Tag Archives: originality

“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.

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October 2, 2021 · 8:10 pm

“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)

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Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, Poetry and its forms and meanings, poetry as societal witnessing, What is literature for?

The REAL Author at Work, and Her Poem

Dear WordPress and Twitter followers, Sometimes an author or poet has to allow someone else to take credit for her work, due to prejudice and an inability to use the keys of the keyboard. This was so in my case, so I had to allow my human companion and servant to type this poem for me, and unfortunately also to take credit for it. Please excuse any irregularities; I found myself so excited to be given my due attention at last that I couldn’t prevent myself from walking on the keys, which may have occasioned a blank page at the very beginning. Please, advance past it and go on to my poem. Most sincerely, Dr. Lucie-Minou “Kitty” Bennett, C.A.T., P.U.R.R., F.U.R. (My picture below, wrapped in contemplation…)

As I do not smoke, or drink anything but water, you see me here

with only my superior sensibilities in evidence (no pipe, no whiskey).

An Eccleisiastical Furball
(To Christopher Smart and the author of Pangur Ba'n)
copyright Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2021 Olympia Publishers
Why does the kittty cat purr so?
Why does the kitty cat purr?
Because she's feeling so fine, bro,
Because she's licking her fur.

Why does the kitty cat hiss thus,
Why does the kitty cat hiss?
Because she's getting her teeth brushed,
Because she doesn't like this.

Why does the kitty cat stare so,
Why does the kitty cat stare?
Because the birds are outside, love,
Because the birds are out there.

Why does the kitty cat meow thus?
Why does the kitty cat meow?
Because she's been taught not to cuss, friend,
And she's in such a tight spot, and how!

Why does the kitty cat roll there,
With her belly up in the sun?
Because she's joyous and fine, lad,
And her troubles have all been outdone.

Why does the kitty cat sit there
So high up where she can't get down?
Because she was off on a lark, boy,
And wanted to see the town.

Why does the kitty cat fold her paws
Under in front when she sits?
Because she's refraining from slapping you
For asking so much just like this!

Why does the kitty cat look so profound
When it is time to pray?
Because she already knows her god
And has been in prayer all the day.

For her stare and her meow and her purr
And her rolls and her perch and her stance
And her hiss,
Are all celebrations of god's holy name,
So she needn't ask questions like this.

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“An Incomplete List of My Wishes”–What a Title Does for a Book, and What a Book Can Do for Its Readers

First of all, let me introduce Jendi Reiter to those of you who may not be familiar with their work, as I must admit shamefacedly I was not myself until recently. To list all the awards and accolades they have received, I think I cannot do better than to quote the short biographical credit on the back of this fine book of short fiction: “Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love. Awards include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship for Poetry, the New Letters Prize for Fiction, the Wag’s Revue Poetry Prize, the Bayou Magazine Editor’s Prize in Fiction, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America. Two Natures won the Rainbow Award for Best Gay Contemporary Fiction and was a finalist for the Book Excellence Awards and the Lascaux Prize for Fiction.” Jendi is also one of the editors of the Writer’s Digest acclaimed website winningwriters.com, and a very kind, accommodating, and encouraging model for writers and artists. Their website is at JendiReiter.com and they can be followed at @JendiReiter on Twitter.

Now to the book itself, and that provocative and enticing title: An Incomplete List of My Wishes. How universal the title is, how it speaks to the complete human experience of having many goals, dreams, and wishes, which sadly and tragically sometimes, but also humorously and happily sometimes, we may or may not get to register with whatever recording angel or god we believe in. This book has the greatest virtue of many books which happen to be constructed with at least the permission of the recording angel of the gay experience, that it is accessible to everyone, is for everyone, is inclusive of every truth of the human being, no matter how flawed or partial that person’s individual life is: and it even more explains for everyone who is not a total moral idiot the gay lifestyle and experience, both as it is constituted in itself and as it intersects with the straight ones.

For, this book has one quality in particular which leads even a relatively unfamiliar reader through its maze of situations and conditions, lives and their pitfalls and victories, both major and minor, both saddening and joyous: I can do no better than quote the book itself for the key informing dramatic motif of the whole: “…but she…would henceforth always be someone chosen, someone who had said yes to herself” (p. 99, “The House of Correction”). The sympathetic characters in this book are also those who have said “Yes” to themselves, sometimes at great or even life-changing, life-risking costs. The book overall promotes courage as a feature of human life, as an answer even when the question is dire and unfair.

“Exodus,” the first short short bit of fiction beginning the book, is like the Biblical book that bears its name, a statement about the end of innocence and an objective correlative for the issue of mortality which crops up again and again in the book, not exclusively in relation to the issue of AIDS, but also in conjunction with those issues of indifference, brutality, imperfect love relationships which affect everyone, LGBTQIA+2 or straight. This book bridges the many gaps people imagine they have between them, and this short piece introduces the collection.

Four of the short stories function as an introduction and vade mecum to the novel Two Natures, as they are affecting and short excerpts from the characters’ lives from that novel. The stories are “Two Natures,” “Julian’s Yearbook,” “Today You Are a Man,”” and “Five Assignments and a Mistake.” Though I have not yet had the opportunity to read the novel in which these characters make a main appearance, their short essays in guiding us through the stages of awareness and growth of a gay man and his sister and cohort are fine as they are here, pieces capable of standing alone structurally and rhythmically.

The story from which the title is drawn, “An Incomplete List of My Wishes,” gains part of its sense of incompletion in the fictional element of the story from the fact that a death row inmate appears in it indirectly, who is at the point of ordering his last menu, the last life choice he will be able to make for himself. But the narrator of the story is the woman whose daughter he may or may not have killed, who is also wrapped up in contemplation of choices, last and lasting both.

“Waiting for the Train to Fort Devens, June 17, 1943” is a story “written” by another sort of recording angel, a photograph preserved of men on their way to war, men both doomed to die and fated to come back and live as survivors, their individual conflicts and choices recorded as well in the book of memory.

“Altitude,” as one might expect by the title, deals in clever and short order with the dizzying sweep of differing abilities to scale heights of human endeavor and experience.

The story “Memories of the Snow Queen,” a collection of fictional meditations and variations on a frightening theme from a children’s story in a manner related to that of A. S. Byatt, reveals a grotesque and overwhelmingly dysfunctional secret to a young woman attempting to reconnect with this fragment of her past.

To end off the book, Reiter has chosen a story of an adoption, “Taking Down the Pear Tree,” which along with a finely tuned portrait of all the human actors involved in such an endeavor, is also a meditation upon family, grief, and change as a structural and inevitable part of human life.

All in all, I am delighted to have read this book and to have thus encountered even indirectly the dramas and conundrums some other humans experience, with the residual obligation and joy of developing more understanding and warmth towards these, my fellow beings. That is always of course the point of good fiction, to give its readers a point d’appui for the extension of understanding, but in this book in particular, Jendi Reiter makes it overwhelmingly easy for a reasonable, willing, good reader to comprehend their characters and their own creative reasons for giving them the lives they did. Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, What is literature for?

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.”

Shadowoperator

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Filed under A prose flourish, advice on creative writing from a practitioner, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

“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.)

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help, and What You Will Get Out of It

For many, many people, the GoFundMe campaign site is familiar only as a site which helps collect funds for scholars, people who need operations, children who are suffering from some disease which is costly to treat, or homeless people who need shelter.  Some of the requests are even done in memoriam of some person or group of people, to help their survivors out in a time of grief and need.  All of these more than worthy causes deserve your attention and a contribution, however small it might be.  But it can also be uplifting to donate to the beginning of a creative enterprise which will bring interest, encouragement, and joy to the minds of young adults who encounter it, and to this end I am asking for your donation, however small, to the campaign organized by a friend of mine, John Rattenbury, for the novel now operating under the working title of Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah.

As you may or may not be aware, self-publishing even under the aegis of a publisher who covers many costs can be fraught with expense and financial setbacks, and it is to avoid these pitfalls that John is asking for your free will donation to his goal of raising roughly $2000 to cover cover art and initial publication costs.  But I feel that probably at this point, you are beginning to wonder, “Yes, but what’s in it for me, other than a momentary feel-good experience?  When if ever will I see the results of my effort to be helpful?”  To the end of answering these questions, I am going to provide a couple of responses which I hope will encourage you to join this worthy effort and contribute whatever you can to John’s drive.

Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah is the story of a teenage girl, an Egyptian citizen of dual descent (she is also Persian), who learns to deal with challenges in a world which seems determined to underestimate her and her ability to influence affairs, whether small or world class events.  It is a historical fantasy in the sense that it retraces not necessarily what actually happened, but what could have happened, in the Eastern world soon after the death of Cleopatra, always accepting that Mithra, the heroine, has a magical stone, thought to be behind some of the efforts to build the pyramids, which helps her and strengthens her considerable powers of personality.  She and Lucius, a friend and cohort from a Roman legion whom she meets up with by accident and forms a lasting friendship with, make a perilous journey along the Nile to escape the Romans pursuing them, whom they both have reason to fear.  This is a tale full of adventure and magic which both intrigues the imagination and provokes the support of young people everywhere in their search for justice and equal treatment of themselves and those whom they champion.  Though Mithra relies upon her magical stone as she travels along the Nile, the resounding “message” (which doesn’t detract from the “fun” of reading the book) is that loyalty, personal fortitude, and persistence outweigh evil-doing and brutality and that however young, every person can make a positive difference in the world around them, with or without the fascinating powers of magic and mystery (which, however, also abound in the book to compel our interest).

As to when you may expect to see this book on shelves and on sites for purchase, John has been encouraged by the fact that his prospective publisher finds the book already well-written and compelling, which we hope will lessen the time needed for its finalization and presentation to the public.  If you are interested in contributing to the fundraising for the publication of this book, please visit this link:  Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help and What You Will Get Out of It

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!, What is literature for?

How to write a how-to book–Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”

Most of us who write, have aspirations to write, or just like reading about good writing and how it’s done have heard of Anne Lamott.  She’s the fine essayistic voice behind such classics as Bird by Bird (her book on teaching writing) and other, more obviously spiritual books such as Help, Thanks, Wow (her book on what prayer is all about) or her books about her son’s and grandson’s youth (Operating Instructions: My Son’s First Year and Some Assembly Required:  My Son’s First Son respectively).  The breadth of the things she can write about (because she also writes fiction) is astounding, but behind it all is a firm grounding in just what makes us human and reachable by others; for Lamott, it’s our sense of humor.

Today, I would like to share just a little of what I think makes for success in her work, and it is this sense of humor she shares with us so readily.  Even when she’s discussing situations in which she has encountered the most fragile of writers’ egos, or the most obnoxious of them, she does so with a rich appreciation of their underlying connection to her and her own experiences.  She shares little snippets of these experiences constantly, and while being aware that she must once have agonized over things just as much as the rest of us do, we are coaxed along through the narrows, shoals, and dead falls of being writers by her amused look at her own trials and difficulties with other writers, publishers, editors, family, and day-to-day confusions.

True, it’s often hard for us to laugh when our own work is concerned, and Lamott discusses at length in several spots how some of her students seemed nearly to want to call her a fraud because she couldn’t give them quick and easy answers about how to get published.  Her take on this whole conundrum was that one should write for the sake of writing, and publish when possible, if possible.  Her final encouraging word seems to be that writing is a spiritual task, a fulfillment of personal goals more precious and worthwhile than the mere search for fame and fortune.  Now, one could also believe that it’s easy for her to say, since she is a famous and respected writer.  Except, of course for the fact that she discusses freely her own search, at first, for fame and fortune, and the sum and total of her book’s argument (though it’s really important to read the whole of her book and not rely just on my word) is that true satisfaction comes not from finding fame and fortune through one’s writings, but from the process, as I know you’ve heard it said before.  It’s just that Anne Lamott makes the best argument for this frequently-cited idea with a grace and hilarity which you won’t find in other writing guides I’m familiar with, where everything is self-serious and clunky, even, full of nice one-liners supported by lengthy paragraphs, which, however well-intentioned, rely on some particular set of tricks of the trade some of which even contradict those in other writing guides.

Lamott is nothing if not blessed with a light touch; this makes her book easy to read, which is not a curse:  it’s free of causing that overwhelmed feeling one often has after reading a writing guide, that feeling of having too much responsibility weighing one down, that feeling of being unequal to the task of writing as advised.  This may be because Lamott doesn’t come up with a particular theory of writing, or support a particular style; instead, she gives general advice about where to seek for material starting out (from one’s childhood, from overheard conversations, etc.), about how to accept criticism in a beneficial manner, about how to know when criticism is not based on good fellow feeling, about how to deal with what publication is really like, about how to deal with writer’s block, and other issues facing those who are rank beginners and who are seasoned writers equally.

Anyone who is interested even in the issue of how other people write whether or not they write themselves might find a good read and more than a few chuckles in this book, which though funny as hell is also gifted with an underlying commitment to the subject that it’s easily possible to sense.  After reading this book and finishing it a couple of days or two ago, I felt the impulse to write an essay other than a literarily-based essay on a work of literary fiction, such as I ordinarily publish here.  Though it doesn’t have the comic power of Anne Lamott, it’s a piece such as she advises us to write, based on things from our own lives, and so I want to share it with you, my audience, and will use it as my next post.  Until then, make an effort to get a read of Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, or indeed any of her others while you are waiting to read that one, and I promise you will be entirely delighted with her material and her voice alike.

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Rupi Kaur and “The Sun and Her Flowers”–When simplicity is enough

Upon first perusing Rupi Kaur’s second book of poetry, The Sun and Her Flowers, published in 2017 hard upon the heels of her extremely successful first book, Milk and Honey (which I haven’t yet read), I was at first a little disappointed.  The complicated devices and figures I, at least, prefer to find in poetry were missing.  The poem was a long sort of prose poem of most short, declarative sentences, with a few questions strewn here and there, interspersed with clever sketches of the stages of a woman’s life.  The most complicated comparison seemed to be that of comparing people to sunflowers, which, in the titles of the various divisions of the poem, go through stages of “wilting,” “falling,” “rooting,” “rising,” and “blooming.”  That seemed at first not only too simple, but a little simple-minded.  But something kept me reading, anyway.  Perhaps it was the desire to see the “plot” fulfilled, which is one of the characteristic things analysts say drives the reading of a prose work.  I mean, given the organic governing metaphors, and the theme of “to everything a season,” a certain uplift at the end was to be expected, it was apparent.  Still, this particular evocation of the growing season had somehow become more interesting than just the generalized comparison:  she had sneaked it in on me.

As I read, I followed the poem through the delineation of a violently-inclined love affair and its end, the grief and desolation which follow the ending of even a bad love, the gradual recuperation that, if one is basically life-oriented and sensible, one tries to develop or find, the impulse toward re-growth that follows, and the also gradual rise into a new love and a community awareness of the family as a whole.  But let’s take that a little slower.  The first parts of the poem are addressed to a “you” who is a bad influence; then, gradually the “you” disappears; then it morphs into a “you” who is a sudden and surprising treasure; then, an awareness of the loves of different generations of the family develops; then, a recounting of the difficulties that migration presents even to two parents or forbears who love each other, and a detailing of the anxieties and separations they must endure for their families comes next; then, a modest gesture toward discussing the life of societal pressures and how this affects immigrants in a new country sums up the whole.  Really, by the time I finished the book, I was quite impressed with just how forcefully and completely this poetic vision had fulfilled itself, and all in a series of simple, non-capitalized, mostly unpunctuated sentences.  (Not that capitalization or punctuation are regular in poetry anyway, as a general rule, or that they are to be expected in free verse, but when one is confronted with apparent simplicity as a device, one can begin to question whether or not it’s overdone.  Happily, such was not the end result in this case.)

By this time, I was sufficiently humbled to want to read the graceful (and again, simple) biographical sketch of Rupi Kaur which takes place at the end of the book.  It was a bit vague, and I would have liked more details (which, like jewels, or buds, if one prefers to stick to the organic metaphor, were strewn throughout the summary).  Basically, the artist’s statement was that “I am the product of all the ancestors getting together and deciding these stories need to be told”).  One set of topics which I have not touched upon yet, and which the poem also dealt with in detail was female liberation from the restraints of a conventional and hidebound societal influence, and how various generations of women have achieved it.  As the blurb stated, and as I have in a general way sketched out above were:  “love, loss, trauma, healing, feminity, migration, and revolution.”  That’s just about said it all, but that’s saying a lot.

There are many different styles and kinds of poetry kicking around these days, and everyone can mostly choose for himself or herself which to pursue for edification, but if you read no other book of poetry this year, it’s at least arguable that you should read this one, which is based in technique upon the poet’s experiences in delivering performance poetry in places in Canada, her country of adoption.  After all, you can hardly go wrong with a long poem which has not only an organic metaphor governing its development, organic metaphors consistently expressing things “all flesh is heir to,” but which also describes a particular historical experience of a large group of people.  Give it a read; I think you’ll be both pleasantly surprised and greatly impressed, whatever your first impression, or your overall take on performance poetry.  As for me, at some time in the near future, I’ll be dipping into Milk and Honey by the same author, to see what word experience she started out by allowing me to immerse myself in!  Shadowoperator

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Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”

To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful.  I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different.  To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be.  What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.

When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense).  She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true.  I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.

I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.”  I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage.  This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.”  In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.

But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end.  I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale).  Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:

“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat.  And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s.  So you do the wildest, craziest thing:  you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food.  You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory.  You’re not hungry for cocoa butter.  You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow.  That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”

This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry.  And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page.  That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions.  In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate).  She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us.  And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods.  Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries.  Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health.  At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me.  It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer).  My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content.  Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function.  Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.

So, that’s really all I had to say:  Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be.  After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to.  All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator

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