Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finding One's Muse: Ruth Sabath Rosenthal

In our effort to give you the face behind the author and the person behind the author, let us introduce you to Ruth Sabath Rosenthal. We had a chance to get some quick answers from poet Ruth about her work. This is not a full-fledged interview, but rather a sketch of a poet in motion. Ruth has had many poems published widely over the past decade, and her first chapbook, “Facing Home” has just been published by Finishing Line Press.

* On Beginning.
I first considered myself a writer when I purchased my first computer and learned the basics of Microsoft Word, followed by my signing up for a poetry class at the 92nd Street Y in NYC and the rest is history. This was in the year 2000.

* On Inspiration.
I think my true inspiration came from the fact that, although my mother was not a lover of poetry to the point of reading it or keeping it around the house, she did however make it known that she loved one poem “Abou Ben Adhem” by Leigh Hunt. I must have heard her recite it or she showed it to me. That was the only connection to poetry either she or I had, and that was 40 years or so before I started writing and studying poetry. [Ruth also tells us that she gets inspiration from her dog, Sweetie-Pie, pictured here.]

* On Ideas.
My ideas come from life experience—mine and those around me and those in the world at large—the joy, the suffering, the humor and optimism.

* Where a Good Poem Comes From.
I believe that a good poem comes from truth, whatever that truth is—ugly or pretty, sad or happy, serious or funny, and even if that truth is bent to protect someone.

* Concerning Messages in Writing.
I’d like my readers to come away with, after reading my poems, a feeling of being familiar with me, of having shared in an experience that touches them and feels like what they’ve also at one time or another, on some level, experienced. I’d like them to laugh, shed a tear or two, maybe even read one of my poems more than once.

* Realism in Poetry.
My writing is truly rooted in realism, although I bend the truth and often project myself into a situation, as opposed to me revealing my own personal experience and view point. In other words, I’ll write as if I’m someone else—perceiving things as they do or would.

* Surprises in One’s Own Writing.
I surprise myself all the time. I’m often in awe of a poem I’ve finished working on. I don’t mean that to sound immodest, but I often feel that someone’s words are being channeled through me—someone with something profound to say. And I’ve heard other poets say the same thing. It’s a fantastic experience when it happens. And usually the poem comes fast and needs very little revision.

* Personal Favorites.
I have so many favorite poems I’ve written, but among them are those I regret having not kept to myself. I always worry about hurting someone’s feeling or besmirching the memory of someone who’s passed. I’m cognizant of this when I write, and may hold back because of it.

* Working Schedule.
I am blessed that I have a husband who is both supportive financially and who I can bounce poems off of. He has a good ear although he’s not a poet or writer. Being so fortunate, I write whenever I feel like it and seem to go through spurts of productiveness.

* Types of Poems.
Some would call them “confessional” but I don’t like that term. I write some formal poems such a Sestinas, Villanelles, Sonnets, but mostly I write poems that, though in stanzas, are not in form, and their rhymes run throughout the poems, as opposed to end-rhymes.

* Great Influences.
First, I have to say that I don’t read enough. I need to be in a quiet place, both physically and mentally to do that. And when I do read, it’s always out loud, as hearing the words is essential to me. I love the masters like Yeats, Frost, Whitman, Stevens, Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, but then again, I do read today’s poetry from time to time.

* Reading Now.
At present, I’m not reading. But when I start up again, you can be sure I’ll be writing, because I can’t seem to read for more than an hour or so, when suddenly I am compelled to write. I guess I’m easily inspired and quite impressionable.

* Upcoming Projects.
I plan to publish a series of chapbooks and I’m currently finalizing a full-length manuscript, working with a publisher.

* Current Work.
My current work is much like the poems in my chapbook just recently published by Finishing Line Press, titled “Facing Home.” The subject matter of my current poems is not much different than that of the poems I wrote at the beginning of my writing career, back in 2000. What’s changed is my crafting of poems—I’ve learned so much over the years and have honed my craft to the point of having a strong voice and style.

Copyright 2010 by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Garden of Verses: Rebecca Newth

Rebecca Newth is a poet (five books of poetry) and fiction writer. She has also written Milk Horses: A Memoir as well as a play. She has just finished a new book about time travel and friendship during the Civil War for third and fourth graders. Her favorite subjects for writing are our current predicament, nature, and people. She has been awarded an NEA prize and a Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council to work on a novel. Born and raised near a lake in Michigan, Rebecca lived for many years in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Rebecca now lives near two lakes, and she writes about fluid things, redemption, grief, and cherished places. We recently sent Rebecca some questions, and what follows are her responses – with some insightfully poetic lines included. Rebecca’s latest book (Fall 2010) is The Pass-Key (Will Hall Books)
When I was eleven, I began looking at A Child’s Garden of Verses to find out how poems are made. It was hard to convince my parents, even when little poems started to get published, that I would be a poet. My mother was practical, getting rid of needless things, and didn’t give me a middle name because it would be extra when I got married. She was proud of me but not a writer in her heart and my father was a saxophone player. My husband’s brother is writer Jim Harrison, and when I got a poem published he said, “Well!” as if he were pleased and that was nice. We were all at Michigan State. My husband was not a writer but rather a facilitator, a librarian, which fits. I think being sad and uncomfortable caused me to write. Also I think seeing the lake where we went on weekends, so beautiful, made me write.

I do not know any rich people, was that one of your questions? – No, it wasn’t, but in the sixties I once knew that Dan Gerber thought my poems were written by an eccentric lady in Cambridge with beads around her neck. He had wondered what kind of person wrote them and was almost the first person to accept my work for publication in a journal called Sumac, printed in Michigan.

In the seventies we lived in Connecticut and met James Laughlin of New Directions Publishing. He gave us one sheep, which we put in our VW bus and brought home. I can barely believe any of that happened. My husband called him “boss” and offered to write the bibliography. Last year I finished it – a massive list of all the books published. Would that be four decades late? At least I finished. But of course meeting the man who established New Directions and published Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas and brought to our country those books from other countries in the black and white covers – books like Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca and Rainer Maria Rilke – was an incredible jolt. We went into his “basement” where the copies were housed. We tiptoed.

In the eighties we moved to Northwest Arkansas thinking it was out in the country, but Sam Walton beat us to it. Because of Wal-Mart we have direct flight to Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and D.C. My husband was eager to start to work in a new, smaller college library, and I got snarled up in all sorts of endeavors such as going back to school (at first in Geology), working as a secretary in a law school, conducting interviews with authors on local NPR, and doing scholarly work on Marianne Moore and H.D.’s The Gift. When the college part of my life was over I felt lost, and I promised my mind I would take care of it. “I will find you things to read and to delight you,” I promised it.

My poetry has always been inspired by some unbelievably interesting or beautiful event. I have a rather odd mind, however, people tell me, and sometimes my poetry is oblique. I do not have trouble thinking up ideas although not all of them are good, or rather, I cannot handle them well. Often, also, a think I have a finished product when what I have is incomprehensible to others or merely notes.

My favorite story is one called “Milk Horses” from a memoir by that name. I am comfortable in my writing using the focus of being age eleven or so. That seems the optimum time to observe the world as a poet. I am sure that is not true about the writing of essays.

When I had young children I used to write at night in the kitchen under a hanging lamp. Later, when they were in school I wrote in the morning at a desk that overlooked an orchard. I usually keep another book near me for inspiration, and I read from it and that gets me going. I very much believe we learn from other writings. There is no way to progress without the writings that have come before us. I was very fond of a book by Merwin called The Lice. I am excited by words and sometimes as I am reading another author I let my eyes blur and I see one word for another and then I start to write with the odd word stuck in there to see what happens. I am interested in taking a poem and going all over it trying to start it in different places with different syllable counts and sometimes going from bottom to top. All this is to establish an immediacy and freshness.

Sometimes I wake up in the night thinking scary thoughts when I could be thinking glorious ones. I want to write about people in daily life in Crete – the shepherds, the bandits, the librarians, the heads of villages, the way to make raki. We went to Crete on sabbatical. All these details are the glorious things. I want to write a play about a church breakfast where the priest is excitable, the chef has a dark cloud over his head, and the choir drinks spiked mimosas and then goes out to sing the anthem.

I think poets are modern day prophets giving us the best they can of truth and beauty, sense and nonsense, requiems and evening prayers, prose. Poets (writers) need to be persons of enormous appetites and curiosity, and generous because we are asked to give. Even some tiny shred may mean a world to someone.

My latest book, published this fall, by Will Hall Books, 2010, is The Pass-Key, a book for younger readers. My models were Sounder and Huck Finn. I am working now on a book about the village in Crete.
Copyright c. 2010 by Rebecca Newth

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Story Weaver: Patty Somlo

Patty Somlo tells here her story about becoming a story writer – and what a story. We are awakened emotionally and intellectually by what we read in these Profiles. Learning about a writer’s background, values, and beliefs really adds to an appreciation and better understanding of her stories. Patty has a book coming out 15 November: From Here to There and Other Stories (Paraguas Books). Be sure to support writers like Patty and small publishers by getting your copy!
In my early twenties, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico with my boyfriend, Marshall, who was working on a documentary film, and I started to weave. I had been drawing and painting for years but reached a point where I felt I had nothing to say in those media. The Navajo weaving I saw in New Mexico dazzled me, along with the light and amazing skies and landscape, and I attempted to capture that in some very rough, beginning work.

I was also teaching art at an alternative elementary school in Albuquerque and helping my boyfriend on two documentary films. The second of those films, Warpath Against the Devil, focused on Native American Pentecostal ministers. I traveled with Marshall and the rest of the crew to camp meetings on the Navajo reservation near Monument Valley, where Navajo and Jicarilla Apache ministers preached sermons to the beat of rock music that built to such a pitch that people – mostly Navajo women in their velvet shirts and long skirts – would get up and dance and speak in tongues, eventually falling on the ground and sometimes even fainting. I was so amazed by those experiences, I decided to write an article about it. I never got anything published but that experience led me to want to write more.

I thought the way to write was in a writing-related job, so I gradually worked my way into public relations, and eventually doing PR for a nonprofit organization. My work for The Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First), got me interested in issues surrounding world hunger and inequality, development and poverty. The organization published books and one in particular – about the dumping of banned pesticides in the developing world – got me interested in doing investigative journalism. I left the organization and started writing freelance articles, mostly investigative pieces, which led to a job as news editor for a weekly newspaper. A number of years later, after a pretty stressful year of researching and writing an investigative piece about the harassment of refugees from El Salvador by the FBI and the possible connections between the FBI and Death Squads in El Salvador, I went back to school and started studying poetry. A year later, I entered a creative writing program and started writing fiction.

Many of the ideas for my stories come from things I read in the news, or rather, my feelings about what is happening in the world, as reflected in the news. The craziness surrounding the debates over health care reform inspired me to write, “Emergency Room,” a story about a group of injured people waiting for medical attention that never comes. Political campaigns were the inspiration for my story, “Candidate of the Third Eye,” about a Gandhi-inspired, Indian-American candidate for governor, whose Policy on Right Living transforms him from a virtual unknown to the frontrunner.

I also get ideas from my own life – mostly from past memories. Having lived in Central America and fallen in love with the people, the landscapes and the culture, I often return there through stories. The landscape in my story, “Bird Women,” which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is the mountainous, coffee-growing region of Nicaragua. One of the closest stories I’ve written to my real life, “Even with a Stack of Dollars,” was inspired by my former Nicaraguan landlady’s walking outside on unpaved dusty sidewalks in her backless, gold lamé high heels. My father, who commanded an Air Evac squadron in Vietnam, was the inspiration for my story, “Neither Sweet Nor Sour,” which will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Battle Runes: Writings on War.

I am drawn to stories about people I don’t normally meet in life and places I may never go. The best stories, to me, are ones that take a surprising – and sometimes magical – turn, in which ordinary people, especially the excluded, find unusual ways to cope and survive. Humor is an especially attractive part of good stories, in my view.

Part of what draws me to write is a need to find some hopeful solutions through art to the terrible problems I see in this country and throughout the world. Having grown up in a military family – moving every year or two and living in places from Hawaii to Frankfurt, Germany – I have an odd sense that I don’t really fit anywhere but that I have a connection to all types of people throughout the world. I don’t actually have a message I want to convey in my writing, other than having readers see some of the issues that get so distorted by politicians and the media in a more truthful and compassionate light. I wrote a series of stories, one of which appeared in Common Boundary, that focus on an undocumented Mexican immigrant. As the granddaughter of Hungarian immigrants who were once as denigrated as Latinos immigrants are today, I have a great respect and empathy for immigrants and write many stories about them.

My stories are almost always completely fictional. Some of the settings, as in “The Island,” are mythical places. I rarely am a character in my stories but my views do come through in how the stories play out. In my story, “A Nightly Interruption,” about an unlikely relationship between a Jewish and an Arab man, my view that people can get past stereotypes that cause hatred if they get to know one another comes through. I occasionally base characters – their looks or mannerisms – on people I know. In that story, the Jewish character’s looks are based on a friend and the Arab character’s mannerisms are based on my Turkish hairdresser.

I get up every weekday morning at 5:00 and write. Before I met my husband, I used to make my coffee and write in bed. Now, I make the coffee and write in our finished basement. For some reason, I like to have the light very low when I’m writing. I adore that first cup of coffee (dark French Roast) and love the little cave I feel like I enter when I write, so this is just about the happiest part of my day. After the initial session, I shower and have breakfast, and then go back and either revise a story, continue working on one, or look for places to submit. I’m usually working on several stories at once, and I jot down ideas all the time that I keep in a messy pile on my desk. When I run out of ideas, I pull something from the pile.

I don’t really have any favorite stories, but there are stories I continue to like, no matter how many times I read them. Mostly, I continue to like the stories in which I feel connected to the characters. That is the case for the main character, Hari Shiva, in “Candidate of the Third Eye.” I also like the two women characters in “The Island.” I especially like the characters of mine who have an innocence about themselves.

When I first started writing short stories, the characters and plots were pretty depressing. I suffered from undiagnosed depression for many years and I see now that my own despair came out in the writing. After years of therapy, meditation and yoga, the depression has eased, and my stories, while frequently focusing on serious subjects, have lightened up, many now including a great deal of humor.

My favorite short story writer and the writer who I think has most influenced me is the late Julio Cortázar. Cortázar loved jazz, and his stories feel like improvisations to me. He had his own style of magical realism, in which he looked at life almost as a child and took situations to their not so obvious conclusions. I feel like I see the world in the same way Cortázar might have seen it, and that might be why I like his work so much.

I tend to gravitate toward foreign writers more than American writers. I went through a long love affair with Latin American writers and now am enamored of many Indian writers. Salman Rushdie and Aravind Adiga are two of my favorites.

My other favorites are the Victorians – Charles Dickens, all three Bronte sisters, and Thomas Hardy. I keep saying I’m going to spend a summer re-reading all of Dickens, but never seem to find the time.

My first collection of short stories, From Here to There and Other Stories, will be published by Paraguas Books on November 15, 2010. So, I’m deep into the least fun part of writing – preparing to market the book. I am also working on new stories for a possible second collection. I am hoping to work on a series of creative nonfiction pieces about my relationship to beaches and how growing up as a military brat and continuing to move around as an adult, beaches have been a strange sort of home place for me.
Copyright©2010 by Patty Somlo

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Peripatetic Author: Janice Eidus

Do you know about Janice Eidus? You should – and if you don’t, here’s your chance to read about her. Janice has just published a new novel, The Last Jewish Virgin (Red Hen Press). What follows is a guest biographical Profile written by Janice, covering her early years in the Bronx, her literary influences, her themes, and what she's reading now.

Although my Jewish atheist parents prided themselves on their rationality and secular beliefs, ours was nevertheless an irrational, volatile, secretive, and at times quite violent household. From a very young age, writing provided me with escape, not only from my unhappy family, but also from the Bronx public schools I attended in which indifferent, unprepared teachers did their best to stifle students' creativity and originality.

As an emotionally and intellectually hungry kid, my childhood reading and writing was all over the map. Louisa May Alcott showed me how to look deeply at the inner lives of female characters. I adored Noel Coward, who lived in a sophisticated, glamorous world so unlike mine, and I was influenced by him to write short, witty plays with dark undertones.

The Beats taught me how to rant and opine, and dig the rhythm of language, and I wrote free-form poems, emulating in particular Ginsberg's Kaddish and Howl. I felt I knew Ginsberg, the archetypal Jewish outsider from a dysfunctional family.

Patrick Dennis (author of Auntie Mame and Genius, among other books) inspired me to write manic-edged fiction featuring grande dames who were nothing like the often bedraggled, mah-jongg playing Bronx moms I knew.

Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis -- my parents' literary idols, and also major influences on me -- integrated their fiercely progressive values into compelling and imaginative -- sometimes risk-taking and innovative -- stories about decent, hard-working people, and I tried to do the same. (I still try to do this; if I have one concrete, unchanging goal as an author, this is it.)

My youthful writings, diverse as they were, reflected the writer I became -- a writer who prefers not to feel bound to one style or theme or message, a writer compelled to keep seeking new challenges, to try to "make it new."

So I wrote and wrote and wrote throughout my childhood and adolescence, never thinking much about getting published or earning money from my writing. Such goals seemed entirely unlikely from my vantage point as a kid in a Bronx housing project. I couldn't imagine becoming a "success" by any mainstream standards. I had a ferocious "me" versus "them" mentality, with them being anyone in authority. My rebellious, anti-authority streak influenced all aspects of my life -- creative, emotional, physical. (Of course, nowadays, as a mom and writer, I've become "one of them" myself, as Joyce Carol Oates says.)

Wild child or not, my drive and passion for writing didn't go away, and eventually I realized I wanted to be a "real" writer who reached readers beyond my own circle of rebellious, like-minded friends. So I applied to and was accepted by the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. It was there that I began calling myself a writer. For the first time, I was socializing with others also new to the writing world and forming writing identities. For the first time, I learned about literary magazines, literary agents, and prizes. I began submitting my work, and sometimes -- miraculously, it seemed to me then and seems to me still -- getting published.

Certain obsessions have always fed my work: a desire for social justice; the tragi-comic complexity of love in its many forms, including familial, romantic, and amongst friends; and the intersection and collision of classic myth and popular culture. I also love writing about the places I've lived: Manhattan, upstate New York, the Virgin Islands, the Midwest, California, Brooklyn, Mexico … I love traveling to new places, meeting new people, trying to make sense of cultures and customs that are at first unfamiliar. I'm drawn to understand that which feels different to me, and my reading choices reflect this: I read across landscapes, genres, gender, etc. And I'm always urging my writing students to do the same, to routinely expand their reading choices to include the works of writers much older and much younger than they are, writers of other races and religions, of the opposite gender, living in other parts of the world, writing in styles and with messages to impart that seem wholly unlike their own, although reading carefully and deeply will often reveal unexpected commonalities.

My two most recent novels are The War of the Rosens and The Last Jewish Virgin. The War of the Rosens is realistic, rooted in the autobiographical truth of my life, although not literally autobiographical. It takes place in a Bronx housing project and "stars" a left wing, Jewish family much like my own. It's told from multiple points of view: the Rosen father, mother, 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old daughter. While writing The War of the Rosens, I found that I needed to become each of my characters so that I could inhabit and express each character's particular voice and worldview. I also had to find a way to learn to love them all, as well as to forgive their imperfections, foibles, weaknesses, and even their cruelty.

My new novel, The Last Jewish Virgin (which I call my "Feminist Fashionista Jewish Vampire Novel") is rooted in contemporary New York City. It plays with reality and myth, and my intention is to subvert, honor, and tweak the traditions and tropes of the vampire myth, which I've long been fascinated by. The main character in The Last Jewish Virgin is Lilith Zeremba, a young woman determined to become a mega-successful fashion designer. Completely dismissive of love, lust, romance, and sex, she feels they all must wait until her career goal is met. Despite herself, she finds her true love in a totally unexpected way, replete with vampires, the supernatural, feminism, and a seriously funny exploration of contemporary Judaism.

I feel especially close right now to those two novels, as well as to the other writing I've done since becoming an adoptive mother of my beautiful daughter from Guatemala. Much of my recent work explores mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of adoptive, transracial families. (This includes my essay, "The Color of Cinnamon," which appears in Editions Bibliotekos' Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration.) Motherhood -- the complexity and the generosity of spirit it requires -- has helped me as a writer to merge the fiercely progressive and earnest side of myself with the playful, risk-taking side.

I wish I had a regular schedule, but mine is erratic: days devoted entirely to family, or doctors, or errands … or the business side of writing, or teaching … But throughout I burn with the desire to write. By nature, I'm very peripatetic, and so I love to write in cafes, hotel bars, diners, etc. I love being out in the world while at the same time feeling entirely alone and connected to my own work.

I used to do much of my best writing away from home at artists colonies such as Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I'm forever indebted to those colonies for providing me with the time and space to separate from the "real world," and to write uninterrupted and (almost) stress free.

In the writing I love to read most, I feel the author's passion -- for character, place, message … I love to see unbridled passion balanced by attention to detail; imagination balanced by keen logic; an original way of saying a universal and great truth. None of these are easy to do, and yet there are always new writers who figure out ways to "make it new."

I recently read a short story collection called Simpaticas: San Miguel Stories by Elva Treviño Hart, a child of migrant Mexican farm workers who's now a fiction writer and memoirist. I very much admire the way she tackles major issues of race and class in a deceptively simple style that's not simple at all. The stories all take place in the town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I own a home and live part time. It's a place I love deeply -- it's imbued with a complicated history and a thriving contemporary cultural scene. Not to mention that it's in the mountains and has spring-like weather all year round. While in San Miguel, I love writing the old-fashioned way, with notepad and pen, in the large, sunny sala of my house, while my husband takes long walks on the sun-splashed cobblestone streets, and my daughter attends a bilingual school where she sings songs about Tia Monica and learns to make tortillas from scratch.

At the moment, I’m reading Model Home, a novel by Eric Puchner, that takes place in the 80's and is set in the affluent world of Southern California, not so very far away geographically from San Miguel, and yet worlds away. It portrays one family's rude awakening from the American Dream. It reminds me a lot of Neal LaBute's dark, compelling film, The Joneses, in which characters played by Demi Moore and David Duchovny are nearly destroyed by their own materialism and greed.

I also recently finished A&R by Bill Flanagan, a novel about the music business. It's the third novel of Flanagan's I've read this year, so I guess I qualify as a bona-fide fan. I enjoy his wit, keen eye, and cynical-yet-ultimately-sweet insider's view of the world of pop culture, which he knows inside-out as someone who's been a top dog at both MTV and VH-1.

I've read some other wonderful books this year, including Bettina Aptheker's brave memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought For Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel, an amazingly honest and insightful tale of growing up during the 60's in a family that was considered U.S. Communist Party "royalty."

Finally, inspired by The Last Jewish Virgin, I've been revisting lots of my most beloved vampire literature, including Bram Stoker's Dracula, a tale that for me never grows old. I've also reread Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, written in 1872, an extremely sensual tale of an irresistible lesbian vampire. And Keats' Lamia, about another vampire enchantress, this one heterosexual. And The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, a terrific reinvention of the vampire genre about an intellectual anthropology professor/vampire seeking to understand his own nature.

And films, too -- Frank Langella in John Badham's sensual and intelligent Dracula … And The Hunger, a film in the tradition of Carmilla, with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. And Near Dark, the best (perhaps the only!) vampire/Western horror film ever made. And The Lost Boys, the teen comedy/horror film that speaks as much to adults as teens.

As for outsider Jewish vampires pre-dating mine in The Last Jewish Virgin, there's Roman Polanski's comic The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. Whatever Roman Polanski and I may not have in common, and clearly there's a lot we don't share, we apparently both take pleasure in creating fictional Jewish vampires.

Currently, I'm working on a number of things: a young adult novel that I like to describe as "Romeo and Juliet in Brooklyn -- with a Jewish twist," and an anthology related to living with and healing from illness, and stories and essays as they come to me, all surely drawn from one or another of the obsessions I harbor so lovingly.
* * *
Copyright©2010 by Janice Eidus

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Certainty of Uncertainty: Short Story writer Mitch Levenberg

Interview conducted and written by Chandra Persaud
Levenberg is "A combination of Woody Allen and Franz Kafka." (Gregory F. Tague)

The journey begins when the cover is pulled back and you land upon a page with a title that leaves you eager for more. Then, in just a few sentences you find yourself captured in a world of dilemmas, secrets, and tales as though these characters opened their doors and allowed you into their homes. “Welcome to the strange world of Mitch Levenberg.” The mixture of humor and surrealism, all compacted in a few pages, will either leave readers speechless but with a smile upon their lips or puzzled about the underlying meaning of the work.

Even before the tender age of 10, Mitch knew he wanted to be a writer. Enamored with George Washington, Mitch’s earliest memory of his writing was a biographical piece he wrote about this founding father. It’s not surprising that Washington was this author’s first subject given the fact that his father was, what Mitch calls, “an amateur historian.” His father loved to read and while he never read aloud, he would share his new discoveries with Mitch. “I remember my father being so focused upon what he was reading that he would block everything else out…I always thought he should have been a history professor and not a podiatrist,” laughs Mitch.

Growing up, Mitch kept much of his writing exclusively for his eyes. Perhaps, it was because “I was a little shy or embarrassed and so I never really showed my parents my work,” says Mitch. He also explains that conventions at that time did not consider writing as a career. “When I was growing up writing was viewed more as a hobby and an emphasis was placed on finding a real ‘job.’” While Mitch was very secretive about his writing in his youth, he did allow one person to enter the realm of his thoughts. Mr. Piorkowski was Mitch’s 9th grade English teacher and “was the most encouraging and supportive” individual of his writing at that time. It was in his class that Mitch wrote his first official poem, verses describing what the world would be like 10 years down the road. The assignment sparked a deep interest in poetry and soon Mitch went out and purchased a composition notebook, jotted down about twenty titles, and then created a poem for each title. It was here, at the age of 14, that Mitch realized he “wanted to be a writer more than anything.”

Mitch says, “Writers usually start out imitating other writers” and he was no exception. At the age of 10, Mitch found Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” riveting. In fact, Mitch engaged in a “reading race” with a fellow fifth grader, each reporting to the other how many pages of the book he completed each day. Although he cannot remember who won that race, Mitch was extremely impressed with “To Kill a Mockingbird” and was amazed that it was possible to configure such a plot. “That is perhaps my earliest memory of being inspired,” he says. In college, Mitch drew inspiration from writers such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Anthony Burgess, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway. While all these writers had a significant impact on him, Mitch identifies deeply with Kafka’s style of writing as well as his personal life. “I felt connected to him [Kafka] especially as a very young man from a Jewish family living in a big city, feeling alienated, having a dark vision of the world, a sense of foreboding, and yet personally [being] a prankster, a self-anointed comic, always maintaining a sense of humor, a sense of the absurd.”

Writing soon became much more than a hobby for Mitch. As he matured, Mitch realized that writing satisfied a deep yearning for expression, for human connection, for escape. Mitch describes his writing as an act of “submersion,” drowning in a world of characters that often experience circumstances that he knows all too well but who can sometimes take him to places he has never been. “Sometimes new emotions come up through my characters without me really knowing they are going to,” says Mitch. While he may know the ending of a story or have a good opening line, the journey before or after those points (respectively) is quite unknown to Mitch until he actually sits down to write. This unknown, this mystery waiting to be solved, is perhaps one of the most thrilling (and potentially frustrating) experiences for a writer.

In 1988, Mitch became a published author for the very first time. “The Cruller,” a short story surrounding a coffee shop whose balance is maintained by this pastry forever staying under a glass bowl, was published in Fiction. “The Cruller” conveys the message that change can sometimes be an upsetting factor in our lives; we are more comfortable, happier, with the known. While we may yearn for some kind of excitement, when our routines remain the same they bring a sense of serenity into our lives. His first published work gave Mitch a sense of joy and pride so much that he decided to drop out of graduate school (he would later return). “Whether or not it [his decision] was a mistake, I don’t know,” laughs Mitch, “but I always believed I would write the great American novel and who knows… it’s still not too late.”

Of all he’s written, Mitch’s favorite work is “The Cruller.” This may be so because it is the first work he’s written that was published and so he has a special fondness for it. Yet, another reason he feels connected to “The Cruller” is the fact that the short story is a reflection of a phase in his life. “In just a few pages it sums up what I thought about life up until that point,” Mitch explains. “The Cruller” is not the only story that made his favorite list. “Some stories I’ve grown to like” says Mitch. One of these stories is “Dyspnea,” a short story that has become much more meaningful to Mitch over time. The story follows a young woman, Dyspnea, who suffers from a breathing difficulty. However, Dyspnea’s life is about much more than just slow speech and gaps of silence. Her shocking past is revealed to her new love interest, the narrator, when he and Dyspnea attend Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ home. “I love that story because it has become more profound to me as I’ve gotten older. I used to think of it as dark humor and while it is that partly, it has really become much more than that. Now, I always tend to get choked up towards the end,” Mitch reflects. Another story that hits home for Mitch is “Vigo,” a tale based on an actual bus trip Mitch and his wife took from Portugal to Vigo, Spain. These stories and others appear in Mitch’s anthology of short stories Principles of Uncertainty and Other Constants.

Mitch is also proud of the work he’s done where the subject is his father. A World War II veteran and voracious reader, Mitch’s father has been a source of inspiration for some of his non-fiction work. Originally named “My Father’s Stains,” but renamed “At My Father’s Table” for publication in the Common Review, Mitch says that the short story derives from him observing his father read at the dinner table. With a glow in his eyes and occasional laughs, Mitch recalls how his father would eat and read simultaneously, leading to his books being forever scarred with food stains. “When my father passed away a few years ago, I inherited all of his books. It was comforting to go through them and see the collection of food stains, mostly from meat sauces, he left among the pages.”

When he is writing, Mitch does not have a specific routine or habit. In fact, the author works best with positive stimuli or noise. “I find it difficult to sit down at a desk in a quiet room and write.” Some of his best work was produced sitting in the main office of a departmental division at NYU, surrounded by students, faculty, and conferences. Mitch likes to have music playing in the background when he is writing, and his favorite lyrics come from Bob Dylan. “He has been a tremendous influence on my writing, especially my poetry while I was in college.” Mitch even does some “BlackBerry writing.” While walking his dog, Mitch will spontaneously jot down some ideas or lines for a story on this gadget, occasionally “making sure my dog is not jumping on any joggers.” Mitch sums himself up as “the kind of writer who likes to close the shades while writing and only see the beautiful view behind the shades when I’m finished writing.”

Although Mitch does not know what genre his work falls under, he knows that his writing style differs vastly from a New York writer. “I don’t write very realistic stories with a lot of description and really complex relationships. I try to write sudden or flash relationships…I try to conflate life as much as possible…I try to create a unique world” explains Mitch. “I would say my writing fits under the quirky genre, if there is such a thing,” he laughs. Mitch also believes that his voice is an important vehicle that gives meaning to his work and which ultimately affects the way his work is interpreted. That is why Mitch loves every opportunity he gets to read his work to an audience.

Mitch hopes to share some humor with his readers and listeners. He believes that is it very important for each of us to accept and appreciate the humor and absurdity in the world. He thinks that a sense of humor makes living in this world much easier. “If we want to live and survive in this world, we have to know how to laugh,” says Mitch.

The author is currently working on a play that he started this past summer. Entitled Ellipsis, the play is based on “a series of interviews with a woman of power who becomes involved in an ‘elliptical’ relationship with her interviewer,” explains Mitch. While he finds writing a play to be more difficult than writing a short story, he is enjoying the challenges and rewards of the process.

When he is not writing for his blog,, Mitch is rewriting or revising work that he has put aside. When he is not writing, Mitch says he is “agonizing about not writing” and when he is not agonizing, he enjoys reading and playing with his dogs. Mitch says he would have loved to be an actor or stand-up comedian, but he is more than satisfied with life as he knows it. He currently serves as Director of the Academic Enhancement Center at St. Francis College and teaches writing there as well. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, whom he calls one of his biggest fans and “loving” critic, and his daughter who at this point seems “more interested in math and science than writing.”

As for his advice to future writers, Mitch says “keep writing. Don’t ever give up, don’t ever get true to yourself and be honest about what you write…and always bring a pencil and pad or BlackBerry wherever you go,” smiles Mitch.

Copyright c. 2010 by Chandra Persaud - cannot be used without permission.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Make 'em Laugh, Make 'em Cry: Meet Daniel Cartaina

We recently had an informal, virtual chat with Danny Cartaina – writer, playwright, and comic. We finally met Danny when he stopped by to visit us at the Brooklyn Book Festival – and we are very happy we had a chance to meet him. Danny’s story in Pain and Memory is quite powerful – about the death of his father, gripping in its detail and wide-ranging in its emotional import – it makes us laugh and cry. As with many of the other writers we have had the pleasure to come in contact with through Bibliotekos, we found that Daniel Cartaina, too, is multi-talented: the evolution of a writer from multiple disciplines. (See, just for instance, Rivka Keren and Muriel Nelson, whose Profiles also appeared on this blog.) Thanks for chatting with us, Danny.

On First Becoming a Writer.

I don’t think I ever thought at one particular moment that I wanted to be writer, like some epiphany that changed the course of my life, a sort of “Where were you when JFK was shot?” moment. I started out in the visual arts as a photographer and later a print-maker. But I think over time I felt that I could not communicate (whatever that would be) with photography. With writing I could create multiple images and landscapes that weave in and out across a story. So, I slowly found myself transitioning into writing over time.

On Initial Writing Inspiration.

I’ve always been a curious person, especially about life and the human experience which sometimes puts me in interesting places both emotionally and physically. This, combined with an early aspiration to do stand-up comedy inspired me to start writing down my observations on life, usually with a comic twist. Intelligent comedy I guess it would be called, which doesn’t always fly in a comedy club environment.

Where Ideas Come From.

Ideas come from everywhere. But typically if I’m moved by a story or personal experience I find myself wanting to give my observation on it. Other times, when I thought I had nothing in the tank creatively, someone challenged me to write. It could be workshop teacher or a call for submissions might provoke me to investigate. Some of my best ideas come to me at 4am, out of nowhere. This is when I get up immediately and jot down everything that comes out of my head.

On the Elements of a Good Story.

There are many things that make a good story: a strong narrative, character development, but in the end I want readers to be captivated and moved in a way that makes them want to read the next page, and the page after that. I try to be efficient with my sentences, more so if I am writing a play.

Does Creative Work Have (or Need) a Message?

Doing mostly comedy I don’t think I have anything deep that I often want to say. Many times my stories are born from some adversity, or a difficult time, and I often try pull out the absurdity in these moments, something that the reader can relate to so they know at least someone in the world “gets it.” Life is not easy, and if I can bring some laughter to some one’s life that makes me very happy. It is my gift to the world. In Italian they call it a touch of “alegria.”

Do You Write True to Life (Your Own or Someone Else’s)?

Much of my writing is realistic, creative non-fiction. And sometimes it’s fiction that is based on a true story. The theater work I’ve done goes way out there sometimes. In the play “Prosciutto, Mortadella and Ricotta; A Love Triangle” I basically gave Italian meats and cheese their own personality and placed them in a romantic Shakespearean type setting. It was produced in San Francisco two years ago and went over quite well. But to bring this answer back down to earth, the common mantra is, “write what you know”, and I know ethnic, urban neighborhoods, especially Italians. I’ve started characters that I thought were me, but then they blossomed into something beyond my boring life and I enjoyed being them for a while. It makes you want to return to them each day at your desk.

Surprises (From Writing).

That they were accepted and published, first off. Actually I’m a little surprised at my ability in dialogue when doing plays. It must come from many Italian Sunday dinners.

Favorites (of Your Writing).

I can’t say I have a favorite. But I should say that I have regretted doing a reading of something that was not finished. This happens because I am impatient and I want to get audience response and see how it reads. Sometimes it’s good to do this, but sometimes not. You have to feel it out.

How Do You Work as a Writer?

When I was in Europe I typically got up and wrote between 9am and 12 noon each day. Then I had to take care of other things like teaching, running errands and cooking, etc. If I was lucky I would return to it later that day. That was wonderful! In the United States, it is more difficult, my writing is streaky, due to more demands on time. I don’t like it. I also find that my approach to writing changes slightly depending on whether I’m in New York or Italy. Because you are obviously exposed to a different culture and if your “antennas” are up, paying attention, you will process differently. Lastly, your immediate environment around you is key, whether it be a desk by the window, or on a porch. You have to feel comfortable.

Talk About Your Genre.

I write short stories mostly, both fiction and creative non-fiction. Just started a little poetry. I also write short plays, essays and even flash fiction (under 500 words). The short plays I sort of stumbled on to and I’ve had a lot of fun doing them because you get to see the work evolve in rehearsals. Plus you get to hear the audience’s reaction live. It’s thrilling!

Reading – Favorite Authors?

Very often I am reading informational, non-fiction work like Michael Pollen’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” or “In Praise of Slowness” by Carl Honore. Yes, I am a gardener and foodie to some degree. I am also a news junkie and pay close attention to current events. This is what feeds my writing, my observations on the crazy world out there. It possibly goes back to my early interests in stand-up. Comics are all over current events for their work. David Sedaris is a writer that I like a lot. Spaulding Gray also. Sarcasm is a beautiful thing. When I laugh out loud at something I’m reading and I whisper the word “brilliant,” that is a high compliment from me, because to do intelligent comedy well, the writer really needs to be brilliant.

Reading Now.

I recently finished “Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin, a wonderful writer, who really gets into one’s feelings at the moment. Again, a story of Irish emigration from Europe to Brooklyn.

In the Works.

I have some short stories that I’d like to expand further into book length and I’m also getting more involved in playwriting, like short play “festivals,” stuff that has more dialogue in it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Stars are shining

The Midwest Book Review gives Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration a 5-star rating on Amazon and says that the literary anthology is "a thoughtful look into immigration and what it means to be a new person in America. With differing tones and much in the way of thought for the country, Common Boundary is an intriguing look at immigration and provides an entertaining and thoughtful read." Thank you again to our talented contributors and devoted readers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bon Voyage

In its September 2010 issue (v.9 no. 9), the Midwest Book Review says that Common Boundary "is an intriguing look at immigration and provides an entertaining and thoughtful read." Truly, it is a fantastic anthology, and again we thank our contributors. We've heard that at least one contributor is using it as a class text (for a college course). Considering the high quality of the collection, we are not surprised.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Truth Teller - John Guzlowski

Some people have a story to tell; some people have a talent for telling a story; few have both. Poet and writer John Z. Guzlowski has both. When we were calling for submissions to Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, Dr. Guzlowski (Professor Emeritus Eastern Illinois University) sent in an amazing tale about a trunk his father had built in the concentration camp in Buchenwald, and the subsequent journey of that trunk and the family connected to it. Since then, we have come to know John as honest, courageous, and modest in his writing. He gets to the truth of things.

Please note that this Profile (in John Guzlowski’s own words) is subject to copyright and cannot be used without his permission; likewise, the image pictured here is the work of Vojtek Luka, is subject to copyright, and cannot be used without permission from the artist. After you read John’s Profile, you might want to visit his wonderful blogs: 1. Lightning and Ashes or 2. Everything’s Jake.

Finally, Thomas Napierkowski, in his review of Lightning and Ashes, (Polish American Studies 65.1 [2008]), says that “John Guzlowski is arguably the most accomplished Polish-American poet on the contemporary scene, a writer who will figure prominently in any history of Polish-American literature. . .” Having experienced Lightning and Ashes (it is not merely a book one reads), we can tell you that John Guzlowski’s unforgettable images, metaphors, and voice reverberate deeply and profoundly. Find out for yourself, here, since John has provided three poems along with this Profile. And as an added bonus, if you click on the title of the poem “What My Father Believed,” you will hear it read by Garrison Keillor!

For the last thirty years, I’ve been writing about my parents and their experiences during World War II. I’ve written about how my dad spent four years in Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany, and how my mother survived the day the Nazis raped and killed her mother and her sister but was taken to a slave labor camp in Germany. I’ve written about this and so many other things that happened to my mother and father first in Poland when the Nazis invaded, then in Germany where my parents were imprisoned, and finally in America after the war.

But growing up, I never thought I would. In fact, my parents’ story was one that I wanted to get as far away from as possible. Not only didn’t I want to write about it, I didn’t even want to hear about their experiences. I didn’t even want to tell people that I was born in a refugee camp, a Displaced Persons camp in Germany.

When I was growing up in Chicago during the 1950s, I didn’t want anything to do with my parents’ lives as slave laborers during the war and as Displaced Persons, refugees, after the war. I felt there was something shameful about who we were and where we had come from and why we were in the US.
Part of this feeling of course came from where we settled in Chicago. It was a neighborhood that mixed working class Americans with Polish refugees, survivors, and immigrants; and there was frequent tension between the Americans and the non-Americans. In the eyes of many of our neighbors, we weren’t Poles or Polish Americans. We were Polacks, dirty Polacks, dumb Polacks.

We were Displaced Person, DPs, the people who nobody wanted to rent a room to or hire or help. We were the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of Europe's shore – like in Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty – and our neighbors didn’t much want anything to do with people who reminded them of what poverty and dirt and need were like. Or at least this was the way we saw it.

People looked at DPs like we were vermin. I remember being four years old and walking around with my father looking for rooms on Milwaukee Avenue that we could rent, and having people turn us away when they heard we were DPs. DPs were dirty, unreliable. We were drunkards, wife beaters, bar fighters, thieves, and murderers. We were the garbage of somebody else’s shore, dumped now on the shore of Lake Michigan; and most people we came across in America wished we’d go back to where we came from. And that we’d take the rest of the dirty Polacks with us.

If anyone ever asked me when I was a kid, whether I wanted to be a Polish-American writer or teacher or doctor, I would have told him take a hike but not in words so gentle.

When I first started writing, I didn’t want anything to do with what my mother used to call “that camp shit.” I loved comic books as a child, and that’s what I wanted to write and draw, stories about super-heroes and monsters and aliens from other planets. As I moved into my teens, I started writing science-fiction and fantasy stories about desolate planets and heroes beset by weird creatures. When I look back on all those stories now, I sometimes think that writing about those aliens and their lost worlds probably was a way of dealing with my parents’ past and what was happening to them in America. But back then, those stories were just something that had nothing to do with my father’s hunger in the concentration camps or the grief my mother felt for years because of what she had seen done to her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby.

Then, college jarred me loose from all of that science fiction. I discovered I had a gift for reading American literature and writing academic prose about it. Leaving behind my comic books and my science fiction novels, I earned a BA in English literature and later a Ph.D. in American Literature, specifically focusing on Postmodern American fiction. I was reading novels by John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and John Hawkes, and these novels were supposedly not about anything except their own artificiality. Reading these novels, I could concentrate on technique and nothing else. I probably was as far as possible away from my Polack past and my miserable parents and their miserable lives in the concentration camps and refugee camps.

And that’s when I started writing about my parents.

First, I wrote one poem, “Dreams of Warsaw, Sept. 1939.” It wasn’t anything I planned. I was almost at the end of writing my dissertation, deep into one of Thomas Pynchon’s cathedral-like novels, probably Gravity’s Rainbow, when I paused and started thinking about my parents. It was a hot day, August, and I was sitting at my desk in my office wondering what they were thinking about. It suddenly came to me that they were probably thinking about the war and what I had not wanted to think about for so long. All of that went into the poem, the heat and their postwar lives and the memories that would always be with them. And my fear of writing about them. That went into the poem too.


Too many fears
for a summer day
I regulate my thoughts
and my breathing
regard the humidity
and dream

Somewhere my parents
are still survivors
living unhurried lives
of unhurried memories:
the unclean sweep of a bayonet
through a young girl’s breast,
a body drooping over a rail fence,
the charred lips of the captain of lancers
whispering and steaming
“Where are the horses
where are the horses?”

Death in Warsaw
like death nowhere else –
cool, gray, breathless

And here are two more poems:


My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don’t pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you


He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.

He’d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.

The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried. She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life. He knew living was hard,
and that even children are meant to suffer.
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can’t be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He’d seen men try the impossible and fail.

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.

I wish I could say that after writing that single poem (“Dreams of Warsaw”) I gave up academic writing and devoted myself to writing about my parents, but that’s not what happened. I went on to finish my dissertation, and I found a job teaching American Literature at Eastern Illinois University, and I moved there with my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian, and I started my 25 year career as a Professor of English. I did the kinds of writing that a career like that calls for: I wrote essays about postmodernism, psychology and literature, magic realism, and reams of committee minutes and such.

But during all this time, I was also writing poems about my parents. Not many, maybe one or two a year, sometimes three. But they added up. If I’ve learned anything about writing, it’s that writing’s an incremental art. You write one line one day, and the next you write another, and the day after that you write a third, and a decade or two later (if you’re lucky) you’re sitting at a desk copy-editing a manuscript of ninety pages about something you were afraid to write about, ashamed to write about, but finally needed to write about.

Now when I look back on all that writing, the academic writing and the writing about my parents, the former seems inconsequential, pointless, work done for a paycheck or a promotion. For instance, I look at an essay about William Burroughs that I struggled to compose and publish, and I feel nothing. I hear nothing. The academic prose I wrote doesn’t speak to me the way my poems and prose about my parents speak to me. I do a lot of presentations about my parents. I address students and church groups and historians and general audiences, and invariably during those presentations I read some of the things I’ve written about my parents, and when I do, I hear my parents’ voices again, the way they told me their stories, and for me that’s the value of the poems and the personal essays I’ve written about them – hearing their voices that for so long I didn’t want to hear. And finally, it’s all about those voices, my parents’ voices and the voices of all those people who didn’t survive or who did survive but couldn’t speak about what happened.

Toward the end of my mom’s life, I gave my mom a call and told her that I was going to be giving a presentation about her experiences and my dad’s experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany. My mother didn’t pause at all. It was as if she knew what she wanted to tell me. She said, “Tell them we weren’t the only ones.”

She was afraid that people hearing my poems and my prose about my parents might think that they were the only ones who were put into the concentration camps. She wanted to make sure that I told people that that wasn’t the case. She wanted me to tell people that there were many, many, many people who suffered and died there, and that my writing was about them as much as it was about her and my dad and me.

I’ve never forgotten what she said to me and what it is that I’m supposed to be writing.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review Notes

We are pleased to report that the Midwest Book Review (vol. 9 no. 8, August 2010) has given Pain and Memory: Reflections on the Strength of the Human Spirit in Suffering (Bibliotekos 2009) a 5-star review on Amazon and, importantly, notes the book as "a choice and recommended pick." The book is offered at a 10% discount on Amazon right now.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Motion of Poetry - Muriel Nelson

We came across Muriel Nelson as we have everyone else - via a Call for writings. A meeting of strangers; papers crossing desks. The wonderful part of our work is reading submissions - what great surprises we find, and Muriel Nelson is such a one, without question. We were taken by her poetry immediately - by its movement, only later absorbing sounds and ideas. We like how Muriel blends the here - with the far; the familiar - with the distant; the known - with the unknown; the present - with the past. Continuing our series of background information on Bibliotekos contributors, we offer below (in her own words), Muriel’s Profile. Delight in it - and read her poetry. Check out Muriel’s publisher, Bear Star Press - and order some of their books (for yourself or your local/college library). Please note that the Profile is the copyrighted work of Muriel Nelson. You can find a little on Muriel here, at Verse Daily, including some of her online poems. And here, at the Beloit Poetry Forum blog.
My favorite way to get to know a poet is to find out what the poet loves. I’m fond of Miroslav Holub’s playful little “Conversation with a poet” in which Holub writes:

Are you a poet?
Yes, I am.
How do you know?
I’ve written poems.
If you’ve written poems it means you were a poet. But now?
I’ll write a poem again one day.

In that case maybe you’ll be a poet again one day. . .

Holub’s sharp logic draws my admiration, but what attracts me more is his keen awareness of boundaries, especially the one between the way he made his living as scientist and the living he made as poet. Most of all, I share his doubt of being privileged to cross that border again and again for more poems.

In my childhood home, also dominated by science, thinking meant linear logic which was regarded as a strength far superior to emotion. Creating meant carrying out a plan to make something tangible and useful (with the exception of music). Such patterns of thought were as firmly etched into my brain as the syntax of the sentences I learned to speak. Discovering poetry later meant exploring unplanned and mysterious territory beyond the limits of human logic and its tight controls, territory which could suddenly become vividly present, and then disappear.

About twenty years ago, when I was intensely involved in community volunteer work, a magazine on my lunch table fell open to an interview with Joseph Brodsky. I couldn’t stop reading after a paragraph or two, as was my habit at the time, so I bought Brodsky’s A Part of Speech. I bought it for a friend, mind you, because I thought she needed it, but when I read the first few poems to see if they would suit her, a childish voice in my head said, “She can’t have this. It’s mine!” She filed her gift with her old grammar books. A second copy became the beginning of my new life in poetry.

Imagine studying and practicing your way through two music degrees and many recitals, poking your nose into out-of-the way places in Europe to learn languages and research ’cello music, teaching, raising children, caring for dying relatives, and starting community programs, all the while losing the habit of reading, and then picking up a book from a culture foreign to you. There you find that the author has made his poems out of your diary—which you’ve never shown anyone—which, in fact, you’ve never written. After stealing a memory of yours, your image for it with its exact date, the way you once coped with the worst of life, your leaps beyond logic to points where no language would go naturally, and even your very words to describe this theft; he quietly points out that none of this was ever true, not in the way you had believed.

I hadn’t read Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” nor did I realize yet that this Russian “primer,” or maybe that hurried lunch, would be a new beginning for me. Music, not poetry, was my art, and reading Brodsky’s poems made me angry. How could that Russian, writing from some prison or Gulag, know details about my inner life: my words in the English translations he had made himself, my figures of speech, and my patterns of thought?

Angry and mystified, too, I read everything I could of his to find out how he did that, attempted my own poems, and made a list of questions I couldn’t answer by reading, which he later graciously answered for me. I was a beginner, and he was trailing all possible honors in this field—the McArthur Genius Award, the Nobel, US Poet Laureate, etc. He was also in precarious health, so you can imagine what a generous act those answers were on his part, and what daunting and exhilarating conversations those were for me.

I went home, wrote, and studied with the silly goal of learning to write one poem which some day he might read and say, “Now there’s a poem.” Two weeks after I finished my second master’s degree, from the Warren Wilson MFA Program For Writers, and before I had published much of anything, the evening news carried a bulletin that at the age of 55, Joseph Brodsky had died.

I’m not sure it is possible to explain this or any other inspiration or influence, but I think patterns of thought are more apparent and audible in poetry than in prose writing. When these patterns collide or coincide with a reader’s at a particular moment, something like the lift which makes an airplane fly can occur. The poems I love to read to lift my consciousness convey their most profound meanings in sound. After all, when I begged to learn to read, my mother taught me to read music hoping that I wouldn’t be a misfit in first grade. I must have thought that everything in a book made sounds. Since sound is the most difficult aspect to translate, I am still in awe of the following two examples: In Marbles: A Play in Three Acts, Brodsky plays with Russian/English cognates (by way of Latin) and with near rhymes to work his way out of boredom, coming up with, “Medium, tedium, Te Deum, Per Diem.” In “The Fountain,” his meters, liquid (voiced) consonants, and obsession with negatives join to produce this: “For no loneliness is deeper than the memory of miracles.”

As you can tell, the project of Common Boundary is closely related to what fascinates me and inspires my writing: those profound walls and gaps between individuals and groups of many kinds, breaks and breakthroughs, untranslatables and correspondences, and the high energy which can suddenly forge new bonds—in humans and whizzing particles alike. It’s that energy which I hope moves my poems. My poems are made of things over- and underheard, stolen, mis-taken, transferred from music, and sometimes spelled by ear—disparate bits and odd God-thoughts; i.e., my imperfect observations, fascinations, concerns, and shortcomings along with some I’ve borrowed. In my notebook are fleeting ideas and moves harvested from poems which have struck me as fresh, odd, funny, wise, and promising. My poems in Common Boundary draw on the few memories passed down to me of my Russian-German grandmother widowed on her homestead in Washington State, whispers of a distant relative whose branch of the family was sent to Siberia, writings of a student whose parents survived the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, news of refugees from Kosovo, and a loving “breakthrough” gesture I learned while attempting to teach music to deaf children.

I guess my method is like playing with Legos. Our sons used to say they needed “a red four-bump piece” or a black propeller, which they would take from something else—ideally from what the brother was making. For me, line breaks pull ideas apart enough to allow alternative meanings to break through and enrich. Sound often provides my “Lego bumps” to snap unmatched words and ideas together.

Perhaps you are a lover of a good story. I am, too. The lyrical compression which I admire in poems where every word is both necessary and rich can be exhausting, and as W. H. Auden writes in “The Composer,” “the poet fetches / The images out that hurt and connect.” To relax and enlarge my world, I’ve most recently enjoyed the fiction of Louise Erdrich for its ecstatic moments, the young writer Jonathan Safran Foer for delightful collage effects and high emotion, Zora Neale Hurston for gorgeous descriptions and those voices, Flannery O’Connor for relentless irony, and Toni Morrison for complexity, wisdom, and hilarious names.

I’m not a narrative writer, but when I’ve put poems together into book-length manuscripts, I’ve discovered some main or recurring concerns. My MFA thesis attempted to bring the various parts of my life into a sort of coherent whole or, at least, coherent relationships—an attempt which many current thinkers argue is futile. Artistically, I was fascinated with music/poetry correspondences and sound/sight images such as Czeslaw Milosz’s “ringing, rolling sun,” so like a baby’s ball. My first published book, Part Song (Bear Star Press, 1999), and a later collection, Sightsinger, continue to play with sound and sight, the latter riffing on Emily Dickinson’s question, “Why — do they shut Me out of Heaven?” My chapbook, Most Wanted (ByLine Press, 2003), was inspired by Osip Mandelstam’s idea of the distant addressee, and I’m still haunted by a conversation with my former musicology professor Alexander Ringer, a survivor of the camps, who told me near the end of his life that he was struggling to write a book in German because “the Europeans are the only ones who understand me.” Later, I wrote a collection, Daylights, which is unified, I hope, by the many meanings of the title word. Now I’m working on the ancient idea “to know in one’s heart.”

I must qualify that last sentence. I want to be writing poems to follow one called “To Wit, To Dote” (published in Beloit Poetry Journal). I try to start poems by reading—most recently, the brilliant young poet Ben Lerner for his inventions, my former mentor Heather McHugh for her intensive language and generous heart, my friend and wonderful critic Martha Zweig for her word play and light hand, and Anne Carson for what she will come up with next. Often, though, life—family, teaching, care for the garden’s fruit, rehearsals, news, illness, and the drudgery that accompanies it all—interferes, and then opens the way to the kind of doting that leads to poems.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Virtual Notes Marks Common Boundary

Have you seen Dorothee Lang's virtual notes on Common Boundary? Take a look here - she gets right to the heart of the book. And no wonder, as Dorothee is a writer, essayist, editor, and translator. When you go to her virtual notes, you can find out more about her. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Architect of a Good Story - Tim Nees

WHEN WE started Bibliotekos one of our friends said that we are crazy; maybe we are, starting a very small literary press these days. But the process of calling for writing, receiving and vetting creative work, and best of all, communicating with and getting to know the writers has been a rewarding experience. We've published two stories by Tim Nees ("Cartography" in Pain and Memory and "Blue Painted Field" in Common Boundary), and, as with all of the writers but one, we did not know anything about him previously. We have since learned that Tim, in addition to being quite attentive to the form as well as to the content of his work, is, no surprise (though it was to us), an accomplished architect. His characters are real enough that we've talked about them after reading his stories. Read more about Tim Nees and his story about becoming a writer, in his own words, right here. You won't be disappointed.

It sounds strange, being called a writer. It’s a concept I’m still getting comfortable with. In 2008 I was a finalist for a sonnet competition. I went to the prize-giving ceremony and there was a nametag waiting for me at the door. It read: Tim Nees Writer. It was the first time I’d seen those words placed together. Although I’m well known in New Zealand for other professional achievements [click to see Tim’s architectural work], I’m not known as a ‘writer’. I kept the nametag and peek at it from time to time to remind myself that yes, I am a writer. Other people have said I am.

I started writing at high school, like many teenagers. Mainly poetry. I was encouraged by two excellent English teachers, friends, and slightly older poets now well known in New Zealand who recited poems at rock concerts and handed out free broadsheets. Then, my friends and I published our own creative writing magazine, Blueprint, but also I submitted work to ‘real’ literary journals some of which, to my amazement, actually published a couple of poems. At university I continued writing but when I made the decision to switch to a Degree in Architecture, writing got shut away in the bottom drawer. Establishing a family, a successful business, and a second career as an art gallery director meant that drawer remained shut for many years.

In 2007 I was prompted to open it and start writing again, writing fiction as well as poetry. I completed a number of part-time creative writing courses, entered some competitions and published a few pieces and now, after three years of writing regularly, I don’t wince when I am described as a writer.

I’m not sure what inspired me to re-open the drawer. Perhaps it was a feeling niggling away inside reminding me I used to write, that I could write well, that I should try again; writing is part of my creativity, part of the jigsaw puzzle that is me, and can complement my other creative practices and not compete with them. It was a time of change in my life, which gave me the opportunity to use the extra time I had in new ways. But once I started, I discovered I really enjoyed the writing process, sitting in front of the computer, letting my mind work its way into different worlds and personalities.

It has never been difficult finding things to write about. Ideas come from everywhere, from observations, interactions, from reading and from movies, from going to an art gallery and thinking about a painting or video piece and the infinite number of social circumstances that may have occurred to enable that work of art to exist, and how that work now affects other people and the stories they take from it. Anything can be stimulating. Stories come from observing people reacting with people, and things, in time now and time past, in reality and memory and fantasy, so that if a diagram were drawn between all these interactions back and forth, even if only two agents were involved it would very quickly become a dense web of possibility. Imagine the interactions of a dozen players and the scenarios would quickly spiral into a mind-boggling mess. A writer’s most difficult task is to decide, choose and edit, to shape possibility, to make something understandable (but not necessarily evident), to make something readable. To know what to conceal and what to reveal. Editing is where the hard work gets done, not coming up with the ideas.

Obviously a writer needs to be able to judge a good idea from a poor one to invest the time in writing, even if it is only a kernel that imparts the feeling ‘I can do something with this’. Then I write and explore and hope it develops into something I can work with or, if momentum fails to build, put it aside and start afresh. The only way I can be sure a story is a good one is if I enjoy reading it, and still enjoy reading it even after the fifth re-write. Then I give it to my partner to read, assimilate her feedback, then let others read it and take heed of their comments. I belong to two writers groups and other viewpoints and understandings (or misunderstandings) can be enlightening. Not that I always agree, of course. My own judgment shapes the final draft.

It is easier to appreciate the skill and craft in other writers’ work, and I read a lot. What I expect most is for the writing to carry me from start to finish and to keep me thinking or smiling or worrying after the last page. It is not ‘the story’, ‘the plot’, ‘the structure’, ‘the characters’, ‘the setting’; it is the writing. It is all of those things set in the writing. Sometimes the writing, the writer’s style, is more or less visible, more or less audible, but it is still there word by word and can either provide the greatest pleasures, the profoundest insights, or the most insufferable irritations. Not that a story need provide insight or expound themes with a capital T. But I hope a story might provoke a genuine reaction from readers; that’s goal enough. And that they may enjoy the language in the process.

Language is what sets a story apart from reality. A story is an imagined or reported series of events presented in words, a constructed convention distanced from reality or concrete experience by the history of words. A story is an elaborate artifice. Elements found in my stories may be based on my experience, or my knowledge, or on hearsay or research, but they are only fragments scattered through the whole. Writers write about what they don’t know as well as what they know. Invention, and convincing invention, is the challenge and the reward. Reportage wouldn’t hold my interest for long. One of the greatest challenges of invention is to construct another person, a character, to sit inside their head and see what they do, to predict what they think, what they say, what they don’t say. I suspect this is achieved more through empathy than insight. And acting. Convincing acting. In my story ‘Cartography’ for instance, I had to imagine myself as two quite different female characters, two distinct voices, and how they might interact with each other.

The act of writing fiction is, therefore, all engrossing and whatever current work is in the document file is the one I favor most. I haven’t had time to reassess earlier work, or rate one against the other. Perhaps the ones that have been published should rate higher, but then those editors haven’t read all my other stuff, maybe I should send all my stories in for assessment. But no, I want to finish the one I’m working on; it’s going well, it might be the breakthrough piece to inspire a publisher to invite me to assemble my first collection. Vanity, the driver.

So perhaps vanity, the promise of pleasure and an overactive mind encourage me to sit down and write. I fit it in where I can, around my other personal and professional commitments. I don’t have a schedule, but a mobile MacBook helps. I’m currently in Europe sharing my partner’s sabbatical leave and in three months I’ve written only a few poems. Starting a story seems impossible, too many distractions and fresh experiences to assimilate. But I’ve been reading, and re-reading, some novels, which is unusual for me. John Banville, Paul Auster, Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo. The DeLillo is wonderful, his short novel The Body Artist extraordinarily beautiful to read. So much of his characters' lives inferred within so few pages with nothing really being revealed, precisely.

When I get back home I’m looking forward to reading and writing, but on what project I haven’t decided. Mostly I want to see my kids, go back to work and earn some money. I have an 80-page novella that needs a lot of re-writing, a dozen short stories that could be brought together with some shaping, but probably a new idea will pop into my head demanding to be written down. I’d like to get something substantial published within the next five years, and continue to publish shorter pieces and poetry two or three times a year. My real goal is to keep the drawer open, to continue writing, so I can confidently call myself a writer.