Friday, January 30, 2009

First Date

Come to dinner
she said.
Bring a fork.
(Who invites someone to dinner
and can't provide a fork?)

Forty-three years later
this memory slides through.
From all the life scenes
locked in her head
why this one?
Why now?

I want you to remember
he says from the grave
as if that cancels out
the years that followed.
Still ...
it makes her smile to recall
that first October dinner
when he had to bring
his own fork.

-- Annie Wyndham

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Unintelligible Poems & Writer's Block

How many times have you read a poem where you have absolutely no idea what it's about? Interesting metaphors and playful wording aside, the poet has failed to communicate its meaning. "I don't get it," the reader says. "What exactly are you trying to SAY here?"

I was told by a poet once that poets shouldn't have to "explain" their poems. Either you get it or you don't. Sometimes, even when you don't understand the entire poem, it resonates enough that you go back to it again and again. Other times you simply shake your head in disbelief at how stupid and nonsensical it sounds (to you) and wonder what exactly qualified it to receive a prize when you could name at least a dozen infinitely better ones.

Today's blogpost is actually about creativity and writer's block, though. Sometimes it's hard to come up with subjects for a new poem or story. I've noticed that the process of critiquing and editing another person's writing is sometimes tackled with far more enthusiam and engagement than having to sit down and write one oneself. Why is that? How to take that burst of energy and turn it into creativity toward one's own writing--that is the challenge.

So I devised a little exercise for just that purpose.

The Rules:

From the following list of 40 towns, cities or states, construct three separate, unrelated poems. Start from the first item and go down the list, one by one, until you reach the last one, San Diego. You must proceed chronologically--Do Not Skip, Substitute or Scramble Names.

Each item in the list must be spelled phonetically, and can be used as another noun, a verb or an exclamation.

Oh, and one other thing: Each poem must contain a little "story".

The list:

Youngstown (OH)
Williamsport (PA)
Spokane (WA)
Saginaw (MI)
Wheeling (WV)
Cambridge (MA)
Springfield (IL)
Green Bay (WI)
Rhode Island
Long Beach (CA)
Carson City (NV)
Minneapolis (MN)
Erie (PA)
Rochester (NY)
Winchester (MA)
Roanoke (VA)
Salem (OR)
New Jersey
Newark (NJ)
Butte (MT)
Saratoga (NY)
Honolulu (HI)
Juneau (AK)
Phoenix (AZ)
Cincinnati (OH)
Richmond (VA)
San Diego (CA)

Here's what I came up with for the first one:

“Young’s town!,
William’s port!”
spoke Ann, sag in awe,
wheeling yellow stone.
Came bridge,
spring, field,
green bay.

Arken saw:
road, island,
long beach, cars in city,
mini-apple ... us.

(Using the first 15 items on the list: Youngstown; Williamsport; Spokane; Saginaw; Wheeling; Yellowstone; Cambridge; Springfield; Green Bay; Arkansas; Rhode Island; Long Beach; Carson City; Minneapolis; Erie)

Oh dear, the end product sounds like those little magnetized word thingies you stick on the refrigerator and rearrange to make a cute (usually nonsensical) poem or sentence.

Okay, what is this poem ABOUT? Here's where your creative exercise comes in. Write a short synopsis telling a reader what the poet probably had in mind when he/she wrote this abominable poem. Haven't a clue? Then improvise.

It's not about deciphering its actual meaning--it's about overcoming writer's block by seeing if you can create Something out of Nothing,
such that you come up with (1) a plot for a future short story, or (2) an idea for a publishable poem, or (3) a similar word-play exercise that gets your creative juices flowing again.

So here's my interpretation of
Poem No. 1 (repeated, for benefit of interpretation below):

“Young’s town!,
William’s port!”
spoke Ann, sag in awe,
wheeling yellow stone.
Came bridge,
spring, field,
green bay.

Arken saw, :
road, island,
long beach, cars in city,
mini-apple ... us.

Orphaned siblings named Ann and Arken arrive at a crossroads with their only possessions, a pile of yellow bricks left over from their recently burnt-down house. They are somewhat alarmed to note that it leads to the city of their cruel arch-enemy, Dr. Young and his evil brother, William. On the bridge into town they see a field, a spring, and a peaceful bay. The boy Arken notices a road leading to a far-off island with a beautiful beach but it’s too far away and they’re suddenly very tired. They’re actually heading towards the city at rush hour so the streets are full of traffic. Arken is hungry and finds some discarded fruit--not enough for the both of them, however. He dreams of going to the island and, overcome with emotion, reflects on their sad plight, which seems to him rather dream-like and a trifle bizarre.

Here's Poem No. 2:
Tennis! See?
Rah, Chester!
Win, Chester!

Row an oak, Virginia!

Sail em!

(Using the next 6 items on the list: Tennessee; Rochester; Winchester; Roanoke; Virginia; Salem).

An activities director at a recreation facility for sports-challenged individuals takes a guy named Chester on a tour of the tennis courts, pairs him up with a partner, and encourages him to set a new record. Then he saunters over to the lake and instructs a woman new to boating how to maneuver the oars, which are--because this is an exclusive resort--made of expensive, hand-carved wood. But the woman isn’t paying attention; she’s laid the oars aside and has made little paper boats out of her empty French fry containers and is watching them float in the waves.

And here's Poem No. 3:

New jersey, new work!
I owe a con etiquette…
I’d a hoe--Lou “Easy" Anna ("Beaut!")
Miss Sussipi,
Ms. Ouri,
Sarah (toga),
June--no! (ill, annoy; aura gone!)
Fee, nix!
Sin, sin, Natti!
George, ah! Rich man!
Sandy, eh? Go!!

(Using the last 19 items remaining on the list: New Jersey; Newark; Iowa; Connecticut; Idaho; Louisiana; Butte; Mississippi; Missouri; Saratoga; Honolulu; Juneau; Illinois; Oregon; Phoenix; Cincinnati; Georgia; Richmond; San Diego)

Caution: adult content. A pimp goes on a shopping spree, buys an expensive new sweater, and reminds himself that he owes a return favour to a fellow con, a casino operator named George. He informs George of his new enterprise and rattles off the names of his best "workers"--with the exception of June, whom he describes as sick, "annoying" and no longer attractive. He offers to book George and his girlfriend Natalie for a ménage à trois, exhorting Natalie to put aside her moral scruples, and waives his usual fee. Noting that George is really very, very wealthy, and likely, as an expression of friendship, to pay anyway, the pimp suggests his most expensive worker, a girl named Sandy, and tells George to “go for it”.

Well then, there you have it--the results of this highly difficult (and sometimes tedious) way to start the creative juices flowing again. Let's try it in French!

"C'est mort cherie, c'est mort"
(which translated, means: "It's dead, dear, it's dead).

Phonetically, it comes out: Say "more sherry!" Say "more!".

(By the way, sherry need not be a bottle of liquor; you could add a comma after "more" and capitalize "sherry" to make it refer to a female person. Or it could be a name listed in a telephone book, such as "Seymour, Shaire E.")

Disclaimer: I couldn't think of something to write about on my blog today, so I invented this fictitious little Exercise for People with Writer's Block. I hereby disavow ownership of the above three "poems" on account of supreme embarassment. Might do something with the resulting interpretations one day, though, though they are admittedly a bit far-fetched and I don't much care for the occupation of the protagonist in the last poem. Who knows. At any rate, it was fun. I love playing with words. Infinitely more engaging than putting together a thousand-piece puzzle, for example. (Apologies to H. vis-a-vis our conversation yesterday--I know you love them!)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ice Fishing at Ste. Anne de la Perade

I was invited to go ice fishing yesterday, up at St. Anne de la Perade. The river there completely freezes over in winter and on December 26, they begin drilling the ice holes, installing the poles to transport electricity, and moving 200 cabins out onto the ice, in time for tommy cod fishing season.

My first question on seeing this entire little hamlet of cabins sitting out on the frozen river was: "Are you sure it's safe?" and was told yes, they know what they are doing; people have been going there for years to ice fish on this river.
The picture at the right is a typical "street" of cabins.

Our five-window cabin was furnished with a wood stove, pile of wood, cabinet, table and chairs, a small divan, two-plug electrical outlet, and radio. Everything you need! (The outdoor toilets, some marked "Madame" and "Monsieur", others simply "Toilet", were also heated.)

It was a bit chilly at first, until we got the fire in the stove up to speed but really cozy in no time at all. We hung up our coats, let down our fishing lines, got the buckets ready, and sat down to fish.

There are 12 fishing lines attached to a bar across the wall. We used bait of liver and shrimp.

About mid-way down on each string is a matchstick positioned horizontally. The matchstick wiggles when a fish is nibbling on the bait. You just sit or stand there beside the fishing hole and wait for the fish to bite, which for us was about every 2 minutes or so.

This is the fishing hole under the floor of the cabin. As there were only four of us, we did not use all 12 fishing lines. In the picture the line at the right was moving, which turned out to be a small fish that we returned to the water because one of us felt sorry for it.

I didn't much like pulling the hook out of a flapping, wiggly, bleeding, wounded little fish, especially if it had somehow gotten enbedded in its eye.
I guess I'm not much of a fisherperson. I was thinking instead, what a great little cabin this would be, or one like it, to have somewhere up in the woods, to get away to for spending time alone reading, writing and looking out at the winter sky and hills. But we didn't come here for that--we came here to catch fish.

This gentleman showed us how it's done and gave us hints about cleaning, cutting and cooking the poulamon.

I wondered what it would be like to stay on until the evening when I understand it gets a bit more lively -- singing together to foot-stompin' tunes in this or that cabin, walking in the crunchy snow with a companion, visiting neighboring cabins to say hello and see how many fish they'd caught.

This short video gives you some idea what it's like at night, although, except for the occasional ski-do, it seemed pretty quiet this particular night.

There are two hooks on each line, so sometimes you get a double catch. This happened several times for me and was always a bit of a surprise. You'd think if one fish got caught he'd have a split second maybe to turn and warn a fellow fish not to bite but apparently they don't communicate that way, or even appear to notice that hey, "Look what happened to him! I'd better not sample the goodies or it might happen to me, too!" It is particularly unnerving when you have to unhook one while the other one squirms and squiggles and looks at you with those little fish-eyes as if to say, How could you do this to us, have you any idea what it's like to have a sharp, jabby metal hook yanked in and out of your insides?

Emmy outside talking to one of the fish. Some people are naturals at fishing and Emmy is one of them. Not at all squeamish like yours truly. Each mad gasp for life, fish after fish after fish, flailing and flopping around in a bucket, until life is extinguished--all so someone could feast on him later, maybe with fried potatoes and a cold beer, and exclaim, "Yum. How delicious."

Separating the fun of the catch with the fact of the kill. I know I'm eventually going to have a nightmare about this.

The outdoors makes the perfect freezer. Everyone usually dumps their catch in a pile outside their cabin till it's time to go home. I don't have any more room in my freezer so what's left of my share is now outside sitting in a bank of snow by the shed.

Recette en francais:
Le poisson frit est très facile à préparer. Roulez dans la farine les poissons et déposez-les dans une casserole avec du beurre ou de l'huile tout simplement (i.e., simply roll in flour and pan fry).

A clever local entrepreneur finds a way to get free advertising. --->
Being the biggest pile of fish there, of course everyone stops by to take a photo. You may call that number if you want to rent one of this fellow's cabins to do your fishing. His are the blue ones.

It doesn't necessarily mean you'd get more fish if you fished from this guy's cabins, but he certainly figured out a way to get his name and number out there!'

ey even provide a wooden ruler in the cabin for un vrai measure!
And a pair of scissors to cut up the scrimp bait.

None of the fish we caught was very big--well, no, wait, there was One. But it may not have been a

All in all we had an interesting afternoon and came home with about 80 fish. I gave half of my half away this morning to some neighbors, one of whom--84-year-old "Mado" up the street--clapped her hands in delight and grinned from ear to ear at seeing the little frozen buggers in the bag I left on her porch.

Apparently the way most people eat them is to cut off the head and tail, de-gut the middle part, coat with flour and pan-fry them (as per the recipe above). That was what I was told, at least, by three of my neighbors, one of whom took out his pocket knife and directed me to his kitchen sink so he could demonstrate. My father used to bring home rainbow trout from the creeks and streams in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. I wonder if he ever considered going ice fishing. Probably not; he preferred sitting in a rowboat or casting from a stone along the shore, in milder weather. I'm sure it would have interested him, though, to have been there with us yesterday.

If anyone is interested in checking out the ice fishing scene at Ste-Anne de la Perade in Quebec this winter, you'd better hurry up--they close down on February 15 and start taking all the cabins, restaurant and light poles all back on shore again before the ice melts and the river becomes a river again.

Here are some links (mostly in French) for the history of the poulamon and information on how to get to Ste. Anne de la Perade, what it costs, and who to call to reserve a cabin : here, here, here and here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Willly Pete in Gaza

"In 15 years of practice, Dr. Abuhassan says he never saw burns like those he saw here. The burns, blackish in color, reached deep into the muscles and bones. Even after treatment was begun, the blackish color returned.

"Two of the patients were sent to Egypt because they were in such critical condition. They died in Egypt. But when autopsies were done, reports showed that the cause of death was poisoning from elements of white phosphorous that had entered their systems, causing cardiac arrests.

"In Gaza City, The Burn Unit’s harried director, a plastic surgeon and an expert in treating burns, told us that after encountering cases they’d never seen before, doctors at the center performed a biopsy on a patient they believed may have suffered chemical burns and sent the sample to a lab in Egypt. The results showed elements of white phosphorous in the tissue." [1]

"The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv reported that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had privately admitted using phosphorus bombs, and that the Judge Advocate General's Office and Southern Command were investigating. Yesterday reports emerged from Gaza about the killing of five members of the Halima family, when a single white phosphorus shell dropped on their house in the town of Atatra on January 3. Two others were in a coma and three were seriously wounded.

"In the Jabaliya refugee camp, the Associated Press found a crater that was still producing acrid smoke days after the war ended, and in the town of Beit Lahiya a lump of white phosphorus burst into flames after some boys dug it up from beneath some sand." [2]

They call it Willy Pete It's fired into the air to illuminate the enemy at night.

On Saturday morning, January 17 at 6:45 A.M., the Israelis fired on the UN School at Beit Lahiya where 1,891 refugees were gathered. White phosporous burned on the playground. This was the third U.N. school to be hit.[3]

Amnesty International is quoted on the video below as saying, "We see prima facia evidence that there have been war crimes and that is why we're calling for a thorough and independent investigation." Amnesty’s fact-finding team that arrived in Gaza last Saturday released its findings on Tuesday, reporting that the weapon, “with a highly incendiary effect,” was used in “densely populated residential areas of Gaza City.” [4]

[War Moments, artwork by Inas at]

Monday, January 19, 2009

Good News and Bad News

Farmers' markets are more numerous now than they were ten years ago.

With the price of food going up and incomes decreasing, victory gardens are sprouting up again. More people are discovering the fun of growing their own food.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that "15,000 of the world's 50,000 plants used as medicines now face extinction." This is according to a report this week from the international conservation group Plantlife.

Not only are most of the patented, synthetic pharmaceutical drugs used in Western medicine originally derived from naturally occurring medicinal herbs, in addition, the majority of the world's population in the developing world still obtains most of their medicines from plants. Scientists warn that this mass extinction is a result of over-harvesting, loss of habitat, pollution, and invasive species. [Source: Organic Consumers Organization]

And so it goes. One little step forward on one front, four steps back on another.


Meanwhile back in the wild and wacky world of Writerdom, an author has been caught lifting the story of another writer, claiming it as his own.

"All I can say now—-because I am truly mystified and taken aback by this — is that someone must have sent it to me over the Internet ten years or so ago," said Mr. Walsch, the writer who done the dasterdly deed. "Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of 'stories to tell that have a message I want to share.' I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized ... and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience. [1].

He's saying this was inadvertent, a mere slip of the mind, you see. The rightful owner of the material doesn't buy it.

Owning words. Last week I wanted to submit a 7-page story in which I quoted some lines of a song. Looking to get the artist's permission, I queried his manager, who passed me along to another organization who told me to contact the director in charge of administration and synchronization, who replied requesting the name of the book (it was a 7-page story, not a book--had she even read my email?), the expected retail price of the book (it was not a book, madam; read my email), the publisher (it had not yet even been submitted to anyone; read my email!) and expected first print run of the book (for the fourth time, it was not a BOOK!). Only when she got all this information about my "book" could she submit it to the proper people for approval and get back to me on the fee. I ended up expunging the quotes and rewriting the story. Sheeesh.

On an unrelated matter--Silliman's blog posting today says he receives on average 1,700 visits a day to his blog. Over 2 million people have visited his blog so far. I am impressed. The first week of my blog I was amazed that the site meter registered 15 visitors, because no one, to my knowledge, even knew about it. I soon realized that every time I logged in to write something, or add a photo, or edit a post, it registered as a visit. So one could conceivably log in and out a hundred times a day to increase one's site count, ha ha. I know for a fact there are less than four people who read my blog regularly (oops, that should be three. The owner of the blog doesn't count).

Does it really matter. So many good blogs out there, so much interesting material, so much creativity and good writing. (A lot of crappy ones, too, of course.) What's really great is when you connect with one, like what you find, and keep returning--the highest compliment to a fellow blogger.

Brevity, my dear. You must learn brevity...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

James Guida's MARBLES


Every day he renewed the belief that people understood
his full nature
from the sight of his face alone.

~ ~ ~

I wake, rub my eyes, get out of bed, and head for the shower.
Then the struggle with matter.

~ ~ ~

“Cunning, an attribute of intelligence, is very often used
to compensate for a lack of real intelligence and
to defeat the greater intellectual powers of others.”
This extraordinary observation of Leopardi’s

might be complemented by noting that enthusiasm,
while not essential to intelligence,
is often a catalyst
for it, through sheer
and the lessons of self-awareness.

~ ~ ~

There are no edges or grooves on the man’s face,
nothing at all on which to hook a gaze.

~ ~ ~

There’s a ladder of social esteem
which we begin as non-entities and
end by actually winning people’s indifference.

~ ~ ~

When the news came—that from the Sublime,
Ridiculousness might be reachedby a single step
an assembly was called, and it soon reached a decision.
A great wall was to be built in front of the Sublime.
Ahead of the wall, in turn, would be a sharp ditch.
A flag would mark the boundary.

~ ~ ~

A man sometimes seems annoyed when another man
sits down beside him on the train.
The thought seems to be: “I was saving that
for an unknown beautiful woman!”

~ ~ ~

The whole affair threatened to make adults of us all.

~ ~ ~

In binding and gagging a platitude, people sometimes
wrench the life out of the actual thing connected to it.
I can weary of remarking on the weather too, but
I wouldn’t for a second pretend that it’s boring in reality.

~ ~ ~

The man is at once a slug
and the salt that will set himself writhing.

~ ~ ~

She has that wonderful exasperation,
impervious to any fact or argument,
that comes purely from a love of being exasperated.

~ ~ ~

Awkwardness is collaborative.

~ ~ ~

Then the stewardess, adopting an almost poetic air,
made an announcement.
“We will now be turning off the lights”
—here she paused as if withholding some extremely
appetizing news from us—“standard practice
while flying through the hours of darkness.”

~ ~ ~

Nothing less interesting
than the conversation meant to be overheard.

~ ~ ~

There is a quiet willfulness some people have,
a kind of graceful readiness.
Their energy passes out of them like tissues from a box,
each act drawing a successor,
giving the impression of serene limitlessness.

~ ~ ~

Sending an email can be like letting go of an animal.

~ ~ ~

Often the book I like turns out to be a jack-in-the-box,
the head being a strange self-portrait of the author.

~ ~ ~

It’s a staple of skateboard videos to include a segment
devoted wholly to the blunders and accidents of the
riders. A strange combination of the comical and the
devastating, a slam section records the falls and terrible
persistence that preceded the flawless execution of tricks
in the rest of the video, the separate feats which,
accomplished, compiled, and edited, finally helped
to create the illusion of mastery in each rider.
Imagine an analogous procedure with regard to books
not an early draft, but a compact anthology of the author’s
most spectacular lapses, all the intellectual cuts, scrapes,
and bruises. In the videos these mishaps can be as
compelling as the tricks themselves.

~ ~ ~

Rarely do I make the same mistake twice.
I make it a little differently each time.

~ ~ ~

Forgive me, it was the turn of phrase that made me do it.


[Thanks to kind permission from the author to post “Marbles” on my blog. The above excerpt originally appeared in AGNI 67 (2008)]. [For the purposes of presentation here, I've tweaked the formatting by centering what was initially published in standard, flush-left margins.]

About the author: James Guida is an Australian currently living in Brooklyn. The musings here are excerpted from a longer collection of aphorisms, also called Marbles, that Turtle Point Press will release in the Fall.

If you want to see more of James Guida's writings, check out his essay re: Heinrich Heine's Travel Pictures in More Intelligent Life (Aug 15, 2008) where he takes a look at Heine's “four sketches based on trips taken between 1826 and 1831, to Germany’s Harz region, the Italian town of Lucca and the island of Nordeney in the North Sea.”

Guida's Review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works in The Kenyon Review is also well worth reading.

Am looking forward to seeing more from this author.

Positively loved your aphorisms, James!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Begone Ye

Begone ye
from her garden
with your heavy shoes
and careless step.
'Tis sacred ground
for baby sprouts
and resting place
for homeless cats.
Thus spake
the weathered carving,
protecteur de sa terre,
ever vigilant,
on the sill.

-- Annie Wyndham

[Photo taken by awyn, Summer 2008, Cap-de-la Madeleine, Quebec]

Friday, January 9, 2009



Tell me what it’s like, she said.
When you go to London, take some pictures,
write down your impressions,
let me see what you are seeing…

But of course, everyone does not see the same thing,
nor find a visit to a museum or the theatre
especially compelling,
or is interested in a city’s history.

Hello hello from London, I’m in a pub,
it’s raining, my wallet got stolen!
Am on my way by train to Paris,
sorry, no time to write, see you in 3 weeks,
Love, J.
P.S. Can you send money?

Must one actually have to go somewhere
to absorb the atmosphere of a place?
Can’t it be vicariously, by way of random photos,
or someone’s stories, that one can see the streets
of London, bridges of Prague, the markets of Bombay;
or snow-capped mountains, silent desert, balmy seashore;
ancestors' graveyard, teeming ghetto or screaming war zone?

And why just places? Why not time periods:
times past, times ongoing, times possible,
that allow immersion with life beyond
the confines of our paltry physical limitations;
through words and images that jar a memory
or unspoken wish, to open a floodgate
of curiosity and aspiration.

Being where you are doesn’t mean you can’t, sometimes,
be There, too, at the same time.

Hello, London.

-- Annie Wyndham

Thanks to Luis L. Tijerina of Burlington, Vermont for permission to post these three photos taken during his trip to London last year.
Luis has made a 2009 calendar of his London photos, of which there are about 10 copies left.

If you would like one, you can email him at
The cost is $12.95 plus postage.

Thank you, Luis, for allowing me,
through your magnificent photographs, to visit a city I will probably never get to see.

[If you look carefully at the photo up on the right, you can see the photographer reflected in the storefront window.]

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Things that jumped out at me from the Internet this morning:

-- According to the documentary, Flow, 1.1 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water, and over 5 million people die annually from water-related illnesses.

-- The amount of grain it takes to fill an average gas tank with ethanol would be enough to feed a person for a year. [1]

-- Apropos Israel's bombardment of Gaza this week, and the four small children found next to their dead mothers in one of the bombed houses[2], I was recalling Gordon Gihuly's take on war and children, in A Measured Response.

-- The Minimalist is telling me I should throw out my packaged bread crumbs, dried parsley and basil (“They’re worthless!”).

-- And across the pond in London, it seems the atheists have been granted permission to put their messages on 800 British buses.

Meanwhile, outside on my street, the sky has dumped another half foot of snow. I counted four snowblowers already chugging away (and 5 shovelers!)in just my neighborhood by 8 AM.
Here's my mate out shoveling at 7 AM. The little twiggy thingies sticking out of the snowbank at the left (you will need a magnifying glass)is our baby tree, Maurice (age 3); he seems to come through okay every year after being buried in the snow for 5 months, and is over 5 feet tall now.

Ah, l'hiver. Ya gotta love it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Woodhawk, transplanted

Piece of driftwood
found on the beach
at Lake Champlain,
in Burlington, Vermont, 1998.

[Photo taken by awyn in Trois-Rivieres, QC, at Woodhawk's new home]

Monday, January 5, 2009

Enemies of Wallace Stevens, Unite!

I stumbled upon a website this morning selling a coffee mug depicting a caricature of the poet Wallace Stevens, with his cane, walking (the other side of the cup contains a quotation from his poem, "Anecdote of the Jar"), whose links led me to one of the funniest critiques of a poet's writing that I've ever read, on the site of the Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens.

Now, I happen to love the poetry of Wallace Stevens. But ... I read somewhere that he was not very nice to his wife, Elsie, who was, according to one biographer, "not his intellectual equal," and who "grew sullen, reserved and eccentric as their life together went on." In the following footnote, the reviewer chides this biographer for dwelling too much on the unhappiness of Wallace's wife. --> [1]

The Enemies of Wallace Stevens in Hartford openly declare that "There were more than a few people who knew Stevens and couldn't stand him." Hmmmm. And then there's this letter from a disgruntled employee, Evan Daugherty, at Hartford Insurance (Stevens was his boss), written in 1947, alledging that:

His attitude was always one of indifference...

Mr. Stevens has not been an easy man to work for. He has a great
contempt for his fellow man...

If one talks back, he runs the risk of his lasting dislike
and enmity.[2]

Well now, how about them apples? Perhaps Stevens saw poor Mr. Daugherty as a sniveling whiner, grumpy because he didn't get the raise he believed he deserved. Perhaps Mr. Daugherty DID deserve one and Stevens, for whatever reason, simply couldn't tolerate the man and therefore refused to recommend him. Who really knows.

This matter of loving a person's work, but disliking the writer (for whatever reason) is what today's blog entry is really all about, though. How many times have you read a poem or book that so resonated with you, so impressed you, so moved you, that you scrambled to find out everything there was to know about its author--only to discover that he/she was vain, egotistical, perhaps utterly repugnant, a fool or a monster?

It may have been the reason I've stopped reading biographies of people whose work I admire--and especially, their autobiographies. Because the disconnect is sometimes very large--between the magnificent creative product, and their sometimes ridiculous, often abysmal, erratic, foppish, or vindictive, self-destructive, personal behavior.

So poets are human, just like the rest of us; surprise, surprise. Except they have an extraordinary gift for words that takes us beyond the ordinary that opens up a world so incredible we forget where we are. They appear to understand exactly how to reach us. We feel a kinship with such writers. They've somehow connected to us. Or, I did with Wallace Stevens, at any rate, until the rumors about his Grand Indifference kept surfacing.

I have a particular aversion to people who wear indifference as their basic wardrobe through life. Indifference stuns. It can even maim. It brings out the worst in the objects of its dispersal.

So what do we do, then--resign ourselves to the "Love-the-Poem, Hate-the-Poet" conundrum? My resolution (initially) was to separate the two, play with the idea that one's words, one's artistic creations (and this applies to art as well as writing), one's "gift", as it were, comes from somewhere else--sort of like a lucky gene not everyone gets to inherit. But I'm leaning more toward the idea that it really emanates from some gigantic cosmic repository from which we can all subconsciously feed, some being called to do so more than others.

What we DO with what we find there is where the creative part comes in--the uniquely individual elements that manifest when a true connection is made. Call it whatever you want, it doesn't affect its Thereness. (Label away, if that makes it more comprehensible. I myself have problems always having to define the origins of something or paste a label on things that just "are".)

Anyway, in case you want to read this hilarious essay from a so-called member of this little Enemies of Wallace Stevens group, click here.

Some sample quotes:

I am begging you, fellow patriots, do not attend the Wallace Stevens birthday bash. Be warned all ye who enter there. If you go, you will come out a few hours later, talking about, as one Stevens scholar put it, "the vulgar personal life of the world that interferes with a clear and simple confrontation between imagination and reality."

His best poem, as enemies of Wallace Stevens know only too well, was "The Ultimate Poem is abstract." I won't bother quoting from it. You wouldn't understand. No one does. It's too, you know, abstract.

He knew the truth about himself. In his "Of the Surface of Things," he wrote: "In my room, the world is beyond my understanding." Yeah, we know. And your poetry is beyond our understanding.

Do you want to sound like that? Do you want to be responsible for tricking unsuspecting friends and family into actually trying to read a Wallace Stevens poem? I think not.

Ha ha ha. Thank you, though, Laurence Cohen (columnist and author of the above article), for showing me the absurdity of poet idolization (and conversely, the unnerving predilection for incessant, nitpicky, poet bashing, especially re: those whose poetry we simply don't understand or find the least bit interesting. Just don't read it, is all!).

I was going to say something cute and snarky here about coffee mugs with poets' images plastered on the front (I don't know that I could face staring at anybody's face looking at me from a mug as I sip my morning coffee), including pilgrimages where "fans" walk the exact same footpath once trod by a famous writer -- but then I remembered that I once swam in Walden Pond and later circled the reconstructed replica of Thoreau's little house in the woods, peering into the windows with fascination and awe; and last year made my poor son take me to Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI to find the grave of H. P. Lovecraft. So I'm afraid I'm inadvertently one of the very group I was about to parody. Ouch, ha ha.

I didn't know before that Hemingway once knocked Stevens kersplat down into a rain puddle.[3] What could have provoked such an action, I wonder.

The story is confirmed by Stevens's biographer Joan Richardson, who reports that Stevens returned home to his wife and daughter in Hartford that March with a still-puffy eye and broken hand, and that Stevens himself told versions of the story throughout his life ...

Hemingway: “I think he is really one of those mirror fighters who swells his muscles and practices lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters.” ...

Stevens was in his late 50s when this occurred; Hemingway in his 30s.

[Hemingway's story is from a letter to Sara Murphy, printed in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker.]

This is Wallace Stevens walking, swinging
his cane. -------------------------------------------------------->

He looks like a happy chap, not at all afflicted with the dreaded mantle of Indifference. Perhaps this is the image he would prefer, from his grave, that we remember—not his having been pushed into a puddle by Ernest Hemingway.


This has turned out to be an extraordinarily long posting today. My apologies.

But about the reports of Wallace Stevens's Indifference – he himself says … in the excerpt from his poem “Table Talk”, that: “One likes what one happens to like.” Maybe we should just leave it at that.

In sum, I think we should stop worshipping (or denigrating) poets for how they choose to live or behave, or how they happened to manage or screw up their lives, and concentrate more on their actual WORDS. (Two annoying little chirpies just whispered in my ear: "Actions speak louder than words!" ... followed by.... "Do as I SAY, not as I do!" ) ha ha.

I still tune into Wallace Stevens's words, and take his poems along on long bus trips, jammed in between the peanut butter sandwiches and Walkman and apple juice. It's his words, man. It's his WORDS.


Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.
And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush,
Gray grass and green-gray sky?
What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:
Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.
It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.

-- Wallace Stevens.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Stranger in My Bed

Tenderly he rocks me in his shell-shocked arms,
humming the melody of a song
whose words he no longer remembers.
The week he left for war, I wore his shirts around the house
as if that warm, familiar scent cemented something,
implied continuance.

They gave him a medal (two, actually) and sent him home,
broken, patched for mending--until the next call up.
There’s a different smell about him now—-it’s one of Fear,
echoed in the hardened eyes which glare out, uncomprehending,
as if waiting for someone to explain.

We share a pillow because I want to be there
when the nightmares start,
when his restless breathing turns into a shrieking
howl, like an animal being slaughtered.
Sometimes, at the sink, when doing dishes, I pull out a memory
to make everything as it was again.
Only it isn’t,
is it.

Tenderly I rock him, in my arms,
wondering how this came to be--
how going to war could make him disappear,
leaving me this stranger
in my bed.

--Annie Wyndham

[First published in Burlington Poetry Journal, Vol. I, 2008. Photo by awyn, taken in October, 2008, of a white birch tree at Moulin Seigneurial du Pointe-du-Lac, Quebec.]

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Goodbye to 2008

[Photo by Awyn, taken in my back yard, January 5, 2005].

Goodbye, 2008.
Hello, 2009.

As I was traveling and out of the country during the holidays, I didn’t post anything. It was only after Christmas that I stumbled upon this Christmas poem and contacted the author to get permission to post it on my blog. (Scroll down about 6 paragraphs to view.)

William Michaelian's website contains a link (in the Collected Poems section) to one of his poems translated by Louise Kiffer-Sarian, whose blog lists about a dozen or so Armenian contes translated into French. It reminds me that I missed the Festival de Contes here in Trois-Rivieres last Fall. There is something so wonderful about a people's "stories", those short, traditional, well-loved recountings of who they are and what they think and feel and love and fear and laugh about.

Louise's blog also provided links to a site displaying the Armenian alphabet. Now what does that have to do with Christmas? (which has now passed, by the way). Well, simply that congenital curiosity causes one to stumble upon some very interesting things—-things that resonate, that fill in gaps in one's knowledge, that lead you to explore other worlds, that remind you of how much there still is to learn.

One snowy afternoon last week while down in Boston we drove past the Armenian Library and Museum in Watertown, which holds the largest and most diverse collection of Armenian cultural artifacts outside Armenia (they house over 20,000 artifacts, 5,000 coins, 3,000 textiles, and more than 27,000 books). I lived in Boston for over 20 years and Watertown is but a short bus ride from Harvard Square, yet I have never visited this place. But I was always intrigued by the Armenian alphabet, in words above a local bakery shop.

And now thanks to links via William and Louise, I found Omniglot. Now I can say "I don’t understand" in about 40 languages! (Greek; Russian; Japanese and even Klingon!)

But I digress. Plot for a short story: A person stops to google a particular piece of information and ends up, thirteen hours later, still at the computer, stiff as a board and wild-eyed, having traversed a multitude of links, resulting in copious note taking-- filling marginless pads of paper, the back of a calendar, the inside of a teabag wrapper--with endless bits of information, ideas, examples, that may or may not prove useful. It stays downloaded there, like a huge, unassembled repository, in the writer's brain, to draw upon, say, five years from now, as it emerges when you would least expect it: just that one word, that one compelling image, or connection will manifest, and prove of use … or bring unexpected remembrance and delight.

It’s not a conscious thing … nor even an obsession … it’s just the way some people are. And I don’t know how you get that way, but there it is.

Enough already! Here’s William Michaelian’s Christmas poem:

A Christmas Wish

What do I want for Christmas?
Nothing to buy, nothing to sell.
Family gatherings. Laughter. Music.
Multitudes of happy children, warm and fed.
An end to the current war, and to all wars.
Water in the well, food on the table.
Companionship for the lonely.
Solitude for those in search of calm.
Understanding for the prisoner.
Compassion for those who judge.
Strength for the belittled.
Comfort for the torn.

I want what everyone wants,
But believes can never happen.
Truth instead of lies.
Generosity instead of greed.
Knowledge instead of fear.
Modesty instead of arrogance.
An open heart, an open mind.
To follow Life where it leads,
With gratitude for hard times
And what they teach,
And, when good times come,
To pass them on for others to enjoy.

But if these things are too much to ask,
If I am silly or have somehow missed the point,
There is still one thing I would like to see.
A giant teddy bear for the wide-eyed world.

Here’s another (same poet)-- more apropos because it’s now January and not December:

What December Said to January

Let the record
show I did
not go willingly.

Nor am I impressed
by the ruse you
call “The First,”
which you use
to hide the fact
I passed this way.

I am offended,
not ended.

Do not forget,
I have frozen ponds
and cast blood-red berries
to the ground; I have
blotted out the sun.

You have crocuses,
I’ll grant you that;
but I have summoned them;
the rest you leave for
spring to solve.

My advice to you?

Take pride in what you do
and never follow suit;
your days are numbered;
be true to them.

Poems, Slightly Used, a growing collection of work first published in William Michaelian's blog, Recently Banned Literature, can be found here. (Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.)

Note to self: I must remember to post more frequently to this blog because not doing so means having to catch up, rusulting in waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy too much material. No one wants to read that much in one sitting. (Not that anyone reads these postings anyway, but it’s a reminder to me to de-verbositify myself. )

New Year’s Resolution No. 4: Nix the verbosity.

ཧ་གོ་མ་སོང་ ["I don't understand" ... in Tibetan]