Who is Colm Toibin and how do you pronounce his name?

Probably the hardest thing to know about Colm Toibin is how to pronounce his name. After that, reading his work is a smooth ride, with pleasant bumps and grooves along the way.

The author himself pronounces his name as CUH-lum Toe-BEAN. The “lm” in “Colm” is a separate syllable.

In the film, Brooklyn, the name of the young immigrant woman, Eilis, is pronounced AY-lish, though many Irish people would say EYE-lish.

Somehow, this brief look at Irish pronunciation helped me to enter the fictional world of Toibin. The world itself is front and center for me right now, as I’ve read three of his novels and am poised to read more.

My first introduction to Toibin—before I was familiar with the author’s name—was reading the script for Brooklyn, then watching the 2016 movie. Then I read Nora Webster, The Master, and Brooklyn, in that order. Then I watched the movie again, with fresh eyes and an appreciation for the filmmaking that was heightened by the books I had read.

I am now a Toibin reader. I like his style, and I like his stories. He is at ease with his settings. Nora Webster takes place in Ireland; The Master is set in England and Italy; Brooklyn is set in Ireland and, of course, Brooklyn. The time frames extend from the 1890s (The Master) to contemporary (1950s, 1960s, and beyond). The characters range from a fictional Henry James (The Master) to young and middle-aged women as they search for their identity and their unique place in life (Brooklyn and Nora Webster).

Toibin’s style is deceptively simple. He uses dialogue generously, and trusts the reader to place himself or herself in the setting and time frame he has in mind. Except for The Master, which is divided into chronological sections, he does not tell the reader where he/she is, or what year it is. Toibin simply tells the story, trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. Not for him the intense detail and sophisticated style of, say, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

What is it about the Irish that makes them such natural and engaging storytellers? I put this question out there without knowing the answer. It’s like the magic in one of their own legends of leprechauns and pookas. It’s just there, and I accept the gift, gratefully.

Of the three Toibin novels I’ve read so far, I am most drawn to Brooklyn. It is the immigrant story told from a fresh point of view. Not Ellis Island around the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. Not dire poverty and escape and/or banishment from one’s homeland. Eilis is a 1950s character, with strong family ties, who comes to America freely, is sponsored by a friendly priest, has a job in place and is enrolled in night school. She faces the prospect of a new life and new relationships—as well as the option of returning to the familiar community and people of her birth.

Toibin’s style is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t reach for the right word. The right word—or phrase or paragraph or dialogue—seems to flow effortlessly from what preceded it, and into what follows. I didn’t find myself marking memorable passages. His is an even-handed style that grows out of the story, rather than one that is imposed on the story. The seamless fusion of style, story, dialogue, and narrative is a magical art that is not necessarily Irish but is always impressive. Jane Austen does it as well as anybody.

More about Toibin to come. I am just beginning to put my thoughts together—and I have some more reading to do.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and died on July 18, 1817. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her death. It’s strange that we mark the year of her death with conferences, events, exhibits, and celebrations. It seems more appropriate to mark the anniversary of the year of her coming into the world rather than that of her going out of it. But Jane Austen societies throughout the world would not, I feel certain, agree. We hang our tributes to the celebrated dead on two hooks: the entrance year and the exit year.

I have been reading Jane Austen’s six novels since I was in my late teens. She has influenced my writing profoundly. I admire her, most especially, for her use of dialogue. Jane Austen’s dialogue is superb in several respects: It is, first of all, ahead of its time in its effortlessness, its grace, and its informality. One could dump the first chapter dialogue of Pride and Prejudice into a TV script, update the grammar and contemporary references, and create a modern couple, Mr. and Mrs. B. They are comically—even tragically—mismatched, dependent upon one another, living in the dim afterglow of a long-lost attraction.

Mrs. B: Have you heard? Someone has finally bought the old Netherfield house down the street.

Mr. B does not respond. He is watching ESPN.

Mrs. B: Well? Don’t you want to know who bought it?

Mr. B: Obviously, you want to tell me, and you can’t wait for a commercial break, so go ahead. You have my divided attention.

Mrs. B: Well! Mrs. Long next door says the house was sold to a young man—a rich young man—from London—or maybe it was New York. He came here on Monday in a Jaguar—or it might have been a Mustang—to see the place. Mrs. Long says he was sold on it almost immediately, or at least before he left. It’s such a fine old place! He’s to move in by late September. They’re starting work on the house next week. Pouring money into it, I’m told.

Mr. B: What’s his name?

Mrs. B: Bentley. Or maybe it was Barclay. I didn’t hear his first name

Mr. B: He has a wife, I assume? A family?

Mrs. B: That’s the thing, Mr. B: he’s single! A single man. Rich. Living right here in our neighborhood. I hear he’s a millionaire. Maybe a multimillionaire. What a great thing for our girls!

Mr. B: What does it have to do with them?

Mrs. B: How can you be so dense? He’s single! He’s rich! You must know that he could easily fall in love with—even marry—one of our girls.

Mr. B: I see what you mean. A single man, rich, possibly a millionaire, must want a wife to help him spend his hard-won fortune. Why not one of our girls? Is that why he’s moving into the neighborhood?

Mrs. B: Of course not! He doesn’t even know us. But he has only to meet our girls to fall in love with one of them. It’s up to you to get to know him, so he gets to know our girls. You can stop by, offer to help him get settled, introduce him to your business cronies, invite him over for a backyard barbecue—that sort of thing.

Mr. B: Thank you for your confidence in me, Mrs. B. and, God knows, the household and student-loan bills are piling up. But I don’t think I’m cut out to be a matchmaker. You and the girls go—or you can send them over by themselves, one by one, so he can look them over and choose the one he likes best. Come to think of it, since you’re as pretty as any of them, that might be the better plan. We wouldn’t want this Bentley or Barclay fellow to choose you instead of one of them.

And so on.

In addition to its easy grace and modern feel, Jane Austen’s dialogue brilliantly reveals character. The author doesn’t have to tell the reader about her characters; the dialogue says it all—although she may give us some insight, and often does. Here’s her description of the Bennets:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

I always have a complete set of Jane Austen’s novels on my bookshelf, which I replace when they become dog-eared and begin to fall apart. I don’t know why I keep going back to them. She died two centuries ago. We live in a different world—or do we? Is there a way a novelist can capture character—and express that character through dialogue—that is so solid, true, and revelatory that it never goes out of date? Isn’t that why her novels, which are essentially six variations on the same story, seem so fresh, even today? She never went out of her depth. She wrote only peripherally about the historical events of her time, and only insofar as they impinge on her characters. Her stories are character driven, and her characters are money driven, sometimes by greed, but usually by necessity.

Jane Austen writes about people who happened to live in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because she lived at that time—but they are timelessly humorous, flawed, governed by their quirks and their frustrations. They behave as they do because their lens onto the world is clouded, as is ours, to a greater or lesser extent. They see as we see—through a glass, darkly.

Interview with Toni

Judith Kirscht is a fellow novelist and a good friend. She and I met in Ann Arbor in the 70s. We have a long history as fellow writers.

To mark the publication of the print edition of my novel, One Who Loves (New Libri Press, 2017), Judy recently reprinted her “Interview with Toni Fuhrman.” In the interview, I talk about my writing background, style of writing, and sources of inspiration. Here’s the (slightly revised and updated) interview.

Tell us about your writing background. When did you begin to write?

I always liked writing, including the act of writing, which involves handling pencils, pens, and paper. I still like touching the page with a writing instrument—that closeness, that physicality. I once took a calligraphy course so that I could indulge my love of writing by hand. I also write the first draft of my novels by hand. This may seem labor intensive but it’s not, if one is working on a few pages at a time. The pages just pile up and, some months later, there are several hundred pages and that wonderful thing—a novel manuscript. Once the first draft is complete, it’s much easier to edit and rewrite on a mechanical device. Over the years, I’ve transitioned, without too much difficulty, from manual typewriter to electric typewriter to word processor to desktop to laptop.

I didn’t write extensively while studying English literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. I didn’t write a novel until a few years after that, when I took myself off to England and wrote a very bad first novel, sitting in front of a rented typewriter at a gigantic claw-foot desk, in a bed-sitting room on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea—across the street from the Thames, just down the street from the former residences of Thomas Carlyle and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I took my first writing course—and got my first rejection (from The New Yorker)—as an undergraduate. Following graduate school, I took two other writing courses, one at Windsor University (with Joyce Carol Oates) and one at the University of Michigan (with Robert Haugh). That was the extent of my formal training. I was accepted at the Iowa Writers Workshop but did not attend. One of my few regrets. I was in love, and Iowa seemed much too far away. I still have (filed away somewhere) the letter of acceptance from Vance Bourjaily, at that time a writer and teacher at the Workshop.

Where do you get your story ideas?

Story ideas. Where do they come from? They are often a momentary thought, realization, or insight, during which I visualize the story, or the key elements of the story, sometimes from beginning to end. It might simply be a title—at this point nothing more than a place marker. More often than not, the title, and its accompanying note, land on a stray piece of paper. I try to remember to put the idea in some more permanent place, like a journal, before the idea is lost and gone forever. Inspiration is ephemeral. It needs to be captured and pinned down before it dissipates. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”

An idea for a novel is not much more complicated than an idea for a short story—at least in the beginning, at least for me. I know the main character or characters. I know what the thrust of the story is. I know how it ends. The rest is process. The story unfolds as I write it.

I often write plot outlines, but only after I’ve drafted the entire manuscript, and only to assist me in recalling the sequence of events, or because a potential publisher has requested it. I don’t map out novels or stories before I write them, or as I write them, because, for me, the story and the characters have lives of their own. My job is to get the story down on the page and allow the characters to progress in their own way and at their own speed. They’re often fated, as I may already have determined the ending, but they have a lot of freedom within that boundary. Yes, sometimes they force me to rethink my endings. That’s when I know I’ve created strong characters.

In several of my novels, including One Who Loves, I’ve written in the ending, or some portion of the ending, at the very beginning of the story. Even though some might consider this a “spoiler,” I’ve found it an effective way to launch a story. Most readers, I believe, will become too involved in the story to put down the book because they know the ending. The stories I tell are not about plot but about character development.

How would you describe your style of writing?

It’s probably easier for someone else to describe my writing style than for me to attempt it. My primary stylistic model and ongoing inspiration is Jane Austen. I am almost always reading Jane Austen. I read her six major novels over and over because I admire her stylistic clarity, her utter lack of sentimentality, her smooth, effortless narration, her satire, her witty and engaging dialogue, and her timeless stories of family conflict and romantic mishap. She is a realist in the best sense; that is, she portrays her flawed characters with wit, humor, and compassion. As she said in one of her letters, “Three or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” Modestly, she refers to her literary output as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”—a reference to the miniaturist art (watercolor on ivory) that was popular at the time. I’ve always believed, however, that she knew how good she was. After all, at his invitation, she dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was an admirer of her novels.

What other authors have inspired you?

Lined up behind Jane Austen are many other novelists and philosophers whose works have inspired me.

For its narrative drive: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (a favorite from age 12). For style: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the short stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. For imagination and originality: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. For majestic storytelling: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

For language and subtlety: Henry James’ Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. For brilliantly capturing a particular period and social class: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and her New York stories. For enlightened discipline: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (another early favorite, from age 18), Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography, and B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. For voice: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. For compelling story: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For its iconic character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

For fearlessness: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. For empathy: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. For combining mystery with narrative mastery: Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. For narrative style and personal warmth: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. For shattering impact: Paul Bowle’s The Sheltering Sky and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. For their clear, inviting style and stories of ordinary people: the novels of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller.

What inspired One Who Loves?

One Who Loves had several layers of inspiration, all of which came together at one point, and became the story it is. One layer is the title itself, which comes from a line in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage: “There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved.” I’m drawn to what I can only call Maugham’s “voice”—and I found that line, which is very thematic to his novel, and to mine, most intriguing. Do we ever love equally? Does the balance always tilt one way or the other?

Another novel that inspired me was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. Stegner is a great favorite of mine, and this is a novel I like particularly well, and have read and reread. It’s about two young married couples who meet at the University of Wisconsin and form a deep bond of friendship, which continues throughout their lives. It’s one of those novels in which nothing extraordinary happens, but which sweeps the reader into the adventure of living one’s life and enjoying one’s closest relationships.

The third layer of inspiration was not so much inspiration as observation. My son, David, lived in a co-op while attending the University of Michigan, and I was an occasional visitor on the premises. I kept a picture in my head of several of the co-op houses, and imagined one that had its own look and personality. Co-op life is a source of close and lasting friendships, as the residents share not only space but responsibilities and a special kind of interconnectedness. It seemed to suit the story I was writing, so I used it to launch my two couples—who are a generation older than my son—on their life journeys.

Can you describe, in a few sentences, what One Who Loves is about?

One Who Loves is a story of friendship and love—including obsessive, misdirected, and frustrated love—troubled and challenging friendship, and the extraordinary conflicts that impinge on seemingly ordinary lives. Liz, Patrick, Tess, and Jon meet at a University of Michigan co-op in the 70s. They quickly form lasting friendships, which continue through the 80s and 90s. Liz, the narrator, takes us on her journey as she grapples with crises of love, loyalty, and the inexorable pull of sexual attraction.

What has sustained you as a writer through the years?

Stubbornness. While continuing to write and submit short stories and novels, I worked as a creative director in the marketing field and, more recently, as a feature writer. Some of my short stories were published and, intermittently, I made an effort to hunt down an agent for my novels. Then, I began submitting to independent publishing houses, and New Libri Press accepted One Who Loves. Independent presses are the lifeblood of contemporary literature.

I should add, however, that, were I not published now, I would continue to write, as I have always done throughout my adult life. Why? Because, gratifying as it is to have readers out there who are enjoying what I’ve published, I have stories I have to tell—or, perhaps, one story that I have to keep telling—and, readers or no readers, I’ll keep telling that story as long as I’m able. Although my writing is character driven and revolves around family and relationships, it is—as is all literature—influenced by a personal quest, our search for—what? Love. Purpose. Rootedness. A sense of belonging. A room of one’s own.

What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?

During my brief stints as a teacher of freshman composition, I told my students, at the beginning of each term, that becoming a better writer was an ongoing two-step process, and that both elements of the process were absolutely essential for success. The two steps, in order of importance, were (and are):

  1. Read.
  2. Write.

I would reiterate this advice often during the term, but I doubt if it made much of an impression. It’s like that timeless advice for losing weight: Eat less. Exercise more. It’s just too damn simple.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a novel, as well as submitting for publication another novel that was first developed some years ago and has recently undergone a considerable makeover. It’s a novel about family (sound familiar?) in a small town (think: “Three or four Families in a Country Village”). The characters will, I hope, be fully realized (at least to the best of my ability), but their quest—in all fairness to my readers—will be only partially fulfilled. As a realist, I don’t believe in happy endings. I do, however, believe in the resilient human spirit. We aspire. We struggle. We take risks. We often fail. But we are sustained by friendship, family, and love.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

In a recent “60 Minutes” episode, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton playwright, lyricist, composer, actor) had this to say about the creative process:

I think of acting and writing as pretty much the same thing. It’s all about getting inside the skin of your characters, and seeing where they are, and knowing how they’ve grown up. You have to know all this, like, in your bones, what they’ve come up against, who they are. And then you just start talking as them. And you write until the rust comes out of the faucet and it’s clear water. And you write down the clear water.

The “clear water” of truth is what’s left after the writer or actor flushes out “the rust” of slushy thinking and irrelevancy. When I turn on the faucet of creativity and I get rust and grunge, I can choose to turn off the faucet until another time—or push through until the water runs clear. Those are the hard times; the discouraging times. But, eventually, the water may run clear—and this is what keeps me going.

Sometimes, when I turn on the faucet, I get an immediate rush of clear water. That’s when I fill up my teakettle and my water vessels. That’s when I water my plants. That’s when I shore up the truth that flows out of that faucet. That’s when my characters come alive.

In these days of “alternative facts,” we’re all looking for the clear water of truth. Truth doesn’t change from generation to generation and, for many of us, it’s worth a lifetime search. But sometimes truth is too obscured—or too blazingly bright—for the direct approach. That’s why we have writers and performers, poets and artists, to interpret the truth in a way that is fresh and meaningful for each succeeding generation.

Of course, there are many vessels of truth that have withstood the test of time. Emily Dickinson had a lot of truth to tell. In fact, she kept telling it, over and over, in her nearly 1,800 poems. She preserved the truth in clear-water vessels that are still fresh and bracing today:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Fortune Cookie

I opened up a fortune cookie recently. It said: “You shall attain wisdom with each passing year.”

Now, if the fortune cookie writer had stopped with: “You shall attain wisdom,” I would have felt a little flutter of hope and let it go at that. However, the addition of “with each passing year” immediately nudged the word editor lurking inside me.

How can I “attain” wisdom “with each passing year”? You can’t have it both ways, fortune cookie writer. You must pick the year when I’m going to attain wisdom—such as, “You shall attain wisdom in the coming year.” Or, you must modify your prediction with, for instance, “You shall try to attain wisdom with each passing year.” The latter is far more likely, but certainly not as cheerful for the recipient of said fortune.

Having rectified the grammar, I began to envision the fortune cookie writer. He or she is here or somewhere in China, sitting at his/her kitchen table, notes and research materials scattered across the surface, trying to come up with the next fortune—number 10,386 in a list that has no memorable beginning and no foreseeable end. No doubt, for those fortune cookie writers who are not American-born, and who might be getting their inspiration from ancient Chinese proverbs, a lot gets lost in translation.

In addition to fortune cookie writers, who are the people who provide those humble written services we take so much for granted? Who composes menus—often with errors that I’m tempted to correct on the spot? Who writes the loglines—sometimes grammatically inexplicable—that appear on my television screen when I press “Info” on my remote? Why doesn’t anyone know, or care about, the difference between “its” and “it’s,” no matter his/her level of education? And, by the way, what has happened to the editing profession in general? When did The New Yorker‘s impeccable editing become a thing of the past?

Inevitably, I ask myself the question: Why do I care about grammar and the implications of grammatical error? No one else seems to notice.

We live in a culture that is erasing the arts—not to mention cursive—from its school systems. We think and write on keyboards, or dictate into a device that can’t comprehend the subtleties of language. We put up with and perpetuate online and social media writing that is careless, often vapid—reducing our communications, including news and world events, to brief “sound bites,” preferably 140 characters or less.

But how can we communicate or absorb the complexities of contemporary life in sound bites and tweets? Fortune cookies aside, our quest for wisdom cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator.

I love the written word, and the rich, full-fledged, grammatically consistent sentence. I often write in cursive, a skill I learned in second grade and have used to great advantage ever since. Writing in longhand gives me the option of using a pen or pencil to form the words—slowly, deliberately, elegantly. I like to think of cursive as a sort of art form, a distant relative of the decorative art of calligraphy.

Thank you, fortune cookie writer. You are an unknown and unsung literary laborer, but you’ve given me food for thought—as well as the dry, tasteless cookie itself.

“The First Lesson”

There’s something about December that’s both joyful and depressing.

It’s the season of joy, of course. Holiday cheer. Festivities. Presents. Twinkling lights. But it’s also the final month of the year, a summing-up month. For most of us, the year behind us has been both good and not-so-good. And some of that not-so-good was, and is, depressing.

Not long ago, I was introduced to a poem that has been on my mind a great deal. It evokes the season for me—and my current mindset as well. Here it is.

by Deborah Pope***

The Angel knocked
and when I opened
the door to it
I lost the Angel
already sitting
at my table.
Wind poured in
through the crack
slapped my cheek
a voice cried      you cannot have
two Angels.
The Angel in the doorway said
let me in
I see
you are alone.

The wonderful thing about a poem is that it is open—open to interpretation, to speculation, to the most personal associations. Once the poet has sent his or her lines out into the world, we are free to infuse them with a meaning that only we can know—a significance that only we can fully understand and appreciate.

For me, the message of this poem is very personal. I’ve had a good year. My novel, One Who Loves, is published, and the print edition is coming out soon. My family is in good health and spirits as, for the most part, am I. I have small means but big plans—and I’ve managed to convince myself that this might be better than the reverse. So I count myself among the fortunate.

On the other hand, I’ve had my disappointments, including, but not limited to, the recent election. Even though the wind of change “slapped my cheek,” I’m not without hope. Something—some lingering innocence from the last century—has gone out of our lives, but I’m hoping that goodness prevails.

“The First Lesson” is about hope—and loss. What is the Angel at the table taking away? What have I given up in order to admit what is new and unknown, good and not-so-good?

Perhaps one of the lessons I’m still learning is that moving ahead—opening the door to new possibilities, new challenges—is inevitably transformative. The Angel with whom I sit comfortably at the table must move out the moment I open the door to whatever is out there, knocking for admittance, because I “cannot have/two Angels.” The Angel at the door may be a harbinger of good or a messenger for the not-so-good, but my inclination is to open the door, to go forward.

Happy Holidays to you, and best wishes for all that is good in the New Year.

***from Falling Out of the Sky (Louisiana State University Press), nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. Deborah Pope is the author of two other poetry collections, Fanatic Heart and Mortal World. She is on the faculty at Duke University. Reprinted with permission.

Thanksgiving and family

The reason that Thanksgiving is, for many of us, our favorite holiday of the year can be summed up in one word: family.

On Thanksgiving, we gather around a dining room table loaded with good things to eat and focus on one thing: the family.

We don’t exchange presents. We don’t shoot off fireworks. We don’t dress up in costumes. We just get together at one table, put aside our smartphones, tablets, and computers, look at and talk to each other. With no imperatives other than the preparation and serving of a multi-course meal, raucous kids, the clash and clang of ongoing interruptions and disruptions.

We’re not necessarily related by blood. We are friends, neighbors, casual acquaintances who might see each other only on Thanksgiving, and only at this table. But, for the duration of this meal, and this visit, we’re family.

We’ll go our separate ways after the meal, perhaps encounter each other at hurried holiday festivities, perhaps wish each other a happy new year. On Thanksgiving, however, for those few hours, we are a close-knit family. Knit together by a consciousness — perhaps not openly acknowledged but felt — of how we depend on each other for love and support.

On Thanksgiving, nothing takes precedence over family — including the ongoing chaos of a country settling uneasily into a new reality. We can’t ignore but we can put aside the differences that divide us.

I am so very thankful for this holiday, because it reminds me of who I am: part of a family that is tolerant, inclusive, diverse, accepting — and hopeful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Why I write

“I write to astonish myself.”

I recently took this quote down from my refrigerator, where it has been taped at eye level for several years. The complete (refrigerator) quote is:

“Last days, last things, loom on: I write to astonish myself.”
Geoffrey Hill, The Orchards of Syon

I ask myself: why did I keep this quote in perpetual view for all that time? True, I often ignored it or forgot about it—as one does with things that are mounted in plain sight. But I also pulled down and put up other quotes, photos, and memorabilia, while keeping this particular scrap of paper in place.

For all of us, there are certain word combinations that stop us dead in our tracks. This quote does it for me. It seems to sum up my whole writing philosophy—not because my writing astonishes me, but because I am always trying to move to that place where it will, indeed, surprise, amaze, even astonish me. I may never get there, but the promise of it nudges me on, from day to day, from line to line, from story to story.

Words are powerful tools. Good writing, when it flames up, should stop us dead in our tracks—make us back up, look again, think, ponder. Of course, we can’t stop and ponder everything we read. Most of us spend our reading time in the more contemporary mode: scanning. But, once in a while, if we’re lucky in what we choose to read, something will stop us; something will astonish us.

According to Vladimir Nabokov, a writer of fiction is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter. Novels, therefore, should contain story, lesson, and magic.

I realize, as I write and revise novels, that I continue to write because I’m convinced, or have managed to convince myself, that I will say what I’m trying to say, make the impact I’m trying to make, convey a little bit of that magic, with the next novel—or, perhaps, the one after that. As I am not widely published, I can only say that I keep writing for its own sake, because what I am attempting to say hovers, tantalizingly, on the brink of authentic communication. I suspect that all literature springs from this incentive.

In the next novel, I keep telling myself, I’ll get it right. In the next novel, I will astonish myself.

“First shut the door”

East Hollywood is a neighborhood of some 80,000 souls in central Los Angeles. It’s shaped like a rough-cut diamond, cut through the middle by Santa Monica Boulevard, edged (roughly) by the Hollywood Freeway (101), Western Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and Virgil Avenue. On its borders are Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Koreatown. Within its borders are Thai Town, Little Armenia, The Church of Scientology, Los Angeles City College (UCLA’s original campus), and a thriving Spanish-speaking population. From atop Mount Hollywood to the north, Griffith Observatory benignly stands sentry over all.

It is here, in this neighborhood, that Harry Northup lives, walks, and writes the poetry collected in East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason (Cahuenga Press, 2015). This is Northup’s eleventh book, and the voice we hear in the poems is exuberant, Whitmanesque.

Northup is a poet who seems to say what he thinks as he thinks it – so that one moves through the poems impressionistically, prepared for open-endedness, unexpected twists and turns, side trips, lyrical (or narrative) interludes. “Poetry puts you right where you are:/no door, no closure, empty shoes, empty/chair, the walk around & return,” he says in “Poetry.” In many of the poems, “where you are” is walking the streets of East Hollywood. In “Place,” he says:

—walking has my/soul, furtive wanderings on fountain,/mariposa, de longpre, alexandria,/lexington — to walk in the night air/tonight, i walked to franklin &/vermont & home later … buying a six-pack of bud light at/7-eleven, a cut-in-half, zankou/chicken with pita bread & garlic/spread.

After his long, rambling, walks, Northup delights in home: “home in front of a fan, my wife’s/through teaching for today, home.” In “short love song,” it is a “home of light & reason/clean, bare, full, home with wife,/love, cats, song & tv, primrose/darling”

There’s also the ongoing spell of the writing process itself. “First shut the door. Write what you want to write,” he advises in “Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles.” And, in “Hot Night”: “The words open, fall apart &/rearrange themselves. One word/files a nail. One holds up a rose/opening … One word springs water.” In “In Memoriam,” he reminds himself “To not bully or order words around./To not interrupt words”; and, in “stillness not quite,” “to be still & thankful/for one & two syllable/words”

Northup’s love of poetry followed him from Nebraska to Manhattan to Santa Monica in 1968; there, he discovered the literary center, Beyond Baroque, where “the themes of youth & struggle, loss & place, were ever present.” In Los Angeles, these days, he says his main themes are “aging, acceptance.” But there is a youthful vigor to the poems, an energy that keeps him walking, observing, listening, conjuring fresh word patterns. This is from “no death heart”:

i will never be lost/ as long as i have words/I will never be lonely/as long as i have my wife/i will never be cold/ as long as i have cats … i will always be young/as long as the lakers thrive/i will always love summer/as long as the dodgers struggle/i will always love the dark/as long as movies play …

Northup is not only a poet and a sports fan. He’s an actor who, “as a man just past 21 hitchhiked/to new york to make it as an actor” (“ridiculously simple”). His acting life is infused in his poetry, his recollections. “I came to Los Angeles to act in Westerns,” he says in “Remains.” He also studied Method acting with Frank Corsaro in New York, and acted in 37 films, including Martin Scorsese’s first six feature films. “At this moment,” he muses in the same poem, “I am eternal.”

Always, in Northup’s poems, there’s the intimate, soothing sensation of coming home, of love for his wife, Holly. In “For My Love Sleeping,” he reflects, “To find means to rescue/Stay within & not hide/To not escape means forever.” In “Careful Notion,” he juxtaposes poetry and baseball:

“The walks in East Hollywood, films at/local theatres, my wife’s cooking & the/fresh flowers she brings home, our bed,/her arm, cats & fan, poetry & baseball/save me, nourish my dazed spirit … I connect poetry & baseball – to lose/oneself in the shadows coming in out/of the sun”

As for his life in the neighborhood he calls home, he concludes, in “for my friend aram”: “I’ve had enough time to think about/living in los angeles and the answer is/simply yes”

While I Slept

Sunday, June 12, 2016

I dream I am running, lost, terrified, through a darkened, unpeopled cityscape…

Stanley Almodovar III, 23; Amanda Alvear, 25; Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26; Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33; Antonio Davon Brown, 29; Darryl Roman Burt II, 29; Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28

I turn in my sleep, struggling to cast myself in another drama while 2,200 sky miles 2,500 road miles away at a nightclub called Pulse…

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25; Luis Daniel Conde, 39; Cory James Connell, 21; Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25; Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32; Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31; Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25

sudden lurch from many voices raised above hard-driving music to gunfire chaos and then…

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26; Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22; Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22; Paul Terrell Henry, 41; Frank Hernandez, 27; Miguel Angel Honorato, 30; Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40

the silence of those hidden from sight and those sprawled in the languorous poses of death…

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19; Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30; Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25; Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32; Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21; Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49; Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25

a gun and a man behind a gun with no expression on his face waiting with terrible patience to continue…

Kimberly Morris, 37; Akyra Monet Murray, 18; Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20; Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25; Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36; Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32; Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35

I wake up not long after dawn, ease myself into another overcast day, sip my morning coffee, flip an egg without breaking the yolk, munch on toast, avoid the news until…

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25; Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27; Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35; Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24; Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24; Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34; Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33

plants watered, dishes washed, dog walked, I pick up the remote, half-watch as…

Martin Benitez Torres, 33; Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24; Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37; Luis S. Vielma, 22; Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50; Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37; Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

the TV weather reporter, hair extensions draping her breasts, predicts a perfect 72-degree high and then…

Breaking news: An American-born man who had pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early today at a gay nightclub in Orlando. It was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States, the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11

The sun came out late in the afternoon; pink clouds smudged with gray at sunset.