Revisiting Home through Literature

blog2On this day in 2013, I was in Scotland. Last fall I studied abroad at the University of St. Andrews, and I couldn’t have been more delighted. Aside from the natural thrill of traveling to a foreign country, I was especially excited to see the United Kingdom. It was my first visit, and as an avid reader of British literature, I’d dreamed of going there for as long as I can remember. Reading stories set in Britain was intrinsically tied to my desire to be there in person – whether because of my fondness of the books that took place there, or because the authors made it sound so appealing. Which exactly I couldn’t say, but both probably played a large part.

I do know that some of my excitement to see Scotland in particular came from a novel I’d recently read – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, a historical romance set in Scotland (now a series on Starz). I would have fallen in love with Scotland without any outside help, but visiting specific places I’d already read about and envisioned certainly heightened my anticipation and enjoyment.

Now that I’m home again, I’m experiencing the flip side of that kind of enjoyment by reading a book set in a place I know well: St. Andrews, Scotland. One of my professors at St. Andrews had told me that there was a medieval murder mystery series set in town, and as I love mysteries, my interest was piqued. I hunted down the first book in the series, Hue and Cry by Shirley McKay, at the local bookstore, absurdly pleased that the price printed on the back cover was listed in pounds, not dollars.

I never got around to reading the novel while I was at St. Andrews – I was too busy doing coursework and exploring Scotland – but now that I’m back in the States, I’ve picked it up again. I’m enjoying the story of Hue and Cry, but I’m primarily reading it because of blog4its setting, which I’ve never done before. When I read it, I almost feel like I’m back in St. Andrews. Granted, it’s set in the sixteenth century, so it’s not an exact recreation of the town I know. But I read about the protagonist walking the town’s three main streets (North, Market, and South) with pleasure, and I can even recognize the names of smaller lanes and wynds. It shows the cathedral now in ruins at the beginning of its decline, and although the seaside it describes is bustling with fishermen, it makes me recall my own peaceful walks along the chilly beach. Reading Hue and Cry takes me back to the place I called home for four months. It’s bittersweet as nostalgia always is, and can make me miss Scotland all the more.

Never before have I read literature as a way to revisit a place where I’ve lived and left. For me, it’s been much more common to learn about and envision places I’ve never been from authors’ descriptions, although I don’t always want to go there. I know I’m in the South now, and I’m sorry, Southerners, but reading Faulkner and O’Connor didn’t make the South especially appealing. But I imagine Southerners can appreciate the sense of place in those works best for the same reason I’m enjoying Hue and Cry, though I’m no Scottish native, and McKay is no O’Connor. The familiarity and truth in the writer’s description of place adds a whole other dimension to their work, which I’m only now beginning to appreciate.

For me, Hue and Cry has a kind of escapism I’ve never encountered before – one founded on real experiences. Instead of picturing somewhere I’ve never been but where I want to go, I’m remembering a well-loved place where I once lived. It’s a new way of reading for me, though I’m sure it’s familiar for many others. In time, as I continue to travel and explore new places, I expect I’ll come across it more and more. Maybe in the years to come I’ll search for literature set in Lexington, longing to recall those good old college days. But for now, I’ll be in St. Andrews.

 

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The Trade

sarah1Professional conferences. We’ve all been to them, and I’ve probably attended more than my share. When I was in graduate school and then on the job market, the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference created both excitement and dismay as we newly-minted PhDs sent out our many applications and then compared notes on our interviews. In our first positions as assistant professors, we continued to attend, hoping to make our names as scholars and writers. Soon after I got my first tenure-track job, I returned to writing poems, and the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual meeting quickly eclipsed MLA, where writers could hear panels on the craft and individual readings, meet editors, find books from new or small presses, and connect with other poets and fiction writers. I would go to meet other poets and to seek out editors of journals I liked, had been published in, or aspired to be in. The book fair in those days was a highlight, because, well, we were there because we loved books and writing, right?

Not always. I found, as the years went by, that these conferences became monstrously rats-trapped-cagelarge and that the presentations on offer were too many in too short a time. Too many panels, too many readings: I couldn’t see them all and often ended up frustrated and exhausted. Rats in a cage. It wasn’t the mood I wanted to return to my writing in. And the book fair, especially at AWP, was so sprawling that finding anyone or really seeing anything among the packed tables and narrow aisles was practically impossible. Like MLA, AWP seemed to devolve into just another “look and veer” meeting, at which attendees encounter others, look quickly at their nametags, then veer away rapidly if the person isn’t famous enough.

This weekend, I found myself at a new kind of conference, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association meeting. I sat at the book fair table of Knox Robinson Publishing, with whom I’ve published two novels, The Altarpiece (2013) and City of Ladies (2014). My third, The King’s Sisters, comes out next August. My previous books were all poetry collections, and I had no idea how different it is to market a novel, but I had sat at tables during AWP and thought this wouldn’t be too different.

sarah2The book fair was full, to be sure, but all of the publishers could fit into one large ballroom. Even though Knox Robinson is a small independent, we were given a good spot near a couple of the big publishers, and instead of being squeezed together, we could all see—and walk—easily across to the other side of the room. The fair was only open for one Saturday, which was perfect, as it concentrated all of the energy into a short time. Our table held Dana Robinson (founder of Knox Robinson), as well as KR authors Victoria Wilcox, Michael Oates, Hilary Holladay, and me. Booksellers kept us busy, and we talked to a steady stream of store owners from the eastern seaboard. We handed out advance review copies of our books (ARCs) as well as copies of our earlier novels to anyone who was interested, and they shared with us stories of the independent bookstore business. We talked history (Knox Robinson specializes in historical fiction), business, travel, and, of course books.

It was pleasant, friendly, yes, a bit hectic for a while, but energizing. I was having a great time, but it wasn’t until the middle of the afternoon that I was struck with the reason. We were all talking frankly and openly about the reason we were there: books and the business of books. There was little posturing and less pretentiousness. It was all about the books and not about who seemed personally cool and who did not. People certainly checked each other out, and introduced themselves to people they wanted to talk to, but they did it without the charade—so obvious to anyone who’s been at these meetings—of pretending to be too important to need to ask someone’s name.

Nobody who writes, publishes, or sells books needs to be told that the industry is hierarchical, but at this conference that stratification didn’t seem to govern the social interactions at meals, panels, or the book fair. I spoke to everyone I wanted to—and met many people who tirelessly work at promoting books in their stores. Many of them received their first Knox Robinson books from us—but they remembered who we were later that day and wanted to talk more about our books. Colleagues of our distributor, Midpoint Books, came over to say hello and meet the authors of the books they help get into the market.

NAIBA was informative, exciting, and (there’s no better word) fun. We didn’t have a big dance and no one got sloppy drunk and misbehaved. We didn’t pack the hotel. What we did, however, was talk, plan, and work toward our mutual goal of getting new hardcovers and paperbacks to readers in the most sensible, mutually beneficial ways possible. And in these days of talk about the death of print and the inability of American children to concentrate, I found the conversation both stimulating and optimistic. Publishing is a business, yes, but the product is unique—the source of our ideas, fantasies, and information—and many small bookstore owners are little short of heroic in their efforts to connect authors with their customers. This weekend, I saw that the business is thriving, and readers do still exist. They’re mostly not at conferences, however, either academic or “creative.” They’re mostly at home, curled up quietly in chairs, enjoying their books.

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SHENANDOAH Considering Fiction, Non-fiction Submissions

slogoAs of Monday, September 22, Shenandoah will be considering submissions of fiction and non-fiction for the spring, 2015 issue.  Manuscripts should be submitted through our submissions management program, which can be accessed by selecting SUBMISSIONS tab on the top tool bar on the homepage and following instructions from there.  This window should be open until early December.

The site will open to submissions of poetry and flash fiction in early October and will remain open until early December.  In November we will conduct our annual Graybeal-Gowen Contest for Virginia Poets.  See contest rules at our website (shenandoahliterary.org).

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feathersSHENANDOAH is a 24-7, no-fee journal, but we do pay out contributors, with a minimum of $50 for non-fiction features, flash fiction and poetry and an overall maximum of $200 per piece.  Exceptions are made in circumstances where an extended essay is assigned.

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[cover art by Suzanne Stryk]

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Where’s Archie?

ammonscoverWhen A. R. Ammons died in 2001 he was widely considered (by Bloom, Vendler, Lieberman and other heavy-hitting critics) one of the half dozen most significant and original poets writing in English. By turns unflappable, faux naïve, authoritarian, wry, oracular, jocular and naughty, he was a master of melding vernacular speech with scientific jargon and even better at finding colloquial and seemingly inevitable phrases to clarify the intricate natural and technical world while making the invisible seem tactile and visual. His poems might span half a dozen words or cover the length of a collection. He was shifty, adroit, eccentric and humane. He was an experimentalist escaped from the lab.

For the excellence of his work, Ammons received the National Book Critics Award, the Bollingen Prize, two National Book Awards and a MacArthur Fellowship. An explorer of the natural world, he was the ultimate peripatetic; not even Wordsworth would have gone so far as to declare and argue (even tongue in cheek) that “A Poem Is a Walk,” as Ammons’ essay of that title does. No one could make sentences more sinuous, organic, surprising but coherent than Archie. He was also an accomplished pianist and water colorist who could construct an elaborate a joke or write a botanical manual . . . in a poem.

In person he could be quick, erudite, acerbic, cracker barrel punny, mercurial, owlish or foxy. When he died at seventy-five, he was still writing poems nearly every poetry lover would want to read for the puzzlement, the wit or the exhilaration. But after he passed his reputation began to fade, his work ceased to be essential to any conversation about American poetry. Or so it has seemed to me. James Dickey, another of my favorites, died four years before Ammons, but his work still appears in anthologies that declare themselves “contemporary.” Is his work more alive than Archie’s? What I hope to do here is to awaken the curiosity of younger readers and provide older ones with a reason to look again at the spiraling, elegant, jittery, rattletrapping, challenging and rewarding poems of A. R. Ammons. First, I’d like to indulge in a touch of personal reminiscence, then to offer one of his poems I keep returning to, not because it’s typical of his work – what would be? – but because it’s irascible and indelible, daring me to be offended or bewildered, but never allowing either to happen.

Almost forty years ago I was one of twenty poets invited to a two-week retreat at the Reynolds family’s historic homestead near Critz, Virginia. I was still green, next-to-youngest in the cadre, which included Kathryn Stripling Byer, Ann Deagon, James Applewhite and other poets who had published books, won prizes, made a name. And Archie. The rest of us stayed in a one-room barracks bisected by a long curtain for gender segregation. Mosquitoes, noise, involuntary proximity – when the sponsoring foundation decided to pull together an anthology of participant work, they called it The Gritloaf Anthology. Archie stayed in a cottage with his family, and twice a day we sat in a circle and talked of poetry. It was the closest to a workshop I’d ever be in, but when most of the participants have creative writing degrees and are poetry teachers, the ante goes up, the games and dynamics become byzantine. Nuance and innuendo occupy every pause in the talk. I was way out of my depth.

Two moments from one particular afternoon provide me with the benchmarks of what I would come to know of Archie in our correspondence and few encounters over the next thirty years. First: on my way out to meet the other the merry campers for volleyball, I walked by Archie, who was sitting at the piano staring at his hands. When he asked me where I was going, I responded, “Out to create a sequel to Sphere.” (One of Archie’s award-winning and very demanding books was Sphere: The Form of a Motion). He scowled and said, “Not in this life.” He was in a raspy mood, and I felt, well, scolded but not quite scalded.

Later that afternoon we were sitting alone discussing one of my poems. I was discussing; he was listening. When I realized I was wasting a great opportunity and shut up, he began to anatomize in detail the opening stanzas, in which the narrator sitting on a diving board high above a lake at night marvels at the stars, both above and reflected in the water. I had written something like, “I can watch constellations twice, once in natural sky, once caught false,” and Archie raised his eyebrows and said, “What if you said ‘truly caught false’? How would does that mesh with the overall project of this poem?” The proverbial light bulb came on, and after a couple of other comments he winked and said the rest was up to me.

A dozen years later he was (unknown to me) judging an annual contest for the best poetry collection by a North Carolina writer. When I learned he had chosen my From the High Dive for the prize, I wrote him expressing my gratitude but also said that I thought that an eligible book by another of the Critz Gritloafers was probably better. He responded that he’d made mistakes in his life, but that prize wasn’t one of them. I could imagine his grin and his gentle Eastern N.C. voice, as well as a twist of ironic mirth.archie

More importantly, though, I remember his poems, which were often daring and introspective but also alert to the nuances and wonders of the natural world. Here’s a keeper with a tasty pun in the title and a periodic sentence even John Lyly would envy:

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breath of such calmly turns to praise.

[from Briefings: Norton, 1971]

Try that slight-of-hand anaphora, diagram that sentence, say that paragraph with quiet precision and feeling, feel “the dark work of the deepest cells,” see how much light will accept you and “consider that radiance.” Reading him will reward a wide audience, for despite Yeats’ claim that things fall apart, Ammons as Puck, Caliban and Prospero could make poems that hold in any wind.

ammonsautograph

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Farewell, Our Lovely

farewellDiann Blakely (1957-2014) was for twenty years a steady and valuable supporter of and contributor to Shenandoah. When she passed in August, her loss was no less shocking for the fact that she had been ill for some time. Although we had met only twice, Diann and I had carried on a considerable correspondence since I accepted four of her early poems for Southern Humanities Review about two dozen years ago. Those poems appeared in Hurricane Walk (BOA Editions, 1992), which was followed by Farewell, My Lovelies (Story Line, 2000). When I moved to Shenandoah, she began sending me new work, and our ties were further strengthened when my wife Sarah Kennedy selected Diann’s third book, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, as winner of the 2008 Elixir Press Prize.

Her early work was always delicate but bold, highly aware of the body’s blessings and citiescurses. About the quietly intense lyrical pieces of her debut collection William Matthews wrote, “[Blakely] knows everything she knows all at once, word by word, line by line, poem by poem. These sly poems are spare and ample both. They’re cool and passionate, frank and opaque, artful and true.”

In Farewell. . . Diann moved to a more narrative mode, telling her life and our lives, going public with her bewilderment, understanding and affection for the culture of the American South. A new density and commitment to realistic, historical details emerged, and she began to perform diagnoses and autopsies on the dying and dead aspects of the South which refuse to lie down and often find their manifestations in oppression, negligence or cruelty. It’s no accident that many of these poems carry a kind of Dixie Noir undertone, and Carol Muske Dukes wrote of them, “These poems are side-of-the-mouth Chandleresque . . . truly lovely, musical, steeped in a farewell eloquence, making transitory but persuasive order of the chaos of the heart.” Mark Doty’s take was: Blakely’s noir style has the urbane, anxious glamour of jazz, but there’s nothing cool about these fevered poems . . . a poet of dark and bracing powers.”

A poem from that collection appearing first in Shenandoah, “Hound Dog,” considered “the perilous erotics of flux” and cast Elvis as a new world Orpheus who “drove those country housewives mad” until they wanted to “tear him to bloody bits.” The poem is rife with humor, but the tragic mode eclipses the light and shows Diann at her adroit, observant and imaginative best.

Music, especially the blues, was becoming very important to Diann, and she began sending me poems based on Robert Johnson’s songs and life. In fact, I was surprised to discover the poems of Cities of Flesh . . . when I first saw the manuscript. I’d been fascinated with the Johnson poems and didn’t even know she had another entire, equally mighty, river running in her simultaneously. Sarah Kennedy wrote in her introduction that Diann “always promises entrance to a tragic, beautiful world . . . render[ing] the gritty details of Southern girlhood.” In-progress, the ms. of Cities of Flesh . . . had received the Alice Fay deCastagnola Award, and judge Baron Wormser’s citation called her “a master of evoking the beauties of loss while embracing the wayward joys of what is unaccountably found.”

Many poets, notably the late Lynda Hull and Eleanor Ross Taylor, have lost a passionate advocate in Diann, as she was a tireless critic and literary journalist, a gadfly and a fan at once, a poetry editor at Antioch Review, a fierce and hungry heart. The one thing I may miss more than her unpredictable, challenging and spirited e-mails will likely be the fully finished and polished sequences of blues poems she had been working on for years: Rain at Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson. I hope there are enough of them in complete enough form that someone will see them into print as a unit. What follows is one of the four published in Shenandoah as the opening selections in our Traditional Music Issue in 2006. I could not get enough of them then and still can’t. She knew how to hammer the blues to silver, and my only solace is that the pain of the process is over. What’s left is to celebrate her words and live our own blues.

COME ON IN MY KITCHEN

Just one kiss, post-belles know, can linger sorghum sweet
Or curdle men’s cafes-au-lait with blood and spit,
       Thus we listen to rain charm our screen doors,

Whose rusty hiinges leak the blues each humid dawn,
And watch for uncoiled snakes.  O don’t redo the kitchen
       Because there’s gonna be rain at our door

Like the last century’s flood, where moss-wreathed cemeteries
Released their dead while bluesmen tortured guitar strings
       To dissolve thoughts of ragged, last-drawn breaths

And rambling loves, or those fled to the half-breached levees
Who’d stay past tomorrow.  Like those eye-lined Pharoahs
       In pleated nighties, spices on their breath,

I’m a believer-o, burning dried sweet moss to cleanse
This house of kisses fouled.  Come on in my kitchen
       Although the radio nailed to the high shelf

Growls low at night to warn me, sounds buried deep as bones.
Or as deep as your voice denouncing God?  You knelt
       To bark, they say, against the juke-joint shelf

Of bodies that surrounded you, crazed by the poison
Curdled in your whiskey.  Come on in my kitchen . . .
       Should we release the ragged dead with kisses

And stir love’s bones among my perfume-pots?  If not,
There’s gonna be rain at my door long past second thoughts,
       Past levees, screen doors, rusted empires’ kisses.

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Witchcrap

Salem-WGN-America-s1-2014-poster-1 Historical fiction seems to have become as much a staple of contemporary television as it has contemporary reading, and many of these shows try to correct the look of previous Hollywood-prettified versions of the past with grittier sets, costumes, and dialogue.  Henry VIII certainly never looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyers (except for that one adolescent portrait), but The Tudors did try to represent the very real machinations and misbehavior in Renaissance England, even among the clergy.  Vikings has so far given us authentically tattooed and made-up men going about their aggressive business, though the writers seem to have misunderstood the role that women played in Viking culture.  Deadwood may have overdone it with the dialogue, but it broke ground for other shows by showing the American West through characters who are dirty, lustful, and regularly violent.  Hell on Wheels also unflinchingly depicted the West, focusing on the greed and corruption of American industrialists as the country expanded.  For the most part, I enjoyed these, and other series like them, primarily because they seemed more adult, more real, than what television often serves up.

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More recently, shows like Turn have taken on specific historical events, and in a Wicked or Maleficent move, have tried to show viewers another side of the received story.  Sadly, I couldn’t keep track of the turns on the show enough to stay engaged and so, though I applauded the effort, I turned off Turn after a few episodes.  Then there’s Penny Dreadful, which has a certain ghoulish appeal.  This one seems to pride itself on humanizing Frankenstein’s monster (though Mary Shelley did that, too) and demonizing its sexy Dorian Gray (but didn’t Oscar Wilde already do that, as well?).  This show, however, becomes so allusively chaotic that it’s hard not to laugh, even when Vanessa Ives puts on her most low-browed scowl.  I wonder sometimes if the writers are a bunch of English majors who get together for a party every week and throw any characters they can recall from their nineteenth-century surveys into the script.

1000323_1_0_prm-evavid_1024x640What Penny Dreadful offers, in addition to its refresher course in Victorian monster lit, is the paranormal aspect that still draws viewers (and readers).  Despite the controversy surrounding the YA author John Green, whose success has led some critics to say that the Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon is passing in favor of a return to psychological realism, the paranormal still seems to sell.  Game of Thrones has capitalized on this, and the imagined world it creates (which looks, still, quite a lot like medieval Europe) allows for dragon-taming waifs and big baddies with super-powers alongside its more pedestrian castles and monarchs.

And now along comes SalemsalemhomeI looked forward to this show, because it seemed to feature strong female characters and a re-examination of a touchstone event in American history.  The Salem witch trials, as many students of the past know, came at the tail end of a long period of debate about demonic powers in Europe, in which thousands of people were summarily tortured, hanged, or burned.  Or all three.  Even at the beginning of the witchcraft prosecutions in medieval Europe, scholars and skeptics expressed horror at the anti-intellectualism of belief in witches and at the use of Christianity to justify the gruesome murders that witchcraft judges ordered.  The Salem trials, historically speaking, were a footnote to centuries of panic, hatred, fear—and revulsion at that very panic.  But the women and men who died there would have been little comforted by that knowledge.

In the first episode, I saw, to my own horror, that the show actually promotes the notion that the witches were real, that women stalk and creep around Salem in their gothy costumes seeking out converts and colleagues in their demonic business.  George Selby is a cretin, to be sure, but when Mary shoves a live—and rather large—toad down his throat to bewitch him, she’s become the villain.  Or has she?  The witches are attractive and seem to get away with wearing dresses that no woman in the historic Salem would have ever been allowed out of the house in.  Mary Selby carries a torch for John Alden, who glowers handsomely and yearns from afar.  Gorgeous Mary is, of course, the witch ring-leader, and when a truly abhorrent Increase Mather hits the scene, viewers will no doubt root for her.

Salem 01 01 79What bothers me about this show is that, in this version, Mather is right.  In this Salem, there are witches (along with open pits for dumping bodies to provide a nice gruesome spot for organ-munching), and these witches have real paranormal powers.  George Selby is disgusting, but pity the poor nice man who marries a witch and angers her—he’ll probably get the toad-down-the-gullet treatment, too.  And now we discover that being a witch might even be genetic, passed down from parent to child, like brown eyes or crooked teeth.

Salem-TV-Series-image-salem-tv-series-36800019-1417-1890It’s not the super-powers per se that bother me, though I confess that I regard contemporary ghosts and spooky things and super-heroes as easy, light entertainment to pass a summer afternoon when it’s too hot to weed the garden.  They’re what I watch when there’s no serious history or historical fiction on.  And they’re fine, for what they are.  What bothers me about Salem is the fact that real women and men were charged with the acts that the TV show presents as “normal,” and they were killed under those charges, either by starvation or illness in stinking, hellish jails or on the scaffold.  And there was Giles Cory, who expired under a pile of stones.

The show purports to be an analysis of “otherness,” and that’s a laudable goal.  But why use a very real, and literal, witch hunt in our history to do it?  Even as metaphor, these characters are too convoluted in their aspirations and too gruesome in their means to achieve the rank of social commentators.  For me, it has finally gotten to be too much.  Witches are not oppressed minorities, and they are not marginalized subgroups.  They’re not real.  So I’m turning off Salem, in protest against this sort of exploitative, silly pseudo-history and out of respect for the very human women and men who were killed in that sad, isolated Massachusetts town.

hanging-witch

A History of the Craft (An Introduction)
from A Witch’s Dictionary by Sarah Kennedy (Elixir Press 2008)

Salem’s a blip at the tail end (sorry
to say) of the burning times, and now we
host pagans and pirate fans, devotees

of Hawthorne.  But these days we’re exorcised—
the park’s stone benches are flanked with flowers
and visitors can sit at their leisure

right on top of the victims’ last words. You’d
never know from the black hats, capes, and brooms
displayed in the sidewalk sales that thousands

were flogged or burned or hanged across Europe.
Some say fifty thousand, a hundred.  Some say
twice or three times that.  You have surely heard

the beliefs, the crazy scholarship: all
those thick demonologies prescribing
suspicion or torture of anyone

who questioned authority.  The sure signs?—
there’s nocturnal flight, of course, on sticks
or dogs or goats, there’s attendance at feasts

and unsanctioned dances (i.e. “sabbats”).
There’s always disagreement with a church
or king or court.  So the world went, and so

it goes: racking, stripping, beating, terror-
izing.  Have you seen the reproduction
relics?  Take this little gem, for instance—

this is  Joan of Arc’s immaculate heart,
left whole beneath the smoldering remains
of her famous fire!  Did you guess?  You know

the story, you might call her an early
political prisoner (the English
soldiers didn’t really think she conjured

the devil, she just seemed a little weird,
a little touched, you know, disposable).
Let’s see: there’s the Witch of Berkeley, Witches

of Stedlingerland, of Lombardy, of
North Berwick, of Chelmsford, of Lancashire
(1612), of Lancashire one more time

(1633), of Brescia . . . oh, I
can’t keep track.  *sigh*  Does anyone here still
smoke?  Those New England jurors recanted,

but the dead are still dead and now families,
maps and ice-creams in hand, gaze, enchanted,
at the shiny windows of the judge’s

house, making scary faces at themselves.
During the “Enlightenment,” the witch turned
into a ghost.  The poltergeist “Bell Witch”

of Tennessee chatted by the family fire
with Andrew Jackson, the “Blair Witch”
is mostly a jiggly camera.  Wiccans

own many of the souvenir shops here
in Salem, you’ll know them by their flowing
robes.  I’m sure you’ll want a look.  The children

help out, though they’re skittish of strangers.  Look,
there’s one now, sweeping up receipts and trash!
It must be closing time.  You’d better run.
GH15

 

 

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Shall We Gather at the River?: The Chatter around Charles Wright and His New Laurels

Part the First:
My wife has been keeping me up to speed on the Farcebook chatter concerning the appointment of Charles Wright to become our new poet laureate starting in the September now rushing our way on heat waves, and I notice that many commentators and wags — mostly poets, werepoets, poetasters, ranters, humblebraggers and poetry lickers — are both taking the announcement quite personally and responding quite cagily.  As a longtime reader of Wright’s elegant wrestlings with ultimate questions and immediate circumstances, his pilgrimages in words and his evasions, confessions, explorations and cautious approaches to ecstasy, I take it all personal, too.  If there’s any one poet who can address the ineffable in lively concrete terms and tease a response out of it in ways I yearn for but can never manage myself, it’s Charles Wright.

I take for my title a phrase from the cover of one of James  Wright’s books, but the New Wright (like “The New Poem”) seems as much consumed by the problems of “we” and “gather” and “river” as vexed questions as the late James Wright was.  Charles said many years ago of the “new poem” that it will not be able to save us, but he can’t get shed of the question “what will?” and the hope that there’s an answer and, like the hymn the title also refers to, involves matters of the spirit.

In the first part of this improvisation, I want to say something on the record about Charles Wright’s history.  In the second, more focused post I want to try to find words for what has transfixed me about his themes, methods and hypnotic, you-can’t-not-listen voice for over three decades.  I hope you won’t hold it against me that, even thirty years ago, I was late to the dance of Wright’s music.  I’m still reeling and jigging, trying to catch up.

charles wright 2This is Charles before I encountered his work.  I’m guessing it’s a photo from his Irvine days or before but not an official U. S. Army photograph from his Italian period.  It might be the image of the character behind The Grave of the Right Hand, but by the time he’d written “Dog Creek Mainline” and then Black Zodiac this stance has faded, only to be revived as self mockery.  I think.

charles wright 1This photo is the update I enjoy looking at as I consider the paperwork on why Charles Wright is a natural choice, the natural choice, to stand for us poetry addicts in such a fraught, conflicted and tangled (emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically) era as we have conjured in our desperation to do and think and feel something of consequence (without missing a single tweet, text, post, tag, like, rant, reality series scuffle, foodie swoon or sniffle.)

It would be foolish to make book on who the next poet laureate will be or the one after that because the mist-covered (“shrouded” wouldn’t be right) committee who make the selection seems, even as new invisible voices replace old ones, to favor two or three sets of criteria.  Think of Dove, Hass, Trethewey — all at the time of their election young, energetic, newly arrived at the center of the poetic conversation, recently tapped for a major prize.  Then think of Levine, Merwin, Wright — veterans of many decades, oft-laureled, widely anthologized poets whose published books fill whole shelves.  A third category might be popularity — Billy Collins, who is, like the others above, an original, which I hope is an important consideration.  He is also widely read and imitated.  I have no suspicion that the laureate search anyone’s idea of a process for declaring someone “the best American poet this morning.”  And this scheme I posit makes good sense to me, though one can never be certain that the younger laureate will bring more energy to the vaguely-described “job” or that the older campaigner will bring more dignity to it.  Some of the honorees over the years have written poems that now live deep in my heart’s core, and others have not, but if this distribution according to weathering and career stage is in operation, I trust it in the long run, which is not to say I wouldn’t volunteer right now to be on next year’s version of the committee.  And I’m pleased that (as best I can recollect) none of the poets who aim their poems at people with no interest in deep study of the art of poetry have been appointed to the post.

What criteria dictate that this poet should be tapped and knighted or crowned or burdened with this responsibility, which is “high profile” only in the poetry world (which can occasionally resemble Wayne’s World), but small potatoes to the NASCAR crowd, J Lo’s fans, Honey Boo Boo’s followers, the Freemason Brotherhood or the Episcopal Church?  We civilians will never know, but we can say some things about the poet’s work and impact.

black zodSo suppose Charles Wright is a selection from the senior crowd (my generation) who somehow escaped election back when he was the Next New Thing.  The critical community reaches consensus on almost no one, but evidence and testimony accumulate, and Wright has written about a score of poetry collections and enough public-fare journals and articles (counting interviews) to fill two U. of Michigan Press books in the Poets on Poetry series.  He’s received the Pulitzer (and been “bridesmaid” multiple times — 4?), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Griffin International Prize, a couple of Library of Virginia annual prizes and their Lifetime Achievement Award.  Chancellor of this, archon of that.  He’s been written about by enthusiastic admirers like Helen Vendler, Peter Stitt, James Longenbach, Henry Hart, J. D.  McClatchy, Mark Jarman, Willard Spiegelman and Lee Upton.  Joe Moffett has written a book for the University of South Carolina’s Understanding Contemporary American Literature series called, pro forma, Understanding Charles Wright (though that’s a boast few would make, or want to, as “grappling with” is more to the point).  Robert Denham has published a two-volume companion to Wright which explores the poems one-by-one up to 2007; it’s a project seemingly dedicated to the idea of drawing the reader closer to the poems with background information, but again, “understanding” would seem simplistic and somehow misplaced.  Perhaps the best companion to Wright’s work is High Lonesome: On the Poetry of Charles Wright, edited by Adam Gianelli, dedicated to his “undisputed importance” and filled with reprints and news essays and reviews.  There are others, plenty of exhibits in the evidence locker, and they’re worth perusing.

This is a quick sketch of the public record for those who have posted their disapproval or a cunning “interesting” or “well, well” upon the announcement of Wright’s appointment and who would want to know why it’s only natural to consider him, has been for years.

In my next post, I’ll make a more personal statement about why I’d be willing to buy a bumper sticker that reads “Honk if Charles Wright’s Poetry Rocks You.”  I promise not to say he always writes the best poem ever or that I never turn away from a Wright poem wondering what has just happened or not happened on the page.  I’ll try to articulate what he’s serving that I have an abiding appetite for, though I cannot rustle such dishes up myself.

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2014 Library of Virginia Literary Finalists


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Nonfiction
:
Barbara Perry, Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch
Elizabeth Varon, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War
Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia, 1772-1832

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Fiction:
Lee Smith, Guests on Earth
Virginia Pye, River of Dust
Carrie Brown, The Last First Day
(Honorable Mention: Kathryn Estes, Seeing Red)

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Poetry:
Bob Hicok, Elegy Owed
Margaret Mackinnon, The Invented Child
R. T. Smith, The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor

Winners will be announced October 18.

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The Importance of Sitting Still . . .

The Importance of Sitting Still, and Other Obvious Realizations about Literature and Life

smartphoI currently am in New Haven to conduct archival work for my senior honors thesis on Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), whose correspondence, manuscripts, drafts, and all other related, original material is stored at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library. As I attempted to explain my thesis to Jane, the Boarding House owner, I felt a surge of excitement and another swell of responsibility. But I tainted this feeling when I picked up my phone from the counter top and began to text. I noticed Jane watching me and gave the knee-jerk response of “Oh, just being a typical millennial right now, on my phone….”

This comment launched Jane into a near tirade against cell phones. She lambasted the disrespect that younger colleagues show her at meetings as they scroll through their phones (“just scrolling, not even doing anything, just passing the time!”) as she tries to give tourism presentations. I make a point to never text during class. But I had never given much thought about how much my peers and I struggle with this same type of disengagement outside of school. Yes, when I find a spare moment during the day, I do check my phone. It can be hard to sit still, to look up, to not clutch that little device in my hand at all times. After my chat with Jane, I made a mental note to check my phone less.new haven pic

The next day, I found the library and completed my registration. I was guided past the security guard and into the reading room and opened my first folder from my first box of material. I will spare you the pages that I could write about the feeling of holding something H.D. held, her handwriting, the markings and corrections she made, and the way that this has already gotten my head racing with thoughts and ideas. To summarize: I feel like I’ve been more productive and in many more ways than I expected.

I found this magic through focus. Researchers are permitted to use cell phones in the reading room, but after mine lit up a few times, distracting me, I wanted nothing to do with it. I realized early on that when I sat still and focused on the papers I went back in time. I thought I had felt mature as I completed normal adult tasks of navigating a big city, but the real feeling of maturity has hit me there, in the reading room, as I was humbled by the ancient documents in front of me, as I traced H.D.’s thoughts with my eyes and hands.

anniemsI want to take that sense of wonder stillness with me in my pocket wherever I go. I might have to start turning off my cell phone when I read outside of a high security room. I don’t wish to underwrite the huge, positive impact that technology has had on the world, including the literary world. But there’s so much room for beauty and connection and genuine feeling outside of my smartphone. And this odd combination of stillness and awakening and human connection is, after all, the same feeling that I get from a good poem. Is it possible that the more sucked into our phones we become, the less we will be able to understand and experience poetry? What, dear reader, do you think?

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Scratching the Surface of Place and Space

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Shakespeare’s birthplace

For my spring term class at Washington and Lee, I was lucky enough to attend an English class in England. The class was called “Shakespeare in Performance,” which, as you can probably guess, entailed mainly plays and site seeing. While I learned a great deal from the sites—particularly in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare’s birthplace is located, I was surprised to find that I felt more awe at simply being in the same physical space as the bard. It wasn’t the plaques or the preserved walls of the Shakespeare sites that struck me; rather, I felt an idealistic sort of second hand inspiration from soaking up the air he breathed, the views he saw from his window, the ripples on the river across from the Globe theater. I began to think that literary place and space are more important to literature than I had once thought.

This notion grew stronger when, while in London, I walked through Bloomsbury square, the meeting place of The Bloomsbury Group. There aren’t any markers or signs designating this lovely but unremarkable park as the hub of literary inspiration (or even just gossip among literary figures), but the knowledge that I was in the same small space that these writers congregated in had more of an impact on me. I imagined I could hear their voices in the trees.

I did, however, find a meaningful plaque in an unexpected place: one day, I made a solo journey to the flat of Hilda Doolittle, or H.D., one of the first poets that I fell in love with, who lived in London for significant periods of her life. I sat shamelessly on her former stoop for thirty minutes before the flat’s current resident walked up and gave me a (deserved) odd look. I am slightly ashamed to say that I asked her to take my picture in front of the flat. As meaningful as the experience was, I walked away wondering if, had there been a plaque on any of the given flats in that area, would I have felt differently? Would I have felt less magic sitting on the stoop of a random strange but thinking it had once held H.D.’s erratic and genius brain?

A large part of our class consisted of this same question: what difference in understanding the original text does seeing Shakespeare in his original context make? I did feel lucky to join the same throng of famous writers and anonymous individuals who have made a pilgrimage to carve their names into the window of Shakespeare’s birthplace, to soak up that same weird presence.Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.59.44 AM

Here’s how I answer the question: even if it was all a hoax, there is something wonderful about knowing that, even if you don’t know for sure, you are in the presence—the same space—as a writer that you admire. It’s sharing the same real world as someone whose textual worlds you have become a part of, and it allowed me to experience those textual worlds in richer detail. I can’t help but think that, ultimately, place does matter when it comes to understanding an author. What do you think?

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