Author Archives: Julie Larios

Bits and Pieces

Empty House

Oof. Empty house.

For the last two weeks, my husband and I have been prepping the house for a floor refinishing: a crew will come in on Monday and begin to bring the tired red-oak hardwood floors back to their former glory. Clearing the books, furniture and tchotchkes out (oh, my God, so many books, so many tchotchkes) has helped me organize a few things, it’s true. But the empty main floor rooms now echo when we speak, and the effect is strange.  It’s eerie, emptying out a house without actually moving out –  a little like having a family member suddenly go berzerk and start running around naked. I feel both amused by it and embarrassed for it…

[…funny how typing out the word “embarrassed” makes me see how similar it is to “bare assed”….]

Sorry – what was I saying? It’s easy to fall right off a cliff when it comes to thinking about how strange words are, isn’t it? Ah, yes, I was talking about an empty house.

When a house gets down to only walls, floors, ceilings and windows, all the flaws of the poor creature show. The little buckles in the wallboard underneath the bedroom windowsills where condensation dripped before we could afford to replace the old windows – we’ve been meaning to fix those for so long. Then there’s the dust on the very top of the tall dining room hutch – you know, where I haven’t dusted since we moved it in twenty-eight years ago. There’s the newly exposed place behind the bookcases that’s a different color than the rest of the room – we got lazy and didn’t move the bookcases when we repainted. Time to unlaze.

On and on it goes, the list of little neglected things about an old house – bedraggled, rumpled, familiar. Both sweet and destitute. It’s as if our house over the years became an old hooker with a heart of gold. Or a featured structure on the  Abandoned NYC blog.

The-Turbine-Room_New-York_Untapped-Cities_Will-Ellis11

This is the point in my post where I might normally turn the whole “empty house” thing into a metaphor for the writing process, but honestly, the hard work of emptying each room has left me feeling singularly uncreative, mentally. Hard work can do that –  which is obvious if you think about how few coal miners or restaurant dish-washers or factory-line workers have enough energy left to be creative. And this hard labor moment of mine is temporary – I’m not going down any mine shafts day after day.

For example, I took time out for the Oscars (even the red-carpet silliness.)  And I took a walk around Greenlake because February sunshine in Seattle cannot be ignored. And even with all I’ve had to do, I’ve been conscientiously reading the headlines from all the newsletters and posts I get in my email each morning via the New Yorker, The New York Times, Bill Moyers, Facebook, The Guardian, ad infinitum. When I’m tired, I save up the reading of the whole articles/essays for “later.”

I’m going to share half-a-dozen links from my last list of Things-to-Read-Later, which I’ve just managed to go back and read now that the rooms echo. Each bit and piece has something to do with creative endeavors, which is what Books Around the Table is all about, and which I hope to get back to more fully once the rooms of the house are full again, and which (in a perfect world) everyone would have the time and energy for.

Robert Frank's "Miners"

Robert Frank’s “Miners”

You can follow these links at your own convenience, depending on the state of your house, state of your head, state of your free time, and/or your comfort level with disorganized browsing. My comfort level with that activity lately has been high.

1. Click here for a gorgeous piece of writing by George Szirtes for the latest issue of Poetry: “Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza and Pattern.” It’s an essay for those of us interested in poetry’s musicality and mystery. Here’s a teaser: “Sure, rhyme can be predictable. The good poet’s job is to make it less so. On the other hand rhyme is also a mnemonic and an early pleasure. Rhyme is an extraordinary and surprising coincidence….I would contend that the constraints of form are spurs to the imagination: that they are in fact the chief producers of imagination.” 

2. Click here and here to see the paper-sculpture work of Patti Grazini, who has a new show currently at Seattle’s Curtis Steiner Gallery. Grazini never fails to amaze.

3. Click here for some thoughts of my own over at Write At Your Own Risk, about what to keep, what to throw out, what you own, what owns you, how random news clippings can become sources of inspiration, and how basements come in handy.

4. Click here for a look at a N.Y. Times article about the National Gallery of Art’s new Robert Frank online archive.  One of the photos in Frank’s book The Americans  provided the inspiration for my first published poem. That article, by the way, is part of a wonderful series at the New York Times called LENS: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism. Articles from it often end up on my Read-It-Later list.  Click here to see the most current posts.

robert-frank-drugstore-detroit-1955

From Robert Frank’s The Americans – Drugstore, Detroit, 1955

5. Click here to read an interview in which the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who made Birdman) talks about reading Raymond Carver and Tolstoy.

6. I’ll share one of my poems with you because it’s about seizing the day and about Time with a capital T, as in never having enough.

Carpe Something

Before we can sneeze,
it’s another day.
In some accelerated way
it’s now impossible to seize
the day. Instead, let’s seize
things sideways, let’s side-step days,
let’s seize things month-wise.
Let’s give that a try, please.
Or thirty tries. Or thirty-one tries.

And that’s it for my post today. Bits and pieces this time around, while my muscles ache and my creativity recovers.

Who We Write For

I have a very simple post for you today. It’s a scan of a letter written by my grandson to his mother, my daughter. All I want to say about it is that my grandson is like so many kids we write for – whole-hearted, loving, passionate, living in the moment, a little tremulous. Kids throw themselves at their wishes  -large and small – with terrifying force. They’re vulnerable. They’re courageous. They’re scared. They’re willing to work hard for what they want. They dream big, they beg big, and they imagine big. We can’t give a cute black Dutch bunny to everyone who wants one.  After all, some families (like my daughter’s) already have one bird, one dog, and several fish, not to mention wild deer and wild turkeys wandering through their gardens. So no, the bunny might not be ours to give.  But as writers, we can give kids stories. And stories, too, change lives.

image

On the Writing of Essays (Don’t Groan)

UKLGSteering

Essays by Ursula Le Guin…

This last week I’ve been reviewing final versions of several lectures I delivered to students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts during the seven years I taught there. Seven years means fourteen semesters, with a few semesters “off duty” when I was excused from delivering a full-blown lecture.

One semester I helped organize a Good vs. Evil Day – Tim Wynne-Jones and I asked students to think about villains and heroes, and about writing characters who were either flawed good guys or appealing bad guys – the theory being that no person is either completely good or completely bad. Villains are more interesting if they see themselves as heroes (in the style of Inspector Jauvert of Les Miserables, who believes that his love of law and order means he is always “keeping watch in the night” against chaos and corruption) and heroes are definitely more interesting if they’re three-dimensional, if they’re good but at the same time flawed or complicated (“The self is always under construction…” says Peter Turchi, and “…the multiplicity of selves is what allows change.” ) Or, as Walt Whitman put it, “I contain multitudes.” Students had fun with that presentation, but it seemed a given – “Deepen your characters” is not exactly new advice – and I didn’t ever consider repeating it.

Katherine Paterson

Essays by Katherine Paterson…

Another semester I worked to put together a workshop (later repeated with students of the regular MFA writing program) about the need for play in works of poetry and fiction, and how artificial “constraints” allow for a game-playing mind-set. We looked at the rules of poetic forms – a sonnet, a villanelle, a sestina, a double abecedarian. Trying to stay “inside the lines” counter-intuitively frees us up, that’s what I was trying to say. We end up producing work that surprises us, and everyone knows that “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” So we played and wrote  responses to “challenges” with devilishly hard constraints (Ever try a “syntax map”? If not, count yourself lucky. Ever translate work without knowing the original language at all?) I had high hopes for that presentation – but it didn’t come together the way I expected it to. If the students had all been writing poetry, it might have worked. But it was hard to convince fiction writers that constraints would improve their fiction. Win some, lose some.

celebrating children's books

Essays by Paula Fox, Jill Paton Walsh, Virginia Hamilton, Susan Cooper, E. L. Konigsburg, Arnold Lobel, Myra Cohn Livingston, David Macaulay….

Most semesters I delivered a straight-forward lecture from a podium. I started my first semester at VCFA with a lecture about poetry, since that was my “specialty.” Later I moved on to a lecture about the need to be a “flaneur” and wander the neighborhood/city/world with every observational skill on the alert, eavesdropping, following people (a la Maira Kalman), taking photos. That lecture was well-received, but I realized I couldn’t ever quite predict what the students were hungry to hear or learn about. My solution to that was to choose my topics based only on whatever interested me at the time. I had just read Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, so the art of the flaneur was what my students got.

One of my most successful lectures – that is, the one students responded to with the most enthusiasm – was about maps in works of fiction. It seemed to me that quite a lot of student work I had been reading had forgotten that stories and the characters who inhabit them take place in real space, and if you don’t give your characters a landscape and a place to stand in that landscape, then they are literally not “grounded.” Students brought maps of the locales in which their stories were unfolding. What a treat! My favorite was a completely black map with “aromas” attached (kind of scratch-and-sniff-ish) because the student’s story involved anthropomorphized insects with great charm and personality and a well-developed sense of smell.  The result of that lecture was published in The Horn Book, though the magazine couldn’t publish the maps I showed on a large screen to students – maps from Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Ramona Quimby’s neighborhood, the 100-acre wood of Winnie-the-Pooh, Narnia. and many others.

I delivered one lecture that I thought would go over like a lead balloon, about the “artful sentence,” because I’d been reading Virginia Tufte’s wonderful book of the same name.

tufte

I pulled examples from the work of M.T. Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavion Nothing, Traitor to the Nation), Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels), and Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street.) I beat my usual drum about how sentences actually have rhythm the way music does; somehow, the students just lit up and loved it. What a surprise that was. If students tripped consistently over a single stumbling block, it was the sound quality of their sentences. I assumed, going in to that lecture, that they weren’t interested. But apparently what I said sparked a little flame.  For beginning writers, so much effort goes into moving forward with plot that the quality of the language gets shoved aside. So I talked about flow and fluidity, and about the effect of hard stresses, and accented syllables that echoed the action itself.

My favorite lecture, though – the one I had the most fun working on and the one that reflected a years-long obsession of my own – was titled “Who Am I? What the Lowly Riddle Reveals.” Students read the packet description and expected “What’s black and white and read all over?” puzzles, and instead I wanted to help them consider metaphorical thinking – the art of understanding sub-surface connections between one thing (an object?)  and another (a state of mind or emotion?) I talked about metaphors being the equivalent of riddles, and about how to keep metaphor-making fresh so that our writing will be exciting. That lecture was later published in Numero Cinq magazine.

My last lecture before retiring was about flash fiction. I was interested, and it was a lot of fun, since it was a plea once again to play with form. But I relied heavily on excerpts from other people’s work, and though the fun showed up, my own imaginative thinking was tamped down.

Just today I sent two of those lectures in, polished up into essay form (drop the jokes, forget the slideshow) for a possible presentation to editors of a book anthologizing craft lectures from the faculty of VCFA. My creative interest really has been in essays lately rather than in stories. I can feel a soft wind pushing my boat that direction.

And here at Books Around the Table I want to encourage readers who feel that same wind to take a look at putting on the hat of an essayist. It’s through essay writing that I learn more and more about writing – by having to articulate a specific aspect of craft, I make myself more aware of what’s at work in not only other people’s writing, but in my own.

a muse and a maze

Next time you read a book of essays about writing (not the how-to kind but the why-to) see how the author is doing what he or she does. What makes it more interesting than a textbook? What might you say about the same topic? I just finished a glorious craft book – absolutely delightful – called A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic by Peter Turchi (author of Maps of the Imagination. ) It’s a perfect model. Read it. Dissect Turchi’s technique. Think about the obsession that drove him to write a whole book about how writing is similar to (but not the same as) the work of a magician like Houdini or a puzzle-maker like Will Shortz. Then think about your own obsessions. What do you want to figure out?

It’s not the essay writing that you had to do in college which, at the time, might have resembled a trip to the dentist – you  groaned and got it done, but it didn’t fill you with pleasure.  Instead, see the art of essay-writing as an opportunity for growth as a creative writer. The research, the re-reading of favorite books (reading to understand how a certain effect is achieved), the organizing of thoughts, the actual writing, all of it is pleasurable now. Something about good old prose is similar to a Shaker chair, if you know what I mean – unfussy, direct, clean, spare, useful, graceful. It’s been good for me. It might be good for you, too.

Even More on Lines, Architectural and Musical

Speaking of lines (Julie Paschkis’s post of two weeks ago and Laura Kvasnosky’s post last week) I’ve been thinking a little about narrative lines (which accumulate into stories) and lyrical lines (which accumulate into poems.) What got me started on all this, in relation to those most recent posts, was this video (if the embedded video doesn’t play, just click here.) I wrote a little about it in my own blog, The Drift Record, last week, but I want to share it here on Books Around the Table:

I have no idea what that song says. But the woman enlivens it in a way that suggests both revelry (the woman’s full-throated delivery, her delight) and sorrow (the waver, the dip at times into a quieter voice, the frown.) Someone told me “It could be a drinking song.” Yes, it could be, though not many drinking songs fall into a minor key.  Could be a love song? Doesn’t feel quite dreamy or tender enough – I don’t hear betrayal or devotion in it.  I watch and listen to it all again and again, to hear her voice, to watch her eyebrows and eyes and smile, to see the way her hands move, to hear the phrasing of the words in combination with the melody.  I let the nonsense (that is, the non-sense of it) into me.

Music (poetic line) vs. Meaning (narrative line.) I like thinking about those terms. They’re a little combative, and the longer I contemplate them, the more sparks they send off.

I have a knee-jerk reaction to poems where I can find no hint of music – meter, rhyme, alliteration, repetition, consonance, assonance, discernible patterns…all those tricky and beautiful tools poets can use to make their work memorable, word by word. My eye scans over a poem looking for them – they can hide! –  and if I don’t find them on first scan, I have to cut the poem some slack in order to like it.  Once in awhile, the slack allows me to discover a poem with a compelling narrative line or a way of looking at the world which is interesting even if non-musical. But usually, the lack of craftsmanship (which is what knowing how to use those tools is all about) leaves me cold. Confess what you want to confess in prose, fine, but if you’re going to write a poem, craft it and let it sing the way the woman in that video sings. Think about structure. Think about melody.

Structure? What’s that have to do with poetry? Certainly both stories and poems have structures. Fiction isn’t built on air, no matter how short (microfiction) or long (oof – 784 pages – The Goldfinch, anyone?) nor is poetry, despite the fact that a poem can feel light as air. Look hard enough (that’s our job as careful readers, and as writers, right?) and you’ll find a structure. But the narrative lines of poetry and fiction seem architectural – they determine, often, whether the story or poem stands or falls. The overriding metaphor when thinking of literature this way is in how relates to physics – what weight will the wall ( the story / the poem) bear before it collapses? Literary work can be mathematical in the same way architecture can be – you want it to stand up.

moving-wall-diagrams

But the words of a poetic line also involve song (fiction sentences not as much, unless readers and critics call it “poetic” writing.) The poetic line involves breath, syllables fall on a musical scale; they involve both meter and patterns of vocalization. The lines of a lyric poem can play out as musical notes, which is why poems and songs so often convey emotion and meaning even if untranslated.

steppe

If I hum that, will I get the tonal register of it…?  Obviously, providing us with meaning and music  is why lines of great poetry remain memorable. But I find it fascinating that a song or a poem can transfix us without any translation provided.  That’s what Archibald MacLeish means in his poem “Ars Poetica,” when he tells us that “a poem should not mean but be.”

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.

Archibald MacLeish

I used to think the last two lines of that poem were non-sensical – they irritated me. But the more I read poetry, the more I can make room for it. Ideally, I’d like a poem to both mean AND be. But I can let go of meaning – I can enjoy the experience of a poem just washing over me or – in the case of that video – filling me up.

By the way if you know what that song says, don’t tell me yet. I’m savoring not knowing!!

On Angels and Hankies and the Plague

IMG_1194Noticing cobblestones – the wonderful patterns, a few stones missing….

When I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to begin their semester with me by telling me where their attention had come to rest recently. This usually produced blank stares, and I had to further explain: I was asking them to tell me what turned their heads, what had they been looking at and noticing recently, what pulled at them so hard that they couldn’t walk past it, what bit of information had come in randomly which they couldn’t let go of, what compelled them to pause and wonder, what made them investigate further.

IMG_1548Began noticing clouds, began looking up photos of terrifying clouds.

I didn’t want anything philosophical, at least not at the surface level, and I didn’t want to hear about anything they were using for a current creative project. I just wanted to hear about physical objects or facts about the real world – where their “attention came to rest” that had little to do with anything else they were involved with. This would help me as a teacher, not only to see how well they could articulate their quirks and idiosyncrasies (and tangentially, to see if they could handle prose) but to open up a conversation about obsessions – my having come to the conclusion early on that artists are, in general, obsessive about unusual things.

IMG_0878  Began to collect old photos of long-gone orchards.

Cherry Orchard, San JoseSigh. Another ghost orchard.

I also thought that once students noticed what they were noticing, they would begin to see patterns emerge, and patterns could tell them a lot about who they were as artists in the world.

IMG_1038Patterns everywhere, even in stacks of firewood…

If my students remained confused, I offered examples of my own: I once bought an old postcard of handkerchiefs in a store window. I found the postcard at a Paper Ephemera fair and couldn’t put it down. A whole storefront window full of handkerchiefs on display: so unusual, so marvelous! Even thinking of it now fills me with pleasure. That was something I could not just “walk past” – I bought that postcard.

Another example: the Plague.

Black DeathThe Plague – I couldn’t get enough of it. The more gruesome, the better.

I developed a fascination with the Black Death  – how it spread across Europe in the 14th century. I had a whole stack of books checked out of the library. I looked up primary documents from the time, I researched art work – simple woodcuts sometimes, or complicated images of it in religious iconography and architectural decoration. My obsession with it was feverish – I needed to learn more about something horrible and mysterious, something that I had only a marginal interest in until it suddenly grabbed hold of me and would not let go.

IMG_1127Shiny jars and lids turned my head…

That kind of thing – that was what I was asking students about. Once explained, the writing exercise took off – most students provided me with fine descriptions of all kinds of unusual things, and they were glad to be reflecting on the question. But for some students – quite a few more than I anticipated – even the explanation and the examples were not enough.

IMG_1164as did a small man on a large vase…

It seemed impossible to me that they were not stopped in their tracks by anything – that their unique perspective on gazing (from which place “voice” comes) never made them catch their breath and STOP. So I looked for a more plausible explanation: was it possible that they were unaware of what caught and held them – were they not paying attention to what they paid attention to?

IMG_1185and the twenty days of the Zapotec calendar: crocodile, lightning, shredded meat, deer, water, knot, monkey, loofah, heart, cornstalk, eye, thunder, humid, drip, lord…plus a few question marks.

I think that’s dangerous territory for someone who wants to write – a lack of attention to your own physical responses to the things of this world, and an inability to list (inarticulate as that list might prove to be) what you’ve been noticing.

IMG_1229Couldn’t get enough of this camel, either. Especially those lips. Looked up “camel” in the encyclopedia.  Lots to know.

The photos I’m inserting into this post are of things that caught and held my attention this year. I might not be able to articulate the “why” behind my fascination – sometimes it seems to be a simple aesthetic response, sometimes my gaze turns to an object at an instinctive level, sometimes it’s quite clearly intellectual. But I do like to try to ponder the puzzle of what caught me in the first place.

IMG_1343Looked up “fireflies,” too.

If you haven’t been noticing what you notice, try taking a simple digital camera with you (or use the camera on your phone)  whenever you go out, and make a record of anything that turns your head and makes you pause.

IMG_1582Patterns, even in popsicles.

Reflect on it, think through what the fascination is. With those handkerchiefs, so beautifully displayed in that vintage photo, the effect was one of tremendous grace, similar to the effect on me recently of an organ played in the great cathedral of Mexico City.  Angels sang, and up the song rose, up into the domed ceiling, echoing around, filling me up.

IMG_1898What is it about watercolor paint tins? So messy. So gorgeous.

That sounds absurd. Or maybe not. Maybe someday that window full of hankies will make their way into a poem. For now, I’m only grateful for getting swept off my feet by that photo. Linen hankies – a whole huge window full. Angels sang.

Window Display - HankiesAbraham & Straus Department Store, Brooklyn, circa 1895.

————————————————————————————–

It’s Poetry Friday again, and I have some thoughts about wandering and coming home (as a follow-up to my post here on August 29th about a planned trip to Oaxaca) plus a favorite poem by Nelson Bentley, over at The Drift Record today.  To head over there, click here.

Writing with All Six Senses

photoEscudo_Tianguis_de_Tlacolula_Tlacolula_Header

In just a few days my husband and I leave home once again for Oaxaca, having visited just last year and decided it’s the kind of place we want to spend more time. Slow time, slow food, slow reading, slow walking…time to slow down in general. Oaxaca has many plazas with many benches – great places for slow listening (to very fast music, sometimes) and quiet watching. Last year we had just over a week at a nice B&B, and we experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations; this time around, we’re renting an apartment of our own (with kitchen!) and staying for a month, outside the real tourist season in order to get a better feel for what the town is like for the locals. When we go to the market now and see all that delicious fresh fruit, bread, vegetables – we can buy what we want and cook it up back at the apartment. Time to give different moles a try.

A friend asked me whether I would be doing any writing while in Oaxaca, and I wasn’t sure what to answer – yes, no, maybe? One thing I do know: I’m going to open myself, Diane Ackerman-style, to all the sensory input I can – sights, smells, textures, sounds and tastes (especially tastes – yes!)

Sights – the colors in the markets: flowers, fruit, vegetables, bread…

marchande_de_fleurs_a_oaxaca

fruit market

market021Oaxaca-Bread-01

 and the spectacular sky, whether stormy or bright…like this view from Monte Alban…

Mount-Ablan-Oaxaca-Mexico14-1024x685

 Smells – a cup of hot champurrado, especially sipped from a clay or greenware cup made in Atzompa (close your eyes and think steaming milk, corn flour, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, anise seed, plus the wet ceramic smell of the cup) and the ripe guavas in the markets(so sweet and pervasive, it can make you giddy)…

Oaxacas hot-chocolate

guayaplate-400x400

Textures – the soft cotton weavings, the hard rock walls, the delicate petals of a squash blossom…

huipiles

20110626_Oaxaca_385

squash-blossoms3

Tastes – so many! Moles of every color (coloradito, negro, verde, chichilo, amarillo  – here’s a recipe from Rick Bayless), tlayudas, tamales, jugos, pan dulce, pipian, and tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes…

7-moles-8 

MexicoMainlandOaxacaFoodMoles

tlayudajugos

 Sounds – birds in the trees, danzon music at the Zocalo every Wednesday

Watch this wonderful video of a midnight concert in Tlacochahuaya

and this video of the amazing organ in the church there)….

organ

Seems to me that writing which is not grounded in the senses is writing that becomes slack, abstract and dull. So I’ll let my five senses push me to write in Oaxaca. Plus one more: the sense of wonder. Can’t write without that.

Maybe I’ll be able to put those six senses together on a metate and work them, work them, work them…into a story.

metate

 

The Complete OED – Not Concise, Not Compact

OED“Compact” – from the Latin compactus, past participle of compingere meaning to put together closely (com+pangere = to make fast, to fasten.) Used as an adjective = Having the parts so arranged that the whole lies within relatively small compass, without straggling portions or members; nearly and tightly packed or arranged; not sprawling, scattered, or diffuse.

The word was used in 1676 by someone named M. Hale: “The Humane Nature..hath a more fixed, strong, and compact memory of things past than the Brutes have.” Since “the Brutes” can’t talk, I’m not sure how Mr. Hale came to his conclusion. Even so, the idea of “compact memory” intrigues me. I like the way it sounds – almost counter-intuitive. Can memory be compact? Maybe, maybe not. I feel a poem coming on….

OED 2

All this gets jotted down in my notebook because I just inherited from a beloved aunt a complete 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition – definitely NOT the “compact” nor the “concise” versions. It sprawls, in fact, and I’m having fun with it. Never thought I would own the complete set, pricey as it is, though I used to dream about it, especially when I was studying poetry in grad school, exploring language at the level of the word, the syllable, the glorious etymologies. My friends and I sometimes gave each other writing prompts that involved the OED, searching through the surprising etymological roots of a given word, then spinning the root a new direction, gathering fresh images and using phrases in surprising and odd ways (and what does “Say it new” really involve if not oddities and surprises?) The OED is perfect for exploring the “brute” side of language (i.e. its wild-animal, unpredictable nature and its “straggling” and “diffuse” parameters.)

Etymology is not unlike genealogy – both words and people have roots that ground them, histories which make an effort to explain them, and spirits which animate them. Both are subject to interpretation, despite the precision with which editors of dictionaries and encyclopedias (as well as genealogical experts) like to operate.  Here’s a typical OED entry, with guides for how to read it.

oxford-english-dictionary-pageI’m so grateful to have this 20-volume “toy” to play word games with (more ambitious than it sounds) and I hope my aunt comes to me in some form or another (a seal or heron is nice, though my dad actually claimed the latter when he died, and my grandmother the former….) so I can thank her. I like the idea that the people I’ve loved and lost come around in one form or another in an effort to stay in touch with me. They bob up or pass by (“passant = passing, transitory, transient, fugitive”) regularly when I’m at the beach, and I’m grateful. I’m sure my aunt will come to me  though I’m unsure still what form she’ll take. I’ll be on the lookout.

The OED set I now have is practically brand new, and I wish my aunt had been allowed many more years to study it and enjoy it. I found a paper tucked into Volume XVI (“Soot – Styx” – I even love those words on the cover – nicely matched, aren’t they?) which has the word “Spirit” written on it, along with the definition. In my aunt’s handwriting, it says, “Spirit – OED – the animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.” Indeed, the etymology goes back to the root “espirare” – meaning “to breathe.” The word “inspiration” has the same root.

We like to understand and define things. We like to know where the edges are and we usually like things tidy. Life isn’t always like that. Sometimes, it throws the whole 20-volume set at us, and we don’t feel like “the whole lies within relatively small compass.”  As a writer, I work with words, characters, history, roots.  And I work to make sense of things (isn’t that what “story” is – a desire to make sense?) When you lose someone you love, you tell yourself a story that more or less makes sense of it. But in 1898, someone named Illingsworth said, “If matter and spirit are thus only known in combination, it follows that neither can be completely known.”

I can live with that. Some of our stories present the compact edition, “tightly packed or arranged.” Some sprawl. A passing cormorant – a seal, a heron – lingers near us the next time we’re on the beach. We define what we can, and we leave the rest to mystery.

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

Reading Aloud

mother readingJPG

Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve my mom reading aloud to me and to my older brother and sister, John and Mary. At first, it was nursery rhymes and the poems of Eugene Field and Robert Louis Stevenson. Later came  Little Golden Books illustrated by Garth Williams. Once I hit elementary school, the “chapter books” (the phrase still thrills me) started: All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor turned me into a New-York-ophile for life.  Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater made me realize adults could be foolish dreamers, too; Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink helped me weather the world as a tomboy; Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis taught me how big – and small – the world was, Rifles for Watie  by Harold Keith – oh, Rifles for Watie! Mom cried, I cried, everybody cried.

Jesse Wilcox Smith

Jesse Wilcox Smith

Bedtime – time to read the next chapter! And when the chapter was finished, it was “Sleep tight,” and then the light were turned off. I fell asleep dreaming I was a soldier spy, I was a girl dancing at a hoedown, I was riding in a Chinese junk on a yellow river half-way around the world.

sant_fairy_tale

James Sant – “The Fairy Tale”

Bob Bloyd, my 6th-grade teacher at Booksin Elementary School in San Jose, California, also read aloud to the class each day – usually right before we got dismissed. He sent us home with the stories of Mark Twain, Jack London and Rudyard Kipling echoing around in our heads.  Since then I’ve always kept a short list of “People Who Can Read Me to Sleep” – usually well-known people whose voices appeal to me: James Earl Jones, of course; Jeremy Irons, who made the list after I listened to him read “Lolita”; Paul Auster, whose voice is smooth as butter; Seamus Heaney, with his Irish lilt; and (my personal favorite) Shelby Foote – I could listen to his soft voice forever (when you have time, take in this series of interviews of Foote talking about his childhood, especially what he says about his teachers in Video #3.)

The sound of a voice that transports you to other worlds….that’s what I wanted to give my children, and – I admit – I did it just as much for myself as for them, because I loved the way time slowed down at bedtime – there was nothing more enjoyable. And now my daughter is reading aloud each night to my grandson. He started early with books.

Jackson Reading Books

Now, seven years later and headed for second grade, he’s moved from picture books over to middle grade fiction.  Some of the bedtime stories his mom is reading to him  are old-fashioned  – Half-Magic by Edward Eager, The Borrowers by Mary Norton. These older books beg to be read aloud, since quick explanations (about words and word usage) help grease the gears and keep things running smoothly. My grandson enjoyed those two books as much as he enjoyed Harry Potter, and I ‘m positive that the pleasure came from the stories being shared with his mom.  I know that when I read Alice in Wonderland to my kids, we enjoyed it most because we were laughing together when the wordplay got silliest. Laughter shared with a child is so delicious.

Now the New York Times reports that the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that parents read aloud with their children. It’s sad to think that hasn’t been done before – what were they waiting for? But I’m not going to get crabby.  I’m just going to say “Hooray! ”

716px-Cassatt_Mary_Nurse_Reading_to_a_Little_Girl_1895

Mary Cassatt

For a look at the read-aloud moment with a slightly different twist, follow this link to Cody Walker’s wonderful post at The Kenyon Review, in which he talks about reading The Science Times aloud to his 7-month-old daughter.

Mother Reading to Children

James Shannon

 

Elizabeth Shippen Green

Elizabeth Shippen Green

On Delight, Despair and…Musical Chairs

cat_musical_chairs

Two things happened this week which made me pause amid the busy-ness of every day life (painting a bedroom, reorganizing the linen cupboard.)  The first was my grandson’s birthday. He is  seven wonderful years old – a whirlwind, a dreamer,a talker  – and his imagination never stops. He’s learning to play the piano and recently performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the one-handed  version on piano) by heart in front of a live audience of adoring parents and grandparents at a pizza parlor in Eugene, Oregon. We’ll have a little family party in Seattle for him this weekend when he comes up with his parents, and we have two presents this time around that he’ll get with the usual books and art supplies and stickers – one is a Superman robot with helicopter blades attached to his head (he flies up and down – not forward, not backward, apparently – and spins via remote control – not fancy, but fancy enough for a seven-year-old) and another is the same thing only the figure is Batman. Great stuff, if I do say so. I mean, who wouldn’t want helicopter blades that could make them levitate? Of such imaginings, delight is made.

The second thing that happened was a posting on Facebook by my good friend Leda Schubert that quoted Tomi Ungerer (“A talent without despair is hardly useful”) and asked for comments. I replied that I might revise that to read, “hardly interesting,” believing as I do that quite a lot of fascinating art comes from melancholy, dissatisfaction, darkness (think Maurice Sendak.) Within hours, a different person replied by saying, “Sorry but, blah blah blah. What is your comment? I am not interested in talent or despair.

Not interested in talent? Not interested in despair? Whoa. That threw me for a loop.  You can be interested in happiness, that’s fine with me – who isn’t? But to the exclusion of sorrow? And why not interested in talent? I suspect that the comment was not meant to be as flip as it sounded.

I also suspect sometimes that I have a dark edge that bumps up against the sweet world of children’s books and their authors –  a very kind and happy bunch of people, I’ve learned. I like their influence on me, and I thank them for keeping me slightly more balanced than I used to be when I was just writing poetry for adults (no shortage of despair in some of that.) But I do wonder from time to time about the energy it takes to approach the world “without a cry, without a prayer, / with no betrayal of despair” as Tennessee Williams put it. It exhausts me, the idea of trying to do that. Is that what the commenter on Leda’s post meant when he said he’s “not interested in despair.” Maybe he thinks it’s exhausting, and doesn’t want to go there. Or does he just not want anyone to mention it? Or was he just kidding, and I missed the humor of it?

Seems to me that not being interested in sorrow would eliminate about 51% (maybe more – 99%? –  let’s just say a great deal) of all the music, visual art, dance, film, theater and literature that is produced out of discomfort, melancholy, grief, or any of  the million small heartaches that move us to create – a longing for home, a dream gone up in smoke, missing someone, running out of hope. Those things happen in life, and to express disinterest feels very odd to me. “All you have to do,” I replied again on Leda’s Facebook page, “is listen to a sad fiddle tune or a good Rhythm and Blues song to know how interesting despair can be and how intricately it is linked to creativity.”

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "Children's Games."

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s  “Children’s Games.”

The intersection of the Happy Birthday moment and the Not Interested in Talent or Despair moment came yesterday when I read a poem  by Josephine Jacobsen, a Canadian poet whose work I’m looking into for one of my Undersung essays over at Numero Cinq. She wrote the following poem about children playing musical chairs at a birthday party. It has delight, it has sorrow – neither one eclipses the other. The two together deepen each other, don’t they?

Seems to me that the lesson to remember is this, so basic that it’s got to be true:  Don’t worry about those two crayons in the Crayola box – Delight and Despair. Use them liberally. Both – light and dark – make your work interesting.

Hope you all enjoy Jacobsen’s poem as I did – the terza rima form seems perfect for something that looks at a children’s game. It has a nursery rhyme feel to it, but packs a punch.  I bet both melancholy and delight played a role in her writing it.  We see the children running, we hear their eager cries, we worry about that dark slope, and we know that “somewhere hidden” there is “the shape of bliss.”

The Birthday Party  by Josephine Jacobsen

The sounds are the sea, breaking out of sight,
and down the green slope the children’s voices
that celebrate the fact of being eight.

One too few chairs are for desperate forces:
when the music hushes, the children drop
into their arms, except for one caught by choices.

In a circle gallops the shrinking crop
to leave a single sitter in hubris
when the adult finger tells them: stop.

There is a treasure, somewhere easy to miss.
In the blooms? by the pineapple-palms’ bark?
somewhere, hidden, the shape of bliss.

Onto the pitted sand comes highwater mark.
Waves older than eight begin a retreat;
they will come, the children gone, the slope dark.

One of the gifts was a year, complete.
There will be others: those not eight
will come to be eight, bar a dire defeat.

On the green grass there is a delicate
change; there is a change in the sun
though certainly it is not truly late,

and still caught up in the scary fun,
like a muddle of flowers blown around.
For treasure, for triumph, the children run

and the wind carries the steady pound,
and salty weight that falls, and dies,
and falls. The wind carries the sound

of the children’s light high clear cries.

Musical-Chairs-300x225

By the way, today is Poetry Friday.  Head over to Violet Nesdoly’s blog to see her round-up of what people around the KidLitOSphere have posted.

And by the way again, if you didn’t have time to check out the link to Ode to Joy above, take time to do it now. It’s the Flash Mob in Spain version – all delight. ———————————————————–

Swimming in Proust

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

In mid-May my book discussion group will meet to discuss Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s 7-volume masterpiece,  In Search of Lost Time.   We’re not taking on the whole seven volumes, of course – if any of us want to do that, we’ll do it on our own. But this overdue introduction to Proust (how is it I never got around to reading his work before this?) can be enough for now. I’m not sure how well we’ll all do with this book – book club members take Proust on with uneven results (click here for one take on that.)

Possible Book Club Reaction

Possible Book Club Reaction

Happily, I’m loving the book – no real surprise there, since I ask little from the plot line of a book and a lot from the language. Proust, who writes long, complicated sentences (even Proust’s whole name – Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – is Proustian!) can be challenging, but I like his digressive style, and I particularly like the way he plays with temporality and the idea that memories change the smell, sight, taste, texture and music of the present moment. I like to linger and float with a story – I need to move forward only so often. This ability to linger isn’t shared by everyone. An editor once said  to Proust’s brother, “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense, but I just don’t understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Swimming. Precisely. I like my head – my whole body – to swim in a piece of fiction, and I often shoot for that effect in my poetry.  Sometimes submersion is a good thing, and my natural inclination as a reader and a writer is to get a little obsessive about (and totally soaked to the skin by) anything that captures my interest [see ** note below.] When I read, I read in a trance. And during my more lucid moments with Swann’s Way, I dog paddle by doing Proust-related research.

I hunt up Proust’s precise landscape on the Internet…

The village of Illiers-Combray.

The village of Illiers-Combray.

I find a picture of his bed at Aunt Leonie’s house…

Proust Slept Here

Proust Slept Here

I look up a recipe for the very famous madeleine (sugar, flour, eggs, butter, salt, rosewater…aha, there’s the Proust: rosewater!):..

l_5181_madeleine“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…. but ….as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me …. immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage…” (from Swann’s Way.)

I imagine myself learning French and reading Proust in the original. “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: ‘Je m’endors.’ ”

And while I’m at it (speaking French), wouldn’t it be nice to go to France and see the original manuscripts…?

First Proofs - Swann's Way

First Proofs – Swann’s Way

I imagine the trip…I go to the Proust Museum. I drive around Normandy in a Peugeot. I read the remaining six volumes of In Search of Lost Time in a nice little cafe every morning for several months.  I order tea and a madeleine every day.  I write postcards home…

proust stamp

Chère famille, je suis toujours là en France. Je nage dans Proust.

I buy an old farmhouse and restore it…

Chez Julie

Chez Julie

also, considering Proust’s lifestyle, I buy a townhouse in Paris…

Paris Townhouse

and at night (no matter where I sleep) I take at least 30 pages to turn over in bed….

Viking/Penguin Classics came out with a new translation of the first volume, by the novelist Lydia Davis, about ten years ago, and now it’s true, I’m swimming in it. Maybe growing gills would be a good idea? It’s hard to come up and breathe the regular air when you’ve been spending afternoons with Proust. As if that weren’t enough, I’m trying to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life before our discussion because I think it will help me understand the profound effect this book has had on some writers I admire – both in terms of their own writing and in terms of the way they see the world.

There’s no guarantee I’ll love Swann’s Way through to the last page. But I’ll be glad to have read it. I’ll end here with this quotation from Proust. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across – it’s true, and it’s basic: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When writing teachers say, “Make it new,” that’s what they mean.

———————————————-

**Note: I say “swim,” but other people describe it in a less complimentary way. Consider this review of Proust’s work by another author whose writing I admire, Alexander Wollcott: “Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else’s dirty water.”

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by Pierre Bonnard

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by P. Bonnard

Ah, well  – that’s what’s fun about a book discussion group: so many different reactions to the same book! If you’re a writer, remember that you’re not writing to please the largest possible audience – that produces insipid writing. Instead, you’re writing for the reader who is going to feel buoyed by (immersed in, swimming in) the way you tell your story.