Monday, November 30, 2009

Cervantes Prize to Pacheco

I don't know much of the work of Mexican poet and fiction writer Jose Emilio Pacheco, who won the Cervantes Prize this morning.

I do know the prize is kind of a big deal, the top for literature in Spanish, with previous winners including people like Borges and Octavio Paz.

And I was lucky enough to skim through a copy of Pacheco's Selected Poems years ago, where I encountered what remains one of the clearest and most lovely statements on patriotism I've ever read. The tone, the way it vaults over grand statements about destiny or democracy to capture the concrete, physical things you can really love, the things that bind you to a place.

If there's any big statement at all, it's the title, which (I think) can be read as a neat little smack to those who would say grander things--those who would be immediately offended by Pacheco's opening statement, and might read no further.

High Treason

I do not love my country. Its abstract splendor
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history
(and three or four rivers).

Alta traición

No amo mi Patria. Su fulgor abstracto
es inasible.
Pero (aunque suene mal) daría la vida
por diez lugares suyos, cierta gente,
puertos, bosques de pinos, fortalezas,
una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa,
varias figuras de su historia,
(y tres o cuatro ríos).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Living with a Writer: A Gratitude

Living with a writer (or an artist of any type, I suspect) is a recipe for irritation.

Few weeks go by when I don't think to myself at some point, I am a pain in the ass.

When I am not working, or when my writing isn't going well, I can be grouchy or emotionally needy.

When the work is going well, I am distracted. I may well forget to feed the dog, or myself, or to put on underwear, or lock the front door, or ask my husband how his day was, because I am thinking about exactly how to phrase a piece of dialogue or where to break a line or what color of paint I need.

This is a no-win situation for my husband, who frequently gets to choose from a delicious, two-option buffet: gaga, overly sensitive emotionalism, or "What did you say, honey?"

Luckily, he is also a writer, so he is also (by the rules established above) a pain in the ass.

Learning to tolerate and accept the quirks of sharing space with another writerly brain is key to our happy relationship.

I would not trade my husband for all the world. We can talk about the craft, we can do first reads on each other's work, we can share good and bad nuggets from our scads of reading material, we can say honestly (but gently) when something isn't working. We understand the annoyance of working for days on a piece, only to submit it and have it rejected, or damned with faint praise, or picked apart by blog commenters who respond to a piece that took hours of interviews and research by pointing out that you made a typo and forgot to include the "l" in "public." Ha ha! Good times.

We can also--every now and then--sit around with our dog and watch bad movies, drink beer, listen to music, chill out with friends, and talk about everything but writing. Those are good times: when we stop, for a moment, being neurotic, narrative-driven freaks and exist as human beings--human beings who have no need or obligation to commit anything to a page, no obligation to do anything but enjoy each other's company and feel happy that we get to go through the world with another person who has to love and tolerate our pain-in-the-assness, because we love and tolerate theirs.

I give thanks for this almost daily, while remembering that not everyone is so lucky. The newsletter of the Kenyon Review this week highlighted an old gem by Roger Rosenblatt, (who wrote the terrific novel Beet--certainly the funniest academic satire since Russo's Straight Man). The story first appeared in the Kenyon Review in Fall 2007.

I don't live with this guy, but I have met or observed him many times at readings. And I have met his long-suffering wife. Oh boy, did this story make me laugh--with amusement, recognition, and appreciation for my own writer-spouse, whose egotistical writer B.S. is minimal and whose patience for my occasional dark moods and "Clean the kitchen? We have a kitchen?" absentmindedness is great.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

The Writer's Wife

Look at him, my active man. Sometimes he sits and turns to the left. Sometimes, to the right. I wouldn't think of disturbing him. He is dreaming his writer's dreams, and his dreams are inviolable. I have the privilege of serving him, and of watching him.

Did you say something, dear? Nothing yet? Still dreaming? Well, while you're at it, I'd better get to my chores. No, don't get up. I can handle it: Fix the engine on the Prius; recondition the Steinway; point up the bricks on the west wall; build a bathroom in the basement, from scratch.
Busy, busy is the writer's wife.

And please, don't even think of lowering yourself to the details of bill paying, dry cleaning, shopping, cooking, dishwashing, trash toting. May I get the door for you? May I get two?

Am I complaining about my lot? Never, sweetheart. The intellectual challenges alone make it worthwhile. How many ways can I invent to assure you that you're not losing your touch? Our topics of conversation: Your obligation to your gift. My obligation to your obligation. Were you born before your time, or after your time, or just in time? I forget.

Then there's our social life. The dinner parties, where everyone speaks in quotations. The book parties, where everyone says, “There he is.” Or variously: “There she is!”

Do I want to go to Elaine's? Are you kidding? I want to live there!

And don't worry. I've laid out your uniform. Dark suit, dark shirt, dark tie. Your special look.

Do you think you might speak to me this month? It was so nice last month, or was it the month before that, when you asked me how I was. For a moment there, I thought you'd asked who I was. That's just a little joke. Nothing to upset yourself about. But what am I saying? Why would you be upset? Why would you -- sitting there in your dreamscape -- why would you even look up?

My folks, having met you but once, suggested I marry an actuary or a mortgage broker. Or a wife beater. Hell, what do parents know about the life of the mind -- yours. The precious moments we share --

Such as the times you ask me to read something you've written, and if I say “I love it!” you say I'm blowing you off, and if I appear disappointed or confused, you go into a clinical depression, and if I say, “Then, please don't ask me, if you don't want my opinion,” you go into a clinical depression.

Oh, dear. Did I say, “That was the best thing you ever wrote”? Of course, what I meant to say was, “Everything you write is a masterpiece. And this latest masterpiece just proves it.” That's what I meant to say. You're right. I must learn to say what I mean. Forgive me?

But soon we make up, and you'll say, “Let's go to so-and-so's poetry reading.” And I'll say, “Oh, darling! Let's! Just give me a minute to freshen up and hang myself from the hall chandelier” -- which, by the way, I repaired last week.

Memories? Say, rather, treasures! The day your agent returned your call. The day your editor returned your call. The day you found your name in the papers. In the phone book. Remember the time we saw your first novel on sale in the Strand for one dollar? How we laughed! The night you awoke with an inspiration for a story, and in the morning it sounded so silly?

Remember when I tried to write something myself, and you said it was “interesting”?

You know? I used to like books.

Ah. You've turned to the left again. I'm pooped, just watching you. Watching you in your dreams. I dream, too. Here's mine:

Lord, please let him find a younger woman.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

King Praises Sklenicka, Who Trashes Lish, Who Muddied Carver, Who Wanted a Drink, Which King Also Wanted

Alcoholics build defenses like the Dutch build dikes. I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I "just liked to drink." I also employed the world-famous Hemingway Defense. Although never clearly articulated (it would not be manly to do so), the Hemingway Defense goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don't give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.

--from Stephen King's On Writing

Stephen King was one of my first writing heroes; at 13, I hid a copy of The Shining under my pillow because I knew my parents would confiscate it if they found it.

Raymond Carver came later, and I never felt any need to hide his books. Quite the contrary: By that time, I was in college, and carrying around a copy of Carver was de rigeur, a sort of secret writer's handshake that let other babywriters know you were one of the pack. I was never a huge Carver devotee, but I still remember the first time I read "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." I thought about the story for days afterward, and it still comes back to me any time I think seriously about marriage; the old couple that Mel describes haunt me. Are they true; are they possible? Or are they just an image of perfected love to taunt the rest of us?

And I still remember the experience of reading King's It, which remains the only book I've ever had to stop reading because it scared me so much. (I put it away for four months--I even put other books on top of it, subsconsciously trying to make sure the cover stayed closed--before I could get back to it again.)

They are different kind of shocks, of course, producing different kinds of tremors. But put King and Carver together, and hey, I'm there.

If you're interested in either writer, check out the New York Times' lead review today, in which King reviews a new Carver biography and a collection of his stories. It's full of fascinating, occasionally horrifying info about Carver, but also about the egomaniacal editor Gordon Lish, who seems to have shaped our idea of "a Raymond Carver story" and the Raymond Carver approach to writing, maybe more than Carver himself.

The discussion of Carver's short story A Small, Good Thing, which was completely transformed by Lish, interested me not only because the editor changed it into a much darker story, but because I realized that the version of it that ended up in Short Cuts, Robert Altman's film of interwoven Carver stories, is the version that Carver originally wrote. Yet another element of awesomeness in that discomfiting film, along with Julianne Moore's pants-free rant. (Bless Altman for using it, and don't blame him too much for Andie MacDowell, who is so cheesy in the cathartic scene of that story that she makes my teeth itch.)

For me, the review is fascinating in what it suggests about King as much as what the reviewed biography reveals about Carver. His take on Carver's alcoholism and his sympathy for the writer's first wife seems to come from a deeper personal space. Carver sounds hard to like, but at the end of the review, I liked King even more.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Asparagus, Less Detroit

I've been thinking about the different processes involved in poetry and painting. Specifically, about the planning of each.

With poems, I often come up with one line (or rather, one line comes to me) and write toward that line or idea. There is a destination, and the terrain comes clear as I track toward it.

Sometimes, this can be a problem, since the single line can be like Detroit: You see its skyline off in the distance and it seems interesting, but once you get there, you're like, "Oh. This is not where I want to be."

Then you have to backtrack and realize that you really wanted to go to this little roadside fruit stand near Lake Michigan. Or you realize that the whole trip was wasted and you're stuck in Detroit, looking at shut-down auto factories.

With paintings--or at least the kind I'm doing right now--there is very little planning. I take a canvas or sheet of paper, I mark the center of my circle, I decide on the first color I want to use. Almost everything after that seems to happen without thinking. My mind goes to a completely different space; it is almost glandular. Yesterday, for example, I was looking at a square of warm gray paper. For a moment, there was nothing, and then several hours later, there were crescents in a bright shade of magenta and swirls of white.

And then with the one pictured here, suddenly there were asparagus tips. I didn't even realize they were there until the whole thing was done.

I would really like it if more poems came to me like that. Once or twice, it has happened, but lately, I can feel myself trying to write, and when that happens ... Hello Detroit, I'll be here all week!

What comes to you when you write? Can you plan your poems? Does it work?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Flowerwheels and mandalas ...

As Guy Clark once sang, "There ain't no money in poetry/That's what sets the poet free."

Yeah, but the poet occasionally gets writer's block, and the poet also has veterinary bills to pay because the poet has a dog who likes to eat anything--ancient burritos, chicken bones, underwear--he can sniff out on his daily walk.

Consequently, this scribbler has gone back to doodling. There ain't much money in art, either, but it looks prettier when you hang it on a wall (or a tree).

Once upon a time, I sold a painting or two, and am now trying to get back to it via Etsy. I just put up my first listing and will be adding more in the weeks ahead, so in case you're looking for good Christmas presents for those who enjoy acid trips, check me out at

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I Should be Writing ...

But lately I've been painting instead, trying to get over a terribly long stretch of writer's block.

I use so much of my verbal energy at work that painting feels like a great relief, a respite from too many words.

I can't tell if it's helping with the writer's block or not, but it does give me something to occupy myself while the hubby is watching Nebraska football.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Brush With Svetlana

I rarely answer my cell phone if I don't recognize the number on the display.
But at work a few weeks back, I was waiting for a call from a customer service person, so I violated my own rule when my ringtone sounded.

Me: "Hello?"

Female voice, vaguely Eastern European accent: "Hello, I am talking to reach M.C. Allan?"

Me (immediately on guard. I write fiction and poetry under that name; no one actually calls me that): "Yes?"

Female voice (becoming--is it my imagination--slightly more seductive?): M.C., I am calling because we have read your book, and we would like to help you getting more people to reading it!

Me (racking my brain to try to remember if I've somehow published a book without being aware of it): Um ... I'm sorry ... what book?

Female voice: Your book! We love it, and we want to get it in front of millions of customers!

Me (Wow! Millions of customers! Except ... wait, that's right, I don't have a book): Um ... I'm not sure what book you're referring to.

Female voice: We have read your book, the Delaware Poetry Review, and we want to help bringing your book in front of millions of customers!

Me: Um ... that's not actually my book? That's an online poetry journal.

Female voice: We have read your poetry journal, and we want to help you to getting your book read by millions of customers!

Me: I think there's been some misunderstanding. It's not my journal. It's an online journal that just published some of my poems a while back.

Female voice: Yes! And we want to promote your work. We can reach many many customers and let them know about your journal. Our fees are very small.

(By this time, I must mention, the voice had begun to get a trifle irritated with me. I can only assume that, from her perspective, I was some idiot American whose book, the Delaware Poetry Review, was just waiting for a little marketing push in order to climb the New York Times bestseller list, and here I was, ungratefully hassling her about details.

Meanwhile, in my head, I had a clear picture of a skinny, frosted blonde with long acrylic nails and fur-topped stockings--a little like Ilsa, only no jodhpurs. I had already decided, actually, that her name was "Svetlana" and that she must been making marketing calls out of some tiny basement in Moscow, and that this was her second career--her first foray into true Western capitalism--the first one having been 15 years on the street in the employ of a vicious pimp and petrol smuggler named Ivan.)

Me: I'm not sure you understand ... the Delaware Poetry Journal is not something for sale. Anyone can go and read those poems online for free? I don't think I can really do much with your marketing service. I'm sorry.

Svetlana: But we can getting your poems in front of millions of customers!

(Note: Not once did Svetlana reference "readers." They were always "customers," drooling, money-spending sheep waiting to be fleeced, waiting with baited breath not only for the latest wrinkle reducer, car shammy, dish detergent, erection enchancer, cholesterol medicine, but for my poem about wild dogs on the beach in Karachi, Pakistan.)

Me: Thank you, I appreciate it, but I really have to get back to work.

Svetlana: Do you not think that your journal is good to read?

Me: I just think there is a misunderstanding, and I'm in the middle of editing a--

Svetlana: Fine! So sorry to have bothered you.

(At this point, she hung up in a huff.)

Fellow laborers in this discouraging slog of rejection slips, writer's block, and obscurity: Have any of you heard from Svetlana--or someone of her ilk? How did you handle her?

Are you, even now, slurping down spoonfuls of caviar and enjoying your time on the bestseller list in Kiev? Has someone in the former Soviet bloc discovered that poetry is actually a marketable commodity?