Category — Literary
Tobacco Road , Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel
My Life: Writing, Not Reading …
This previously unpublished interview with the late literary lion Erskine Caldwell by Charles Hayes took place in 1986, about a year before Caldwell died. It is one in a series of interviews with artists, writers and musicians that Hayes undertook in the ’80s exploring the creative process and various hurdles the subjects had to overcome along the way to becoming established in their respective fields.
By Charles Hayes
Place: Paradise Hills, Arizona
Date: September 24, 1986
This interview was conducted with Erskine Caldwell whose novel, Tobacco Road, was turned into the 1941 movie, also called Tobacco Road.
Our conversation took place at Caldwell’s gated community home in Scottsdale, Arizona, outside of which was neither a Bentley nor Mercedes (which I saw in the neighborhood). Caldwell’s wife guided me through the gates in an old Chevy. We spoke while he labored to breathe through plastic tubes connected to a portable oxygen cannister. Caldwell had about half a lung left and knew he was not long for this world. He reflected on having had only a minor education, learning to write by way of experience, and the obstacles he had to face as a writer, including times when he had to eat rat trap cheese. At the time of my visit, Caldwell was on his fourth wife, the very hospitable and helpful Virginia Caldwell. One of his previous wives was the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. This interview is one of the last interviews he gave. He would die a year and a half later, in April 1987.
EC: Will you state your premise, again, so I will know what we are talking about? You’re doing what? Researching a book?
CH: I am doing research for a book.
EC: This is ah, a thesis or … ?
CH: … a book…
EC: Did you attend the University of New Mexico?
CH: I’m going through that (grad school) now.
EC: So, what is your theme?
CH: I want to be able to present materials that writers and artists like yourself, whose works have to do with hardships that they’ve gone through, as a way to tell us something about the creative life or creating thinking, you see?
EC: What is the title?
(His wife enters the room, “Your son, Jay, is on the phone.”
CH: that’s okay.
Mrs. C: It will be one minute.
CH: That’s fine – I’m used to it.
EC: What is your title?
CH: Pearl in the Mud
EC: What kind of people are you talking to?
CH: Besides yourself, Lucas Foss the conductor, Edward Albee the playwright, Louise Bourgeois, the sculptor, and others… Some are not famous.
EC: That can be the best kind because when people get famous they think they know everything!
CH: Yes, I would like to talk a little about this issue.
CH: If you get tired, we can stop, I have about 15 questions. Let’s see, personally I was impressed by the resolve with which you moved through your hindrances. When young, before American Earth, before Tobacco Road came out and you said various things in your autobiography, Call it Experience, such as “For 10 or 12 hours a day I wrote always with a dogged determination regardless of hardship.’ That was when you were in, ah, Maine. And…you said: “I was to break down the resistance of Scribner’s,” the publisher. I’m wondering about that, it seems you had this resolve to get there.
EC: Well, its hard to describe [trembling, feeble tone\ in a way because, ah, you see I was handicapped early in life…. I did not have an education, went to high school for two years, and that as a total of, ah, three years and before (that) lower school. Then I went to different colleges. I went to a small college in South Carolina, which I didn’t like: Erskine College. So, I got out … and made it to the University of Virginia, which I did like. After that, I was able to go to the University of Pennsylvania summer school, which also gave me a big life, but my personal education came out of the University of Virginia even though I never graduated. But, I achieved what I wanted to get, all right, as if I had to struggle against the tide, against the odds, because I didn’t have … what might have carried me to higher levels… higher intellectual levels, and so forth.
So, I was not at all capable of higher intellectual life. My life consisted of how life, the life on the bottom, the life of the people who were poor because when we were growing up, we were surrounded by people in poverty, and so I had no great ambition to be anything but a chronicler, a conveyer of other peoples’ lives by interpreting their existence to my eyes, the way I saw it, not as … anybody else would see their lives, necessarily, but as their lives revealed to me that basic struggle of human existence, spiritual, educational, medical…all kinds of things.
People who were poor were also in poor health. You can’t have good medical attention if you’re out of money to pay the doctor, so if you had bad health you had a poor empty stomach, you had no great future… So, of course, the panacea for all this … came out of the evangelical religion that was imposed on them. (Not imposed, but) they grasped it because it was the only feasible thing they could get hold on.
CH: Did you feel for those people empathetically at a young age?
EC: Well, you see, I knew them so well because I lived among them, as I was writing in this autobiography over here (points to a large pile of paper on his desk). I used to drive an auto for a country doctor for several summers, for several doctors, so I would be exposed to the mysterious diseases nobody else knew about. But the doctor knew what they were and he could do nothing. I became exposed to those (cough) lives and (cough) yet get into which they were living, so that, ah, influenced me to be sympathetic (hard cough). So my life was in among those people, and not among the elite, not among intellectuals, not about and among the educated, no. It was just among the people that were out in the field, the mills…. That is the only thing I knew.
CH: When you started to write, you started on the newspaper, didn’t you? You started at 18, or so?
EC: Yea, well, I go into that in my autobiography. I started there. I learned it by working as a volunteer, a weekly newspaper, type by hand, all kinds of things like that. Writing social notes, obits, then I graduated up to sports writer, writing about baseball and the small town in which I lived in Georgia; so that’s how I started in newspaper journalism. When I left college the last time, I got a job on the Atlantic Journal, and that’s where I really got started in writing because whatever I wrote, he threw it into the waste basket; so I learned everything I write is not going to be good.
Right, so you know you have got to do it yourself, because you can’t trust other people to help you…
CLH: I remember you did a story during those times, about a guy on skid row, it was “Blue Monday,” and, he, your editor, threw it away. Can you recall any images you had of success or fame before Scribner’s started accepting your work? Did you have images of that? What was it going to be about?
EC: No … No, because I had no great, ah … ego about the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just did it, and trust to the future. I had no ambition to be “a writer!” or “novelist!” or anything. The idea was to do what I could do whatever it was, so I gradually gravitated from non-fiction … from newspaper journalist to fiction, because that’s what I wanted – to interpret what I saw through my filter system. And so to me nothing else matters – except just my reaction. Whatever they were, true or false, I had to do it the way it appealed to me, so that’s why I wrote as I did – and wrote 50 books… on that basis, and wrote just what appealed to me. Not what might appeal to a publisher or reader. I care nothing about the reader or publisher, only secondarily. First it has to be appealing to me and so it has to be filtered through my filter. And I don’t want to take advice from an editor….
CH: What did all this do to you? You know, Tobacco Road starts becoming a big hit on Broadway after a while and a lot of stories come out and you are in the papers, you are … what we call Famous. What did that do to you, the Erskine Caldwell who was private, maybe introverted, or whatever? What was the power of that on you? Did that cause a conflict? Public versus personal, who you really are?
FC: Hah! (laughs) You see, I was nobody. I wasn’t anything (chuckles). I was just another scribbler, another writer. I had no conception of myself as being anything other than the next guy. Um, because to me a writer had no great standing… where I was living. As I was growing up, he wasn’t anything to bank on, and he wasn’t anything to raise and he was nobody to look up to. I suppose in certain circles eminence comes from great popularity, or from great fame. But to me that simply didn’t appeal to me. I just wanted to be myself, I had to do it my way.
CH: Well, what happened when certain people early on started to align you with Henry James and Balzac … ‘This guy is up there.” What does that do to your ego and so forth?
EC: Well, you hear in college classes, you hear all these names of people who are said to be famous. Sir Walter Scott, Henry James… It meant nothing to me. I didn’t read ‘em. I didn’t read other peoples’ books. I wanted to do my own books. Ah, I didn’t want to be influenced… I didn’t want to waste my time… Sure I it would have helped me, it would have educated me, ah, but my life, ahh, is spinning away… I couldn’t sit and read a book. I had to write a book! Ah, that was my life. Writing, not reading.
I didn’t know what fame meant! It was so far removed from my existence that it was Nonexistent. In my time, it was several writers I heard about… Well, I was not interested… They could invent kingdoms way up there, out of reach. And, of course make it interesting I supposed, but it didn’t interest me. … As time went on, what I tried to do was to read one book by some master, whomever appealed to me, and one book by a young contemporary… I read a few books, maybe two a year. So, I would read one book by Hemingway, one book by Truit Edison, one by Theodore Dreiser. But they didn’t influence me because they were doing their things and I was doing my things.
CH: Next question, Criticism. Was it Call it Experience in which you talk about early criticism, the first book that Scribner’s published – American Earth?
EC: American Earth?
CH: That’s right…and there was a lot of negative criticism and a lot of negative criticism toward Tobacco Road. In a certain part of the book, you said you had a realization that you no longer had to satisfy the critical establishment. Where one time you began to think there had to be a formula for your books to sell, but then you realized that you don’t have to do that, you’re writing for you and to other people. Now, my questions is, “With that realization, was there a change in your life? When you had that realization… (was it) a kind of therapy? You know, a breakthrough?”
EC: well, you see (cough) when criticism came, I was not interested in it. I probably would have benefited from it, but I always had a theory: there are always two opposing forces in criticism…One is praise and one is damnation. To me they cancel out each other. So, I was not interested in either. Ah…to me, when someone panned (a work), I could accept it. If I read it – I didn’t always read it, didn’t know about it, I guess, but ah… if somebody praised it, I usually didn’t accept praise. Ah, I disbelieved it. Because to me there might be… some element there…some trickery. I don’t know, somebody might think he could achieve success by… praising something. Well, to me that’s false. I couldn’t accept any of that, no more than I could the praise, the condemnation. I guess… outside all that criticism, any book, current or other I’ve done, because once I approve or once I finish or set out a book… that’s the end of it. I don’t care what’s going to happen to it. If it has a good sale, fine…. If it has a poor sale, fine. I accept that. So I don’t expect anything. I don’t accept praise and I don’t accept condemnation. I… I just live above it.
CH: So, do you think that has been basically one of your saving graces, the things that allowed you to have or find buoyancy, where others fell? They identified themselves as a god. In popular music, someone like Elvis is an example. He became a myth, a famous person.
EC: Well yes! You see, the trouble with many young writers is that they get into a corner… they get backed into a corner and the first thing they know they belong to a coterie! A crowd. A self-admiration society. And so they only surround themselves with people who can appreciate them. Outsiders go away! An inner circle… Inner circle, where a lot of writers get into that troublesome thing… that they think they have to associate only with their own kind. I don’t associate with writers. Writers are dull people. I must rather associate with the store clerk. Or bank clerk, or garbage man, or anybody who has a better outlook. A writer is self-centered. He’s so self-satisfied with himself and life, he knows everything, so you can’t tell him anything, so why associate with him?
CH: It sounds like being brought up in your family, you know, a father who was the minister… and the kind of humble surroundings… It sounds like you were helped by your upbringing to prevent this sort of illusion?
EC: Uh huh…!
CH: That can destroy people. The next curiosity I have is to do with nostalgia.
EC: With what?
CH: Do you ever feel you live in a fairly comfortable existence? Do you feel…a desire for those days when you were eating rattrap cheese and bread, and you know, starving in Maine? And Georgia, and New York? Do you feel like you’re missing something from then?
EC: Well, you put it this way… you see, you can FEED on that past! And… you know the pangs of hunger. And, so you say to yourself, “I know what it feels like to be hungry; I used to be hungry a lot. Well, you’ve already experienced that. You know the feeling, so you don’t have any desire to go back and relive that. Not because you feel you have achieved anything or that you’re rich enough or that you don’t have to endure poverty again. It’s just that right now, I have no great ambition to be extravagant. I have a certain level of living, a standard of living – so that suits me. So, I’m not going out to try to make a lot of money … or anything in order to raise the level of my automobiles … So, I don’t have to have a Rolls Royce, I’d feel embarrassed. Ah, I can imagine that, that a lot of people would want one and use it if they had it, but I don’t want one. If it were a gift, I would trade it in for a Chevy.
CH: You have one there (ha ha!)
EC: Ha! Yea. (pause) or a Ford!
CH: Didn’t you say this feeling that you have also happened when you were in that Hotel and the guy ran it who was the writer, and you had to get out of place because it was so swank and you were eating cheese on the floor…. Was this the same feeling of “What in the hell am I doing in THIS place?”
CH: Was that present at the time?
EC: Yeah… I guess so. I used to go back and recreate those things. I’m 83. I’ve lived…. And a lot has happened. And a lot of things have been forgotten. You ask do I want to go back and relive my days of poverty. No. For the same reason that I’ve already done it. Done it in the same way you don’t want to repeat yourself in a book; you don’t want to write the same book twice. You want to but you have different visions; so, I don’t know how to explain my existence now… it’s nothing great. Ah, a lot of people think I’m living on the edge of poverty right here…. Ah, but I don’t consider that. I don’t even consider what the degree is, as to me that’s immaterial. As long as I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. What’s now is revising these galley sheets. After that, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But, ah, right now that’s the only thing that interests me.
CH: Uh, huh…ok!
EC: And… I do have this new cancer. So, that’s something to think about. I’ve had it twice. Now I have this inoperable cancer, which cannot Be operated on! You have to take the chemo.
EC: Injections (cough) So… I don’t know how long its going to last. That’s an interesting thing. I look forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow. Or the next day!
CH: How does that affect your creative life, how does that affect time… things getting shorter, and how does that affect your creativity? It must put you on the ledge between life and the hereafter… How does that affect you?
EC: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think about that enough, I suppose I don’t know how to feel ‘bout it, because, ah, as you know I was raised a Presbyterian….
EC: And the Presbyterian is not too much worried about what’s gonna happen, because its going to happen anyway; so it doesn’t bother me what my troubles are – I know I am going to have troubles, so whatever they are, it’s something I have to lived with. And, I’m prepared to do it. Whatever it is. Because I don’t expect to live beyond another two or three years, anyway.
I set myself as a goal – 85! And my wife wants to raise it to 86 because she wants to be 70 years old before I die. You think she’ll make it?
CH: You might surprise yourself, too.
[Mrs. C (in doorway) I think you might! Its time for your water!)
EC: (to his wife) You will bring me that check to sign?
Mrs. C: All right, I will. Would you like some coffee or tea?
CH: Tea would be nice.
Mrs. C: Or cookies?
CH: Just a little bit of caffeine would be nice.
Mrs. C: Just plain old tea or fancy tea?
CH: That’s all I drink is plain old tea.
Mrs. C: I have every one, from blackberry to sassafras.
CH: O… blackberry…
CH: Well no one knows when they are going, I could go before you and I’m 37.
EC: 37? You are about half way!
CH: About half way, huh? However long my life is, I just want to be able to do it fully, and I think you’re a model in a way… because you live fully. You’ve written, you’ve done what you wanted, you know, and I respect that.
What would you say is the most trying phase as you look back … What do you think … what was the most trying phase, if you can talk about it. The one that had the most obstacles, where you almost gave up. If you can use that term?
EC: Well, you see, these obstacles I consider to be helpful! For example, as I keep saying, I was undereducated even though my mother did teach me almost everything I know (coughs), but I never memorized the definitions of words, that kind of thing, so when it came time to write ‘em out, I couldn’t spell ‘em, and so what I looked for was a word of two syllables, and to me that simplified matters. It helped; it was helpful to me because as I grew older, I found that the best writing is simple writing. Not the most intellectual or educated, or whatnot. Because if you’re going to know what the meanings are, even though I don’t know myself… Even though I look it up in the dictionary, I really don’t know what I’m doing! So, I like to look for a word, the origin of a word whether Greek, Latin, French, or wherever it came from, ah, to see the root. So, for me, that gives the basic meaning of the word that can be simplified. So you don’t have to put a lot of syllables on it. Man is man. Woman is woman. And so on.
CH: How did you deal with the problem of labeling? There are many people out there labeling artists…. You have been labeled everything, more than anybody…. From a communist to somebody who writes burlesque…to a naïve writer that Malcolm Cowley called you, to a surrealist, to ah – O God, everything. How do you deal with this sort of thing, you know, the public image; how the public perceives you? Has that ever been a problem?
EC: Well, I don’t, because you see, that’s part of what I consider criticism.
CH: All right.
EC: I don’t take to criticism. So, I don’t care that the public advises, or thinks… I’m gonna do it my way! So, I’m not much impressed by other peoples’ advice. So I’m not impressed by other people. Sure people have great reputations. Malcolm Cowley has a fine reputation as a critic. Ah, he could not influence me! Not by any means, I wouldn’t consider… followin’ his advice ‘bout picking out certain themes to write about; that would not interest me, but I want to do it may way. I want to pick the theme, not what he thinks is good.
CH: He’s supported you more than a lot of people.
CH: Where does he live, Malcolm?
EC: In Connecticut, like a little of writers. I used to live there myself.
CH: Some people have commented that you have been denied some of the major prizes… like the Pulitzer. They felt that Hemingway and Faulkner got these, that you didn’t. And your reponse was “I don’t really care.” Once I’m gone, it doesn’t matter.” My question is: does it matter? Let’s assume there’s life after death and you can look back, what would you like us to know as far as Erskine Caldwell goes?
EC: Well, I think… ah, some time ago I had some question like that, and I think what I said was, to give an example of what happened at one time. I had a letter from a reader. I don’t know what story they had written about… It was a woman reader who said, “I likevery much…your story about so and so…” (she gave me the name of the character) “because it revealed to me something about my uncle that I had never been able to fathom myself. When I read your interpretation of so and so’s life, that was my uncle!’ And, that was the application that this story had for the woman; it revealed for her something she otherwise would not have found herself if she had to read my interpretation of somebody else’s life. So, that’s about the only answer I can give to that kind of question.
CH: Back to your late 20s, early 30s when you were in the phase of writing The American Earth and you had already done The Bastard then Tobacco Road… and it ends up being a work that – through your own imagination, reflecting, being a mirror for the rough social conditions and economic conditions for a lot of people with whom you were brought up – the sharecropper, etc. My question is: Is there ever more than just mirroring? Can writing therapize and deal with that? Or, is there always a residual feeling of suffering? Because, I’m assuming here that the imagination in ways amplifies, especially when you see so much and you can’t get it out of your writing. Or, is your writing a form of therapy?
EC: Well, it is a result of observing. Result of having to do something yourself, because I always think that how could you write about and describe a human being if you never had seen one? It would be so fanciful. Ah, are you going to make it realistic if you never saw a human? If you were the only being there was, and you couldn’t see yourself, of course, but if you tried to write about someone else, it would be difficult.
[Virginia Caldwell stands in doorway]
EC: What do you have there, Virginia?
CH: Can I help you?
VC: [Brings in tray of cups and cookies]
CH: Are you feeling tired?
EC: We have been at it for about …
CH: For about an hour. I’ve got about three more questions.
VC: (talks with EC about signing checks)
It’s so automatic to write a check and sign it. And that’s an attractive New Mexico style color!
CH: Oh, that’s a Sear and Roebuck! Its incredible what I found for $12.
EC: Oh, Sears has turned out to be quite the store… they have fashion shows.
CH: I didn’t know that, but they upped their quality and their prices, too. They even got new managers in Chicago.
VC: You make him behave will you, Charles?
VC: He wanted to get rid of his oxygen …
CH: Staying on the topic of imagination a moment – there was the psychologist, Carl Jung, who found that going into oneself and confronting imaginary figures can be a tremendous teaching. And, when I read your comments on imagination and characters as they develop and speak, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference. They have independence, in a way, they are not just your ego, but there is something else about them. And, I’m just wondering if they have been “teachers”… not only Ty Ty (and Geeter, but are they “mentors”? That may be a hard question.
EC: Well, imagination is a writer’s best friend. If you could not imagine (then) all you’re going to end up with is an encyclopedia of facts everybody already knows; what you’re doing, you’re repeating the facts… you have to go beyond that, you have to interpret those facts in a different way. Ah, I couldn’t by any means…delineate or explain what imagination is, how you get it, and how you use it. I don’t know. I just do what I do. I think most writers do who are imaginative in that sense because imagination is a free flowing thing. I think that’s what they meant when they called it “stream of consciousness” because its unmediated thought; things that come to mind without being urged, without trying to recall because it has to go beyond anything that’s happened… Just like fiction has to be something that has never existed ‘till it is written. Ah, fiction means exactly what it says. It’s fictitious – nothing that exists ‘till you write…. And, that’s fiction; that is something that now exists because you’ve written it. But it never existed before.
So, Imagination is the same thing, it has to derive out of nothing, more or less… Derive… make it realistic… not a dream… it’s not like dreams because dreams are very elusive, they are deceptive. If you try to go back and justify existence of some dream you had, to verify it, you’re gonna find flaws, you’re gonna find great flaws in it that could never have existed. It’s just a dream world. It means exactly what it says, it simply does not exist. Imagination is different, it is [the] free flowing result of, ah, human existence. You apply what has already happened to what might happen. – now, that’s imagination! And, not what has happened. Fiction has got to be something that has never existed. So, your imagination has got to be unique, and should not be denied a writer, that is his best stock-in-trade. If he doesn’t have imagination, what’s he going to do? He might know how to spell… Know how to make paragraphs, but what’s the meaning? That’s the important thing.
CH: Do you see a different …obstacles (today) that were different from when you look at your 30s or 40s…obstacles that were different from then or similar to ones you were or are (still) hitting in your mature years, you’re 60s through 80s? Do certain obstacles stay with you, or do they change?
EC: Well, obstacles always exist in some form. Because they conform to, ah, your current existence, current life and so forth, because… I’m trying to think of an example – of what existed then and what does not exist now; but, for example, Welfare. In my days, there was no such thing as welfare. Now, everybody knows what welfare is and has ambition to go on welfare or something of this sort. In my early life, which is, say, 70 years ago, no such thing as welfare existed, and you had it or you didn’t have it. If you are going to beg… well, go out on the street and beg..
But you wouldn’t do that now, you go to welfare, so it’s a change of existence, a change of style. The obstacles then and now, always differ, no matter what the subject or matter is, it’s going to be different Now, everybody … a lot of people … could not exist or would not exist without credit, borrowing money, credit cards, mortgages… In the old days, it was a feat to be debt-free – if you could manage it. So you tried to own your house, you didn’t want a mortgage…. You didn’t want to have to pay on it. You just wanted to live in it. So, the present generation, the people in their 20s and 30s, they want credit. Well, more power to them… but I wouldn’t want it.
CH: We’re forced to. I’m finding myself forced to. I want to keep away from that kind of thing, but I had to have a Sears credit card to get this car at the Phoenix Airport!
CH: They would not let me pay cash.
EC: That’s right!
CH: I had to have a card, so you are forced to go into hock…. To me, its terrifying because it’s all in computers and people can know about you and it is getting to be a mess. Talking about writers today, I remember one thing I had read, something you commented about, how it’s hard to be a writer today because everything has to be done quickly! The publishers want you do things quick! You have to read quick, and so forth. How do you feel, what would you do, if you were not born in 1903, but 1949? How would you handle this “future shock” that everyone is quick, everyone has to be instant! You can’t reflect anymore.
EC: Well, of course, you can swim with all the blows you get. You learn to do that. You learn to live with your circumstances. It all depends on the era in which you live, because life ten years from now is going to be nothing like it is now. Whether I could cope with it ten years from now, I don’t know (coughs). If I knew 40 years ago what life was going to be like today, I probably would have had a convulsion!
CH: What do you say are the main things in an aspiring artist’s character that are needed to deal with the insanities of today?
EC: Ah, of course that’s where the writer comes in! he should imagine at least what is going to transpire next year. Maybe not ten years from now, but that’s why a writer’s imagination has an opportunity to exert itself If he can foresee tomorrow or the next day or year, Ah, that’s imagination, where the imagination of a writer goes to work. I wouldn’t want to write a novel of the future; I could not envision that far ahead. I could try to write about maybe what is happening today, and it could be of course about, maybe what is happening, and it could be a dated novel, and it would be written in 1986 and so forth and so that would be a 1986 vision, but at least you could apply your imagination to some extent, and sort of foresee… what the architecture of a town is going to look like in years from now. Things like that. You can use your imagination to that extent, but beyond that, I don’t think I could cope with the world tomorrow.
CH: There’s one thing that came to mind as I was driving over here, following your wife here. It has to do with relationships. … about how relationships, marriage, and so on, impact a writer’s compulsiveness, and I wonder how you have dealt with that, if it’s been a problem at all? You know, the kind of intimacy, and so forth. How has that affected you, taken you from writing? Has that threatened you? And how did you deal with that?
CH: With a woman, male – female.
CH: Say you are related to someone like Margaret Bourke White, who is very energetic and so on, what does that do to you?
EC: Yea, yeah! Ah, it all depends on your nature. Some people can, some men can get along without women… to various degrees, of course. But to me it is natural to be affiliated with the female. To some extent, I can understand out here – there are two birds, me and female, they fly together…. I can appreciate that, so for me it is just as natural for those birds to be mated as it is for a male and female to be mated. My… difficulty in life is that I’ve been married four times. That’s not a very helpful… kind of life I suppose to some people. But, it happened to be my life and I lived it that way. I think I couldn’t see it any other way because now, looking back, there are a lot of people I wouldn’t want to be married to, that I had known earlier, then I would not even be intimate with. But, looking back and remembering the circumstances of other people, I say: “Well, I’m glad I’m not married to that woman!” But, I can say, “I am glad I am married as I am today!”
CH: You do have a wonderful wife. I had a college professor in Florida, a poet who said in class one day, “One of the great things about getting older is that you can look back with joy at all the people you didn’t marry!”
Let me put it this way: Okay, assuming that I don’t know what your personal philosophy is about the afterlife… But assuming for a moment that one exists… and the possibility of coming back into life again…. What would you become…a writer, again? Or, would you eliminate that?
EC: Well of course, hindsight is a very ticklish kind of thing to deal with because you could always approve of what you did wrong in the past. Ah, I would rather come back as a writer rather than as a lawyer or anything else. Although there are some of the glamorous professions, like movie actor, all kinds of things, but to me the way I feel about myself, I wouldn’t want to be anything else the second time or third time! I’d have to be what I am.
CH: Would you still type in a cold room in Maine with not enough wood? Would you still eat rat cheese in a depression? Would you still accept the rejections …
EC: Well, you see, those things, when you look back… seem like hardships, but while you are doing them you are so busy living, you don’t consider what they are. Sure, I was cold at night, very cold. But, at the same time, I considered it part of living life itself. So, it was something I didn’t regret, or didn’t disapprove of, didn’t dislike. It was a hardship, sure…
CH: Do you feel that those hardships added to your life as you sit here at eighty three? Do you feel that those were important for your character in terms of who you are?
EC: Well, they give you a lot of stamina! You, you get engrained with stamina. Ah, of course, I could not visualize a life of ease in which you have no hardship. I would not know how to exist because I would be living in a false atmosphere in which you have no troubles – ah, if you had no money troubles, no health troubles, no this, that, and the other … you have to have hardships in order to be impressed with life. Especially as a writer – if he’s not impressed with living, well, what’s he going to write about? So, I don’t say that every writer should go to Greenwich Village and live in a coldwater flat and be emaciated down to 98 pounds – NO! I don’t think that’s necessary. But, if that’s what befalls you, well, you’ll want to do it if you are a dedicated writer.
CH: What do you feel “failure” and what do you feel “success” are?
CH: Success versus failure?
EC: Okay, well, I don’t think that success is necessarily fame. Ah, success might be recognition. Ah, but that recognition his not something that is as important as the fact that you wouldn’t be satisfied without it. It’s something that you think you may have worked for and earned. Ah, and if money comes with it, that’s secondary; that’s not the main point. And if you have recognition, not fame, but if you have recognition, if somebody says: “Well, he’s a pretty good writer!” he’s written some pretty good books!” to me, that’s the ultimate praise that any writer could or should expect…. Now, failure … we are talking about writers’ failure. Its someone, to me, who thinks he has talent or for some reason has… mesmerized himself to the point that he thinks he should be successful. But, not having the talent and the ability, but somebody who keeps on in the face of failure, ah, to the end, and ends up a derelict, to me that’s failure. Now, he might resort to other means of making a living, by writing porno books or something, to exist. To me that is not a successful failure, that’s a premeditated failure. Ah, to do something like that in order to try to be successful, because if you change your philosophy… if you change your ideals… in order to achieve something underhanded, something fraudulent, to me – that is not something successful. It’s a failure.
CH: I think that one of the best comments I’ve gotten on this subject! Seems like you have thought about it. Well, I’m through, if there is anything you can think that we didn’t cover?
EC: Ha ha! Well, I don’t know of anything else I can say, and I don’t know if anything I said was really important. So, it’s whatever you make of it. Because I’m not a great mind. I’m not a great thinker. I’m not a great philosopher. I’m just an ordinary guy.
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Previous contributions to Ragazine include interviews with the late John Cage and the very-much-alive Dorothea Rockburne.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Erskine Caldwell Interview
The Universal Poet
Review of Sándor Kányádi’s poetry volume
“In Contemporary Tense”
by Emil Fischer
Book Review: “In Contemporary Tense” by Sándor Kányádi, poetry translated from the Hungarian by Paul Sohar, introduction by the translator.
Published by Irodalmi Jelen (Romania) and Iniquity Press (David Roskos, POB 906, Island Heights, NJ 08732, USA), 2013.
Hard cover, full color, 6X9, 342 pages; USBN: 1-877968-49-8
Available on amazon.com or the publisher, $19.50.
* * *
It’s unusual to have a little-known poet introduced in a densely packed 300-plus page tome, but Sándor Kányádi, the prominent Hungarian poet, is not entirely a newcomer to the English-speaking world; “Dancing Embers,” a neat selection of his best-loved poems, was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2002 to critical acclaim, and the present volume lists four pages of magazine and anthology acknowledgements. Thus, his name may resonate with many lovers of poetry.
György Faludy, a contemporary compatriot poet, yielded the title of “the best living Hungarian poet” to Kányádi; anyone interested in modern Hungarian poetry need only pick up this volume and keep sampling it, the way poetry is best enjoyed. Daunting as the sheer amount of material may seem at first, in Paul Sohar’s translation, the lines come in a natural flow whether in conventional form or in free verse or a unique blend of both. The poet’s eclecticism guarantees a great variety of approaches and styles; never a dull moment, never a hackneyed metaphor, never a theme not worth exploring. The poems added to the 2002 selection are of the same high quality and interest and include several longer late works not yet available at that time. Nitpickers may question the inclusion of two or three pages of ditties from story books. Skip them if you don’t want to stoop to children’s level, but don’t miss the longer tale, “The Curious Moon;” it can be read as sci-fi full of social significance and political parody. Such interpretation would rarely be amiss anywhere in this volume.
One more thing about the length of the book: the collection is couched in additional prose material, mostly commentary and elucidation but the incisive introduction by the translator should be especially helpful to readers not familiar with Hungarian literature, and it’s not very often that even such ancillary material is credited with prior publication. Almost all poems bear a date and even footnotes where absolutely necessary – the language barrier is not the only one to be overcome in translation.
With these caveats out of the way let’s look at the contents. We see poets coming from Eastern Europe in two preconceived models: either the rustic native talent full of natural wisdom and contemptuous of western decadence or the cunning intellectual sophisticate filled with irony and enamored of western decadence. Neither of these notions applies to Kányádi – or else they both do. He came from a poor peasant family and had a barefoot childhood in a small village of Transylvania, but his subsidized boarding school education catapulted his mind into the wider world of ideas very early on. By the time he finished college with a teacher’s certificate he was a recognized poet and got a job as a magazine editor, living in a major city of Transylvania. But images of country life remained iconic in his poetry and hardscrabble existence determinative of his sensibilities.
The stubble was so cruel to my feet
(their burning even night rest couldn’t treat).
So often I stopped stumbling just to cry,
lizards had a better fate than I.
At least a bird, a butterfly or a bee,
but it was a pilot I most wanted to be.
My pitcher was so easy to destroy,
yet always I remained a waterboy.
(From “The Waterboy”, p.91)
Sounds a little old-fashioned? While Kanyadi has pursued formal poetry all his life he has not hesitated to venture into free style when the poem demanded it like in the eponymous poem:
I fear him
you fear him
we fear him
you fear him
This works better in the original, because Hungarian conjugation incorporates not only the pronoun but some indication of the object in the verb. The poem is dated from the ’80s, before the regime change, from the era of Ceaucescu dictatorship, a deadly combination of strict communism and even stricter Romanian nationalism that forced the Hungarian poet into either silence or subterfuge in his poetry. In any case, in a situation much too complicated for the waterboy to retain his identity; by this time it had the city sophisticate indelibly superimposed on it, just as the Rumanian citizenship was stamped on the ethnic Hungarian and the communist ideology on the liberal. With all these dualities stretching the poet in different directions it’s no wonder he remained very eclectic in his poetry, using conventional forms and free verse with equal skill and most often in the service of a cause. Number one being the survival of his ethnic minority which he saw ensured only by building bridges to the majority Rumanian population through their poets. He did not only translate their works into Hungarian but dedicated numerous poems to them.
he set the potholes of the sidewalk
to music with his melodious gait
he made a downpour loosen its strings
and the brightest rainbow replicate
(From “My Friend Aurel Gurghianu”, p.257)
In addition, he seeks to better the situation of his people by agitating for the survival of ethnic minorities all over the world; thus he is a cosmopolitan nationalist, feeling kinship with minority cultures condemned to extinction:
down in mexico or far
up north in a Vancouver park
where I saw how natives are
apt to sit around and daze
at the last flickerings of hope
hands dropped on their knees they hold
with us the same end of the rope
I was in those distant lands
so sad and shocked to realize
how our vacant gaze had turned
us into Indians with eyes
that a funeral could’ve hewn
on a sunday afternoon
(From “Oil Print” p. 225)
But enough of Kányádi the polemicist; let’s see how he stacks up as a poet, how he uses his craft, what if anything special he has to offer. His ability to combine images with social issues in a creative way is well demonstrated by the above quotes. However, his best virtue lies in the way he can thread a narrative in a long poem with propulsive force and yet in a deceptively simple and direct language, and this cannot be illustrated; one has to pick up the book to appreciate the magic by which he can compel the reader to follow him in a forest of words page after page. Another unique feature of his long poems is the amalgam of styles he puts together, sometimes even a pastiche of poems quoted in Romanian, French and German. Yet the divergent pieces hang together, echoing and reinforcing one another. The most notable of these long poems is “All Soul’s Day in Vienna:”
They will braid you too some day
in a wreath with pomp replete
but the world will feel as cold and
strange as this Vienna street
In the whitewashed cathedral of
the augustine order I got to pass
an evening with my back against a pillar
listening to mozart’s requiem mass
The opus magnum of his later years, “Mane and Skull”, was written against the background of the Balkan wars of the ’90s that sorely tried the poet’s faith in mankind and in god but also inspired some of his most fervent lines:
You piously hide your face
behind the mounds of our sins
leaving us without a clue
you trespass oh lord by using us
to do your trespassing for you
In “Heretic Telegrams” Kányádi presents a chapbook of poems about poetry and Eastern Europe inspired by his meeting in Rotterdam with Zbigniew Herbert, the noted Polish poet, in 1988; some of his most experimental approaches are demonstrated therein. In addition, he is a master of his own version of the sonnet that utilizes the shorter Hungarian tetrameter lines; he has a number of updated Aesop fable and historical events cast in that form. Whatever the subject or the form his language is always poetic and his metaphors are breathlessly fresh:
Vacant barnyard, vacant hut:
the sadness of church bells
with the tongue torn out.
(“Fall”, p. 69)
And his descriptions are always vivid, merciless in their precision; here is how he brings his aging father to life on the page:
Skin and bone,
Face worn down to skull.
Time whittled to a pin.
(“A Song Choking up on Itself”, p.82)
The enthusiasm of this review is partially due to the translation. Paul Sohar has succeeded in giving us Kányádi in fluid and modern English translation. Even the formal poems have the natural flow of the language; they are never rhyme driven, never twisted out of shape by inversions or other nineteenth century tricks of the trade. The large number of prior publications also attest to the quality of his work; this is the fifth publication of his “All Souls’ Day” and in its fifth version. Most modern translators do not bother with reproducing formal poetry, but Sohar meticulously retains stanzas and line length. He sometimes thins out the rhymes but retains enough to show the form; often he changes “aabb” scheme to “abcb,” which is sufficient to evoke the feel of the original. What he gives us in this book is not a prosaic synopsis of each poem but an English version of it. This is a must read for anyone interested in Eastern European literature – or just good poetry from anywhere.
About the reviewer:
Emil Fischer is a closet writer not by design but by the laws of the literary market place. He has written an unpublished novel and his diary is full of poems. Or scribblings he privately calls poetry. Lately he’s had a few poems published in Buckle &, Chiron, To Topos, Visions International, etc., and a book review in Orbis.
Paul Sohar received the 2014 Irodalmi Jelen Translation Prize for “In Contemporary Tense”, a volume of poems by Sandor Kanyadi (a prominent Romanian-Hungarian poet) in his English translation, available from Iniquity Press (2013) via Amazon.com. You can read more of Sohar’s work and translations here:
* * * * *
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on In Contemporary Tense/Book Review
We Are Still Here:
How American Indian Literature
Re–visions the American Indian Experience
in American History
by John Smelcer
* * *
On my office door is a poster of Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog. The caption below his image reads, “We Are Still Here.” While American Indian literature of the past several decades has been about many things, it singularly hails with triumphant resolve that we are still here. Across Native America – and there are hundreds of federally recognized tribes – we struggle to maintain our own unique cultures. But it’s not easy. The clash of two cultures over hundreds of years has taken its toll. The old and the new are frequently inseparable, the lines blurred.
Early novels of the Native American Renaissance (I use the term simply to signal the wider availability of Native writing in mainstream literature), such as N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1969), James Welch’s Winter in the Blood (1974) and his haunting The Death of James Loney (1979), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), were about returning home, not merely to a geographic place, though that is paramount, but also to a cultural center of gravity – an Indian center where the American model of the rugged individual standing alone is supplanted by the indigenous sense of the self as part of a community. Everything we see or hear in media tells us that we must want something else and to be something else and somewhere else. We are pulled between two worlds, yet we are sometimes unable to fully embrace either. The literature was and is often about not belonging and the immense pressure of marginalization. Where do I belong? Where is my home? How do I fit in? Characters struggle with trying to become whole (and sometimes they fail). Among all the loss suffered by Native America – loss of customs, ritual, myth, religion, and especially of language – perhaps the most important loss has been the loss of self, as Leslie Marmon Silko writes in Ceremony:
But the world had become tangled with Europeans names: the names of rivers, the hills, the names of animals and plants – all of creation suddenly had two names: an Indian name and a white name. Christianity separated the people from themselves; it tried to crush the single clan name, encouraging each person to stand alone, because Jesus Christ would save only the individual soul. (68)
In the decades since those first mainstream writers, many Indian (for that is what we call ourselves) writers go so far as to re–imagine history. Abraham Lincoln once wrote that “history is not history unless it is the truth.” In attempting to tell the Indian side of American history, many Indian writers try to re–vision the history of America, not revisionism but a re–visioning – a re–seeing – of history, a history of America that includes Indians and the Indian perspective.
And history is due for an overhaul.
I recently picked up a new children’s picture book about the westward expansion of pioneers as they rolled across the plains states hauling everything they owned in their wagons. Although the book illustrated their hardships (e.g. repairing busted wood–rimmed wheels, being stuck in blizzards, fending off starvation in sometimes gruesome ways, and so forth), it never once mentioned the American Indians they encountered (and eventually displaced) along the way. One gets the discomforting sense that America is trying to rewrite the painful parts of history for new generations by writing the American Indian experience out of the picture.
Consider, too, these iconic images of nationalism. The trope of Custer valiantly fending off thousands of Indians, his long golden hair blowing in the wind, demands a clearer image. In cowardice, Custer wore his hair short during cavalry patrols of the Black Hills for fear of being scalped should he fall in battle. He also wore buckskins, concealing his rank insignia, so as to avoid being targeted as an officer. So, too, the trope of George Washington as a boy always telling the truth on his way to paragoned manhood might be replaced with a new, more “historical” image. Washington rose rapidly through the ranks to general almost entirely on his success during the Indian Wars. He helped open and tame the northeastern frontiers of the New World for Europeans by killing the indigenous people who already lived there – men, women, elderly, and children alike. Does such a history blacken America’s patriotic eye? Most likely, but not irreparably. But if we are to realize fully and completely the history of America, the real history as Lincoln suggested, we must acknowledge the whole picture, the true picture, not just the tidy parts we choose to honor in our filtered history books.
Contemporary American Indian literature attempts to dispel stereotypes and romantic notions that forever “fix” Indians in the past – adorned in buckskins and feathers and red bandanas – as something that was, replacing them with the reality of American Indians living in America in the 21st century, both on and off the reservation. The project of many contemporary Indian writers is to portray honestly and bluntly the context of those issues, triumphs, and crises that define who we are. Oftentimes, the literature is sardonic, searing, and witty as is the best satirical writing of Jonathan Swift. The following poems are from my full–length poetry manuscript Indian Giver, which includes an introduction by my late friend and mentor James Welch.
THE INCOMPLETE & UNAUTHORIZED
DEFINITION OF AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE
“Indian” is not a derogatory word.
It’s what we call ourselves. We claim it.
Not all Indians wear long black hair
or faded red bandanas.
I’ve never seen a Red Man.
Percentage of people who say they are part Cherokee: 50%
Percentage who claim to have an anonymous
great–grandmother who was a Cherokee princess: 100%
Percentage of actual Cherokee princesses in history: 0%
Percentage of the Cherokee Nation compared to the
number of all other recognized tribes in America 0.2%
Percentage of Americans who are enrolled Indians
according to the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs: 0.67%
Fiction by Indians outsells poetry by Indians,
yet poetry is the language of sorrow and heartbreak.
All Indians speak poetry.
No Indian has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
This is the mathematical formula for deciphering
meaning in Native American poetry:
Where a represents anger and s represents sorrow,
let P represent poetry and t represent the duration
(time) of marginalization.
Thus, P = t(a + s)2
Indian writers shouldn’t drive sports cars.
I traded my yellow Porsche for a pick–up truck
with a quarter million miles
and a rifle rack in the rear window.
Not all Indians come from Horse Cultures.
Not all Indians ride horses.
I’ve only been on a horse once and it threw me.
Writing by Indians should contain dogs.
Many Indian writers have had at least
one of their dogs run over by a pick–up truck
with a rifle hanging in the rear window.
History is written by the victors.
Indians didn’t always lose the battles.
Don’t believe everything you’ve ever read
or watched on television.
John Wayne’s real name was Marion, but directors figured
Marion the Cowboy couldn’t defeat Indians.
Columbus didn’t really discover America
the way you think he did.
The Navajo Nation is as big as Nebraska.
Bingo is Indian Social Security.
Federal enrollment is how the government
counts Indians to predict when we will be extinct.
Not all Indians are enrolled. I am enrolled.
Enrollment doesn’t mean anything.
There are 500 tribes in America. No individual speaks
for all of them, barely even for a single clan or tribe.
Some bigshot Indian writers think they speak for everyone.
Does an illiterate white shoe salesman in Idaho speak for you?
American universities teach American Indian literature
but hire almost no Indian writers at all.
White professors who have never seen a reservation
teach American Indian literature
even when there’s an Indian writer on faculty
because it’s trendy.
Some Indians go to tribal colleges
Where they are taught by white teachers
who want to be Indian. New Age white women
have sex with Indian men so they can become Indian.
You can’t become Indian by proximity.
America loves the Indian–sounding names of places,
but they don’t want Indians to live there.
It gives them a sense of connection to a land
upon which they have little history of their own.
Sometimes a sweat lodge is just a sweat lodge.
Some American sports teams are named for Indians.
There should be an Indian baseball team called
the Cherokee Crucified Christs complete with
a bleeding team mascot nailed to a wooden cross.
Would that hurt your sensibilities?
All Indians aren’t proud and defiant.
When I do something right, my Indian uncle
tells me I’ve earned an eagle feather.
Only Indians can own eagle feathers.
Nearly all published Indian writing is in English.
Almost no Indian writer speaks their Indian language.
Fewer yet can write in it.
Sii cetsiin koht’aene kenaege’, tsin’aen.
Indian children love to dance Indian–style
but they don’t understand a word the elders sing.
Indian boys love to beat Indian drums
while Indian girls sway in moving circles.
The hearts of Indian boys are tight–stretched drums.
The hearts of Indian girls are beautiful sad songs.
The government decimated bison
so that Indians would become vegetarians.
The government killed wild horses
so that Indian spirits would break.
The government sent Indian children to boarding schools
so they would forget being Indian. Missionaries built
The Church of Infinite Confusion so Indians would
forget being Indian.
I forget what I was trying to say.
British writers don’t have to write about Shakespeare.
French writers don’t have to write about Baudelaire.
Blacks don’t always have to write about slavery.
Indian writers don’t have to write about being Indian
or about dogs killed by trucks with gun racks
on reservations while fancy dancing,
wearing eagle feathers, and beating drums
while mouthing words to songs they do not know.
Audiences at readings by Indians are almost always white.
Many urban Indians write about life on the reservation
even when they’ve never lived on one because it sells better
than writing about going to Starbucks after shopping at the Gap.
Few Indians have Indian–sounding names. Non–Indians pretending
to be Indians adopt name like “Runs–Beside–Spotted–Ponies,”
‘Walks–With–Wolves,” or “Elk Cloud.”
A publisher once asked me to change my name
to a hyphenated one with a preposition and a spirit animal.
I asked, “How about ‘Johnny Fakes–His–Name–on–a–Weasel’?”
All Indian writers aren’t spiritually attuned to Nature.
Most are fearful of getting lost in the woods.
Some Indians write out of anger and despair.
All Indian writers are not angry and depressed.
Native America is drowning in a sea of alcohol.
Indians commit suicide ten times more often than whites.
Day after day, our hearts are turned into cemeteries.
The impoverished state of our lives is not self–inflicted.
Most Indian writers are mixed–blood
who hate the term “Half–Breed.”
I am the son of a half–breed father.
I am an outcast. Even my shadow
tries to hide its face in shame.
In 1492, two Indians stumble upon a billboard
in the middle of a clearing with the words:
Coming soon. America!
“What does it say?” asks the first Indian.
“I don’t know,” says the second, scratching his head.
“But I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
THE ALTERNATE HISTORY OF
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Lester Has–Some–Books builds a time machine
in his uncle’s garage and sets it to the day
Columbus discovers America.
Quickly, with the masts of three ships
lurching on the horizon, he sets up a big sign
on the beach:
WELCOME TO SPAIN!
Columbus spies the sign from the bay,
scratches his head, and orders all three ships
to turn around and head back out to sea.
DUKE SKYTHUNDER TRIES
A JEDI MIND TRICK ON
This is not the land you were looking for.
HOW TO MAKE BLUE RIBBON
INDIAN FRY BREAD
“Indians could spend their whole lives
looking for the perfect piece of fry bread.”
– Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues
In a large bowl, mix the following ingredients:
Three cups of flour made from the ashes of failed Indian dreams
One cup of water made from the tears of Indian mothers
A pinch of salt, first thrown into open wounds of Indian fathers
Drop the rolled and molded dough into a pan of oil
hot enough to incinerate every Indian future
Remove fry bread when both sides turn brown and blistered
Thomas Two Fists
whittled a guitar from a tree
that had fallen during a storm
and killed a shaman. He carved
the tuning pegs from the bones
of a white buffalo.
he used the long gray hair of
old Indian mothers who had lost
their children and grandchildren
to alcohol and drunk driving.
Two Fists travelled from
reservation to reservation
and powwow to powwow
singing the blues.
Wherever he went,
Indians wrapped themselves in old blankets,
dreamed of forgotten homes and wept
dreamed of forgotten homes and wept.
INDIAN TIME MACHINE
invents a time machine in his sweat lodge.
So, he sets it back to Little Bighorn
with a video camera and tapes everything.
Then he invites the whole damn reservation
to watch the movie. Everyone’s eating popcorn and laughing.
It’s really something. You should see it.
Everything’s in color and there are these close–ups.
Here’s the part where Custer sends in the cavalry
catching the Indians off guard.
Oh, and here’s where three thousand Indians
chase them up a hill and whups their ass.
Duke Sky Thunder sits on his Indian motorcycle at a stoplight in Albuquerque
wearing a red bandana and a T–shirt
that screams Indian Pride,
Crazy Horse painted on the gas tank
and a license plate that reads INJIN.
A pickup truck with two Rednecks pulls alongside.
The closer dude leans out the window and hollers,
“I hate you sonabitches!”
The second dude with really bad teeth yells,
“Why don’t you go back wherever you came from?”
When the light turns green, Sky Thunder grins and shouts,
“Right back at ya!” and peels away –
his long black hair whipping in the wind like a stallion’s mane,
the smoke signal from his tailpipe rising like a finger.
About the author:
John Smelcer is a tribally and federally enrolled member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska and a member of Tazlina Village Traditional Council. In the mid–to–late 1990s, he was the executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, where he produced a dictionary of his language for which Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker provided forewords. He is the author of 45 books, most in Native American Studies. With Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), John co–edited Native American Classics (2013), a graphic anthology of 19th and early 20th century American Indian literature. He is a contributing editor to Ragazine.CC. Learn more at www.johnsmelcer.com
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Indian Life & Literature/John Smelcer
Three Good Ones
Reviews by Robert Joe Stout
Elegiacs in a Closed Room, Carol Frith. Gribble Press, 2012
Varian, Ellen LaFlèche, Dallas Poets Community Press, 2010
If They Have Ears To Listen, Terry Lucas,Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2012
Small volumes and chapbooks of excellent poetry appear and disappear, read by friends, colleagues, other poets but seldom getting the readership or the acknowledgment that they deserve. Three such small but impressive offerings are Varian, by Ellen LaFlèche, Elegiacs in a Closed Room by Carol Frith and If They Have Ears To Listen by Terry Lucas.
LaFlèche’s curt testimonies of a woman dying of cancer are stabs in the gut. The poems are short, evocative: The reader is in the room with Julia, with her friends, her lover, her son, gasping at the intrusions, the lucid ironies, the moments of despair. In “Knit One, Purl One”
the black stitches unravel in her lap
like cat-gut sutures, each loop
tugging at the next
like the loosely knitted
scar on her belly.
and in “I Organize my Own Memorial Service so I Can Be There to Enjoy It”
The banquet room is a pretty
preview of hell—hot red walls
and ceiling. Red
candles in mirror cups,
the charred wicks writhing like sinners.
LaFlèche handles an intricate and delicate balancing of life and death with near surgical precision, evoking emotion without catering to it. An excellent read.
Frith’s Elegiacs observe more than participate: observe in ways that bring the reader into the colors, tastes, movements. In “Imaginary Nude in Enamel Bath”
She has waited,
watching as the artist draws her bath,
lowers her to water,
her fractured, glowing skin a kind
of common sense against the sad
uncluttered motion of the dark.
Images flow through the poems: “sky is like a scarf make out of silk,”
memory “is like salt on watercolor/like warm apples on the tongue,” “The red part/of each apricot blossom glows like a small/tired sun.”
Fruit filled, flowers filled, thought filled poems. A fine reading experience.
In “If They Have Ears To Hear” Terry Lucas, narrator, story teller, active participant in everyday life, links the reader to events at first glance ordinary—unpoetic—that details, descriptions, movements make meaningful, enjoyable and insightful. Coins clatter into a cash register as “contralto quarters, soprano dimes,” dates end with engines “cooling down with the ticking sounds/of shrinking metal, re-buckling of belts, re-hooking of bras,” prayer meetings prompt “women to rest foreheads in palms, men to crouch on the scuffed linoleum floor/Grip the back of a gray metal folding chair as fiercely as a child steadying a wooden ladder…”
Commonplace, but commonplace touched with magic, viewed with awe. Wrens, Corningware, goldfinches, Luke’s Café, Abboud suits web the reader in experiencing life the way it is: curious, quirky, laughable and—quite often—profound.
About the reviewer:
Robert Joe Stout is journalist and freelance writer living in Oaxaca, Mexico. His forthcoming book Hidden Dangers details obstacles facing Mexico and the United States on various fronts, including drug commerce and immigration. His most recent book of poetry is A Perfect Throw(Aldrich Press).
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Feeling Chapbooked
WRITING BLUE HIGHWAYS
William Least Heat-Moon’s Story
of How a Book Happened
by John Smelcer
In 1978, William Least Heat-Moon began a 14,000 miles, 38-state, multi-year journey in his van named Ghost Dancing. He took only lesser-traveled back roads, those indicated in blue on road maps. Along the way, he met people from all walks of life. As the miles accumulated, the idea for a book began to take root. The manuscript traveled its own journey toward publication. When Blue Highways finally came out in 1982, it spent 42 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The following excerpt is from Heat-Moon’s just-released Writing Blue Highways (University of Missouri Press, 2014), in which the author tells the story of how his masterpiece “happened.” In this chapter aptly titled, “The Secret Society Begins to Emerge,” the publisher (Atlantic Monthly Press) has been whittling down the length of the ponderous manuscript. Unexpectedly, the editor, Peter Davison, calls to deliver the devastating news that that they can’t include any of the photographs in the book due to escalating printing costs. As a photojournalist, Heat-Moon understood the importance of the images and how much the book’s success depended on them.
Although our paths had crossed a couple times in the past two decades, it wasn’t until after I moved to Missouri in the summer of 2013 that Heat-Moon and I struck up a friendship, having occasional lunch in Columbia while discussing current writing projects, and even doing a book signing together. Blue Highways has long been one of my favorite books; I’ve taught it several times alongside Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. If it’s one of yours and you want to learn more about the book’s backstory, or if you are a writer who wants to learn about another writer’s struggles to get his book published, read Writing Blue Highways.
– John Smelcer
From Chapter IX:
One afternoon Peter Davison phoned to say the price of the book would be $13.50. A couple of days later he called
again to say it would have to be $15.95. “There’s an invisible seventeen-dollar barrier these days,” he said, “and we can’t let it go higher than that.” The next week it did, and he phoned to take up the issue a third time. “Somebody here seriously underestimated the length of your manuscript. It’s pushing two hundred thousand words. The ink on your pages weighs more than the paper.”
My condensations and dumped widows had worked — perhaps too well. That was the good news. Then came the bad, the ugly: “The photographs are driving the price of the book too high. I’m sorry to tell you this, but we’re going to have to leave them out. After all, the Atlantic proved they aren’t necessary.”
I’d humbugged experienced word-editors on the length of the book, and now the piper wanted his pay. A long silence before I could speak. Please don’t do that. “We have to,” he said. “The public’s not going to pay seventeen dollars for this book. I know the decision upsets you, but there’s no other choice.” I thought before I answered. There is another choice. “Which is?” I’ll withdraw the manuscript. The conversation had become strained. “You’re making a mistake,” he said. “A big, serious mistake.” Click, line dead. Well, boys, there you have it.
That evening Lucy was unhappy: “After four years, you find an editor to believe in your book, and then in one phone call Mister Big-Time-Author casts him aside before the book even exists? Have you lost your mind? I wondered the same thing and tossed the issue around, but I couldn’t see things as just a matter of money. The pictures of thirty-seven people, two cats, and one dog were integral and critical: A photograph can go where words cannot.
The incentive for the journey began with an urge to make environmental portraits of authentic habitants of the American backcountry. In the beginning was not the word but the image; when the book was without form, and void, there were photographs — “light-writing” — and the pictures gave off energy and sustained the journey when little else did. And on the road, the growing album gave purpose to mileage and promised a seed-bed for something larger as a gallery grew into a garden.
Those faces became prima facie evidence requiring more than just captions or notes; they demanded voice so they could attest to their lives, and even when words began rising to make affirming images subservient, to eliminate them was errantly wrong. Origins, seeds, and inceptive impulses belonged to the work as much as did their results: Blue Highways began not with a typewriter but with a camera.
When I went to bed that night, I told Lucy removing the photographs would be a death stroke to the book, and she said, “Saying no to a yes is also a death stroke.”
A ringing phone pulled me awake the next morning. It was Davison whose hello was a grudging “You win.” His fast turnabout removed any chance I would have to talk myself out of a sound principle.
My medieval notion about the Great Wheel — and one other thing — had me ready for the next rotation… My “next” was the Book of the Month Club turning down Blue Highways after two readers said they saw no significant audience for a story about “some guy in a truck going nowhere.”
* * *
July 10, 2014 Comments Off on Writing Blue Highways
Participants in the Ninth International Festival at Val-David gather for a group photograph at the end of the conference. Conferences take place twice a year.
Palabra en el Mundo/
Words in the World
by Eva Halus
International residency for writers and artists of Val David
The International Festival of Writers and Artists held for the ninth time at Val David at the International residency for the lovers of poetry and art was certainly under the influence of the nine Muses, number that celebrates both the birthday of this Festival and Poetry and Art in general. The festival was directed by Flavia Cosma, a well-known writer whose poetry, prose and children literature is published in English, French and Spanish, as well as her native Romanian. She welcomes at her residency, year after year, new talents from all corners of the world. With more than 30 books published, Cosma shows not just a tremendous creativity, but also the big gift of sharing the poetical-artistic experience with other fellows through festivals where poetry and prose readings, book launches, conferences, round tables, improvisations, music and exhibitions are giving poets and artists of all ages and styles an opportunity to perform and share their work in the languages of participants, most frequently English, French, Spanish, Romanian and Ancient Greek.
The festival takes place in a beautiful ambiance set by virgin forests that spread right from the backyard to the horizon, punctuated by the so called Agapes fraternelles, gatherings on the terrace of the residency with plenty of food and wine and high-spirited conversations.
This year, for the ninth edition of the Festival, the Residency welcomed more than 30 poets and artists from Argentina, France, Romania, U.S.A., Tasmania, Peru, Armenia, Serbia and Canada (Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and the Laurentian region).
The stage is set on the upper part of a double living-room, lighted by two big chandeliers and flanked by an old style fireplace, and one by one the participants are taking turns in reading, declaiming or singing, by the side of a small table, looking at the audience over a huge bouquet of Italian roses, freshly cut from the rich soil of Val David.
Although it is almost a pity to describe the work of these poets and writers just in a few words, for the lack of space, a complete list of the festival`s program, more details about them and about the festival and residency are available on the website of the International Residency of Writers and Artists, Val David.
Saturday, the 31st of May welcomed writers and poets including Felicia Mihali (Romania-Montreal), Claudia Caceres (Peru-Montreal), David Brême (France), Nicole Davidson (also the mayor of Val David, Qc) and Luminita Suse (Romania-Ottawa, ON).
VAL DAVID IX
Participants and events at Val David.
Flavia Cosma[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/val-david-ix/thumbs/thumbs_img_3206-2.jpg]30Participants at Val David IX
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/val-david-ix/thumbs/thumbs_img_3335-3.jpg]30Participants at Val David IX
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/val-david-ix/thumbs/thumbs_img_3389-3.jpg]30Participants at Val David IX
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/val-david-ix/thumbs/thumbs_img_3110-2.jpg]40Participants at Val David IX
Felicia Mihali, Romanian-born writer, presented her new book, The Second Chance, a novel that appeared this year after the big success for publishing The Darling of Kandahar, (her first novel written in English that was selected among the top 10 best novels of Québec writers in Canada). Her new book tells the story of a married man that can`t recover his memory after an accident.
Claudia Caceres, a literature scholar from the Catholique University in Peru, with a diploma in Audio-visual communications (2001) and Quebec University in Montreal, read from her latest book Retorno hacia el Antiguo Sur, published in 2014.
David Brême, from France, read recent poetry. He defines himself as a self-taught philosopher, with love for gardening, agriculture and apiculture. His proverbial words are: I am a flame that burns, wishing to become a beacon.
Nicole Davidson, the mayor of Val David and an always present figure at the festival due to her love for poetry and art, read from her latest poetry creations. President of the “Cities and villages of art and heritage,” she`s a big friend of the festival..
Luminita Suse is the author of two tanka poetry books, A Thousand Fireflies (Petites nuages Editing House, 2011) and A hint of Light (together with Mike Montreuil, same editing house, 2013). She read from the above-mentioned books.
The program continued after a well-attended pause where delicious food, beer and wine sparked interesting discussions and expressions of different points of view.
After the break, Hugh Hazelton, poet and translator, presently the co-director of the International Center of Literature Translation in Banff and an honorary teacher of Spanish at Concordia University, read from his poetry book Antimatter, which is also available in Spanish.
Among many brilliant poets and authors who contributed to the success of this Festival, we should mention Flavia Cosma, whose poetry book Leaves of a Diary was accepted at the literature program of the Toronto University as a study material in 2007-2008. She received many prizes, including the Golden Medal of the House of the Peruvian Poets, becoming a honorific member since 2010. Also she received the Title of Excellency for the exceptional contribution for promoting and enriching the Romanian culture in Europe and in the Entire World (www.flaviacosma/Val David.html).
Others include: Carmen Doreal, a flamboyant poet and painter, of Romanian origins as well, is a member of the International Academy of Fine Arts, Quebec and the Circle of Artists and Sculptors of Quebec, Anna Louise E. Fontaine, poetess and artist from Montreal who enjoys summers in the Laurentian region, Antoine Gravel-Bilodeau, the youngest poet at the festival, certified in literature from UQAM, who read from his ongoing project-a novel where themes like love and nature are explored, Traian Gardus, well-known poet, epigrams-maker and translator, who cheered the public with tonic epigrams. He read also from his latest published book, Sonnets, that saw the light in 2012.
A series of conferences on Sunday, included a discussion about the magazine Francopolis, a link in the francophone and Francophile poetry world from Quebec to France. Geturde Millaire spoke about the magazine, the team behind it, the published authors and the echoes of their literary creations.
Luminita Suse presented the creation of two other fellow poets: Nicole Pottier (France) and Clelia Ifrim, accompanied by Zen images that came along with the Yohaku, a precise form of Haiku, followed by an open discussion: The Young poetry from here and everywhere, in English and French, with guest speakers: Claudia Caceres (Peru), Eva Halus (Romania-Montreal) and Nicola Smith (Tasmania), moderated by Flavia Cosma.
The afternoon started with a new series about great poets ignored during their life-time, mistreated and forgotten, featuring Jacobo Fijman (Argentina) with readings from his poetry and a song about Jacobo Fijman, composed and interpreted by Luis Raul Calvo. An important poet from Argentina, Luis Raul Calvo was present virtually with poems from his latest bilingual book Breve Anthologie (French/Spanish).
Luise Dupré, well-known poetess who received The Grand Prize Quebecor of the International Poetry Festival in Trois-Rivières and the General Governor Prize of Canada for her acclaimed book Plus haute que les flames/Higher than the flames, published in 2010, launched her new book L`Album multicolore/The multi-colored album, followed by Ljubica Milicevic, a poet and artist from Serbia living in Montreal, and Louise Carson reading Jeremiah Wall, Quebec-based singer/songwriter and stalwart in spoken word production and performance, sang accompanied by Neil O`Connor, veteran of the British Punk scene from the late seventies.
Eva Halus, Montreal-based artist (poet, painter, photographer and journalist), born in Romania, read poetry from her newly published book Of me and you. It is her second book, following Fragments, published in both Romanian and French. She announced the third book, The well-composed Muse, that will see the light at the same editing house, Reflection Publishing in California.
Frédérique Marleau, a slam artist from Montreal and organizer of Fétichic! and other events, presented her co-production of la femme Phalique/The Phallic Woman, a visual carnal poem that premiered in 2007. Her first poetry book Feu de l`Être/The fire of Being, was published by Guérin, in the collection Poésie d`Ici/Poetry.
Kate Kretler, a true Homeric scholar with an interest in performance and ancient philosophers’ interpretation of Homer, interpreted a passage from Homer, seconded by the English and French translations. Gordon Bradley, poet from Saint Adolphe de Howard, Qc., full of humour and ready to spread it, read some of his never-published creations and some haiku. He explained that the most important day in his life is almost tomorrow, explaining his altruistic visi scholaron.
The Festival ended on a high note with Sharl Dubé, author-composer from Québec, whose performances of the spoken word often include music, imagery, staging, more ideas and dreams, sensations and visions. among the artists present at the festival were Nicola Smith, artist in-residence from Tasmania who has a bachelor degree in Fine Arts from the National Art School in Sydney, Australia. She completed her Honors year at the University of Tasmania, Hobart. In the last five years her painting was inspired by the cinema, most recently by Quebec director Benoit Pilon`s film Ce u`il faut pour vivre/ What you have to do for living (2008).
Carmen Doreal, Elisabeth Whalley, Ljubica Milicevic, Eva Halus, Anna Louise E. Lafontaine and a special guest from Holguin, Cuba, José Ramiro Ricardo Feria added a touch of color to the festival with their artwork . Feria is an Arts teacher, retired from the University of Holguin and is the president of the Artists` Union of Holguin. Since 2002 he exhibits also in Canada (Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal). He displayed several big half-tone engravings in sepia, green and other earth colors, homage to his native land Cuba and a neighbouring poet.
Paul Ballard, a painter, printmaker and papermaker, exhibited some of his works. Ballard lives in Ste Adéle and the Atelier de l`Ile, Val David, Quebec.
The International Residency for Writers and Artists will open its doors for the 10th Edition of the International Festival of Writers and Artists, next October 4 and 5.
— Eva Halus – 3rd June 2014, Montreal
June 8, 2014 Comments Off on Writers & Artists of Val David IX
On Writing Historical Fiction
with Mike Foldes
Q) Tell me, how did you happen to start writing? Does it run in the family? Why historical fiction?
A) I’ve been writing since I was about seven. Turns out my grandfather (I didn’t know him – he died the year I was born) was a poet. Unsuccessful, commercially. I have one of his rejection letters from Harper’s, about 1930. Historical because I love the travel of it, that sense of being in a different time and place.
Q) What did you study in college, and when did you write your first novel? Did it sell, or is that among the undiscovered manuscsripts of J.M.?
A) I studied English lit with minors in art and history. I finished my first novel in my late thirties… slow bloomer… and yes, it was published: The Frenchwoman, from St. Martin’s Press. I did write quite a few short stories before I began working on that novel, and was short-listed for a few contests, but didn’t publish them. They were kind of like warm ups for me: my heart is in long fiction.
Q) What is your process for developing a story line? Plot? Character development?
A) I usually begin with an initial image and just follow the story. Who are the people in that first image? How did they get to whatever that place is? What is at stake for them, what are their possibilities? I like to mix fictional characters with real historical characters, so, for instance in The Beautiful American, the historical figure is photographer Lee Miller; I imagined her, just after World War II, in London, bumping into an old friend outside of Harrods. What are they doing there? What are they looking for? The old friend is the fictional character, someone who can follow Lee from childhood on, telling Lee’s story mixed in with her own.
I tend to write chronologically, beginning to end, as if I’m telling myself the story as I’m discovering it. That’s the first draft, of course. Much, much rewriting follows the first draft. John Gardner says writers should work as if in a dream state, that a good novel is an uninterrupted dream, and that’s how I like to work: deeply trusting some unknown part of my imagination to supply what I need for the story.
Plot and character can’t, for me, be separated. They come from each other. The tricky part is not letting my own self seep unnecessarily into the characters. For instance, I have a quick temper. When I’m writing fiction I have to make certain that the trait doesn’t automatically become part of the characters. When I might slam a door, someone like Lee, as I imagined her, would be more clever, more subtle when angry. I have to intuit who the characters are, what shapes them, drives them, and then make sure they are very separate from my own psychology.
Q) What was your most useful ‘other’ occupation that helped define your successful career as an author?
A) Not to be too cynical here, but John Gardner (yes, him again) recommended that writers marry rich spouses so they wouldn’t have to work ‘day’ jobs. I couldn’t go that far, though I see his point. Instead, I found part time professional work that allowed me a few hours every morning for my fiction. Those hours were worth their weight in gold. Successful? I don’t think of myself that way. I’ve managed to get my novels published.
Q) How much have other types of “writing jobs” influenced your approach to historical fiction?
A) My other writing jobs have been in journalism – print and a little radio, and I don’t think they influence my fiction writing, except in very basic ways: they gave me a kind of confidence on the page. I know my way around a sentence, and I can write to a deadline. Perhaps they also kept me a little grounded. My type of fiction is about a two way communication. I don’t write with readers looking over my shoulder, but when I write fiction I feel an obligation to tell a good story for that reader, just as, in journalism, you must be able to anticipate questions a reader would ask if that reader were there with you.
Q) Would you recommend that everyone try out a variety of forms on the way to ‘settling in’? or is that inevitable?
A) Absolutely. If writing is your choice, your way of experiencing the world, then why not experiment with it? It should be a bit playful and adventurous. I write historical fiction, but I’ve also written mysteries under a different name, and lots of journalism. I’m not a poet, but every once in a while I’ll challenge myself to try some poetry, just to keep some imaginative flexibility.
Q) When we spoke last year you had a contract for two books. How’s the second one coming along, and are you able to work on two books at a time or do you actively work on them in succession?
A) I’m about a third of my way through the second book in this contract. I’ve tried working on two books at a time, but I just can’t do it. When I’m actively writing, that voice ‘telling’ the story is going on in my head whether I’m at my desk or not, so I can follow only one narrative at a time. It is kind of like finding yourself in a dream, even when you’re wide awake.
Q) I understand you went to Europe while you were writing The Beautiful American. Do you work well on the road? Was this an investigatory excursion? Did you visit places that were central to Lee’s associations at the time?
A) No, I can’t work on the road at all. I’m a true creature of habit. I need my desk, my reference shelf, my pot of tea. The trip was to revisit some of Lee’s old haunts and other locales in the novel, so it was a research trip specifically centered in Nice and Grasse. There was a huge storm in the upper part of France, and all the trains had been snowed in, so I didn’t make it to Paris, but I already know that city pretty well.
Q) Thank you, Jeanne.
About the interviewer:
Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in “About Us.” This interview was conducted via email between January and March 2014.
Also in this issue: A review of The Beautiful American.
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on Jeanne Mackin/Author Interview
Hitting the Base Notes
“The Beautiful American”
by Jeanne Mackin
NAL Trade Paperback Original
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
I first met Jeanne Mackin during a visit with her husband, Steve Poleskie, at their home in Ithaca, New York. I was about to leave when Jeanne showed up and offered to make lunch, which turned out to be turkey and cheese with honey on sourdough bread – with white wine, of course. It was a delightful interlude on a beautiful day when I was in Ithaca on other business and took what I thought would be just a moment to say hello to Steve.
The next time I saw her, last summer, she had just signed a two-book deal and shared her anxiety about being able to finish both on deadline, which did not seem to be too far off. As it is, she finished the first, which is The Beautiful American, a wonderful tale of the interwoven lives of two women, a protagonist whose beauty and fame led her in a direction of lively adventure, a flight from personal sorrow and ultimate but shadowed fame, while the other experienced the fascination of living a dream, seeing it shattered and then literally and figuratively having it reborn. I don’t know anything about the second book, but I trust it will be as engaging as the first.
The Beautiful American, of course, is Lee Miller, a girl from Poughkeepsie, New York, who became a Vogue model, lover, mistress and protogé of the Surrealist photographer and artist Man Ray, friend of Picasso and numerous other Surrealist luminaries living in Paris in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and one of the most influential photographers of World War II. The narrator is Nora, Mackin’s creation, a parallel figure in Miller’s life whose own story carries the reader along through highs and lows of the artistic life, France under fascism into and through World War II, and briefly into the second half of the Twentieth Century when the women cross paths a final time and their personal triumphs and fortunes are revealed.
Mackin’s ability to craft characters and re-create history, writing stories inside stories to generate a literary DNA, in this case a double helix of main events that drive one another to the end, marks her special talent as novelist and story teller. Mackin gives us scenes and situations that fit together and come apart like Russian dolls, one by one until the last, with detail that gives perspective to the whole, wherein the construction becomes complete and absolute.
Events recounted from Miller’s life give shape to the kind of woman she understandably could and did become. The influence she had on those around her colors the fabric of the tale. But this story is as much about Nora, childhood friend, confidante, parfumer extraordinaire, and one of the many people in Miller’s life the goddess purportedly and purposefully betrayed – simply because she could. We pick up a book to read about the life of a famous American, and end up as interested in the complexities of normality that afflict the fictional narrator. One might ask, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Who is more important? Who is more real, who would we rather be?
From that fragile web and in this book, Mackin weaves together lives hauled up through muddy waters of the past into a kind of light where hardship hardly matters any more. A satisfying resolution to a story of note about two women that just as easily could have ended in despair.
About the reviewer:
Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him on the “About Us” page.
Also in this issue: Foldes’ interview with Jeanne Mackin
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on The Beautiful American/Book Review
and A Moveable Feast
by Raúl Villarreal
In 1950 Ernest Hemingway wrote to a friend, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Hemingway started to write what would eventually become the book with that title in the autumn of 1957 and finished the manuscript, as the preface indicates in 1960, at his estate, the Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula, Havana, Cuba. The book was published posthumously in 1964 and to this day it is one of Hemingway’s most beloved works by scholars and aficionados alike. A memoir of Paris in the 1920s, where Hemingway writes about other expatriates and luminaries, such as Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, his first wife Hadley, his infant son Jack (Bumby) and Pauline Pfeiffer, Hadley’s friend, who would eventually become the second Mrs. Hemingway. It was during this time in Paris and visits to the Louvre when Hemingway “was learning something from a painting by Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them” (A Moveable Feast, 13). Hemingway’s brilliant prose evokes the mood, the unquenchable and wild enthusiasm of a group of artists, of whom Gertrude Stein referred to as Une Generation Perdue (The Lost Generation).
Ernest Hemingway lived in many different places, but it was in Havana, Cuba, where he lived the longest. He first rented La Finca Vigía with Martha Gellhorn in 1939, purchased it in 1940, and lived there until 1960, when he left the island for the United States en route to Spain, never to return to his Cuban paradise. In the late summer of 1961, Mary Hemingway, the author’s fourth wife and recent widow donated the Finca Vigía to the Cuban people. The house and most of its contents tell a story of a certain writer whose experiences as a young man were to define him and his work for generations to come.
During his two decades in Havana Cuba, Hemingway’s beloved Paris was present at the Finca. On a wall of his workroom, between two large windows hung El guitarrista (The Guitar Player), a large painting by Juan Grís. It was one of Hemingway’s favorite paintings, which evoked much nostalgia from those Paris years. Hemingway would often contemplate the painting between writing and at times laugh and talk to himself. There were other works of art, which reminded Hemingway of Paris, such as The Farm by Joan Miró and The Jungle by André Masson. Besides the art there were also books by his favorite French authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and others. There were also visitors from all over the world who came to spend time with the man they fondly called Papa. Charles Ritz, the owner of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, visited Hemingway at the Finca Vigía in 1954 and two years later in Paris, Charles Ritz mentioned to Hemingway that there was a trunk with some of his papers stored in the hotel, which Hemingway brought back to Cuba in 1957. Those “Paris Stories” eventually became A Moveable Feast.
There was the time when Hemingway was away from Cuba for almost one year. It was 1953-54, Hemingway and his wife Mary went to an African Safari. Hemingway had been contracted to write an article with expenses paid by Look Magazine. During that time a very close friend of Hemingway, Evelio Mustelier, also known in the boxing world as Kid Tunero (aptly nicknamed because he was from Las Tunas), stayed at the Finca as Hemingway’s special guest. Mustelier had had a brilliant boxing career in Cuba and in Europe, however the ultimate pinnacle in the pugilistic profession, a world championship, had eluded him. Kid Tunero, a strong and fast middleweight, had defeated three former world champions but never for a belt. Hemingway saw his friend’s last fight against a much younger, stronger and heavier class opponent in Havana and was saddened by the experience. Hemingway later wrote an article for the Associated Press comparing Evelio Mustelier’s courage to that of Cuba’s Titan de Bronze (The Bronze Titan) El General Antonio Maceo, one of the foremost heroes of the Guerra de Independencia of Cuba against Spain.
Evelio Mustelier had most of his boxing career in Europe, eventually marrying in France and raising a family. However, in the mid-1950s, he was back in Cuba after some fights in South America trying to raise funds to get back to France to reunite with his family. Mustelier decided to invest what little money he had in France in the export of good French wine into Cuba. Upon Hemingway’s return to Cuba in 1954, he found out about his proud friend’s financial situation and purchased most of the shipment of French wines from Mustelier. A couple of Hemingway’s wealthy Cuban friends purchased the rest of the shipment and Evelio made enough money to return to his family in France.
These anecdotes told by my father, René Villarreal, are the kind of stories found in our book Hemingway’ Cuban Son, which was published by the Kent State University Press in 2009.
As the theme for the exhibition “A Moveable Feast” came about, Dr. Ginny Butera and I thought of such Hemingway anecdotes and the Paris connection at the Finca Vigía. Hemingway enjoyed his French wines with certain meals. He was very specific about that, just like his taste for Chinese food at the Finca, as well as in one of his favorite restaurants in Havana’s Chinatown.
Ginny Butera had seen my painting The Crisis of Abundance at an exhibition in New York City over a year ago. The piece has its inspiration from another work by Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea.” There is a lot of symbolism in the work with the nine King Mackerels (a fish that migrates), hoisted by the two fishermen (one old and one young), who seem to be going in opposite directions. The fishermen are inside a deteriorated and decrepit room surrounded by the ocean waves. The piece symbolizes migration, entrapment, but above all it speaks about perspectives. The perspectives and needs of a young person are different than that of an older person.
My father has often told me that his favorite work by Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, has meant something different each time he read the book at various stages of his life. “As a young man it meant something different than now when I am in my eighties,” he has said to me, “because our perspectives and priorities change.” For me, The Crisis of Abundance also speaks about having “too much” and having the knowledge or experience of dealing with an overabundance. Are we taking too much from Mother Nature? When is too much really too much? The presence of the ocean represents Yemaya, the sea deity, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the prayers, laments, songs, drums and hearts and beliefs of millions of African slaves, who were forcedly uprooted from their homeland and brought over to the Americas. In the African beliefs, Yemaya is the mother of all and without her there is nothing. She punishes those who abuse her good nature.
Ernest Hemingway enjoyed the numerous countries in which he lived, traveled, and wrote. He was one of the most recognized and adventurous global citizens of his time. This is evident in his works. He took notice of the local customs, food and drinks that his characters consumed in their time and place. For example in the Old Man and the Sea, the old fisherman enjoys drinking Hatuey beer, having a café in the morning, eating rice and beans for dinner in his shack, and also the raw fish that he eats to maintain his strength as he battles his brother— the big fish in the Gulf Stream. However, no other work by Hemingway compares as such a brilliantly written memoir of a very unique epoch and place as does A Moveable Feast.
Roberto Marquez, El Mapa de México, 2013, Encaustic and oil on wood
A Contemporary Moveable Feast
by Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D.
A Moveable Feast: Art, Food and Migration, is an exhibition currently on view through May 4, 2014, at the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. The show examines ideas about imagery in today’s art that were triggered by the intersecting cultural events I studied while developing an interdisciplinary course, “The Art of Salsa Making: The History of Hispanic Heritage in the Americas,” with my colleagues, food historian Sonia Hartunian-Sowa, Ph.D. and language professor and cultural historian, Christine Guedri Giacalone, Ph.D., with input from the exhibition’s co-curator, Raúl Villarreal, MFA, who was a guest speaker in our course. What became clear during the course was how food and related artistic subject matters have been affected by the mixing of cultures in the Americas during the last six centuries. This was reinforced when Prof. Villarreal showed an image of his painting, The Crisis of Abundance (above), to our class, and explained its cultural references as he does in the above article, “Hemingway and A Moveable Feast.” Subsequently, Prof. Villarreal and I decided to investigate how art today continues to reflect the effect of travel and migration on the imagery of food in art.
The forced merger of North, Central and South American native foods such as avocado, beans, cacao, chiles, corn, potatoes, squash and tomatoes with the 16th century Spanish conquistadores’ imported preferences of beef, garlic, onions, pork and wheat, meant that travel, conquest and migration resulted in a profoundly changed cuisine in both the “New and the Old Worlds.”[i] Each continent incorporated, willingly or not, these different ingredients and developed many kinds of foods we eat here and in Europe today. The food choices brought by the Spanish during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries also possessed cultural and socio-hierarchical meanings in the art both in Spain and the “New World.”[ii] When we examine the food that is represented in paintings of those periods created on both sides of the Atlantic, we sometimes find not just the imported comestibles themselves, but new kinds of plates, vessels and utensils which signal a subtle but clear history of travel, migration, adaptation and socio-economic status. [iii]
MOVEABLE FEAST V10N2 March-April 2014
First of two galleries posted in the article, Food, Art & Hemingway, V10, N2
Sushi Palace, 2006, oil on linen.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-4-jose-rodeiro-tapas-1998-oil-on-canvas.jpg]120JOse Rodeiro
Tapas, 1998, oil on canvas.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-5-bob-richardson-formula-2013-mixed-media.jpg]80Bob Richardson
Formula, 2013, mixed media.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-6-kathleen-migliore-newton-saturday-market-2010-oil-on-linen.jpg]30Kathleen Migliore
Newton Saturday market, 2010, oil on linen.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-7-aliza-augustine-mizalizas-collected-family-2014-mixed-media-book.jpg]60Aliza Augustine Mizalizas
Collected Family, 2014, mixed media book.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-8-barbara-coluccio-mcelheny-il-pasto-che-ci-muove-2013-oil-on-canvas.jpg]80Barbara Coluccio McElheny
Il Pasto Che Cimuove, 2013, oil on canvas.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-9-davide-luciano-tossed-digital-c-print-mounted-on-plexiglas-24-x-36-ins-2.jpg]80Davide Luciano
Tossed digital C print mounted on Plexiiglas (tm), 24" x 36".[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-10-maria-lupo-migration-porca-2012-mixed-media-on-canvas.jpg]100Maria Lupo
Migration Porca, 2012, mixed media on canvas.
One result of the 16th century Spanish conquest of the New World was the mixing of tomatoes and chiles (New World) with onions and garlic (Old World) to create “salsa,” now the number one condiment in North America. Here “salsa,” the chopping and mixing of ingredients, as well as the lively music and dance styles that bear its name, stands as the continuing metaphor for the food-related experiences of Americans from all different groups when they eat at home or abroad. The current exhibition reveals markets, restaurants, food, utensils and eating habits that define high and low culture and that signal the history, desires, realities, amusement and horrors that are part of the contemporary eating experience.
Throughout the history of art, food, like fashion, reveals a multitude of cultural traditions and implications. Visible in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, food was meant to be available for the deceased in the afterworld. In ancient Greek and Roman vases and wall murals, depictions of foodstuffs could reveal a painter’s skill as well as document the dining customs of the wealthy. Still-life oil paintings, the rage in late 16th and 17th century Italy and Holland, focused on the realistic depiction of food as well as its metaphoric implications, from the sensuality of bunches of grapes in Michelangelo da Merisi Caravaggio’s c. 1593, Boy with a Basket of Fruit (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/6818200/Paintings-by-artist-Caravaggio.html?image=1) to a reminder of death suggested by worm holes in the fruit or a dead rabbit on the buffet table as in Fran Synders, Still Life (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frans_Snyders_-_Still-Life_-_WGA21533.jpg). By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the inclusion of food in art was no longer considered a subject matter secondary to history painting or portraiture as it had been until that time. Paintings of apples by 19th century French painter Paul Cézanne refer to classical Greek myths, Adam and Eve, female sensuality and fertility while still functioning as everyday subject matter and a vehicle for his dramatic new style of post-Impressionist painting (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/cezanne/sl/plaster-cupid/).[iv] American Pop Art pieces of the 1960s: Andy Warhol’s silkscreen images of soup cans (http://utenti.romascuola.net/bramarte/pop%20art/img/war3.jpg) , Claes Oldenburg’s food sculptures including hot dogs and hamburgers sewn with fabric (http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/05/24/dramaturgy-and-gut-inside-claes-oldenburgs-mouse-museum) and Wayne Thiebaud’s lusciously layered oil painted desserts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI_QJ5D9Qm8) pointed to consumerism, street culture and the growing affluence and self-indulgence of Americans where everyday life literally and figuratively became art.
A Moveable Feast: Art, Food and Migration includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, mixed media collages, videos and installation works where food and its rituals have an even greater multiplicity of meanings and purposes in our contemporary, globally-aware society than in prior times. When people move or travel, they often “take” their cuisine with them, sometimes dreaming of it as Roberto Márquez implies in his work, El Mapa de México.
Humans naturally adopt flavors, sauces, ingredients, spices and beverages from a new locale or entice the natives to enjoy their transferred cuisine as Bette Blank illustrates in a Madison, NJ, restaurant scene, Sushi Palace (Fig. 3). The exhibition, named after a book by Ernest Hemingway (and visualized by José Pardo’s painting of the same name, Une Fête Mobile) recognizes the allure of other cultures’ food, drink, and new experiences, ones that Hemingway had in France, Spain, Cuba and other places which also found their way into his writing. This internationalism is also reflected in the sophisticated, multi-layered, multi-cultural canvas, Tapas, by José Rodeiro (Fig. 4).
Laura L. Cuevas references the expulsion from paradise as the ultimate entwining of eating, the Divine and forced “migration,” in her collage, Each day had no limits. From birth until death, human beings are preoccupied with sustenance made visible in Formula by Bob Richardson (Fig. 5) and Carrie’s Recipe or Dad Feeding Mom by Judith Margolis. Fresh food markets, our own version of “paradise,” exist around the world in a variety of settings, in front of contemporary architectural structures painted by Kathleen Migliore-Newton (Fig. 6), on a barque in Kashmir, India, by photographer Jay Seldin or in front of a train stopped in Myanmar photographed by Sue Zwick. Shopping lists are made (Jacquelyn Stryker), recipes collected (Marilyn Walter), and feasts with family and friends are celebrated by Aliza Augustine (fig. 7), Barbara McElheny (fig. 8) and Zwick. Villarreal and Davide Luciano in his photograph, Tossed (Fig. 9) note with irony the problem of abundance and waste even as many in the world have little or nothing to eat.
MOVEABLE FEAST II V10N2 March-April 2014
2nd of 2 galleries posted in Food, Art & Hemingway, V10,N2
Forbidden Fruit, 2012, acrylic and collage on canvas, 20" x 20".[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-ii-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-12-alan-walker-more-on-the-way-2012-acrylic-on-canvas-30-x-40-ins.jpg]110Alan Walker
More on the Way, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40". [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-ii-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-13-linda-stillman-jitters-2014-site-specific-mixed-media-installation-with-coffee-filtersacrylic-medium-and-plastic-juice-caps.jpg]60Linda Stillman
Jitters, 2014, site specific mixed media installation with coffee filters, acryilic medium and plastic juice caps.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-ii-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-14-gabriel-navar-app-2-have-eat-cake-2012-acrylic-pencils-ink-and-oil-on-paper.jpg]120Gabriel Navar
App 2, Have Eat Cake, 2012, acrylic, pencils, ink and oil on paper.
Maria Lupo’s canvas, Migration (Porca) (fig. 10) alludes to the fact that when the Spanish brought pigs to the New World, this “food source” inadvertently became agricultural destroyers, ruining Native American fields and crops, causing a problem that still exists in the southern United States today because of descendant wild pigs.[v] Nelson Alvárez and Jane Dell (fig. 11) also reference environmental troubles caused by factory manufactured food while Alan Alejo, Barbara Brill, Emily Tumbleson (http://vimeo.com/60211383) and Alan Walker (fig. 12) document our around-the-world fast food “addictions” to McDonald’s, pizza, take-out Chinese, vending machine snacks and soft-serve ice cream respectively. Coffee, beer, soda or juice boxes appear in works by Linda Stillman (fig. 13), Tracy Miller and Luciano although an upscale bottle of red wine completes the scene in works by Pardo and Larry Ross. Cakes and cookies by Asaya Dodina & Slava Polishchuk, Lori Larusso, and Lupo look scrumptious but watch out for the one by Gabriel Navar (fig. 14) which, with all its sugar, may be “eating” you. Adel Gorgy, abstracting imagery of Warhol’s soup cans some fifty years later, reflects the loss of simplicity and signals the distortion and multiplicity of food choices available in the U.S. and around the world.[vi] And yet, a contemporary video performance, Metabolism of Forms (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH9QW-wBQhA) by Greek artist, Filippos Tsitsopoulos, where his head is covered in fish, shrimp, oysters, vegetables and other foods harks back to the work of the 16th century Italian Mannerist painter Arcimboldo, now perhaps a contemporary portrait of “you are what you eat/wear!”
The show represents a contemporary slice of how artists have blended food and drink into their art works which bear little resemblance to centuries-old still life paintings. Instead, in our sampling, food signals how “invasions” and “conquests” are no longer necessarily waged on the battlefield, but rather in the farmers’ markets, fast food shops from all countries and high-end dining establishments where we can travel around the world without even leaving our neighborhood.
About the author:
Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D., is the Director/Curator of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery, a Professor of Art History and the Chairperson of the Art and Music Programs at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. She has been a curator for over thirty years, organizing exhibitions for museums and galleries around the country including The Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati), National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery.
The foregoing article, copyright by Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D. No part of this article may be reproduced without permission of the author.
[i] See the general, beautifully illustrated, introductory essay in, Jane Milton, Jenni Fleetwood and Marina Filippelli, The Complete Mexican, South American & Caribbean Cookbook, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007, 6 – 81.
[ii] Rachel Laudan and Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Chiles, Chocolate, and Race in New Spain: Glancing Backward to Spain or Looking Forward to Mexico?,” Eighteenth-Century Life 23, 2 (1999): 59 -70; accessed February 17, 2014, http://www.academia.edu/1034265/Chiles_Chocolate_and_Race
[iii] Byron Ellsworth Hamann, “The Mirrors of Las Meninas: Cochineal, Silver, and Clay,” Art Bulletin XCII, 1-2 (2010): 6 – 35.
[iv] Meyer Schapiero, “The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still Life,” in Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers, New York: George Braziller, 1978 , 1 -38, accessed February 18, 2014, http://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/wells/201/schapiro2.pdf
[v] Frank Bruni, “Malicious but Delicious,” The New York Times, April 22, 2013; accessed February 20, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/opinion/bruni-malicious-but-delicious.html?_r=0
[vi] Mary Gregory, “Adel Gorgy:Traces of Pollock, de Kooning and Warhol…Abstract Photographic Works at Able Fine Art NY Gallery,” Ragazine (November-December 2013), accessed February 20, 2014, http://old.ragazine.cc/short-takes/
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Food, Art & Hemingway
Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney at the University College Dublin, February 11, 2009. Wikipedia Commons Photo.
Man of Words and Grace
Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobelist who epitomized the poet, shook off his mortal coil on August 30, 2013. He was widely eulogized. English poet Andrew Motion stated on BBC that “Seamus was person of exceptional grace,” and playwright Tom Stoppard wrote in The Guardian that “Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper.” After an almost two-decade-long friendship with the great bard, including sharing a traditional Irish supper of bangers and mash at a Temple Bar pub in Dublin only a few years before his death, I can tell you of an instance that might cast some doubt on a life of “grace” without “a sour moment,” if only provisionally. But this isn’t a story of grievance or criticism; it’s a story about character, about being magnanimous and big enough to apologize.
As I said, Seamus was my friend. But it didn’t begin that way; in fact, it began quite the opposite. Professor Heaney almost destroyed my career. To tell the story, I have to back up almost two decades ago, to the fall of 1996. I had only recently been named poetry editor at Rosebud magazine, then a fledging start-up with only a handful of back issues to brag about. To impress the editor-in-chief and publisher with my competence, I wanted to land a poem by a major poet. I had my sights set on Seamus Heaney, who had received the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before. I learned that Professor Heaney divided his year between teaching at Harvard in the fall semester and teaching at Trinity University in Dublin in the spring. Being late fall, I wrote to him at Harvard asking to publish his poetry. I included a couple copies of Rosebud. Professor Heaney received the letter just before leaving Boston to go home for Christmas. He hastily replied, sending me a translation of an old Gaelic poem entitled “I am Raferty” accompanied by a kind letter on Harvard stationery expressing his gratitude and telling me to send his complimentary copies (and honorarium) to his address in Ireland.
Needless to say, the folks at Rosebud were ecstatic.
Months later—I recall it was late February, 1997—after mailing the proofs and payment as promised, Rosebud’s editor-in-chief, Rod Clark, received a phone call from the Nobelist himself. Let’s just say the tone wasn’t appreciative. Instead, The Great Poet was charging that had I stolen his poem. He accused me of somehow infiltrating his office and stealing the poem from a manuscript he was then completing.
I was far from my home in Alaska at the time, in Atlanta at the time, giving a reading of my poetry at some college when Rod called me to relate the news. At first I sat on the edge of my motel bed, dumbfounded, as he fervently related his phone conversation with Professor Heaney. As I listened, anxiety and panic swelled inside me. Eventually, I got up and paced the room, wearing a thin path into the cheap carpet. As a teacher of poetry, I often remind students of the importance of poetry, citing another poet-Nobelist, Octavio Paz, who said that “poetry is an operation capable of changing the world.” In spite of my personal belief in poetry’s value, I found it hard to imagine that Professor Heaney actually believed that I had flown to Harvard, climbed into a campus building window at night clad in black and with a flashlight in hand, jimmied open the door to his office, and, like a practiced cat burglar, rifled through his dark office in search of a poem to steal and later publish for the world to see. If that wasn’t audacious enough, I’d also send copies of the magazine to the unknowing victim with accompanying honorarium.
I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Was this some kind of prank?
But Rod assured me this was no joking matter. Despite our growing friendship, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was asking himself what the hell kind of mess had I got the magazine into?
Despite my skepticism that Seamus believed that I had purloined one of his poems, the laureate was adamant, threatening legal action. Could this crazy quarrel damage Rosebud’s future? Would it destroy my blossoming career as a professor of literature and creative writing? My future literally hung in the uncertain outcome.
I felt like throwing up.
I assured Rod that I had secured the poem properly. That’s when I pulled my ace in the hole, so to speak. I told him that back home in Anchorage, Alaska I had Professor Heaney’s letter on Harvard stationery in a Harvard envelope, postmarked from Harvard’s mail room. But I was thousands of miles away and wouldn’t return home for days. The issue at hand demanded prompt action to avert a lawsuit. Frantically, I called home and left a message for my wife to fax the letter and envelope cover to Rod. Meanwhile, outraged at the false assertion made by Seamus and armed with this knowledge, Rod called Professor Heaney’s assistant at Harvard and related our discussion. It is my understanding that some very tart exchanges took place.
Eventually, the indisputable evidence was faxed to Professor Heaney’s assistant at Harvard, who subsequently faxed it to Ireland. On seeing the letter and his signature, Seamus remembered what had happened. In his haste to pack up his Harvard office to leave for Dublin for Christmas, he had forgotten that he had sent me the poem at all. Needless to say, he apologized profusely, sending Rod a three-page letter of apology. The fax included a personal letter to me, as well. I think Seamus clearly recognized not only his own error, but also the hell he must have put me through—undeservedly to be sure. To make amends, Seamus asked how he could make it up to me. I asked him to write a blurb for a poetry book I was then completing (Songs from an Outcast), but he declined, telling me it had become his policy not to write blurbs for other writers. Instead, he gave me a poem to publish as a limited edition broadside as part of a series I was then publishing under Salmon Run Press, an independent press I owned at the time.
Seamus Heaney letter to John Smelcer.
Over the ensuing years, we wrote to each other periodically, sharing news of our lives and even sharing new poems to look over and giving feedback. We even met in Dublin. Although it took longer than a decade, Seamus did eventually provide a blurb for one of my poetry books (Raven). The last time we communicated was a year or two before his death. As usual, Seamus was hard at work on a new poetry manuscript.
Andrew Motion said that Seamus was a man of exceptional grace, and he was right, for it takes grace to admit when one has wronged another and to make amends. In our long friendship, despite the rough beginning, I learned that Seamus was indeed the kind of man as described in the splendid eulogies about his life and work. Although his pen will be forever stilled, Seamus Heaney has left us a wellspring of moving, affecting poetry which, like that of his worthy Irish Nobel prize-winning predecessors—Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett—will be an enduring gift to the world.
About the author:
John Smelcer, the author of a numerous books of poetry and ethnic American literature, was recently a Clifford D. Clark Fellow at Binghamton University in upstate New York. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
November 2, 2013 Comments Off on Seamus Heaney/A Memoir
FUND RAISER/WRITING CONTEST
Contest Is Closed.
Winner and Runners-Up will be announced in December.
Thanks to all those who entered!
November 2, 2013 6 Comments
Writings of Kurt Tucholsky (Berlinica)
by Fred Roberts
When I was in high school in the 70’s, I had a book called “Prelude to War”, the first in a Time-Life series about World War II. The most fascinating chapter of the book was a collage of photos documenting the Weimar Republic days of Germany’s capital, “Dizzy, Decadent Berlin”. The collage of photos, many of them rather risqué, portrayed the gaiety and wildness of Berlin’s nightlife. My newly found interest led me to two films of the era. “Der blaue Engel” (1930) with Marlene Dietrich captured the decadence and perhaps cold-bloodedness of that cabaret scene. Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) showed another side of Berlin, as the police and the underworld raced against each other to capture a child murderer. These ran on PBS at the time, and both left lasting impressions on me. A pair of silent movies “Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt” (1927), a film collage of one day in the life of that metropolis and “Menschen am Sonntag” (1930) – co-written by Billy Wilder, showing the typical Sunday pastimes of Berlin’s residents, complete a well-rounded cinematic documentation of 1920s’ Berlin. Add to that Berthold Brecht’s film “Kuhle Wampe” (1932) which is more political and portrays the working class experience of that era. If you never felt a fascination for this unique period in history a viewing of these films will whet your appetite for an important English-language book release “Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic”, writings of Kurt Tucholsky in Berlinica, translated by Cindy Opitz and edited by Eva C. Schweitzer. It is surprising that someone as brilliant as Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) could be virtually unknown in the English language. Tucholsky, a Berliner himself, was a leading satirist in Germany whose keen cultural, social, and especially political observations were unparalleled for the time, and maybe even today. His political satires, compelling and prescient warnings against the right wing tendencies of the time, would be enough to cement his reputation. The statements he made are so honest that they somehow set themselves above agenda, they are more in service to justice and democracy than to a transient political whim. It is not about preaching to the converted but rather making the guilty uncomfortable. Perhaps that is why the Nazi’s hated him so much. The Berlinica collection establishes that feeling early on in the piece “Three Biographies”: “Peter Panter … Born May 8, 1891 … The premature child is so hard of hearing in his left ear as a young boy that he already seems destined for a career in justice.” “Berlin! Berlin!” is an excellent first acquaintanceship with Tucholsky. The foreword by Anne Nelson and Introduction by Ian King give a good synopsis of the zeitgeist of the period and of Tucholsky’s biography and significance for anyone completely unfamiliar. The selection shows the many sides of Tucholsky in articles and a small selection of his poetry, interspersed with numerous photographs. Ample footnotes explain the background of the pieces as well as any references that might be obscure today. The volume follows a clear concept, namely Tucholsky’s writings centering on Berlin, organized into four distinct historical periods. The writings span the years 1907 through 1932. This was surely the only way to do it, given the amount of articles, stories and poems that Tucholsky wrote in his lifetime. In that respect the focus on Berlin is clever, given the general interest in that time and place in history. The volume contains several titles that are considered classics in the German language. One gem “Ape Cage” about a baboon exhibit at the Berlin Zoo reads like a cousin to Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”. A number of wry observations lead us to ask, who is the real spectacle? The apes in the cage, or the visitors? My favorite, “Where do the Holes in Cheese Come From?” is one of the first pieces of Tucholsky’s that I read (in German) I had considered it untranslatable, so was happy to find it accomplished here. A child asks his parents an innocent question his parents can’t answer and receives a runaround in return. The child is finally sent to bed but the question enters into the conversation among the evening party, leading to absurd extremes. “Central Office” is a timeless Orwellian snapshot of the decay inevitable in any organization. Just as timeless is the “Brief Outline of the National Economy” which teaches more about economics than an Economics 101 class. “The Times are Screaming For Satire” is another famous piece of Tucholsky’s which has fortunately been included, showing how the profit-oriented theater business transforms the richest satire into toothless entertainment. Echoes of Saturday Night Live in that. Here and there one encounters passages that ring eerily true today, about the complacent mainstream media, the absurdity of war, the disappearance of the middle class, wages that no one can live on, bitter attacks on child poverty (“A Children’s Hell in Berlin”). On an allegorical level the piece “Lion on the Loose” reminds of the recent manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. In “Leaving Berlin” one encounters the quote, “Now that’s the typical money man of our time… A tough guy when the going gets tough. He won’t let anyone get him down. Doesn’t sweat the small stuff; doesn’t read books; doesn’t give a damn about anything but his business.” Sound familiar? The most remarkable piece is the article “Röhm”, written 1932 about the head of Hitler’s SA, about whom accusations of homosexuality had been publicized. It shows the high standards to which Tucholsky adhered in his writing. He did not mock the man but took to task the “radical leftist press” for doing so. As long as Röhm did not abuse his position to seduce his subordinates, his private life should be off limits. Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain are the historical names I think of when searching for writers on a level with Tucholsky. Tom Lehrer, in the 1960s, comes to mind, too. But one is hard put to find satire of this caliber in America today. One thing in recent times that comes close is Stephen Colbert’s speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that ironic speech directly challenging the Administration and Press in ways that no one had dared during the five years previous. In reading “Berlin! Berlin!”, that place and time in history becomes something universal. Berlin is today and now. The social and political battles fought then are the same challenging us today, the human observations as applicable today as they were then. The translation by Cindy Opitz is contemporary English, but for my feeling the thoughts sounded exactly like Tucholsky. It is the first time I’ve read him outside of German. Compliments to Ms. Opitz. It is not easy to capture Tucholsky in English. I hope that more translations will be forthcoming, especially a volume focused on his political satires. The times are screaming for satire. Berlinica Publishing 255 West 43rd St. New York, NY, 10036 ISBN: 978-1-935902-21-8
Tucholsky in English: kurttucholsky.blogspot.com (my own translations)
August 31, 2013 1 Comment
Identity, Multigenrism, and the Historicity
of Jean Toomer’s Cane, and the Rise
of the Harlem Renaissance
By Lucille Clifton and John Smelcer
Jean Toomer’s Cane is widely considered the first major text of the Harlem Renaissance, which is generally regarded as beginning in 1923, with the publication of Cane, and ending in 1929, though the precise boundaries are debatable. But what is the multi-generic Cane? It can be argued that Toomer’s masterpiece, a herald of a new era literary and artistic expression, is a precursor to the modern short story cycle, a form which took off almost immediately after its publication.
For more than eighty years Cane has defied easy classification as to its genre. The book consists of twenty-nine separate units divided by three simple visual images: fifteen poems interspersed between seven short stories, six prose sketches, and one extended short story (“Kabnis,” which Toomer called a play though it is neither wholly a play, either), which utilizes, in places, the use of play-writing dialogue, complete with stage directions, thereby making Cane a mixed-bag of literary techniques and genres. Some of the prose sketches may even be argued to be prose poems. It has been variously called a “novel,” a “collage,” a “poetic novel,” and even an “anti-novel.” Regardless of its genre, Cane is an important modernist text, depicting the horrors of a world of lynchings, race riots, and Jim Crow (Scruggs, 1).
Robert Bone called Cane “a collection which forms one of the distinguished achievements in the writings of Americans” (81). Bernard Bell and Odette Martin said essentially the same thing: that Cane holds a unique place in American literature (Bell, 11; Martin, 6). But for more than forty years after its initial publication in 1923, Cane was all but forgotten until a resurgence of African-American literature in the late 1960s resuscitated interest in it, culminating in the book’s republication in 1967 by University Place. But the question remains today as it did then: What is Cane? As Arna Bontemps asks in the “Introduction” to Harper & Row’s 1967 re-issue of Cane, in what genre is this “odd and provocative form” (x) to be classified?
On its initial publication in 1923, critics praised Cane as an innovation, a landmark in American literature, mostly for its unique portrayal of Blacks and the sheer poetic beauty of the book’s language. Others cited its remarkable uniqueness from anything that came before it. W. E. B. DuBois extolled the book’s importance in The Crisis, the magazine he then edited for the NAACP, and Charles S. Johnson remarked of Toomer in the “Introduction” to the 1969 re-publication of Cane that his was the “most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation” (vii). And Toomer’s friend and mentor, Waldo Frank, wrote in the foreword to the original 1923 publication that “Cane is a harbinger of a literary force of whose incalculable future I believe no reader of this book will be in doubt” (iii).
Unfortunately, the promise of a stellar literary career never materialized. Within a few years, Toomer disappeared from the literary scene altogether. In his lifelong search for meaning of the self as artist, Toomer turned to the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, where he eventually established a local Gurdjieff Group in Harlem, attracting such artists as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Toomer remained involved with the Gurdjieff group until 1934.
But Toomer’s ultimate disappearance from the American literary scene came about largely, if not entirely, from his own doings. With all the praise applauding Cane as a Negro work, Toomer himself began to state that he was not a Negro. He considered himself a new type of man. In his personal correspondence, Toomer said he was mixed with Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and some dark blood. Indeed, he was often mistaken for being Eastern Indian, Native American, and even Latin American. He wrote a series of letters stating, “The fact that I am not [emphasis mine] a Negro is a negative, and not of main importance” (September 18, 1930; Toomer Collection). Shortly thereafter, Toomer wrote to James Weldon Johnson saying essentially the same thing about his Negro-ness and declining to allow some of the poems in Cane to be included in The Book of American Negro Poetry, which Johnson was then editing. Finally, in December 1934, Toomer wrote to the Baltimore Afro-American, “I do not really know whether there is any colored blood in me or not” (1).
Toomer essentially disappeared from the literary scene altogether after these proclamations. He was rarely heard of again and Cane languished until 1967 when the rising interest in Black literature spurred University Place to produce a cloth re-printing of Cane. Ironically, Toomer, then 73 years old, was invited to write an introduction, but he died on March 30th before the letter arrived.
While it is true that Cane largely languished until 1967, it is not entirely so. Some Afro-American writers and scholars still thought about Cane. Indeed, in August 1964, the University of California sponsored the Conference on the Negro Writer in the United States, held outside Monterey. Among the faculty were Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), James Baldwin, Robert Bone, and Kenneth Rexroth (Bontemps and Bone would both eventually provide introductions to Cane). Ralph Ellison, who had agreed to contribute, did not arrive, and conference-goers noted the conspicuous absence of Langston Hughes, who had not been invited. Participants included over 200 educators, writers, intellectuals, and social workers. Arna Bontemps gave a “spell-binding” discussion of Cane. When he was finished, he was confronted with an overwhelming number of hands. The audience wanted to know more about Toomer. Kenneth Rexroth correctly stated that most of the audience had never heard of Toomer before but now wanted to hear more (Kent, 180).
In 1969, encouraged by the success of the University Place reprinting, Harper and Row made the work more available in its paperback Perennial Classics series, including an excellent Introduction by Arna Bontemps, and Cane was once again a success. Despite his denunciation of his Negro-ness, Toomer’s reputation was resurrected, and today Cane is held as an important literary landmark in African American literature.
After his death, some 30,000 items of Toomer’s were donated to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Among the items included numerous manuscripts (novels, short stories, autobiographies, correspondences, and Natalie Mann, a play that would eventually be published) that opened up the way for increased scholarly study about the writer. Since then, a great deal has been learned about the man. The plethora of material continues to raise the question of Toomer’s racial identity and the significance of that identity to understanding Cane. Some critics (Scruggs and VanDemarr, et. al.) even question the reliability of Toomer’s autobiographical statements. Some of these materials were later complied and edited into The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (1980), edited by Darwin Turner.
Aside from questions of Toomer’s racial identity and Cane’s long, bumpy ride from overnight fame to relative obscurity, what is to be done about the question of the book’s genre classification? A significant number of articles have been published in recent decades trying to answer this question. As a whole, they have produced some ingenious commentary on the role of myth (most obviously Cain and the notion of the Black Messiah), as well as commentary on the influence of symbolism, philosophy, and the role of women characters in binding the multiple forms in Cane. Critics such as Marion Berghahn have pointed out Toomer’s use of African symbolism, which was connected with a then (as it is today) contemporary interest in “authentic” experience, a hearkening to African heritage.
Other interesting suggestions for unlocking the mystery of Cane’s structural unity includes the discovery in the early 1970s that Cane is organized based on principles of the Blues (McKeever, 61). However, in his essay “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance,” George Hutchinson says it was jazz, not The Blues that inspired Cane, even discussing Cane’s improvisational style. Jazz was more than simply a new kind of uniquely American music; it was a lifestyle instrumental in defining the emerging Harlem Renaissance. F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the term Jazz Age in his novel This Side of Paradise and in his (1920) short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). Fitzgerald earned a reputation as the symbol of the Jazz Age.
Nowhere in Steven Tracy’s essay “The Blues Novel” does he even mention Toomer. One of the reasons for arguing that Cane’s structure is influenced by jazz is the way Toomer develops many of his sketches, four of which have poetic refrains, which repeat at the beginning, middle, and end. Two others, “Calling Jesus” and “Rhobert,” incorporate short musical (poetic) refrains within the body.
Although poetically brilliant and lyrically beautiful in diction, symbolism, and intensity, Cane certainly cannot be labeled as merely a book of poetry, although it is a book containing poetry. Conversely, because of the intermittent use of poetry, Cane is neither a short story collection. Of the idea that Cane is a novel (even a poetic or lyric novel), Toomer himself informed publisher Horace Liveright in a letter he wrote shortly before the publication of Cane, that he [Toomer] had no familiarity with the composition of a novel and did not consider Cane to be a novel (Jean Toomer Collection, 1923). And although the book uses dramatic, theatrical techniques (in the form of play-dialogue, especially in “Kabnis,” possibly “borrowed” from Eugene O’Neill), it is neither a play, although Toomer himself called “Kabnis” a play in three acts. The prose sketches, short fictional descriptions of a character or place, Toomer called his “attempt at an artistic record of Negro and mixed blood America” (Toomer Collection, March 24, 1923).
It can be argued that Cane is a short story cycle, alternatively providing a microscopic and macroscopic examination of the nature of the African American experience in the United States. If it is, then Cane (along with Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg) is a precursor to the modern short story cycle, which uses the recurrence of patterns in theme, symbol, images, trope, character, place, words, and even phrases (among other elements) to treat the same theme from different angles. Indeed, the short story cycle, or some hybrid version of it, was in vogue immediately following the publication of Cane, including William Carlos William’s “In the American Grain” (1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s “In Our Time” (1924).
Toomer’s placement of each poem, story, or sketch is significant, serving to increase the intertextuality of the short story cycle, complementing and building on itself. Even the space or gaps between the stories has a function, allowing interpretation for what is unsaid by the author. In some ways, the poems and the episodic sketches and stories are like snapshots, revealing a broad scope of place and events outside the constraints of the linear structures and temporality generally given to novels.
While many early critics noted the recurrence of themes in Cane’s divisions, they did not fully understand the synthetic unity of the collected work; that came later, especially throughout the 1970s after Cane’s republication, which explains Arna Bontemps’ statement that Cane has an “odd and provocative” structure. And what of the three visual images which separate the three divisions? As Robert Bone and Blyden Jackson point out, Toomer uses words almost as a plastic medium. George Hutchinson says of Cane’s multi-generic structure in “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance”:
“The work that really broke the mold and helped inspire new forms of African American fiction was . . . Jean Toomer’s multi-generic tour de force, Cane. While not exactly a novel, Cane explored many of the different possibilities that would be taken up by others and worked out in novelistic form . . . infusing the work with the improvisatory qualities and the rhythms of African American spirituals and jazz. Toomer’s creation of a hybrid literary form consonant with new types of popular culture suggested exciting possibilities for black literary experimentation.”(52)
As stated above, Cane is divided into three cycles. The first is what has been termed the Southern Cycle, the second the Northern Cycle, and the final unit (“Kabnis”) is a synthesis of the two: of a Northern Negro’s experience in the brutal (yet beautiful) South. Toomer himself represents the divisions by his use of a symbol on the page preceding each new division. A downward curve announces section one (representing both the southern portion of a sphere and the beginning of a diurnal cycle); an upward curve introduces section two (representing the northern portion of a sphere and the second half of a diurnal cycle); and an unconnected circle (a whole sphere), made by bringing both former symbols together (but not combined or joined), represents the synthesis of the first two parts of Cane (including the complete annual cycle of the seasons as Cane spans one year).
In the third cycle, Ralph Kabnis is a Northern Negro whose quest takes him from his home in Washington (and New York), “which he always half-way despised” (84) in search of the other half of the Afro-American heritage to be found in Georgia. The whole work, then, read as a cycle, is a representation of Toomer’s piercing insight into the deep inadequacies of North and South, based on his perceptions of the internal contradictions in both, with the culminating cycle, “Kabnis,” being a portrait of the Negro writer (Toomer), reflecting his inability to clearly articulate his vision. The artist-hero of the cycles experiences history as he moves through time, from pre-American African experience, through post-reconstruction, to the modern Black experience in the North. In part, Cane is Toomer’s attempt to articulate questions of his own racial identity.
This structural arrangement allows for various treatments of the same theme from different perspectives. This method may have been borrowed from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and his The Triumph of the Egg, which has a good many of the elements found in Cane, especially the incorporation of short stories, poems, and even illustrations. Toomer and Anderson corresponded during the formation of Cane. Other literary influences on Toomer during that time included the writing of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Coleridge, Blake, Shaw, Ibsen, Goethe, Santayana, Dreiser, Lewis, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, and of course, Waldo Frank. Several of William Blake’s famous images include sketches of Blacks being lynched, which influenced his Visions of the Daughters of Albion (Klonsky, 46-48). Blake was a master of symbolism and myth, something which Toomer succeeds in Cane.
It is likely that Toomer was also influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” which was receiving great fanfare in America about the time he was composing the middle section of Cane and revising “Kabnis.” In a letter to Horace Liveright in January, 1923, Toomer comments that he had indeed read “The Wasteland” (Fabre and Feith, 2).
Some critics (Blyden Jackson, et. al.) point to the drama of Eugene O’Neill as another influence on Cane’s form (Hutchinson, 52). Yet Cane achieves a higher complexity than either O’Neill’s or Anderson’s works. The cyclic design and the interrelatedness of the stories themselves is much more ambitious, even tying together the underlying impulse toward nurturing an inherent and composite myth. Toomer knew both these authors’ works and he especially admired Anderson, with whom he corresponded, their exchanges discussed in an essay by Darwin Turner and some of the letters catalogued in the Jean Toomer Collection at Fisk University.
Cane was not written chronologically; the first and third cycles were written first, followed by the middle cycle. Also, companion pieces were written and incorporated into the manuscript sporadically throughout 1922, especially in November. The cyclical nature of the work allows for establishing connections between, for instance, the “son” in “Song of the Son” in the beginning of the book and the extended short story, “Kabnis” at the end of the book.
Indeed, most of the stories or sketches in Cane have companion pieces in the other cycles, a hallmark of the modern short story cycle. In such a reading, the author reveals the optimism of the first against the experience and wisdom of the latter. Read as such, Cane is a transcending representation of different perspectives of the same racial North-South dichotomies over time and especially geography (particularly Georgia and Washington D. C.).
This cyclical perspective also reveals the pity of Toomer’s northern characters whose limited choices range from staying in the South and suffering for it (recall how the first division of Cane ends in a lynching and all the other violence in that cycle), and existing in the North essentially as refugees from the South. “Beehive,” the first poem in the Northern Cycle, is a portrait of the busy life in a city. “Kabnis” is a compromise, a synthesis in which Toomer suggests that a new American heritage must be defined — a new kind of American (one which he argued for all his life). In “Kabnis,” the play-dialogue section clearly indicates this juxtaposition of the North-South Negro experience and attitudes. At one point, a stone with a note wrapped around it shatters a window. The note seemingly threatens Kabnis to leave the South at once: “You northern nigger,” it reads, “its time fer y t leave. Git along now” (90).
Some critics, such as Edward Margolies in his Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth Century Negro American Authors, have misconstrued Cane’s theme, arguing that “the work celebrates the passion and instincts of black persons close to the soil as opposed to the corruption of their spirit and vitality in the cities” (39). Such a misreading fails to comprehend the real case against the South which Kabnis makes in the final division (cycle) of Cane and ignores the disturbing scenes of a legacy of violence. The first cycle of Cane ends with the story of Tom Burwell being burned alive at the stake in “Blood-Burning Moon,” a story in which a white male has an affair with a Black woman, whose confusion about the complexities of color inform the tragic conclusion of the story:
“A great flame muffled in black smoke shot upward. The mob yelled. The mob was silent. Now Tom could be seen within the flames. Only his head, erect, lean, like a blackened stone. Stench of burning flesh soaked the air. Tom’s eyes popped. His head settled downward. The mob yelled.” (34)
Not to be outdone, “Kabnis” includes the horrifying murder of Mame Lamkins:
“Layman: White folks know that niggers talk, an they don’t mind jes so long as nothing comes of it, so here goes. She was in the family-way, Mame Lamkins was. They killed her in th street, an some white man seein the risin in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any cow, took an ripped her belly open, an the kid fell out. It was living; but a nigger baby aint supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it and stuck it t a tree.” (90)
The backdrop of the Southern cycles of Cane is a contradictory landscape of natural beauty, depicted in Toomer’s gorgeous poetic and lyric diction, against the harsh brutality of Southern racial culture. Throughout Cane, Toomer depicts White Southerners as seeing Blacks as nothing more than animals, compared to a cow in the above-mentioned passage and in another instance when Layman says, “The white folks (reckon I oughtn’t tell it) had jes knocked two others like you kill a cow—brained um with an ax” (88). Indeed, Cane is considerably influenced by Toomer’s three-month stay in Sparta, Georgia, in 1921, during which time he lived in a shack and “began to realize the hardship the Blacks suffered both socially and economically” (“Jean Toomer”, 2).
During those months, the Sparta Ishmaelite was filled with the stories of violence and deprivation heaped on Blacks, the headlines almost always masked as suspicious suicides, such as the story of a 35-year-old woman who emptied a shotgun into her belly. This period marked the high point of Southern lynching of Blacks and may be the spark which influenced Toomer to create Ralph Kabnis, a Northern Negro who eventually panics and flees the South, convinced that he is to be lynched. In a letter to Waldo Frank, Toomer briefly suggests that he barely escaped a serious situation himself (04/26/1922, Toomer Collection).
Another issue that Toomer investigates in Cane is interracial sexual relationships, miscegenation, and the plight of Negro women, possibly influenced by witnessing the sadness and suffering of his own mother, Nina Toomer, whose life was to show her son the anguished dependencies and bewildering existences of women, a dominate motif in Cane. His juxtaposed stories, “Bona and Paul” and “Blood Burning Down” contrast how in one the urge is surrendered to, while in the other a reluctance develops in which Paul is able to reverse the course of his relationship. Other counter-posed sketches include “Rhobert” and “Calling Jesus,” and “Avey” and “Seventh Street” in which Toomer regards the promise of freedom in the new land (the North; Washington D. C. and Chicago) in contrast to the insufficiency of security and alienation in “Avey.” “Reapers” and “November Cotton Flower” are another example of a pairing in the South-North cycles in which Toomer returns to his motif of feminine beauty.
Blyden Jackson incorrectly asserts that “no single character or group of characters appears in more than one story or sketch” (319). Jackson overlooks the repetition of character-types and the repeated use of several characters such as Barlo, David Georgia, Father John, and of course, the narrator/artist-hero that appears under a variety of different names.
Frequently, a word, phrase, image, trope, or a symbol in one poem or sketch is mirrored in other parts of Cane, including “Evening Song,” a companion piece to “Fern,” which shares a common landscape used in “Withered Skin.” Another example is the recurring moon, like the ubiquitous cane fields, a constant throughout the cycles. The blood-colored moon foreshadows lynching. These repetitions are, again, hallmarks of the modern short story cycle. Such parallels exist throughout Cane and are part of the extraordinary complexity and richness of the work. Other repetitions include pines, cane, canebrakes, cane fields, moon, flames and fire, smoke and dusk (both obscure), violence and lynching, references to Christ and Christianity, imaginative imagery of Africa, miscegenation, and references to women. Toomer almost always compares the land to a woman. Sometimes the repeated words or symbols are combined, as in “Becky”, the second sketch in the book, in which Toomer states twice on the same page, “The pines whispered to Jesus” (5).
Adding to the complexity of Cane is Toomer’s use of the cycles of nature and the cycles of religion. For instance, in “Esther,” Toomer reveals the false prophecy of a Black messiah who misleads the devout Esther with his deceitful actions.
Although no one in Cane actually migrates, the book is nonetheless considered a work on Black migration (Griffin, 27). For instance, the Southern cycle ends with Louisa asking in “Blood-Burning Moon”, “Where have all the people gone?” The answer: they have moved north, Toomer’s keen observation of the mass migrations of Blacks northward to escape the economic hardships and outrages of the South. Indeed, abruptly after the lynching, the reader hurriedly “migrates” to the North as the Northern cycle begins.
In “Who Set You Flowin’?,” Farah Jasmine Griffin comments that Toomer accurately “foreshadows . . . the lynching which spurs the movement of the text North” and that he “establishes one of the major tropes of the migration narrative,” that is “violence on the black body as a trope to signify the violence of the South and as a major catalyst for migration” (24-25), a reasonable catalyst why the main character in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man runs away.
Whatever Cane may be, a long-forgotten one-hit wonder or a genre-less masterpiece of American literary ingenuity, it has greatly influenced subsequent African American writers, many of whom have used his mixed-literary device/mixed-genre style in their own writing. This influence is evident in, among others, Alice Walker’s Living By the Word, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, By the Light of My Father’s Smile, and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Walker provides a front cover blurb on the Norton edition in which she says, “Cane has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.” Toomer’s influence is also evident in Maya Angelou’s Gather Together in My Name and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, and in four books by Nikki Giovanni: Those Who Ride the Night Wind, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, Blues: For All the Change, and Acolytes. No doubt, a great many writers (African-American and otherwise) to come after Toomer were influenced by Cane.
Without question, the newly republished Cane, gaining a popular national momentum, made possible new ways for Black literary expression during and after the explosion of African-American literature in the late 1960s. As Robert Bone writes on the dustcover of Cane, “Jean Toomer belongs to that first rank of writers who use words almost as a plastic medium, shaping new meanings from an original and highly personal style.” While Toomer may be one of the most ambiguous figures in American literary history, that malleable plastic medium is his generous gift.
About the authors:
John Smelcer and Lucille Clifton met at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, NJ, in the fall of 2006 and began this collaboration a year later. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Lucille was “discovered” by Langston Hughes, who included her poems in his 1969 anthology, The Poetry of the Negro. Over the years, Lucille taught at Columbia and Dartmouth. Her poetry books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland and as a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poetry. In 2007, she received the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement. She died in Baltimore in February of 2010 at the age of 73. John Smelcer, the author of a numerous books of poetry and ethnic American literature, was recently a Clifford D. Clark Fellow at Binghamton University in upstate New York. After Lucille’s passing, it would be a couple years before John completed this article. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin, 1992.
—–. The Triumph of the Egg. New York: Wang and Hill, 1962.
Baltimore Afro-American, December 1, 1934. [cited in J. Benson and M. Dillard’s biography, Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980.]
Bell, Barnard. “Portrait of the Artist as High Priest of Soul: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” Black World, 13 (1974).
Berghahn, Marion. Images of Africa in Black American Literature. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.
Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.
—–. Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction. New York:
Fabre, Genevieve and Michael Feith (eds.). Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001.
Fitgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. New York: Cambridge University
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Who Set You Flowin’? The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Scribner’s, 1924.
Hutchinson, George. “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, M. Graham (Ed.).Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Jackson, Blyden. “Cane: An Issue of Genre.” The Twenties (Ed. Warren French). DeLand: Everett and Edwards, 1975.
“Jean Toomer.” Accessed 11/10/2008 at www.afropoets.net/jeantoomer.html
Jean Toomer Collection. Nashville: Fisk University. [archives accessed in person during the two week Jewish holidays break in October, 2008].
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Kent, George. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1990.
Klonsky, Milton. William Blake: The Seer and His Visions. New York: Harmony Books, 1977.
Margolies, Edward. Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth Century Negro American Authors. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968.
Martin, Odette. “Cane: Method and Myth.” Obsidian, 2 (1976).
McKeever, Benjamin. “Cane as Blues.” Negro American Literature Forum, 3 (1970).
Scruggs, Charles and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1923.
—–. Cane. “Introduction by Arna Bontemps.” New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Tracy, Steven. “The Blues Novel.” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, M. Graham (Ed.).Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Turner, Darwin. “Intersection of Paths: The Correspondence Between Jean Toomer and Sherwood Anderson.” CLA Journal, 17 (1974), 455-62.
—–. The Wayward and the Seeking: The Collected Writings of Jean Toomer. Washington, D. C.: Howard UP, 1980.
Williams, William Carlos. In the American Grain. 1925.
August 31, 2013 Comments Off on Jean Toomer’s “Cane”/John Smelcer
Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series
Finding the Sacred
Review by Miriam O’Neal
Where does the sacred live? Dzvinia Orlowsky’s newest book of poems, Silvertone, locates the sacred in that dangerous interior space where the windows are made of memory and the door of desire. Its threshold is a cherished object. Its music is made with words. This collection strings together a series of lyric narratives, many of which build upon the totemic quality of personal belongings: an old guitar, a miniature icon of the Virgin Mother, a father’s shotgun — their size and shape do not matter. What matters is their history, real and imagined. This I remember, says one line, this you imagined, calls back another. This I endured, this I have let go, like a dream from its sleeper.
Mother, father, sister, spouse, children, all make appearances in these poems. And wound around the arc of memory is the parallel arc of music, music made in real life on the old Silvertone guitar of the title poem, and music made in the tropes of these poems that sing and sway on their own. As we move from past to present to past to present over the course of the four movements of Silvertone, we see ‘Doc Orlowsky,’ his beautiful wife ‘turtlenecked, black stockinged legs / crossed and wrapped around a barstool’ in the basement family room. They appear at the heart of the poems, romantic, inhabiting a space their daughters observe, the private space of their love story. And imagination works with memory to invent that story.
The old guitar survives as talisman of that love, and a grown child’s desire for news of that life imbues the guitar with a romantic, past. It becomes
…the guitar I imagined my father bartered
from gypsies and carried through harsh winters
with barely a shield to protect it,
the one he and my mother made love next to
for the first time, the guitar
propped on the bed next to them,
the large tear-shaped guard
and wooden bridges
I thought I was born of.
This is the crux of the entire collection: that we are born into memory and imagination; that we live in fact, in what is, but also in truth, which is what we make of it. And always, like strings plucked on a cheap guitar in a basement rec room, or the sound of insects in a swamp after summer rain, if we listen for it, there is music.
Memory and the lived life of the speaker work in the same call and response mode as lines within the poems and the poems are full of tropes that startle the reader into awareness. In “Kissing Fra Lippi’s Mistress Goodnight,” the story of a beloved miniature icon of the Virgin Mother held during bedtime prayers and then kissed goodnight, we learn that this dear image was actually the image of Fra Lippi’s mistress, not a virgin or Madonna of any kind, not even of his long suffering wife. But the speaker turns from this revelation to tell us
There’s space left by adoration
to place one’s face.
This is a woman, this is flesh.
We know what’s ours to pray for —
all of us, sumptuous vanishing points.
Cloud of breath,/ heavy dew.
The reader is welcomed into the room of the poem with that penultimate line, which imbues each of us with our own sacred weight.
We have read poems about girls who want to be a size zero before, but here, in “Still as I was,” that girl is offered as a child.
who held the bread
under her tongue
until she could roll it
like a wet damaged
bird onto a cloth.
The sensibility of the sacred bread, held in the mouth, unchewed, unswallowed, meets the image of the bird that will not fly. And in their merging, Orlowsky gives us a visceral connection to this one, word-dizzied child. Orlowsky avoids the predictable on both the narrative and the descriptive level. The bird is not ‘wounded’ but ‘damaged’ the child is not ‘ill’ or ‘nervous’. She is a child ‘whose love for words / was stronger than her desire / to eat.’
I have many favorites in this collection of poems, and most of those address the fact and the truth about desire: we desire a romantic past for our parents (“Silvertone”), as we become ourselves, we desire to be seen and counted (“The Muse”), we wish to survive both our own choices and those who would wound us and /or make us small (“To See a Horse”). We want to be able to say something like ‘this was,’ though we also, often want to abridge the ‘was’; to soften it and mold it into a durable and endurable truth. The final three poems of Silvertone hum with this wanting.
“Prolonged” reads like a brief litany of what we love in this world, both physical and ephemeral. “Promise me (the poem begins) heavy wagons, trodden grasses, / smoke rising from deep within woods, / the open pit fire.” These images are sentimental in the extreme, which is why they work. They speak to the furthest reaches of visceral memory, reach back, back, back from this contemporary world, to what we carry within of the collective unconscious, what wakens in us without warning, a sense of endless journeying toward an unknown.
“Memorizing Music” stuns with its clear opening advice for living. “Leave desire unmeasured; let your body unfold/ toward an unmarked pitch…” Each time I read these lines I am stopped by them. It is the paired instructions for what not to do and what to do with desire that arrest me: accept that desire has no scale of measure, allow yourself to live that yearning without knowing how far it can take you.
The book could have ended on this poem, but Orlowsky offers us one more, “Early Hour,” which does the work of an epilogue, not only for this collection, but also, for those familiar with her earlier work, the poems in her other books, A Handful of Bees, and most recently, Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones. Here, “Moon”
…offers a burning candle’s trail of smoke
that rises and goes nowhere,
a piece of bed gliding through an MRI.
It says sleep is for woodpeckers tired of drumming,
for a family of deer who have leapt into a pond of ferns.
Instead, the moon urges live.
The black leather jacket drops into words about a black leather jacket.
The crimson firefly swells at the tip of a cigarette.
And you know it, standing along in your yard,
closing your book of poems by Yevtushenko,
that this is the grand reunion tour —
the constant hammering in your brain
naked mind, naked body — in daylight
butterflies that will die if they hitchhike onto your clothes.
Read this book. Go out into the world awhile or wander inside your own, interior landscape. Then, read this book again.
Silvertone (ISBN #978-0887485640)
80 pages, 5.5” x 8.5,” paperback, full color ($15.95)
Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series
5000 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
About the Reviewer:
Miriam O’Neal has published poems and/or reviews in AGNI, Marlboro Review, Louisiana Literature, Birmingham Review, and The Guidebook, as well as elsewhere. Her translation of Italian poet, Alda Merini earned her a Beginning Translator’s Fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in 2007. Her manuscript, We Start With What We’re Given is currently looking for a home.
August 31, 2013 1 Comment
A Broken Man on Blue Water:
A Conversation on the Life
and Influence of Michael Dorris
Facilitated by John Smelcer
Michael Dorris (1945-1997) was the award-winning author of numerous books, mostly about the Native American experience, including his popular novel, A Yellow Raft on Blue Water (1987). His influential memoir, The Broken Cord, won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 1989. In 1971, he was the first single man in the United States to legally adopt a child (he adopted an American Indian boy named Abel who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and he eventually adopted two other children). In the fall of 1972, Michael was hired as Director of Dartmouth’s new Native American Studies program, where he met his future wife, Louise Erdrich. Years later, as husband-wife collaborators, they co-wrote The Crown of Columbus, a book that marked the 500th year anniversary of the discovery of America. After a great deal of turmoil in his personal life — including the accidental death of Abel in 1991, divorce, and allegations of abuse — Michael committed suicide in a motel in Concord, New Hampshire, on April 10, 1997. The facilitator of this candid discussion is John Smelcer, Michael’s friend and one-time moose hunting partner in Alaska and one of the last people to speak to him before his lonely death, and three of Michael’s students from the early years at Dartmouth: Tom Sorci, Dave Bonga, and Trudell Guerue.
JS: It’s been sixteen years since Michael Dorris left us. His death was a profound loss in my life. My younger brother had committed suicide nine years earlier, a few weeks shy of turning twenty-three. Such losses are never easy to reconcile. We live with uneasy doubts and lingering questions for many years afterward, more so than others in Michael’s case. I wonder if we might start by talking about the early days when we all first met Michael.
TS: I was born to Italian-American parents and was raised in the mid-Hudson valley of New York state, living in both Poughkeepsie and Kingston. When I graduated from high school in June of 1972, I had planned to pursue a career in Environmental Studies. Meeting Michael Dorris and the students in the newly formed Native American Program changed my life. Michael was one of the first people I met at Dartmouth. His car still had Alaskan license plates with MODOC imprinted on them when he invited all of his advisees to his house on Mascoma Lake during freshmen week. I was living in North Topliff Hall on the same floor as many Native American students. Michael’s office, along with the Native American Program, was located in College Hall where he helped me plan the courses I would take during freshman year. Michael steered me in the direction of anthropology and the newly formed Native American Studies Program. Throughout my four years at Dartmouth, he was a mentor, friend, and confidant. He was instrumental in helping me find internships and employment as well as helping me to find my true calling to a lifelong commitment to Native American education.
DB: I wasn’t on campus during the 1972-73 academic year, as I had transferred to the University of Minnesota to take Ojibwe for my Dartmouth language requirement. I met Michael during the summer of 1973 when I was on campus for my Dartmouth Plan summer. I didn’t take any of Michael’s classes, but I did do a Native American Studies project for academic credit during my fall 1973 term on the Standing Rock Reservation under Bea Medicine, who Mike had invited to be a Visiting Professor. I returned to Dartmouth for my senior year. Michael was excellent as the initial Director of the Native American Studies Program. He was able to work closely with Dartmouth academics to advance acceptance of Native American Studies as a viable academic field. Michael was also a friend and supporter of students, who also happened to be a single parent with a special-needs son.
TG: I was in the first cohort of the Native Studies program at Dartmouth; must have been 1971-1972. There were fifteen of us in that first class. There were about six or seven Indians there already, but it wasn’t an organized program then. I took off after the first year and went bumming around Europe with a friend. When I returned in the fall of 1973, the college had hired Mike Dorris. So, some of the other guys might have known him for a year longer than I did. I was as old as or older than Mike. I had served in the Army before college, so I was older than the other students. I really enjoyed Mike’s teaching. He opened my eyes to a lot of Indian literature. I was also in Dr. Medicine’s class.
TS: Mike also introduced me to Beatrice Medicine. I had embarked on a William Jewett Tucker Foundation internship to Ronan, Montana during the summer of 1974 to work as a G.E.D. instructor at the Kicking Horse Civilian Conservation Center for the Confederated Tribes of Salish and Kootenai. It was my introduction to Job Corps and to working directly with students on a reservation. Meeting Beatrice Medicine would have a profound effect upon my education and career choices. After returning from Montana, I immersed myself in the study of anthropology, Native American Belief Systems, and Lakota language. I also visited Professor Medicine’s home in Wakpala on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. By this time my interest in Native American Studies was extensive and far-reaching.
JS: I wasn’t one of Mike’s students, per se, though for years he guided my independent readings in Native Studies, especially in Indian literature. I met him in the early 1980s when I was an undergraduate studying anthropology, linguistics, and Native Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Mike came to campus to speak, and I was invited to a luncheon in his honor. During lunch, I mentioned that I was going moose hunting, and Mike enthusiastically voiced his desire to go with me. He said he had taught in an Alaskan village (Tyonek) before he was hired at Dartmouth and that he’d gone moose hunting. We left early the following morning. I took him to Lake Louise, about forty miles west of Glennallen. On the way there we stopped at my village to visit my Indian relatives. We took my green johnboat through three connecting lakes back to Tyone Lake, where there was an old, abandoned village from my tribe. I hunted back there with my dad and uncles since I was a little boy. The first time must have been in 1971. Herds of caribou migrate through the region. I’ve seen hundreds of caribou swim across the lake, just their antlered heads sticking out from the water. It was a cold and drizzly fall day. At the end of the lake, where the Tyone River begins, we saw a two-year-old bull moose. I had a harvest tag for a bull moose or caribou. Naturally, Mike didn’t have a license or anything, so I shot it.
John Smelcer with young bull moose (photo by M. Dorris)
We butchered the moose and carried the quarters back to the boat through a kind of boggy area. We each carried a bulging game bag against our chest, full of shoulder, neck, and back-strap meat, as well as the heart and the liver for my great aunt, Morrie Secondchief, who lived nearby. We also cut off the nose to make moose-nose soup, a delicacy among elders. It took two trips to carry out everything. By the time we were done packing out the meat, our feet were soaked, and we couldn’t feel our toes. I kept my rifle with me at all the time. Grizzly country, you know. We had seen bear tracks along the shore back at the boat. The hundred-pound hindquarters we were carrying would be temptation for any hungry bear dreaming of hibernating soon. We were both wearing raincoats over our jackets. I was experienced enough to know enough to unzip both coats so that I wouldn’t overheat and sweat. But Michael didn’t know better. Soon, he was sweating from the hard labor—his wet clothes robbing him of body heat. By the time we finished packing the meat back to the boat, Michael was shaking uncontrollably. We built a large campfire to warm up and to boil water for coffee. We even roasted a chunk of moose meat on sticks. In what other ways did Mike influence your life?
DB: During the Spring of 1973, I applied for a position in the Native American office as the liaison with the Native American Council. I didn’t get it, so I went home to Washington State to attend the University of Washington Law School in the fall of 1974. During the summer of ‘74 Duane Bird Bear (‘72) asked me to take his job in Denver with the United Scholarship Service, which I did as I had planned to attend law school in the future. I believe it was in March of 1975 that Michael called me and asked me to return to Dartmouth to work in the Native American Office. I accepted and moved back to Hanover. As the Coordinator of the Native American Office I assisted NAP students with support services to create an atmosphere on campus that allowed students to be academically successful and encouraging students to take advantage of Dartmouth and become engaged in off-campus programs that allowed them to continue their academics, but also to spend time off campus that at times was a hostile environment. Michael strongly supported the off-campus activities and established NAS internship programs. In addition, Mike encouraged the development of cultural support programs for NAP students and strongly supported the actions of the Native American Office. Michael also continued to develop the NAS that was gaining a positive national reputation. However, I was disappointed that Mike was not a frequent visitor to the NAD house or many NAD activities. At the time, I was unaware of his home issues involving the children he had adopted as a single parent. It wasn’t until his book, A Broken Cord, was published that I realized how challenged and occupied Michael was with raising his three children who were FAE and FAS. Once I understood Michael’s predicament and the enormity of the issue in Indian country, I became an advocate of trying to address issues associated with FAE and FAS children and how the actions of their parents were the cause of the children’s problems. It became apparent to me that such parental actions threatened the very existence of viable Native communities and their success in dealing with all other issues. The issue of substance abuse and the destruction of Native Ways has affected the way I look at the development of Tribes that involve all aspects of tribal life. Michael’s struggles and his book encouraged many of us to look outside the box and to think of new ways to address tribal issues. That has directly lead to the Kalispel Tribe’s successful Northern Quest Casino and Resort that was developed to fund the CamasPath program that is a holistic approach to the development of healthy, educated, and successful Kalispel Tribal members.
TS: With Michael’s blessing, I landed an internship at Americans for Indian Opportunity in Washington, D.C. working for LaDonna Harris and Maggie Gover on national issues. I had developed strong friendships with many Native American students, one of whom I had dated for some time. When I graduated in June with a major in Religion and a minor in Native American Studies, Michael wrote me a letter of recommendation and steered me to my first job as a linguistic consultant for the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Colville Tribes in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. I lived with a Yakama family in Wapato, Washington and worked for the Johnson O’Malley Consortium for nine months before returning to Dartmouth to work as the Assistant Regional Director for the A Better Chance (ABC) Program. My goal was to increase the number of Native American students in private and public schools throughout the Northeast. In the fall of 1979, I enrolled in graduate school to study linguistics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was interested in Native Language revitalization and helped to establish the first Siouan languages conference. Later that year I married Vivian Blackgoat, a Diné woman whom I had met at Dartmouth. Our daughter was born at the Tuba City Indian Hospital in 1980, and our son was born at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital in 1982. In the meantime, I had taken a job as an instructor at Navajo Community College (its name later changed to Diné College) in Tsaile, Arizona where I taught for four years before accepting a position as teacher, coach, dorm parent, and advisor to Native American students at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. For the next nine years, I lived and worked extensively with Native American students from all over the country and kept in touch with the Dartmouth Native American community. Both Michael and Dr. Medicine visited our family at the school. By then, he and Louise had achieved fame for their various publications.
JS: For me, Michael wrote one of the recommendations that helped land my job as co-chair of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1993. My co-chair was a Tlingit woman named Elaine Abraham who was from Yakutat in southeast Alaska. I think she told me she was a member of the Frog Clan. Mike later provided a recommendation when I applied to be executive director of my tribe’s Heritage Foundation. I got the job and spent the next three years working on oral history projects, archaeological surveys, and a dictionary of our language. Isolated as I was in Alaska, Mike was one of a few Native writers who helped me develop as a fiction writer. James Welch also helped me a great deal. They both encouraged me to join Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers as one of its earliest members. How did each of you learn of Mike’s death and how did the news affect you?
TS: I was teaching Ancient History at the Kent School in Connecticut when Dr. Bea Medicine telephoned to tell me the sad news. Needless to say, I was shocked by his untimely death. I was upset at myself because I knew that Michael had been receiving treatment for his severe depression, and I wished I could have reached out to him to prevent him from taking his own life. Later that spring, I drove past the motel in New Hampshire to say a prayer and pay my final respects to a professor who had taken a keen interest in helping me in both my collegiate and professional careers. My life has taken many twists and turns since then. After finishing a three year stint as principal of St. Michael’s Indian School on the Navajo Nation, I have moved to Anchorage, Alaska to lead a small school of 87 students in grades 7-12. As I travel the state, I often think of conversations I had with Michael about his fieldwork in Alaska over forty years ago and thank him for pointing me in this direction.
DB: I was driving to work when I heard the news on the radio. When I got to the office I checked the internet to see if it was really true. And there it was. I was really sad to hear how he had died.
TG: One of the guys from our class, I think it was Mike Hanitchak, called to tell me. I had been feeling very, very bad the previous day . . . and I didn’t know why. I just had a bad feeling. I have a number of relatives and friends who killed themselves, and when I see them all I’m going to kick their asses for doing what they did. One thing I know about Mike—about Mike’s suicide—is he had been destroyed. After all the things he had done, the allegations were such that no matter what happened he was destroyed. If ever a person wanted to hurt another person, making that kind of allegation [as were made against Mike] . . . that’s it. There were even allegations that Mike may not have been Indian. I think that Mike Dorris made a huge difference in the lives of not just to those who had the opportunity to be in his classes, but to the Indian world—in the Indian world—he made a difference. He believed very strongly in the tribes, and that’s a hard thing because the Indian world is so divided. You come from this tribe or that tribe, or you come from the reservation or you don’t. Growing up on a reservation, I know how people from the reservation see Indians who have never been there. Indians from the reservation belong to a tribe, while urban Indians see themselves as pan-Indian, often picking and choosing appealing customs and spiritual beliefs from a variety of tribes. I’m not saying I agree with this. I’m just saying that’s the way it is. I’m Lahkota. I don’t use Chippewa customs in my life, nor Navajo, Apache, or Seneca. I thought of Mike Dorris as one of my friends. I deeply regretted that he didn’t call me toward the end because I thought that maybe I could have talked him into doing something else. It still bothers me that I didn’t have a chance to talk with him.
JS: Mike and I had spoken many times during the months before his death, mostly about how his life was falling apart and how he felt so alone. The last time we spoke was the day before he killed himself after moving into that motel in Concord. He called me at my tribal office in Glennallen. I think he used an outside pay phone because I remember he called collect and I could hear traffic in the background. We spoke for a long time, maybe half an hour. He never actually said he was going to harm himself, but there was a tone in his voice that alarmed me. I could tell he had given up. My brother had committed suicide nine years earlier, so you’d think I would have recognized the signs. I didn’t in either case. Mike was gone hours later. I must have been one of the last people he ever spoke to. I remember crying in my office with the door closed after I heard the news. Michael was a good man, a good role model, and a good friend. He deserves to be remembered for the positive influence he had on so many lives, like ours.
About the participants:
Tom Sorci is currently headmaster at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage, Alaska.
Dave Bonga (Ojibwe) is an attorney for the Kalispell Tribe in Washington.
Trudell Guerue (Lahkota) is a former lawyer who has no desire to be a lawyer again.
John Smelcer (Ahtna) co-edited Native American Classics (2013), an anthology of 19th and early 20th century Native American literature and Durable Breath: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1995). Michael Dorris edited many of the stories in John’s ALASKAN: Stories from the Great Land (2011).
April 27, 2013 Comments Off on On Michael Dorris