"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)
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Monday, December 24, 2007
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
The Three Burials of Melchiades Estrada
The Valley of Elah
Thursday, December 20, 2007
The older I get,
the slower words come.
I spend my time
for the good ones,
to bring them back
unharmed, still left
with a little struggle
and a strong heartbeat.
O, no iron, o Rio, no
red rum murder;
in moon: no omni
derision; no I sired
but no repaid diaper on tub.
O grab me, ala embargo
Re-Wop me, empower
sinus and DNA sun is
fine, drags as garden if
sad as samara, ruff of fur, a ram; as sad as
Warsaw was raw.
Monday, December 17, 2007
... 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.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
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
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?"
Scathing review of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Saturday, December 08, 2007
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
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
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.
Monday, November 26, 2007
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.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
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")
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
Terrance Hayes and Sharyn McCrumb
Monday, October 29, 2007
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.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Friday, September 21, 2007
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
Saturday, September 15, 2007
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 Construction at World Trade Center Site
Sunday, September 09, 2007
"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.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Kerouac's On the Road 50 Years Later:
- Gilbert Millstein's original New York Times review
- David Gates in Newsweek
- Alicia Rebensdorf in AlterNet
- Sean O'Hagan in The Observer
- Various articles on Kerouac from The New York Times
Monday, August 13, 2007
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
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Saturday, August 04, 2007
(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
Thursday, August 02, 2007
Monday, July 16, 2007
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Monday, July 09, 2007
Reviews of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero:
Saturday, June 30, 2007
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,
and squares of mozzarella.
As the slice leans toward
my mouth, the waitress
smiles like Mona Lisa.