Tag Archives: literary topics
Short Story: “Catamite, Catalyst, Catamount”–An Intended Source of “Queer Joy” for Those Affected By the November 2022 Shootings at a LGBTQ Nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado (People, the World is More with You Than It Might Appear)–story copyrighted by Victoria Leigh Bennett on January 15, 2022, All Rights Reserved with the exception of Fair Use Policy (short quotes in reviews/articles/essays)
Two Books of Traditionally-Shaped Petrarchan Sonnets on Home and Empire With a Contemporary Ethos and Twist–by Alex Guenther
Today, I am going to do something I rarely do, and review two books at once. They are by the same poet, Alex Guenther, a force to be reckoned with in the poetic world and widely known and celebrated on Twitter and other social networking sites for his poetic acumen. Being by the same author is not normally or naturally a reason to put them both in the same review, however, except that by that means I can best compare and contrast them for the reader, and hope to convince the astute consumer of good poetry that though they have certain distinct similarities, they are different enough for anyone to want to own both of them. They are available from various subsites, and as you can see from the image above, one need only go to bitly.com/sonnets2021 to locate these sites. But first to the conviction that these books are worth investing in for the small cost and the large satisfaction to be gained from reading them through.
The two books are respectively “the heave” and “the deodar seeds,” and they were simultaneously released. According to the author, they were begun during the original lockdowns of the first Covid period, which seems to have been a period of intense reflection and soul-searching by the author. The lack of capitalization in the words, according to Alex, a witty and intensely erudite soul, was due to the fact that they were composed on a phone, which called for easy manipulation; later, though still not due to any e.e.cummings-like assumptions of manifesto, this form of writing became preferred for its own sake, possibly a result of the poet’s self-aware but unassuming modesty. “the heave” is a book written more in reference to modern-day life in cities, particularly Eastern cities, as the author and his wife have resided for many years now in the East, and are now resident in Bangkok, Thailand, where Alex teaches and writes. “the deodar seeds,” in contrast, is a book about exploration, conquest and empires, and has a quite broad scope, treating not only of Eastern conquerors, explorers, and literary figures/saints, but also of a few Western or European ones.
Both books are Petrarchan sonnets, being fairly standard in rhyme scheme and meter, except for the odd sound effect or forced rhyme and an occasional extra syllable. Their style is similar, yet in both cases, the rhymes are often quite unique and highly imaginative, with a standard, expected rhyme being quite rare. As well, and this is a major and particularly attractive quality, the enjambment–or carrying over of meaning from the end of a line and resolving the thought with a portion of the next line instead of using end-stopped lines–the enjambment! It produces something of the juggling and oftentimes jarring rhythms of contemporary daily life, and prevents the poems from having a quality rhymed poetry is often criticized for, that of sounding jog-trot and bouncy, too unintentionally comic. Though Guenther has a succinct and piercing wit in the literary sense of the word “wit,” he is never foolishly comical or silly. In fact, though there is no pomposity about the two books at all, it is impossible to read them without reference to the intellectual qualities of the bright and far-reaching examinations of the poet’s chosen topics. In both books, there are many, many words and concepts introduced which would at first be quite foreign to an uninformed or not widely traveled Western person, but there is no reason at all to fear the encounter with these perhaps previously unencountered concepts or facts: Alex is always a good poetic host, and uses such words and concepts in a self-explanatory way, without being condescending.
Now, to the differences: though the two books, “the heave” and “the deodar seeds” are very alike in sonnet paradigms and generally in style, yet the pace of “the heave” is quicker, possibly to convey the haste and scramble of modern life, whereas the tempo of “the deodar seeds” is slower, more considering of all the explorations, discoveries, pilgrimages, and empires discussed. “the deodar seeds” deals with various colonial dreams, and the explorers, artists, holy figures, conquerors, and victims of these imperialisms. “the heave,” on the other hand, deals with the modern streets, shades of experience, and mental and emotional states of contemporary empires, the fragmented, dissonant, sometimes nightmarish echoes of contemporary personhood. There in fact is more of a personal, intense quality of reflection in “the heave,” for a total of 54 sonnets, whereas the 108 sonnets of “the deodar seeds” are personal mainly in the way Alex offers some of them as imaginative explorations of interior states of mind of various world-famous figures, a sort of dramatic monologue in sonnet form.
As a final means of making my points, I would like to offer two sonnets through “fair use” form of quotation, one of my favorites from each book. First, from “the deodar seeds”:
alaric on the walls let oil-black plumes of mingling smoke arise; the visigoths are taking rome. we've won mere plunder; little justice has been done. The vaunted roman dream, we've learned, applies to citizens deemed worthy in their eyes-- not streams of stateless refugees who've run to seek asylum from encroaching huns. they turn us back, and teach us we're despised. they mock our leather trousers and our shoes; we lead their armies; still they keep us down, and gothic blood has often stained these streets; we sought security, and were refused. we tried our best to serve the roman crown; perhaps they will respect us in defeat. The genius of the above is that without distorting the historical element, Alex Guenther has driven home the universal and topical elements of Alaric's discourse. Now, from "the heave," one of the resolving and latter sonnets: to a lotus o beautiful, for doubly floating; no-- say triply; rising from frog-spawn and mire, then hovering as pale empetalled fire on slender stem, amid the ukiyo or shifting world of transitory show in which we swim suspended, where desire breeds pain--where we, until our cells expire writhe blindly as the tadpoles down below. impossible, since nothing is beyond or separate from matter's pulsing swarms; impossible, since all is baited bluff, this apparition from a fetid pond; your gently glowing, pale empetalled form is floating briefly, beautiful enough.
This second sonnet of my quotation is consonant with the Buddhist view of life, which Alex is conversant with and which he avers is his preferred outlook. Nevertheless, he is not morose or gloomy, but instead maintains a humorous and gentle persona. He appears on Twitter on Thursdays at @PoetsCornerALW, curated by another poet whom I have recently reviewed–Arthur L. Wood–and also contributes tweets of the occasional haiku, which can be found on his profile timeline, or on your own timeline feed. Also, he is available for converse on two other sites: http://www.facebook.com/alex.guenther.104, and http://www.instagram.com/guentheralex. And, if after you have read the books, you would like to contribute further to a fine poet who clearly knows poetry, history, and human nature, you can do so at http://www.paypal.com/paypalme/guentheralex.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
Arthur L. Wood’s “Scarlet Land”–A Poet’s Development from Being Mainly a Love Poet to Being a Diagnostician of the Poet’s Landscape and Condition
Copyright 2021, Arthur L. Wood, Cover design, Hugh Rochfort
Having read Arthur L. Wood’s first collection of poetry, Poems for Susan, with its tender strains of love poetry and its far-reaching set of influences, one might be at least partially prepared for his second collection, Scarlet Land. Here also, there is sometimes tenderness of language, and the influences, both submerged and spoken of directly, are equally far-flung. But the tenderness here is more tempered with a certain cynicism, an acquired knowledge of more of the world in the tone, a certain sated weariness from time to time in the language, which yet does not make the poetry dull-witted with rancor or wearisome to read.
In Scarlet Land, the poet as a figure has not only the topic of love to contend with; he is also embattled in that same sensation of love, embattled in society, in poetic invention, in many things. And of course, in the background lurks always the awareness, like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, of being a poet in a condition or time of disease: just as in 2020, Covid appeared in Poems for Susan overtly, here it appears more insidiously, in the background as one is aware of the unhealthy influence. There are songs of dismay at modern conditions:
I cannot find my England. Does she lie in dust I sweep, Does she hide away in sunshine, in darkness does she creep, Does she hum a pagan melody and converse with the stars, Is she frightened by the madness and the music from the bars? I cannot find my England.
There are poems investigating or betraying to view a poet’s states and choices:
What more can I do? I've channelled the poets, I've died so many times, Yet so few are listening; I've written ten thousand Miraculous rhymes-- What more can I do? ************************** So many great poems! What more can I do? Tell me, would you please tell me, Because I haven't a clue-- I get up each morning, I shower and dress, Then die many times; Another call centre Awaits me, I guess. ************************* Or, taking a line through Milton, more affirmatively: ************************* Let my body starve! Let my soul rejoice! I cannot fail my task, I must be precise! I'll reinvent the songs With the trumpet of my voice, And pave the path of poesy That leads to paradise!
Raymond Keene, OBE, comments in his Foreword to the book that this is “fraught territory,” and indeed, in this book, the poet allows himself to be used nearly as the canary in the coal mines is used, who is the barometer (if he lives or if he dies) of whether or not there are unseen and dangerous substances being breathed by those around him. It is certainly in Scarlet Land a more “fraught” mental and moral landscape than in the previous book.
As to the structure of the poetry, Wood has always been good at achieving a sense of closure of the poetic material, regardless of whether the poem ends on a refrain, on a variation of a previous statement, or even if the contained sentiment diverges from the poetic shape by not being conclusive. He has also not disappointed in continuing his genius with metering and rhyming, though there are herein a bit more of poems in blank verse.
Sprinkled throughout, though not devoted to any one individual love by name as was the case in the previous book, there are still some hopes given out for the persistence of human love. The characteristic love poem here now occurs in spite of negative conditions, not so much in the absence of them as was the case in Poems for Susan:
While We Love
The world of raging fire, The cold and dark abyss, The fluctuating chasm, Are nothing while we kiss. The lake of burning sinners, The acid in the sky, The hole within the middle, Are nothing while we sigh. The steel-whitened seaweed, The limping one-eyed dove, The corpse upon the mountain, Are nothing while we love.
All in all, though the poetic voice is often strained here, the poet frustrated in the extreme to the point of sketching it all out for the reader, we see here a more complicated and mature poetic schema than before. Poems for Susan was an astounding and magnificent book, but it was the poet’s courtship of his subject and his talent; Scarlet Land is the beginning of his alchemical marriage to the same.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
“What beck’ning ghost, along the moonlight shade/Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?”–Alexander Pope
There is a corollary to the proposition that there’s more rejoicing over the return of a prodigal son than there is over the continuing excellence of a constant one; that corollary is that it’s worse when a potentially good man goes bad than it is when a bad man continues what he’s doing. In Kingsley Amis’s book The Green Man, we get a double reflection of this second notion, when we not only meet up with a modern day man of relaxed moral fiber, but also with the ghost of a minister turned evil revenant who confronts him.
In an English tradition descended from the ancient fear of nature and natural forces–for our worship of nature is an entirely different tradition, though equally ancient, which even so recognizes the power of the earth–the “green man” is a sort of roving spirit, sometimes neither good nor ill, sometimes outright malevolent, and sometimes given to testing mankind, as in the medieval tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which many of you will already have read and I hope enjoyed in a literature class. In Amis’s book, the man of easy morals is an innkeeper named Maurice Allington, who is situated with his wife, father, and daughter in an old inn in Hertsfordshire, England. Though the elemental force is so strong that there’s almost no bargaining with it, Maurice learns from the evil spectre of the minister’s ghost and a mysterious young man, and makes some sacrifices on his way to learning what evil and good may actually be about.
The book relies on a combination of fear and hilarity, the deep-seated source of a certain intensified response from the reader in both directions. The book is not unlike other chilling literary/stage/movie experiences I can think of: for example, the 70’s stage show “Dracula,” with its equally hysteria-inducing combination of the two otherwise opposed tendencies. We alternately thrill with horror and gasp, then laugh out loud. A movie experience utilizing this same formula was “An American Werewolf in London,” which used the by now reliable combination of slapstick, horror, satire, and cultural and occult lore that Amis’s book uses. But Amis’s book preceded these dramatic offerings in time; it was first published in 1969, though also published in the U.S. by an American publisher in 1986.
So, just what are Maurice Allington’s problems? Firstly, he is dissatisfied with his marriage to his wife, Joyce, and wants to bed the lovely Diana, wife of his best friend, the doctor Jack Maybury. His father, who is not in the best of health, lives with his family and Maurice is unsettled by him, too. He also has a massive drinking problem, as his concerned family members and friends constantly remind him. And he has to decide if it’s his drinking which is causing the most unusual of his problems: that is, he sees spirits. He sees spirits and experiences psychic phenomena far beyond the limit of the simple antique ghost tale which is retailed by him to his customers at the inn to pique their interest. Of course the book deliberately, artfully, and effectively leaves it unclear for the most part as to whether these are genuine manifestations, a result of the door between worlds suddenly being opened, or whether Maurice is actually becoming mentally unhinged and debilitated by the liquor and his own lack of balance alone. The only being who seems to confirm the sightings he himself experiences is the cat, Victor, who in the time-honored tradition of cats with psychic abilities arches his back, hisses and spits, or runs out of the room and hides when the ghosts come to visit.
Maurice sees not only the sinful and spirit-summoning minister from the past, but also what turns out to have been the minister’s (Underhill’s) wife; an incarnation of a young man who acts something like a modern version of Christ but something more like a modern version of Satan; an apparent manifestation of a twittering bird which makes him wonder if he has delirium tremens; and a large clump of walking devastation of foliage which reads like one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s ents on steroids: this last is the so-called “green man.”
The dapper young man without a name helps orient Maurice to the experiences he’s undergoing, though the orientation isn’t one conducive to dwelling safely and well in this world. Others try to help him recoup his losses, such as his doctor friend Jack Maybury, whose wife Maurice is trying to bed on the sly. His own wife, Joyce, and his son Nick and Nick’s girlfriend are all equally concerned, and are trying in their various ways to help Maurice come to terms with what they mostly regard as a fiction of his overwrought imagination. His young daughter Amy is in danger of becoming a pawn in the game he is playing with his otherworldly experiences and foes. Finally, he has trouble keeping track of the time, time having no meaning when he’s conversing with the elegant young man, because his watch and clocks no longer aid him in determining how time is passing when they are speaking to one another. Worst of all, perhaps, is his difficulty in coordinating daily reality with the supernatural things which are happening to him (in his head?).
For Henry James readers who have encountered some of the criticism written about James’s story “The Turn of the Screw,” this double-barrelled treatment of suspicious happenings, when a character is proclaimed by different critics to be 1) suffering under a real visitation from the other world or 2) suffering from an overactive imagination, a drinking problem, a psychological disorder, et cetera, will be familiar. James is in fact mentioned in The Green Man. And though I’m not going to reveal the ending of the book (with its unexpected romantic alliance), I can safely tell you without ruining the reading experience that even up to the very end the suspenseful questions of exactly what happened remain. After all, part of the time we may be in the mind of a crazy drunk (or is he in legitimate danger of losing his soul? Or has he squeaked “out from under” losing his soul?). This is a book well worth the occasional difficulty with theological terminology and concepts; in fact, it is a book that I think Henry James himself would’ve been proud, in our time, to have written.
Apologies for Being Otherwise Busy, and a Suggestion for a Great Halloween Read
Hello, website, Twitter and Facebook readers! My apologies for going quiet mostly for a whole week or more now. I’ve been busy getting ready for moving (possibly) and simultaneously submitting poems, articles, and prose bits to publishers/magazines and checking on the same in Submittable and other sites. But as your reward, I have a Halloween suggestion for reading which will be guaranteed to shiver your timbers as well as the rest of you, from one of the greats. Please follow the Yellow Brick Road, or the trail of breadcrumbs to my very next post–it wouldn’t be a Halloween post if I didn’t keep you in suspense–and read my 2012 post on Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man. If you read the book, I promise you won’t be disappointed (Brrrhhhhh! And here I thought I was a back-to-nature woman!). Happy haunted dreams!
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
“What Pecan Light”–A New “Song of the South” Arises in Strict Self-Examination and the Protestant Confessional Tradition of Witnessing, Through the Medium of Poetry
Just this year, the editor/teacher/professional poet Dr. Hannah VanderHart has given us a monumental though deceptively short book of poetry on Southern life, thought, and tradition which belies the suggestion that a book need be long to achieve a worthwhile thesis and goal. The book is What Pecan Light. While the book goes from picture to picture of Southern life, and growing up in a family tradition of ownership of a chicken farm and farming in general, using images of food, daily habits, work forms, recreation times and religious traditions to which the South remains committed, the past with its Civil War history and history of slave-owning is never only a part of the background, but informs in its seriousness and rhetoric the whole.
The lovingly executed papier-mache in the photograph from the front cover with its mythically descended formation of human silhouettes-becoming-trees (by Rachel DiRenna) is a sort of key to the structure of the book as a whole: I too have had Southern relatives wondering what possible shape the South can take next, if it continues to change so much in its traditions and reverences, and being caught up in false notalgias, false because betraying of basic humanity.
Others such as Jessica O. Stark and Joy Katz on the book’s back cover have communicated at succinct and short length the cultural and societal aspects of this book. Though brevity is often said to be the soul of wit, sometimes a book merits greater length and remark where possible, and it is to this end that I devote myself today, while calling to the readers’ attention their deservedly appreciative remarks.
The book is one of tightly woven individual poems taking place in a loosely put-together structure which allows for visiting and revisiting, layering and relayering, of themes and motifs. The traditions and culture of the Southern United States in the states with which the poet is familiar are examined in an elliptical slide going from facts to Southern topoi and from Southern topoi to facts. “Topoi,” of course, in Greek, or “loci” in Latin, are rhetorical places, places where things happen and where facts may or may not reign. Here, the topoi are richly illustrated by Southern images and lifestyle portraits of the daily life of a family whose past is affected by the ancestors whom they have been taught to reverence, but whom more recent documents or examinations expose as flawed by slaving. This experience, when one thinks of it, is a universal experience in the sense that an appreciation of the facts portrayed and the reactions of the present-tense family committed to a more just existence are experienced by anyone who has imperfect human ancestors (which is all of us). That slavery is the issue here in this book makes it particularly rich for an American audience trying to heal the deep divides of our time, many of the roots of which are buried in older times.
VanderHart’s book is a deeply and seriously wrought picture of a family whose traditions are in the process of renovation despite their otherwise deep Southern ties, as the mother-figure in the poem teaches the newest members about the slave-owning past and the attitudes of prejudice, the practices of repression, that have been perennial in the world every time a subject people have sought freedom and self-determination. Thus, the poetic voice throughout, while not denying some degree of nostalgia but treating it both with reverence and due suspicion, makes from her own consciousness a critical voice arising from the midst of these traditions and cultural ties. She examines them both as they stand separate and apart from the greater life of the whole United States, and as they form the source of the root of Southern loyalty to the whole, where it exists.
For Southerners–and this was true in my childhood in the not-quite-South also, in West Virginia where people regularly divide themselves according to whether they have Southern loyalties of a traditional sort or Northern loyalties of the “West Virginia went with the North” sort–loyalty to the United States has in the past been first and foremost loyalty to a Southern-style home atmosphere, welfare, and traditions unless one is a social critic as for example VanderHart is here in her role as poet. Thus, this “monumental” work, as I called it once before, is a new sort of Southern monument, a Southern testament, a testifying of a religious sort, as poetry always has been, of a word structure rather than a stone or metal structure, but in the public forum just as a literal statue of a Confederate general or widow would be. And it is both long overdue for all of us, Northerners and Southerners alike, and most welcome in its overwhelming gift of a new language plinth to stand in our mutual public square.
This book is available from Bull City Press, at 1217 Odyssey Drive, Durham, NC 27713, http://www.BullCityPress.com . It is also available from Amazon.com.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
When Does a Textual Riddle Seem to Have a Personality (and When Is a Person Like a “Problem in the Text?”)
In this poem from my book “Poems from the Northeast,” I consider one of my favorite moments in literary classes (and simultaneously an application of textual analysis to psychology): that moment when the professor frowns, pushes his/her/their glasses up on their nose, coughs, then says: “in this passage, there is a problem with the text.”
IN THIS PASSAGE, THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH THE TEXT
I am a problem in the text That has never been resolved A hint, a monstrous suggestion Which cannot be confirmed I trouble the mind that wants To settle like a hen over eggs I ruffle her up, she clucks uneasily And pecks at where she thinks I am. In August, I am an unexpected wind That hints of winter I do not answer, I ask. Always I bring them to the question With troubled faces, angry expressions; People clumsily resolve me To this or that Proving their points with good evidence Which they have misinterpreted. The pages around me Pose no problems-- My commentary Is relegated to a footnote here or there, A short section in the appendix. With so much else decided, One word or phrase cannot trouble overlong-- They forget me. They are happy with the story being told. But still, inconveniently, I come back, I perplex, I mock without mockery; There may be some treasure in me. They think I have a purpose But they don't know what it is, Feeling, suspecting, That if they did it would make All the difference. And I ask, What difference would it make? I am the corner you didn't turn When you could And couldn't turn when you would, Because I too exist, And not only for the greed and delight Your mind has in pictures. I have the right to live Not simply as a point in space But as myself at that point. Yet attack the point how you will, When you come there I am gone and you know nothing. I evaporate, I drift away And you can stand all day Like a lovelorn schoolboy For the date who didn't show up. You let me be at peace And I am with you; You gain confidence, You think this means That now you will know all-- You chase and I evade. You punish and I bow to punishment. You walk away in anger And I go back to what I was doing. You have lured me to interpretation And I have been lured, But more and more I see the trap And am impatient with such stupidities. You always think you know me, And even when it seems so, I slide from your mind, And you grope And reach for the light, And wonder what I meant.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
The First Copies of My New Book Can Be Preordered Now–Here’s How
Though there will be other places to buy my book very soon, such as some online outlets and some brick-and-mortar stores (and of course with the information I’m supplying you here, you can always ask your local store of preference to order and stock my book from the publisher if you like supporting local business), here is the address of the publisher for pre-ordering right now. The information supplied is that which you will see on the publisher’s website, along with a photo of my book cover, and it is also the information you should supply to anyone whom you want to order and stock the book for you.
As soon as I have a list of the other places where you can expect to find my book, I will write a post here, as well.
For now, here’s the relevant information: Poems from the Northeast. olympiapublishers.com/books/poems-from-the-northeast . Available for preordering. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-80074-064-8. Published 26/8/2021 (August 26, 2021, in U.K., for worldwide distribution). 334 pages. Size: 205×40. Imprint: Olympia Publishers. 8.99 pounds + shipping.
If, however, you are in the U.S. and want a little cheaper shipping fee than from the U.K. (and even though I do occasionally order from the U.K., shipping has gone up internationally), you can Google another pre-ordering site: it’s Book Depository, which is currently owned by Amazon. There, the book is $13.03, free shipping worldwide, and here’s the address you fill in to get the site: https://www.bookdepository.com>poems-from-the-northeast . That much should get you there (in order to try it, I ordered a book for a neighbor tonight who would otherwise have gotten one of my free copies from the publisher, because I wanted to be able to tell you how it works). At first appearance, it would look as if you have to sign in and use a password, but I was allowed to order her copy without doing so. I don’t have a lot of disposable income for books even at low prices, or else I would have probably signed in; they have a lot of very good books there.
Book Depository has other sites in other countries, too, I believe. And Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and other Amazon platforms in Canada, India, and Australia are also going to feature the book, though until it sells a few copies, you may have to dig around looking for it a little. And when you finish, why not publish a review on Goodreads.com or your own Amazon site, letting other people know how you felt about the book? Or if you are a reviewer for another magazine, please let me know, here on this site or on your own, how you felt about the book, always remembering to tell me for whom you are writing.
And that’s about it. I hope that wherever you get the book, you enjoy the poems, and find something for you in the words on the page and the ideas I hope they incite, clarify, and embellish. Thanks for reading. Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
Matthew 25:29–A Sunday “sermon” from an agnostic, on the topic of “Them as has, gets.”
I’m taking as my departure point for an essay on creative writing today a Biblical verse which has perplexed a good many people, and caused others to wonder if God was on their side after all. I mean no disrespect to those who are believers, it’s just that the Bible, like the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other religious scriptures the world over, is part of the substructure of the culture, whether we like it or not, and as with all these texts, it has a great many conundrums, puzzles, riddles, and posers in it for even the diligent, reverent, and hardy.
The verse in full runs: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” For those who are more interested in Biblical lore and interpretation than in creative writing, my actual topic, there is a site which I personally know nothing about and cannot vouch for online, but they advertise a whole study guide online on the Biblical topic. They are called ConnectUs Commentaries. At this point, you might want to stop reading me, and start reading them.
Now, for my commentary. The verse is certainly a head-scratcher, insomuch as it doesn’t at first seem suggestive of New Testament standards of justice and fair play. I can remember my grandfather, who was a poor man, a coal miner, but who was deeply religious, and non-resentful of those who had more, still wryly smiling and saying, “Them as has, gets.” And he seemed to see it as an interpretation of the way things went in earthly life, where things are unfair sometimes, perhaps more often than not, and rich people and advantaged people got more of whatever good life they already had, while others not so lucky got nothing, or lost what little they had. His own fortunes improved, I am happy to report, but “them as has, gets” still seems indicative of a lot of things going on in the world today, for a lot of the world’s people. Of course, if it was speaking of spiritual qualities, it’s perhaps my own prejudice, but I think my grandfather had those in spades, and maybe that’s why he was able to remain a secure believer in his religion all his life.
So, what does this has to do with creative writing? Well, we all know what it’s like to suffer from so-called “writer’s block.” It can exist in having a case of “diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain,” or spewing out lots of meaningless garbage that’s clearly useless for any other purpose than being tossed out. Or, it can exist in simply trying to function in a mental vacuum which is not cooperating with you. It’s blank, bare, void: it hates you, it resists your every effort to populate it with images or rhetorical structures, if you’re a poet, with characters and scenes, if you’re a fiction writer, with arguments and provocative thoughts, if you’re an essayist, or if your work is a cross-over which uses the techniques of more than one of these forms, it refuses absolutely to talk to you and let you do anything at all. So, what do you do? If you want to “have” something that will miraculously produce that, “to you much will be given,” what can you do?
First of all, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. I mean, if after a long, hard haul, you then decide you want to run a florist shop instead of write, that is your choice, and you may be someone for whom it’s a good and mature choice, but you’re the only one who can really make that decision. I mean, you may always find that once in the florist biz, you are an excellent writer of your own marketing material. And that may be what you really want to do with whatever writing talent you have. And everybody can develop at least some; c’mon, now! But it’s also true, to honor the opposite position of truth, as I used to tell my younger brother when he said he wanted to be an astronaut, or a concert pianist (he never said those things, I can’t honestly remember exactly what I was bugging him about): “If you want to be the world’s best concert pianist, as long as you’re sitting in the floor by yourself in a cardboard box, you’re it. But the minute you get out, it always depends on the opinions of other people.” I could be a real wiseacre when I was an adolescent, and a real pain in the ass, but I occasionally said something that was pretty much okay.
So, if you 1) don’t give up and 2) rely on someone else, not necessarily on anyone and everyone whom you can foist your problematic manuscript upon, you’re at least part of the way there. And now, I am going to say something more original, I hope, which maybe you haven’t heard so frequently. The other first two observations are standard fare when it comes to advice, but I didn’t want you to think I hadn’t heard them before, or was unaware of them. 3) Keep the manuscript, even just the blank paper with a title or four words on it, if that’s all you have. Keep revisiting it every day or two. Keep looking at it. Try first one sentence then another after the first four words. Use the four words as a suggestive sentence fragment, then write a couple of complete sentences to follow, or a couple of other poetic lines. If you’re trying to write an essay upon a certain topic, and your topic is one you have pre-selected, this may be a little harder to do, but you can always try a different slant on whatever you’re writing about. Always, always, always, always, when writing a poem or story or novel, be willing to follow wherever the thought leads, just to see where it’s going before you decide it’s not what you want. Always let it talk to you for a while, let it run away with you. You’ll know soon enough if it’s sheer crap. And if you doubt yourself, that’s the time to put it in front of your friendly audience, in all its minor and unachieved glory. That person or those persons may be wrong in what they say to you about it, particularly if they tell you to ditch it totally (most thoughts end up leading somewhere that you may even be able to pick up years later and develop), but you can take an angle, perhaps an entirely new angle from what they say to a new stance on the topic for yourself. It’s a debate, after all, a discussion, not a dictation from them to you. By the same token, you can’t make them feel what you feel about it, so if your feeling is strong enough, take their advice with a large grain of salt, thank them for their effort graciously, and go on about the business of grooving along with the poem/story/novel/essay/etc. which you feel strengthened in your pursuit of. And again, remember, however small the portion you start out with, your goal is always to develop it beautifully, meaningfullly, into more: “Them as has, gets.”
“The Pearl”–Fawziyya Abu Khalid and Predicting the Future of Arabic Women
In the midst of so much controversy in the contemporary world about what to do to help people, both women and men, to achieve their rights and to be treated equally by their societies and fellows in those societies, it is refreshing and uplifting to read a poet who has a whole-hearted belief that things can only improve, though she is not incognizant of the problems to be faced, it is clear both from her political involvements as they are reported in her brief biography1 and the determination in the forward-looking tone of her poem, which I will comment on here (it is not possible to print the whole poem, even though it is relatively short, because it is not in the public domain. Brief quotes only are allowed.)
As we are told in the biographical paragraph itself, “Fawziyya Abu Khalid was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [in 1955]. She studied in the United States, taking a degree in sociology, and has been teaching at the Girls’ University College of King Saud University….Her work celebrates the strength and abilities of women, as well as indicating her commitment to political concerns.”1
In her poem The Pearl, Abu Khalid compares the legacy of generations of Arabic women to the physical legacy of a pearl, handed down from grandmother to mother to her, to her own daughter (or niece, etc., it isn’t quite clear). “The three of you and this pearl/Have one thing in common,” she says, “simplicity and truth,” making the two terms one in a touching poetic figure which conquers ordinary language usage. As she predicts in her poem “The girls of Arabia will soon grow/to full stature.” She further notes that they will find their predecessor’s traces and will say “‘She has passed by this road,'” which in her view, by the end of the poem, leads to “the place of sunrise” and “the heart’s direction.”
Though this more or less fairly reports the entirety of the poem’s movement in time and space, it cannot fairly represent the poem’s delicacy and beauty, as fine as a pearl of great value itself. It is humbling to realize that even though women all over the world are still having major problems getting recognized for their contributions and accomplishments, that a woman in one of the perhaps harder places to achieve this feat is so hopeful and so full, again, of strong determination, both for herself and for others to follow her. We all should have such inspiring and leading women in our lives, and she is one not only for Arabic women, but for women of the world.
This poem can be read in its short but lovely entirety in English translation (performed by Salwa Jabsheh and John Heath-Stubbs) on page 508 in the same volume which I mentioned in my last post just above, for which, see below:
(1In this case, both the poem and my biographical data are drawn from the large compendium text of world literature which I have now had occasion to mention several times on this site: Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born, edited and compiled by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, with study questions and suggestions for further research. It was published by HarperCollins College Publishers back in 1995, and is still valuable today.)