Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Writers' Obsessions

I've been reading Li-Young Lee's Book of My Nights (See also my March 30 entry). These poems, published in 2001 by Boa Editions, mine a relatively narrow range of elemental topics, though their forms and effects vary widely. Again and again these poems refer to mother, father, the seasons, night, the sky, death, and birds. A selection of opening lines suggests these concerns:

Who lay down at evening
and woke at night
a stranger to himself?
In the dark, a child might ask,
I never claimed night father me.
Say night is a house you inherit,
and in the room in which you hear the sea
declare its countless and successive deaths,
tolling the dimensions of your dying.
Another word for father is worry.
The birds don't alter space.
They reveal it.
Someone's thinking about his mother tonight.

The effect of this uniformity of interlocking themes and motifs is powerful and cumulative (even obsessive if not excessive) through the book. Lee's other work shows that he ranges far beyond these concerns, but the concentration here makes the the volume read almost like one continuous poem. I'd like to get that sort of intensity into my own work, which to me seems sprawling, unfocused, all over the map. Maybe others could see in my poems a uniformity that isn't evident to me. Certainly, I've found that others' comments and suggestions can be startlingly perceptive, teasing out threads or problems I don't initially see.

Some writers seem to return to a set of obsessions repeatedly, in work after work. I think of Ron Rash's frequent returning to Lake Jocasee and how when it was formed it covered over a number of rural communities and forced the disruption of a culture. His first novel, One Foot in Eden, addresses this in part, as do some of his poems and stories. Most recently, in Chemistry, his stories nominated for Pen Faulkner Award, the story "Not Waving but Drowning" returns to that theme. To sustain a novel or even to cultivate a successful body of work in any genre, a writer needs to confront and make use of obsessions.
Today, Kathleen Parker's column addresses the issue of a "boys' crisis" or a "girls' crisis" in schools
In the May 26 New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes about his experiences teaching writing once a week at the biggest soup kitchen in New York, located in the Church of the Holy Apostles, at the corner of 28th St. and 9th Ave. He writes, "... I am one of the teachers of a writers' workshop that meets there after lunch on Wednesdays in the spring. I started the workshop fourteen years ago, with the help of a grant. I wanted to do something with the soup kitchen because I admired the people there and the way it is run and the whole idea of it. There are so many hungers out there; the soup kitchen deals, efficiently and satisfyingly, with the most basic kind. I consider it, in its own fashion, a work of art." Frazier discusses this work in a 14-minute on-line interview.

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