New York Times reports that the Met recently acquired the Diane Arbus archives. 32 years ago, for Christmas 1975, Janne gave me a collection of Diane Arbus photos. That was four years after Arbus committed suicide at age 48. Since then, I've been fascinated by her work, the conscience and persistence she brought to her craft. More than any other photographer, she developed a consistent and rigorous philosophy about her art. She once said, "Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize." In the introduction to the photos, which must have been written shortly before her death, she writes,
... a photograph has to be specific. I remember a long time ago when I first began to photography I thought, There are an awful lot of people in the world and it's going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human bein, everybody'll recognize it. It'll be like what they used to call the common man or something. It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it'll be. You really have to face that thing. And there are certain evasions, certain nicenesses that I think you have to get out of.

This point about specificity reminds me of an anecdote from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an account of how a student in his class struggled to write an essay about her hometown until he convinced her that describing a building is easier than describing a town and that describing an individual brick is easier than describing a building. I try to remember that when I teach writing. The power of the close-up.

In 2005 the Arbus archives were on display at the Met. We happened to visit the museum the first day the exhibit opened, and I was delighted to discover it. But then we found that on that day admission to the exhibit was limited to those with special tickets. I had to see it though, so I snuck in through the exit and was able to see it all.

Don Aucoin profiles poet Afaa Michael Weaver
Sociologists are using Facebook for research into such topics as "triadic closure"
"Locavore" named "word of the year" by the New Oxford American Dictionary
As Oprah gets more political, a look back at her life and career by Lee Siegel
Poems from Guantanamo prisoners

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Two Films

Edith Piaf------------------- Marion Cotillard as Piaf
I've recently watched two films from Netflix: La Vie en Rose and The Namesake. La Vie, direced by Olivier Dahan, is a biopic about Edith Piaf, documenting her tempestuous life--raised as a child in a house of prostitution, discovered as a singer in the bars of Paris, gripped at the peak of her powers by drug addiction, finally rediscovered after rehabilitation but doomed to die young in her mid-forties. Marion Cotillard's Piaf is full of life, humor, and nerve, though deeply anguished in her darker moments--no doubt a true recasting of Piaf's actual character. But in the end I remain more moved by Piaf's songs than the plot of the movie itself. It just seemed to slip too readily into cliche--the talented, charming, sometimes self-centered wastrel ultimately done in by her excesses.
The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair, on the other hand, I find moving and effective. It seems pretty true to what I recall of the novel. It's a gutsy film in the sense that it initially focuses on Asoke and Ashima Ganguli, their arranged marriage, their move from India to the U.S., and tensions in this cultural dislocation, but then moves ahead quickly to their years when their son and daughter are teens and then young adults. So the story line shifts from the parents to the son, Gogol, and his attempts to negotiate between his American tastes and his at first tenuous ties to his Indian culture. Kal Penn is endearing and convincing in this role. And his parents are effectively played by Irfan Khan and Tabu. Visually wonderful, accentuating the heat, clutter, and family chaos of Calcutta as opposed to the frigidity of winter in New York.
My original blog with Xanga.com is still available here. There's not much to it other than some poetry experimentation, which I did along with the poetry class I required to keep blogs.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize Speech

Doris Lessing, by Scanpix/Ulrich Perrey

Excerpt: Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Braille tattoos, minimal chairs, and other new ideas and inventions in 2007


Scathing review of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke

Sunday, December 09, 2007


The current issue of WORLDVIEW, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association contains a message from President Kevin Quigley concerning "More Peace Corps," a plan to exert influence on presidential candidates--and other elected officials--to allocate more resources to the Peace Corps, desperately needed now at a time when the U.S. has alienated itself so widely. Quigley reminds us that JFK's plan for the Peace Corps quixotically envisioned a million volunteers per decade. To date, close to 200,000 volunteers have served. That's quite a few, but there could be far more, judging from the number clamoring to join and the number of countries requesting more help.
The same issue contains several articles on how technology is slowly changing the developing world. Cell phones are helping Indian fishermen market their catch and Maasai herdsmen sell their cattle. Sam Goldman, a former PC volunteer in Benin, is working on an LED light that could replace the potentially dangerous and expensive kerosene lamps used so universally in the developing world. And Wayan Vota provides an update on the lagging "One Child, One Computer" movement, Nicholas Negroponte's scheme to get cheap computers in the hands of students in developing countries. Here are answers to frequently asked question about the project.
Negroponte is facing several problems with this ambitious scheme. The cost of the computer is roughly twice what he was hoping for; thus, the "Buy one, give one" plan, which encourages people to spend $400 to own one and donate one. The problem there is that these computers are specifically designed for children who can work with others owning the same hardware and software. There's likely to be little demand for them in homes with enough money to make such a donation. Another issue is that while some countries (Peru, Brazil) have expressed an interest in purchasing at least some, the idea hasn't caught on in a cost-effective way. Educators need to be convinced that the "constructed learning" that the computers are designed for is a viable approach because it poses a radical change from a more traditional teacher-centered classroom.
One way to interest schools and communities in the so-called XO-1 is to give them to Peace Corps volunteers to distribute and use in their classrooms. That would be a way to both make the technology available and to ensure that it is used well.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Digitizing Books

My Office Wall

An article from The Weekly Standard announces Google's plan to digitize 32 million books. This is one of a growing number of developments that are taking the printed word increasingly to the computer screen. Amazon.com has recently announced Kindle, a compact handheld computerized reading device with a large storage capacity (over 200 books, newspapers, or blogs). The screen mimics black ink on paper, easy on the eyes. There are currently over 80,000 books available to buy, most of them 9.99. You can also subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and blogs. The cost for Kindle: $399. Another online reading service is WorldCat, short for "World Catalog," which allows you to search thousands of libraries for books, beginning with libraries closest to you. Some books are available digitally. One response to Google's ambitious online text scheme is the Open Content Alliance, a group of libraries that resist having commercial interests take over the online publication of books. The Universal Digital Library at Carnegie Mellon University is up and running with a number of books currently available. When I tried accessing it, I was denied access because of heavy traffic, but interestingly, I was given the option of trying one of 3 sites in India or sites in China or Egypt. I chose one in India and was able to get to Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. For a while, I've been aware of Bartleby.com, which makes available a list of free online books. The basic issue faced by Google, as well as its competitors is the obvious one of copyright violation for books still falling within the 28-year limit (extendable by 60 or so additional years). Apparently, they're seeking permission to digitize books where the copyright is still in effect. Interestingly, book publishers are beginning to face some of the same proprietary issues that have stirred up the music industry in recent years.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Kids and Photography

Photo by Zana Briski--the kids from Born into Brothels
Tonight Janne and I watched Born into Brothels, which won the 2005 Academy Award as the Best Documentary. Photographer Zana Briski went to Calcutta to take photographs in the red light district. When she saw the kids' fascination with cameras, she began giving them cameras and film and developing their photos. She talked with them about their work and about photographic principles, and some of the results are stunning. Briski arranges field trips to the zoo and ocean for these incredibly impoverished girls and boys.
Given their cramped existence in brothels where their mothers turn tricks on the other side of a thin curtain and where they come under constant verbal, sometimes physical abuse, it's astonishing that they are so full of life and so open to Briski's guidance. They are charming and in their own language (subtitled with English) can be very articulate in explaining visual effects. The most gifted is 11-year-old Avijit, already an award-winning artist. Briski works for weeks through agonizing bureaucracy to get him a passport so that he can represent India in a youth photography conference in Amsterdam. Incredibly, he's able to go. And later, like several of the others, he is admitted to a good boarding school where he has some hope for the future.
Most of the group, however, seem destined to remain in the brothels of Calcutta. The girls who remain will surely wind up on "the line" like their mothers. The film is visually intense, catching the teeming masses in Calcutta and the maze-like ghetto where the prositutes ply their trade illegally. The website for the film contains photos and descriptions of the kids, as well as samples of their work.
Similar to Briski's "Kids with Cameras" project is California photographer Jamie Lloyd's Ghana Youth Photography Project. Jamie served an internship with a newspaper in Accra, Ghana and got the idea of putting cameras in the hands of kids in Nima, a poor, predominantly Muslim district. I profiled Jamie in the Summer 2006 issue of Talking Drum, newsletter of Friends of Ghana. Jamie posted a YouTube clip on the project which has had nearly 250,000 hits. She sent in an update on the project, which may be found in the Spring 2007 Friends of Ghana newsletter. Jamie's own photos, documenting her extensive world travel, are found here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Auburn University Rural Studio

When poet Naomi Nye visited FMU three weeks ago, she found out that I was from Auburn, Alabama, so she asked if I were familiar with the Auburn University Rural Studio, a project run by the School of Architecture that designs and provides innovative housing and public buildings for poor communities.

It was originated by Samuel Mockbee in 1991 when he accepted a faculty position at Auburn. Although Mockbee died in 2001 of leukemia when he was still in his late 50s, his work goes on. Naomi and her photographer husband have long been interested in the project, and she is willing to do a free reading at Auburn in exchange for a tour of the Rural Studio. I'm working on setting that up, perhaps for the spring.

Lucy House, designed by Rural Studio student architects

Monday, November 26, 2007

Simic, Collage, Dada

Little Theatre, 11/25/07

For today's class, I had my English 360 (Literary Nonfiction) class read poet laureate Charles Simic's "The Necessity of Poetry" from his 1995 book The Unemployed Fortune Teller. It's a series of anecdotes, apparently disconnected--an example of what is often called "segmented writing." Common motifs in the 35 or so segments are war, parents, clothing, food/drink, reading/writing, male/female relationships. Most of them convey a little mystery or unknown element. It's a verbal collage. Here he's writing about how his violin teacher would sometimes feed him: "'Poor child,' she'd say, and I thought it had to do with my not practicing enough, my being dim-witted when she tried to explain something to me, but today I'm not sure that's what she meant. In fact, I suspect she had something else entirely in mind. That's why I'm writing this, to find out what it was." It's as though Simic writes poetry to make sense of these enigmatic scenes, to explore and elucidate them.
In the August 10, 2006 New York Review of Books, Simic reviewed an exhibition on Dada at the Museum of Modern Art. Simic reviews the origins of Dada in 1916 Zurich--the art/music/poetry/dance exhibitions of Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. He writes, "All forms of imitation, the Italian Futurists had already announced, must be despised; all forms of originality glorified. The idea was to make something no one had ever seen or experienced before."
As Simic notes, Kurt Schwitters figures prominently in the Dada movement, which lasted into the early 1920s. Schwitters' openness to all artistic materials, which he called "Merz," is an attitude I find attractive, and his experimentation with various media and endeavors (painting, collage, poetry, architecture, sculpture, music) is reminiscent of William Morris, another artist and writer I admire who also developed a life philosophy that motivated his art.
Recently, I've gotten back into collage and often find myself turning to Schwitters as well as painter/collagist Estaban Vicente though they work in entirely different ways, Schwitters with orginary, often drab, cramped bits of detritus from everyday life, Vicente with bold swatches of color arranged in dynamic ways.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Robert Service

Robert Service, 1874-1958

On September 21, I mentioned the collection edited by Peter Davis, Poet's Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art. Having met Naomi Shihab Nye, I'm now more interested in her list of influential works, which includes Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Thoreau's Walden Pond, three by William Stafford, and all of W.S. Merwin, as well as several others. Here is my own brief list of poets and books, sometime specific poems, that shaped my art--or at least motivated me to write poetry:

John Donne (The Songs and Sonnets)
John Keats ("Ode on a Grecian Urn")
Emily Dickinson
William Butler Yeats ("Sailing to Byzantium")
William Carlos Williams ("The Yachts")
W.H. Auden ("In Memory of W.B. Yeats")
Robert Service (The Spell of the Yukon)
Dylan Thomas ("Fern Hill")
Richard Wilbur ("Merlin Enthralled")
James Dickey (Poems 1957-1967)
Seamus Heaney (Death of a Naturalist)
Linda Pastan (PM/AM)
B.H. Fairchild (The Art of the Lathe)
Yusef Komunyakaa (Neon Vernacular)

I'm afraid it's a pretty traditional list, mostly white males. These are poems and poets that I'm presumptuous enough to call influences, though there are many others I admire, enjoy, look up to, emulate. Maybe the most unorthodox choice here is Robert Service, the best bad poet I know of. Dad liked him and introduced me to poems like "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" that appeared in a collection Dad had with him in the Navy--along with A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad the only book of poetry Dad owned as far as I recall. In college I had some friends who also liked Service, and one evening we staged a program we called "The Robert Service Service."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pee Dee Fiction and Poetry Festival

Tobias Wolff and Naomi Shihab Nye

Terrance Hayes and Sharyn McCrumb

The second annual Pee Dee Fiction and Poetry Festival took place last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Francis Marion University. Featured writers were Tobias Wolff, Naomi Shihab Nye, Terrance Hayes, and Sharyn McCrumb. Wolff and Nye arrived on the same flight from Atlanta Wednesday night. Ed Eleazer, Beckie Flannagan, and I met them and took them to Victor's for dinner. We talked about field trips, succotash, Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life, Nye's essay collection Never in a Hurry, Geoffrey Wolff, Francis Marion, music, and airports. The service was slow, but the talk was fast. There was a buffet breakfast in The Cottage for the two of them, as well as 8 or 10 English faculty members. Wolff's two presentations--an afternoon colloquium on This Boy's Life (which many comp. classes have been reading) and his evening reading--both pretty much filled Lowrimore Auditorium. Among the most interesting questions put to him was "What do you need or want to write about that you haven't yet written about?" His answer was "friendship."
After the reading (at which Wolff read a chapter from TBL that was not included in the movie version) and the book signing, there was a reception at The Cottage. As things wound down, we got guitars out and sang with the two guest writers. Woolf has a good voice and knows plenty of songs, as does Nye, who is a songwriter and agreed to play a couple of her own.
Friday there were two sessions featuring Nye and Terrance Hayes. The poets made a good pair, first talking about inspiration in poetry and later discussing nonfiction. Both were captivating. I especially admired Hayes' participation in the nonfiction session because he has not published much nonfiction; he told a wonderful story about his stepfather and real father and talked about how he's written 50 pages on it. It was sort of a process report on his thinking about the piece and its difficulties and satisfactions. Nye's reading that night was pitch-perfect, a nice combination of poetry and nonfiction with good stories and comments about writing sprinkled throughout. She ended with a wonderful lullaby using my guitar. Afterwards, another reception. I was pleased that all my nonfiction students had a chance to meet her, given that we've been reading her essays.
Saturday the featured speakers were Hayes and Sharyn McCrumb. Hayes gave an outstanding poetry reading to an audience containing his mother and stepfather, as well as 50-60 well-behaved middle school students. McCrumb gave an articulate and feisty lecture on connections between Appalachia and her writing. Her afternoon reading, the festival's final event, featured a reading of one of her NASCAR stories--the spirit of Dale Earnhardt as the object of a pilgrimage.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bolton and Young

Former U.N. Ambassadors Andrew Young and John Bolton were on campus last week (on United Nations Day) for a U.N. Symposium. They were the featured speakers Wednesday night and were followed Thursday by a panel of former ambassadors mostly to African countries, as well as David Wilkins, a South Carolinian currently the Ambassador to Canada. Friday there were several panels made up of U.N. Scholars. It was Young and Bolton that drew the big crowd at the ticketed event. Bolton lead off, his methodical and admittedly interesting talk belying his zany, quizzical appearance, accentuated by his shaggy mane of a hairdo and his walrus-like mustache. His theme was the perpetual political gridlock that pervades the U.N., keeping it from acting. Also, he emphasized the inequity in payment for the U.N., with a handful of countries joining the U.S. in nearly singlehandedly supporting it, with most of the other countries essentially on the dole--but with an equal vote. He wound up proposing that countries contribute to the U.N. voluntarily. Bolton served only a year and was never confirmed by Congress.

Young, in contrast, told stories about how despite the politically difficult atmosphere (during the Carter administration), he managed to accomplish some things by working informally around the system. He told a great story of how at a boring reception a Chinese diplomat asked Young's wife where he could get good "Georgia food." She said, "At our apartment." So they invited the entire delegation over in a couple weeks. Meanwhile, Mrs. Young had her mother drive up to New York, bringing a bunch of food and cooking the rest in the Waldorf Astoria kitchen. The party was a great success, right down to the mint juleps provided by the Waldorf. This helped smoothed the way with the Chinese. Young's account was one of people-to-people contacts, whereas Bolton's was the report of a disaffected ideologue.

A new theory about Edgar Allan Poe's death
Joseph Lelyveld on Arthus Schlesinger's Journals

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Colbert in Columbia

Stephen Colbert brought his fledgling presidential campaign to Columbia this morning at 9 a.m. He was greated by a spirited crowd of supporters on the University of South Carolina Horseshoe, many of them holding signs proclaiming, "Colbert '08--and so can you," a spin on the title of his current book, I Am America--and So Can You. Mayor Bob Coble introduced him, gave him a key to the city, and proclaimed this "Stephen Colbert Day." A native of Charleston and the 11th and final kid in his family, Colbert proclaimed, "I love South Carolina almost as much as South Carolina loves me!" and "I've travelled all over this state, from Charleston to Columbia!" and "I have a new state slogan for you: South Carolina--first to secede, first to succeed!" He heaped praise on S.C. peaches and shrimp and promised to crush Georgia if elected. He got plenty of laughs in his brief 10-minute speech before mingling in the crowd. I'd estimate there were 1000 people there.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Kwesi Brew, Ghanaian Poet

As a recent college graduate and Peace Corps trainee at Teacher's College-Columbia University, I discovered the world of West African literature as I prepared to teach secondary school English in Ghana. I had never heard of Ghana before I received my Peace Corps invitation the spring of my senior year at Davidson College in 1967. Nor was I able to name a single West African writer despite my degree in English Literature. I had not heard of dramatist Wole Soyinka, novelist Chinua Achebe, or poet Leopold Sedar Senghor. With the help of anthologies such as Langston Hughes' An African Treasury (1960), I began to learn about the outpouring of writing from Africa, especially the work that came in the wake of the independence movement that was sweeping the continent. Among the Ghanaian poets I discovered was Kwesi Brew, who--like Senghor in Senegal--was a politician and diplomat as well as a literary man. Brew, born in 1928, died the other day in Cape Coast, his home town.

Obituary for Ghanaian poet Kwesi Brew from The Guardian Unlimited
"The Slums of Nima" by Kwesi Brew
Other poems by Kwesi Brew

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Annie Dillard's THE MAYTREES

Since my in-laws gave me a copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek shortly after its publication in 1974, I have been a fan of Annie Dillard, especially her nonfiction, including An American Childhood and The Writing Life. I've just finished the book she claims will be her last, The Maytrees, a novel. Set mainly in Provincetown, it is the story of Toby Maytree, his wife Lou, and the free spirited architect Deary Hightoe who sleeps in the dunes. Toby falls in love with Deary (though I'm not sure his motivation for this sudden turn of events is adequately shown), and they retreat to Maine, leaving behind Lou and the son, Petey. Twenty years later they both return to Provincetown in dire straights, in need of help from none other than the painter Lou, who has made a life on her own in their absence. The book is a meditation on love, its inscrutability, how it can clash with the individual's urge for independence and space. But it's also about Cape Cod and the distinctive, isolated culture that peculiar geography has spawned--the dune shacks, the weather, the sand, the protection of the bay versus the more tempestuous ocean side. Given Dillard's metaphoric flair, it's hard not to see in these two sides of the slender finger of Cape Cod some reflection of two opposing human tendencies--the enclosure and safely of the protected water and its staid houses vs. the ravages of the Atlantic, the shifting dunes, the tenuousness of the now-protected beach shacks. Dillard's writing here is as usual suffused with observation about the natural world. The book brings to mind Henry Beston's classic memoir of his season alone on the Cape in The Outermost House (also a book my in-laws Jack and Jane Debes introduced me to).

Reviews of The Maytrees from Digital Emunction/News
By Diane Leach, a review I agree with in January Magazine

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Poet's Bookshelf

Paul Muldoon, from The New York Times
Paul Muldoon tapped to replace Alice Quinn as The New Yorker poetry editor
My colleague Bill Ramsey recommended this article by Douglas Goetsch from The American Scholar on "The Poetry Stand"--a booth operated by poetry students who write poems on demand for passersby
In that same issue of The American Scholar are four superb poems by Louise Gluck from a forthcoming collection. The little cluster of poems is introduced by Langdon Hammer, who writes, "Gluck is creating an Italy of the mind, a Mediterranean world of no definite moment or place...." He notes that the poems are "a departure" for Gluck, taking her away from first-person lyricism. Although I've not been a big Gluck fan (though she won a Pulitzer for The Wild Iris and got a National Book Award nomination for Averno), I found these four poems immediately engaging, making me eager to see her next collection. They bear some similarity to "A Village Life" published in the April 13, 2007 New Yorker.
I just got Poet's Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art, by Peter Davis, published by Barnwood. Davis asked a bunch of poets to list 5-10 books that have been most "essential" to their art and to comment on the list. He includes the responses of about 80 poets--a very diverse group including Rae Armantrout, Wanda Coleman, B.H. Fairchild, Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, Ron Silliman, Richard Wilbur, Dean Young, and so on, though most are well known. There were only a few I didn't recognize: Annie Finch, Peter Johnson, Charles Potts, Juliana Spahr, and Paul Violi. As a whole the lists strike me as conservative, white male dominated, even among some of the edgier contributors. The comments range from Charles Wright's 6-line gloss on his 11-item list to Clayton Eshleman's 12-page dissertation on his culturally varied but all-male list of 9, including Bud Powell's piano version of "Tea for Two," Wilhelm Reich's The Function of the Orgasm, and Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World. As an appendix, Davis includes a list of authors mentioned three or more times. The winners: William Carlos Williams (17), Emily Dickinson (16), Walt Whitman (16), Frank O'Hara (12), William Butler Yeats (11), William Shakespeare (11), Wallace Stevens (10), John Ashbery (9), Rainer Maria Rilke (9), Elizabeth Bishop (8), Sylvia Plath (8), Garcia Lorca (8), Hart Crane (7), Allen Ginsberg (7). Specific works mentioned frequently were The Bible, Donald Allen's New American Poetry, and The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, ed. Paul Auster.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Akane's Web Site

Akane Igarashi's photo/video web site
(See video link for a film about Janne and her work as a nurse midwife.)
ditch--alternative Canadian poetry

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Going Undercover

Yesterday in my Literary Nonfiction class we discussed truth-telling in nonfiction and how it relates to authors going undercover in order to get a story. For class, we read a series of journal entries by Lawrence Otis Graham (Graham's blog) he called "Invisible Man," originally published in New York (excerpt) , in which he describes temporarily giving up his life as a wealthy New York lawyer in order to sign on as a busboy at an exclusive country club in Connecticut, one that at the time banned blacks and Jews. Graham, who is black, tells a series of predictably appalling stories about overheard conversations and his own treatment at the hands of country club members.
Ehrenreich and Conover

This led us to a talk about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, in which she takes on a succession of blue collar and pink collar jobs and reports on her struggle to make ends meet in the process. Going back to the sixties, there is also John Howard Griffin's controversial Black Like Me in which he, a white man, colors his skin and passes as black in order to ride a bus through the south and then write about the experience. One of my favorite undercover stories is that of Ted Conover, for whom going undercover is his usual modus operandi, and who for one book, Newjack, became a guard at Sing Sing Prison.

A widely publicized case that takes the matter of "going undercover" to an unethical extreme is the story of the British pianist Joyce Hatto, whose husband passed off a hundred or more exquisite recordings by other pianists as her own. Well after her death by cancer, he went on concocting for her an elaborate fictitious life of concerts and recordings, which he sold on his own label. Mark Singer tells the tale in the current New Yorker in his article, "Fantasia for Piano."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Planned 9/11 Memorial at World Trade Center Site

Planned Construction at World Trade Center Site

During a brief visit to New York with our daughter Nell around 1994, Janne and I asked Nell what she'd like to do with the several hours we had before meeting our friend Deirdre on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then driving north to the Adirondacks. Nell wanted to visit the World Trade Center. So after driving through the Holland Tunnel (or was it the Lincoln Tunnel?) we parked in an expensive lot near the twin towers, rode the South Tower escalator up to the elevator, and then zoomed to the top for the exhilerating view. We saw clouds gathering to the southwest over New Jersey, and just as we came down from the open deck, we watched a storm blow in across the Hudson. It was beautiful. Before long, rain was pelting the huge building. By the time we reached the ground, the rain had gone, and we heard music in the plaza between the two towers. It turned out to be what was left of The Mamas and the Papas, singing "California Dreamin'" and other old favorites. Mama Cass was long gone by that time, having died in 1974. Michelle Phillips had long since split with John and started an acting career. So on that day at the base of the towers it was apparently just John Phillips and Denny Doherty with two other female singers. John died in March 2001, only months before the towers came down. Doherty hung on until January this year. I'm glad we made that visit to the WTC.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Popular Names

Maxwell Autrey Driggers - born August 7 - photo by Trey Driggers

"Maxwell" ranked 149th in popularity among names of males in the U.S. in 2006. When I was named "Kenneth Maxwell Autrey" back in 1945, it was 856th in popularity. Here's the Social Security Administration web site where you can see the most popular names used in social security number applications by year. You can go back to check any year. You can also determine the popularity of aparticular name over time. I found that "Kenneth" was in the top 20 the yearI was born but has steadily dropped in popularity since then (Hmmm. Should I take this personally?). "Katrina" plummeted in popularity in 2006.

Another view of Kerouac's On the Road--as "a manifesto for psychobabble"
William James in the Adirondacks

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Kerouac's On the Road 50 Years Later

Kerouac's On the Road 50 Years Later:

2004 NPR story on the scroll
Photo of the scroll from Christie's
David Havird Essay on James Dickey in Spring 2000 Virginia Quarterly Review
Charles Murray in The American on why the SAT should be abolished (Murray is a libertarian who works for the American Enterprise Institute and co-authored the controversial book, The Bell Curve
Site for the very cool Found Magazine
Brad Land's Goat as the summer "Big Read" at Coastal Carolina University:

Monday, August 13, 2007

Brad Land's Pilgrims Upon the Earth

I just finished former student Brad Land's first novel, Pilgrims Upon the Earth. This one follows by three years his wildly successful memoir, Goat, which we used in fall 2005 as a common text for our freshman classes at Francis Marion University, his alma mater. Students (and critics) raved about that book, and I was proud of the fact that Brad made a start on it as a final project for my Literary Nonfiction class. He went on to UNC-Wilmington, where his MFA was in nonfiction, and the harrowing story that became Goat was his thesis.

From the get-go and to an astonishing extent, Brad had a distinctive but unaffected style. He would say, I know, that this voice, veering between the florid and the clipped, has been honed and tempered by the likes of novelist Cormac McCarthy and poet Jack Gilbert, also affected by the lyric essay as exemplified by John D'Agata plus many others. But Brad's language is distinctive and only occasionally tips over into the precious.

Pilgrims tells what is on the surface a pretty basic story. Terry Webber, whose mother commits suicide shortly after his birth, lives with a sympathetic but ineffective millworker father in South Carolina. Terry is a dopehead and a slacker but is rendered endearing by his off-kilter, sensitive take on the world around him. He falls for Alice Washington, the two embark on a journey to visit her sister, and Alice has a fatal accident. This rocks Terry's world and seems all the more wrenching for the flat, matter-of-fact indiscriminate approach he seems to adopt toward this and other events, both minor and major, in his life. He engages in petty crimes with his mates, gets kicked off the soccer team, intermittently reconnects with his dad, and finally lights out for the territories, in this case Colorado and Alice's sister, the destination they had in mind when it all came apart.

There is an enigmatic sort of redemption or hope or something kindled by the novel's end. But what emerges best of all and keeps the story rolling is Brad's sometimes zany and always inventive language, a diction and kick that reveals an entire world-view, albeit a sometimes jaded, maddeningly passive-aggressive one.

Searching "Brad Land" on the web still gives you a ton of Goat references and only a few for this novel. But presumably that ratio will alter this fall when his book tour kicks off. I could see hordes of young people getting into this one, just as they did Goat, even if the subject matter is not as vivid and immediate.

Reviews of Pilgrims Upon the Earth:

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Maxwell Autrey Driggers

My grandson Maxwell Autrey Driggers was born at 1:13 a.m. August 7. He weighed in at 8 lb. 10 oz., large enough but smaller than his 6-year-old sister Amelia (9 lb. 6 oz.) and 3-year-old Boyd (10 lb. 6 oz.). Nell was induced and labored for some 16 hours. Max and Nell will be home today. Janne and I are here in Ocean Springs for several days trying to help with the transition.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Poem a Day

No Certain Claim
(villanelle, poem for July 31, 2007)

The restless waiting holds me like a spell.
My daughter’s son will take my father’s name.
Which door will open? None of us can tell.

The summer’s long demise, its ghostly knell
sounds out, and nothing stays the same.
The eager waiting holds me like a spell.

Some days I pass like heaven’s infidel,
a lonely wanderer, no certain claim.
Which door will open? None of us can tell.

I hear my mother’s voice, clear as a bell,
call out to me, her world a shrinking frame.
The awful waiting holds me like a spell.

Grandchild and parent, each within a cell,
will find the key to this confining game.
Which door will open? None of us can tell.

These lonely vigils: who can stand them well?
I keep my peace and feed the earthly flame.
The endless waiting holds me like a spell
Which door will open? None of us can tell.

I've written a poem a day since July 1. This perhaps crazy and compulsive mass production started as a mutual challenge with my colleague Beckie Flannagan to write a daily poem, start to finish, for a month. Now, we're well into August, and the poems keep coming. Naturally, some of them are pretty bad, while others show some promise. No doubt some will remain buried in the depths of my poetry drawer. Others, though, I will certainly revise and send out. Among the 34 poems produced to date are three sonnets (July 13 and 20, August 2), a sestina (July 28), and a villanelle (July 31).

I'm not sure how long this will continue. At some point, certainly once I get into the thick of fall semester, I'm sure I'll want to spend more time evaluating and revising what I've done. Still, the past month's work reinforces what I've long known about the habit of writing and the importance of regular, if not daily, word work. William Stafford started each day with poetry writing, and many others have done the same. It's difficult to write strong, publishable poems, but it's not hard to write daily, especially once you've designated a time and place to do so. It's a lesson I try to teach all my students. The often-quoted Latin phrase for this is "nulla dies sine linea" (never a day without lines).

Ilija Melentijević, a Serbian who maintains a blog called "Nulla dies sine linea", applies this slogan to his art: "Never a day without a drawing." The writer and writing teacher Don Murray wrote and sketched daily (see my blog entry on Murray for 4 January 2007).

See the flickr page that attributes this dictum to Pliny, the Elder.
Ron Silliman's blog , 3 August 2007, contains a good discussion of rhythm and change in poets' work, esp. as applied to John Ashbery

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lady Bird and Woody

Lady Bird Johnson and Woody Guthrie, both born in 1912
Here's the Washington Post editorial on Lady Bird Johnson (1912-2007), who died July 11. Much has been said about her attention to the environment, her campaign for beautification and the planting of wild flowers along interstates, not to mention her charm and firm grace as First Lady. But perhaps her most lasting contribution to history will prove to be the superb and detailed diary she kept of her years in the White House. Here's the moving, wonderfully written entry for March 31, 1968, the day President Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. I wrote a considerably less articulate diary entry on that topic myself the next day. I was in the Peace Corps in Asamankese, Ghana and I recall lying in bed when I heard the news over our scratchy little Phillips radio.
Woody Guthrie would have been 95 (about the same age as Lady Bird Johnson) on July 14. Here's the WG website with links to all his lyrics, as well as special WG events and a photo of Guthrie with his guitar labeled "This machine kills Fascists."
A sample of Guthrie's great lyrics from "Grand Coulee Dam":
In the misty crystal glitter
Of the wild and windward spray,
Men have fought the pounding waters
And met a watery grave.
Why, she tore their boats to splinters,
But she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam
Would cross that wild and wasted stream.
Terry Eagleton in The Guardian: "For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life."
(SEE also 3/5/07 blog)
(SEE also 5/5/07 blog)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

R.I.P Marlette

Photo by Tom Gilbert - AP
Web site for Chip Heath and Dan Heath's engaging book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Last Night in Rome

Last Night in Rome

Thinking to tire ourselves out
and sleep like the Caesars
before tomorrow’s long flight,
we put on our walking shoes
and go down in our hotel’s elevator,
sturdy cage with an accordion-type
inner door and on every floor
heavy outer grillwork
that clanks pleasingly when closed.
We pass the café on the corner,
where white-capped guys yell
“Macchiato!” or “Cappucino!”
and bang the old grounds
out of the espresso scoop
before adding fresh coffee.
We hike down the hill, skirting
the coliseum once more
and wander the ghostly Forum
past where Julius Caesar was stabbed,
past Marmertine Prison where
St. Peter was held, and then
west across the Tiber to Travastere.
The African traders are out
for the dinner crowds, peddling
purses arrayed on bright cloths.
Arcing back to Centro Storico,
we find the Pantheon,
and our feet ache, but we push on
to Trevi Fountain, then the Spanish Steps
teeming with loungers, and by then
we’re ready for the long
trek back down Via Corso
to our hotel near the terminal.

Friday, June 29, 2007



It is impossible for me
to see the leaning tower
without imagining it
as a pile of pizzas
about to topple
onto the greensward.
The photos never show
the huge cathedral beside it,
majestic and serious,
or its ornate baptistery.
Instead we see only
the tower and its funny tilt,
as though it stands alone
on the Field of Miracles,
a prop for photos showing
tourists pretending to hold it up
or trying to match its angle.
Walking back to the train
through congested streets,
I buy a triangle of pizza
with round mushrooms,
oblong anchovies,
and squares of mozzarella.
As the slice leans toward
my mouth, the waitress
smiles like Mona Lisa.

"Language for Bakhtin is a cockpit of warring forces, as each utterance finds itself occupied from within by alien significations. Every sign glances sideways at other signs, bears the traces of them within its body, and faces simultaneously towards speaker, object, context and addressee."
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