Writers Reflect on Reading: Part Two

My Book Group

I am certain that everyone has stories. I’m equally convinced that everyone is capable of writing these stories up into novels, short stories, articles, letters, notes, emails, blogs, texts, bumper stickers, billboards, songs, or graffiti. Writing is the legacy of our opposable thumbs and our ridiculously labyrinthed brains.

However, just as not all runners are equal, nor all athletes, all writing is certainly not equal. At some point during my college years I promised myself to never, ever waste my precious time reading junk. Never. Unless it’s a magazine. Then it’s all bets off.

For several years I only read the classics. Only the names bound in those Literary Anthologies you read in college: Hardy, Whitman, Woolf, Shakespeare. Under my definition of “classic”, Steinbeck was a bit of an upstart. Then after living in Nepal, I went through a long bout of only reading Indian writers—preferably ones who used magic realism. Do you know how difficult it was to make a steady diet of this writing? Salmon Rushdie hasn’t written that many things, nor has Gita Meeta, nor Tagore. It was like eating a very limited diet of only orange vegetables.  Yummy, but limiting.  My creativity, like a body on such a diet, was grinding to a halt.

Then I befriended someone who existed on a diet of everything, with a generous helping of sweet reading candy. Marianne read several books a week, reading them to sleep and waking to them before work. She read whatever was in front of her, whatever she found, whatever, whatever, and loved it. Marianne was a sweet novel addict and, as such, had the enviable ability to talk books with whomever she met. She called me a book snob and I called her a book whore. We were best friends. We parted—listen up Red and Blue voters—by mutually respecting one another’s views.

After meeting Marianne, I expanded my views. Here’s my adjusted creed: If for entertainment purposes only, and if (this is my caveat) the reader is intelligent enough to know the difference, and game enough to throw in superbly written novels, then the average reader may read crap.  The aspiring writer, though, is an exception.  To become exceptional, a writer must read more like an Olympic athlete in training.  A great writer must, like an Olympic athlete, read a well-balanced, varied diet. I know, I know: it works for Billy Bob Thornton to only eat orange food (okay, to set the record strait, he eats only raw food, not necessarily orange. Big difference), but not for the writer.  Sorry.  Even a straight genre writer should cross train.

With my new creed in mind, I joined a book group. It was kind of like the Nutrisystem for me. A prescribed diet of someone else’s food, just enough to pry me from my old habits, and get me on the road to a healthier diet. I’ll admit that I didn’t like all the books my group chose. I don’t care if he does write a pretty sentence; Jonathan Franzen struck me as a pubescent boy stuck with a nasty god complex. Mostly, though, I read wonderful books I never would have chosen with my own sensitive nose.  I was introduced by Mandy to Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea, by Maureen to Peter Carey’s Parrot and Oliver in America, and by Tracy to Jennifer Vanderbe’s Easter Island.  The camaraderie of a group to gush over or trash a book is added fun I didn’t take into account when I joined.

Like many people who have kicked an eating disorders, I maintain my Nurtisystem support group, but I also go on my own hunts. These days I’m like a reformed meat-eater who now leads groups on urban mushroom foraging. I will spend my late hours on the Internet searching the Independent Publishing sites such as Dranzen Books, Algonquin Books, Other Press. This search has led down some strange paths, such as The Mullet: Hairstyles of the Gods, or Shitting Pretty. It has also put some gems in my hands.  On these excursions, I have found Galore by Michael Crummey and The End of the World by Sushma Joshi.

While most of my college promises to myself (big hair, stonewashed jeans, cheap beer, Nihilism) are better off dead, my promise to stay away from bad writing has solidified like cement beneath the post of my own writing.  I have many coaches.  Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf will always be there, but so, too, will Louise Erdrich, Orhan Pamuk, Gao Xingjian, and Cormac McCarthy.  I may not make great art yet, but with the help of these Olympic coaches, I can strive for more.  Who knows, with time, practice, and lots of good reading, I could break the record–or put a deep scratch down it so it won’t play on the record player any more.

Writers Reflect on Reading

Recently I wrote a list of books that influenced my writing and I thought it would be interesting to pose a question to this writing group.  Tell me about a book or author that inspires your writing.  The Guttery responses were (not) surprising.

Bruce Greene‘s writing scratches like fingernails down the vertebrae of class and culture.  Listen to the performance, Love Outlives Us, and you’ll appreciate that the writers who influenced Bruce were Kenneth Patchen and John Steinbeck.  Bruce claims that he likes them both because they tackle “big ideas and are thought provoking.” Bruce does too.  His “Goldfish” piece read in the Moonlit Guttery’s reading  of Love Outlives Us uses the metaphor of a harmless goldfish to pry open the box of the Vietnam war. My mother, whose brother’s life was shattered by his three tours in Vietnam, could not sleep after listening to Bruce read his piece. She told me that Bruce’s story gave her a new perspective on her brother’s life and the cultural forces that led to his decision to do three tours.  Bruce has published his memoir of his Vista years on the web,  Above This Wall.  Here is an excerpt from Bruce’s memoir. It is a section of  his statement of conscientious objections to his Vietnam Conflict draft board:

To be sure, I have been influenced by the great thinkers of non-violence, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, however, my increased interest in poetry led me to my most profound influence, the American poet Kenneth Patchen. Patchen’s works encompass the totality of my religious beliefs.

There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone,

Force cannot be overthrown by force,
To hate any man is to despair of every man,
Evil breeds evil—the rest is a lie:

There is only one power that can save the world—
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.

When A. Molotkov (Tola) told me that Milan Kundera was his one author, I felt a thrill of recognition.  Tola said of Kundera, “I love his capability to be modern and innovative, to play with the narrative and with character development, all the while discovering poignant human truths that are relevant to all.”  This, is Tola’s writing.  He’s pushed and sifted enough sand to create a world in which all his character and two in particular, Zungvilda and Goombeldt, attempt to stand.  From Tola’s work The Melting Hourglass:

Goombeldt walks in

folding his umbrella

why is he carrying an umbrella?

it’s not raining.

As with Kundera’s writing, that’s the point–why do we carry an umbrella when it is not raining?  How is it that we stand on such sticky, stilted ground?

Cameron McPhearson Smith writes that his favorite book is Craig Childs and his book The Secret Knowledge of Water. If you haven’t read Childs’ book, it is a fascinating, poetic adventure of man’s inexhaustible pursuit of  water sources in the desert.  Cam writes that Childe’s book is “inspiring because every word is so carefully picked; the book is a lesson in craftsmanship.”  Cameron is an adventurer whose writing includes the reader in Cam’s own sense of  wonder and fascination with nature.  In this recent excerpt from Cameron’s blog, his prose is as haunting, poetic, and evocative as Childs’:

Funny that when the stars come out, we go in, and sleep, and dream…sometimes of the stars or of impossible distances, or of near-infinite energies, or of other infinitudes. Then, as the stars are winking out, we wake and step outside, the lit sky blocking our view and thoughts of a larger universe.

David Cooke was the last to share his favorite writer: Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakoy’s Master and Margarita.  This book was called THE masterpiece of the twentieth century by The Times of London.  Having not read it yet,–I ordered it at Powell’s Books online yesterday–I can’t speak to the parallels between Bulgakov’s writing and David’s; however, in reading about this novel I found a similar trait.  Allusion.  One of the novel’s predominate themes is good versus evil made through heavy allusions to Faust.  This reminded me of David and his use of allusion and his love of grand themes. In the first stanza in his prize winning poem Edges, the allusions transcend the experience of one life to an exploration of our lives.

I don’t know where to start.  Far before the moon pulled the tide
to your chin.  Before your groin became a grotto.  Before the brine
washed away the haloes your feet squeeze into the sand.  I don’t
believe in the alchemy of eels and their mud.

Refresh Your Memory

It’s happened again. Another best selling memoir exposed as a fraud? We don’t know all the details yet, but according to reputable sources like “60 Minutes” and writer John Krakauer, the blockbuster <Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortensen may be full of lies. If not complete falsehoods, then some very questionable facts. Did Mortensen’s chain of events happen as detailed in his two books? Are the schools he claims to have built all up and running? Was he really captured by the Taliban and detained in a cell or are the “captors” he’s pictured with in the book just friends. And then there is the money? 23 million in contributions that include $100,000. from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize money. Troubling. Very troubling. As Krakauer writes in a recently published essay called “Three Cups of Deceit,”

The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audac- ity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Morten- son has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. T hree Cups of T ea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. “Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM.”

Those who know Mortensen well, know that he’s a bit quirky. They know too that when memoir is written, sometimes events are compacted in time. Dialogue is spiced up a bit, and longer, detailed scenes are gutted in favor of action. Action…just the action ma’am. What bothers this writer more than anything about this scandal is the book tour. Allegedly, Mortensen is picking up $30,000. speaking fees, globe trotting on private jets, and avoiding questions of the media about his integrity. Thus far, we can’t pass judgment on all of this until it sorts itself out and a public accounting of the money and facts occurs. But it does beg a few important questions for writers in general and writers of memoir in particular. Are we being asked to forgo accuracy for action? Is our audience so fickle or so dependent on sensationalism that we must knowingly tweak the substance of our personal stories in order to gain favor with a mass audience? In my recently completed memoir, I constantly grappled with these issues. I found myself responding to constructive criticism with ethical replies. My inner memoirist was screaming, but that’s not what happened. But that’s what you want to happen, or If I wanted to say that, I’d have written a novel. It is the job of the memoir writer to find the action and the sensational within the truth. Our stories, as they actually happen, have the power to captivate even the toughest audiences. It’s our job, our ultimate challenge to tell them in ways that do just that. It ain’t easy. But it’s oh so necessary. Otherwise we end up fabrication. We end up prostituting ourselves to a popular culture that often sacrifices the deepest personal or political for the glitter of overt violence. A publication industry that sometimes panders to the quick buck with no regard for ethics or substance. This explains why Snookie of Jersey Shore, in my view the most inane TV offering of the century, gets a book deal. Bleak as all this looks, there is another side. I recently received an email from an old friend. In fact, a very special old friend. After 40 years, I found myself talking to one of the VISTA Volunteers I served with in 1970. He’d heard I’d written a memoir of that year through some of the folks I’d contacted and decided he wanted to read it. His note to me mentioned that he’d been up all night reading it from Preface through all 12 chapters and the Afterword. He’d found it compelling and well written. (Thanks Boo) and mentioned that it brought up all sorts of issues and recollections. GOAL! I realized early on that it would take more time, money, and inclination for me to sell it to a publisher. My goal was for many of my former students to read it, so I put it online. (Readers of this blog will find it connected here) Now I may not be doing too many speaking appearances, or soliciting funds or appear on the most popular top selling lists, but I can say that my memoir is accurate, it occurred…all of it… the beauty and the hatred, the racism and the wonder, the violence, fear, horrible alienation and brutally authentic music of the oppressed..all of it…as it happened.

Impossible Objects: using ambiguity to create depth, breadth & variety in poetry


    Last Monday Reading Series
    April 25th 7pm
    Influence Music Hall
    135 SE 3rd Street Hillsboro, Oregon

Often poetry is like Russia. “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I believe poets do not do this on purpose. They don’t write poetry as if it is a page out of Where’s Waldo or the hidden pictures of Highlights Magazine. Poetry is a medium especially adept at distilling grand ideas into brief amounts of script. It provides a template for a dizzying array of connections. A way of linking disparate thoughts, experiences, images, emotions. It pushes and pulls the reader ultimately attempting to hold a mirror up to the reader to elicit a response. A response of  “I like this” is always welcome but the Holy Grail is “I am like this.”

In pursuit of this penultimate connection the universal and personal need to be simultaneously addressed. The beatific and the scientific, the good and the bad, the whirling colors of experience all need to be put down in black and white. This flattening of reality opens up a world of amazement at work that is able to create complex evocative emotions in the mind of the reader; to elicit multi dimensional thoughts, wavering conclusions, and a choir of points of view. Poetry can be seen in the way that I often described teaching, as non-invasive brain surgery.

The brain filters at least 5 senses, bounces things back and forth between parietal lobes, feels with the amygdala, remembers with the hippocampus. How does one operate on such a moving target much less on the myriad of targets that your audience presents. How does one speak of the ineffable?  With ambiguity. Ambiguity is where poetry comes into its own. Where, with all its foibles and shortcomings, it really shines, outshines its literary brethren, and even the visual arts. Readers expect to work out the meanings of poems in ways that fiction and non-fiction do not require. Ambiguity allows poetry to harness the power of language and all it idiosyncrasies, paradoxes, and complexity. Turning Tony Pfannenstiel’s line from God’s Logic “…while I melted down”  from a nervous breakdown to a profoundly blasphemous nose thumbing when the next line adds “my gold jewelry to fire up another idol”.

Like an impossible object there are multiple ways of seeing these lines. One can pull the nose thumbing to the front or make it recede like a viewer does with a Necker’s cube.  But unlike the visual illusion readers can hold both thoughts at the same time. Viewers of optical illusions switch their assumed viewpoint from above to below, below to above. Readers of poetry can ruminate on the connections between nervous breakdowns and idolatry, of freewill and divine apathy, of submission and defiance. Sliding the conclusions around on a continuum as tangled as a physician’s handwriting.

Just as with the Necker’s cube there is often a default view. With impossible objects it is the view from above. Perhaps linked to our upright viewing physiology. In poetry this default reading is the literal reading. A reading that is linked with the most common of definitions and contexts of words and phrases.

In my work homonyms play a huge role creating a variety of readings. Take the line from Edges “Before your groin became a grotto.”  Groin’s default meaning is anatomical referring to one’s crotch. The default meaning for grotto is cave. There is a certain amount of ambiguity in the metaphor. The mind struggles with imagining how a crotch can become a cave. But the context of the earlier lines clearly puts the reader in the ocean so another meaning of groin comes to mind. Groins are structures built out from the coast to protect the shore from erosion. This layers the idea of a protective structure over the genitalia. The secondary meaning of grotto further complicates the image by noting that a grotto is a hollowed out space often used for worship. Reading this one line there is something that is both genitalia and sea bulwark becoming a cave, that is also a place of worship. Yes, it makes my brain hurt. Especially if you start firing the neurons that are close to groin and grotto the thoughts of sex organs, virginity, protection, worship, and drop them into the sea. A sea that later in the poem works both meanings (ocean and pontiff) when stating, “The sea’s words won’t heal you.”

Do I expect everyone to come to a full realization of each of these meanings.  Quite deliberately no.  I am however not being cryptic.  If I could make all the meanings apparent with brevity and vivid imagery I would.  Writing this explanation reinforces the conclusion that obviously I can not. I often decide it is better to sound cryptic than verbose and to attempt to create multidimensional lines in the flatland of writing.

In another poem Good for the Perfect I use ambiguity from the start.  The title comes from the phrase trading the good for the perfect a twist on throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Clipping this down to good for the perfect it reads like snide sarcasm as when one says good for you. The poem continues to describe non-sexual infidelity using an asexual angelic interloper.  To build the otherworldly, sinister feel I used phrases describing symptoms of Marfan’s syndrome like “legs long like contrails” “funnel of its chest” “hummingbird eyes”.  The symptoms being tall lanky build, funnel shaped chest cavity, and dislocation of the lenses of the eyes.

This layer of Marfan’s syndrome coupled with a reference to a Confederate inserted a possible reading that included Abraham Lincoln. It was theorized that he suffered from Marfans.  This was not my intention and the cohesiveness of a reading that includes Lincoln does not hang together.  Yet, if a reader’s brain runs with it and creates a web of logic that holds together for them, I won’t argue.  Sometimes the ambiguity is a result of a happy accident.

One such happy accident was the line “I felt embedded in its palm.” Taken out of context it reveals something more about the speaker’s feelings in relation to the interloper. Put back into context with the preceding line of “My finger touched the gravel” the speaker’s feelings take their rightful spot in the background.  Using line breaks to separate phrases from their context is also useful in increasing ambiguity without losing clarity.

My primary intention is clarity but the complexity and interrelated subject matter of my poems necessitates a two, three or 16.5 prong attack.  Ambiguity marshals the varied meanings and allows me to speak simultaneously.  There are times I will steer away from using words or phrases because of the secondary or tertiary meanings, but in the end this is what interests me, what I enjoy.  Churchill’s follow up to the earlier quote, “But perhaps there is a key … Russian national interest” works for poets also. Primarily poets want to speak to readers, to be understood.  It is not in our interest to be misunderstood.  This doesn’t stop it from happening but for the most part poets are thrilled to have readers know what they mean even when the poet doesn’t.