Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Flow of Civilization


Somewhere up there on the left

In the past week I’ve begun making plans to go to Mexico in November, and doing so brings to mind other trips I’ve made abroad. I’m thinking that one of the potential benefits to such travel is to expose us to other cultures, other ways of seeing the world, other ways of thinking.

Back in 1980 I made a trip with my brother to Paris, often seen as one of the cultural capitals of the world. I believe it was there that we both tried snails for the first time. We were in Paris, so we had to eat snails. And I know for certain that it was there in a Moroccan restaurant that we first tried couscous. For a long time we both had a feeling of couscous as something Parisian.

A couple of years ago I wrote a poem about that trip and about our cultural adventures. We went to Paris for two weeks and lived very cheaply. If I remember correctly, I found hotel rooms near the Panthéon—arranging it by mailing actual paper letters from West Virginia, as there was no internet then—that cost $13 a night, total, for four people. It was not fancy, but I was proud (and relieved) when we walked in with our suitcases and they said, “Ah, oui.” There it was, we had a reservation.

In the Elysian Fields

My brother and I were pleased with ourselves.
We sat drinking beer
in a small bar
on the Champs-Élysées,
in Paris,
We probably talked of nothing much,
because that’s what we would talk about in those days.
Later, we walked along the boulevard,
realizing we had a sociobiological predicament.
There were nowhere convenient to release the beer back into the world.

Which of us was the first
to abandon any pretense of culture?
Which of us had even pretended in the first place?
Thus, on the Champs-Élysées,
in Paris,
we found bushes to piss behind.
Much later in the evening,
African men were selling sausages
cooked on a small grill set up on the sidewalk.
We were hungry, we bought sausages.

What a splendid evening,
in the heart of the City of Light,
to piss in public and eat sidewalk sausages,
before we returned to the civilization
of our wives at the hotel.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

Research in Rabbittown

Rabbittown statueThere’s a place just north of here, a hop, skip, and a jump, you might say, called Rabbittown. I don’t know the actual rabbit situation, but they have stuffed toy rabbits, and ceramic rabbits, and paintings of rabbits, and a huge statue of a rabbit. What would real rabbits think about Rabbittown?

On the one paw, a rabbit might say, “Man, we gotta go there. We’ll be like little fluffy kings!” Or a rabbit might say, “Let’s stay the hell away from that. We could end up on a styrofoam plate at the Rabbittown Cafe.” I ate lunch at the Rabbittown Cafe and saw no rabbit on the menu.

But that’s not what I came here to tell you about. What I wanted to tell you is that last Saturday I went to the International Dragon Boat Races. Did you know Gainesville, Georgia, was hosting the International Dragon Boat Races? International, baby. Did you even know that dragon boats have an international racing event? Or that there’s such a thing as a dragon boat? The boats do, by the way, have an actual dragon head on the front.

Me neither, until I started reading the Gainesville paper a few months ago, as research for the current novel. Eventually I decided I wanted to put the dragon boat races in the book I’m writing, so I drove up there to see them. The races were at the same venue that was used back in 1996 for Olympic rowing events, when the Olympics were in Atlanta. The dragon races were much smaller than the Olympics, but teams came from around the world, like Switzerland and Hungary (you know, places you think about when you imagine a dragon boat).

I made a lot of notes while I was watching the boats zip across the water. Each boat had a drummer at the front, presumably to encourage the rowers. This trip was one of the more interesting ones I’ve made for research—and it included the Rabbittown Cafe for lunch, which I may also use in the book.

Everywhere I went Saturday, I was making notes, thinking about what I might want to use, which is not the same thing as going somewhere as a tourist. As a writer, for instance, I might know that one of my characters really likes trains or loves antiques, etc., so I’ll pay more attention to things like that. I also care about local details, so I always note interesting little bits, such as the women at the Rabbittown Cafe wearing purple T-shirts, or the fact that for the races the local brewer in Gainesville had made a special beer flavored with dragon fruit.

Over the years I’ve done vasty quantities of writing research. Some of it has involved reading, a beaucoup plethora of reading, or nowadays I spend a lot of time on the web (I mean, productively, not the usual way). Twenty years ago, when I started writing the book I’m currently trying to market, Birds Above the Cage, I made a research trip to a monastery and another to a strip club, where I had a chance to talk with an elderly monk and a young stripper. From each of them I learned things that I used in the book.

You can’t know where research will take you: strip club, monastery, Rabbittown Cafe, or even to watch dragon boats. For the current book, Moonapple Pie, I made a trip about a year ago to Warm Springs to see Franklin Roosevelt’s house. They had his car there, along with other things, but I didn’t see a single rabbit. I mean, not even one. What was up with that?

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)

No Such Thing As Too Dumm

A good argument can be made that the invention of writing has allowed human beings not only to accumulate more knowledge (when the oldest person in the village dies, we don’t lose everything they knew), but writing has also allowed us to think more logical and complicated thoughts.

Most of the reason for that expansion in our mental capacity is probably the fact that unlike speech, writing does not disappear the moment you encounter it. If you don’t understand it, you can look at it again, as many times as necessary. You can also concentrate on just one part of the writing until you understand it, and then move on, taking as long as you need. In addition, writing allows us to slowly and carefully organize and add to our thoughts, until we can say more complex things that would not be possible when simply speaking.

This week I had an experience—not a particularly rare one—that made me consider an opposing concept. I was looking online for a baseball cap, going through page after page of images. Many of the caps had writing on them, and much of it was so stupid it began to seem like evidence that not only writing, but even speech itself, was a bad idea.

Does writing make it possible for us to be even more stupid that normal?

For instance, consider a baseball cap that says “I Only Do Butt Stuff at the Gym”. I can pause, if you want, and give you a few minutes to come up with something dumber, or you can read on for more. A relevant point here is not just the inherent dumbness, as if stupidity were some sort of quantum force moving through space (which it is).

What makes this worse is the context. A baseball cap is not a sign on a wall, or a bumper sticker. The cap displays a phrase on top of the head that will be seen by every person the wearer talks to. So maybe “In dog years I’m dead” is faintly clever, sort of, after a beer or two, but when that phrase is on top of your head, your first greeting to everyone you meet, maybe you need more dog years.

For straight-up stupidity, how about “Barbells for Boobies.” What in God’s name does that even mean? Or—and let me emphasize that I’m NOT making these up, they’re all real—“Cowboy’s butts drive me nuts”, “Wine ‘em, dine ‘em, sixty-nine ‘em”, “If it has tits or tires, you’re gonna have problems”.

Well, boys and girls, I guess you’re thinking we’ve hit bottom, but we’re talking about human behavior here. There is no bottom. So here are a few more baseball cap phrases, which you can go and buy right now, that overtly say “Look at my baseball cap. I’m a moron.” And again, I swear to God, I did not make these up. Picture someone wearing these on their head:

  • I’m either having a midlife crisis or I need a laxative
  • Drunk slut
  • World’s largest source of natural gas
  • Asshole

If not for these baseball caps, you would have to actually talk to the people wearing them to know that they’re idiots. If they were to merely walk by, you might not even know. But now, thanks to the wondrous invention of writing, you can see them coming across the room and think, “Oh my God, where’s the door?”

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I Will Go Down to the Amethyst Ocean

purple oceanCan words really describe our lives?

I was listening to the REM song “Losing My Religion”, and it captured some of what I think of life, both in content and in the feeling you get from the song. “That was just a dream. That’s me in the corner.” The song makes me think of the question up above, but I think of that question also in part because when I write, that’s what I’m trying to do, describe life.

I’m not wondering whether words can be used to describe a moment or a feeling, because I think they can. What I’m thinking, as absurd as it seems to me, is whether words can capture what it is like to be human here on the earth, in this existence.

That, I believe, cannot be done. The slightest consideration shows how vast and impossible it would be. Would I describe an old woman who is widowed and cleans a church in Venice, Italy, in the Middle Ages, how she looks up every day at the sad eyes of the Virgin Mary on one of the statues? Would I describe a young man learning to fish from his father, living on a small pacific island where he has never heard of other places, the way the young man loves the feeling of his canoe gliding across the water? Would I describe a banker in Chicago being driven to work by his chauffeur in the 1950s, as he wonders where his daughter is who ran away to New York?

The very idea of “describing human life” is foolish. And yet I try, illogical as that is, even as I know I’m going to fail. It’s weird, isn’t it, to recognize that I aim at failure? I am compelled by it, driven by it, passionate about it—to aim at what is going to fail. Where can such a thing lead me?

Perhaps the impossibility of words in a logical narrative draws me to things like REM’s “Losing My Religion” or the songs of Bob Dylan or moments in the novel Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. I’ve also been drawn to Russian decadent poetry, such as this verse from Zinaida Gippius (I’m the one guilty of the translation that follows):

Вас гонят… Словно дети малые,
Дрожат мечта и красота…
Целую ноги их усталые,
Целую старые уста.

They pursue you…as though young children,
The tremble of dream and beauty…
I kiss their weary limbs,
I kiss their worn lips.

Sometimes, when words are put together in ways that don’t make sense, they may evoke something beyond logic, something that is an indescribable part of our existence, actually beyond words.

When you think about it, words are only a very clumsy way of trying to express our thoughts, and even our thoughts cannot comprehend fully what it is to be human. Thus we have philosophy and religion and art. And words that patter and prance across the soft deep beckoning of a violet sea.

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I Think I’ll Call This One…

Adam naming the animals

And that one is called Grrr, no wait, Lion.

According to one source of the origin of the universe, within the first few days, Adam, the only human in existence, gave names to all the animals. What language he was speaking isn’t clear, but I think it might have been Yiddish. Quite a while later, the Swedish scientist Linneaus decided that he would name everything alive, such as Mus musculus (mouse), or Ficus carica (fig tree), using his double Latin names. And then in the late 1960s/early 1970s, even rock-n-roll started to get various names, like bubblegum, heavy metal, glam rock, and so on.

It’s human nature to name things, and people who like books have had at it. They’ve come up with names for different types of literature, and we even have a name for the names: genres. Good old Wikipedia lists more than 20 genres just for fiction, such as mystery, western, fantasy, horror, humor, etc. If you go on to the “subgenres” you can loose interest scrolling down the page, they have so many.

One of the difficulties with genres, however, is that many works of fiction don’t really fit into anything. Thus we have the “genre” (this is real, I didn’t make this up) of “literary fiction”. Aside from being a pretentious and incredibly vague name, it is also very common. And the kind of writing I do falls into that category.

Many literary agents specifically say they will represent literary fiction. When it comes to what that is, however, it’s not rare to see sentences like “I want great books by skilled writers” (as opposed to the other kind). Here are some modern examples of literary fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Life of Pi by Yan Martel, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

This week I found an interview with four literary agents, which I read part of. As they described the process of looking for an agent, of getting published, and of how they see the publishing field at the moment, I found myself slumping into a lethargic depression. One of the points they seemed to make is how difficult it is to publish literary fiction, one person describing it as “impossible”. How much was that intended as exaggeration?

I would also say to anyone who listens that it’s impossible to get a literary agent, at least if you write literary fiction. I was once recommended to an agent by another writer. Over and over I hear (and even read in that same interview I just mentioned) that a recommendation is the golden key to open the door. In my case, however, the agent looked at what I sent her, then wrote me and said, “It’s too hard to sell this kind of book.” Yeah, it’s a literary novel.

Was it easier when Mark Twain was first writing a novel? Could a writer at the time of Edith Wharton assume that if you had talent and worked hard, you would eventually be published? Perhaps the situation is much worse now than it used to be. All of the novels I named above have been very popular, in some cases extremely popular, and there are others. Why, then, is it so difficult to publish a literary novel?

In the broadest sense, every society needs art. The more the art flourishes, the healthier the society. I personally think there could be no such thing as too much artistic expression. I’d like to see murals and sculpture and public art everywhere you look in every city and town. Such art would be like oxygen for the spirit.

One aspect of art that a society needs is literature. Humans have always used language to tell stories and entertain, which is fine in the written form (such as romance novels or spy thrillers). We also must have books that explore what it means to be human, or we will be a philosophically shallow, spiritually hungry people. We cannot thrive without the kind of books that have been labeled literary novels.

So even if the agents don’t want them, even if it is impossible to sell them, I’m going to write them.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living