>A Muse of Fire

>I attended a terrific panel discussion this evening, made all the more compelling by its location: Virginia Military Institute. The panel explored Poetry and Crisis, and here is the question they were asked to address, and a tentative answer:

Is poetry reserved for beautifying and preserving our private moments, or does it also play an important role in public life? From Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln to commemorative 9-11 poems and the current Poets Against the War movement, Americans in times of crisis have felt a need for language more sculpted, compressed and vivid than ordinary discourse, and on such occasions they have written and read and listened to poetry as if it had the power to clarify their thoughts and emotions.

The panel consisted of R.T. Smith, Editor of Shenandoah; Ted Genoways, Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review; Lesley Wheeler, a poet and professor at Washington & Lee University; and Sarah Kennedy, a poet and professor at Mary Baldwin College.

One of the highlights was Rod Smith reading Billy Collins’ poem
The Names.

>Aleksandar Hemon

>Yesterday, both the Northwestern Magazine (the alumni magazine of Northwestern Univeristy) and The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox. In the former was an article about Aleksandar Hemon, the by-now well-known Bosnian immigrant who arrived in Chicago in 1992, learned English, studied creative writing (at Northwestern) and has published two books, including the well-reviewed Nowhere Man. The point of the article was that Hemon was named recently the recipient of one of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants, and is thereby relieved of most of the pressure under which writers live. (There was a story not long ago in a Chicago publication about how hindsighted the MacArthur grants tend to be, since recipients rarely live up to the expectations that go along with “genius.” But that’s another story.) In The New Yorker was a story by Hemon, called The Conductor. In that story, the narrator, known only by the inappropriate nickname “Conductor,” bears a great similarity to Hemon. A writer in his native Bosnia (of poetry, in the story; Hemon was a journalist), he finds his way to Chicago and manages to miss the war in his homeland while becoming a writer of stories. In the story, the narrator is jealous, or perhaps merely resentful, of another poet, named Muhamed (but later known as Dedo, or Old Man), who is far more successful. Despite his success, though, he spirals downward and the narrator, although he seems to try, cannot save him.

If this story were submitted to a workshop, I imagine it would be criticised for beginning too slowly. Indeed, it is only about halfway through that one gets a sense of drama, other than the coincidental drama of the war in the narrator’s home. And while the narrator is present for some of the key events of the story, it is Dedo’s life that seems to be central, and unlike Nick Carroway’s telling of Gatsby’s life, the narrator puts himself too much at center stage for a story in which he is, finally, a minor character.

I’d be interested in hearing other reactions to this story if anyone has seen it. (Sorry, but the links to both articles are unavailable.)

>The Mired Earth

>I won’t dwell on the symbolism, but there’s a globe, bright blue and green, stuck in a backwater pool in my creek. I noticed it yesterday afternoon, but it was still a surprise when I got up this morning and looked out. It’s the only color–everything else is black or brown or three shades of gray. And there in my creek (Folly Mills Creek, source not only of the name of this blog, but also year-round gurgling bliss) was the big bobbing ball, stuck in a collage of leaves and twigs just where the flow bends, ready for the rocky cascade to the next level. And I promised I wouldn’t dwell on it, but it does seem to me we’re stuck right now, that forward progress is hard to come by, that it’s too late (and too hard) to go back.

Tonight we’re expecting up to 6 inches of snow, and up to 8 more tomorrow. I’m wondering what that will do to the earth mired in my creek.

>Keeping Up

>Just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, a new round of literary magazines began to arrive. I have shelves of the things, optimistically collected over the years–partly out of philanthropic support for these worthy publications, partly out of guilty compliance with the universal instruction to read the magazines in which you would like your work to appear. But I’m not as fast a reader as I would like, and I get too many to keep up with. (Not to mention some other, terrific, non-literary magazines that I get and only just barely manage to read: Tricycle, The New Republic, Mother Earth News.)

When I got back from Mexico in January, I resolved to do better. I had a pile (a tottering pile) of the most recent issues of several journals. I would ignore the oppressive backlog and work on keeping current. If I achieved that goal, then I could take the older issues of Ploughshares, say, or Kenyon Review, and go through them systematically and eventually, someday, I’d be caught up.

And I’ve been doing pretty well. The pile was manageable: just The Paris Review, Timber Creek Review and Granta. On Friday, Glimmer Train arrived. On Saturday, Gettysburg Review. But wait–didn’t I only just this week read the Winter issue of Gettysburg? Is it starting again so soon?

>Garstang the Gund Gorilla

Garstang the Gund Gorilla? Posted by Hello

It isn’t a common name, to state the obvious. It is a surname, of English (but probably pre-Norman Scandinavian) origin. It is also a market town in Lancashire, England, the county from where my ancestors emigrated. But a gorilla? I’ll need to do some investigating to find out how the Gund people happened to name this cuddly fellow Garstang. (I had a stuffed chimpanzee when I was a tot, name of Lulu, but that’s a whole other story.)

I ordered one for me. If you want your own, click here.

Update: Yeah, that’s pretty much what he looks like. Mine arrived today and now sits on my desk, next to my Beanie Buddha. No answer yet from the Gund people on what possessed them to name him Garstang, but there is a new clue: the European branch of the company is located in Preston, England, a Lancashire town just down the road from the village of Garstang and so probably the source of the name. Ironically, my ancestors emigrated from Preston in the 19th Century. And the Gorilla, in case you suspected otherwise, is made in China.

>Not The Obituary Writer

>Someone (you know who you are) said I should post something about Hunter Thompson’s suicide. But I didn’t have anything to say about him, except that I started but didn’t finish Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that my image of him is 90% Uncle Duke and maybe, at most, 10% Thompson himself. So how about Sandra Dee, this someone said. Please. I have less to say. (What I said, was: “What am I, The Obituary Writer?” because Porter Shreve, author of The Obituary Writer, is one of the people I’m looking forward to meeting at the Virginia Festival of the Book next month.)

Meanwhile, I’m reading the current issue of New Letters. There are some interesting pieces in it, including an excerpt from Mary Gordon’s new novel, Pearl, but the highlight for me is the interview with and two short stories by Robert Day, an author new to me. Here’s a paragraph from The Skull Collector:

She’s poking me. But just for fun this time. She knows I won’t take her on the river. Or to Denver. It’s a scab between us. I have this theory that a man’s got to have his own territory. Some place where he’s different from what he is when he’s not there. Not that I’m not who I am when I’m with my wife. I’m me wherever I am. It’s just that there is more than one me. Men are that way. Like my thinking about women, I haven’t got it all lined out, but I’m working on it. Thinking takes time if you do it right.

Good stuff.


>For a graduate school seminar on James Joyce a long, long time ago, I wrote a paper about reflexivity in Ulysses. I had no idea what I was talking about, I assure you. Something about symbols of whirlpools and things turning in on themselves and looking in mirrors. I bet I still have it; I should try to read it and see if there was anything sensible in it at all.

But the point is this: in a post on the day of Arthur Miller’s death I quoted from his work. Shiela Lennon of the Providence Journal quoted me (and me quoting Miller) in her column, and included a link to this blog. When I learned of that I quoted her quoting me quoting him. And we corresponded a bit and she explored this site a little more, and now I am flattered to have had my own work mentioned in her column.

I think that’s what I was trying to explore in that Joyce paper a quarter of a century ago. But I’m not sure.

>Virginia Festival of the Book

>It’s almost that time again–the Virginia Festival of the Book is March 16-20 in Charlottesville. I’m planning to go to events on a couple of days–it’s only 35 miles from here–but it’s almost difficult to choose from among the many programs that are going on simultaneously.

On the fiction side, to name only a few of the authors who will be present for readings and other presentations, I’d like to see Ann Beattie, Jonathan Safran Foer, Porter Shreve, Kate Walbert and maybe Alexander McCall Smith, Clint McCown, Sharyn McCrumb, Tom Perrotta. And so many more . . .

>Bible Belt

>I really don’t want to use much of this space for political or social commentary, but since I raised the subject of Weekly Religious Education in my community some time ago, I thought it would be appropriate to mention an interesting article in Slate on Wednesday, February 16, entitled Bible Belt Upside the Head, reporting on the decision this week by our local (Staunton, VA) school board to retain WRE, but with a modification that the kids who opt out (whose parents opt them out, that is) must be provided a way to occupy their time more usefully while their classmates are out getting their Christian indoctrination. The board’s decision was pragmatic, if uncourageous.

The Slate article nicely sums up why the arguments in favor of the program are baloney:

  • it’s constitutional–in fact, it isn’t clear that the Supreme Court precedent really would protect this program, particularly in light of more recent cases and the current makeup of the court;
  • it’s religious persecution to prohibit it–now a favorite argument of the Christian right, the fact is that adhering to the principle of religious neutrality is the height of NON-persecution, of Christians and everyone else;
  • the majority want it–except that the “constitution is subject to neither majority rule nor to popular recall [of elected officials.” Slate goes on: “programs can be popular and still be unconstitutional.”
  • it’s nondenominational–well, no it’s not; it’s Christian, and furthermore it’s Protestant;
  • it’s noncoercive–this is the one that the conservatives just don’t get, because they are just incapable of seeing any issue from anyone else’s perspective; “it’s naive to believe that indoctrination [of one group] doesn’t affect the outsiders.”


Note: This post is closed to further comment because of inappropriate anonymous remarks. To “Anonymous”–either summon the courage to sign your name to your comments or feel free to start your own blog.