Category Archives: On Reading

Possibly Maturing

This morning, it occurs to me that it’s possible I’m maturing as a writer. Not before time, some would say. The only proof that I can offer is that my projects are starting out as bigger ideas. I’ve always written poems one at a time, not with any thought to something thematic. Projects based on ideas take a lot more planning.

When I first started writing poems about Biblical women, it was an experiment in voices. I didn’t see it as a book project. I wrote a few, and then there was a gap, and then I’d write a few more. I began to think it could be a complete manuscript, and maybe it’s best that I didn’t see it that way all along. Most of us would be very hard pressed to list the names of enough Biblical women to make a collection.

Part of the aforementioned maturing may be a disturbing tendency to challenge myself. At first, I was just plucking characters here and there, and gradually I did start to think about how many I’d need to make a book. The answer made me think it might be cool to write the same number as there are books in the Bible. Sixty-six. Then, I wondered if I could make it structurally like the Bible, by choosing thirty-nine Old Testament voices and twenty-seven New. A significant amount of sifting had to take place, combing through a concordance and a Bible.

The thing is that these are such complex characters. I’m not creating an act of reverence at all because the fact is that many of the female characters are not the reverent type. They have their own gods, their own ambitions. By no means are they all meek and mild. Among them are spies, judges, killers, entrepreneurs, prophets, and whores. They’re terrific.

Thirty-six of the poems are written, so I have thirty to go. I have shortlisted the names, making note of the verse or two where each shows up. There isn’t a lot to go on, although sometimes secondary sleuthing is a boon. I learned a lot researching Herodias and Lydia. I’m coming to the end of the gathering stage and soon will get to the flat-out writing in order to finish.

I was worried that I’d have trouble sorting out the time, but about an hour ago, my poor brain, which never gets a rest, churned out the solution to that. I’ve got the two blocks of time already set aside, I see now, and one will be for the sixteen remaining New Testament figures and the other for the fourteen Old. I won’t know until the time comes which will step up to be written first.

The whole thing took on the look of a chore for awhile, but it’s back to being exciting. I need to keep making all these voices distinct from each other. That’s the last block of this maturing business, at least as far as this project is concerned. Anybody could just scribble out a batch of automatons. This crowd is going to end up as sixty-six girls we can tell apart.

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The Catch-22 of Writing

It is a truth universally known among writers: we need time and money to write. These things rarely show up together, and sometimes, even when they do, they don’t. The cliche of the poor writer up in a freezing attic isn’t entirely false. Overall, writers don’t make much, and poets starve.

My day job is teaching, and no–my life is not an object lesson in the old fallacy that says those who can do, and those who can’t teach. I can do both, and I do do both. One pays more, but it isn’t the most stable of arrangements. It comes in four-month blocks or it doesn’t, and those blocks sometimes aren’t set until the last minute.

In the mix of uncertainty, is the grant application, made months before the proposed project period. So, we cast our bread upon the waters and wait to see what happens. Fling that net as hard and far as we can and then clench every muscle we have waiting to see what it brings. Sometimes nothing.

But sometimes, teaching and grant both. I’m not crazy, so I’m not saying no to anything. If money comes, take it. Then, sit and stare at the calendar, wondering how to pluck some days and weeks for the writing. That is my current predicament. I’ll be able to pay the rent (hurray), and I have a deadline by which I must submit a report on the grant (eek).

It’s like pulling my fingers through a bowl of buttons, each button representing a day, looking for the buttons that have a WRITE symbol on them. If I can get enough of them in a row, I win. Writing is a gamble in so many ways. In every way.

What I know for certain is that there are thirty poems to get written. Thirty. It is ludicrous to think I can do that in two weeks in June. Ludicrous to think I can do that in all of June. But then, writing is nothing if not ludicrous.

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About Boredom

Believe it or not, from time to time, I cite Kurt Cobain’s incisive assessment of his generation: “Here we are. Now, entertain us.” It’s an expectation that I see growing ever more pervasive, and many university students think it’s a professor’s job to entertain them. It isn’t. And anyway, the issue isn’t strictly attached to generation. Everybody can be bored. But fewer and fewer children are learning how to respond to boredom. The problem isn’t that we should never be bored. The problem is that many don’t know what to do when bored.

In the last few months, I’ve seen in the news a story about a trio of young men who were bored so they killed a passing jogger. I’ve seen in the news a story about a bored young man building pipe bombs. My mother must have dealt early with any suggestion that there was nothing to do. There was plenty to do, and we had to go outside and do it. Or go upstairs and read. How can a person be fully bored when there are books?

There are parents who hand out chores when the kids say they’re bored. Not a bad idea. It’s a way of showing that there is something to do. Show the way, but don’t do it for them. If we are bored, it isn’t because there’s nothing to do. It’s because we enjoy inertia. It has something to do with physics. Once we start doing something–even daydreaming–we can keep doing something. We can read a treasured book or a brand new one. We can write one. We can do word puzzles. If I’m stuck in a fit of inertia, I often will snap out of it or pass the interminable five minutes doing Free Rice. It makes me ashamed of myself that I’m bored at the same time that it makes me feel good to be using my boredom to make a difference.

I should spend more time thinking about getting off my ass and doing the dishes or dusting. My mother always called to us as we headed up the stairs, “Don’t go empty handed.” There was always something sitting on the bottom stairs, folded laundry maybe, that needed to go up. I think more of us could use lessons in how to deal with boredom on our own. Like most other things in life, nobody’s going to do it for us.

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The Thing About Literary Awards

Everyone knows that Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. I feel somewhat vindicated because I have been telling students for years that if a Canadian writer deserves the Nobel, it’s Alice Munro. Mostly, response to the announcement was gracious, and then, feeling very left behind, Bret Easton Ellis says that Munro is overrated and now will always be overrated. How embarrassingly petty and petulant.

The thing about literary awards is that, while we know they have aspects of the political (doesn’t everything?), the pool is so deep that hacks don’t win them. Literary awards are not like the Teen Choice Awards, where persons devoid of talent sometimes win. It isn’t even like the Academy Awards, where the pool is sometimes pretty shallow. We know the Nobel Prize is Eurocentric, we know it is androcentric, but look at that list–every European and post-European male who has won is a notable writer, someone whose work is worthy of being read.

The pool for the Nobel Prize is never shallow. Every once in awhile, the committee remembers that there is Asia and Africa and the Americas and even Australia, once. We can and should prod the committee to broaden its line of sight. But don’t let’s diminish the greatness of those who percolate to the top. The thing to lament is not that Alice Munro won, but that now it is less likely that William Trevor will be awarded. That makes me sad.

But when I see the shortlist for the Booker Prize or the announcement of the Nobel Prize, I know the recognition is deserved. I never wonder what on earth were they on in the committee room. I always think that my things-to-read list just got longer. It’s how I encountered Jaroslav Seifert and Wislawa Szymborska and Imre Kertesz and Jose Saramago and Naguib Mahfouz. What I should do is set myself the task of reading at least one book by every Nobel laureate.

I’ve read some Alice Munro. But there are 110 literature laureates (only 13 of them women), and I bet I’m halfway through, if I’m lucky. Maybe a third. Think how much bigger our worlds would be if we read through the Nobel list.

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University English

It would seem bleeding obvious, but apparently it isn’t, that the people who teach university English courses should be people with degrees. More than one. If a course offers university credit, the way for that course to be credible is to have an instructor with credentials. If the only credentials a person has are a couple of well-received novels, then that person should be teaching creative writing, at most.

Today, U of T English faculty members are falling all over themselves to voice their dismay at recent comments uttered out of the mouth of David Gilmour, novelist, who teaches literature courses. They should be falling all over themselves. He announced in an interview that he won’t teach any writers who are not straight white males. That leaves out a lot of writers. I bet you thought we were over that approach to literature. Well, this is what happens when people get jobs doing things they don’t know how to do, are not qualified to do.

Meanwhile, there are people in this country, armed with a PhD in English, scrabbling for a job, just one course, even. English departments have brought this embarrassing PR mess on themselves. What did they think would happen? Those courses have been taught by a person who doesn’t know what the point of an English course might be. English courses are all about critical thinking. U of T’s Victoria College went for some flash and prestige by having an acclaimed author on the job, and that big idea has now reached its logical conclusion.

Really, Mr. Gilmour isn’t the problem. The problem is the people who gave him the gig. They should have known he doesn’t understand. They should have had more respect for their own profession. They should have known that they needed to hire a PhD. There are loads of them looking for work. How are departments looking their grad students in the face?

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The Unpleasant Can Be Beautiful

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how artists make the ugly beautiful, how they keep it ugly but so artfully give an understanding of it. I’m thinking of those moments when I am simultaneously aware of how miserable or painful or revolting something is and also how skillfully and certainly I am shown a new way to see it.

There’s a scene in The Pianist, during the Warsaw uprising, when a woman is running down a street and she is shot, but she doesn’t just stagger and plop onto the pavement. She balletically folds herself down into a heap, and it’s a beautiful visual. The scene is a delicate collaboration between Polanski and his bit player. It doesn’t make what happened in the ghetto beautiful, but it makes her resistance beautiful in more than a philosophically prosaic way. It shows us there’s more than we have thought about those historic events. It makes us see them in new ways.

Recently, I read Down All the Days, by Christy Brown. Brown’s personal story is a hard one, and he uses it in this novel of Depression-era poverty. The father in this novel is a violent man, a drunk, who beats his children and his pregnant wife, blaming everyone else for everything, often making irrational connections between people and events. There’s nothing pretty about that. But Brown very bravely offers some of his pages to the father and allows him to show himself as a bewildered, defeated human being. Instead of milking the situation to generate a reader’s loathing for the father and sympathy for the mother, instead of taking that easy often-written road, Brown allows the father to speak.

As the man staggers home drunk, his belligerence is nowhere in evidence. He’s alone, and as he thinks about his life, about how he is confused by it, doesn’t control anything about it, didn’t get what he thought he would, Brown situates us with him and gives us compassion for him. We don’t excuse the things he’s done, the cruelty of his words and his actions, but we see how they have come about. We see that he is not solely to blame, that the powers controlling his society have set him up in some ways, and suddenly, he’s not a monster. He is to be pitied, too, as his family is.

Making the unpleasant and the ugly into beauty is a difficult thing, and I want to be able to do it. That has to start with knowing those things in an intimate way and confronting them when we really want to avoid and if possible forget. Look at them dispassionately and let them show their many aspects. I think it is hard to look them in the face for long enough, but the result is a kind of alchemy. It takes away their power and then gives them new power.

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Hours in a Day

John Lennon said that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. My carefully drawn plan for a Spring program had life happen to it, so now, I need to find twice as many hours in a day. The question isn’t really “can I do it.” I can. I could fit every bit of that work into every day of that three weeks. I could. But that isn’t the whole of it. When we get stretched like that, something suffers.

Even if we don’t like to admit it, that’s the truth. Maybe it’s the quality of the work that suffers. Or the overall atmosphere in the office or house or group. Patience snaps. Tempers flare. Quality drops. Other people are affected. There’s a lot of writing and reading and thinking and listening to get done in that three weeks. There’s a limit to how much we can listen in a day, and I don’t want merely to look like I’m listening. I want to be listening. I want to be thinking. Maybe I should change my plan. And that’s a hard thing to do–let go of something that looks so good, in theory. It doesn’t matter how good it looks, if I can’t execute.

Lots of us overbook our time, and it’s just plain unhealthy and inefficient. Today, I am going to appear extremely inefficient because I am going to be staring into space, thinking. Occasionally, I’ll scribble something. Then, I’ll stare at that, and maybe I’ll scribble over it. Acts of creation are not impressive to watch. The act of creation is the idea, the plan. It takes a great deal of energy, and if it isn’t a solid plan, the reality won’t be solid, either. I can think on my feet, but I don’t want to spend three weeks juggling flaming sticks, especially if I’m tired. No good can come from that.

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Stave off Creeping Dementia

I have embraced the term “creeping dementia,” which I discovered in an Irish novel a few years ago. I embrace many things I discover in books. “Creeping dementia” functions for me as many things do in my family. We like to be flippant about dire things, the blacker the humour the better. My sister and I once sat in a hospital emergency room at 3:00 a.m. entertaining ourselves with comments on the general clientele one finds in a hospital emergency room at 3:00 a.m. Creeping dementia, as a term, seems to me to be a gentle reminder that things go missing in the brain with greater regularity as said brain ages. But even as I acknowledge that it happens, I resist that it happens. I also have embraced activities to stave off creeping dementia.

My mother was devoted to crossword puzzles and very late in her life still beat me at Scrabble. I have taken to crosswords as part of my morning, just to shake my brain awake. I never thought I’d enjoy them, partly because, as a perfectionist, I didn’t like the erasing and writing over and smudges on the page, the unfinished evidence. But online puzzles, free online puzzles, spare me those aggravations. Once I click away, there is no proof of my groping for a correct answer, and in some cases, puzzles with scores and timers, I can enjoy those measures of success. It isn’t easy being a determined perfectionist.

There’s also freerice.com. I can exercise my vocabulary, encounter words I have never seen before, identify geographical locations, match flags with nations, and so on, staving off creeping dementia for free. And, while I do it, a rice bowl is filling with ten grains of free rice for every correct answer. This rice costs me nothing because the ads on the site pay for the rice.  After years of being a casual user, I created an account (free) and discovered more variety in the questions. I solve, companies advertise, people eat–it’s a beautiful thing.

Every day, I use words devotedly. I read, I write, I organize, I communicate, I puzzle. I love words. Love what they can do. Words are powerful things. They are among my greatest friends. They understand me. I don’t want to lose them.

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Intersections of Print and Visual Art

Somebody somewhere remarked on how much a person learns about a subject in the process of teaching it. That may seem odd, since we hope that those who teach know the subject already. Well, we do–at least, we know more about it than our students do. But in every course I have taught, I have learned something new, often from a student, and it’s a thrill. Still, creating and teaching a new course is like a graduate mini-degree. It starts with an idea based on exposure to a representative body of materials. Once the idea is clear enough to be proposed, there’s a thesis. Then, the case has to be made in the form of the course outline, the assignments, the theoretical and creative primary resources.

That’s where I am right now. Presented with the necessity of creating a new course for an existing program, and needing to blurt out the basis for the course in under an hour, with seeming nonchalance, I explained that we’d engage with interdisciplinarity in Irish art forms, examining how a culture’s print and visual arts engage in storytelling about the culture, how they are part of a larger narrative about history and identity. It’s there. I see it everywhere. But I can’t just assert it. So there has to be a little foundation in interdisciplinary theory, a little bit of Claude Levi-Strauss, some Roland Barthes, and a bit of Walter Benjamin. There also must be some basic art theory, maybe a little Burke on beauty, Wilde on lying, Carlyle on symbols, and Hirsch on interpretation. After that, after presenting ways to think about things, bring on the art.

If the evidence isn’t there, it’s nowhere. House-end murals, high crosses, statuary, novels, speeches, poetry, paintings–in art, we find out what concerns a people, and we can read visual art as surely as we can read print. A bust of Constance Markievicz in St. Stephen’s Green can be read alongside her account of battle during the Easter Rising and her prison letters, and then she shows up in documentary footage and Roddy Doyle’s novel A Star Called Henry. We see it, and then we analyze it–assign meaning. Yesterday, I read in The Irish Times how the painter Jack B. Yeats was “an important influence on Samuel Beckett: the abstract spaces and isolated figures of Yeats’s late paintings are also those of Beckett’s late plays.” An intersection if I ever saw one.

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Thomas Hardy’s Life Story

One of the things I love about reading authors’ biographies is making connections between the life and the work. Academic departments traditionally have a lack of respect for biographical criticism, although department members regularly research and write biographies, an irony that frustrates me no end. An historian once informed me that biography isn’t history, and I replied that history isn’t either. What we both meant was that these are not “real” or “true,” necessarily. They’re both all about storytelling and making meaning from events. What’s important is to start from the original data rather than to read backwards from the stories and to assume that everything in them happened exactly that way. Not everything that goes on in a novel is something that happened to the author.

But writers write what they know. They borrow from anywhere to get what they need, but they also use their own lives. Readers need to be discerning. In the case of Thomas Hardy, one of my great loves, and the focus of my Master’s degree, there are a few staples that recur: an architect, older woman/younger man, social class divide. When Hardy was a young man, he trained as an architect, and when he married, he was beneath his wife in terms of class. Characters need to do something, and what they do needs to be convincing. In Hardy’s marriage, social class was a barrier, and he works that out novel after novel. Also recurrent are Hardy’s philosophical convictions. For one thing, he believed that we are in the hands of an unkind Fate. Novel after novel.

But most interesting to me is that he struggles, book after book, with the question of to whom does a person really belong–the one to whom a person is married or the one with whom a person has a bond. Transgressing societal order, in terms of this dilemma, is at the heart of Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays the blame at society’s judgmental feet. When we read a writer’s work, we read what concerns that writer, and it’s couched in aspects of the life.

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