Saturday, November 7, 2015

Flight of a short story writer: Andrea Vojtko

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.

Copyright©2015 Andrea Vojtko

Monday, August 3, 2015

Evolution and Art - Book Release

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

Review of Psalm Sonnets

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

The Philosophical Novelist, Ed Gibney: Always Evolving

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 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nina Tassi on Alicia Ostriker - Review

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.  69 pages, paper. $15.95U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6291-5.

At a recent reading, Alicia Ostriker confessed her surprise—being a serious woman, she said, when the three extraordinary characters who eventually gave the title to her new book, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, popped up and began talking to her. Lucky poet, because all three are a sheer delight to meet.

Each of the forty-two poems in this slim volume contains three stanzas, in which these characters take the stage in turn, with an equal number of lines allotted to each. They address the subject at hand, whether it be life, liberty, nature, religion, love, evil, anger, or war. Ostriker said that she was not certain which of the three characters represents her—perhaps the tulip. All of them, it seems, are aspects of her poetic psyche, delving into earthly life from three perspectives: human, plant, and animal.

What is one to get out of these poems besides pure enjoyment? Well, culled wisdom for one thing, as well as a sense of the multiplicity of possible views of existence. This gem of a collection offers humor, wit, stunning lyricism, always surprise. The language is outstanding not only for its conciseness which appears utterly natural, but for its deceptive simplicity, its everyday idiom—wherein its power resides.

In the poems, the characters compete to win dominance for their views, often slyly undermining one another. Humor, wit, earthy expressions become the vehicles of common sense, deflating excessive poetic rhetoric and overblown emotions.  “The Moment on Stage I.” for instance, moves from self-dramatization to playfulness in the moment:

I am
happy to be
said the fragile old woman

when my beauty
fades I
shall die
said the dark red tulip

Come on and
throw me
that Frisbee
said the dog (30).

Ostriker celebrates with fun the simple supremacy of life. In “Church,” here is how the dog says it: “I ain’t nothing but a hound dog/cryin’ all the time/nothin’/but a hound dog cryin’/said the dog/but the preacher says/no matter/how blue I may get/I am a damn sight better/than a dead lion” (33-34).

Although Ostriker gives equal time to all three characters, it is no accident that the dog gets the last stanza every time. Bawdy though he is, or maybe because he is, the dog wins the poet’s deepest sympathy. She knows how he feels, and admires his devotion to humans even when some (or many) are undeserving. This dog is authentic, true to himself, and can express outrage with a sharp bite, as in the last stanza of “Anger II: The Rape:” “Definition of a bleeding heart—/you could not bear to look/so you crossed the street and did nothing to stop/ the man on the corner with the stick/beating me said the dog belligerently” (51).

“In War Timeis chilling. It uses ordinary words and phrases, turning them to exceptional effect, creating layers of metaphor in the most matter-of-fact tone.  The poet’s passion comes through as she decries all wars and the most horrifying of events, the Holocaust.

Ah here you are at last
sorry about the guards
I hope they didn’t give you much trouble
I was afraid you’d never make it
across the river before curfew
let me take your coats
said the old woman

Thank you
how could we possibly pass up
such a sweet invitation
but let me tell you
said the tulip
when we reached the bridge we saw
the river was full of corpses

A dog too can be afraid
despite an appearance of ferocity
navigating unfamiliar streets
dodging unpredictable explosions
still one persists in one’s errand
here we are said the dog
thank you I will keep my coat (61).

This collection presents an exceptional poet’s argument with herself. It is brilliant, daring, earthy, proclaiming that there is no substitute for life and the living of it.

Ostriker, author of 15 poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011, and The Book of Seventy, has received numerous awards, among them the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and the National Jewish Book Award. A finalist twice for the National Book Award, she is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.

-Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions (poetry), and has recently completed a new collection, Spirit Ascending.

Copyright 2015 by Nina Tassi - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Standing Next to a Corpse - Anthony Lock

Standing Next to a Corpse

By Anthony Lock

I will always remember well the day I almost died. We probably measure the biggest things in life by contrast. Poverty and wealth; love and hate; beauty and ugliness. I’ve only done it for a couple of minutes, but nothing makes one feel more intensely and disgustingly alive than standing next to a corpse when it was you or them. It’s an internal injection of sickness and shameful relief, and it repeats with varying strength in moments in the days and years afterward. On television, in newspapers, all you see is a corpse. Next to one, you see yourself.

I have seen many tragedies, and in the years since being in the CBD during the 2011 earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch, I continue to witness many tragedies. So does everyone else. These tragedies, things many people experience around the world daily, are a continual feed of highly consumed entertainment, whether you like it or not.

It’s condescending and pointless to tell people “you have to experience it to understand”. Scores of people continue to watch Amitabh’s Sikandar die before Raakhee’s Kaamna after a lifetime of distant adoration; to see Puccini’s Butterfly arranged as Kim’s ultimate sacrifice for her son Tam. Soap opera or classic novel, you transfer with characters. It’s why we love art. If you didn’t experience the emotional plateaus of Muqaddar Ka Sikander or Miss Saigon, you wouldn’t bother watching them. What matters about standing next to a corpse after concrete rain ceases, is not so much that it almost happened to you, either. It’s that a part of you really was hair-breaths from termination.

The lesson it’s taken me years to learn is that if one is to discover things from a near-death experience, you cannot “move on” from it. Rather, it is something that you keep near, advice written, and re-written continually, to yourself. It’s probably the same with any deep moment in life. Close shaves don’t always make a wound that can return. Unless you knew a loved one who perished, one can begin to see the tragedy one was present at like any other of the hundreds of horrors that the planet plays stage to each revolution of its axis. See enough disasters in repeated digital image, tweeted with what feels like practically everyone’s comments and journalistic gusto, pile on time, and it becomes like a sports event. One went to the arena to see this one, that’s all. This is a corpse of its own.

The sky was a wonderful summer blue, a couple of hours earlier I had been informed that the building I was in had been rebuilt some decades earlier and could bear force if there was “another big quake”, a 7.1 magnitude quake having occurred outside the city less than six months before during the night. I nodded, as did others; I scoffed privately, because any aftershock wasn’t going to be as large as the first quake. Outside for food, I sat next to a man I had met that day, and we began talking. A minute passed, and during a silence between us, admiration of the still was broken by a tremendous roar. I was puzzled for the half-second before the rumbling reached where we were. Then I realized that the noise was the crash of something that could cross kilometers in seconds, like a giant running over the country at the speed of sound. Screams erupted in the shopping street and people started to run and cower.

On my left, the man next to me – amazing how vivid and formative an experience this is, and has been, to me, and yet I cannot remember his name – put his hand on my shoulder. During all this time I believed it would fade in seconds. After about ten seconds, the shaking softened. My new companion took his hand away, and I turned to him and uttered stupidly “it’s okay, don’t worry”. In the instant it took to turn around to the right to investigate the newly expected calm I saw part of the building in which I had spent most of the morning in mid-freefall. The pause I felt was like the few seconds of calm before a storm. The energy release was just beginning of what was although a “smaller” quake at 6.3 on the Richter scale, to date the strongest quake ever recorded for shaking intensity, recording the highest peak ground acceleration, measurement of force against gravity.

I learned later that the people I had left conversing in that room were still there when the outside walls collapsed, though they were in the half of the room which did not collapse. I saw this fall onto people, though like the distinctiveness of such an experience, this is a unique statement. I discovered quickly that although one can watch this happen to people – one has to because one has to monitor the surroundings in order to not suffer the same fate, and one has no control over what happens with what you see far away – an inbuilt psychological state can kick in. Although I saw this horror occur, I only observed the dead bodies after the dust cleared a minute later. Whether such delayed acknowledgment of what one saw is something humans do unconsciously to better cope, or in these circumstances you really cannot see, I don’t know.

It was only when about three buildings had either fully or partially decayed that I understood this was far worse than the previous earthquake. I realized quickly that I was in a safe place in the center of the street. Rubble reached a meter to me on either side, not from falling but rolling – only after did I become conscious that the tree behind me could have toppled and that there was a larger danger in that spot than I had known. My thoughts were I’d always said in such a situation I would “meet the test”, though as I looked around, grappling with the realization that such an event was happening, I understood that I couldn’t rescue anyone from where I was until the shaking stopped. If I had tried, I would have run into the masses fleeing the buildings and the adjacent rock fall. As I saw the whole street collapsing, I felt those time-honored notions about family and friends, but my first main thought was understanding I was at the center of what would now be the top news story around the world for the coming days. I feel this exposes something deep in my character, as I’m certain that isn’t a thought that occurs to many people in those circumstances. Again, what exactly, I know not.

As distant viewer, an emotional reaction that connects fully with all of the tragedies that occur in the world would drive you insane. Truly understanding what these situations are like for those who suffer takes an act of placing oneself somewhere in the scenario that is similar to watching or reading an emotional drama. This takes time to both think and feel, and time, as one learns from entering the mortal danger-zone, is, contradictorily, the most precious thing, and the thing we have in most abundance. It makes sense that someone who hasn’t been almost killed becomes desensitized to the torrent of tragic news forced upon us every day – we have to because we cannot cope if we become transfixed for too long to this news, and it can distract us from thinking about and doing other things we need to contemplate. The same goes for someone who has been near death. But strangely, I have found that those who have experienced events like these firsthand become desensitized to their near-miss experience with their own untimely death. Is this moving on, or forgetting what should be so life-provoking to them?

What the pictures of earthquake devastation don’t usually show is the dust that accumulates. About half-way through the quake it had become difficult to see and I couldn’t discern the casualties, though I knew they were there. When I could finally move, I was greeted with a coughing fit from breathing the dust. It’s one of the things you don’t think about, even if you see it. I had to unbutton my shirt to cover my mouth. Once the dust moved, I could see the destruction more clearly and the bodies of the dead. I wandered through the street seeing if there was anyone I could help, and shouted into buildings trying to listen for voices. I tried to phone emergency services to give specific information about where to find the injured, but the phones were out. I found no one who was unattended, so with a lack of need for me, I headed for Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, the city’s main open space and cultural meeting point, to see if my friend who worked nearby was there. Somehow, despite the chaos with the phones, I received a text from her when I arrived. It was only when I got there that the first aftershock happened. It brought down further debris and I realized for the first time that there would be many more aftershocks and that they would be dangerous. And it was only when I got home that I discovered the cathedral’s steeple had come down. I hadn’t registered its collapse despite being right next to it, nor that I hadn’t seen the man next to me since I had asininely told him “not to worry”. I pondered what had happened to him until I saw him again some months later and he told me he had run away as soon as the shaking stopped.

When speaking of the dead, everyone always says it’s such a waste, such a shame. I’ve seen this directly. Standing next to a corpse is to stand next to thousands of corpses. They had thousands of different things to do, thousands of different things they could have done. Then and now, even though I know the greatest horror was the loss of life, I felt the greatest evil – even if nature is not conscious, its tragedies are still evil – was that those who died got no warning. In paying the ultimate price for living on a crust of broken tectonic plates, as people with families and friends, smiles they can share, stories and laughs and games and the joys of life before them, the sorrow I felt standing next to them was feeling that they should have been told. They deserved to at least know before their time came. But they did not. Without this, the event seemed to dismiss them as individuals. People who had the supreme expression of which I know within each one of their bodies: their lives, and the time to mix their potentials and wonder into these lives. Like everyone, as someone who has lost family and friends unexpectedly, I know that the deepest sadness of the loss is that your loved one had countless threads before them, theirs to half-choose and half-be-given, to use the analogy from Chinese literature. At the feet of someone who has just perished without warning, however, thinking of the thousand things that they could have been and done didn’t seem to go far enough in treating them rightly, even though it is just as integral a part of the disaster. Standing there, I felt at least letting them know what was going to happen would have given them some of the respect they deserved. Of course, how would an earthquake do that? Such feelings mean little when they are afterthoughts, and afterthoughts from the fortunate.

“Moving on” can be taken at least two ways. Usually, it’s interpreted as “getting over” something. However, unless you carry with you the moments of brushing death, you don’t “move on”. You can revert to who you were. Moving on can be either forgetting a painful episode or using it to deepen one’s experiences and enrichment of the masterpiece each day is, or at least should be. What would you do, if you were there, time froze and a crackly voice somewhere in the distance said “Sorry, but today is not your day. Five seconds after I resume time, falling debris, currently poised thirty meters from your head, will end your life. You have a minute to reflect on what you would have done.” At any other point in most of your existence, you would probably give a restrained answer. Even the most ambitious plans are still restrained to a large degree by practicality. In this moment of last minute, everything becomes an ever expanding balloon of opportunities, the entirety of which you could never do because time is too short and doing one thing excludes others. But that doesn’t matter when the possibility of at least having a chance at life’s countless opportunities and wonders is, or was, going to be taken from you. It’s what I call choosing your paths when your thoughts are always larger. The months after the earthquake transformed me in this sense, and only recently has the fever it lit within me become tempered. This only occurred when I understood that the things I had attempted to juggle within my twenty-four hours were always seven too many and always left me with many I would have rather done.

As I said earlier, it can be pointless to make arguments that require a “you should have been there” component, let alone how patronizing such arguments can be. I have tried with furious editing to scrub unintended haughtiness from this entry. It remains, impossible to erase fully. I try to not lecture those who, time since, have wanted to hear what I felt. It’s none of my business to lecture people. Besides, I’m one person; I’ve seen how people react differently to events. I just tell those who ask what it was like for me. If they haven’t experienced it firsthand, like an artwork, I try to let them experience secondhand what it was like. How has it been for me? After standing next to corpses, I now see corpses everywhere. They are the possible futures missed. That, for me, in my random luckiness, is the worst I’ve dealt with personally from the episode, and in dealing with these sights of paths ahead, I am led more every day to my favorite line from Shakespeare, when Coriolanus’ mother says that “in such business, action is eloquence”. It’s a futile wish when the world is filled with catastrophes we cannot control, but I still hope no one experiences what I went through. I have seen those who die, and even if you had no responsibility for or influence over nature’s actions, indifferent to humanity’s presence, you cannot help but feel guilty that you live. On television, there is a body, its message diluted by numbers. Next to the body, in a private meeting, it tells you of the possible futures it had, before it leaves with them forever. The person you never met, yet whom you meet so intimately in that moment, then leaves you alone, alone to see those possibilities deep in yourself.

Copyright©2015 by Anthony Lock – All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Poetry of Caroline Hagood Reviewed by Nina Tassi

Caroline Hagood, Making Maxine’s Baby. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2015. 70 pages, paper. $18U.S. ISBN 978-1-934909-46-1.

This is a daring book, an odyssey written from within the consciousness of Maxine, a resident of New York City subway tunnels and survivor of repeated sexual abuse from the age of six. In tracing Maxine’s struggles to free herself from the horrors of her own mind, Hagood calls up poetic antecedents from Homer’s Odyssey to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Yet Maxine is very much a contemporary woman, so Hagood’s metaphors are drawn mainly from the world of American pop culture—from horror movies to media accounts of real killers in movie theaters and shopping malls. The mental wanderings of her heroine are marked by punishing setbacks and fresh tries, a journey often as harrowing for the reader as for Maxine.

The challenge Hagood has set herself is to follow a seriously disturbed mind through violent images that mimic its chaos while constructing a compelling poetic structure. She achieves this goal through language which is continuously inventive and cognizant of form. Almost every line startles the reader with complex images conveying the double vision of both Maxine and the poet.

In one sequence of nine poems, “How Mermaids Save the Drowning,a stanza begins, “When she was six, he started to confetti/ her skin, and night after night he found other ways/ of making verbs of nouns, saying/ there’s a new sheriff in town.” And then, in a following poem, the chilling effects of her violation are recorded:  “After he touched it, she wanted to remove her flesh,/ just bulldoze it and build a mall there.”

Maxine careens from near-suicide to matter-of-fact acceptance of her plight to hope for a viable future. Occasional glimpses of connectedness vie with images of splitting, ugly slashes, fragmentation, surgery, dissection, and details of autopsies.

Using one of the vocabularies taken from pop culture, Hagood shows Maxine steeping herself in violent films because she has been told it is a way to work through trauma: “A night without the living dead/ is not a night at all. When she can’t rest, she works on a stolen Slurpee/ in the back row of Rocky Horror.

This is no poetry for the faint of heart or weak of stomach: “Maxine knows she was put here to mother/ even the rats who creep beside her bed at night/ to have their babies. She hears them heaving, reaches out,/ lets her fingers rest on their sweated backs/ as they make their birthing sounds,/ so much like train whistles.”

Along the path toward survival, Maxine tries to analyze her own mind, striving for images of connection and coherence. Memories come into play, good and bad, as she apprehends glimmers of possible recovery: “tangled chords/ someday she will make a rope out of them.”

Healing begins when “Maxine pictures her psyche as a Lower East Side/ tenement,” a wry image of wholeness, even during a period when she is engaged in self-destructive sexual behavior.

Well into her journey, Maxine falls in love with Marvin, a street person and kindred soul: “Marvin fancies himself a piece of city/ sea glass, shaped by the stroke of eyes/ averted, tumbled by all the words/ spoken, but not to him, tinning on his ears.”

With Marvin, Maxine begins to emerge from the morass she lives in. Not that Hagood offers any vision of a return to conventional middle class life. Rather, the poet views Maxine as moving to stable ground, based on love and a will to live, although still on the street. Pregnant with Marvin’s child, she coos to the baby in her womb with these words: “When you start imagining/ absurd things, like giant cockroaches/ dancing behind people who are screaming/ at you, don’t be alarmed, it/ runs in the family.

A notable achievement of this collection is Hagood’s ability to keep the reader steadily engaged with the mind of Maxine and her tortured drive toward freedom. This is a deeply-imagined, credible character who awakens the sympathy of readers as well as admiration for the cool tone and highly poetic language of her creator.

Hagood, a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University, published her first poetry collection, Lunatic Speaks, in 2012. She has also written on film and literature for the Guardian and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

- Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Kevin Brown's Liturgical Days by Nina Tassi

Kevin Brown, Liturgical Calendar. Eugene, OR: RESOURCE Publications (An Imprint of Wipf and Stock ), 2014. 100 pages, paper. $14U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-1-4982-0375-3.
In his new book, Kevin Brown does not write overtly religious poems, as the title of the collection, Liturgical Calendar, and of many individual poems would suggest. His strategy is more cagey—subversive even. He situates his poems squarely in the everyday world of the present, his lines and stanzas short, images focused largely on the commonplace. Most of the pieces are written in the first person in a tone of wry or ironic humor. The language is colloquial, matter-of-fact, occasionally meditative. Thus the voice of the poet flows along in an easy rhythm, like a conversation with oneself, mulling over mundane worries, wounds suffered in childhood, or embarrassing personality flaws not usually confided to friends and relatives.
But there is more to it. Each poem, either by title or subtitle, references a sacred event or a saint, leading the reader to suppose that the poem will be literally about Ash Wednesday or St. Hilarion. But no, the poem concerns people down the street. And yet, while taking a stroll in Brown’s neighborhood, the reader is surprised into an encounter with the Christian universe—where one’s own moral life is implicated. A married couple’s ordinary supper of spaghetti, bread and wine suggests comparison with the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Brown reminds the reader that the sacred lurks just beyond the kitchen—or within it.
He invites the reader to consider the ways in which a betrayal at the supper table, seemingly confined to such a tiny space and moment, might have universal significance. It might have to do with Judas and the reason why Jesus died, something the poet wants the reader to question rather than saying it himself.
The loss of love is a major subject of Liturgical Calendar. One striking sequence considers the Easter cycle, opening with “Palm Sunday,when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem a week before his death. In this poem, a man describes retrospectively a young married couple’s happiness,  “celebrating successes/we have not yet had,” while foretelling disappointment: “ahead of us, only dusk.”  In  “Maundy Thursday,”  Jesus’s foreknowledge of betrayal is implicitly compared to a more mundane betrayal, when a husband realizes his wife will betray him,  “a future only I could foresee.”  At the end of this revelatory supper, the husband sees nothing left “but a pile of plates/in the sink, pieces/of pasta clinging/to them tenaciously.”
Is the difference in betrayals so vast as to not yield a valid comparison, or does the poet wish us to realize that betrayal is a monumental human experience?
“Good Friday” implicitly connects Christ’s crucifixion to the death of a marriage:  “Nothing left but the suffering”—small words for a large reality. “Holy Saturday” offers a poignant image of loss in a husband’s cry to his wife who has abandoned him:  “I sit in your study, the emptiness echoing like a tomb.”  Finally, “Easter Sunday” raises hope for the estranged couple, comparing  reconciliation to resurrection, in that both “are made out to be miracles.” 
In his “Notes” at the end of the book, Brown provides a liturgical or Gospel reference to every poem. Some of these notes require a little extra effort on the reader’s part—well worth it—to understand exactly what Brown was thinking as regards a Biblical passage or saintly anecdote. One such poem, “Dry Mouth,” is about loss from a “what if” perspective. A man reflects on all the times he found himself unable to communicate verbally with his wife as she wanted; the marriage might have endured if he had found the words. The Gospel reference is to Jesus curing the deaf mute, a sad admission that no miracle occurred in this case.
Brown can be openly passionate. “People Said It Was the Best Show They Had Ever Seen,” which takes place on the Fourth of July, addresses a woman who finds freedom from her husband’s  abuse only in his death. Here Brown reveals deep empathy with the woman and her suffering.
Liturgical Calendar is an accomplished work which can be enjoyed as lightly or as deeply as the reader wishes to take it.
Brown, a professor at Lee University, has published two previous books of poetry, A Lexicon of Lost Words and Exit Lines, as well as a memoir, Another Way, and a scholarly study, They Love to Tell the Stories.
Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending.