Monday, September 28, 2009


It's after 11 pm right now and I'm sipping a local Riesling and blogging from the bed of our hotel room. We just got back from taking the baths at the Széchenyi medicinal baths in Budapest (according to Wikipedia, the largest medicinal baths in Europe). My feet have been thoroughly massaged and my skin feels like it's been scraped off of its outer layer. I needed that. I have two pinky toes that are so used to wearing sandals all year long in San Francisco that they don't take well to wearing shoes. The funny thing is, with the weather the way it's been I would've been totally fine wearing my sandals here.

The local wine has been delightful. I've been drinking a lot of sweet white wine, Tokaj muscat is the only name I know. In all the English language guide books, the town of Eger is being advertised as a particularly good wine region, but my information comes from elsewhere. As a Soviet child, there were certain things you knew. I've forgotten most of them, but things like Tokaj wine (Tokaj is apparently a part of Slovakia, but a former part of the greater Hungarian Kingdom) and Budapest operetta do pop up once in a while. I continue my way through the former Soviet bloc countries incognito, as an American tourist. Being Russian here simply doesn't pay off. Today, a drunk beggar almost spit in our food when we betrayed a knowledge of Russian. We were eating dinner at a street cafe, and he was passing by, asking for money. Seeing that we didn't speak Hungarian, he went through the list: Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Parlez-vous Francais? Atah Medaber Ivrit? Говорите по-русски? Dave said, pa-russki. The man got all offended and said something in Russian about how they've worked for the Soviets for many years, and now don't want to have anything else to do with them -- and went on his way.

I find it very surprising on this trip to what extent the Soviet Union has become identified with Russia in the post-Soviet space. In a photo exhibit in downtown Krakow entitled "New Europe," for example, a photographer and a writer have traced the development of several post-communist countries, including Kaliningrad (Königsberg before WWII), but excluding Russia proper. "Since 1989 New Europe has become a fact," explain the artists. They are missing other countries, too: Lithuania and Moldova, for example. But no other cities are highlighted either except for Kaliningrad-Königsberg (a former Polish and then Prussian town, now an island of Russian territory on the Baltic squeezed between Poland and Lithuania, with no land connection to Russia proper). This exhibit makes an unambiguous statement about Russia.

The anger against Soviet Union is understandable, but equating Soviet Union with contemporary Russia seems unfortunate and unwise. It's kind of like being angry at all Americans (including Canadians and Brazilians) for electing George W. as president. Peoples living in Russia proper were frequently the first victims of Soviet politics -- and the fact that today Russian politics resemble SU closer and closer only goes to prove the effectiveness of the brainwashing all of us had undergone. Russia's new wave of nationalism is being met with the rejection of everything Russian by its neighbors (even Matryoshka dolls are being sold in the local touristy shops as "Slavic" souvenirs) -- and while all of this is perfectly understandable, it is also kinda scary. Increasing isolation has never led to world peace.

But of course contemporary Russia is a hard place to like, and why on earth I should ever be moved to defend it is a mystery. The Krakow exhibit definitely upset me: apparently, I am still thinking about it 2 countries later.

Gotta go repack again. We're leaving tomorrow morning to visit two small towns in Hungary where Dave's great-grandparents emigrated from. One of the towns has three hotels with the most expensive room going for $15 a night. They also rent camping spaces for your tent.

Dave's blog about what we actually did today:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Prague, Budapest

I'm thinking about a phrase from my Skidmore notebooks, smth Lawrence Weschler had said: "Our brain secretes stories -- this is how we appropriate the world." Blogging about our trip, trying to describe what our experiences have been like, we're already constructing the first version of the story of our trip. The more we travel, the more aware we are about the construction of an interesting story at the moment that it unfolds. If we keep trying to follow the map straight from one sight to another, the story we're constructing is as straightforward as can be, simply "checking things off a map." The plot thickens the moment we put the map away and turn off the main street.

There's an art to making travel stories textured and complex. Sometimes it involves putting ourselves under unusual constraints (Howard Norman, for example, who followed the footsteps of a Japanese poet Basho -- that's hard core; or us, spending one night in London walking around from dusk till dawn). Sometimes it involves simply talking to people, asking questions, pursuing leads. The other day when we walked up to Frank Gehry's Dancing House in Prague, we saw a sign that said "Admission to the top is free if you buy cocktail of the day from cafe Celesete." So we walked into cafe Celesete and Dave asked the bartender: "What's the cocktail of the day?" The bartender got excited: "Watermelon! I invented it myself. Have you seen that movie, Get Shorty? With Danny DeVito? Danny DeVito's perfect in that. There's one scene where he orders a drink--it was not watermelon, but I was thinking of that movie and came up with this drink!" He proceeded to make the drink, throwing the mixing cup into the air a-la Tom Cruise and spilling half of it on his apron and the floor. Not because he was incompetent, simply flamboyant. We and another couple who happened to wander into the cafe at the same time watched him, mesmerized.

Equipped with the our drinks, the four of us rode the elevator to the top, 7th floor. The Dancing House consists of two parts, one roughly looking like a man with a spiky head, and the other is a woman with her skirt swinging. The guidebooks provide a nickname, Fred and Ginger. The elevator dropped us off at a white tablecloth restaurant still setting up for dinner from which we walked out on the terrace around Fred's head. The sun was shining. Vltava river spread before us, a castle on the opposite side, old town in front of us, Soviet apartment buildings towering on the horizon. There were boats on the Vltava, catamarans and wooden swans. We exchanged cameras with the other couple and took pictures of each other. The fancy drinks were quickly warming up our tongues. The other couple was from Sweden, he an architect, infatuated with Gehry, and she described herself as a farmer. The discount airlines are so cheap, that it costs them more to take a cab to downtown Prague from the airport than to fly from Stockholm. They flew in Friday night and were going back Sunday morning. They are both in their 50s, together only for 6 years. Her husband had died, and she has three adult children who inherited his pig farm. Two oldest children run the farm, and the third one, a 14-year old, stays at home with her. Her architect partner "makes the big bucks" and so buys the weekend trip tickets, and her job is to find a home for the teenager while they are away. Teenagers, when not properly looked after, can make very expensive damage. Their friends have a house in Seattle, and--we were one step away from exchanging emails with them, inviting them to visit, getting invited to visit Sweden. What stopped us? I don't know. The sun was getting low, and we had lots of other sights to see. We left, and they waved at us from the top of Fred's head.

Perhaps, I tend to think too much of the fleeting connections we make on the road. Other people's stories enrich my own, and I can't get enough of them. I write not so much because I have something to say but because of this constant compulsion to storytelling. The stories we hear on the road carry particular significance because travelers have to find the common language with each other fast, in a matter of minutes. At lunch at the beergarten and hotel where we stayed in Prague, U Medvidcu, we met two women traveling in Eastern Europe from Japan. Mother and daughter. They were sampling the local beer and were curious about the beer we were drinking. They were going to shop for some Czech crystal because it was good (although not as intricate as Hungarian) and seemed cheap. The daughter (about 22 years old) was interested in sampling the street food, something with chocolate and caramel that we looked for later but didn't find. Mother had been an exchange student at Stanford in 1979 when the band Chicago was still good; daughter had studied in Italy for a year. They live in central Japan -- they didn't mention the name of the city. The daughter's father is an American. They had already been to Budapest and further south in Croatia, so they advised us to take a boat tour on the Danube and/or take a boat instead of train from Budapest to Vienna. Also, to bargain with the tour guides. And when we're in Japan, we must try shōchū, the Japanese vodka.

Our first day in Budapest was packed with stories. The first thing we found on our walk through the town was a synagogue, and since it appeared closed, we sat down in a cafe in front of it. We ordered breakfast and Dave went to walk around the temple, to see when it was going to be open. Apparently, we were there on the day of Yom Kippur, and the synagogue was closed for the day. In front of it, Dave met a young woman who invited us to attend the services. She showed him the tree of life in the back of the building, closed in by a metal fence, and explained: antisemitism was rising again in the last few years in Hungary. Which was also why the building was surrounded by a dozen of security guards that day. Sandra was going home to have a traditional feast with her mother, and then was coming back later.

The young man working at a cafe across the street from the synagogue gave us our first lesson in Hungarian: how to say "thank you" -- köszönöm [køsønøm]. We saw him again later in the day, when we came back later in the day to attend the Yom Kippur services. Dave had a camera with him, which was apparently against the rules (silly, because every cell phone comes with a camera these days -- and everyone inside had a cell phone), so he went across the street to leave the camera at the cafe, and the young man was still working there. Apparently, he works 15 hour shifts 2-3 days a week. He has another job, tutoring students in math and physics, and another job building websites, and he is a student himself at two different universities, studying physics and computer security at the same time. He was asking Dave what was going on at the synagogue: he noticed that it was closed, but wasn't sure why, and when Dave tried to explain, he seemed surprised by the idea that Jews had special holidays.

At the synagogue, we also met Pam from Canada. She also had a camera with her, and had to follow Dave's lead to go across the street to the cafe, to leave her camera there. She was also doing a similar trip around Eastern and Central with a small group. They traveled by bus and train, and went to Krakow and Prague and also to a few different small villages and hiked in the Carpathian mountains. We talked to her about genealogy for some reason. Her family is originally from Poland and Lithuania, and she has a cousin who's really into genealogy, so he does all the research about that.

Dave gives more details on what we've actually seen & done in the last two days in Prague and Budapest.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Krakow, Praha

Two days, two countries, currencies, languages, two Old Towns, castles, clock towers, Jewish quarters, two hotels and train stations. Which castle had that well-restored Florentine Renaissance courtyard? Where was that gate with the moat? A courtyard of the university from the 14th Century? Where was that ancient synagogue we looked into through the window and saw pews and vaulted ceilings? All the sights have been strung together like a long run-on sentence. Later, I'll go through the pictures, look through the brochures I've collected, read Dave's blog: ah! of course, the university was in Krakow! The old-new synagogue was in Prague! Right now, what I want to remember the most are the details, the silly things, the insignificant.

How lucky we are with the weather. So far, only half a day of light rain in Krakow. Otherwise, sun and blue sky.

If we had another day in Krakow, we could've rented bikes and gone outside the Old Town.

A good website to find restaurant recommendations in Poland: (Recommended by Agata and Artur). Basic understanding of Polish is helpful.

Cobblestones are not a good pavement idea outside of a train station.

Nobody in Prague seems to have the right change. Is this a reflection on the local banking practices or a form of tip enforcement?

In Krakow, as we approached the main cathedral (the one with the bugler) and wanted to go in, two young women at the gate told us: "You can buy the tickets across the street!" -- and when we followed the direction they were pointing, they started closing the gate behind our backs. We were there a minute too late!

Misdirection -- a form of shyness?

We arrived to the hotel in Prague at 7:30 am. A woman who greeted us in the morning was still there at 11:00 when we returned from a full day of sightseeing. Dave asked her if this was a long day (did she take a break in the middle?) and she said, "It's not so bad." In the morning and at night, she was equally friendly and helpful.

In Prague we paid for a 4-hour walking tour to see the sightseeing highlights this city has to offer. Our guide, Kate, spoke with a semi-permanent smirk, as if she found most of the sights in Prague rather silly. Some of them really are: the gargoyles representing the devil on the St. Vitus cathedral, for example. The devil was supposed to see his face reflected in them & run away. Kate told an anecdote: the sculptor didn't know what the face of the devil looked like & so asked the priest: what should I do? The priest told him: look at the face of your mother in law. Heh. Kate got particularly excited when talking about Prague's long history of defenestrations: politicians here tend to die by *accidentally* falling out of windows.

In Krakow, there's a vibrant chain of Piekarnias, and on our continuous quest to exhaustively sample their inventory, we bought a single cookie in each one we walked by. At the fifth Piekarnia where we asked for a single cookie the girl behind the counter laughed at us and gave us the cookie for free. A zapiekanki salesman also kindly laughed at us when we wanted to combine a spinach sauce with sausage on a sandwich. Apparently, the thing is not done. But he humored us anyway. In Prague, the staff at a buffet-style dinner place were raising eyebrows when I tried to order dill sauce for dinner. After unsuccessfully trying to get me to reconsider my order, they offered a piece of beef to go with the sauce. I accepted.

Two young Americans in our walking tour of Prague had just come from Dublin and London. They hated Dublin, and London was even worse. Why? Everyone speaks English. There wasn't even a sense of adventure. They felt like they were just checking things off their sightseeing list. Prague was a lot more to their liking. Although everyone speaks English here too, American English. The two kids are going to Budapest by bus tonight. We're going by train, so the chances are, we'll run into them again in Budapest. They are from Connecticut by way of Nob Hill in San Francisco, practically neighbors.

Last night, we went to a marionette theatre in Prague, to a performance of Don Giovanni. I've spent a better part of two years at San Francisco State thinking and writing about marionettes, commedia dell'arte, European theatre -- it's funny that only now I finally get to see a show. There is a marionette theatre in St. Petersburg in the back yard of the apartment block where my grandmother lived, and I think I was there once or twice as a kid. Enough to have an idea what a marionette performance is like, but not enough to appreciate the adult humor of it. The puppets are extremely tactile. All they seem to want to do is to slap each other, to kick each others' butts, to fornicate, to give each other massages. During a particularly sentimental aria, the other puppets get embarrassed and try to sabotage the singers by covering their mouths or they get anxious and start banging the rhythm with their feet; they simply can't stand any excesses in the operatic music. During a particularly colorful vibrato, for example, they decide to take a hot bath and have to jump in and out of the tub as the voice goes from high to low over and over again. A puppet Mozart was conducting the performance and he was particularly silly. He got drunk, for example, and kept losing his sheet music. At the end of the performance, the puppeteer finally got fed up with their antics and had to come down and hang them up on their hooks. They didn't rest until the puppeteer shushed Mozart.

I know of Prague from novels. Kafka, of course. Milan Kundera. Lieutenant Shvejk, who is an all but forgotten in the States but still a very famous in this part of the world hero of the World War I. Most recently, Michael Chabon's Kavalier & Klay, both sold in a local English-language bookshop on the Tyn Square called Anagram. I bought there a translation of a novel by a local writer, Bohumil Hraval, "I Served the King of England." Vaclav Havel, of course, the former president of Check Republic, is also a playwright.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Krakow and Auschwitz

Young playwrights frequently hear this advice: if you want to intensify the conflict in your play, create very stringent time constraints for your characters. Oscar Wilde provides great examples: the proposals, prior love affairs, incriminating letters and long lost aunts surface all at once. A travel story lends itself very well to a dramatic treatment, because time is always an issue. Careful planning (watching the number of attractions per day), an adjustment in attitude (relax!!), and regular feeding help to relieve the dramatic tension in the life of a tourist, but, nevertheless, occasional slips seem inevitable.

Yesterday we had one major activity planned: a trip to Auschwitz (in Polish, the town of Oświęcim). The bus was going to pick us up at 8:40 am. At 8 am, we left the hotel in search for breakfast. We had researched online a number of potential Piekarnia (bakeries) and bar/cafes the night before, but none of them were open yet, and we ended up at a cafe on the main square. The interior of the place looked very much like what I imagine old English gentleman's clubs looked like: two long rows of tables, heavy chairs with decorative cushions, darkened window to the street, lots of drapery. Dave ordered eggs and I muesli and waited. There were two other couples waiting for their food at the same time. A waitress brought our coffee and a huge basket of bread. As the time approached 8:30, we started watching the clock. Should we say something to the waitress? The other couples were there before us, and they didn't have their food yet either. If she brought the food out within the next 5 minutes, and if our bus was 5 minutes late, we would be okay. But still, should we say something? But what was she going to do if the food was not ready yet? Should we at least give her the money? At 8:35, she brought their plates but not ours. Dave took the money and followed her to the register -- to pay, to ask if she maybe could give us the food to go. After some confusing conversation, she brought us two bowls of muesli with yogurt. We stuffed a few spoonfuls of it into our mouths, left the money on the table and ran. In the bus to Oświęcim, we ate the two pieces of bread (with butter and jam) that we had stuffed into our pockets.

Auschwitz-Oświęcim was the second concentration camp we've visited after Dachau in Germany a couple of years ago. There are three different compounds on the territory known is Oświęcim, and by far the largest is the camp at Brzezinka (Birkenau). Unlike the camp in Germany, this territory remained unused after the war, and the former prisoners returned there a few months after the liberation to start rebuilding what the Nazis had burned as they evacuated. For example, at Birkenau-Brzezinka, the Nazis had taken down the ovens of the crematoria, but the former prisoners restored them using the original metal pieces. What I remember being very surprising about Dachau was the long lists of manufacturing companies that had used the prisoners' labor. I remember the crematorium there that (I think) had remained intact. The exhibits at the Oświęcim-Brzezinka camps were very much about highlighting the inhuman living conditions, the constant abuse by the officers and the other prisoners, the medical experiments including the experiments on children, the methodology of killing. Jewish victims left very few traces: some hair, luggage, shoes. As our guide reminded us (her voice was breaking, on the verge of tears), when the order to exterminate the Jews came, most of them were sent to the gas chambers straight from the trains, without processing or registration. Prisoners from an earlier time were frequently photographed, and some photographs remain -- copies were lining the walls of the corridor of one of the exhibit barracks. On the fields of Brzezinka, where the busloads of tourists disperse and are lost between the platform and the barracks, the sheer scale of the operation acquires some very concrete dimensions.

When we went through the gas chamber and the crematorium in Oświęcim, the guide asked us to remain silent. There were a few signs posted: Because so many people have died here, please be silent in their memory. I found the restriction to be hard to maintain: I wanted to point out to Dave the size of the holes in the ceiling of the gas chamber (they were a lot larger than I had expected). I wanted to share with him the observation about the train-like tracks and metal carts that were attached to the ovens: the burning of the corpses was streamlined, automated like a conveyor belt. I left these observations for later. But still, I wonder: where does the tradition of remembering someone by silence come from? Why is it we think that by speaking we can remember less well than by staying silent? Why is it that silence is a sign of respect and speech in sacred places is a kind of transgression?

Tourists in general and Russian and American tourists in particular are frequently perceived as being loud -- a notion that frequently goes together with the idea of disrespect to the traditions and culture of the countries that we visit. And yet speech, being bothersome, asking needless and meddlesome questions, is the only possibility the tourists have of connecting to the people of the places we visit. If we don't accost strangers with questions our trip can be easily reduced to a series of silent, next to meaningless monetary transactions.

More on speech and loud speech and silence later. Here's Dave's blog with lots more details:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Warsaw -- Krakow

A tourist has a job to do. What distinguishes the tourist occupation from any other job is that the emphasis is shifted from the production of goods, services, information or knowledge to the taking in of information, knowledge, goods and services. Not unlike what a student's job is. Or an academician's. Travel log documents the progress. To do a good job, a tourist must get up at the wee hours of dawn, eat a filling breakfast and start the day at an art or history museum, at a castle or a park, exploring the city by foot, climbing all the high places such as church towers and observation decks to take panoramic pictures, try her best to decipher foreign language descriptions of statues and building signs, study time-tables and maps to fill sightseeing schedules to the maximum, wear good shoes and layered clothing, drink a lot of water, try street foods where it's safe to do so, ask for help when in doubt, patronize local restaurants and partake of local specialties (even if they are called zapiekanka, which reminds her of her worst kindergarten nightmare), talk to as many people as possible, take lots of pictures, buy souvenirs.

If she dawdles around in the hotel until noon and then all the museums turn out to be closed because it's Monday, and the Chopin museum that was supposed to be open is under remont until 2010, she's clearly not doing her job right. There are extenuating circumstances. Blogging is not a bad reason to linger in the hotel. Lifting weights at the gym and taking a dip in a whirlpool are not inherently bad things to do while being a tourist. Ideally, however, everything not related to direct tourist responsibilities should be done at night, when the museums are closed, feet are bleeding, and stomachs near bursting. But if jet lag is making it tough to keep her eyes open through dinner and then wakes her up before 6 o'clock in the morning, well, rules are going to have to be relaxed, priorities adjusted, and precious morning hours sacrificed.

Most museums ARE closed in Warsaw on Mondays. But the museum of Warsaw Uprising is closed on Tuesdays. So yesterday, on Monday, we walked around the city center, drank some hot chocolate (kinda like Spanish hot chocolate -- thick and creamy), ate paczki (doughnuts) with rose jelly, had dinner at a Pierogarnia (where they serve pierogi and more), met up with our new friends Agata and Artur and drank more beer with them at a bar called Antikvariat (spelling?), which is decorated with old black and white photos of naked women and used books on gynecology and other subjects (a picture book of Australia, for example). And today we made an unsuccessful trek to the Warsaw Uprising Museum (closed on Tuesdays), and, for the lack of alternative ideas, headed to the train station and aimlessly meandered at the nearby mall for an hour and a half until it was time to go to Krakow. At the end, we almost missed our train, because there were three different trains departing for Krakow at about the same time, and we couldn't figure out the number of the track we had to be at. Dave blogs about this in greater detail.

Agata and Artur gave us a few recommendations on the things to do in Krakow. We started the exploration of this lovely medieval town from sampling the local vodkas (or wodka) at a place called Szambelan Sklep. Totally awesome and we really needed that. After that, wondered aimlessly around town until found more food. Systematic approach to eating can certainly camouflage a lot of imperfections in an average day of a stressed out tourist.

Agata and Artur also recomended the work of several Polish movie directors. I wonder what we'll be able to find on Netflix. Here's the list:

Agnieska Holland
Krzysztof Zanussi
Jan Jakub Kolski
Stanislaw Bareja (he made Soviet comedies)
Juliusz Machulski (whose movie Vabank from 1981 I might have seen back when).

Dave reminds me to note that Polish zapiekanka is an open faced melted cheese sandwich vs. Russian zap(i)ekanka which is a milk-based omelet. Both probably come from the root of the noun for "oven" and the verb for "to bake."

Sunday, September 20, 2009


We travel for days like yesterday. Or today, because San Francisco time Sunday still continues. Our Sunday started on an airplane over the Atlantic, where Dave and I read everything Rick Steves' guide had to say about Poland in general and Warsaw in specific. We studied how to say hello (Dzen dobry) and thank you (Dziekuje) and practiced on the flight attendants (unsuccessfully). I was wondering how much I was going to be able to understand knowing Russian. Turns out, I do okay. About as well as Dave, with his knowledge of Russian. We can count and tell prices. We can smile and say "po-angielsku." I had to photograph a sign in the airport that said "baggage zagubleny" (lost) because in Russian this means "baggage that has been brutally murdered."

Rick Steves alerted us to the fact that on Sundays in the summer there are Chopin concerts in one of the local parks at noon and 4 pm. So after we took the bus to our hotel, we immediately set out to go to the concert. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon; the weather was perfect, sunny and almost hot; the city was quiet and most businesses we passed were closed (we were looking for ice cream). Warsaw was pretty much completely destroyed during WWII, and the new construction is haphazard. There's the reconstruction of the old city (we haven't seen yet), the dominant Soviet architecture, much of which has already been updated, renovated, put behind glass and fits very well with more modern Euro-style construction. It's very green -- trees everywhere (not many yellow leaves yet). I recognize oaks and chestnut trees. When we got to the park, we saw all the little kids picking up acorns and ripened chestnuts off the ground and munching on them. I tried an acorn and it tasted more bitter than I remember.

On our walk to the park, an older gentleman introduced himself to us. He was going in the same direction, and he said hello in Polish. We told him "po-angliesku," and he was all smiles, asking us where we were from and how long we were going to be in Poland. He had been in NY a year ago, visiting his son, who lives in Long Island.

The scene in the park was idyllic. The concert took place by a larger-than-life Chopin statue (that had been melted down by the Nazis and then recast later) in a rose garden: a piano was set up under a white canopy. There were dozens and dozens of benches among the blooming roses, all occupied by local families and tourists alike, and in the middle -- a lawn where more people were sitting on the ground. We found a spot there and munched on a bread treat (all the packaged ice cream at the park entrance was sold out.) The concert lasted about an hour and ended on a high note, with Polonaise Op. 53 in As-Dur. After that we found more ice cream deeper in the park, by an island-palace, a smallish palace built in the middle of a river.

After the concert, we had no plan other than meander around town and eventually find dinner. The town seemed empty again the moment we got out of the park and until we to the main street, a royal way, connecting the Old Town with a royal residence 30 km or so outside of town. All the boutiques were closed for Sunday, but the street was closed for automobile traffic, and lots of people congregated at the cafes with open seating. Rick Steves says that all the places marked "bar" are really "milk bars" -- cheap (government sponsored??) eateries selling all the local staples, pierogi, salads, soup. We weren't ready to commit -- until we wondered into what seemed to be a local farmers' market: maybe two dozen stands trading in sausages, bread, cheese, beer. We approached the selection methodically and sampled everything from grilled smoked cheese with berry jam to an open sandwich with lard infused with apples and onions to honey beer to a long link of sausage.

There were several communal tables set up between the tents, and the moment we sat down, one of the young people at the table asked Dave "Where are you from?" and "What are you doing in Poland?" Dave might tell the story in greater detail on his own blog, I'll just say that within minutes we were introduced to Martin, Agnes, Agata and Artur, and spend the rest of the evening with them. Martin is a former athlete-champion, who now works as a stunt men in the local movies. Agata speaks really good English because she organizes tours of Poland for Israeli visitors. She told us that the farmers' market was a really special treat, because you can't get this stuff in the stores in the city, and this was the last day of the season. She also recommended more beer to try. Later, after the market closed and the benches were taken down, they invited us to go out with them to another bar, called Indeks. This place had a mini beach set up in the back, with bean bag chairs to sit in, and a stage where a jazz band was setting up. (It was still very early, 8 pm or so). Agata and Arthur are married, have been married for more than a year; they've met online and had their honeymoon in Thailand and Singapore, & are planning their next trip to India and Nepal. Agata has a cousin in Knoxville.

A funny thing: I am shy of being Russian in Poland. Our new friends were wondering why my Polish accent was so good, and I explained only at the end of the night, after a few beers. Then it made sense to them: they can understand Russian about as well as I understand Polish.

Dave has his own story to tell. His blog is here:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Charles Simic

Charles Simic talked about his current work on translating Serbian poetry. Central Europe, he said, has its own very unique poetic traditions. Byron & English poetry in 19th C, 20th C -- large French influence, a few Germans, Russians, Eliot, "some kind of modernist tradition," Rilke. "Communism as a shock to tradition." Mostly, communist era resulted in didactic poems with a message, but "when they were writing about injustice (done to them?), their ranting got very interesting."

There were not very many poems written about the war in the 1990s. "Profound feeling of evil emerging, evil coming."

Simic talked about shifts that occur in one's own writing over a period of a lifelong career (his own). Early years -- series of discoveries. Impulse to imitate your favorite poets. Years of learning & then over the course of your life themes come up. In 1975, he started to write about his own childhood during WWII in Belgrade. "Not just the past that happened to you, but also the past poems you've written -- a feeling that they are not very good -- so you want to do something better." Lately, his poetry is all about death.

Simic left Belgrade when he was 15, and in 1963 started going to the Slavic Section of the NY Public Library and read "every anthology of contemporary Yugoslavian poetry." This was his initiation into translation. He copied poems (of a specific poet, I think, whose name I didn't catch) & translated them at home. It didn't sound the same in English! In the original, every word seemed totally inevitable, precise, beautifully phrased, very simple. The poetry (of this particular poet whose name I didn't catch -- Popa might be the last name) came from "very deep in the language." Particular kinds of precise constructions that evoke references, echoes of other sources, connotations, etc. As a translator, this is very difficult -- you have to suggest another layer. Also idiomatic poems, idioms that are somewhat twisted.

"I've learned more from translation than from anything else."

"American poems switch from one level of diction to another very easily, which in translation to French is very hard because it becomes just not good French."

Somebody asked him a question: "How important is it for you to be transparent?" His answer: "If you're writing something that you don't understand yourself -- that too gets boring. [I write as if] I am speaking to someone. The ideal other, some reader or someone. The only time it's impossible to be transparent is when the subject itself remains not transparent (deeper meaning, truths)."

"Majority of my poems probably have something autobiographical in origin, but a lot have been made up."

"Music always gets me in shape. I'm going to write like Scarlatti today." "A series of madrigals for voices; I read a poem & then sing it. It's very ingenious. Some of them I like very much."

Question: "Do you feel there are limitations in relying on the 1st person pronoun?" Answer: "I have held less of it when I was younger. It's inevitable, you can't avoid it." "But then too much I, I, I -- we have to find ways so that it doesn't become overbearing. Any time you can get away from it, get away from it."

This is about it for my Skidmore notebook, and what a good place it is to stop, with translation. Dave stayed up all night backing up our computers, buying our tickets for the next-next trip, packing. I'm browsing instead of sleeping. What comes next will be new and shiny.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, James Miller and Lawrence Weschler

Read non-corrected proof of Ilf & Petrov's comic follow up to "Twelve Chairs": "The Golden Calf," (temporarily?) online! It's a Soviet classic (the kind that poked fun of SU).

My last week at Skidmore, James Miller, the author of a controversial biography, The Passion of Michel Foucault, a former Newsweek book and music editor and critic, and many other things, staged a conversation about non-fiction with Lawrence Weschler, who is an equally controversial writer and a director of the Institute of the Humanities at NYU. The topic was nonfiction.

Nonfiction is a kind of a topic that means very different things to different people. Memoir, biography, newspaper reportage, criticism, theory, perhaps even novels can be united under its shiny new umbrella. Jim Miller, for example, bashed all memoir writing as *bad* writing. His idea was that memoir became in vogue after Frank McCourt's success with "Angela's Ashes" (The news of Frank McCourt's death had been announced only a few days before and William Kennedy, if I remember correctly, read a very heartfelt eulogy to his deceased friend). Is memoir creative non-fiction? Miller wondered. What, if any, obligation to tell the truth does non-fiction have vs. fiction and poetry?

He contextualized his line of questioning in two ways: 1) Literary: Recent excitement in memoir world, scandals of made up memoirs;

2) Journalism: Continuing influence of new journalism (Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Lawrence Weschler). New journalism: "Subverting claims of objectivity by highlighting the subjective position of the writer." + Period after WWII, George Orwell: real risk in modern society: man, media, totalitarian dictatorship of media that within a democratic society creates a pseudo-reality (ex: airbrushing Trotsky out of Soviet history; Abu Ghraib photos; reading NY Times and taking it as a reality)

3) Philosophy/Theory: Derrida, Foucault, etc: alertness of the fictional aspects of all texts, infinite meaning in all texts. Richard Rorty formulating the question of the "Value of truth as a category."

Lawrence Weschler started his answer with the description of a course he teaches in NYU, "The fictional non-fiction." He said that he doesn't read "memoir." (Implication: "memoir" is bad, selfish? lit.) "It doesn't have to be you," he said.

Derrida & Foucault, that strain of intellectual life: "it was fine in chimpanzees in Paris, but when it crossed the ocean it created a new species." (My quote is close, if not exact.)

"I am interested in the fictive elements of non-fictive writing in the context of reportage: structure, irony, voice, etc." (As a true representative of new journalism, I suppose) Weschler also wanted to "demolish expectation of objectivity." He said, "I insist on 'I' voice not in reference to self, but out of modesty, an acknowledgement of subjectivity."

"Borgesian line: Reality and Language do not intersect at any point & fashioning one in terms of another is already a fiction." "Fiction comes of fashioning a representation of reality that's already crumbling." "Borges: any representation of real world is fiction." (I am a devoted Borgesian myself, but even I would abstain from taking anything Borges wrote as a dictum. Or did I miss a humorous strain in this professor's rambling?).

'There needs to be fact" -- but "no objective reality."

An anecdote about the English language: "there is verb 'to lie' but there is no verb for 'to tell the truth'." This words for Russian, too. I think so, for German. And maybe for French.

So, according to Weschler, a non-fiction writer should strive not for truth but "being true to life," and doing so with "accuracy, transparency, humor and judgement." I have no idea what he meant by the expression "being true to life." Again, this is a case of restating an universal statement in different but equally universal terms.

Non-fiction writers must "aspire to a narrative, a story -- a representation of the world in narrative." When Weschler came back from South Africa, people asked him very simply "What was it like?" Which he interprets as them basically asking, "tell me a story." "Our brain secrets stories -- this is how we appropriate the world."

He made a side point about how he refuses to use tape recorders while conducting interviews. When people ask him for permission to record a conversation with him, he answers, "I don't mind it at all as long as you don't quote me verbatim." The important question that an interview attempts to answer is "What was it like?", "it implies what we already talked about -- body language, eye contact." He says with pride: "I've never once quoted people verbatim. I quote what I remember people said." He also says that he always places conversations in interesting places, a real scene requires that you really see things.

"Non-fiction writer aspires to authority, exact opposite of authoritarianism."

"To speak with trustworthiness (humor, voice, modesty) presupposed that people have to learn how to read." The anecdote he provided as an example was a comparison of American readers in the 80s with the Polish readers (his wife is Polish). In Poland, people learn how to read between the lines of newspapers. In the States people were ignorant about the true state of the Cold War because "they believe what they read in the paper." This is an interesting comparison, I think. The problem with this, though, is reading the blank space between the lines one can never reconcile the information with anyone else.

James Miller responds. Borges example is not very useful, he says, because it provides no distinction between fiction and non-fiction whatsoever. "Getting something right? But how do you know what's right."

"Authority is a slippery term."

"I think category of truth telling is foundational to all civilization. Thou shalt not bear false witness."

"Author of non-fiction enters into a contract to tell the truth -- not all truth & nothing but the truth." "Fact needs to be established by interviewing all kinds of eyewitness accounts."

Lawrence Weschler responds: "Every individual must try to tell the truth, without making a claim to objective truth."

"The worst evidence is eyewitness -- it's notoriously bad."

"I don't read novels." (?) "In fiction nothing is ever made up." (He might have quoted somebody to say this." "Non-fiction -- we almost never know the truth of what happened. The facts of the imaginative fiction are always true. The facts of non-fiction are always suspect, in doubt."

From this point on, my notes become muddled as to who speaks. I think, most of the following quotes belong to Weschler. But I might be wrong.

Herodotus & Homer (non-fiction vs. fiction): Distinction is made in retrospect. It's a modern distinction. 17th C. Robinson Crusoe. Frank McCourt. Basis of marketing. It's a distinction made for the consumer. "Writings about philosophers -- the first autobiography and biography in the West." "No hard distinction between truth & fiction until the 18th C." Then, "sharp line is drawn -- what's superstition and mythology in the quest for the *historical* Jesus."

"Big divide of fact vs fiction: what are the political stakes?"

"There are at least 5 strands of non-fiction, some of which are at war with each other."

"The order of being & the order of knowing are different." "Fiction is invention, non-fiction is selection."

"Nietzsche thought historiography destroyed myths. Fact telling can uproot & destroy what is created by myth." What remains is the "mythical significance of the universe."

The conversation ended with another assault on memoirs. "There's a world out there beyond yourself," the two wise men told the crowd. "A lot of the early autobiographies were meant to inspire." These days, autobiographies are written by people "who have no personality." The two unanimously encouraged the non-fiction writers in the crowd to go out and interview the poor or go to the conflict zones in Africa and South America to collect material there. To many of us in the crowd (including several journalists in the crowd) these recommendations seemed very smug and coming from a place of unacknowledged privilege. Because, of course, where is any of us going to get the money to go to South America to observe the conflicts there? And isn't it at least just a little bit wrong, to take on someone else's subjectivity in writing? To go to a conflict zone with an intention 'to observe'? A writer doesn't even have a photo lens to hide behind.

On a related note, I'm heading to Poland on Saturday, and hopefully will blog about my travels from a very subjective point of view. Fictional or non-fictional, I cannot say.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Rick Moody, Andrea Barrett and Nicholas Delbanco

My friends are sending in more fun and useful links. Rob has shared information about Sirenland, an expensive (but possibly worth it) writers conference that will take place at the end of March in Positano, Italy. Best part: Jim Shepard is one of the instructors. Rob also has shared a link to a blog by Seth Abramson, who accumulates lots of useful information about MFA applications, including more of school rankings and the time it takes for schools to respond to applications.

Evelyn is reminding me that I haven't blogged about Rick Moody yet. Rick was one of the most charismatic people on campus, always friendly and ready to engage in a conversation. I don't think I have any notes on his reading in my notebook, and the reason is simple: I was listening. His essay fascinated me on several different levels, the way it was very personal and yet at the same time very analytical. Rick's subject was Antonin Artaud, French writer and drama theorist, whose work I've come across during my year of researching Russian and German modernist theatre. Rick's essay is available online on The Believer's website. It's worth reading again and reading closely. Scrolling through it briefly just now I was already able to pick out a sentence I love to ponder ("My hypothesis: Artaud is part of a European and specifically French intellectual lineage obsessed with the rigors of truth-telling." Are Europeans obsessed with the rigors of truth-telling? Maybe if the accent is on the rigors.). Harder to summarize is the personal story Rick tells in this essay. It simply demands closer reading.

I'll do the long post about the Jim Miller & Lawrence Weschler conversation tomorrow (it's long!), and today I will go to the Q&A with the student/teacher pair Andrea Barrett and Nicholas Delbanco. Andrea was Nicholas' student at the Breadloaf Writers' Conference one year, and then followed him to another program, I think. Nicholas joked how, as a teacher, he had "nothing to say [about Andrea's fiction] at some length." And also that the two of them weren't afraid to "pay each other the compliment of an insult." Andrea confirmed: "[it's] a longer lasting gift that a teacher can say something firm to a student." (I suppose "firm" in this sentence also means "insulting"?)

Andrea or Nicholas (my notes are muddled) brought up a paradox about writing instruction: "Writing can't be taught, it has to be learned." I think she has talked about an MFA program being only as good as providing an environment for apprenticeship -- when a student can apprentice herself to the craft, to a mentor. "It's important to have writers' groups, just to have readers who read."

Most of Andrea's work, apparently, has been based in a single novelistic world. She was asked about how that happened, if she had planned for it to happen. She said, "Many writers like being confined a little (like writing a sonnet); it must relieve some tension. ... At a certain point in your career, there is a certain kind of comfort of not having to create a new world every time you set out." She brought up examples of James Wood and Jose Saramago.

I think I asked them about how they approach revision, and Andrea answered with several suggestions:

-- Read work outloud
-- Change type fonts (She alternates between handwritten drafts & computer written ones). Maybe even change the color of the text. Do everything possible to make the text less familiar.
-- Recognize when you got something right the first time

Nicholas reminded us that "The idea of revision is a relatively recent one in the history of art." Which is absolutely true. He wasn't saying that revision was unnecessary (or that he didn't revise), I think his point was to relate the idea of revision to the process of writing in general (technology; what we expect of the finished draft; etc).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Chase Twichell

Evelyn sent me a piece from The Atlantic, a ranking of the MFA programs. She is reminding me that while low-residency is one low-cost option, another way of going about it is applying to the well-funded programs (a few of which are named in The Atlantic's list). But no matter how enticing this sounds, I'm not applying. This year.

A poet Chase Twichell talked a lot about her writing process. For her, the process is different for every poem. "Sometimes a poem beings with a musical image -- every poem is different." She prefers to know as little as possible about a poem for the first draft. "Find out a structure of a poem before you start polishing it."

According to Twichell, the main theme of poetry (all writing?) is DEATH. "Is there anything else you write about?" (DEATH who speaks in small caps is not Twichell, it's Terry Pratchett). "When I read poems, I am very interested in how a poet deals with the fact of death. I want the poet to reflect on death."

Twichell's rules for any work of art (poetic or otherwise?):
1. No declarations
2. Remember DEATH
3. Tell the truth

Primarily, declarations should never be used "to obfuscate the truth." And "remembering death gives the work great urgency."

"Don't distract with things that are not essential."

She is not a fan of poetry written in strict meter & rhymed, because she believes the point of poetry is to "confront the problems that there are right here right now," and doing so is only possible in "language that isn't far from the language of regular speech." At the same time, she also seemed to believe that "our language is disintegrating."

"The trick is, make speech memorable." Twichell offered a possible formula, a game she had played with her students (akin to Madlibs): abstract noun (DEATH, fear, anxiety) -- concrete noun (dog, cat) -- adjective. The formula creates metaphor: "the sleazy cat hole of despair" (what's a cat hole?), "the greedy syringe of loneliness."

Trying to be original, she said, people forget that "originality" means "to go back to the origins." Twichell's injunction: "Go back to the source of what you're writing about. Risk to feel that there is something at stake in the poems." "Not allowing yourself what you already know how to do -- that's a risk."

"The purpose of art is to destroy itself." (This might be a quote. Googling for it, the second result is a reference to a book on German Romanticism and Friedrich Schlegel. The German Romantics seem to have been haunting the conference throughout.)

She quoted John Hollander's comparison that form of a poem is like a vase -- you pour the content into the vase. Twichell's own working metaphor is that structure is like a turtle shell or a skeleton, opposite of form. Structure comes from within a material. And "every line is like jumping off a cliff."

"Disingenuous emotion or thinking comes across in disingenuous language." She told a story about how important it was for her to find the right name of a plant for one of her poems -- she could not substitute a more familiar plant, because this would be disingeneousness. I kept thinking about my own story, "Fire on the Lake," for which I spent a few hours Wikipeding an English name of a popular small European fresh water fish, similar to perch. The result? The fish is named "roach"! I put that into the story and, no matter how many words I use to qualify the roach as a fish, everyone who reads it thinks my characters are using cockroaches for bait. I still haven't solved this particular problem, but I think I'll eventually give up and call it perch.

She quoted somebody: "A poem is a room in which the poet and the reader meet."

Later, at the evening reading, she told an anecdote (in the Russian sense of the word): "Truth asks DEATH: What do you worship? & DEATH says: TRUTH." (In Pratchett, DEATH is a skeleton & has no vocal cords and his words enter one's head without the help of the ears.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Mary Gaitskill and Russell Banks

Apparently, I've also asked Mary Gaitskill to recommend low residency MFA programs. I don't remember this conversation, by my notebook contains a list:

University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast),
Pacific University,
Vermont College
Warren Wilson

Wikipedia lists all available options here: I'm not planning to apply, and I think I keep asking everyone about this because I want to want to apply. In theory, an MFA sounds like a great idea, and low residency (lower cost) a particularly great one.

I must've been having a severe memory outage that day, because I also don't remember the afternoon Q&A with Russell Banks. Judging by my notes, the conversation was fun, rowdy, thought-provoking.

His work, he said, generally "takes a few years to find its reader."

Male reviewers of one of his latest novels (I think he was talking about The Darling) were complaining that the central chracter is an "unrealistically drawn woman" simply because she abandons her children.

"Graham Greene -- perfect balance between background & foreground."

Talking about historical fiction again: "responsibility to beliveability, veracity, known historical reality, plausibility."

"... dramatize unintended products of good intentions." Have no idea what this means, but sounds good.

Writing about Africa might be valuable for [amongst other things] a metaphoric resonance, but it is "important to be responsible to the realities on the ground" (and staying away from appropriating their history, their lives) -- Good idea to tell "novels from the point of view of an outsider." (I think this refers to one of his novels that's based in Lybia.)

"The more I know about a place, the less judgemental I become" (This is in response to a question).

"I put on the page only that which is necessary for me to see to unfold a story."

After beeing offered a sweeping statement about novels and humanity, in lieu of a question: "When I hear sweeping statements I tend to reach for the revolver." His next sentence was: "What all art does is ask the question, what does it mean to be human?" There are signs of amusement in my notebook. He's just replaced one sweeping statement with another! So hard to stay away from these in an interview. It's a genre that seems to thrive on sweeping statements. So is, judging by my previous sentence, blogging. Oops. That's why I love short stories.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill started out her workshop with the premise that today, "people don't read." She posed a question to us: what is it that attracts you to writing, considering the place it has in our culture these days? She might have actually said, "Why do you want to become writers?" It's a kind of a question that makes a number of assumptions about me ("want," "become," "writer" -- even "why" and "you" are problems) and I felt forced by it into a false position. In a workshop environment, where one is given maybe 60 seconds to formulate a coherent answer, I couldn't even say that I find the premise ("people don't read") misleading or explain, wihout sounding malicious, that I didn't know how to answer that question. At the end I said something about "coming from a different world." And I didn't mean Russia. But I don't think anybody understood what I was trying to get at. At the end, I felt as foreign as I did as a business student at RIT 10 years ago, when people kept asking me "Why did you chose to study business?" In retrospect, then and now I should've probably answered with, "Well, if you really want to know, let me tell you a story."

"There is more of a physical thing in writing than most people realize," Mary said. Judging by the amount of food I consume when I'm writing, this is certainly true.

She is a huge fan of an HBO series "The Wire."

I should read Jean Rhys, who is one of the favorite writers of my friend and fellow workshop participant Marie. Also, Rhys is an important name in feminist scholarship.

Mary Gaitskill was questioning "the mysterious nature of what makes writing great." "Because it speaks of social problems?" Because it's able to create a cross-pull between the "superficial layer of what's going on & something deeper--almost the secret story of the plot, for which the plot acts as a sort of conduit," "like a person's unconscious--the inner quality"? "It comes from a deeper place than my conscious mind." "It comes across in style. We think of style as something superficial," but "creating images out of words takes you to a deeper place inside the world of a story." This part about style that's not superficial sort of reminds me about the essay Evelyn had shared on Albert J. Guerard.

She did a fantastic reading later that night, Mary. She read a story called "The Agonized Face" from her most recent collection, "Don't Cry." I had read that story a few weeks prior and didn't really get it. The way she read it, it was so personal and stand-offish at the same time, seemed like a provocation on so many different levels, but also an open invitation to relate to her as other than a published writer. It was a kind of reading that was also very consciously a performance. The timing was perfect, the inflections were controlled. It probably helped that so much of the audience (other visiting writers) were familiar faces. I hope she comes back to read out here in the West Coast some time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Adam Braver

A Q&A with Adam Braver on historical fiction was an unusual event because it was scheduled for early morning (10 am!) on a Saturday. At the beginning of this session, there were maybe 10 of us in the audience, but people kept straggling in, so at the end of the hour the room filled up to maybe 25. The smaller than usual amount of people meant a more in-depth and relaxed conversation than on any other occasion.

Bob Boyers opened with a throw back to the Q&A with Caryl Phillips, who had said that he didn't consider himself a writer of "historical" fiction. Adam responded to this with understanding: he said that he had resisted the (marketing) label for a long time. He sees the point of dramatization of historical events (i.e. the battle of Saratoga) to be a vehicle for exploring contemporary issues.

According to Adam, meanwhile, historians define "history" as something that happened more than 20 yrs ago. I wonder how universal this definition is.

His personal interest with history is to take an event that seems "larger than life," an event "that already has a mythology around it" (like JFK assasination, the subject of his most recent novel), and to make an "attempt to deconstruct [this contemporary] mythology." I wanted to clap when I heard him say this. This was the first and the only time during these four weeks when I heard the word "deconstruct" used in a positive context (altogether it was maybe used two other times). Having said this, I am not at all sure if when he referred to the "contemporary mythology" he was specifically doing so in the context of Roland Barthes, or that his brand of deconstruction was informed by the notion of differance, but then, of course, even if indirectly, it was.

Adam was asked a lot of questions about how he does his research. He talked about how for his JFK book he has purposefully chosen to consult only primary sources, oral history, the White House archives, because the amount of the secondary data is simply overwhelming. However, he was also weary of the possibility to veer too far away from the facts; the whole process of deconstructing mythology depends very much on the ability to access and use reliable information.

He brought up a very provoking notion about an author choosing subjects that were appropriate within the arc of his career. That also at a certain point one's "privilege of authority" might also cloud one's self-awareness in the relationship with the source material. He mentioned Philip Roth's "Northern Pastoral" in this context, I think. That Roth relied too much on the stereotypes of radical figures in this novel. But I haven't read Roth, and so blindly typing up my notes on Adam's argument about it somehow doesn't seem fair.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Carl Dennis and Amy Hempel

The reading by a poet Carl Dennis was one of those rare readings for me, during which I was really able to relate to the poetry -- not merely carried along by the unfolding language, but tracing the relationships between the individual words not necessarily in a linear fashion. This is certainly due to the fact that Jim Shepard had read to us "The God Who Loves You" in workshop only a week before. Rereading!

Carl Dennis read from his new work, the poems that have to do with the theme of "Callings" and "Vocations." He made a distinction between "being called" to do something well vs. "choosing a vocation" in order to live well. "Simply listening to Schubert or Chopin might be a calling," he said. Then he proceeded to ask a number of questions related to the notion of "calling" -- and answer them in poetry.

"To what extent is [the notion of calling] free and stable or are you free to enlarge the parameters?"

"Knowing & telling: how much of what we know do we tell & how much do we choose to keep inside?"

"Vocation of teaching poetry -- avocation?" (This might have been a quote from Herbert X -- I didn't get the last name).

The topic of "calling" is firmly associated in my mind with Grandpa Lenin, whose business of revolution was always described in quasi religious terminology (like "calling"). Or Mayakovsky's lines from a poem meant for children, "Who to be?": "All professions are needed, all professions are important," with classic lines like "It's great to be a pilot, but it's even better to be a sailor." This was very convincing when I was 5.

(Meanwhile, the Guardian today has published Helen Rappaport's list of 10 best books on Lenin.)

More reading suggestions from Amy Hempel:

Nick Flynn, "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City."
Charles Jackson, "The Lost Weekend" (novel & film).

"Writing is recursive, you look backwards to know what to do next," Amy said (a quote?). "Stanley Elkin -- he would not consider writing a character who was not at the end of his road."

Ahmed Khaled Towfik, "Safari."
George Saunders
Jack Finney, "Time and Again."
Mary Robison, "In the Woods."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Amy Hempel

The second, Wednesday, session with Amy Hempel started with the discussion of my story, "Fire on the Lake," that created a lot of confusion in the room about the voice of the narrator. I'm experimenting with different ways of narrating the voice of a couple, the first person plural, and it doesn't have to be confusing -- but in this story it was (and still is, since I've no chance to revise it since). Amy, for example, thought that the narrator of the story was the dead grandmother (of my brother and sister narrating team). Which actually sounds like a very good story, just not the one I was writing :)

Amy's reading suggestions that had to do with my story were:

Truman Capote, "Miriam."
Paula Fox, "News of the World"? I didn't catch the title right.
Kevin Brockmeier's story "The Year of Silence" from the Best American Short Stories of 2008 edited by Salman Rushdie, a book I even happen to own thanks to my friend Suzanne.
Mary Robison, "Why Did I Ever?"
Something by Scott Spencer, Ben Okri, Julia Slavin (the following week Mary Gaitskill photocopies a Julia Slavin story for us), Barry Hannah, John Barth.

And then more reading suggestions for a story that got workshopped next:

David Markson, "Wittgenstein's Mistress."
Padgett Powell, "The Interrogative Mood."
Xiaolu Guo, "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers."

The next day, I had my 30 min conference with Amy and got more reading recommendations:

Joshua Ferris, "Then We Came to the End."
Marilyn Robinson, "Housekeeping."
Alice Munro, collections of interconnected short stories.
Elizabeth Strout, "Olive Kitteridge."

She also gave me a list of low-residency MFA programs to consider (I asked): Bennington (she teaches there), Warren Wilson (Jim Shepard has taught there, she said!), Antioch. Not a low-residency, but a local MA program, UC Davis (she said, Lynn Freed teaches there). She also recommended other conferences to check out: Breadloaf, Sewanee.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Jayne Anne Phillips and lit mags

Jayne Anne Phillips expressed a radical idea during her Q&A: she does almost no revision of her novels. Even the all-worldly Bob Boyers seemed to be shocked by the notion and tried to quiz her further. Surely, even if she doesn't review entire novels, she must be revising individual chapters as they come together? But Phillips stayed strong and refused to give a simple "yes" or "no" answer to anything she was asked.

She said, "Writing is like an old idea about 'method' acting -- you must locate the true emotion within yourself." (Every time I refer to Jim Shepard's "method" of reading I keep thinking of the "method" acting. There seems to be something about the word "method" that also sounds like "magic pill").

"The act of writing a novel reflects one's core relationship to the world." This point phrased even stronger: "Novel is like having a meaning. Writing is like a religious practice, access to the nature of being human." I find these metaphors unintentionally ironic. Somebody practicing a religion is always trying to access something other than human (god always stands outside humanity). And "the nature of being human" -- a Balzac project -- seems as much invented as accessed in the process of writing a novel.

Phillips also claimed to never write diaries or read book reviews. Was this a point of pride for her?

Josephine, a poet I met at Skidmore, kindly named a few lit mags she likes to read. I can never get enough magazine recommendations: it's amazing to me how much quality publication is out there, and how at the same time the entire field exists on the sheer enthusiasm of the participants.

Sycamore Review
Post Road
Ninth Letter
New Letter
Cream City Review
The Southern Review

Knowing what kinds of stories these magazines publish is, of course, also important for when I'm sending my own work out.