Yesterday I read all of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and about a third of My Antonia by Willa Cather. I have read a good deal more of the Cather today.
The Baldwin is, of course, very brilliant. There’s not real space here to unwind my thoughts about it. And perhaps my thoughts and words about it aren’t needed. Everything I think of seems too little, and also too self-centered and too big and too presumptuous. Which does not get me off the hook.
As for the Cather. I started this book years ago but couldn’t make it stick. That has nothing to do with Cather and much to do with my personality and obsessive ticks and sins of omission. I am older now, and hopefully wiser, and more disciplined. I love this book, and I can tell that I will miss it, and its people, when I finish. It reminds me on one level of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books my grandmother read to me when I was very small: the descriptions of frontier life, the harsh winters, the sod houses on the plains. It also reminds me how very close, in a real sense, my grandmother (born in the 20s) was to this kind of life. She was raised in town, but spent time with her cousins on their homestead with their heavy work and homemade toys and pig bladder balloons. I remember very vividly the story about the doll frozen in the puddle in the field. I remember very vividly my Grammy reading to me about the houses on the prairie, and the comic strips in our paper, which she called the funnies, and I remember her stories of the Depression, her impressions, later, of things like segregation. I think about James Baldwin saying that the writer’s task is to excavate the experience of the people that produced them, and about Robert Antoni’s idea that what so many of us are doing, across cultures, is preserving and re-telling our grandmother’s stories. That is very often what I’m doing. And it started with her determination that I should be read to, and that there were certain things that I should know, that certain things were good and certain things were not worth gretzing over.
I have not read Laura Ingalls Wilder ever on my own. 1983, 1984 are not so far back as I would have thought they’d be by now. Grammy’s voice and warmth still very much surround me. I am fortunate and grateful.
In the context of the class I’m teaching, it’s important to present the modern formal structures of essay clearly, and for students to be able to execute these schema even as they learn to hear, develop, and deliver their unique, respective voices. It’s also important that they (and that all of us) read widely and across foreign and familiar cultural and linguistic settings.
Braithwaite, of course, is not saying that iambic pentameter is a more formal, academic, or polished form of expression than are the cadences of his experience. The old English forms, unlike the basic structures of essay taught at the undergraduate level, are not conventions to be mastered and then moved on from. They are simply different from other expressions, and just as valid. But the insight he gives about the ways in which experience, geography, and culture influence our voices and our framing devices is brilliantly stated: the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.
In writing, the old sports adage also holds true: you have to get good before you can get fancy. Braithwaite or Ferlinghetti aren’t “fancy” in this sense, nor are the old English conventions necessarily “good.” But we do, all of us, carry points of reference, and for better or for worse, the discipline, practice, and art of writing in English or in the West in general requires a certain level of engagement with things like pentameter and people like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and, later, Whitman, Emerson, Twain, Conrad, Hemingway, etc. In writing and in physics, we’re dealing with relative values and definitions: neither our experience nor our execution manifest in vacuo, neither are they hatched like Athena, fully formed, fully armed, out of Zeus’s head. Motion is always relative, and so too is the spectrum from “good” to “fancy.”
But developing our voice as writers or as people requires the mastery of certain modes of expression. We might even say that without the narrative frames afforded to us by the convention of language, we’d be a very different species arranged in very different communities. Even if we can’t read or write, language has given us the ability to think of ourselves as objects with stories moving through time. Self-reflection is in most cases a function of narrative, ours or someone else’s. Mastering the elements of basic structure (getting “good” with the basic tools of the written trade) brings deeper possibilities of expression closer to our reach. I may understand, conceptually, a great many things about black holes, but I’ll likely make no significant contribution to the study of them if I’m not conversant in the language of higher mathematics, even if I say, with Einstein, that all motion and velocity are relative (save the velocity of C). “Good” and “fancy” may be relative terms, but they occur within a written and spoken frame of reference alongside our experiences and efforts toward understanding and expressing them.
It’s been said by Malcolm Gladwell (and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any given discipline. I like for students to keep this general idea in mind: you have to get good (proficient, comfortable, familiar, conversant) before you can get fancy. Visually, I’ve used the work of Picasso to drive this point home. Before he did his groundbreaking work, he become very proficient at using the language of the art world around him. Before he was a cubist or surreaist, he plied his craft in the artistic realm of realism. He became conversant at this formal aspect of the craft and, of course, transcended it. But without The Physician’s Palette, we wouldn’t have The Old Guitarist or Guernica.
We’ve been talking about all of these ideas over the first few weeks of class. While preparing for our most recent session, I decided I wanted to revisit the Brathwaite quote in particular and did a google search for “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.” The second result was for a tumblr blog called Poets of Color using the quote as a tag line. The most recent post on that blog?
Even my hat mocks me laughing on the inside of my grief –
My twisted mouth and gnashing teeth, my fingers fat and clumsy as if they were still wearing those gloves – the bloodstained ones you keep.
What has happened to the pupils of my eyes, Picasso?
Why do I deserve such deformity?
What am I now if not a cross between a clown and a broken piece of crockery?
But I am famous. People recognise me despite my fractures.
I’m no Mona Lisa (how I’d like to wipe the smugness from her face that still captivates.)
Doesn’t she know that art, great art, needn’t be an oil-painting?
I am a magnet not devoid of beauty.
I am an icon of twentieth-century grief.
A symbol of compositional possibilities
My tears are tears of happiness – big rolling diamonds.
Picasso, I want my face back the unbroken photography of it
Once I lived to be stroked by the fingers of your brushes
Now I see I was more an accomplice to my own unrooting
Watching the pundits gaze open-mouthed at your masterpieces
While I hovered like a battered muse my private grief made public.
Dora, Theodora, be reasonable, if it weren’t for Picasso you’d hardly be remembered at all. He’s given you an unbelievable shelf-life. Yes, but who will remember the fruits of my own life?
I am no moth flitting around his wick. He might be a genius but he’s also a prick – Medusa, Cleopatra, help me find my inner bitch, wasn’t I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?
Picasso, I want my face back the unbroken geography of it.
– Grace Nichols
Dora Maar (nee Markovitch) was Picasso’s long-time partner and the muse/model for much of his best-known work. She was also an up-and-coming artist in her own right in the 30s and 40s and photographed the creative process of Guernica. The diamond tears Nichols speaks of refer to Maar’s role as the face of The Weeping Woman, a sort of Guernica writ large. She also wrote poetry, and so we’re able to move from seeing Maar through Picasso’s lens to hearing Maar in Nichols’ voice to finally arriving at a place all writers want to be: seen as we see ourselves, heard in our very own voice:
Pure as a lake boredom I hear its harmony In the vast cold room The nuance of light seems eternal All is simple I admire the full totality of objects.
The soul that still yesterday wept is quiet — it’s exile suspended a country without art only nature Memory magnolia pure so far off I am blind and made from a bit of earth But your gaze never leaves me And your angel keeps me.
The hurricane does not roar in pentameters. Dora Maar does not speak in the voice of Picasso or Nichols but is still, for them, an indelible symbol, a cypher for their own struggles (theirs and their peoples’). Behind that is a person with a point of view and a voice, a photographer-poet wrestling with the ecstatic anxieties of having both and of using them. That’s what we’re talking about here.
This is very, very exciting on many levels, not the least of which being how good the story was the first time I read it in an amazing seminar led by Robert Antoni and how great it remains. John, we are all very, very proud of this success!
I was reading an interesting post on Bookish Us about an article at The Guardian on tricking men into reading more books. The Guardian post links to another Guardian post in which Ian McEwan says the novel will die when women stop reading. The degree to which this project scares or saddens you depends, I suppose, on what you think a novel is supposed to be. On Friday, I collapsed the differences between Jerry Lee Lewis and Grandmaster Flash because they’re collapsible, up to a point. William Faulkner and mass-market popular fiction…not as much.
Do men read less than women? I sort of doubt it, but they do seem to buy fewer books. Since my MFA thesis is a novel, and I have another one about 2/3 finished in manuscript form and I hope to finish and sell them both this spring (agents, feel free to use the contact form), I think about these things. There are probably all kinds of reasons that men don’t spend as much money on books as women do, but it does seem to me that over the last 10 years, the commercial publishing industry has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to cutting its own demographic in half. The devil may wear Prada, but I don’t know many men who read Lauren Weisberger. I know that reference is a bit dated, but you get the point.
Yes, most of the books geared specifically to people who enjoy mass-market fiction aren’t landing in anyone’s serious canon anytime soon. And there are books and authors that do fit into pre-existing market for guys who like to read. But what about making readers out of men who don’t?
I’d start with Hemingway. Sure, it’s like that scene in High Fidelity (ahem) where Jack Black makes fun of John Cusack for going with safe choices, but Nirvana makes Rob’s Top Five for a reason. So I’ll start with Big Papa. If Judy Bloom can get new covers geared to today’s tween demographic, surely a marketing department can come up with some manspired covers for The Old Man and The Sea or The Sun Also Rises. I’m not saying this would transmute every non-reader, but it would be fun. This is a good start, but we can do better. How about Edith Hamilton’s recently re-branded Mythology? (I actually don’t like the new look, but they’re trying. What they need is Zack Snyder’s design team.) You know what I would buy the crap out of for all of my friends who hate their office jobs? A copy of Bartleby The Scrivener with a bleak circa Fight Club office cubicle cover.
Speaking of. I like Chuck Palahniuk. His rhythm makes sense, sounds honest to me. And he gets savaged by genteel critics and then doesn’t have the good sense to not respond. I love all of this. (Speaking of which, I just remembered that last night I had a dream where I was hanging out with Liam Gallagher. He was delightful.) There’s nothing flowery or excessive about what Palahniuk does. He just sort of sounds like the sad, exasperated voice most many live with and don’t talk about. What Updike called “quiet desperation” via Thoreau. I don’t read his more graphic stuff, but I have to say that his nonfiction collection is great and Rant and Diary are two of my favorite recent reads. He also writes great essays on craft.
Faulkner. Before I read The Sound and The Fury, I thought my mission was to sort of be a more hopeful minimalist in Palahniuk’s line. My first novel (still in draft and still in progress) is sort of like that, with some narrative flourishes that Chuck (and certainly Gordon Lish) would excise. But then I took a vernacular class with Robert Antoni and really read The Sound and The Fury and the scope of my quarry (and thesis project) changed. I’m going bigger. Sometimes too big, but I’ll work all of that out by graduation.
Picking up from where Friday’s post was originally headed, I also want to say this: the publishing world doesn’t need a punk moment to reach out to men. It doesn’t need a new rock ‘n’ roll or a new Elvis. It just needs to stop casting the entire literary enterprise as something implicitly attractive to women or the speculative niche. And some good books with a few cus words and nuance. And awesome covers. Like I said, agents should feel free to use the contact form. You know you want to.
Curating these older posts now (November of 2018), I can’t believe it’s been almost nine years since the first night of a fiction seminar with Robert Antoni that was among the most influential and important sustained experiences of my life.
I never got around to writing very much for Bkish, partly because I rather quickly became consumed with a vernacular project in Robert’s class. It was a fiction seminar, but it was also an amazing workshop. I don’t think Bkish exists any longer.
If dispatch and slingshot still exist, they aren’t loading. The thoughts below are from January 2010.
A few timely things I wanted to share:
My piece, “So We Had A Wake”, is up at slingshot litareview, which is part of the dispatch family. Please check it out and feel free to comment.
Bookish Us has become Bkish. I’m looking forward to blogging for that great site in the near future. Many thanks to Joe, site creator and editor, for inviting me to be a part of it. From Bkish:
Bkish is a literary opinion and aggregate blog; from author interviews and book news, to reviews and recommendations, to event and journal announcements, we try to cover the entire spectrum of literary goings-on across the globe.
Had my first class with Robert Antoni last night. The class participants are great (I had the pleasure of meeting and working with many of them last semester) and I’m really looking forward to the reading list, projects, and Robert’s insight. A great first night.