Tuesday, February 23, 2016
James K. Zimmerman. Little Miracles. Baltimore: Passager Books, 2015. 82pgs, paper. $16. ISBN: 978-0615245720.
Jim Zimmerman’s handsomely produced Little Miracles fulfills the promise he makes at the opening of the book. He proposes that his poems, in addressing the familiar elements of life such as distress, anxiety, death, and confusion will nevertheless extoll the human ability to transcend loss and reach tranquility. I was not disappointed. My reading was engaged, and I enjoyed the poet’s lyricism, diction, and adeptness with figurative language. These are mature and thoughtful poems that call on our senses of sight, touch, and sound. In many respects, the apex of peacefulness is attained through participatory reading of the poetry itself, by attending to this poet’s voice and insight. Zimmerman is an accomplished, award-winning poet, with work appearing in such journals as The Atlanta Review, The Bellingham Review, The MacGuffin, and Passager. My anticipation is that more poetry books are forthcoming from Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s are beautifully-crafted poems of discovery, curiosity, and vision (e.g., “The Near Edge”). Readers are welcomed to wander and explore with the intelligent and allusive poet, and if necessary retreat to his safer zones. The poet is a careful observer of the textures of human life and sensitive to the activities of the natural world (“Four Days After the Solstice”). Zimmerman’s lines are short, with sparse punctuation – the images are simple and direct. No elaboration. Intense but not labored. Nevertheless, there is a high degree of lyrical measure in these poems, and I often found myself re-reading them to work on the vocal beat, the breathy, punctuated expression.
This musicality is not surprising, since Zimmerman (now a clinical psychologist) was a songwriter as a younger man. In fact, I could imagine some of these poems being sung and accompanied by music. I believe it was Charles Bernstein who, when asked what poetry is, replied, timing. Zimmerman certainly has the right timing in his lines. While the themes and ideas are somber and enduring, the structures are delicate, ethereal, and almost ephemeral, as if thoughts overheard. Zimmerman reminds us that in spite of close relationships, our lives sometimes indirectly participate in other lives. His poetry captures that connection. Above all, we have a personable speaker (no Prufrock) whose succinct style and compressed syntax encourage intimacy, a pairing with someone in spite of distance (“Synchronicity”).
Many subjects touch on aging, life’s passages, and handling physical change, such as forgetfulness and the inability to metaphorically sing (“Nice Weather,” “Dry Season”). Some poems deal with loss and the absence of people or pets, separation from others (“As If”). There are attempts to make contact with another who is gone through “the braille of feeling” (“Possession”). Some of the poems deal with fleeting time, the apparent thinness of life and experience, the ether of memory and the difficulty to recall and grasp amid “quiet corners” – threads in a tapestry (his image) (“Plato’s Nap in the Afternoon”). What does it mean to become old – how does age (suddenly) happen? As in “Expectation,” the simple arrangements of sensations, sounds, and rhythms combine to paint life’s picture of terrifying cruelties and simple joys.
Here are some lines from “The Dream About the Old Man” which, to some degree, capture Zimmerman’s elusive style; that is, his profound ability to invite multiple readings with a satisfactory cognitive ambiguity:
I could not say a word
would not appear in my
mind refused to reopen
As simple as this thought appears, consider some of the possibilities. Speechless and without presence? Speechless in his own mind? Invisible to himself? Speech would not be revealed in his mind? Or he’s stuck in old age like an ancient larva caught in a cocoon (my image) who will not reveal his feeling of agedness to others. Another poem deals with our proclivity to calculate others’ ages, as if computing our own demise (“Relativity”). We open and close our minds like journals, looking backward and forward, often forgetting what we’ve jotted down years ago. That is precisely why we need a poet like Jim Zimmerman who has the ability to capture concrete experience in seeming abstraction.
One of my favorite poems (hard to choose among so many good ones) would be “Carving Avocado Pits.” The essential passage of time resides in what we think, feel, sense – the cutting of metaphorical figures through time and in mutable objects. There are faces which seem to reflect one’s own growing age with their “quiet resignation” in the creator’s hands. In some way, we are responsible for the creation of our agedness. How are we going to shape it all? Among other instances in this book (including the title poem), those are the little miracles: the brutality of being taken down, yet with the hope of some extra time to live. Indeed, in one poem, the speaker tries to reincarnate but realizes that “birth alone would / never be enough” and so infiltrates dreams of the living whose eventual death is gently “the brush on my cheek / of a butterfly wing” (“Reincarnation #193”). This collection is important since it reminds us – without clichés – how our lives can be filled with imaginative miracles of our own making, “...when color is not yet” (“Awakening”).
These are serious poems, but quite readable, crossing the space between ultimate demise and new beginning. In dealing with isolation, desperation, longing, and hope, the poet conducts attention to detail, measured cadences, and strikingly complex but relatable imagery (e.g., “Gratitude Journal (Early December)”). There is much lively action in this book in spite of dark overtones. The concluding image is of hope; not the stillness of a room but the vitality of life where we are like ocean waters active in curling motion (“We Are the Moment”).
- Gregory F. Tague, Professor of English, St. Francis College, general editor, Bibliotekos
Copyright 2016 by Gregory F. Tague
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded by John Z. Guzlowski. (Los Angeles: Aquila Polonica, 2016). ISBN: 978-1-60772-021-8. Hardcover $21.95. 176 pages. Illustrated.
The Eyes of Keyholes by Milorad Pejić. Translated by Omer Hadžiselimović. (Sommerville, MA: Červaná Barva Press, 2015). ISBN: 978-09966894-1-0. Chapbook $7.00. 48 pages.
D.P. – a displaced person. A person of no place? No. A person whose place has been taken or destroyed. A person who is forced to find a new place or die. A person. Not John Z. Guzlowski or Milord Pejić. Not a person without a name. Not a displaced non-entity to be moved at whim by more powerful human forces with more might behind them. We have in these two books commanding poetic statements about war in terms of the involuntary displacement of human life. Both poets rightly assert a moral responsibility to dedicate their poetic gifts to memorializing the trials and tribulations inflicted on the bodies and minds of unwilling bystanders of war.
John Guzlowski’s Echoes of Tattered Tongues tells the story of war from the perspective of his parents Tekla and Jan who were forced into a labor camp. The story is filtered but unvarnished through articulate poetry. I say filtered because a large part of the book deals with the displaced person’s lack of voice, or more precisely, how the displaced person as victim of war is not given voice. John Guzlowski, then, speaks for the innocent and unwitting participants of war – what happens to people on the ground. Not the soldiers. Not the battlefield. He communicates for the working people whose lives were ruined by killings, rape, and starvation. As his father so bleakly told him, “suffering is the sauce / we reserve for men and women” (“What My Father Knows about Killing”).
John Guzlowski’s book will teach those who don’t know about the horrors of war and especially those who deny that any such horrors occurred. I like how the book breaks chronology. The poet spends time early on in book I dealing with the effects of the war so as to build up to the war in book III. So as grim as books I and II are, the sharpest blows come in book III, epitomized in some heart-wrenching images, such as the death of a newborn (“A Life Story”).
To be displaced is as much figurative as literal. No one from this book could ever escape the ravages of being physically, mentally, and emotionally displaced from health. Unbearable memories can inflict as much harm as a bullet. Guzlowski’s parents lived long lives and so carried the burdens of war like the guilt of the survivor, feelings of helplessness, and nightmares. They were fated to relive traumatic situations that, to most people, are only depicted in films (and mostly forgotten). I read Guzlowski’s book cover-to-cover in three sittings. I was shocked. I was angry. I was upset. And I am no stranger to John Guzlowski’s work, having read, for instance, Lightning and Ashes. In fact, I’ve met John and know the look in his eyes, his movements, his gestures, his voice. All of those personal intonations, in part derived from his parents, are in the poems.
These are poems whose images and metaphors have undergone the finest grinding, becoming crystal lenses to magnify the inner and outer lives of his parents. The clear poetic/narrative voice is remarkably strong yet elegant – this is not a random collection but the story of a family across generations dealing with the consequences of world war. A reader does not come away from this book necessarily feeling good; but the reader feels the lifeblood of real people (not soldiers or politicians) who endured and survived.
Much of the book deals with language and identity, what it means to be Polish, how one, even later as an adult, can be alienated or displaced by language (“Two Worlds of Language”). On the one hand, there are the Poles from the old country before, during, and after the war. On the other hand there are the Poles like Guzlowski and his sister Danusha who at some point as teens living in America of the 1950s did not want a Polish identity. But then the adult Guzlowski started writing about his parents’ war ordeals, their lives as displaced persons in America, and being Polish was at the center of that story.
God also figures in this book, obliquely. The title of one poem says it well: “There Were No Miracles.” What is the good of prayer to a god one cannot imagine, a god who equals sorrow (“At the End: My Mother”), a god who only cares to accumulate piles of lives and deaths? In the war of concentration and slave camps, there is no god. There is an opaque, indifferent, almost evil god. Before the war there was god who cared (“My Father before the War”), but thereafter there is a nebulous god. Food also figures in this book – mothers, children, and nourishment. If you are a slave worker, you don’t eat. If you are a displaced person in an American city after the war who does not speak English, good luck at finding work to feed your family. God and food. One for the soul, the other for the body. Beets and bread. One the work of the earth, the other the work of human labor. The book tests readers to be angry at god and (in)humanity. As in the poem “What the War Taught Her,” it’s all about survival, not theological abstractions. In the work camp, god will not pull up the beet; god will not put bread in your hand. Guzlowski’s mother was so tough she’d endure any pain to survive (“My Mother’s Optimism”). Deathly cold also figures prominently in the book, conspicuously in the great multi-section impressionistic poem “The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.”
Only the elements of life poke through here, not luxuries, “thin cradles / of bones” (“Pigeons”). There is the beauty of life, as in “A Garden in the Desert.” In America the refugees could at times smile. They could try to forget. They could take the kids apple picking. But the dominant verb in book II (Refugees) is work. All must work always to survive. Not the slave labor at the camp but the grind for a paycheck, the finding of work to help the kids grow and fit in (“Fussy Eaters”). Language is a barrier. One prospective employer would not hire Jan Guzlowski because he had lost an eye and had a bad scar, and the man did not want to look at him. Toy blocks are burned for heat (“All the Clichés about Poverty are True”) and strangers bring clothing and food (“Friends in America: A Sonnet about Charity”).
We have through Guzlowski’s persona a refugee child trying to make sense of the world with parents trying to make sense of their lives after the war’s work camp. There are, unfortunately, stories of brutality in America – American’s against Americans (“Friends in America: Murdertown”). In “Friends in America: Polack Joe’s Story,” we see how war damaged one man who further damages his son. War is a long, thin needle piercing generations. Within Guzlowski’s story of his parent there are other, interpolated stories. For instance, in “Danusha,” the poet asks his older sister to forgive him for not acknowledging how the mom hurt her.
Echoes of Tattered Tongues is a life’s work asking us to bear witness to lives crushed under the stones of war. Like Thomas Gray many years ago reflecting on the lives of simple country people often forgotten, Guzlowski’s book is a magnificent elegy to civilian lives lost or shattered in war and thereafter. Guzlowski has successfully undertaken a monumental, moral obligation in his call to write about his parents’ misery during and subsequent to the war.
Likewise, Milorad Pejić writes of what it means to be a displaced person – from the war in Bosnia during the 1990s. While there is a storyline to Milorad Pejić’s book, the writing is profoundly metaphorical; and while I certainly do not mean this is a negative way, elliptical. The reader is asked to mull over subtle images from nature and ordinary life and to, at times, read back to appreciate the impact of the rich figurative language. In other words, the images here are condensed through a lens that is often less brutally stark. We interpret the horrible effects of war indirectly, but the effects are there nonetheless. Whereas Guzlowski’s book is like a graphic movie, Pejić’s book is like a small box of art photographs. Each book is thoroughly satisfying, but in a different way. I found that the two styles on the same broad subject complement each other. As with Guzlowski, in Pejić we have a war refugee, an exile from his own country of Bosnia, a displaced person. But this subject is presented differently artistically.
Pejić’s short book is divided into six sections as follows: The Old Country; A Ship in a Bottle; The New Country; Four Lives; The Promised Land; The Eyes of Darkness. I found this arrangement conducive to the organization and chronology of the storyline. A dominant motif of the book deals with seeing – not just observation but perception. Here’s what war can do to one’s vision of life: “From that place, through my wounds / like through the eyelets of the truck tarp during the ride, / from the darkness I look” (“Kalemegdan I”). In the second part of this poem the reader comes to understand that the poet’s life over the course of war and exile is etched “in the depths of things...” And that would be the purpose of Pejić’s poetry, to plumb the psychic images of war and record them for others as much as for himself. Outside the field of conflict, every object, even those in another country, reek of war.
In the second section the poet escapes from his homeland in 1992(at the beginning of the war) to reach Boden in the north of Sweden (“The Trip”). Here are some of the more subtle images in terms of war conflict: “the weight of a dandelion in minefields, / a child’s piggy bank on the stairs...” Or this: “Thickly planted grave markers in potato patches.” As in Guzlowski’s book, life is suddenly unraveled. How does one wind up again all the loose strands? Some are murdered; those who survive have to imagine “all phones suddenly / turned deaf or train schedules [...] haywire.” In 1993 the poet goes to Kiruna, one of the uppermost parts of Sweden. People don’t quite grasp his predicament. He arrives and is greeted with hospitality, but “How else would I explain / that where I come from I did not live in poverty / but that something else [...] brings me to you” (“The House of H. Lundbohm”). The speaker in “A Letter” has some shame and fatigue in his lonely wandering, private conflicts that reflect the battles of war. The poet addresses his father and fears how the vast distance over time will blur the images in his memory so that all will become “overexposed film.” His poetry therefore becomes an invincible effort to memorialize thoughts and images that should not be taken away (“Father”).
In section three, The New Country, the poet finds isolation (“A Visit”), alone in a pine forest in a cabin, “solitary as / a lone tooth.” This complex image connotes ill health, old age, death, and fossilization, the metaphorical fate assigned to the exile. Here, time is measured by the decaying layers of leaves as ground cover and not by calendars. With so much time, memories harden. The speaker is reluctant when his visitor calls him back home to “rebuilt cities” – but no; he’d rather stay near the fairy-tale area of Brodslöjan Falls. In his exile, the poet finds himself literally and figuratively “at the end of the world” (“Kebnekaise”) when he climbs mountains with the photographer Pär Domeij “where the river begins as melting snow” (“The Kaitum”). Yet when you climb your back is “smoking on the sun lit slope.” That’s a study in contrasts that mimics the essence of Pejić’s literary enterprise. There’s a difference between light and dark, sight and insight, front and back: the poems look to the obscure corners of the psyche for deeper understanding. Visual and intellectual disparities are apropos to the poet’s inverted life.
Once asked to define poetry, Charles Bernstein looked at his watch and simply said, “Timing.” We see something of this idea, too, in Pejić when he says “Everything else, as in poetry, is a question / of time” (“Kebnekaise”). As recently as the Middle Ages there were no clocks, and people lived by light and dark according to the seasons. The poet grapples with finding a place in time now. Before the war we assume he had a place. But now all physical and natural effort is a strain. So in “Salmon” the poet speaks of the memory of home in nature like a directional compass. One cannot but poignantly think of the displaced poet, for in spite of a power plant on the river the salmon keep coming, “striking / the concrete and assailing the unknown.”
Section four departs from the poet himself and presents portraits of four other people, some known and some not. These are eponymous poems. There is the loss of creation with artist Ismet Mujezinović when the “purest ideals” sank in destruction. There is the poet Branko Miljković who died young, a suicide with dark irony for this collection: “a man is killed by / his own weight.” The speaker admits he comprehends such a decision in the face of utter silence. There is the art collector Ante Topić Mimara who, after his death (in 1987), “Order had been upset and dusts mixed up” – an indictment more about stuff and things rather than people. Pejić does not mention, but assumes we know, that some of the vast art collected by Mimara might have been taken illegally during World War II. What belongs to whom – which country? The world becomes a jigsaw puzzle with people, populations, and objects shifting across borders that themselves change from time to time. In “Ubian Brez,” there is sensitivity to residence without a home: “when you are dust in one place, / you are dust everywhere.”
In section five the poet equates his roaming with the Swedish adventurer Georg Forselles, for he has arrived in Sweden “seeking refuge” (“The Count of Alaska”). In other words, the exiled poet hopes to find solace in Sweden left by others, “not a / single reason for leaving could I find in your life story” – in sharp distinction to the dilemma thrust upon him. In terms of one who leaves a beautiful, peaceful country in search of gold in Alaska, “Unpredictable / are the ways.” In comparison is the one who is displaced because of war, “Incomparable are the sufferings.” What if any is the promise any land makes to its people? It’s in “the back alleys, where the soul of the city abides” (“Stockholm”). Nevertheless, there is bitterness in “Sant Ericsson” where paradise is private property, not to be shared. The reality of loneliness of an exile is “a bird belonging to no one in the besieged day” (“Summer of 1993”).
In his final section, Pejić gives the sense that far off from the homeland one travels in darkness where “ill-timed death is lurking” (“The Ride”). This point about physical and metaphysical distance is most striking in “Apollo 17,” where the poet watches men on the moon and sees mirrored in them how far away from mother earth he is. While the book seems to end on a hopeful note with the poems “Interpreter” and “Typesetter,” those who have the allegorical vision to see in the darkness, look forward, and offer signposts to others, this is not so. The interpreter speaks “without touching” and the typesetter works in the dark. In this way, Milorad Pejić offers a philosophical and personal testimonial about life after dystopia.
- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. Editor: Battle Runes: Writings on War and Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration.
Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Translated by Omer Hadžiselimović
The Archaeology of Hope
Looking for who knows what I stumbled
upon a set of silverware sunk to the bottom
of the last box with things no longer needed.
It does not fit in with anything in my kitchen
or in my life except for an old fancy of my
mother regarding my future.
What Will the Doctor Say
-For Raymond Carver
On first reading it, I overlooked that poem,
Raymond. It takes, however, just one cell
to change its mood and make alive that which
we'd failed to notice till then.
I have no energy to read “What the Doctor Said”
now that I, too, am going to hear it. The noose
of words tightens after the first lines and I can’t go
on. With the unsteadiness of a blind person,
the streetcar is pushing on through the fog of cold
streets as if it didn’t have the tracks in front of it.
Your 26-years-old words from the closed book are
warming my palm while images are fast multiplying.
I can no longer
recall from memory the voice of Jusuf the miller.
I can’t separate it from the murmur of water
and the creaking of millstones.
I remember only the images:
the pack saddle set down in the grass,
the peasant untying the sack, the horse
drinking from the river.
The wooden mill quivers, but the image
is clear: through the tiny holes beams of light
break in and insert themselves into the roaring
semi-darkness where soft wheat dust dribbles
onto the miller’s cap and apron.
Grains ground to dust.
The days, too.
Dust to dust,
I hear father’s voice.
The Whisper of Shalwars
I should defend my trade, but how
when this what I do, except for a higher one,
has no sense at all?
In the house I grew up in such questions were
not asked. You could hear the rain pattering
on the roof and pouring down from the gutters,
into the darkness...and my grandfather, who’d
get up painfully, coughing and tottering until
he became fully awake. On workdays he delivered
mail from door to door, never doubting the purpose
of what he was bringing to people.
On weekends he worked in the bakery: “He who has
ten children,” he’d say, “must work ten days in a week.”
He lit the bread stove in the bakery, kneaded the dough,
and turned over the loaves with the long baking shovel—
just as I turn over nonsense—so they wouldn’t burn. Grandma
you could not hear. Only the whisper of her shalwars.
- Adin Ljuca was born in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1966. He now lives in Prague, the Czech Republic. Ljuca has written scholarly works in the field of cultural history of South Slavic countries as well those of poetry and fiction and has also translated numerous scholarly writings. Ljuca’s main publications include Hidžra (Prague, 1996); Maglaj: Na tragovima prošlosti (Maglaj, 1999); Vytetované obrazy (Prague, 2005); Istetovirane slike (Sarajevo, 2010); and Stalaktit (Tešanj, 2015).
- Adin Ljuca was born in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1966. He now lives in Prague, the Czech Republic. Ljuca has written scholarly works in the field of cultural history of South Slavic countries as well those of poetry and fiction and has also translated numerous scholarly writings. Ljuca’s main publications include Hidžra (Prague, 1996); Maglaj: Na tragovima prošlosti (Maglaj, 1999); Vytetované obrazy (Prague, 2005); Istetovirane slike (Sarajevo, 2010); and Stalaktit (Tešanj, 2015).
All Work Copyright©2015 by Adin Ljuca – All Rights Reserved
Saturday, November 7, 2015
My desire to write has been part of an evolutionary process stemming from my admiration of literary writing and writers when I was in high school and college. Literary works elevated my spirit and offered a different way to perceive life as opposed to that evoked by the bleak landscape of the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania where I grew up. Poetry, especially, was inspiring and I memorized a hundred poems after the Irish poet, Padraic Colum, lectured on “Poetry as an Oral Art” at my college, Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and challenged everyone to do this. I highly recommend this to all; it’s a great comfort while standing in a store line, waiting for the Metro or getting an MRI in later life. There is something about a beautiful phrase, an insightful thought, a unique point of view or a poignant reflection that lifts my frame of mind to a nobler plane.
While I was in college in the ‘60’s studying Math and Physics with the expectation of a good job and my ticket out of the depressed area of Pennsylvania in which I lived, I began reading the Saturday Review of Literature every week at the suggestion of my college English teacher. This periodical became an important part of my intellectual life and my love of writing and attraction to the life of a writer. The reviewed books that appealed to me most were those I felt were alive and moving; I was always looking for my own literary discoveries such as James Agee, James Baldwin or J.D. Salinger whom every college student at that time considered her own personal discovery.
The Saturday Review often had stimulating articles on writers’ lives along with reviews of their literary works, and I believe this stayed with me; i.e., I saw that others too had an interior life that they valued and nurtured. I especially liked the Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner. Many of Tennessee Williams’ plays were being filmed at this time with the great Geraldine Page in prominent roles. I also enjoyed the Theater of the Absurd playwright Eugene Ionesco. In my early 20’s my first writings were plays in this absurdist mode. This may be why so many of my short stories now have so much dialogue.
I have long believed that poets are special people blessed by the gods; someday scientists may find a DNA marker for poets. However, one can develop writing skills to create short stories, which is my writing domain, although this probably requires a certain personality type. Short story writers explore the solitary person at a significant moment when he or she gains some new insight about the human condition. This is far different from novelists who create characters and see where their characters lead them in the process of writing, although their characters also can have lofty reflections about life. When I conceive a short story, I first have an idea in mind and then think through the entire story before I even start writing. Many times I think through these stories in the middle of the night when I wake up and can’t fall back to sleep.
Ideas for short stories occur to me as I go through the day; I recognize short story material every time something out of the ordinary happens or I observe something that seems incongruent. I jot down these ideas in notebooks I have around my house or on a slip of paper if I’m away from my house. Since I am a birder and naturalist I often observe oddities while on birding field trips; I wrote several stories about birding and birders as a result. Nothing cries out for a short story like birders focused intently on finding a bird but oblivious to other activities around them.
I’m intrigued by the idea that many people are consumed by an esoteric interest or activity. I’ve written short stories that include a Civil War reenactor who also builds dioramas of Civil War battles in his basement, a man who collected, restored and sold hubcaps as his occupation and a man who lovingly restored a large cross from a church steeple he found. Generally my ideas are based on an observation that I then take a step further. Once I was attending a choral society’s program in a small church and noted in the program that one of the tenors was a woman, an unusual occurrence. During the concert and afterwards I imagined all kinds of scenarios based on this single fact and wrote a story called “Jubilant Voices” which emphasized how this could upset someone’s world. I’m also drawn to write about mystery in life, something for which science has no answer as yet, and how many people yearn for certainty as if they cannot get on with life or death without it. I’m fascinated by eccentric people, those who are different and those who feel alienated from ordinary society.
Writing is a solitary activity, so writers must have a high tolerance for being alone. But it is also an enriching pursuit whereby one can make something from almost nothing, much like painting or drawing. At the most basic level with only a pencil and paper an artist can draw or write a whole world of activity which can be shaped exactly as the artist wishes, unlike real life. And this artistic capacity can be a constant companion throughout one’s life.
The short stories I like best are those that leave a lasting impression, those that I want to read over. “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason is a favorite of mine because it includes eccentric characters at a desperate point in life with one character having the strange notion that if only her married son and his wife were to visit the Civil War battlefield site, Shiloh, this will somehow save their marriage since she and her husband had such a satisfying visit there. The metaphors jump off the page. There is an underlying poignancy within this absurd story elevating it to a literary gem.
I also like when a writer creates a character with a forceful and unique voice and manages to retain that voice throughout, such as Truman Capotes’s, “My Side of the Matter,” or Eudora Welty’s novella, “The Ponder Heart.” The voice is so strong in both these stories I often re-read them. They inspire me to pick up my pen and start writing.
The two short story writers that I have benefited from the most are Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Connor. They share some common theories about the art of the short story and the art of fiction. In his book, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, Frank O’Connor suggests that the novel is about “normal” society, whereas, the short story is about a character on the fringe of society: the lonely idealist, the artist, dreamers, spoiled priests, and people who don’t quite fit in. The short story has no hero. I subscribe to Frank O’Connor’s short story theories as described in The Lonely Voice.
Flannery O’Connor has written the purest kind of short stories where not one word, more or less, is needed; her stories are perfectly distilled. Her characters are vivid, stark, grotesque, generally unlikable but always fascinating; you cannot look away. She believed that stories defy analysis, that what she is saying in the story cannot be said any other way and it takes every word in the story to give the meaning. I have reread her stories repeatedly since my college days and am sure they have a significant impact on my writing.
I create most of my short stories from my imagination although there is often some element from my own experiences in my stories, some more than others. I don’t like basing a character in my story on myself because the character is apt to be flat or wooden due to an inner censor. The same thing may happen if a character is based on a parent or child. I’ve been in enough writing workshops to see that this is a strong tendency in all writers. An instructor may suggest that a writer should change some aspect of a character and if it’s a real-life character the writer often protests that the character is not like that in reality. But a writer has to be willing to change anything in the story to improve it, even her own mother’s personality.
I have written stories after each of my parents died in the hope of preserving some part of them, but I realized that I didn’t know my characters very well at all because I saw my parents through a daughter’s eyes. I knew all about their life in the family but not so much about how their friends perceived them or what they chose not to share with their children. So, ideally, it’s best to develop characters from imagination; this will permit changing them at will to serve the story.
When I read literature I want to discover new insights into how humans behave and why. Even though Shakespeare may have borrowed the plot for many of his plays, he developed his own characters and changed them to dramatize moral truths about the human condition in his very insightful way. Modern works of literature are perhaps more accessible than Shakespeare but they provide that same resonance when they move us. I would like to evolve my writing to touch on some of these age-old truths but realize that short stories are limited in scale and scope and can only give us glimpses at why we behave like we do.
One of my favorite stories from my writings, “Swirling Above Her Head,” tells the story of Ida Pilcher, a blue-collar worker in West Virginia, who is inexplicably followed around by a flock of vultures. She is a practical woman, not given to imagination, so the puzzling behavior of the vultures is particularly unnerving. I offer several explanations for their behavior but I like to leave it as a mystery because Ida’s challenge is to learn to live with uncertainty and accept that everything is not black and white.
I felt I was in my element writing this story because I have a reasonable understanding of birding as well as characters like Ida; I grew up in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania with people not so different from Ida. However, when I was workshopping this story at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland a number of my colleagues insisted that I must tell them why the birds followed Ida. I felt the point of the story was to get Ida to recognize that there are mysteries in life that she must live with. The story wasn’t as outlandish as it sounds because a flock of vultures once followed me around while I was hiking alone on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. I explained this later to several birding experts but they had no idea why the vultures followed me. Obviously I jotted this idea down in my writing notebook for future use.
Thus far, I have taken all of my short stories through a workshop process. In particular I’ve attended about 25 workshops at The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland starting in the 1980’s. When I am taking a workshop I write every day from three to six hours. I edit my stories incessantly, some even after they are published, creating a new version. I don’t know how writers managed before word processing, but I would guess I’ve edited some stories 30 times or more.
I write literary short stories and do not write or read genre fiction. The writers that inspire me are literary writers and my goal is to emulate and learn from them. I have read widely in both fiction and non-fiction but I do have favorites. Besides the writers I’ve already mentioned, I like to read fiction that has a sense of place, particularly in settings having to do with nature or the American West such as Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories, Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Ellen Gilchrest is a favorite of mine for her many humorous characters and stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams and Victory over Japan. Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is one of my favorite humorous novels. I believe the Irish have a special gift for literature and I love James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and others not as well-known, such as Sean O’Faolain and Patrick Kavanagh. I had a real fascination with Virginia Woolf in my youth and read everything she ever wrote, including all five or six volumes of her letters and diaries plus a few biographies.
Other non-fiction authors that have had a major impact on my thinking are Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong. I have read Joseph Campbell’s Transformation of Myths Through Time many times. I also depend on Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare to help me through Shakespeare who remains unsurpassed in his understanding of human behavior.
My own writing plans include the publication of my book of thirteen short stories entitled, Stories for Birders and Other Observers. Five of the stories concern birding, birders, or nature; the remaining eight are on a variety of eccentric subjects. Most of my stories have some humor included within the dilemma of the story. Although it’s important to me that my stories be literary it’s also important that they be accessible to a wide audience.
I’ve spent a whole career of almost 40 years in the physical sciences, computer sciences, and data communications, the last 20 as a project manager; I have my Master’s degree in mathematics from George Washington University, my Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Misericordia University in Pennsylvania. I habitually took courses in writing, painting, and nature studies on weekends. After I retired I added genealogy to my primary activities. But along the way I had many other interests and obsessions, such as opera, traveling, history, and a number of others. These varied experiences have given me many rich ideas for my short stories.
I think each writer looks at the world from her own perspective given her background and how she’s adapted to unique circumstances of life. In my case I look for incongruences in human activity and find humor in them; this makes even life’s difficulties more bearable. The ability to observe the world in this manner is the greatest gift I receive from writing.
[Editor's note: Stories for Birders and Other Observers is now available at Amazon HERE]
Copyright©2015 Andrea Vojtko
Monday, August 3, 2015
ART and ADAPTATION presents a comprehensive survey and discussion of the dominant ideas by leading thinkers on why we make art. Approaches that examine the evolution of art behavior embrace natural selection, sexual selection, social selection, and cognition. Art behavior is intimately entwined in our evolution and prehistory and helped solve problems and issues related to kin or group identification, attracting mates, and cultural transmission.
The book will be of primary interest to art students, artists, and art historians. Other students and scholars in the humanities and sciences who wish to embark on evolutionary studies will also find the book useful.
Available for order HERE
Cover image, The Knife Grinder, Kasimir Malevich, Yale University Art Gallery
Monday, July 27, 2015
Alexandra Glynn, Psalm Sonnets. Resource Publications, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1498223669. 54 pages. $8.00
From her title, Alexandra Glynn makes it clear what readers should expect from her collection of poems. In the same way that the biblical psalms explore questions of sin and belief and doubt and worship, Glynn’s poems do the same, though exclusively in sonnet form. This is a book for believers, those who know many of the biblical stories already, not for those who are outside of the faith who would find references to the “bracelets, signet, and the staff” as “signs” confusing, at best. These poems, then, are devotional, and Glynn makes no apology for that.
That is not to say, though, that Glynn does not present the more complicated questions of life in her writing. In fact, the opening poem, “With palms in hand,” (and I have no idea if she purposely began with a poem that has an anagram of psalm in its title or not, but I like to think so) begins with the speaker talking about following Jesus into Jerusalem, but ends by asking if she will “go out in the bitterness of the night/With greed, envy, and hatred in my heart/To meet with those who do what is not right?” She knows that we humans, even believers, are flawed, fallible creatures, as capable of acting like the disciples who abandoned Jesus as those who sing his praises.
There are also poems that move past such questions to try to provide home and comfort, as she moves quickly from her first two poems that are concerned with humanity’s sinfulness to a poem like “A tale is told like a light,” which ends
Our consolations, as light after light,
Are retold to us year by year and word
By word; so we to the story belong
Just as a melody does to a song.
Glynn combines the power of story, in general, to the story the angels tell—here summed up simply with “Do not fear”—to prove, as she says, consolation. She wants readers to see the hope that comes through the collection, that ultimately drives the doubts and questions away.
One interesting theme that develops throughout is that of loneliness and community. Almost in the middle of the collection, two poems—“You left our Christianity” and “We used to sit together clad in white”—tell of someone who has left the faith from the point of view of the person still there. While it is clear the speaker is concerned about the apostate’s soul (the closing of both poems make that quite clear), the speaker also seems to miss the other’s physical presence.
This loneliness becomes quite explicit in “I am lonely like Joseph,” where the speaker is unable to see the beauty of the world because of that loneliness. The speaker also clearly seeks spiritual comfort in a poem like “Befriend me in my shame,” which ends with the speaker asking God (I’m assuming) to “Help me, acknowledge that you know my name;/Walk side by side with me in my great shame.” The final poem, though, seems to seek inclusion in a community, not just acceptance by Jesus, as it opens “Don’t kick me out. Don’t gather around me/And list my sins and faults and what I said/And did not say, last year, last month.” This poem examines the idea of a community that seems more interested in taking notes on the speaker’s life than simply loving that person.
I would have liked to see more poems like the one that concludes the collection, as it is here that Glynn seems to most honestly wrestle with challenging ideas. In other poems, such as “The snow is pure and white but I am not,” the conclusions are too easy, moving quickly from sin to salvation without any true struggle, any anguish that we see in the biblical psalms that end without clear resolution. Similarly, I would have liked to see more diversity in the poems, as they are all written as Shakespearean sonnets with titles that match the first line of the poem. While Glynn explores thematic diversity, she omits any exploration of the form, which could have added to the collection’s complexity.
That said, Glynn’s title sets forth exactly what she sets out to do, and her collection lives up to that expectation. She has written a collection of devotional poems that explore biblical stories, ideas, and themes that people of faith will find interesting and intriguing.
- Kevin Brown, Professor of English, Lee University. Author, most recently, of Liturgical Calendar.
copyright 2015 by Kevin Brown - All Rights Reserved
Thursday, July 16, 2015
When I was six, I wrote a short story (bound pages and all) about a king and his bad laws being overthrown by his people. When I was forty, I published my first novel about an idealist going to Washington DC to “really make a difference.” What does this say about free will and how much choice I seem to have had in the matter of whether or not I became a writer?
Well, not much actually, since these are just a pair of anecdotes I chose, but they do show the concerns I’ve always had about justice and politics. My journey between those two similar acts looked meandering and unpredictable while it was happening though. I came from a rural, blue-collar background where no one I knew had the luxury of indulging emotional creative urges. Education and work were supposed to have a rational purpose—they had to pay college loans and the bills of daily life. Luckily, I have the kind of ordered and analytical mind that let me succeed at engineering and then business school, so I did “all the right things” by getting practical degrees to get rid of debts and sock away some investments. All the while though, I managed enough flights of fancy to keep my artistic dreams alive and growing. I moved to San Francisco (a real eye-opener for a kid from the Amish countryside!), worked on construction projects in the western deserts, spent a summer as a business consultant to an Eskimo town in Alaska, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine during their Orange revolution, and rubbed elbows with Washington’s elite as an advisor to the director of the U.S. Secret Service. All of these gave me the time and perspectives I needed while I slowly developed my deepest passion—philosophy.
In 2010 when my wife was given a great job opportunity in northern England, we decided it was as good a time as I was ever going to get to try working full-time on all the philosophical arguments I’d been shouting in my head for decades, as well as the fictional stories I had been dreaming about to explore and illustrate these concepts. The most inspiring people to me had always been authors who’d done exactly this with their lives—writers like Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus, Orwell, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Ayn Rand, Irvin Yalom, Upton Sinclair, Daniel Quinn, Robert Pirsig, and Rebecca Goldstein—people who expressed their extremely well-thought-out philosophies in gripping fictional tales. Since the age of sixteen or so, when I started reading these kinds of works while trying to figure out where my own life might lead, I have desperately longed to be this kind of person and writer, to make the kind of things that had been most inspirational to me. For decades I kept journals, read widely, travelled far, and thought hard, always considering myself one of “those creative people” despite all professional appearances to the contrary. It may have been a secret, but I was preparing myself to take a shot at producing the kind of books that could inspire other people to think deeply and live well. The arrogance and audacity it takes to attempt this scares the hell out of me though; I still can’t begin to talk about these motivations whenever someone asks me at a dinner party or on the street, “So, what do you do?” But I have seen other people accomplish this, and they gave me so much. I have to try to do this too.
My first novel, Draining the Swamp, is the one I wrote at age forty about an idealist going to Washington, DC. I call it a “bureaucratic fable,” a cross between a picaresque and a Bildungsroman that was strongly influenced by the people I met and the real experiences my wife and I had while working in Washington (me with the FBI, Secret Service, and DHS; she with NGO’s and a Senator). It’s the book I wish I had read before I moved to DC so I could have really understood how the federal government works and what you can (or can’t) do to change it. I wrote it soon after leaving DC as a bit of an experiment (I wrote the first draft in thirty days during NaNoWriMo, knowing I had a lot to learn about writing), but I also wrote it for the opportunity to get down on paper everything I had learned during my years of work trying to make government more efficient. That doesn’t sound like a typical starting point for a first novel, but after lots of homework and many, many, rewrites, it became something I still find exciting and inspiring to read, which seems to be a really rare thing for writers to feel about their work. It’s been thrilling to hear from career government people I respect and admire who loved its truthfulness and ideals, as well as from professional book reviewers who thought it was “well written” and “riveting.” When the famously cantankerous Kirkus Reviews said, “its crisp dialogue and deep knowledge of Washington’s inner workings make it an edifying read,” I finally knew I might actually have what it takes to sell books. That review also said the book “can be a bit didactic,” knowing this was a bad thing to today’s literary cognoscenti, but when the Midwest Book Review said Draining the Swamp belonged in the same tradition as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, I really knew my style of didacticism had hit the mark I was aiming for. It was then that I finally felt I was ready as a writer to take on a bigger project—the novel idea I’d been trying to figure out in my head for over five years.
So my first novel was intended to entertain and inspire people who wanted to improve government. That was a goal I was confident I knew a lot about. This next novel (my current work in progress) is intended to entertain and inspire people who want to improve their personal lives in particular and the state of the world in general. Draining the Swamp was a book that contained a bit of political philosophy, but my next project required a thorough understanding of the rest of philosophy, particularly of the field of morality. Some say writing is an act of self-discovery, and for me that’s slightly true while I write (I’ll put together the odd metaphor or observation in the moment that really strikes me), but it’s much truer during the preparation phase for my writing. In this case, I actually took the time to write out my own philosophical beliefs in a clear, comprehensive, and concise manner. This was important to me as a writer who also wants to be known for his philosophy, but it was necessary too because my next main character was going to be a “Chief Philosophy Officer” for a biotechnology company in the near future, and I wanted his dialogue to be as convincing as possible. One of my favorite quotes inscribed on the walls of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC is from Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” During my philosophy-writing time, I became much more exact. I turned my ideas into a website where I blog about them and discuss them with others, and I even managed to get my biggest idea published in an academic journal article that will possibly be the most important thing I’ll ever write, even though it’s likely to only ever be read by a handful of professional philosophers.
Once this philosophy writing and other marketing work had earned a pause, I was excited to get back to creative writing. When I write fiction, I find that I really have to toggle my emotions back and forth between a happy, blabbering, freeness and a critical, worrying, paranoia. The first is the state I have to be in to get a first draft done or whenever I write fresh new passages. The second state is the one I have to be in while I edit, and re-edit, and re-edit until there’s not a word left that I might cringe about. I’m very mindful now of separating my work efforts into these two chunks so it’s easier to get / stay in these emotional mindsets.
Both of the novels I’ve drafted now have been done in NaNoWriMo style in 30 to 60 days, writing at least 1700 words per day until I’m done. After some early days struggling to achieve this, I’ve learned that I do it best by spending the morning sketching out the day’s text in bullet points, grabbing some phrases as they come to me (especially the words of dialogue my characters will say), but staying focused by moving fast. If I go in a direction that boxes me in or I think of something I’d rather have said earlier, then it’s really easy to move things around. This process reigns in the paralysis of “too much choice” I feel if I try to write slowly in complete and punctuated sentences. Using this style really gets me in a fast flow state where I can get a lot done without too many instances of staring out the window wondering where to go next. (If I do get really stuck, I’ll play a bit of Tetris and let my emotions work out the kinks of where my mind wants to go. I’m really good at Tetris now.) In the afternoons, I go back over the bullet points and turn them into finished text. Some changes inevitably occur during this process, but mostly I keep on track and get a lot done knowing I have a map and endpoint in sight about the passage I’m writing.
That’s the process for the first draft. After that, I like to read a writing textbook to help “learn the craft,” which always sparks lots of notes for changes that I can make during the next edit. Then I’ll try to read some fiction during the rest of the editing process, choosing things with a style I think I need more of: e.g. Saul Bellow if I need flourish, Dan Brown if I need pace, Ayn Rand if I’m feeling timid (nothing gets me shouting more than arguing with Ayn Rand in my head). I should say that I’m one of those writers who always have a big general outline done first. I’ll start with a rough plot outline first, and then use that to generate detailed psychological profiles of the characters who would act the way I need them to act during the twists and turns of the story. As I come up with their backgrounds, strengths, quirks, physical characteristics, names, etc., that’s when everything really comes to life, when I can hear the individual voices speaking the dialogue that will ultimately tell the story I want to tell. I’m a very idea-driven writer who has a point I’m trying to make and an emotional reaction I want to elicit, but I spend a lot of time constructing the people and situations that will believably and interestingly get me to my goal. I don’t understand writers who pick characters and just “see where they take them.” This seems aimless to me; and I need to have goals in my life and in my writing to generate real and purposeful movement.
The goal I’m working on at the moment is this “philosophical page-turner” I’m trying to complete with the Chief Philosophy Officer as the central character. That’s not exactly a standard genre, but it’s best exemplified by The Brothers Karamazov or Atlas Shrugged, although I do hope to improve upon both the philosophy and the pace compared to either of those novels (especially compared to Rand’s). I’m trying to create a story where the reader wants to be one of the characters and succeed as one of its heroes, as this can be a great way to pull people in and inspire thoughts and emotions that cross over into their daily lives. In this case, my CPhO is the head of a firm that has developed life extension technologies that are ready to be trialed on human subjects. The book revolves around the selection process for these candidates to be the first among us to “live forever,” which raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the impact this would have on people and society. Most medical trials look for people with specific illnesses that need to be cured, but this one needs to find people who are really good at living life so they can be given lots more of it. Wouldn’t you like to be one of those people? I know I would. Then I’d definitely have time to complete all the rest of the novel ideas I’ve got swimming around in my head!
[ Read more at Ed Gibney’s website ]
Copyright©2015 by Ed Gibney – All Rights Reserved