Monthly Archives: April 2018

Georgia Literary Writers

The Plain Houses by Julia FranksEvery two years here in Atlanta, GA, a literary prize is given to a Georgia novelist, and this was the year for the Townsend Prize. The prize is sponsored by the literary magazine The Chattahoochee Review (which I worked on years ago), which is now edited by my friend Anna Schachner.

I’ve been to the awards ceremony the last two times it took place, and I went again this year, on Thursday this week, taking my girlfriend to the ceremony, as she’s interested in writing, and I thought she might find it engaging. The event was held in downtown Decatur at the old courthouse, which is architecturally fairly striking, and also far too small to be of much practical use as a courthouse, so the old courthouse now contains a small history museum downstairs and a meeting space upstairs, where the award was given.

When we went upstairs we found a room filled with round tables, covered with tablecloths, and for a nice touch, a pot of live hydrangeas on each table. In a corner, a group of three musicians was playing soft jazzy versions of country and western music, or at times simply leaning over into pure jazz, because sometimes an acoustic bass just wants to do that.

Another nice way to begin the evening was with a drink, and at the back, a small bar was set up on either side of the room for beer or wine. Having two bars was how you could tell that this was a literary event. In another room, a buffet had been set up with hors d’oeuvres (if you can call a mighty tasty pimento cheese an hors d’oeuvre—I don’t know whether the French make pimento cheese), so we had food, and drink, and music, and we were content with our neighbors waiting for the literary celebration to begin.

When the ceremony was underway, Anna explained that the process of choosing the Townsend winner began with seven people reading 27 nominated novels, from which 10 finalists were chosen. At that point, three outside readers, living in other states, were asked to read the books and comment on them. Based on their comments, a winner was chosen. The ten finalists this year were:

  • The Guineveres by Sarah Domet
  • Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
  • The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson
  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
  • The Lemon Jell-O Syndrome by Man Martin
  • Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
  • The Half Wives by Stacia Pelletier
  • Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb
  • Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann
  • The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang

I was pleased to see Stacia Pelletier in the room, as I had read another novel by her when she was nominated for this same prize four years earlier. Last year when I had a book release for my collection of short stories (I’d Tear Down the Stars), Stacia was also generous enough to attend and be a reader with me, reading from her work. I wasn’t aware that she was nominated for the Townsend this year until I went to her table to say hello.

Before the winner of the prize was announced, a keynote speaker talked, and this year the speaker was the writer Brad Watson, who talked about what inspired him in writing his latest novel, Miss Jane. Brad is from Mississippi, but now living in Wyoming. So he has the southern thing, whatever that might be. From his comments about his writing and his life as a writer, I wrote down a line, which I think captured the dilemma of writers who do the kind of work I do: “I think almost all literary writers have to have a day job.” With few exceptions, we work and we write when we can. For Brad, that day job is teaching writing in academia.

And the winner of the Townsend prize this year, as you already see from my illustration, was Julia Franks for her novel Over the Plain Houses. After she was announced as winner, Julia spoke for a few minutes. In her remarks, she made a point of thanking those institutions and resources outside the publishing machine in New York: small regional publishers, local bookstores, literary festivals, and local reviewers and websites. For many literary writers, these are critical resources.

In additional, regional literary awards such as the Townsend prize help to encourage writers in a field of endeavor that can feel lonely and unrewarded for a very long time. There was only one winner, but all of the finalists had spent long hours to earn the right to be sitting there.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

It’s Hard to Describe What I Feel

two people standing on a cliff

What are you thinking about?

Picture yourself back in high school, and the bully who has been paying attention to you recently comes along in the hall, pretends to accidentally bump into you, and knocks everything you’re carrying into the floor. “God, you’re so clumsy!” he says, walking off laughing. Later in the day, if you happen to see him slip on the ice in the parking lot and smack down on the ground, what emotion instantly goes through your mind?

The Germans have a word for this emotion: Schadenfreude (if you don’t know German, it’s pronounced something like SHAH-den-froy-duh), to take pleasure from the suffering of another person. This week I read that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, the one who paid off the porn star, suddenly had his office and home searched by Federal investigators. I knew what Trump’s unhappy reaction would be—something along the lines of screaming and cursing at the TV.

I don’t think Schadenfreude is a positive emotion. It’s just the opposite, in fact, but we don’t choose our emotions, they choose us. Given what a horrible person Donald Trump is, I could not have been more delighted to learn about the raid on the lawyer’s office. Schadenfreude, baby.

I’ve read that psychology researchers have identified six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. Notice how common each of those words is, so common you would expect to easily find a translation into any other language. All humans experience those six emotions in some form, but in the complexity of our lives, we can experience more than one emotion at the same time, or subtle gradations of an emotion, or the emotion can be evoked for various reasons.

Language is limited. As it’s based on cultural and social interaction, language can only do so much. In the vast ocean of human psychology, we might experience and feel many things that we actually don’t have words for. As an example of this complexity, take the Japanese word “natsukashii”, which means to long for the past with a mix of being happy for having the memory of something that was good, together with sadness that the thing you remember is gone.

I don’t intend here to simply make a list of such words, but let’s have one more example. The French phrase “l’appel du vide”, which we could translate as something like “the call of the void”, describes a feeling that comes from realizing we could throw ourselves into a great empty space, like jumping off a building. It doesn’t mean you actually want to, but rather that you experience both exhilaration and fear from the thought of it.

If you care to find more such words, you can easily go online and find lists. I think the existence of all these words is one of the wonderful things about the human mind, that we create words for the variety of our experience of the world. By analogy, we’ve done the same thing with other aspects of life. In English, for instance, we have the words teal, vermillion, and mauve, not limiting ourselves to green, red, and purple.

It is possible to live without all these words. Years ago I read that there was a language in which the people had only two color words, basically meaning “warm colors” and “cool colors”. It’s not that they couldn’t see the range of colors, they just didn’t have words for them, because they didn’t need them. In the same way, you may have experienced “l’appel du vide” when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but maybe you didn’t have a word for that creepy idea that you could just jump off.

I think we’re better off to have a wide range of words, representing some of the small intricacies of our lives. The more words we know, the more we can think about things in subtle ways, so that we possibly live richer and maybe even more civilized lives. So if you’re in the mood to invent words, how about more words to describe garlic? We could use words for things like: a slight hint of garlic in the air, the strong smell of garlic cooking, the zing of raw garlic in a dish, the mellow savor of garlic cooked in food, and so on. Don’t we need special words for all of this? We could use those words in my house.

Leave a comment

Filed under Language

Write Into Other Worlds

wall mural of woman in colorNow that it’s April, I’ll say I’m
looking for silver bells to chime
to celebrate these thirty days
and all the splendid, curving ways
we take our words and make them rhyme.

As well as the stuff that doesn’t rhyme. April is National Poetry Month, though I wonder who decided. Who makes something a “national month”? Surely not Congress. I cannot imagine that wretched pit of semiliterates commemorating poetry. But here it is anyway. I want to commemorate poetry myself by noting that in addition to the pleasure and meaning poetry can bring to our individual lives, it also makes human beings more civilized.

After some thought, I decided that the evocation of civilization even includes the old epic poetry. I’m most familiar with the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey, and at first I did not think of them as promoting civilization, considering how violent they are. Honestly, it’s weird and disturbing how brutally savage those poems are, and yet, they helped to create a sense among the ancient Greeks of having a common culture, of being part of the Greek world. When you think about the idea of being a member of a large group as opposed to only belonging to small hostile tribes, that way of thinking is definitely a step toward civilization.

Poetry also works with language, which is quintessentially human, perhaps the single most human quality we possess. Language is accessible to everyone, and the very material of poetry is this essential human skill combined with human experience. Poetry thus arises, in a sense, out of everyone. Because poetry can also be very short, it feels more available to people who might not try something that requires more investment of time and effort. For these reasons, poetry is probably the one art form that the majority of humans have tried. Most people do not compose music, or paint paintings, or write novels, but most people have probably written (or started to write) at least one poem in their life, even if only one.

Another way poetry makes us civilized is that by its very nature it takes our human skill of language and shapes it in ways that require thought, knowledge, and feeling. These are qualities of the mind, ways of thinking that involve contemplation and examination. The more that human beings learn to exercise these qualities–to consider things carefully, to think about things–the closer we come to being civilized.

I would also argue that poetry makes us more civilized by giving us a very accessible form of expression that feels more intense and rich than normal speech. It is our nature that we need to express our thoughts and feelings, and if we don’t, we become ill and broken. As to why we need to do this, I have no idea, but clearly we need to express ourselves, to “get things out” and poetry is right there available. It does not have to be good poetry in some artistic sense to have a civilizing effect. What matters is that the anguished teenager can write it and find emotional relief.

Poetry furthermore allows us, when we read it, to go inside other people’s experiences, including some that are radically different from what we know. With poetry we can go into the mind of other people in other places with other cultural values, and when we feel the emotion in the poetry, then we can begin to understand our common humanity with another person. If we connect with people from other cultures and places, that is also a step on the road to civilization.

I’ll end with three lines from the beginning of a poem by a poet who was writing early in the 20th century, but who still feels on the edge of experimentation, e. e. cummings (which is how he spelled his name):

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through have of give
singing each morning out of night

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized