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

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Even Without Beer and Cake

French spaniels

French spaniels

Here in the exciting world of a writer’s life…

But that statement doesn’t fully capture what it’s like. Maybe I need another adverb, such as “here in the very exciting world of a writer’s life…” Although that still doesn’t get it. I could say “a world bordering on a nonstop heroin high of creativity leading to a constant state of sugar magic”.

Or is that too much?

It is a bit much, because even at its best, even when the writing process is working well and flowing, I’m still sitting here and at some level thinking “it would be nice to have a beer right now”. Or if a big slice of moist chocolate cake were somehow possible, then it would be “Writing? What writing?”

For the record, let me just say I am never going to turn down chocolate cake—or for that matter beer—because I’m caught up in what I’m working on. Those adverbs will wait.

And that’s when the writing process is at its best, when the words just rush to your fingertips to throw themselves forward to fill the white space, pulling phrases of depth and cleverness along behind them, when the characters suddenly look up at you and wink and say, “Why yes, I am real,” when the plot turns down a road you didn’t even know was there and you realize, “My God, this is better than I expected”.

Of course, as we all know, or at least those of us what have done it, the writing process is rarely at its best. Much of the time, it is more like staring at a screen (or paper, if you have a fondness for antique forms of labor), you stare, you sigh, you look around as if the wall on the other side of the room will somehow help you, you turn back, sigh again, and write something, though fewer words than you had hoped. Then you look at it and think “Oh, that is so dull AND stupid AND clichéd.”

Maybe there’s something good on TV instead.

Maybe the mall is still open instead.

Maybe the ice cream stand is open late instead.

Anyway, here in the exciting world of a writer’s life, as I was saying, I am officially writing the novel Moonapple Pie, and I mean “writing” in the sense of using words to make up stuff. Not just doing research, not making notes, not thinking about what to write, but actually creating sentences, most of which have subjects, and all of which surely have verbs.

Here’s an example, from the middle of the first chapter, when the character Elliott first appears. Months ago, while making notes on the characters, I decided that he would have dogs, so I used them to open his section.

“Three French spaniels ran across a grassy meadow, tongues out, long ears flopping, happy dashers across the grass. “Hoochie!” Elliott yelled at the dog that had slowed and stopped as it found something interesting in the field. The other two dogs, Stormy and Rider, ran to him and sat. “Hoochie!” he yelled again, so that the dog looked up and flew across the field toward him. When the dogs were in front of him, Elliott said, “Gentlemen, stand!” and all three dogs rose up momentarily on their hind legs. As they dropped into natural doggery again, Elliott laughed and gave each of them a treat from his pocket. The dogs were named for songs by Elliott’s favorite band, the Allman Brothers, with names taken from Midnight Rider, Stormy Monday, and Hoochie Coochie Man.”

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I Know Your Name

woman in sunglasses

Italian?

A piece of writing from ancient Egypt describes one of the pharaohs in mythological terms, saying he is so powerful that “even his mother does not know his name”. It’s a striking—even weird—phrase, and it must have been just as strange in ancient Egypt. Children’s names normally come from the mother, and if his own mother didn’t know his name, what was going on there?

The story illustrates something about ancient Egyptian belief. In aggrandizing the pharaoh, the story might have said how much gold he had, how many slaves he controlled, or how much grain was in his storehouses. These physical signs of power would be expected. But the ancient Egyptians believed that knowing someone’s name carried a certain amount of power over that person. Thus the pharaoh was compared to the gods themselves, able to keep his name hidden. That’s how powerful his was. Even his own mother didn’t know his name.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve thought about several completely unrelated instances of naming in our own society, and what they say about us.

Empty names

Surprisingly often, you can find poems that the poet has titled “Untitled”. If you think about it, that is not a poem with no title. A poem with no title would have a blank space at the top where the title is missing. Instead, such poems have been given a title, which is centered at the top, probably in bold font, reading Untitled.

Are those poems supposed to be a literary equivalent of an Egyptian pharaoh? “This poem is so great, even the poet does not know its name.” What is that nonsense about? I believe this is an example of a lazy poet. I know how hard it is to come up with a good title, and sometimes I will have a work completely finished (poem, short story, or novel) and still can’t think of a title I like. I know it’s hard. So I work at it, the way anyone who claims to be good with words should. If you just don’t bother, and instead use some stupid pretense of a title, what does that say about you?

Grovel names

You may have heard the phrase “civic pride” even though we said goodbye to that foolishness long ago. A century ago, large public projects, such as theaters, stadiums, or train stations were considered to be embellishments to a city, something people took pride in for the place where they lived. Here in our modern age, however, we have become frantic to the point of psychosis to avoid paying for public facilities, so we engage in ubiquitous groveling before large companies in naming public entertainment facilities.

Here in the Atlanta Area, for example, we have an electric power company called Cobb EMC, and in exchange for their financial support, the electric company was given the opportunity to disgrace an arts center by naming it after themselves, as the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. Isn’t that charming? Doesn’t it evoke art and beauty? I might have said the city embarrassed themselves by doing this, but of course modern cities are not capable of embarrassment. The kind of gray drones who thought this was a good idea probably really and honestly cannot tell the difference. We can easily find hundreds of examples of municipalities stooping to debase themselves in this way. It’s what we do now.

Considered names

I have a friend who wants to open a business in Puerto Rico. He’s thinking that a store selling eye glasses might be lucrative and is considering this seriously. When he told me about the idea, I asked if he had thought of a name for the business, which he had. In fact, he had given it quite a bit of thought. As he explained it, he thinks good glasses come from Italy (or perhaps he just meant good sunglasses), so that people associate Italy with a quality product in eye glasses. Therefore he made up an Italian name for his store. The idea, of course, is that when people in Puerto Rico see the name, they will almost unconsciously think “Ah, yes.”

My friend told me about the process he used to think of the name, considering various names and how they sound, what they seem to connote, even taking pieces from different languages and putting them together. I respected what he did, as I use a similar process when I name things, including characters in the novels. Coming up with the right name isn’t simple, and it isn’t easy. But if you take pride in what you create, you do the work.

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What Are Those Sounds?

colored rosesLike most people, I do not come from a village where everyone is thoughtful, wise, and tolerant. That doesn’t mean everyone is especially bad, but humans have their limitations. It seems to be our true nature that we are at least wary of what is different from us. And that’s the good version. At worst, that natural feeling runs to the forest, bares its fangs, and we get intolerance, fear, and hatred.

Fortunately, the worst is no more common than the best, yet the big gray middle carries a plenitude of anxiety about The Other. One way the “otherness” of other people is manifest is in the language they speak. This is so obviously true that even very slight dialect differences within the same native language can set people apart. And what if they speak a totally different language? That’s nothing but noise! That’s spooky.

I’m a language lover, however. When I lived in New York Ciy, I liked to go to a section of Brooklyn called Brighton Beach, as it was filled with Russians, which was cool for me as a person who had learned the language. I don’t know that I really tried to speak the language much there, but I just liked that it was all around, with many of the signs in Russian: книги (books), ресторан (restaurant) овощи (vegetables). Of course if you crossed over to Manhattan and went to Chinatown, you got exactly the same thing, but in Chinese.

In the last twenty years or so, the city of Atlanta has become remarkably diverse in ethnic and cultural terms. That’s not to say all that interesting ethnicity holds much power, but it’s here. I live near a road in the city that is famous for the multitude of immigrants, and you can drive along seeing signs in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese for mile after mile, with a tiny bit of Ethiopian thrown in.

As you know, there are people here in America who feel threatened by cultural changes, and their lurch into fear often gets expressed as a reaction to language. In some places, the change has been dramatic. In my hometown of Gainesville, an hour from here, there has been a massive Hispanic influx, and a road I remember as small-town southern white is now lined with signs in Spanish. I mentioned this fact to a family member, who had an instantaneous negative reaction, along the lines of “They need to learn English if they’re going to come here!”

And of course, over time they do learn English (not that actual facts are part of this anxiety). A little over a hundred years ago there were towns in this country where German newspapers were published, because so many people there spoke mostly German. Now the great-grandchildren of those people probably don’t know ten words of German. New immigrants obviously speak the language they know the best, and I have observed the process—with more than one language—where immigrants speak to their children in the native language, and the children understand but reply in English.

Still…fear of The Other, you know. Plenty of people in this country, based on nothing much more than their own anxiety, declare as a fact that “The Hispanics don’t want to learn English.” Last week when I was in Miami, I took a bus tour that went through the famous Cuban section of Miami, called Little Havannah. Surely if you can live in this country speaking nothing but Spanish, it would be there. As we rode through on the bus, down the main street called Calle Ocho (which means Eighth Street, but in Spanish!), I was noticing how many signs I saw in English. Yes, I saw Spanish, but English signs were everywhere I looked. Clearly, people in Little Havannah are not speaking only Spanish.

I want to be sympathetic to people who feel anxious and afraid of change. I know their uneasiness is natural, but when it comes to language, I love languages so much that I think “ah, the more the better”. I would love to step outside my door and see signs in Polish, hear people speaking French, and walk down to stores with names in Ethiopian. That sounds beautiful to me.

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Start Climbing

stone wallWe’ve had this quiz before, but let’s do it again. What are people called who “help” writers get published? They are literary agents, the word “literary” in many cases being more of a job description than an indication of the type of writing. A literary agent could, for instance, only handle books by sports stars who didn’t actually write their own autobiographies. And OK, such books do use the alphabet, so maybe that is a kind of literature.

How does a person obtain a literary agent? I just wrote that question there as if I were going to follow it with an answer, but a better answer would come from someone who actually knows how to obtain an agent. I apparently do not know, though I think I can say with some confidence that if you want to ease your path in this regard, do not write literary novels.

I write literary novels. I don’t choose to do that, it’s just what I write. I also did not make up that phrase “literary novels”—that’s official publishing terminology that comes closest to describing my writing, given that I don’t write thrillers or children’s books or romance novels. Etcetera.

For a couple of years I’ve been trying to market a novel called The Invention of Colors. When I use the verb “market” I mean I’ve been contacting literary agents to see if one of them will take the book, and thus become my agent, then try to sell the book to a publisher. If you aren’t familiar with the publishing industry—and industry is probably the right word at this point—you might reasonably ask why I don’t simply talk to publishers myself. Why not, Davy? Huh? The problem is that quite a few publishers have decided that even though they depend on writers for their very existence, they absolutely will not talk to writers, but only to literary agents.

Did I mention that the publishing industry is run by Satan? If I did, I was only spreading gossip, because I don’t know that for an actual fact. Evidence is not definite proof, as we learned back in logic class.

So I’ve been marketing a novel, a process that has involved going to a writers conference several times to talk to agents who were attending, and it has involved sending query letters and writing samples to agents by email. Years ago I made up a list of possible agents, with just over 200 names on the list.

The information is far out of date, however. Before I send query letters out, I research every name, and such research really is critical. You find that a person has moved to another agency, a particular agency has shut down, another agency has changed the way they want submissions done, and so on. In doing the research, I discovered that almost half of my list is no use to me, for various reasons, including people who died and others who only handle Christian writers.

don’t rush with bright eyes and a gleeful cry into this agent-hunting process, not because I’m sober and careful, but because I hate it so incredibly. Nevertheless, after many months of slowly working through the list, I have finally made it to the end, sending a letter to every possibility. Afterward, I counted how many agents I had talked to, and between the email submissions and people who I talked to in person at the conferences, I seem to have contacted just shy of 120 agents.

At which point, I ask myself how much more I am willing to do with trying to market this book. Someday, The Invention of Colors will be published, after I figure out how to get past the wall of agents who are determined to stop me. It will be published. But for now, I’ll let it sit. I will wait a while, maybe six months or so, and then I’ll start marketing again, but with a different novel, as I have another ready to go. And if the wall of agents continues to block that one, I’m beginning to write another.

Someday, that wall will come down.

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Mule Camp Springs

Downtown Gainesville

Downtown Gainesville

Last Saturday I was sitting in a bar ordering a beer, because I was doing research. And as long as I needed to do the research, I had a nice little IPA, the kind of beer I really like these days. The bar was called Mule Camp Tavern, and my research went on for a while, so I had a second beer.

This research took place in Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour from where I live. In the early days of the town, it was named Mule Camp Springs, and thus the name of the bar. I was passing through the town with my brother, who is always up for glass or two of research, so he offered to drink a couple while I made notes and walked around the bar to see what it looked like. To the left of the bar was a room with green walls and three pool tables, which had red felt surfaces.

I was thinking about whether to use this bar in the new novel I’m working on, so I had to visit to decide whether it would work for me, and if so, I needed to make notes. I believe I will indeed use that bar, so if it can stay in business until this book is published 80 or 90 years from now, this should boost their sales.

For the last few months as I’ve worked on the novel Moonapple Pie, I’ve mostly been expanding the outline, adding details, trying to see that the plot will flow smoothly from beginning to end, and thinking about whether dramatic tension is maintained. I’m trying to do that. I would not confidently declare that I am achieving that goal, but I’ve put months into thinking about it before seriously beginning to write.

Gainesville is my home town, where I was born, got baptized, joined the Boy Scouts, and graduated high school. I also did some other things that were waaay more fun, but which a baptized Boy Scout does not talk about. When I was very young, however, we didn’t live there, but moved back to the town when I was ten, and after high school graduation I left (like a bat out of hell, I have to admit). So I lived there about eight years.

No matter how profound those youthful years were, I only had eight years of my long life in Gainesville. Since then, the town has become 40% Hispanic, gained some very good restaurants, and has its own local brewery. Not at all the same town where I helped my grandfather deliver a pickup truck full of corn to the farmer’s market. When I write Moonapple Pie, I want to give a sense of the town as it is in 2018 (when the novel will take place).

For every book I write, trying to capture a feeling for the setting is extremely important for me. The place is always a part of the book, not just background. Our Boy Scout cabin in the woods is long gone, and the church where I was baptized now has a sign out front in Spanish. On the lively square downtown, you can sit at tables outside, look at the trees that surround the space, and drink very good beer.

After working so much on my outline, I feel like I’ve done all I can with it, and the pondering has to move into scribbling. Of course some research will continue. I still need to visit Gainesville to check some things out, like deciding where one of my characters will have her farm, or I want to visit the arts center to see how how they offer classes, and I’m thinking about whether to attend part of a herbal medicine conference that will happen in the mountains in October.

Still, I am more than ready to write, I can feel the words in my blood, wanting to get out. So soon I’ll be in that zone of watching reality appear on the page. In the meantime, next week I’m going with my girlfriend on vacation to Miami, where I’ve never been, and where I hear they have pink and turquoise buildings and plenty of Cuban food. I’ve also found an interesting looking Peruvian restaurant down there, selling Peruvian beer. One of those beers looks quite good, and I think I have to go try it. That will not be research.

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Many Thoughts From the Same Words

Greek pottery with a laurel wreath

Rewarded with a laurel wreath

On a warm sunny afternoon this past Saturday, I went with my girlfriend to Emory University, where I ignored a sign saying “Lot Full,” drove around it, and pulled into a parking garage where there were, in fact, empty spaces. Ha, lot not so full after all.

While I’m still parking the car, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “poet laureate,” a phrase with an interesting etymology. It’s odd in English to have the adjective “laureate” come after the noun, but we just think of the whole phrase now as a type of poet. The adjective refers to a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree, something started in ancient Greece as a way to recognize people who won contests, such as the Olympics.

So technically, maybe “poet laureate” means a poet wearing a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree. Or nowadays, it means the official poet of some place, such as the United States. This past Saturday, we were at Emory because my girlfriend had heard that the Poet Laureate of the U.S., Tracy K. Smith, would be giving a reading, and we wanted to hear it.

Thus we found ourselves at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, an impressive building with an extremely high ceiling, whose purpose appeared to be creating grandeur, although there could be an acoustic purpose as well, I guess. The building does have a two-story high organ against the far wall, behind a stage.

We had assumed we’d have to arrive well ahead of the event to be able to find a seat, so we got there at 3:00, an hour early. When we arrived, only five or six people were in the lobby, and I wondered if the place could be filled already. In fact—the doors had not yet opened. Those five or six people, plus us, was who had arrived that early. So my girlfriend and I sat and talked, and that was good, because we can both do that.

People drifted in gradually, and about twenty minutes till 4:00, the doors were opened, and we hurried to get seats, but we need not have hurried. We looked around and wondered whether the light turnout would be embarrassing to the poet. I said, however, that if the poet had reached the status of Poet Laureate, she had spent years going to small events, hoping to read her poetry to someone, and lucky if twenty people showed up. By the time the reading started, the auditorium actually looked quite full, though seats were still available.

Before that afternoon I didn’t know Tracy K. Smith, as I don’t really follow contemporary poets. There was something about her manner when she spoke that made her very appealing to me, a sort of calmness and intelligence. I found the reading interesting, and I was very glad to be there, but she only read for about thirty minutes, so I didn’t feel like I had been exposed to her poetry enough to say much about it.

At least from this reading, the main idea I got was Smith’s interest in history and for using that in her poetry. The use of history was not as simple as writing poems about events in the past, but rather writing with a sense of history, which might even form a kind of “substory” to a poem that takes place in our own time. I don’t know if I’m getting her exactly here, but maybe I have some sense of what has influenced her.

Smith also read some poems written with a technique I’d never heard of, using the original words from historical documents to create a poem. To me this felt a bit like pushing the envelope for what a “poem” is—though I’m in favor of pushing the envelope in art (maybe in life). She had one poem, for instance, that seemed to consist entirely of quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which I recognized), quotes that were pulled out and read to create a new sort of work from the fragmentary phrases.

I came away from this reading thinking about the concept of a poem, and more broadly, thinking about the concept of any kind of literary work. We had sat in an auditorium listening to the poet speak, and speech itself is, after all, just sounds. As those sounds reached us, our brains turned them into thoughts, then took those thoughts and went where they would go.

Every person in the auditorium was creating different thoughts based on the sounds of the speaker. Tracy K. Smith read us poems consisting of her words, or words from other documents, giving us the sounds to send our minds in multiple directions. Many thoughts from the same words. I suppose that’s part of what poetry does.

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