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guest musings: Pops on Brooke Williams at Village Books

Pops again, on Brooke Williams’ recent visit to Village Books. Background: I think Pops and I both know Brooke exclusively from The Story of My Heart.

Brooke Williams is the kind of old guy you would enjoy having visit at your house: wryly humorous, self-deprecating, a creative thinker; an academic to a fault, but in an earnest, generous, unassertive way.

He is touring now in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Wilderness & Ancestors Meet. He & Terry Tempest Williams are recently back from touring China, a trip he describes as changing his perspective significantly by resetting his sense of time: their millennial scale of the past contrasts so much with an American sense of history, problems, solutions. Yet, he also describes meeting a group of Chinese nature activists who freely quoted from Abbey, Snyder, Thoreau, TTW & more – drawing lessons from these “recent” thinkers and finding analogues in their own centuries-old philosophers.

Yes, climate change & Trump were an explicit context for many of his comments. He described wondering “how do we find new answers, new ways to be in the world?”

In discussing his book he talked mostly about the writing process, how thoughts & information came to him, how the book came together, with only brief illustrative readings. It was a casual, entertaining, cogent & developed presentation, without being “canned” in any sense. His book includes imaginings – “things I made up” – so he expressed relief that the editor accepted his insistence it be listed as non-fiction. This was an impressive element of his talk, returned to often. I admit some initial skepticism with the idea of made-up non-fiction; but with his book-story, I am more than persuaded. More likely, this is a fine example of creative non-fiction at its most creative. He had wonderful examples of finding facts in his research, which aligned so closely in a pattern that filling in the gaps with reasoned imagining made perfect sense.

By making his book a journey of discovery, the process is part of his story; so the imaginings become part of the “true” narrative, even when that includes feeling the hand of an ancestor on his shoulder. Another way: it is an organic part of the reading process that we embellish or interpret with our own experience & knowledge. Williams is simply – and transparently – offering his own view as a first-cut in this effort. What memoir does not include some of the subject’s imaginings?! That said, there are certainly spiritual & meditative elements to his story; i.e. he explores the literal possibility of “genetic connection to a place.” A full reading of the book would no doubt hold further challenges.

Before ending, he crossed over a line for me, where the arts purport to offer solutions to real-world problems based on such imaginings & speculation. For Williams, and many others, this means changing consciousness of how we view the world, in order to change the course of history. There is plenty of skilled non-fiction available describing the breadth of human knowledge on such questions, without having to resort to extremes of imagination; Harari’s Sapiens is a foremost recent example, albeit imperfect. I am thankful the arts provide comforting form to our feelings & fears, especially in hard times. I cannot go further than that; for more, I take heart in the sciences.

The role of the arts is also posed by comparative essays I found recently from Scott Russell Sanders & Bob Pyle, writing separately about the very same forest in Oregon. Sanders described an obligation for the arts, based on unique human intellect, to contemplate & interpret the natural world; in contrast, Pyle’s chipper humility on the very subject, and deference to his counterparts in the sciences, is refreshing. As usual, Pyle’s eye on our world is such good tonic for over-seriousness by & about our species.

I think you’re continuing to make progress, Pops, toward understanding what this “creative nonfiction” nonsense is that your daughter is studying. (Note: I use ‘nonfiction,’ but I don’t know that your ‘non-fiction’ is wrong.) I came into this field with a fairly righteous feeling for what should be called true, or nonfiction. But it has become more clear to me that what the author imagines is part of her truth. Her memories, even if others deny them, are truly her memories–although I think she owes it to her reader to acknowledge others’ denials. Full disclosure, I say, for what is remembered and what is known and what is imagined; but all of that can be CNF. As for the roll of art in solving real-world problems, I think there’s room for any number of strategies and solutions, but none is for everyone. And I’d certainly hope/expect that Brooke would agree with you on the value of science. I guess without reading his book neither of us can know how far that concept goes or how offended we’d be, and I didn’t hear the talk. I do think that art can not only offer comfort, but real changes of heart, in how we relate to the world and each other. A Google search will give you various articles, for example, on the value of fiction in teaching empathy and improving real relationships–in other words, how taking in art makes people better at living as people. So I think there’s more there than simple comfort (or symptom relief). But art does not replace science.

Thanks for another thoughtful discussion.

One Big Self by C.D. Wright

One Big Self is a poetry collection inspired by, and meant to record, visits to three Louisiana prisons. C.D. Wright accompanied photographer Deborah Luster on a few of the latter’s trips, and the poems in this collection borrow heavily from the speech of inmates–their vernacular, their direct quotations and their concerns–as well as from signage and other found text. Some of the words on the page are Wright’s, but some are collected. Themes include family ties; the trauma and damage caused by incarceration; and the boom of the for-profit prison industry. Of course much of the subject matter refers to violence, crime, faith, and local culture.

Especially because these are offered to me as persona poems, I am very curious to know how much is transcribed directly as found speech and how much it has been manipulated. Unlike the other persona poems I’ve just read (Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead,” Shara McCallum’s “Calypso,” Ted Hughes’ “Hawk Roosting”), these do not read to me as being about one persona per poem, but rather the collective–the persona of the incarcerated mother, say–by a series of individual contributions. This concept is in the book’s title, One Big Self.

It’s hard for me to see from here who said what. Sometimes individual lines are attributed, but often I’m left wondering. Which lines are quotations, which paraphrases? Why skip the quotation marks, which would have made clear where the speaker stops and the poet begins? And what does each choice contribute–the inmate’s words, against those of other inmates, or against Wright’s?

Sometimes the references or language hint towards Wright. This is my bias at work: when I have to look up a word or a name, I suspect that it’s a decorated poet and not a prison inmate speaking. I looked up terms like cicatrix; the Heisenberg principle; Gramsci; Fila Brasileiro; metonymy; Cioran. Cultural references like these, that go outside of Angola, Louisiana, feel external to the personas in focus here. On the other hand, certain repeated phrases fit our expectations of the setting and scenario: “She was a slab of a woman.” “That’s the tattoo that says Real Men Eat Pussy.” Mostly, I’m guessing whose speech is whose. And perhaps this guessing game, this blurring of the lines between poet/recorder and inmate, is what’s really being got at by Wright’s project, and by her title, “one big self.”

I can only close by repeating my usual lines about poetry. This was pleasant and thought-provoking to read. I like it. I don’t understand it.


Rating: 7 plastic soapdishes.

“A Sketch of the Past” by Virginia Woolf

This essay, which I read from the collection Moments of Being, consists of nearly 100 pages of Woolf’s recollections of childhood, recorded journal-entry-style in 1939-40. It introduces Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” and of “non-being,” the latter being the cotton wool in between the important stuff of life/memory. Interesting for organization (or lack thereof); for the layering of time, then and now; and for Woolf’s list-making. It was also unfinished at the time of her death, and somewhat lacking in narrative structure. The editors of this collection make some points about it not being up to VW’s standards for publication, but as this is the first I’ve read of her work, I can’t comment on how not-up-to-standards I find it.

“A Sketch of the Past” is a series of memories of Woolf’s childhood, related when the author is nearly sixty. She begins by worrying over the format of these memoirs, then throwing up her hands to begin with “the first memory.” The form ends up being a sort of journal, with dated entries and a few comments on current events (the coming war). This layered-time effect allows commentary on both the past and the writing-present.

Woolf’s “moments of being” stand in contrast to what she calls “moments of non-being.” I understand these to be the memorable or remembered moments versus those not remembered, or not memorable–which are not necessarily the same thing. Woolf asks, “Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember? … Often… I have been baffled by this same problem; that is, how to describe what I call in my private shorthand — ‘non-being.’ Every day includes much more non-being than being.” She likens non-being to cotton wool, or the everyday padding of what is remembered (or, what she wants to write about). She then goes on to call her moments of being “scaffolding in the background” of the real work of her storytelling: these are people, or characters. (The idea of moments of being, or characters, as the central work of storytelling is another concept for potential annotation.) “A Sketch of the Past” proceeds to study characters: Woolf’s mother, father, and a few siblings.

For school, I wrote an annotation on Woolf’s list-making. Several lengthy lists help to accrue either scenes, descriptions or themes in Woolf’s remembering. Certainly, details are part of how she enlivens her storytelling (the flowers on the mother’s dress and the yellow blinds in the nursery, both on the essay’s first page). Sometimes it is the solitary nature of a detail that gives it its power, as with Mr Wolstenholme, who “when he ate plum tart he spurted the juice through his nose so that it made a purple stain on his grey moustache”–it is the nature of this man that “he had only one characteristic,” she says, even as she names others. This cue to the singularity of this detail, along with its vibrant colors and specificity, strengthens it. But when such details are presented in list form, I find them compelling in new ways, greater than the sum of the listed parts.

At the sentence and paragraph level (or list level!) I found things to admire here. But a somewhat archaic style and lack of narrative arc, a certain rambling quality, made this essay hard for me to engage with. I’m not especially excited about this author, lauded though she be.

Final verdict? I am new to Woolf but at this point I find her inarguably skilled, but not terribly to my tastes at present.


Rating: 6 anemones.

guest review: Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

Here’s Pops (with a few of my comments throughout).

I recently finished this one, convinced by the title itself as well as your suggestion. In a voice familiar from your description in reviewing Writing From the Center (published just after this book), this is a collection of eight essays evoking the title’s theme, but linked by very personal stories grounded in Midwest roots in two linked places: his Northeast Ohio childhood & southern Indiana adulthood. Narrative lines here intertwine with those in essays published elsewhere, including “Buckeye.”

Generally your observations from Writing, tinged with ambivalence, apply here: variation in pacing & appeal; often intimate & reflective, sometimes tryingly so; repetitive, yet often just overlapping in thought; little here is profound, yet much resonates; and yes, a few essays stand out among the others. Why such disquiet in reading Sanders? Here’s one idea: he writes, with virtually no filters, of deeply personal thoughts & feelings; every detail cannot be as primary to me as it is to him. To glean from what he offers, one need be patient, appreciate such candor & courage, and have an affinity for his life’s odyssey. In the end, he won me over.

His book’s theme of committing heart & soul to a deeply-known place is familiar: Gary Snyder often used the title’s very words (though not mentioned as such by Sanders.) Wendell Berry has invoked Snyder’s words while advising, “stop somewhere, just stop.” Both writers’ sentiments are mentioned in these essays by other references. Stegner’s framing of “boomers & stickers” lurks in the background as I read here. Similarly, surely, for many other writers; Sanders savors recruiting a good number to his cause.

I want to comment briefly on four of these eight essays by reference first to a recent Sanders book. Earth Works (2012) is another gathering of selected essays; in that, it is more like Writing than the theme-based Staying Put, but with many more essays than Writing, of course spanning more of his life’s work. I will be seeking out this latest collection next. I find the essay form fits Sanders well; and a reader can take one at a time, at whatever pace necessary – a good way to digest Sanders.

I had noted two essays in Staying Put that I particularly liked; if I were to stretch that to four, it would match the same four selected in Earth Works (credit to me? or the editor? or both?).

You’re saying, I think, that four were selected from Staying for inclusion in Earth? And that they’re your favorite four from this collection?

In my list, “After the Flood” first stands out for its poignant child’s-eye witnessing of environmental tragedy, one of many life events that recur in his writings due to their persistent impact.

“Settling Down” (which is curiously – and appropriately – re-titled “Staying Put” in the collection) is where he explicitly expounds on the book’s theme, with consideration from multiple perspectives and assistance from those other noted writers.

“Wayland” is a wonderful survey of seven important boyhood lessons, each elicited by a specific physical childhood place as he visits each in adulthood, on a single walk and all within a quarter mile radius. (Teaser, but not spoiler, the seven lessons are: death, life, beasts, food, mind, sex & God.)

“House and Home” is a literal interpretation of the formulation place=home=house, as he describes connections to his house: physical, organic, spiritual, familial. For many, this would seem superficial, overly materialistic; he makes it quite something otherwise.

In contrast, my sentiments lean more towards a fifth essay, “The Force of Moving Water.” On a grand scale, he considers the physical place defined by the Ohio River watershed, which encompasses and connects his heritage in both Ohio & Indiana. (It also includes WV Wesleyan College, on the Buckhannon River, tributary of the Monongahela River, which feeds the Ohio.)

I am delighted to know that WVWC makes an appearance in this collection!

This essay suggests (confirmed so far in my reading of Sanders here & elsewhere) his persistence in using water as metaphor as well as essential element in knowing any place. Whether implicit or oblique, water, streams, watersheds arise for him in many contexts.

This doesn’t surprise me, Pops, given what I think is your special interest in watersheds generally.

I particularly appreciate his thorough study of the Ohio watershed, this recognition of understanding watershed as a vital dimension of “wide & deep” consideration of place. And it is a splendid demonstration of Sanders’ seriousness meditating on place, from myriad vantage points.

The other three Staying Put essays are: “Earth’s Body,” wherein he cogitates on his tortured obsession with both God and relentless bouts of depression. “Ground Notes,” which borders too closely on old-school “what is reality” rumination. “Telling the Holy” is a useful consideration of the power of stories, myth, religion; spiritual, primordial & necessary. (I should probably read that one again.)

Is he a “nature writer”? In the preface to Earth Works he provides a helpful answer:

I am sometimes asked if I am a “nature” writer, as if paying attention to our membership in the web of life were a specialized interest, like following sports or fashion or cuisine. What I am is an Earth writer: I’m interested in life on this planet—all life. Since I know most about my own species, I think mostly about human affairs, but I do so while seeking to understand how our kind arises from and affects the living world.

Sanders has numerous essays in Orion magazine; several are available online here; I read three of them:

“Stillness” – absorbed in self again: a wide-ranging tussle with privilege, conscience, God, spirituality, human scourge, family; emerging with optimism.

“Mind in the Forest” (also in Earth Works) – a writing retreat meditating in an Oregon old-growth research forest.

“Breaking the Spell of Money” – a largely predictable, thoroughly moral argument against capitalism from a well-meaning artist, self-declared “not an economist.” Enough said?

These last two essays convince me I like the younger, self-absorbed Sanders; the elder, in presuming to analyze the world for causes & solutions (especially economics!), disappoints too much.

Thanks, Pops, for as always a thoughtful and very thorough critique. I would like to read this one someday, although I don’t know if this is the semester. Your comments about the essay form are well taken–that some of us are suited to one format over another. He is maybe best suited to the essay, and best taken this way, too!

movie: Twelfth Night (1996)

Last week I reviewed the play. But wait, there’s more! My required reading for residency also included a viewing of the movie, from 1996, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring such names at Helena Bonham-Carter, Richard E. Grant, and Ben Kingsley.

For me, this film contributed to the play as printed on paper in its music, its scenery (shot in Cornwall) and, as always with Shakespearean productions, the lively acting. As much as I love the written word, Shakespeare’s comedy always benefits for me from performance–maybe this is definitive of theatre. Of course as well the lack of stage direction leaves the filling out of the drama to the producers (actors etc.). And Twelfth Night is somewhat special in including lyrics, which only improve when set to music. Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh as the twins, Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, make a perfect pair: I’m impressed at the likeness, and wonder if every production gets so lucky. (I so wish I could go to Houston for the Festival!)

While Shakespeare never feels particularly dated to me–I would not be the first to call him timeless–this movie somewhere feels more placed in time, despite being set in a different time than when it was filmed. Perhaps the pacing felt a little slow? I’ll always recommend seeing this stuff performed, though.


Rating: 7 scenes in a barn.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

In preparation for Devon McNamara’s seminar at the recent residency, I reread Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in the copy I bought for an undergraduate class some 15 years ago. Some things don’t change. I still love Shakespeare’s comedy, and he remains relevant.

So many Shakespearean tropes here. The shipwreck, the twins, the gender-bending, the misplaced affections. Stranded in Illyria, separated from her brother who she presumes dead, Viola dresses up as a young man to serve the duke Orsino. He assigns her to court, on his behalf, the grieving countess Olivia. Orsino loves Olivia; as a boy “Cesario” Viola courts Olivia for Orsino’s sake; Viola loves Orsino; Olivia promptly falls for Cesario. Meanwhile, Viola’s brother Sebastian presumes her dead, even as Olivia mistakes him for Viola/Cesario. Confused yet? That’s natural. So are the characters of this lively play, but it all ends well* with a double-wedding, of course. Extra comedy is provided by Sir Toby Belch (great name) and his friend Sir Andrew, and Olivia’s Fool, and their fun at the expense of her self-important servant Malvolio (another great name). And wouldn’t you know it, this play is being produced at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival in my hometown, which I hate to miss.

*Not all ends well, though. Even as the heroes dance away to wed, Malvolio is embarrassed and offended, and even though we’ve enjoyed seeing him made fun of we feel badly to see this ill treatment. And Sebastian marries to the disappointment of one Antonio who has loved him throughout. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to include some comedy; and his comedies do generally allow that all do not live happily ever after.

No major insights here, but Shakespeare is always worth your time, and this one is a good representative choice.


Rating: 8 banks of violets.

For the insight: Devon McNamara’s statement (paraphrased from my notes) that Shakespeare’s major concern was always the relationship between parents and children, upon which all other relationships depend. That is something to ponder, for those of us writing about our parents.

residency report

I’m sorry I missed y’all last Friday, friends. It has been madness. There are some changes underway in my personal life; but also, as you know, I’m just reentering the world again following my second residency in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative writing.

Thus begins my second semester in the nonfiction track. At the beginning of this month, I spent 10 days attending seminars on subjects including poetry as protest; the life and work of James Wright; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; writer’s block; acquiring an agent; the sonnet; and the lyric essay. I workshopped my peers’ work and heard them critique my own. I got to meet and hear from Jason Howard, Yuri Herrera, Rachael Peckham, Rahul Mehta, Jon Corcoran and Rodney Jones; and I enjoyed again the company and the work of Jessie Van Eerden, Eric Waggoner, Mary Carroll-Hackett, Kim Kupperman, Doug Van Gundy, Katie Fallon, Mesha Maren and more. My classmates are a wild, talented, weird, supportive bunch. These are the best times ever; also the most exhausting.

This semester, I’ll be working with Kim Dana Kupperman, author of I Just Lately Started Buying Wings and The Last of Her. (Also the editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person and founder of Welcome Table Press.) I’m reading another 20-25 books and writing many pages myself. And in this moment, frankly, I’m a bit overwhelmed. So I’m going back to my books. Thanks for being patient with me.

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