Thursday, March 19, 2009
Robert Pinsky was appointed the thirty-ninth Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1997 and served for three years. During his appointment (the popular title is Poet Laureate of the United States) he started the still ongoing Favorite Poem Project in which Americans from every state submitted their favorite poems to be included in an anthology.
Mr. Pinsky was born in 1940 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and attended Long Branch High School. He received his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University and his master’s and doctorate from Stanford University. He taught at Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley before coming to Boston University where he teaches in the graduate writing program.
He is a poet, essayist, translator and literary critic and has published numerous books, including seven volumes of poetry and a translation titled The Inferno of Dante for which he was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Translation Award. Among other awards are a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing, the William Carlos Williams Award, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for Poetry and the World and also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996.
He writes a weekly column for The Washington Post titled “Poet's Choice” and is poetry editor of the online magazine, Slate – and still has time to appear in an episode of The Simpsons.
The Broadkill Review (TBR) expresses its gratitude to Robert Pinsky (RP) for this interview.
TBR When did you begin to describe yourself as a poet?
RP Early on, I was struck by Robert Frost’s remark that you should not call yourself a poet: that was for other people to say about you. So for many years I avoided that, sometimes walking around saying “I write poems.”
But in the world where “poet” has become among other things an academic job category, that avoidance came to seem an affectation. So pretty late on – it may have been after I published my first book, I started using the word about myself. Sometimes I still avoid it, which does seem a bit silly. And yet there’s something to what Frost says, something reverent, if not superstitious, about the art.
TBR How did you feel when your first poem was accepted for publication(which poem, when)?
RP Poetry accepted some poems when I was in my early twenties. I knew that Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Moore, Williams had published important work there. Its page design had authority. I remember feeling consciously that I was at least on the record. It was a magazine that could be found in libraries, the back issues bound as books. In some sense, I now existed.
TBR After taking an informal survey, it seems that writers are very curious about other writers’ work habits. I suspect that is so they can compare and perhaps improve their own habits. What do you think?
RP I have no habits. I think any set of habits you name – early riser or sleeps all day; tireless reviser or first draft only; longhand or machine; planning or impulse – someone has written great work with those habits.
But I myself have no patterns of behavior.
… (Or so I habitually tell myself.)
TBR And so….when do you write? every day? pen, pencil, computer? And how do you fit your writing time into a busy schedule?
RP I write whenever it is inconvenient.
Too much time or too quiet a space, the inviting cabin in the woods –that kind of thing gives me stage fright, or bores me. I like to compose in my head while driving, or in the shower. Sorry to boast, but my prose book The Sounds of Poetry was written almost entirely in airport lounges and on airplanes.
Poetry for me, before it is written with pen or pencil or computer, is written with my voice, my actual or imagined voice trying out the words.
TBR What are you reading now?
RP Ulysses. The Song of the Lark. “Spring and All.” Stevens’ “ Madame La Fleurie.” Daniel Pearl’s pieces in At Home in the World. Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Most of my reading is re-reading.
TBR Tell us about Slate and your duties as poetry editor.
RP I pick the poems, with the assistance of Maggie Dietz. Occasionally, I do a mini-anthology for Valentine’s day, or an anthology of poems against poetry for Poetry Month. Readers can click on an audio file and hear the poet read the weekly poem. Coming up, an anthology more or less celebrating difficulty.
TBR Kathryn Starbuck, in an interview with Poets and Writers, said that through grief (the loss of her parents, brother and husband) she began “scribbling things” and that “they looked like poems”. She has since published a book of poems. Is that enough to start with –that writing takes the shape of a poem?
RP Where else would one start? With reading something that feels great, I suppose. But isn’t that how a very young gent wandered into his back yard one evening and wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”? Kathryn’s account sounds right to me. I might substitute “hearing” or “sounding like a poem” for “looking like.”
TBR She began writing and publishing at 60. This seems to be a great encouragement to late starting writers. Is it ever too late to begin?
RP There are no rules in these things, I think.
TBR Camille Paglia, in the Winter 2006 – 2007 issue of Philadelphia Stories, says that she is “appalled at how weak and shoddy so much poetry has become – including the work of tediously over praised figures…….those pets of the academic elite.” And “No wonder the general public has lost interest in reading poetry…” How do you feel about that?
RP Shallow nostalgia, a cliché. Does she yearn for the days when the “general public” read Edgar Guest? Or is it Rod McKuen’s heyday she longs for? Or is it the days when the general public read Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams?
I agree with over-praised pets of professors, but has she read James McMichael? Anne Winters?
Has Prof. Paglia seen the Favorite Poem Project video of Seph Rodney reading Sylvia Plath?
A forthcoming book by the historian Joan Rubin, Songs of Ourselves, is a history of American taste in poetry. It dispels the myth of a Good Old Days pretty thoroughly.
TBR This makes me think of your essay “Poetry and American Memory”. In it you mention a lack of myth of origin and that our founding fathers were “intellectually inclined planters and merchants” that gave us “great national documents”. You ask the question ”How are they (documents) related to people, or us as a people?” Do you think that American poetry needs to leave the academic and return to the people? Be more accessible to the general public?
RP No, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Is it that “the people” are reading “Paradise Lost” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? Well, in fact, many of them are. But “accessible to the general public” characterizes Lawrence Welk, not Sid Caesar.
Anti-intellectualism is an unattractive, persistent strain in American life. Disguised as “getting back to the people” it remains obnoxious to me.
Dumbing-down is not the alternative to an equally obnoxious elitism.
The best demonstration of what I mean – and I guess of what I advocate -is my new anthology from Norton, An Invitation to Poetry, with the DVD in the back: on the DVD, video segments of a construction worker discussing Whitman, the segment on Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick” that I mentioned in my response to the previous question.
TBR Since The Situation of Poetry was published in 1976 (and reprinted in paper in 1978) has anything in contemporary poetry changed, or anything in your opinion of it since then?
RP Styles and tastes change; essential matters endure.
In Poetry and the World (1988 or 89?) I tried to take up some things that the earlier prose book left out.
TBR You wrote in The Situation of Poetry, that contemporary poets have “a dissatisfaction with the abstract, discursive and conventional nature of words as medium for the particulars of experience.” Have contemporary poets, in your view, moved beyond their rejection of the Moderns’ modeling of meaning? (Is contemporary poetry of today still the same contemporary poetry it was then?)
RP Maybe this is a good question for someone who is now the age I was –early thirties – when I was working on The Situation of Poetry. If I write another book about poetry, it would be about a different set of ideas, maybe picking up ideas that have been in my “Poet’s Choice” columns for the Washington Post.
TBR Speaking of your column for the Washington Post, it is a wonderful “textbook” on how to look at poetry, how to read it and how, even, to become a better writer. Do you intend that?
RP What you say pleases me a lot. The “Poet’s Choice” column above all must be interesting. It must choose and present a poem or two in a way that attracts and rewards the newspaper reader. In addition to that primary responsibility, I do want to make the column a welcoming, teacherly means for readers to enhance their ways of reading and hearing – and yes, of writing.
I hope someday to expand ideas in some of the columns into a book of that kind: not a textbook, but an essay that would take a fresh, helpful approach to the art.
TBR In your poem “First Things to Hand” I love the lines: And if Socrates leaves/His house in the morning,/When he returns in the evening/He will find Socrates waiting/On the doorstep. These lines are like a koan, wonderful to ponder. How did you come to them?
RP I don’t know. It’s a philosophical tag, I think. Something I read or heard somewhere. I tend to be a kind of random collector, a picker-up of things. I truly wish I were more scholarly.
TBR “Shirt” is a poem that demands to be read aloud. Is that because the listings – The back, the yoke, the yardage and The presser, the cutter, the wringer, the mangle, to show a few – set such a strong tempo?
RP In its own way, the poem is in classic English measure – a kind of sneaky, contemporary version of blank verse. It sort of plays the changes on the way Shakespeare puts speech (and prose) to lines.
TBR The visuals in this poem are staggering. Do you think that poems gain their strength, build their scaffolding, from such specifics?
RP Sometimes it’s visual, sometimes it’s auditory, sometimes it’s an idea, or a tune, or a joke. Poetry is omnivorous, it imitates speech, and a poem might use anything that might make conversation or oratory or gossip or love-talk or bickering interesting or moving or effective. Whatever serves the purpose. (And sometimes you prop open a window with a hammer, or bang something into place with a wrench.) Your scaffolding is how it sounds…literally or physically.
TBR Do you feel that by paying close attention to and by writing about the everyday things in life, like a shirt, that poems can lead us to the sublime?
RP Yes. As the achievement of W.C. Williams demonstrates, the ordinarily unremarked can be a doorway or path to the sublime.
TBR Are you still influenced by your years as Poet Laureate? Tell us what it was like being appointed.
RP I have never thought highly of titles, honors, official grades, prizes. Am I vain to think that the title was an anomalous, uncharacteristic episode in my life? In high school, I was very, very far from and all-A’s student. Definitely not National Honor Society or the Good Kids Club. My destiny, I have always felt, was not to be the darling of committees or officials.
Yet here was that title. Some practical, brisk side of me found a way to use it, by which I mean that it made possible the Favorite Poem Project, those three anthologies, the videos, the FPP readings at many schools, libraries, the White House.
For politicians, a title or position may be a goal. For the artist, it is incidental, and sometimes even a little absurd. I am grateful for the opportunities and benefits that arose from the title.
TBR What do you say to writers, in moments of self-doubt, that admire another’s work and think “I wish I could write like that”?
RP That kind of moment is absolutely essential to practicing an art, and improving one’s work in the art. Two of my favorite quotations – I have used them very often –are Yeats’ dictum “Sailing to Byzantium” that there is no “singing school” but “studying/monuments of its own magnificence” and Dexter Gordon’s response to “Where do you get your inspiration?” He says, “Lester Young,” goes on to mention the Ellington band.
The point is that these moments of admiration, with feelings of self-doubt, are how one grows in the art. In my experience, it can happen with a work from the distant past (Keats, Shakespeare, Horace in translation), works in other arts (Kurosawa, Cather), or by friends and contemporaries.
Recently, while watching Almodovar’s “Volver”, I saw a certain expression come over Carmen Maura’s face, a kind of fatalistic blend of relief and regret at the survival of something from the past. I felt very moved. At the same time I was thinking that I don’t know how to do that thing in a poem, and I wish I did….
TBR Any final words of encouragement to fledgling writers?
RP Find works of art you love, and apprentice yourself to them. Memorize things you admire, type them out. Take inspiration from greatness, in all arts.
-- Linda Blaskey conducted this interview for The Broadkill Review
Note: this interview was conducted during Feb./March 2007 via email *The title of this interview is a line from the poem "In Berkeley" by Robert Pinsky The Figured Wheel, New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 The Noonday Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
And indeed, Maxine Kumin has lived well as evidenced by her work, her devotion to her family, friends and farm and her commitment to social causes (…old friend from Vietnam sit-in days,/the rain-soaked marches to stamp out Jim Crow,…from the poem “Elegy”, Still to Mow, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). Ms. Kumin has published sixteen volumes of poetry including Up Country (Harper & Row, 1972) for which she received the Pulitzer Prize and Still to Mow, her latest volume released in September of this year.
She is quoted in a 1994 interview by Daina Savage in Rambles, a cultural arts magazine, as saying “I think it’s good for a poet to write prose, to confront the simple declarative sentence. So often poets deal in ellipses. It’s what we leave out that’s important. So it’s so easy to forget grammatical structure.” Following her own advice, she has published four novels, a collection of short stories, two essay collections, an essay and story collection and a memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (W.W.Norton, 2000), about her near fatal carriage driving accident in 1998 at the age of 73. Her doctor later informed her that ninety-five percent of people with her injuries don’t survive and that ninety-five percent of those survivors are permanently paralyzed.
Fully recovered, she lives on a 200 acre farm in New Hampshire with her husband, Victor, where she continues to care for her horses and dogs, muck out stalls, mend fences, tend to her organic vegetable gardens and to write. She has won the Aiken Taylor Prize, the Poet’s Prize and the Ruth E. Lilly Poetry Prize.
So how does a woman born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia become New Hampshire’s poet laureate (1989 – 1994) and the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1981 – 1982),a position later renamed Poet Laureate of the United States? Read her work. It is a journal of a life well lived.
(A special thank you for their assistance to Jenny Waltz and Vanessa Schneider of W. W. Norton & Company, NYC; Giles Anderson of The Anderson Literary Agency, NYC; Sherry Chappelle of Chappelle’s lending library, Rehoboth Beach, DE)
In your essay “First Loves” (Always Beginning, Copper Canyon Press, 2000) you talk about memorizing and reciting poems. You say…”I am grateful for those old-fashioned teachers who revered the poems of a bygone era and by exacting from us our twenty-odd lines a week gave us an inner library to draw on for the rest of our lives.” I don’t think memorization or recitation is done much in schools anymore. Do you think this is a loss for present day students?
I think the dearth of memorization requirements today is a distinct loss. Rote learning provided an unconscious but strong sense of meter and paved the way for some lessons in prosody.
And was it teachers like Mrs. Blomberg, in “First Loves,” that started you on the path to writing?
Yes, I suppose. I started to write seriously in high school, then stopped during four years in college where I was flat out taking in information in a number of fields – history, French language, 19th century literature in French and Russian, etc. Creative writing was rather dismissed as frivolous, something to do outside the university.
In many current literary journals poetry does not appear in any particular form (villanelle, sonnet, pantoum) but is rather free form. Sometimes, even, without a strong sense of rhyme or meter. Is this an “easier” path taken by many poets today? Or is it, rather, a fashion of the times?
I think the absence of formal poetry is simply the fashion of the times. Postmodernism squelched metrical patterns for a couple of decades but I think interest in these forms is slowly reviving.
How important is it for beginning writers to learn about forms and to practice writing in them?
I think it is vital information even if the young writer never seriously writes in form, just as the good abstractionist painter has behind him or her long sessions drawing from life, learning anatomy, doing still lifes. Then the painter has something to abstract from.
Speaking of literary journals, very few pay poets, except in copies. Does this seem fair? Or even respectful of all the work that the writers have put into perfecting their work?
It is what it is. Many editors of literary journals work for free.
Do you see any trends in current poetry?
More poems that concern current events.
Some poems are about large themes – love, war, religion – while others are about, say, a cricket sitting on a woodpile. Are they all equally important?
All are equally important.
Why is that?
I’ve said all are equally important because for the poet they are. The impulse that led to their creation doesn’t vary from poem to poem and who knows? The cricket (or cockroach) poem may outlast one of the grander poems about war or religion.
You have written and published essays, mysteries, children’s books, novels, memoir, short stories and yet poetry appears to be your favorite genre. What is it about poetry that makes this so?
Poetry is the most succinct, most metaphorical, possesses a music prose cannot, indeed should not match.
Is that what saves good poetry from sentimentality – its exactness?
Yes, their exactitude and inner music.
In a recent article written for The News Journal, Fleda Brown, Delaware’s poet laureate, comments “Poetry (all art) isn’t frivolous. It’s the human mind working beyond itself, trying other ways of being.…Poetry teaches the mind to be flexible and adventurous….” Do you agree with this, and if so, why?
I do agree though I’m not sure poetry teaches the mind anything. Poetry comes up out of inchoate feeling, the mind structures it, talent and tact shape it, but it may be the mind teaches poetry, just to confound the statement. We are on the same page, nevertheless.
Who was Amanda and what was it about her that inspired the series of Amanda poems?
Actually, her real name was Tasha and she was the first horse who lived here at the farm. Thus she got the high beam of my attention.
A friend recently asked me what a martingale was. After I described it to him he said that he had read it a long time ago in one of your poems (he has forgotten the poem’s title). Don’t you find that powerful – that someone can read a poem and several years later recall not only the poem but a specific word in it?
Do you have specific writing habits?
I’m a morning person so I like to write in the morning. I used to be quite disciplined and worked every day. Now I am more casual (also older).
And what do you do when nothing comes to you? Wait it out or force the issue?
When nothing comes I either turn to something waiting in the wings in another genre or simply kick back and read, a great pleasure.
If you had one piece of advice to give to writers, prose or poetry, what would it be?
My one piece of advice to writers in whatever genre is to read widely in another genre. Most of us would benefit from reading in the sciences; I know I would.
— Linda Blaskey
BREVITY: expression in few words*
An Interview with Linda Pastan
Linda Pastan likes brevity. So much, in fact, that she says that’s why she chose poetry over prose. We, the readers, writers, and lovers of poetry, are the lucky beneficiaries of that choice.
Linda Pastan graduated from Radcliffe College (and later received a Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumnae Award) and received her M.A. from Brandeis University. She is the author of twelve volumes of poetry, the most recent being Queen of a Rainy Country. Of those twelve volumes, two, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 and PM/AM: New and Selected Poems, were nominated for the National Book Award, and An Imperfect Paradise was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
She has been widely honored, receiving the Dylan Thomas Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Maurice English Award, Beth Hokin Prize, Virginia Faulkner Award and the Di Castagnola Award. She has also received fellowships from the Maryland Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. She served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995.
Ted Kooser has said, in his online American Life in Poetry column, that Linda Pastan “…..is a master of the kind of water-clear writing that enables us to see into the depths” The Broadkill Review wishes to thank Linda Pastan for granting us this interview.
(This interview was conducted in May, 2007)
*Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Fifth Edition)
Interview with Linda Pastan
You taught at Bread Loaf for many years so you obviously feel that
workshops such as this are important. In what ways do you think
they benefit writers?
I think it's difficult for writers of any age or experience to be objective about their own work – particularly new work. A workshop can give them some perspective as well as some new ways of looking at poems – their own and other’s.
Should beginning writers consider workshops like Bread Loaf?
It depends on what you mean by “beginning writers.” I think Bread Loaf is probably better for people who have been writing for some time. But the lectures and readings would be a help, and an education, for anyone.
What has the teaching experience in general been like for you? And are you still teaching?
Though I have gotten many satisfactions from teaching, I find that when I teach I don’t write poems. So the 12 days at Bread Loaf were perfect for me. I don’t teach now, though I do talk with students at places I go to give readings.
Would you give us examples of some exercises you have given your students?
I might give students a poem with three stanzas, having cut the stanzas apart with a scissors. They must then decide which order they prefer and why.
Do you have a daily writing schedule? Ritual?
From 1965 when I decided to seriously dedicate myself to my poetry to 1992 when I turned 60, I worked in my study every morning. Since then I am more relaxed about when and how I do my writing.
How long before that committed dedication did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer since age 12, but I didn’t take the possibility seriously until I was 30.
And was there something pivotal in your life that turned you towards poetry? (For me it was hearing the mother of one of my classmates read “The Highwayman” by Noyes to my seventh grade class).
There was nothing pivotal in my life that turned me towards poetry, but do look at my poem “Bess” in The Last Uncle. It’s about “The Highwayman”.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
What do you feel was the best accomplishment to come out of your years as Maryland’s poet laureate?
Bringing poetry to those who would otherwise not be able to hear it. (People in a prison, or old age home, or even in a psychiatric hospital, for example.)
You have been awarded the Maurice English Award, the Pushcart Prize and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, to name a few. How important are these prizes in the career of a writer?
All writers, I think, tend to doubt themselves at times. The prizes give them a momentary sense that they are indeed doing good work. And I stress “momentary.”
Can the push for a prize sometimes lead writers down the wrong path, effecting the quality of their work?
I don’t really think so. In any case, who knows what some judge will or won’t like.
Every poet struggles to find their own voice, so is it possibly a negative thing to have their work compared to another's?
I think I found my “voice,” whatever it is, early, so I don’t find it a problem.
In your poem “A Rainy Country” you say “I am like the queen of a rainy county,/powerless and grown old.” and yet this is a very powerful poem. Don’t you think that is some of the beauty of poetry – its sheer power to evoke emotion, to influence?
We could go on forever discussing whether poetry can “make things happen.”
I’m back and forth on the matter.
The cover of your latest collection, Queen of a Rainy Country, is very impressive. At first glance, the photograph (by Richard Kalvar) seems pretty stark but then you see flowers blooming and a crop ripening; the woman is protected fro the rain by her boots and umbrella; and the muddy path she is on leads to a hopeful horizon with trees and a clearing sky. It suits this collection of poems perfectly. Did you have that in mind when you chose this photo – the combination of struggle and hope? That one must look deeper than just the surface?
I looked at many, many possible cover pictures. My daughter-in-law, Amy Pastan, found this one for me, and without much analysis I just knew it was perfect.
You have read at poetry festivals such as the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Do you think festivals such as this play an important role in keeping poetry alive and in the mainstream? (Editor’s note: The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, held in New Jersey every two years, draws approximately 20,000 people).
And what about smaller festivals around the country? Do they play an important role?
Of course any festival, big or small, that brings people to poems helps.
How many times have I heard this as part of a spirited explanation of why the workshop reader/critic is wrong in their criticism: "...and that’s how it actually happened." People usually say this defensively, when what they should be trying to do is understand what the critic means. Frequently the critic him/herself won't know what they mean, but I will be happy to tell you.
What actually happened isn't good enough. Even Ernest Hemingway said that the writer’s job was to make it truer than true, realer than real. That the writer had an obligation to improve on reality.
The importance of the event that "actually happened" is obvious to YOU, who have lived with the reality of "what actually happened" lo these many days or weeks or years. Problematically, the reader is NOT inside your head, and so CAN'T know "what actually happened" the way YOU know it.
James Michael Robbins, Publisher of The Sulphur River Literary Review, said, of the first line of my story, "Leaving the Station," ("Adrianna left this morning, like the trains she used to love to watch from our window as they traveled silently in the night between Lausanne and Geneva.") "Down here in Texas trains make a lot of noise. So are they a) electric, or b) way off in the distance?" To which I responded, "c) both of the above."
I had written the scene exactly as it happened, because my wife, Joanie, and I were house-sitting a friend's apartment there in the little Swiss village of Gilly-Bursinel, and both she and I had admired the view down the long slope to the Lake of Geneva (Lac Leman) and the "blue-gray hounds-teeth of the lesser Alps." The fact that the trains (electric) were far off way down the hill, just before the M road (a super-highway), DIDN'T NEED TO BE EXPLAINED BECAUSE ANYBODY WHO'D EVER SEEN IT WOULD UNDERSTAND.
Obviously, things which YOU'VE experienced and therefore KNOW, are, oftener than we think, things which the ordinary reader, WHO LACKS YOUR PARTICULAR EXPERIENCE AND EXPERTISE, CANNOT POSSIBLY KNOW.
This means, incidentally, that you must take the responsibility for shortening the story (or novel) by writing MORE and making it longer. See my earlier note re: Frank Conroy and his feedback on one of my short stories.
Or, as Davey Marlin-Jones was fond of saying, “Fix act three in act one.”
So here’s a little writing assignment from a workshop in creative writing which my father took in 1949. I quote from his notes in italics.
1) Write of a real experience
2) No plot
3) Any length
4) Must be about an emotional conflict
Then turn it into a piece of fiction with these conditions.
1) Avoid trite and dated ideas
2) Avoid weak plots
3) Avoid a dull style
Remember Poe’s three rules, especially the one about not being too long, and getting rid of anything which does not directly lead the reader where you want them to wind up emotionally.
In one of my many anonymous roles, I read poetry and fiction for another publication, and give the publisher, a personal friend, my feedback on whether or not I think the work is a) good enough to be published in his magazine, b) the right sort of good-enough story for his magazine, which has a specific thematic content, and c) if meeting those criteria, whether there are any places in the poem or story which could be improved upon through some revision on the part of the author. I suggest the kind of revision which I think will help clarity, whether in grammar, word selection, punctuation, or just plain scribal error. These last are of (at least) three types. Where a) a word is misspelled, or b) where the word is misused, or c) where an insertion or deletion was made in the text and a transition is lost entirely.
Clarity is perhaps the most important thing you need in writing, whether you are writing poetry, fiction, or even a college paper. As my former students can tell you, the purpose of a short story (Uzzell) is to evoke an emotional response from the reader. Lack of clarity leads to confusion, and confusion is NOT a valid emotional response!
What, after all, is the point of antagonizing your readers by confusing them? They’ll merely hate you and never want to read your work again.
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 2 No. 4, July 2008)
I recently agreed to be the judge in a national competition for writers. I offered to take on three categories: non-fiction book, verse published in a magazine, and novel. Believe it or not, the first two are easy. The third is not so easy, in part because it is so painfully obvious that most of the candidates don’t understand the basics.
So here, if you care, are some of Professor Brown’s rules for the writers of novels.
Learn to write a short story first. Here, at least, you can work on correcting mistakes in narrative technique without losing the desire to become a writer. Trying to correct a novel that is full of such mistakes will, perhaps, appear so daunting that you find it easier to pitch the whole thing in the drawer and forget it. On second thought, if you’re not serious about your writing, maybe this is the preferable option.
Read John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. Then read it again. Highlight it and refer to it often.
Start at the beginning of the story. Don’t give us interminable pages of introductory material; start where it gets interesting! I once took a student’s story which everyone had praised and tore the first seven pages off and threw them over my shoulder. As everyone else recoiled in horror, she said, “Too much set-up, hey?” She understood. She cut the first seven pages and the story, much improved by this simple act, got quickly published the first place to which it was sent!
Read Thomas Uzzell’s Narrative Technique. You may be able to order a copy from abe.com. This is a classic of writing instruction, and although it was written in 1923 (that’s right, 1923), you will learn more about how to write fiction-that-will-move-the-reader from this book than from any other.
Show, don’t tell. This is the most-often repeated phrase in creative writing classrooms for good reason. You are hereby forbidden to interpret any of your characters’ feelings for your readers. Provide a description of the person’s response and the reader will get it!
Learn to write dialogue! People don’t speak perfect English! By the same token, don’t write dialogue the way people actually talk! No one wants to read “’Uh,’ he stammered, ‘I-uh-really, like, think that—uh—I-uh don’t want to like, have to like, really do it, you know?’” When you sit in the company lunch room, or in a crowded restaurant, or on a crowded bus or subway train, take notes. Write down dialogue you actually hear. You will quickly hear the difference in the way two different people speak. The writer need not explain everything in order to differentiate between characters if the dialogue is clearly spoken by different people clearly enough drawn!
SEPARATE DIALOGUE SPOKEN BY DIFFERENT CHARACTERS INTO DIFFERENT PARAGRAPHS! Do NOT write endless dialogue that all melds together. Each new speaker should begin a new paragraph! You are NOT to confuse your reader! Refer to John Gardner in Rule #2.
Learn to punctuate properly; punctuate consistently! The number of folks who don’t understand punctuation astonishes me.
Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and keep this book handy as you write! I tell my students that this is “Cliff Notes” for grammar. It’s also “Cliff Notes” for punctuation. If you have trouble with #8 above, this is a real writer’s tool.
Be sure, if you describe a REAL PLACE, that you’ve actually been there in person! (or have read extensively about the place and seen every photograph in every travel magazine you can.) If you haven’t already, download Google Earth and go look at the layout and topography.
The over-use of stilted dialogue, overly descriptive, florid prose, explaining it all to the reader ad nauseum, and beginning long before the story actually begins, all make me fearful of the future of literature.
That said, let me also ‘fess up to being near the end of a novel which begins a quarter century before my protagonist is born, and which includes encyclopedic information not directly germane to the immediate plot, and all sorts of politically incorrect violence, none of which is gratuitous, incidentally, because it is a novel about the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. Let me also say that you may only actually break these rules once you know what you’re doing and are aware of the fact that you are breaking the rules.
If there is one rule that wraps up all of the others, it would be MASTER THE BASICS BEFORE YOU TACKLE A NOVEL!!!
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 2 No. 3, May 2008)
I occasionally review literary works for a friend’s magazine, offering criticisms and suggestions where I feel it would be helpful and, when asked, my opinion on whether or not the piece in question is worth publishing. I also am asked by friends and acquaintances to read their work, and I do so on the understanding that I’ll be honest.
So I’m quite frankly irked by writers who don’t seem to understand (or perhaps they don’t care) about such things as paragraph indents, closing a set of quotation marks (“I see what you mean he said. What are you going to do about it?”), or by being miserly with punctuation.
Really, if you consider yourself too much of an artist to be bothered by convention, why send your work out at all? And if, God forbid, you’re too lazy or inept to give your work an even casual edit, why on earth should an editor want to read your work?
The conventions of grammar and punctuation are, after all, merely unspoken contractual agreements between writer and reader, undertaken to facilitate clarity. Given that language is itself at best a slightly ambiguous, and at worst, an inexact method of communication, clarity is a must. Until we begin to communicate telepathically, the written and spoken word is the best we can achieve. Why muddy your meaning by using a vague or incorrect word when a precise and correct one will do?
People often ask me what it takes to get published. What they really ought to be asking themselves is, “What must I do in order that the editor not reject my work out of hand?”
So here is a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for you.
Don’t fail to proofread your manuscript.
Remember, every quotation mark is part of a pair.
Speaker attribution is NOT part of the text that belongs within that pair of quotation marks (as in
the above example).
Indent every paragraph.
Each time you change the point of view, even if only after one single sentence, begin a new
Check your punctuation. Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and keep it near you
at all times when you are writing. This is “Cliff Notes” for grammar and punctuation.
Check for continuity. A story I recently read had a line like this. “’I’ll bet she’s forgotten my name,’
Bob thought as she approached. “Hi Bob,” she said, then introduced her boyfriend. ‘Bob, this
is Pete. Pete, Phil.’ ‘Yes, she had forgotten his name alright,’ Bob thought.” It is NOT a crime
to go back and add something to your story, but for Pete’s sake (or is it Bob’s? Or Phil’s?) check
to see that you’ve inserted it seamlessly and take corrective measures if you haven’t.
Don’t send your manuscript on pastel-tinted paper, or, worse yet, paper with floral patterns or bucolic scenes from nature in the background. This says you are not serious about your work. It also says that there may be something bizarre about you, and that if the editor were to publish your work you might become a stalker.
Don’t send your manuscript in non-traditional typefaces. No script Italics, No old English block lettering, and especially no special characters such as smiley faces in lieu of periods☺ This, too, says that you’re not a serious writer.
Remember John Gardner’s rule for writers of short stories – that it is YOUR JOB as a writer to effectively communicate the emotion of the story without pushing the readers away or breaking their concentration. It is YOUR JOB to invite the reader into your story and make the experience real enough that you keep them there in what Gardner calls “the waking-dream state.”
Incidentally, the title of this series of “how-to” articles is quite deliberate — constructing a short story is a lot like building a house, or, say, a bridge.
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 2 No. 2 March 2008)
Let’s talk about your characters’ names. This is often a subject about which writers will not speak because it is a somewhat mysterious event which even experienced writers do not fully understand.
First, a question. Were you shaped by your name in any way when you were young? Many of us felt uncomfortable with our given names at an early age, and have only grown comfortable with them (if at all) as we mature. We are aware, as children, of how names shape us. In fact, I assign my students an exercise.
I write the names "Darrell, “Tanya,” “George,” “Helen,” “Alex,” “Jennifer,” “Dwayne,” “Tony,” “Amanda,” ”Ralph,” “Rita,” “Shawn,” “Leanne,” and “Tricia” on the blackboard. I ask the students to pick four names, two male and two female (note that some of these names are gender-neutral) and describe the person whom they immediately envision the person so named.
Invariably, where there is a name common to three or more students’ descriptions, (in a class of twenty this is rather likely), there will be obvious similarities in their characterizations. Not that their descriptions are identical, but that a general sense of an individual with that name emerges as the common perception.
Because we are shaped in subtle, psychological ways by how we perceive ourselves to be seen as a person with a name which either fits us, or, as in many cases, doesn’t fit us. Penelope may be a name a girl in grade school might well hate, preferring to go by “Penny,” but the experiences she has in childhood, (“Pene-lope, cantaloupe!” she might have been teased, for instance) makes it likely that her given name will harden part of her psyche, so that a woman named “Penelope” is likely to hold herself apart, and remain slightly aloof. At least, that’s what a character with that name might be like in a story I may someday write.
Someone named “George” might well be a stolid, feet firmly-planted-on-the-ground type of individual. Something about the name suggests this. Allow yourself time to think about these considerations, and understand that, as you progress, your characters’ names will not necessarily have to be chosen by you consciously. Because this psychological underpinning, our presuppositions about peoples’ names and their characters, is so much a part of our subconscious, learn to accept that by naming your characters before you have begun your story, you may be limiting how you think of them as the story unfolds.
There is nothing inherently wrong in this, and it may work quite successfully for you, but you are just as likely to find that the character you are writing about doesn’t need to be named, first, but can be named once the story is well underway. I find it helpful to continue writing a story until the moment another character, named or unnamed, calls out to the protagonist by name.
If you do this, understand that your first reaction is likely to be, “That can’t be my character’s name! He/She doesn’t seem like that to me at all!”
Once again, as I’ve said in earlier columns, you have to learn to shut up and stay out of the way. If the person so named could not be named that, remember, it was YOUR subconscious that heard the other character call out to your protagonist, and therefore there must, in fact, be a reason for it which your conscious mind just hasn’t yet gotten a chance to wrap itself around.
Your job is to delve deeper into the character’s make-up and find out why, indeed, that is the most appropriate name for your character. This fleshing out at that point in your own narrative (you need not put this material into the story; bear in mind Hemingway’s dictum about keeping 80% of the iceberg underwater) will enrich your story with a depth which it is unlikely to have had prior to this moment of discovery.
If what you’re writing isn’t important to you, you can’t expect it to be important to others. The “Moderns” were said to be writing in a new way and raising questions in their work that were important. But after a while, readers should, I think, begin to ask themselves whether or not someone’s mere verbal cleverness, their ability to be provocative by asking questions the answers to which were either self-evident or unknowable, is of much value.
I had a professor say to me once, when I complained that all the writer in whose work we were reading was doing was asking clever questions, “Yes, but what wonderful questions they are!”
Now don’t get me wrong. I was an existentialist at the age of five. A dysfunctional household makes children ask impossible questions fairly early in their lives; what I would far rather have is a writer who makes an attempt to actually answer some of those eternal questions. That way, at least, I’ve something with which to interact, with which to joust intellectually. You shouldn’t get strokes in public office for complaining that things aren’t better; you should be looking for ways to make things better! That’s your job.
Your job, as a writer, is to provide another avenue for seeing, clearing away the bramble and undergrowth and cultural and emotional detritus. This doesn’t mean that people should be expected to agree with you, but that what you have to say is said in such a way that what you mean can be seen clearly. By the same token, show, don’t tell; speak in parables, don’t preach.
I recently had an emerging writer ask me why I preferred one of their stories to another. “Because in the one case,” I said, “Your character, though reminiscing, is letting us see the world through the character’s eyes as the character remembered seeing things as a child. In the other, we were being told why the events were important to the character, so that there was a filter, a screed between the reader and the experience.
Yes, yes, I can hear you protest that “of course, everything the writer writes is filtered though the writer,” but the reality is something different indeed. For when one has the vicarious sense that they have actually experienced what the writer is writing about, it is as though it actually happened to them. The other is just a travelogue of a story, one in which the writer keeps saying, “Oh, you should have been there. It was so great!” but with none of the sense that the reader has of its really having happened. Sort of like being forced to sit through your neighbor’s interminable slide-shows of their trip to Disney World.
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 1, No. 5 September 2007)
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
I am often asked “How do I get started on something if I have ‘writer’s block?’” Well, we’ve all been there, of course, but one of the “assignments” I will give my “students” in a creative writing workshop is a story that I begin by giving them the circumstances and then telling them to finish the story they are already writing in their heads. Everyone who tries this comes back with a different story, and that’s just perfect in my mind, because we all have different stories to tell.
Here is the start of the story, which is, incidentally, a TRUE STORY the ending of which is unknown, at least to me.
One wet fall night -- it had been raining on and off -- my wife, Joanie called from Union Station. She had just gotten off of the Metroliner from New York and was getting onto the subway. She asked if I could pick her up at Friendship Heights. I said sure, and fifteen minutes later, jumped into my car and drove the four blocks over to the Metro.
I parked on the Wisconsin Avenue side of the Metro office building there; Joanie always went down this escalator when I dropped her off and this was where I always picked her up. A bus pulled in behind me, so I vacated the bus lane and drove around the pie-wedge shaped building, turning right onto what is officially "Wisconsin Circle" even though it never described more that one sixth or one fifth of a pie. Then I turned right on Western Avenue and right again on Wisconsin just as the bus was leaving. All this time I was monitoring the escalator for Joanie's arrival.
A car pulled in behind me. I could see the silhouettes of a man behind the wheel and a woman on the passenger side of the front seat talking. The rear window of their car glowed with the headlights of traffic on Wisconsin. Then a hesitant peck, peck, and she got out of the vehicle, waved sadly, and went down the escalator with her hand luggage. Behind me I saw the driver's shoulders heave -- I imagine he sighed at this painful parting. Then he pulled out, drove past me, turned, and was gone.
I turned my attention to the escalator, since it was clear that Joanie must have missed the subway train by calling me, and had to wait another twenty minutes for the next one. But I wanted to jump out of the car and greet her and load her luggage in the car (if she had any -- I can't remember)
A few minutes passed. Then the woman who had gotten out of the car behind me re-emerged from the subway, creeping up the stairs rather than the escalator. She peered around, wondering, I suppose, if the driver had merely moved the car. She came completely out of the subway, looked up and down Wisconsin Avenue, turned, walked toward the intersection, crossed Wisconsin with the light, then crossed Western with the light, and turned right, walking down Western Avenue beside Mazza Gallerie until she was gone from my sight.
Then Joanie appeared, and I said, "You're not going to believe this."
Your assignment, then, is to finish the story about the woman who went down into the subway and reappeared. Where was she going and why? Who was the man in the car? Why the subterfuge? But you're already writing it in your head, I can tell.
So what are you waiting for? Get to work! And don’t stop writing until you’ve gotten to the end. Be open to any surprises you might encounter along the way, and don’t self-edit as you go along. Whatever comes to you comes to YOU and should be included, not dismissed. ONLY once you are done, may you put it down and stop. Then, in the cold light of the next day or so, print it out and reread what you have written. Correct only your grammar, spelling, and syntax, and do NOT tamper with your characters’ speech, especially so if you worry what people will think.
Once you’ve given yourself permission to free-associate in the creative process, you may come to understand that all you need do is find one thing to start writing about in order to open the floodgates.
In fact, if your stories are good enough, we might run the best of them in The Broadkill Review to demonstrate that what I’ve said about the uniqueness of your voices is true.
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 July 2007)
Monday, March 2, 2009
You Tube has some wonderful poetry readings available, and I came across this interp of a Larry Levis poem. I love the high school field hockey/lacrosse slide show that goes along with the reading. Random
Literary Birthdays Calendar
Jan. 1, 1873 Mariano Azuela
Jan. 8, 1824 Wilkie Collins
Jan. 17, 1820 Anne Bronte
Jan. 19, 1790 Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom
Jan. 21, 1705 Isaac Hawkins Browne
Jan. 22, 1561 Francis Bacon
Jan. 23, 1783 Marie Henri Bryle (Stendahl)
Jan. 25, 1759 Robert Burns
Jan. 25, 1882 Virginia Woolf
Jan. 26, 1781 Achim Von Arnim
Jan. 31, 1923 Norman Mailer
Feb. 2, 1882 James Joyce
Feb. 3, 1874 Gertrude Stein
Feb 7, 1812 Charles Dickens
Feb. 7, 1885 Sinclair Lewis
Feb. 10, 1609 Sir John Suckling
Feb. 16, 1838 Henry Adams
Feb. 18, 1825 Mor Jokai
Feb. 20, 1870 Pieter Cornelis Boutiens
Feb. 21, 1907 Wystan Hugh Auden
Feb. 22, 1801 William Barnes
Feb. 23, 1899 Erich Kastner
Feb. 23, 1613 Samuel Pepys
Feb. 25, 1917 Anthony Burgess
Feb. 26, 1802 Victor Hugo
Feb. 27, 1902 John Steinbeck
Mar. 1, 1917 Robert Lowell
Mar. 2, 1942 John Winslow Irving
Mar. 3, 1800 Evgeni Abramovich Baratynski
Mar. 5, 1922 Pier Paolo Paolini
Mar. 6, 1885 Ring Lardner
Mar. 6, 1806 Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Mar. 13, 1892 Janet Flanner (Genet)
Mar. 14, 1823 Theodore de Banville
Mar. 16, 1585 Gerbrand A. Bredero
Mar. 18, 1932 John Hoyer Updike
Mar. 19, 1933 Philip Milton Roth
Mar. 20, 1823 Edward Judson (Ned Buntline)
Mar. 26, 1911 Tennessee Williams
Mar. 27, 1746 Michael Bruce
Mar. 29, 1831 Amelia Edith Barr
Apr. 2 1725 Giacomo Casanova
Apr. 2, 1805 Hans Christian Andersen
Apr. 4, 1785 Bettina von Arnim
Apr. 4, 1574 Gabriel Bataille
Apr. 5, 1834 Frank Stockton
Apr. 6, 1866 Lincoln Steffens
Apr. 10, 1950 H. A. Maxson
Apr. 11, 1905 Attila Jozsef
Apr. 14, 1900 Karin Maria Boye
Apr. 17, 1863 Constantine Cavafy
Apr. 21, 1837 Fredrik Baje
Apr. 21, 1816 Charlotte Bronte
Apr. 22, 1816 Philip James Bailey
Apr. 22, 1819 Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt
Apr. 23, 1564 William Shakespeare
Apr. 24, 1825 Robert Michael Ballantyne
Apr. 24, 1815 Anthony Trollope
Apr. 25, 1914 Ross Lockridge, Jr.
May 3, 1912 May Sarton
May 7, 1812 Robert Browning
May 9, 1860 Sir James Matthew Barrie
May 15, 1890 Katherine Anne Porter
May 20, 1799 Honore de Balzac
May 22, 1688 Alexander Pope
May 26, 1799 Alexander Pushkin
Jun 2. 1816 Grace Aguilar
Jun 6, 1799 Alexander Pushkin
Jun. 8, 1874 Jose Martinex Ruiz (Azorin)
Jun. 13, 1752 Fanny Burney
Jun. 14, 1811 Harriet Beecher Stowe
Jun. 18, 1896 Philip Barry
Jun. 20, 1905 Lillian Hellman
Jun. 21, 1912 Mary McCarthy
Jun. 23, 1889 Anna Akhmatova
Jun. 24, 1842 Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce
Jun. 29, 1900 Antoine St. Exupery
Jul. 3, 1883 Franz Kafka
Jul. 3, 1860 Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Jul. 19, 1863 Hermann Bahr
Jul 21, 1899 Ernest Hemingway
Jul. 22, 1898 Stephen Vincent Benet
Jul. 24, 1900 Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
Jul. 26, 1856 George Bernard Shaw
Jul. 27, 1870 Hillaire Belloc
Jul. 29, 1869 Booth Tarkington
Jul. 30, 1818 Emily Bronte
Aug. 3, 1887 Rupert Brooke
Aug. 8, 1884 Sara Teasdale
Aug. 19, 1686 Eustace Budgell
Aug. 26, 1830 Guillaume Apollinaire
Sep. 6, 1860 Jane Addams
Sep. 9, 11778 Clemens Brentano
Sep. 13, 1876 Sherwood Anderson
Sep. 17, 1883 William Carlos Williams
Sep. 18, 1709 Samuel Johnson
Sep. 20, 1884 Maxwell Evarts Perkins
Sep. 25, 1897 William Faulkner
Sep. 26, 1888 T. S. Eliot
Oct. 2, 1879 Wallace Stevens
Oct. 10, 1870 Ivan Alekseevich Bunin
Oct. 16, 1854 Oscar Wilde
Oct. 17, 1792 Sir John Bowring
Oct. 20, 1554 Balint Balassi
Oct. 25, 1941 Anne Tyler
Oct. 26, 1880 Andrei Bely
Oct. 27, 1914 Dylan Thomas
Oct. 27, 1932 Sylvia Plath
Oct. 28, 1659 Nicholas Brady
Oct. 29, 1740 James Boswell
Oct. 30, 1885 Ezra Pound
Oct. 31, 1795 John Keats
Nov. 3, 1794 William Cullen Bryant
Nov. 5, 1735 James Beattie
Nov. 8, 1806 Roger de Beauvoir
Nov. 9, 1721 Mark Akenside
Nov. 9, 1928 Anne Sexton
Nov. 10, 1883 Olaf Jacob Martin Luther Bull
Nov. 11, 1922 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Nov. 13, 1850 Robert Louis Stevenson
Nov. 15, 1897 Sacheverell Sitwell
Nov. 16, 1889 George S, Kaufman
Nov. 22, 1877 Endre Ady
Nov. 26, 1883 Mihaly Babits
Nov. 28, 1757 William Blake
Nov. 29, 1832 Louisa May Alcott
Nov. 29, 1781 Andres
Nov. 30, 1667 Jonathan Swift
Dec. 1, 1935 Woody Allen
Dec. 2, 1885 Nikos Kazantzakis
Dec. 6, 1886 Joyce Kilmer
Dec. 7, 1873 Willa Cather
Dec. 9, 1608 John Milton
Dec.12, 1766 Nikolai Karamzin
Dec. 15, 1888 Maxwell Anderson
Dec. 16, 1775 Jane Austen
Dec. 21, 1849 James Lane Allen
Dec. 21, 1804 Benjamin Disraeli
Dec. 24, 1822 Matthew Arnold
Dec. 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling
Dec. 31, 1747 Gottfried August Burger