Monday, August 31, 2009

Notes on Skidmore: Louise Glück and Amy Hempel

This is probably not a coincidence. Louise Glück's new book was reviewed in the NY Times on Friday, a rather negative review by William Logan. Basically, he says that she's trying to do something new (for her), and that she's not quite succeeding (in his view). I guess this makes sense: everyone who read at Skidmore this summer was getting ready to promote a new book, and now it's a month later and all the reviews are coming out. Maybe not everyone. But many.

My friend and fellow Skidmore participant Evelyn shared with me a link to Alice Hoffman's essay published a few years back in Ploughshares, where she talks about her writing teacher, Albert J. Guerard. I love how unorthodox his instruction sounds even today (for some reason I tend to imagine that with passing time, established traditions within a field get broken and the state of permanent revolution sets in. I suppose the traditions of writing instruction are still getting established?): "His motto was “Tell, not show.” Write not just what you know, but what you imagine. The concept of a personal voice was at the heart of Guerard’s philosophy. Much the way Gide spoke of an author’s gait, Woolf an author’s rhythms, Guerard believed in this concept of the voice, the writer’s most authentic self."

Amy Hempel's method of instruction included a whole bunch of reading recommendations. Usually, she was recommending novels and stories as a way of seeing how another writer solved a specific technical problem, in relationship to the stories we were workshopping. I'll just list here the names & titles.

Mark Richard, "The Ice at the Bottom of the World."
Jose Saramago's novel (she couldn't remember the title) about a town where nobody dies.
David Shields, "Reality Hunger: a Manifesto" (comes out in Sept).
Barry Hannah (Amy said something about having a voice to transcend artifice).
Ron Carlson, "Plan B for the Middle Class."
Stuart Dybek, "Pet Milk," "The Coast of Chicago."
Tillie Olsen, "I Stand Here Ironing."
James McElroy, "How it Ended," "The Last Bachelor."

At the beginning of the first workshop, she read several statements to us, something to keep posted to our writing desks: "I have to keep relearning the same things," she said. "It's like all the stories I've written before don't really count."

One of them was Ken Kesey's definition of a story: "What someone wants & what he or she is going through to get it."

The other was Gordon Lish's idea of a story (and this is the part where it became clear that both she and Jim Shepard are graduates of the same school): "Story happens when you have 2 ideas or 2 people completely opposed to each other. They are equally appealing & trying to occupy the same space & they are both right."

Question to ask of place (setting): "What is the thing that only happens here?" (Saramago's town where nobody dies was an example).

"The helpful comes from the breakdown of what you think is true." I have no idea what this means. The word "helpful" strikes me as suspicious in this quote, not sure if I got it right.

"Worse than boredom: fear of boredom."

"The writer is the person who stays in the room." (Compare this to Jim Shepard's "remember that as a writer your first impulse is laziness.")

"Solve all your problems through the physical world." Amy had a very useful variation on this popular dictum. She said specifically, "Character reveals herself through what she chooses to observe." So whenerver you have a character who looks at something make sure that she's looking at something in particular, and not merely looking. And that looking at someone's eyes is as unrevealing as looking at nothing. "Empty gesture: characters looking at each other or staring." Simply don't do this, she said. "Find something for the character to observe. Just render the object. What's in the room. What this character would look at." "This is particularly important for the first person character-narrators."

She quoted an interview with David Lee Roth of Van Halen about teaching: "with a teacher you can go right up to where the writing is done."

"The account of an event is the event itself."

"Power shifts in a narrative are always interesting." And more specifically, "Sex scenes are not about the body but about power shifting in a relationship."

Point of entry into a story: "Why write about something now?": "What's the vantage point?" (She mentioned Stanley Kunitz' poem "The Portrait": "After 64 years I can still feel my cheek stinging").

The idea of "vertical" vs. "horizontal" writing: "core thing you're looking for in a story & you keep unraveling deeper and deeper into the core." (But again, this reeks to me of a particular style, genre, tradition. Isaak Babel strikes me as a very "horizontal" writer -- whatever that means. Compare this idea of the "vertical" to a statement below about conjunction "and" being more useful than "but." "And" is a conjunction of the accumulation of detail. "Depth" and the idea of "vertical" writing do not strike me as particularly useful metaphors. I'm remembering a similar trope from theory, in linguistics, paradigmatic changes -- which could be useful upon closer examination -- or not.)

"Why is this story being told?" -- "Why are you telling me this story now?" -- "These questions are particularly important for 1st person stories").

"Establishing your own mythology -- drown out all the other stories."

"'And' is truer than 'but.' The more consistent a character is, the less true she seems."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Notes on Skidmore: Louise Glück and Jim Shepard

I had trouble listening to Louise Glück. Her voice seemed to be purposefully depleted of emotion; it seemed to wash over me. I suspect that the emotion was there at a pitch imperceptible to my ears. Emotion might have also been there in her language, in the words that I did not hear or understand. At the end, when I became more closely attuned with her rhythm, I wrote down two thoughts. 1) Judging contests: "if you don't love doing it, it's like giving up a kidney to a stranger." I found the similie interesting, because I've always thought of doing bulk reading at my magazine volunteer gigs more in terms of taking in too much information -- like getting a kidney that you don't need. The idea of giving up something in the process of reading is interesting. What is it that one does give up? Probably not a kidney. 2) "you thank a teacher by bestowing an equal attention on another being." That's sweet.

More about Jim Shepard. During his third session with us, he reviewed some of the themes from our second workshop -- and then went on to add more depth to all of it. Great teaching practice: review and uncover new depths.

He said, "Literature opeartes by mobilizing opposing but complimentary forces and brings them into a collision with each other." (Exact wording?)

Another way to quiz your narrators is to ask yourself: "What is the source of discomfort the central consciouness of the story has with itself?" (The source of disgust, disquiet, disappointment?)

"Be aware that as a writer your first impulse is laziness." Ha! "You always hope that what you've delivered to the page is enough. What's most difficult to explore is at the heart of your fiction. It is what you want to neglect as a writer -- because it's the hardest to explore."

"When you're writing, you're not declaiming, you're exploring." I see the truth of this statement, and yet I'm tempted to rebel. I think this mode of thinking about literature really works best for thinking about realist prose. I wonder if Jim would agree: he made a specific distinction between realistic and figurative modes, and it's too bad that we didn't get a chance to explore the differences further in our class. In general, I feel that his method is best applied to realist prose. Absurdist stuff (to take one mode of writing that's not realist) requires a different process. Language-based work requires a different process.

"We write to establish & recouperate our losses. Turning awful experiences into something lasting. People are reading for pleasure -- so much fiction is performance. Literature is also showing people how they live."

A writer's career is a path of "gathering power & gaining authority." I am fascinated by this notion; the ways of creating authority in language. A lot of this has to do with technique, but some of it actually relies on the contextual aspects of the author's identity. Jim refers to this in passing in his Identity Theory interview with Robert Birnbaum, when he talks about the authority required to write a WWII story vs. a Holocaust story. I'm thinking about this since the days of studying feminist narrative theory, Susan Lanser's text "Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice."

One completely genius thing that Jim did in class was to start the discussion of each of our stories with reading a poem outloud. He read Dean Young's "The Business of Love is Cruelty," Henry Hudgins' "Ashes." He also read Carl Dennis' "The God Who Loves You." The poet himself was on campus a few days later and also read this poem. It's a very good poem. After my Skidmore blogs, I'll start blogging about narrative theory and poetry.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Campbell McGrath and Caryl Phillips

...and what do you know, the day after I blog about Campbell McGrath, I come by a review of his book on the Lewis & Clark expedition. The review was published in the Washington Post last week, written by Brad Leithauser. The reviewer finds very nice things to say about the long poem -- really, it is a very sweet review. "Surely, the sort of task McGrath undertakes here represents one of literature's profoundest pleasures. A poet tirelessly digs up something buried by days, years, centuries. And then he holds it to the light." It is a childish impulse that makes me want to end this paragraph with "buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo. buffalo, buffalo."

The Q&A with Caryl Phillips quickly veered off into the discussion of race and class. He is a British novelist (Wikipedia also says "with a Caribbean background"), who's lived in the States for about 20 years. He had spent the last year back in England, teaching at Oxford. So he was talking about how in England he was being put in the position of a spokesperson, of an authority on American attitudes towards race & class. He used a phrase about "being seduced into being something other than a writer" and used examples of Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll. (Saying, in passing, that Böll was not a very good writer. Ack!).

When Phillips wasn't being asked questions about what it's like being a black writer today, he wanted to talk about the notion of a historical novel. "The less you know about characters based on historical people, the better," he said. "You're not writing when you're researching."

Alas, he didn't get a chance to talk at length about the problematic of historical novel. The people in the room really wanted to know, "Is it possible to speak about identity independent of race?" I wonder if our eagerness to talk about the problematics of race had something to do with the fact that out of 20 poets and writers on campus during those two weeks, he was the only writer who not only identifies as black, but also writes novels that thematise the issues of race. So, once again, and quite unwillingly, he was put in the uncomfortable position of being a spokesperson for the issues of race. Issues of class were largely ignored in the room -- the consciousness about the class-based privilege seemed to be in a nascent state.

Phillips said something very beautiful about writing vs. revising: "Writing is the declaration of intent. Rewriting is true writing." Amen.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Frank Bidart and Campell McGrath

Unsurprisingly, ever since my time at Skidmore, I have become aware of a few dozens of names of poetry and prose writers, references to whom now seem to pop up everywhere in the blogosphere. Here's, for example, a review of Frank Bidart's book, Watching the Spring Festival: Frank Bidart definitely read the first poem the reviewer refers to, "Ulanova At Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle." The poem made an impression on me; with Ulanova I am on familiar ground, and the meta-poetical aspects of the poem, a poet considering poetry, also served a narrative purpose, to transition between the arbitrary chosen memory and present time. His reading also had much in common with ballet, hand raised to accentuate certain syllables.

Bob Boyers, introducing Campbell McGrath, explained McGrath's side on the debate on "unduly obscure" poetry. I am not sure whether it was Boyers or McGrath himself who talked about poetry's "virtue of unreadibility." Whoever it was, he explained further, "Poems shouldn't give away their meaning too readily." To illustrate, McGrath read from his book of poetry about the Lewis and Clark expedition's youngest member by the name of Shannon, who was lost for 16 days in buffalo land in what later became Nebraska. The long poem is the kid's would-be diary. The reading was notable for McGrath's lengthy (3, 4, 5 minutes?) recitation of a single word, "buffalo." I wonder how this looks on the page, but I suppose something like "buffalo. buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo. buffalo. buffalo, buffalo. buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo. buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo. buffalo. buffalo." Etc. At first, it was silly. Then, it was strange and annoying and rather indulgent. Later, it was hilarious in its indulgence. At the end, the indulgence got to be a bit scary. We were in the presense of an unstoppable force. A buffalo herd? A poet's imposition of meaning?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Jim Shepard

In the course of 3 workshops, Jim Shepard articulated the most useful method of reading one's own work in progress I've heard to date. I think what appeals to me the most about this method is that it relies on the skills of close reading that we're trained to apply to the "classic" works of literature. Close reading: the default method of approaching literature. I aspire to create literature myself. Shouldn't I be able to approach my own text as a close reader? Wouldn't reading my own work closely make obvious things to me that I am accomplishing on the page and things that still need to be developed? This is what Jim Shepard's method aspires to: to allow a writer to approach her own work as though it were a piece of literature -- which it is. Or wants to be.

At the beginning of the second workshop -- and after doing a brilliant presentation of the method two days before -- Jim read off to us his instructions on reading. I wasn't able to write down every word he said, but I think I got the gist. He talked specifically about the way to approach reading another writer's work in a workshop environment -- but all the rules apply equally well to reading one's own work in preparation for the revision process (after the first draft is completed).

First, he described the best kind of (workshop) readers. The most helpful readers are "rigorous, fastidious & optimistic." And best reader responses are "not only wearing because they believe everything can be improved" but also inspiring because they "provide a source of hope."

The most important rule of reading a work of another workshop participant: read more than once. In fact, Jim's method involves reading a text four times.

First, read a story straight through without making any marks on paper. Then, follow the instructions below. (I'm not putting these in quotation marks because I'm not sure I got the language right. But the ideas are all Jim.)

1. Second time you're reading a story from the beginning to the end, mark up the events that seem crucial, things you don't understand, punctuation, line edits.

2. Go to the end of the story and reread the last 2-3 pages.

3. Begin the story again with those last 2-3 pages in mind, as though the end of the story has something to do with the beginning. Skim the story for its larger features. Describe to yourself what different parts of the story are doing.

4. Mark those moments that are the crucial parts of the story, "the secret key of the story." A pattern that a story (or a novel) is revealing. Language that points to things that the fiction is obsessively returning to. Language that points to things that are left emotionally unexplained.

Jim talked in greater detail about this last point. He talked about narrators of fiction as having a hostile relationship to the author. Once the narrator starts speaking, she immediately reveals intentions that are different from those of the author. Re-reading your own work is an exercise of figuring out what your narrator's goals are and what to do about them. Jim's phrase: "Narrator's obsessive tyranny." He also mentioned that protagonists have still different agendas than narrators in fiction. (This is the basics of narrative theory, but so important to remember when writing!).

Stories, he said, (and narrators) "always provide their own operating instructions." Hence, as readers we need to read for them -- I think finding these operating instructions is also what he calls finding the "secret key" of a story. Or it maybe a prerequisite to finding the "secret key"?

One way he recommends of getting the narrators (and characters) to reveal their agendas is asking them a direct question: "What is your problem?" (I can still hear Jim's voice making a distinct emphasis on every word of this phrase.) In the classroom, he got a lot of humor out of this approach. He picked on a line from one of our stories, in which a narrator described her protagonist thus: "and her eyes shone like those of a wolfhound." Jim approached the author and asked him point blank: "Would you tell your sister when you see her tomorrow morning, Hi, honey, your eyes are shining like those of a wolfhound today?" His point was to bring our attention to the violence implied in this simile. To get us to read closely the emotion lodged in the language. What is the source of this emotion? Is the narrator driven by hatred or anger when he refers to his protagonist in this way?

Two other things he talked about that were not directly related to our work with narrators.
a) Rate of Revelation: "Everything should be showing something new." If a sentence is not pointing to new things, it's not doing its work. Cut it down.
b) "Conflict in literature involves two equally powerful but opposing values. I love my father. // I hate my father."

I wish I could post a snapshot of what my story looks like with Jim's underlining and editing marks, but I can't figure out how to use my camera. Trust me, it's a work of art.

Something to ponder about all of this. Personally, I am convinced that each story contains as many "secret keys" as there are readers. I think it would be a mistake to take Jim's method as reading for either the author's or even the narrator's *intentions*. As we learn in reading literature, the best we can do in reading a piece of literature is to formulate a series of theories about it that explain this text to us in some sort of a coherent pattern. My interpretation will always be different from that of Olga A, B or C's -- or the writer's own. To interpret a story and then to present my own interpretation of the story back to the writer is an exercise that allows both the reader and the writer to see how convincing my interpretation can be. The more positive statements I, the reader, can make about a story, the easier it is for the writer to decide whether these are the statements that she wants her reader to make. A story that is less well put together will be harder to interpret convincingly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Margot Livesey, Philip Lopate, Robert Pinsky, Carolyn Forche

In all caps in my notebook, LUNARIA -- "honesty" or "money plant." I think this is a word from a Katha Pollitt poem. My grandmother used to grow these in our garden, and I keep forgetting the name. She dried the flowers and made bouquets that lasted us all through the winter.

Margot Livesey made a distinction between the external story of a short story and the interior story. Kevin and his dad are sailing, the external story. Kevin grows up, the interior story. The trick is to let two happen at once. Similar but different distinction is denotative vs. connotative quality of language. Jim Shepard brought up this one. The real trick, I believe, is to use the same sentence to denote the external story and to connote the interior. This is the kind of story that makes me spontaneously burst into tears.

I think Margot also brought up T.S. Eliot's idea of "Objective Correlative," an idea of using an object (or person) outside of the main character to convey emotion. Maybe after I'm done with my Skidmore blogs, I'll start blogging about Narrative theory. T.S. Eliot is nice, but I would love to start reading contemporary theory again.

Philip Lopate talked about a poet, "Performing relationship in a book." I wrote down two names, John Ashberry and Frank O'Hara -- I think this comes from Lopate's reading of his memoir on being a poet in New York in the 60s.

Robert Pinsky said "I am extremely uncomfortable with all things Christian." And then proceeded to read a few poems that had to do with Christianity, I believe. I made a note that he was wearing a light blue shirt & courderoy pants. Why was this noteworthy?

Carolyn Forche talked about political poetry and the elegiatic mode. She referred to her book, The Anthology Against Forgetting, a question of "How to answer the accusations of writing political poetry." Because, apparently, in the US "political poetry" is (was?) a perjorative form.

Americans, Forche, said, were expected to specialized. Canadians never knew that poets were not supposed to write fiction. She brought up the name of the poet Ilya Kaminsky several times (he is a very dedicated student of hers), also as an example of someone who felt "Forced to write a memoir." Or is she writing a memoir of teaching Ilya? "Nonfiction/memoir -- for plumbing." My notes here don't really make a lot of sense.

"Privacy and solitude are essential for survival of poetic imagination," Forche said.

And then back to the idea of political poetry and the "Poetry of Witness." Forche said, "There is no such thing as poetry of witness. I made it up." She went on to extrapolate: "We are not living after the things that happen to us, we are living in their aftermath." -- "There is no such thing as closure." -- "We are not even supposed to get over things" -- "We incorporate things into our lives."

In these conversations on poetry, my sense of being outside of discourse was at its strongest. Not simply because of the Russian background, but perhaps because of the idea that personal is political -- and of the deep discomfort with the largely unaknowledged (from the podium) idea of privilege inherent to one's ability to write (and publish) poetry. My authors of "witness," Akhmatova and Chukovskaya, certainly wrote from the position of cultural and educational privilege. -- But I'm not ready to think this thought through.

Tomorrow, I'll do my big post on Jim Shepard. I'm ready.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Binnie Kirshenbaum and Katha Pollitt

Some of the readers did not have much to say in commentary or in addition to the texts they were reading -- and sometimes I was listening too attentively to be writing stuff down. Binnie Kirshenbaum, for example, did a very powerful reading from her most recent novel, The Scenic Route. I have no evidence of this in my notebooks. I remember she was talking about how women doing dark comedy have no chance of publication these days. Is this true? At the reception that followed, my friend Marie and I were immediately inspired to write more dark comedy. Later I learned that Marie is, in fact, an accomplished writer of comedy already. And I fully expect to see her novel, "Singing," on the shelves of supermarkets within a year. (This is not wishful but rather magical thinking.)

Another reader who had a lot to say about the status of women in contemporary publishing world was a poet Katha Pollitt. She was preoccupied with the generational conflict and quoted Wallace Stevens: "You always think that you're at the end of the tradition." (Is this really from Stevens? Google is ambivalent on the matter.) But perhaps, you are also at the beginning, Pollitt questioned. Women, she said, are in a much better position today (than when she was starting out). At the same time, "The way the culture has become more visual" -- she referenced the author's photographs on the dust jackets -- and how it helps female authors to be beautiful -- "this was not true in the 60s."

The statement "Poetry is dead & nobody cares" actually makes people feel good about reading poetry, Pollitt posited. She referenced Ireland as a place where poetry is to the day plays a central role in the society. In the US, she said, we lack consensus about what matters. Billy Collins, she said, Mary Oliver, Charles Bukowski -- there are still poets who make a commitment to a coherent group of readers. Poetry is as self-referential art as can be. A poet, she said, creates a taste by which she is understood. Do poems ever feel unduly obscure? she asked. Some poets think of writing a poem as similar to conduction an argument, and others (Robert Lowell?) would put a "not" in a poetic phrase simply to get an extra syllable.

Do poems ever feel unduly obscure? Somehow, this question struck me as unduly intimate. Like talking about sexual positions or vaginal lubrication, that kind of thing. Do poems ever feel unduly obscure? I don't know, but why don't you try using K-Y jelly.

Of course, in poetry, I remain outside of discourse.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Margot Livesey and Howard Norman

-- Margot said,
"Every sentence should:
* Reveal Character
* Advance Plot
* Deepen the Theme"

One of the mistakes we make, particularly in the world of MSWord, is editing the first page & not advancing forward. Margot suggests to make it a rule to start writing every day where you stopped the day before.

For the novel, Margot differentiated between the long line of suspense and the short line of suspense. I wish I could reproduce here the diagram she drew on the blackboard: it looks a lot like a caterpillar.

-- Howard Norman spoke about his journey around Japan in the footsteps of a haiku poet, Matsuo Basho. He read several pieces of his travel log, "On the Trail of a Ghost," that I believe was published last year by the National Geographic. He told amusing stories about mountainous trails and anecdotes about haiku poets and scholars. I wrote down several random quotes:

"being aware of the claims of fact but not oppressed by them" -- one might apply this sentiment to the debate on fact vs fiction :)
"the traveler is a ghost to be" -- I wonder if this has to do with the title of his book
"Tell the bear that Japan is a buddhist country." -- a punchline to an anecdote he told.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Margot Livesey and Richard Howard

Obviously, I've had no time to blog while at Skidmore. Neither do I have time to blog now. So this is not blogging, this is thinking in blogging. Somehow I've got to process everything I've heard in the past month. I'll try to work through my notes in 20 minute increments. 20 minutes today, 20 minutes tomorrow -- we'll see how it goes. These are going to be random, approximately in chronological order.

-- Margot Livesey made a very important distinction in the writing process between Revision and Editing. Writing -- Revision -- Editing, she said. Where, I suppose, Revision refers to the major changes in the structure, point of view, voice, etc and Editing has to do with working with the text on the level of individual sentences and word choice. So I can see how some writers can edit while they are writing, but revision is something else, revision is about the concept.

"Language is matter and music," Margot said. "We should revise once for matter and once for music." This is how the quote stands, so I get a sense that maybe she too uses the words "revision" and "editing" interchangeably. Or maybe it's just me trying to impose a system on everything I hear.

-- Richard Howard amazed everyone buy his checkered outfit. The pants where black and the tie was red, but everything else: the shirt, the shoes, the belt, the glasses (!) were checkered, black and white.

He quoted somebody: "Poet is a prophet facing backward." Google tells me that the phrase belongs to one of the theorists of the German Romanticism, Friedrich Shlegel, who had said that "Historian is a prophet facing backward." Also Nietzsche seems to have used the phrase.

"nymphs," Richard Howard said, is a word that's hard to say in English.

He talked about the computer as an ideal instrument for poetry. "You can erase a hundred times & repeat the same state." Not sure if my quote is a faifthful one in language, but the sentiment remains.

"I read everything," he says.