Monthly Archives: February 2013

Ignorance on a Grandiose Scale

Little girl reading about quantum mechanicsA week ago I passed one of life’s mileposts. I walked past it, as now my knees preclude jogging. With the boldness for which I am famous in my own head, I strode right up to my 60th birthday and kept on moving. Even if you’re only 22 looking ahead with dread toward 30, you know how it goes with those haunting zeros. I’m…what? Sixty? No, I don’t think so.

One of the burdens of this age is that as one of the elders I’m required to be wise (the official letter came in the mail yesterday). Wise, though, that’s a tough requirement. It’s going to cut out almost everything I’m actually good at.

One thing I can continue to do is observe human existence with an increasing lack of comprehension. Perhaps even more as I’ve gotten older, I ponder our place here on the earth, and it is a ponderous topic. A possible line of thought is the question Socrates must have asked, along with possibly every person since then—what the hell are we doing here?

I pace the pavement perplexed by a different question, however, though it may be related somehow. What I ask is: what is a human being? How do we exist, what makes us do what we do? This question is with me every minute, and despite a thousand permutations, it’s the one topic I write about.hand with planets

I read sometimes about quantum physics and the nature of the universe, because our bodies are made out of the universe. So those little quarks that pop in and out of existence—that’s us.

I think about molecular biology and the fact that the activities of just one cell are so complex it’s almost terrifying to try to imagine it. Trillions, maybe bugeyezillions, of chemical reactions every second—that’s us.drawing of molecules

I read history and try not to become hopeless at the one billionth story of wild savagery. Gunning down a mother who is holding a baby—that’s us.

I look at the mysterious impulse to create art (which I have myself), or I remember with sadness the whims and desires of the human heart and where it leads us. That’s us, too.

The more I know about all these things, the more I want to just go sit on the back porch with a cold beer and think, “To hell with it. I give up.” And yet…and yet…I keep trying, and I continue to write.men with machine gun Last Saturday, I went to a diner, taking myself out to breakfast (birthday, you know). While I was there, a family came in with young children. When I see children I like to watch them, and nothing makes me believe in the existence of the soul as much as watching a child. This family had a little girl, maybe five years old, with red hair, and with a kind of charismatic energy in the way she held herself and with the expressions on her face.Picasso painting of lovers

If we had the vision of God, we might look at that child and see a vast expanse of mostly empty space, and in that space tiny particles and energy. Or we moved our vision to a much larger scale, we might see billions of molecules combining and changing faster than the human brain can comprehend, keeping the body alive and growing, even without the child knowing that a single one of those molecules exists.

Or if we looked at the little girl with the human eyes of this world, we might see a potential enemy who we want to kill, or we might see a curious, clever little girl who will someday be an artist or an engineer.

drawing of girl dreaming of colorsIn all of that, from the particles of the universe to the physiology of the body to the spirit, where is the person inside that child? Because there is somehow a person there. I don’t write trying to answer anything. I write because I have questions. So I started writing a story about that girl.

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Butterflies and Alligators

Madama Butterfly and her sonMaybe you live in some deprived spot where you’re not able to attend poetry readings (though I’m sure there’s an eccentric poet nearby, if you know where to look). Since I live in one of the artistic centers of the country—we can argue that if you want—I go to readings sometimes, and last Sunday I went to one with my friend Katherine Young.

Katherine was one of the featured readers, along with Richard Peabody, who is both a writer and the publisher of the literary magazine Gargoyle. This event took place at the Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, which has poetry readings on the second Sunday of the month. We got to the empty club a little early and talked some with Rick and with Miles David Moore , founder and host of the poetry series, then the four of us sat at a table near the stage.

Walking in the door of this club, I was reminded of places I used to go with a friend to hear music in Philadelphia, dark dives with a slightly chic post-apocalyptic decor. That was the nicer places. The Iota Club is like the nicer ones, even with tiny Christmas lights strung over the bottles up on shelves behind both bars. It’s not a big place, but it has two bars, so it’s for people like me who want a drink the moment they walk in the door (and they had a pretty great chocolate stout on tap).

The club is generally dark, with plain brick walls, wooden rafters overhead, and a multicolored floor, apparently from bits and pieces of God knows what remaining there. Multiple layers of linoleum? At the front was a tiny stage with large speakers, as bands also play here, and there was a backdrop of a white sheet painted with enigmatic shapes, so that all during the event I was looking at the sheet from time to time and thinking “What are those things?”

Katherine read first, and I think she read the coolest poem of the evening. She had a series of poems about Japan, and one of them was inspired by Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. The poem was from the point of view of the wife of the American officer Pinkerton, when the two of them return to Japan to take away the child he had during an affair with Butterfly. In the opera it’s tragic and musically beautiful, but Mrs. Pinkerton says little. In Katherine’s poem, she becomes a real person and we could hear her thoughts about what was happening. As I listened to the poem, I was taken back to the one time I saw the opera performed, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Katherine also read poems with a Russian connection, as she is, in addition, a translator of Russian poetry. This is a culture and a history that she knows very well, having lived there, and she has written her own poems reflecting her time in Russia. At the reading on Sunday she read some of her translations of the poet Vladimir Kornilov, translations that have been accepted to go into an anthology of Russian poetry .

The last poem Katherine read she dedicated to the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, some of the latest victims in the endless dreary Russian history of locking up people who disagree with their government. Following Soviet days, people sometimes said the oppression meant that artists had to be more creative. If so, the despicable Vladimir Putin is doing his part to revive Russian culture.

The other featured reader last Sunday was Richard Peabody, who has a new book of poetry out. One of Rick’s poems was a slightly quirky piece about being a child and going trick-or-treating, dressed as the Masque of the Red Death, inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe story. Rick didn’t feel the costume really worked at the time, but man, he gets 100 points for trying something like that.

Another of his poems that had an especially striking image for me described being at a reptile zoo, walking around holding his young daughter. At one point, an alligator came toward them and stopped, waiting. Rick realized that the alligator was expecting to be fed, but the only “food” Rick was holding was his daughter. The poem contained the line “Just a daddy holding his daughter in in his / arms in plain view of a predator”.

Following Katherine and Rick, anyone who wanted was able to sign up for an open mic, which 11 people did, including people who have published books of poetry (did I mention that we’re in an artistic center of the country?). Naturally with 11 people reading there was a wide variety, some of which I liked, some of which was, umm, not written with me as the intended audience.

By the end of the reading, the club crowd was in flux. The audience for the poetry reading was mostly older people (if I were 20 years old and writing this, I’d have just said old, without that “er” on the adjective), but by the time we left, a lot of young people had crowded into the club. It seems the poetry was being followed by a comedy act. Can I draw some metaphysical statement about life from this fact? No, of course not. But that won’t stop me. I draw the conclusion that old people seriously contemplate life, and young people laugh at it.

That’s not actually true, but I like the way it sounds as a way to end my blog entry. Since it isn’t true, though, I’ll say something that is true. They had fabulous French fries at the Iota Club and Cafe. How did they do that?

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“I wouldn’t say that,” she said.

women in a bar

No need to be so formal

We have an excellent punctuation system in English to indicate when someone is speaking, which isn’t true for all languages. Russian, for instance, can sometimes be clumsy and confusing when indicating direct speech. Regardless of how it is indicated on the page, the real trick is to figure out what someone says. One thing I’ve learned from years of trying to do this, as well as listening closely when people talk, is that when you write dialogue, it cannot be done the way people really talk.

The reason is because in speech we use several forms of communication, which all work together, whereas on paper, there is only one form of communication. In written dialogue there are no facial expressions, no body language and gestures, and no range of tones of voice, though we have a faint imitation of tones with a few things like italics.

From a real conversation, the spoken words might not even make sense if someone saw them written down, since the other communication elements would be missing.

By contrast—and a common problem with inexperienced writers—if a character speaks in a way that looks good on paper, with nice grammar in full sentences and everything said fluently (and with no contractions), it is usually going to be unrealistic (and therefore bad) dialogue. People don’t talk that way.

Good dialogue is an illusion. It cannot literally imitate the way speech sounds, as that would occasionally be incomprehensible, but it must create the impression of sounding real.

One principle writers ought to keep in mind that it is very very rare for one person to talk and talk and talk with no interruption from anyone else. In some books, especially some 19th century novels, even good novels, a character may go on for a solid page or more, with long complicated discourse, presumably with other characters just sitting there listening. From the point of view of realistic dialogue, that is a flaw of those novels.

Natural conversations consist sometimes of starts and stops as people try to gather their thoughts, or change what they want to say, or get distracted. This can be imitated by having a character stop speaking, or even change what they were saying. We can also create different emotional and plot effects with different kinds of punctuation. (1) A character can stop suddenly, and a bit dramatically, with a dash: “But I was—” She stared at the person who had just walked in. (2) Or the character may drift off slowly and quit speaking with an ellipsis: “No one came to see me when…” He sighed and looked up.

People will also sometimes interrupt one another (the dash is useful there), so that the conversation will change directions or must be pulled back on track. Throwing in bits of the other elements of communication can also be useful or interesting, so that someone frowns or looks puzzled, leans forward, turns away, waves both hands at once, or uses one finger to draw shapes in the air. These also help create the illusion of reality, but the writer has to use these things sparingly or else the dialogue bogs down and stops.

Another basic principle of real speech is that people have different “voices”, in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, boldness or reticence of speech, colorfulness or drabness, and so on. These elements can be exaggerated and become clumsy, but a skilled writer can help distinguish the characters with differences in their speech, and such differences help with character development.

One of the real tricks in writing dialogue is that just like the rest of the prose, it should have a purpose to convey some particular information to the reader, either providing plot information or saying something about the personality of the character. In fulfilling that purpose, however, the dialogue must still sound natural. Nevertheless, it isn’t rare to find that a writer will have a character say something because the writer wants the reader to know it, not because the character would actually say it.

Another way that writers might want to create an illusion of  real conversation is to make sure that what they write is interesting. Many real conversations are both dull and stupid.

I’ll give you a chance to judge something I’ve written recently, in (yet another) revision of Benedict and Miramar. The two main characters speak, beginning with Miramar:

“Really?” Her eyes grew wider with enthusiasm and surprise. A light of hope began to play on her face. “You think we could try it?”

“I don’t know. I can’t definitely say I’m willing to do that. I’m just thinking about it. Maybe we should see how fate guides us.”

“Fate is guiding me to go,” she replied.

“I don’t think fate guides you at all. It just gets tired of keeping up with you.”

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Rhyme That If You Can

painting of blueberries

Picture by Kelly Sanford

If you’re looking for someone who you can control with simple suggestions, I might be your boy. Last night, choosing a picture to use with this blog entry, I was looking at pictures of blueberries, and by the time I was finished, I knew that I was getting up this morning to go find blueberry pancakes for breakast, which I did. I’m like a little dog, really. Just give me a treat now and then and I’ll wag my tail when you look in my direction.

But what I really wanted to say was that last weekend I had dinner with a close friend who is a good poet, a serious poet, and like most people who are good at something, she still has not received the recognition she deserves.

One of the things I like about being with her is that when we’re together, as we sit up late talking, inevitably we end up spending part of that time talking about writing, and often about poetry. She knows about poetry, and the fact that I know so much less doesn’t get in my way at all. I just pretend like I know and state my firm opinions. (It was from her that I learned the hideous oxymoron “academic poetry”, a phrase that people at universities apparently use without shame.)

My friend and I disagree sometimes, but one thing we agree on is that the average person hates most modern poetry. And we agree that people want poetry to be accessible. By using the word “accessible” we’re already showing off our fancy-pants vocabulary, because the people who hate modern poetry would probably say “understandable”.

Understandably. But as to what that means, well now, there’s a big basketful of variegated opinions. Poetry, by its very nature, is both condensed and symbolic. An idea that might be expressed in a full sentence in prose can be just a short phrase in poetry, so the reader hopefully understands it and fills in the rest. And for the sake of literary interest (for fun, that is), interesting words and phrases are used to represent something else. As an ancient example, the Greek writer Homer in the Iliad uses the epithet “breaker of horses” to mean the character Hector.

So how much condensation and symbolism can you put in a poem and the reader still gets it? Naturally it depends on the reader, as some are very tolerant of working hard to figure things out, even enjoy doing it, while other readers quickly think “Screw this” when they read the line “Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.”

I’m not an especially tolerant poetry reader myself. I’m not dumb and I am a fairly sophisticated reader, but I think the poet needs to do at least half the work and meet me in the middle. I don’t mind the fact that I might not totally understand a poem on first reading (though I would probably prefer to), but I have to at least enjoy things about it and get the basic idea. If instead my first reaction to a poem is “Huh?” then immediately I think “You had your chance” and I don’t read it again.

Now that I’ve set this blog entry up for you to feel good about rejecting poetry, I’m offering a poem of my own. I wrote it a few weeks ago, then revised it a bit from comments out of my writing group. I wrote this after reading a book of poems by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Good or bad, my poem is influenced by the feelings I got from reading Rumi, but I also think of this as a yoga poem.

The Meaning of Blueberries

If you are eating breakfast
with blueberries,
look at an occasional berry.

Notice the dark color.
Feel the soft firm roundness between two fingers.
Pay attention to the tang of flavor.

Blueberries are the reason you are on the earth.

As you wash a dog,
there is nothing more important than a clean dog.

When you are practicing the piano,
nothing in all the world is as crucial as where to put your fingers.

And if you decide to mow the lawn,
mowing evenly is the only thing in life that matters.

A minute from now,
the purpose of life will be different.

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