More Summer Reading

It was a less than perfect day today.  Maybe it’s the sudden turn from sun to gray here in San Francisco.  Could be the work I’m staying late tonight to finish contains, at its core, a story of people who seem to have not only no hope, but no hope of hope. 

Who knows what it is, but all day I’ve been hearing the phrase “grayed in and gray” in my head and so I went to see where it comes from, which means you plug that into the internets and you will find out, as I did, that it comes from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem called The Kitchenette Building. When I read it again I realized it was about circumscribed lives in which hope occasionally breaks out, even if not for long.  And that seemed like a good thing to have in one’s head on a not so great summer’s day.  Just one poem — that counts as summer reading too.

Kitchenette Building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”.

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Happy Birthday

It’s Shakespeare’s official birthday today and, in celebration, William and Jack’s school had a poetry recitation.  William recited a poem by Billy Collins that really cracks me up, so I am giving it to you today, in honor of both William, the son, and William, the writer of all those sonnets, and comedies, and tragedies and histories and the other plays which are harder to classify, and also in honor of Poetry Month in general.

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

Billy Collins

Totally Free

In honor of California Furlough Day, which sounds suspiciously like an event in which the felon population of California is set free, but is actually the day when state workers stay home because the state cannot pay them, I am going to make a list of things you can do on your day off that do not cost a single cent, and might actually do you some good.

Why am I doing this?  Because I think that one of the few silver linings in this cloud of economic bad news is that many of us now have more time than we used to have.  We have less money, but we all know that the best things in life are…, well, you get the idea. 

This list contains only two items, but they are my two favorite free things, so I’m going with them.

1. This is something I cannot actually believe is free.  You do have to have access to a computer, and it is helpful if you have something on which you can download it, but then you probably do, because during the period of huge economic expansion, fueled largely by the purchase of houses too big for the people who lived in them and the ipods they discovered they needed to keep them sane during their lengthy commutes, you probably still have, at least, the ipod, even though you might have had to turn the house back  in. 

This free thing I am alluding to is a series of monthly short fiction podcasts moderated by the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman.  They can be found on itunes and at the New Yorker’s snazzy website.  In these podcasts, a person who has published fiction in the New Yorker chooses a piece of short fiction they love.  And then they read it.  Fiction writers turn out to be remarkably good readers — I think it has to do with their enthusiasm for fiction.  After the reading, there is a short discussion about the piece.  These discussions are fun and interesting. 

The great thing is that these podcasts have been going on for several years, so there are a lot to choose from.  One of my favorites is Aleksandar Hemon reading Bernard Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading.”  It’s a great story, and he’s a wonderful reader. 

2.  Get out there and go for a walk.  I cannot emphasize enough how good it is to get outside and take a walk.  If you have a dog, all the better.  Obviously, a walk is good for the body, but it also does hugely good things for the soul.  In fact, one of my favorite writers, Wallace Stevens, a man who was no stranger to snow and ice, walked every day from his office in downtown Hartford to his house in a neighborhood about two miles away.  (Here is a link to that route.)  In fact, if you happen to live in or near Hartford, you can follow his walk, and read the thirteen markers that give you all the ways you can look at a blackbird.  (True, they might be covered with snow, but brush them off, okay?)  Stevens composed poems while he walked, one of which, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction reflects the distance you can cover when you are on a walk:

The truth depends on a walk around a lake,

A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and

A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.
Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence

As a man and woman meet and love forthwith.
Perhaps there are moments of awakening,
Extreme, fortuitous, personal, in which

We more than awaken, sit on the edge of sleep,
As on an elevation, and behold
The academies like structures in a mist.

So happy furlough day, whether you are in California or not.  I wish you moments of awakening and times of inherent excellence and the experience of beauty — all without spending a single cent.

Know, sweet love, I always write of you

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing a lot of new fiction and sending old and new fiction out to a lot of places.  I keep thinking about my  blog, and how much I love writing it and how lucky I am to know all the interesting and fun and smart and kind people who come over here and say stuff.  But I haven’t posted, even though I have a series of great interviews to put up (Ingrid, the girl in the cafe is next, and then Lisa Alber and then Debbie Freedman…), which I’ll do this week.  Mostly, that’s because every time I go to write something here, I think to myself that I always seem to write about the same things.  That’s true of my fiction too. 

And then I found this sonnet, one I’ve not read before, and it made me realize that it’s okay to write, over and over again, about the things that matter to us.  It was okay for Shakespeare to do.  And it is okay for me too:


Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.


Gift, by Czeslaw Milosz

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

Berkeley, 1971

Poetry is everywhere. The other day I was talking to a poet friend, George Staehle, about an acceptance he’d gotten recently for a poem he’d sent out years earlier. The thing is, the journal had published his poem — two years earlier — but they’d forgotten to tell him about it. They sent him a copy of the journal (from a college in Maine) and a very nice note of apology. I looked through the table of contents and noticed that another poet I know, Marie Gauthier, had a poem in that journal. How serendipitous it all is! I love it that they forgot to tell the poet about his poem being out in the world and that he thought it was amusing.

Poets are like that.

You Have, At Least Once in Your Life, Written a Poem

Everyone has. In honor of National Poetry Month, I want to go out on a limb and say that this is really, really okay. Even more, it’s great –no matter how adolescent, how much they make you cringe, how good they look in your drawer, the poems you write over the course of living your life really matter. The act of writing poetry is an important one, and one more people should undertake. (At some other point this month, I’ll talk about the act of reading poetry. But that’s for later.)

People write poetry because they instinctively know what Emily Dickinson actually knew how to put into words — that poetry is the distillation of experience, and sometimes it is the only form that will do for what you want to say. Or maybe you just liked the way those violets smelled. No matter. We all have something we need to distill, even if it’s that not-so-great-smelling ex-boyfriend, like the one who inspired this poem, the first few lines of which I give you, perfectly free, in honor of National Poetry Month:

I am not a service station,
he said,
when I asked,
What about me?

Now I know you’re thinking, NO! She really dated someone who said that? Why yes, I did. And worse. What could I do but write about it? By the end of the poem, I realized that all the bad stuff from that long ago time could not be laid at his feet alone. Mine were involved too. If you write honestly, whether you choose a sonnet or a limerick, even if you write not so beautifully, you find yourself staring down some hard truths. And that’s all to the good.

Here’s another one:

The Cigar

Sometimes it’s what men smoke
when they want to be men.

Sometimes it’s the haze in the air
that obscures a man’s face.

Sometimes it’s what he’d like to do
with the woman across the room.

Except he can’t;
he can only blow smoke.

Okay. I know it’s not Lycidas. Still, it amused me to write it and if I had time, I’d tinker with it, remove some words, figure out the line breaks and it would be more amusing still.

This was fun. All over the web, people are writing poetry (some secretly). And they are encouraging others to talk about poetry. And I think this is just great. Bring on the poims, I say! Go look here and here for some more.

Because I firmly believe it is just fine and appropriate to revel in words — to begin by putting them down in the more abbreviated form with line breaks we think of as a “poem,” and then maybe moving on to rhyming stuff if you feel like it, or counting syllables and giving the world (or at least your journal) a sonnet — or figuring out how to spell out something like Happy Birthday Ed, with each letter of those three words standing for something you like about that person, such as “helluva guy.” This is not a post about quality or value or judgment. I think if people write for fun, eventually, they will want to figure out how to make their fun writing the best writing they can. But if they never get around to writing for fun, well, they certainly aren’t ever going to get to the good writing. And they’re not going to read it either, I’m pretty sure, not for fun anyway.

A Certain Slant of Light

At the end of my hall at work is a picture window and, beyond the window, a leafy tree (still leafy, even though it’s November).  Larkin Street is just below this window.  If you walk up Larkin, you’ll find porn theaters, guys selling watches and drugs, and good Vietnamese food.  The superior court is just across Larkin from the picture window and most days you see lawyers in wrinkled suits going in and out.  People hang around outside the court arguing with each other about child custody, child support, traffic tickets and their obligation to perform jury duty.  It’s a sad street most days, desperate and tawdry.  The light today doesn’t make it look anything other than what it is.

When I looked down the hall today, it struck me that the light is lower in the sky than it was just a week ago — it’s somehow become late in the year, and even this early in the afternoon (it’s 1:00 here), things seem to be ending .   

And that is when I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson, a woman who knew all about that kind of light. 

 There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings, are.

None may teach it anything,
‘T is the seal, despair,
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.