All About Poets #5

Typically, my poet focus here is on poets I have known, face to face. Well, what was it Emerson said about consistency? “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …” Who wants that? Not me. But today I’m thinking about W. S. Merwin. I’ve leaned on and learned from him the only way I could, by reading with great admiration his poems and essays. So, I took him along to a poetry open mic on Friday via a compilation of his work, Migration: New & Selected Poems. I read the last poem in the book, “To Impatience” and his “most famous poem,” (according to Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017), “For the Anniversary of My Death.”

Poets and poetry lovers meet in Longmont, Colorado, the last Friday of each month. This month, despite the promise of snow, two friends and I headed ten miles north to join the party. For one thing, the Longmont poets are a delight and the venue is gorgeous. The city of Longmont turned its abandoned firehouse into an arts center. Each month the displays change and the main room turns into a venue for poetry.

And thus the community of poets grows. As I read, those who knew Merwin’s work nodded and smiled. Those who didn’t know, scribbled his name on whatever was handy. So the work of the poet, the work of Copper Canyon Press, the Lannan Literary Fund, about twenty or so living, breathing human beings were united. No one paid us, no one charged us, there was no news flash about argument or deception. The evening was balm to a hurting world. I’d say a world less beautiful after Merwin’s departure, but he joins the vast, energizing cloud of those who keep me sane.

Gluttony

How little resistance I have for books. I walked into the library, slid two novels by Donna Leon into the return slot, a machine that reads the barcodes into another machine that tells the library that I’ve returned these two Guido Brunetti mysteries. What the digital system cannot do is record that I actually read the books. Nor if I liked reading them or not. For all the library knows, I might have used them as paperweights on my desk. Dear Reader, I read them and longed for more.

But I came to the library intending not to carry any books home this weekend. Because if I do, I’ll read them. And I already have poems to critique for Monday morning, a poetry reading to prepare for this coming week, and a hefty assignment for the workshop looming on Monday evening. Like any other addict, my intention means nothing.

Sitting in a quiet corner of the library, I have three books on the table beside my easy chair: James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice, and Elaine Pagels’ Why Religion? Gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins, so I’m a sinner. Mea culpa; wanna make something of it? I also have a hold at another library for Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, recommended in Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, which is, partly read, on my coffee table. Despite the assignments for Monday, I’m going to start with Wood’s book. It’s the smallest one on the stack and if I don’t dawdle, I might finish it before lunch.

Writing by Recipe?

Writing workshops are useful. I like being in a room full of scribblers, hearing about the variety of projects underway, discussing questions that come up and inform us all how we might structure a piece of writing. But…the approach to writing is, at times, like a cookbook: add more detail to spice it up, tenderize the love scene, chop the plot to a fine mince.

Makes me want to run out of the room, go sit under a tree and write like a chattering squirrel. Of course, February in Colorado is not conducive to writing en plein air.

Recently, I heard that in long narrative we should aim for 25% telling and 75% showing. Ouch! I would not know how to determine those percentages. Once I’ve written a scene, I want to know if it holds my attention, doesn’t bore the reader, reveals some truth–big or small–about the characters, moves the plot along. I’m driven by characters and they just don’t behave according to prescription. That’s the joy of fiction and memoir. Surprise!

I’m sure that the recommendation about these percentages comes from a sincere attempt to help a writer who’s lost in the word forest. But I also wonder if this advice originates with a publisher who has parsed the genres and most often accepts the expected. They can tell the bookstore or the library exactly where to shelve the book in question, because it’s very much like other books in its genre.

If I ruled the publishing world, (not likely) I’d tell writers to write their story as best they can, let their imaginations run loose, and then have honest beta readers comment on the effect of the manuscript. No mathematics allowed.

The Wisdom of Donna Leon

Friday morning, sitting in a coffee shop, I’m back at work. My work is writing, although I spent yesterday, a snow day, reading crime novels, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. Leon is prolific having written over 24 books in this series and several more in other categories. My intent was to binge read and let my own fiction, poetry, non-fiction rest and ripen. I know that if I take an occasional break, I go back to work with renewed energy. But Leon’s fiction is not escapist. Sure, it’s set in Venice, a place I’d love to visit, this Armchair travel, an excuse to read, drink tea and not worry about production or driving on snowy roads in Colorado.

Here’s the thing, though. In every “crime novel” that I’ve read in Leon’s oeuvre there is a large issue that affects the plot line and the reactions of her characters. The plot of the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, develops around issues of homophobia and sexual child abuse. In Blood from a Stone the issues are immigration and racial inequality. Yes, in the lovely tourist-filled city, issues rise that challenge us all. Plot lines etched on the page are set like rough jewels in the middle of a nuclear family with reliable parents, believable offspring, domestic issues of homework and grocery shopping, a solid, sexy, loving marriage. And any of the characters, whatever their involvement in bringing the villains to justice, might reveal a concern I share, like polluted air: “What Redeemer could come and save the city from the pall of greenish smoke that was slowly turning marble to meringue?” (Death at La Fenice, 148)

The real message today is this: categories for literature are not absolute, can be unreliable restrictions. If I want to read more of Donna Leon’s work, I have to go to “Mystery” or “Crime Novels” in the library or bookstore. She obviously exceeds these labeled categories and reassures me that whatever we write might be just what the reader needs. Fiction, poetry, memoir—any genre can inform and inspire us. And as writers we have the privilege and responsibility of deepening our understanding of reality even as we “make it up.” If one reader is enlightened, reassured, challenged, or distracted from grief, a writer has done the world a favor.

Blind Date with a Murder Mystery

A couple of weeks ago I plucked a novel by Sara Paretsky off a library shelf. I was vaguely familiar with her name, in part because she has written nineteen novels, but it was sort of a blind date and we just didn’t hit it off. I read a bit and set it aside. Then I heard an interview with Lee Childs on BBC World Book Club. Childs praised Paretsky. He is quoted on the front cover of her book: “Sara Paretsky is a genius.” I like his novels, so I decided to give her another chance. Right decision!

Back to the library, this time I checked out a V. I. Warshawski mystery, Fallout. My first clue that I was in for a good read was the acknowledgements at the front of the book, what I imagine might be like a speed dating intro. The book is set in Kansas; I’m working on a novel set in Kansas; a county sheriff figures prominently in the action; I have a county sheriff as an important character; racial tensions play an important part in Fallout; I have biracial characters; cars are important in Paretsky’s book; my fictional car is a Porsche, a very important Porsche. Oh, yes, and one of her characters is connected to the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As a military wife, I spent several months there while my spouse was enrolled.

Then again, there’s the coincidence of my surname, Douglass, and Paretsky’s setting in the Kansas county of Douglas. Yikes! I’m happy to report that I’m already halfway through the initial draft of my novel, so I don’t fear her influence, and I welcome her company. I have only the final conflict to read in Fallout. I had to stop. I’d missed my usual bedtime by two hours last night, but I will resume reading today. I am so glad I took Childs’ advice and remet Sara Paretsky. I think we will have a long and fruitful relationship.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The old year, 2018, was productive and safe, despite the grief of the daily news. I’ve had poems published, made a good start on a new novel, one in a genre I’ve not written before, pared away some distractions from my creative work, and still maintained friendships.

Looking into the deep well of 2019, I intend to keep writing (as if I could stop!), remain healthy and read any book that catches my attention, reserving the right to put it back into the library bag unfinished if I’m not captivated. Life is short, boredom a burden I choose not to bear.

I’d like to write more reviews, be more faithful to this blog, walk more, watch birds more, spend a few days sequestered with my journal and manuscript. I’ll help publish a couple of books of poetry, and I may seek a literary agent for the novel. That has not worked for me in the past–time consuming and generally frustrating–but I’ll consider it.

Here’s to all who visit this site, Happy New Year. Stay awake, don’t hurt anyone, write like it’s a debt you must pay to the universe.

Persistence & Politics

Regular readers here will recall that from time to time I urge them to READ FOR EQUALITY. In our fractured, limping-along democracy this continues to be a responsibility, although some days I wonder why I bother.

Then I read something like Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water, and I’m reawakened to the power of creative writing. Smith uses as some of her poems verbattem letters written by black soldiers in the War Between the States. (It was anything but civil.) That we have a black female Poet Laureate of the US matters too.

Now I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s  Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”  written in 1927 about Cudjo, an African who entered the US as a slave in 1859. The book was just published in 2018. Why it took so long to have this on my library shelves, I cannot fathom, but thanks to an astute librarian and Alice Walker, it’s finally available.

I remind myself, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by “the little woman who started this big war” in President Lincoln’s words, more or less.

And there’s Nellie Bly, who, in Ten Days in A Mad-House, wrote about the  rotten mental health care in this land of the free and helped bring about reforms in that milieu.  And lest we forget, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about change in the meat-packing industry and led to our Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Both of these two matter to us all, an issue of equality between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

When you think that what we do as writers doesn’t matter, read these books and others like them and again give your gifts to a sore and tired world. Even if you provide respite from worry, it’s important. Just do it, persist–please.