I’ve been taking advantage of various free and inexpensive literary events – a bonus of our temporarily virtual-only world. I have five of them stored up to write about, but to keep this post from getting absurdly long I’ll focus on two for now and feature the rest another time.
George Saunders in Conversation with Max Porter
Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a written version of the graduate-level masterclass in the Russian short story that he offers at Syracuse University, where he has taught in the Creative Writing Program since 1997. His aim here was to “elevate the short story form,” he said. While the book reprints and discusses just seven stories (three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev), in the class he and his students tackle more like 40. He wants people to read a story, react to the story, and trust that reaction – even if it’s annoyance. “Work with it,” he suggested. “I am bringing you an object to consider” on the route to becoming the author you are meant to be – such is how he described his offer to his students, who have already overcome 1 in 100 odds to be on the elite Syracuse program but might still need to have their academic egos tweaked.
The book is, thus, not just a set of essays on the Russian masters but also a guide to how to write well. It was clear there was mutual admiration between Saunders and Max Porter, who interviewed him. They discussed the revision process as an accumulation of micro-decisions that make the work better. For instance, Saunders compared two Tolstoy stories, “The Snowstorm” and “Master and Man” (written 20 years later), and noted that, though they are thematically similar, the later one is more organized.
Saunders spoke about writing as a dual process of intuition and iteration; a bunch of different “yous” have acted on a text by the time it’s done. Early on in his career, he thought that he had to choose which writer he wanted to be (e.g., Hemingway or Kerouac), but as he aged he realized that the mind is never fixed. He went surprisingly deep into Buddhism at this point, likening writing to meditation – both are practices pursued with intensity. To his younger self, he would say to keep going: improving is simply a matter of time (i.e., that 10,000 hours figure that’s bandied about as necessary for developing expertise).
The only drawback to this event was that Saunders was speaking from his snow-encased upstate New York basement and had a horrible Internet connection; often his voice was faint and delayed, while his image stayed static. We and Porter could only stare gormlessly and wait for his face to move to match his words! I think the book would be too niche for me – I’ve hardly read anything by the Russians, and since I don’t write fiction I’m not in need of a guide to those kinds of writing decisions – but it was nice to ‘meet’ Saunders ‘in person’.
An Evening with Kazuo Ishiguro
(Faber Members / Guardian Live event)
Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was published by Faber yesterday. This conversation with Alex Clark also functioned as its launch event. It’s one of my most anticipated books of the year, so I pre-ordered a signed copy along with my ticket and look forward to it arriving soon. Klara is an Artificial Intelligence “friend” purchased to combat teenage loneliness. A childlike figure, she is cheerful and treats the sun like a god. Ishiguro said that the book developed from a story he wrote for children aged five to six, about a little girl who takes a doll home – except his daughter, author Naomi Ishiguro, told him no way was it suitable for young children, being far too dark. He likes “displaced or alien narrators, fish out of water,” he said, because the limited perspective allows him to focus on oddness.
In addition to Clark’s questions, a few pre-recorded questions from literary celebs (Daisy Johnson, Bernardine Evaristo, and David Mitchell) encouraged Ishiguro to create a tripartite schema for his novels, reflect on his writing about Japan, and look back at the devices he has used. Asked by Johnson about the connections between his novels, he admitted that his first three novels all retread the same ground: a man who has made a mess of his life or career picks over the past. Then his mid period is set in dreamscapes, while his most recent three novels are dystopian fantasies (though he does not see Klara as set in a dystopian world).
In response to Evaristo’s question about whether he felt an obligation to write about Japan, he said that with his early work he was conscious of needing to represent a group of people who even then (due to World War II) were viewed with suspicion or antipathy. He left Japan at age five so the country didn’t seem entirely real to him. What he knew was based on very early memories, what his mother told him, comic books sent by his grandparents, etc. As he stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, writing about Japan in his twenties therefore felt like “an act of preservation.” Still, he wants his characters and situations to be universal.
Replying to Mitchell’s three questions (cheeky!), he explained that his first ambition was to be a singer/songwriter, and he wrote 100+ songs. Songwriting taught him minimalism. “You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say,” he noted. He hopes to create spaces, or rather vacuums that suck in the reader’s attention. Unlike Mitchell, he always knows the ending of a book before he begins, and his decisions are all about wanting to lodge in the reader’s brain. Thus, memorable endings are a priority for him, whereas they might not be for other writers. I was struck by his characterization of his own life: when he looks back, he doesn’t see a clear path that arose from his choices; instead, he sees a “weird, incoherent mess.” For this reason, he’s turned against the reflective device of his first three books. If he can come up with a theme, he’s hankering to write a book about hitchhikers in the north of England.
Towards the end of the (overlong) discussion, he mentioned that he has been questioning the novelist’s role due to the events of the past year: wondering about the meaning of fiction when so many have died and so many believe fake news. It was a melancholy but realistic point to end on. While I’m not an Ishiguro completist (The Unconsoled doesn’t appeal to me at all and I’m not sure I can be bothered with When We Were Orphans, but I will try The Buried Giant; I’ve read the rest), the event whetted my appetite to read his new book. (See also this Goodreads interview. I loved the anecdotes about learning he’d won the Nobel!)
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
It’s my third time participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). The challenge starts with Stasiland (2003) by Anna Funder, which I also happened to read recently. While working part-time for an overseas television service in what was once West Berlin, Funder started gathering stories of how ordinary people were put under surveillance and psychologically terrorized by the Stasi, the East German secret police. She molds her travels and her interviewees’ testimonies into riveting stories – though this won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004, it’s as character-driven as any novel.
#1 My interest in Stasiland was piqued by reading Sophie Hardach’s Costa Prize-shortlisted novel Confession with Blue Horses (2019). When Ella’s parents, East German art historians under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect during a ‘vacation’ to Hungary in 1987, their three children were taken from them and only two were returned. Ella is determined to find her brother, whom they’ve had no word of since, via a correspondence with the Stasi archive. It’s an emotionally involving story of one ordinary family’s losses and reconstruction.
#2 Blue Horses (2014) is one of Mary Oliver’s lesser poetry collections. I found it to be a desperately earnest and somewhat overbaked set of nature observations and pat spiritual realizations. There are a few poems worth reading (e.g., “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond” and Part 3 of “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and lines here and there fit for saving, but overall this is so weak that I’d direct readers to Oliver’s landmark 1980s work instead.
#3 Oliver’s poetry, especially “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” gets quoted everywhere. The latter’s most famous lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” appears in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, my book of 2020 so far. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a completely natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her late father, also a doctor, and his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate yet practical book, this aims to get people talking about end-of-life issues.
#4 I have meant to read Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) since before she won the Nobel Prize. I was sent a free paperback copy for a Nudge review, but as the site already had a review of the book up, I let it slip and never followed through. More than once I’ve put this short story collection onto a reading stack, but I have never quite gotten past the first page or two. At some point this must be rectified.
#5 Alice Munro is one of the authors featured in Writers & Co. by Eleanor Wachtel (1993), a terrific collection of interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
#6 My first-ever author Q&A, for Bookkaholic in 2013, was related to The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver. (Alas that the site is now defunct, so the interview only exists as a file on my computer.) In an astonishing historical sweep, from Massachusetts’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent‒child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
I manage about an annual trip to Bookbarn International, one of my favorite secondhand bookshops in the UK. Apart from the stock in their newly opened Darwin Rare Books room and the 50-pence children’s books, everything in the shop is £1. I never fail to come out with a great stack of finds. Our trip on Thursday was extra special because we were going for the café’s Harvest Supper and Scrabble tournament, held as part of The Great Bath Feast.
We played one 45-minute game against another team of two, broke for an excellent vegetarian supper of squash, spinach and goat’s cheese pie with mashed potatoes and baby roast vegetables, then played a second match before dessert (vegan plum crumble with custard or gluten-free fig brownie with ice cream). Over the years my husband and I have become quite the Scrabble fiends, and together on one team I’m afraid we were unbeatable. Our bingo starting off Game #2 helped, but we worried we were at an overall advantage because the other boards each had three teams playing.
It was a special pleasure to meet William Pryor, the chairman of Bookbarn. Last year he spotted my blog posts about Bookbarn and offered me a copy of his memoir, The Survival of the Coolest. It’s a wonderful book about growing up a descendant of Charles Darwin but going off the rails and ending up addicted to heroin in his 20s:
This family of mine! On the one hand you have the royalty of science and Bloomsbury, on the other the fading world of the English landed gentry. … We had no religion but Darwin.
The months ran into each other as a blur of the chase for relief, the wheeling and dealing … One of the most striking aspects of hell is that it goes round and round; the same torments over and over again.
Mr. Pryor let me have a sneak peek at the Darwin room after the shop closed and kindly gave me a copy of his grandmother Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece. Over pudding we chatted about literary festivals, the Bookshop Band, his failed idea to return a portion of secondhand books’ resale value to the authors, and the latest Nobel Prize winner.
As to that book haul: I feel like I have fiction coming out of my ears, so with our hour of book browsing time I mainly focused on biographies and memoirs. Here are my finds:
Biographies and essays on writing biography:
(Two of my purchases will go especially well as pairs with books I already own.)
General memoirs (I was especially pleased to find the sequel to Cobwebs and Cream Teas, which I bought at Bookbarn last time and read early this year):
Plus two poetry books (one of them signed!):
And two novels I happened to grab on the way to the till:
My unexpected freebies. The Raverat is a lovely small-format hardback with gilt-edge pages and a maroon ribbon bookmark; on the right is our prize for winning the Scrabble tournament:
I’ve already had a peek inside a few of the books I bought and found some excellent passages. Leonard Woolf’s memoir opens with an extraordinary passage of almost biblical language about existence and non-existence; one of Marge Piercy’s poems struck me right away for its description of a Jewish holiday and the line “there is no justice we don’t make daily / like bread and love.”
My husband came away with three natural history books, and we also found a few children’s books to give to nieces and nephews.
Thanks to this book haul plus a trip to Book-Cycle in early September and some charity shopping last week, I’ve had to start a double stack on my biography/memoir shelves. There’s already a double stack on one of my unread fiction shelves. Next week is my birthday, so the book acquisitions are only likely to continue…
Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer was my first-ever Goodreads giveaway win. Way back in the summer of 2013, the good people of Graywolf Press spent a small fortune to send this tremendous book all the way from Minnesota to my tiny then-house on the outskirts of Reading, England. It took me an unconscionably long time first to pick it up, then to read it, and finally to review it. But here we are.
This is the first time I’d read a literary correspondence, and I absolutely loved it. I knew very little about either poet before picking this up, though I recognized Bly as the translator of the copy of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger I had read a few years back. The two first corresponded in 1964 when Tranströmer requested a copy of the poetry journal The Sixties from Bly’s small press. At this point Tranströmer was already an established poet in his native Sweden, but in decades to come Bly was responsible for making his reputation in English translation.
“Friendships have their rhythms and seasons, fat times and lean times,” editor Thomas R. Smith writes in his introduction. One of the pleasures of this book is watching a friendship develop, as salutations go from “Dear Mr. Tranströmer” and “Best wishes” to “Your friend” and “With deep fondness always.”
Their relationship was both professional and personal: they translated each other’s poems into their respective languages so discussed intricacies of meaning as well as publication details and reading tours, but they also visited each other and became ever deeper confidants through deaths in the family and Bly’s painful divorce. They also commiserate over the debacle of the Vietnam War (as a protestor Bly was once arrested alongside Dr. Spock and Allen Ginsberg) and the Nixon–Reagan affronts to liberalism.
These letters sparkle with humor, especially from Tranströmer, who paints a Micawber-ish picture of his impecunious family, initially supported through his day job as a psychologist at a boys’ prison. My impression of him was of an impish joker.
Our shortage of money is comical—toward the end of the month we go around and shake all our old clothes in the hope that a stray coin might fall out.
We drank some champagne, which makes you think very clearly—my head turned into an aquarium with goldfish who were mumbling sentences of Marcus Aurelius.
Bly’s a witty sort, too:
I’ll send you the most insulting review I’ve ever gotten—it’s wonderful, he objects to everything about me except the size of my shoes!
I carefully set aside these free days which are known as Introvert Days, and are to be spent in solitary anxious, obstinate, confused ectomorph brooding.
Forgive my new typewriter—its mother was frightened by a Latin manuscript, and it doesn’t believe in pauses…
You don’t have to have any interest in poetry to read this with enjoyment. In fact, I didn’t care for most of the poem extracts. In the 1960s and 70s, at least – the heyday for the letters – they both wrote free verse poems that alternate matter-of-fact observations with abstractions. Lacking in sound techniques, they struck me as flat and artless. They weren’t to my taste apart from this one stanza of Tranströmer’s that instantly jumped out to me:
Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves. (from “Preludes”)
However, Bly, at least, became “positively form-mad” in his later years; “[I] now have to eat all my words praising free verse as the only food conceivable for true Christian folk,” he wrote in 1981. He even created his own form, the “ramage” of 85 syllables. Perhaps I’ll like their later work better – I’m game for trying a full collection from each of them.
For anyone interested in the nitty-gritty of translation, there are many fascinating passages here where the poets wrestle with vocabulary and nuances. “Poems are best when there are incredible mysteries in them,” Bly declares, and all the more difficult to retain that mystery as they passed back and forth between Swedish and English. “I think it was something unexplainable, something water-like or flowing in our approach to poetry that made our translations of each other full of feeling even with occasional mistakes,” Bly wrote to their Swedish editor.
These selected letters continue through 1990, when Tranströmer had a stroke and their correspondence inevitably declined. Tomas Tranströmer would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 2011 and died in March 2015. Robert Bly is still going at age 89 and has recently been the subject of a biopic. Stealing Sugar from the Castle, a volume of his new and selected poems, was published in 2013.
After this I’d be keen to try out more authors’ correspondence volumes. I love letters whether they appear in epistolary fiction or in nonfiction, and here they form a touching picture of a friendship that sustained their writers for decades. In 1978 Bly wrote: “Thank you for receiving my grief and my uncertainties and my shadowy complications without running out the door.” That’s the mark of a true friend.
With thanks to Graywolf Press for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.