1. "Detroit Housewife Writes Play". That's how Joyce Carol Oates says she was received as a young beginning writer as she reminisced during a special event Monday night at the Smithsonian Institution. I've heard this writer speak before and in fact enjoyed it enough to want to hear her again (even though, to be honest, I haven't read a whole novel of hers since Black Water in 1992). This gathering found Ms. Oates in sharp and snappy form. She spoke of her stark one-room schoolhouse childhood, cited Lewis Carroll as her earliest literary influence, and charmingly called her interviewer "naive" for suggesting that she might ever allow her characters to tell her about themselves ("how," she asks, "would a character tell me anything?"). On a roll, Ms. Oates also scolded a questioner from the audience who asked if she'd met famous people such as US Presidents, telling him "perhaps there are more important people in the world than male Presidents for me to meet". As always, Ms. Oates' willowy manner and Pre-Raphaelite affect has a breathtaking impact on audiences, and the folks at the Freer Gallery ate her up. She should be in the movies -- she could win an Oscar. I still don't know, though, if I'll find the time to read her latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven.
2. I think it's great that Oprah Winfrey has picked Uwem Akpan's Say You're One Of Them as her next influential Oprah's Book Club selection. She has made several brilliant choices over the years, and Say You're One Of Them (which was reviewed on LitKicks here) is a bleak, straightforward book with a strong and highly focused humanitarian message about political violence against children in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Gabon. I'm sure Oprah intends this book is to stand alongside Elie Wiesel's Night on the bookshelf. The author, a young Jesuit born in Nigeria who has traveled through Africa and the world, is as much an activist as an artist, and the book is short on ostentation and long on horrifying truth. A lot of people -- adults and children, often together, often huddling in their own homes -- get killed in this book, but the book is no thriller. Oprah has made an unusual and brave choice.
3. Somebody recently asked "Should literary blogs get political?" Yeah, well, I think we should. It's not like critical issues aren't at stake, like the health care debate, which I find myself following carefully these days. I strongly support a health care bill and a public option, I am 100% behind Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as they deal with this difficult challenge, and I really like Will Ferrell's latest commentary on the whole thing.
Mrs. Eileen Connulty, a prosperous widow who ran a local lodging house for traveling salesmen, Number 4 The Square, and who, as death came near, "feared she would now be obliged to join her husband and prayed she would not have to."
Who writes family stories like these anymore? Well, hmm, actually Joyce Carol Oates does, and I must be in an a receptive mood today, because Malena Watrous's brief on the love-and-murder triangle (or, actually, pentagon) at the center of Little Bird of Heaven makes me want to read this one too, even though I haven't picked up any of the twenty or thirty other books Oates has written this decade. Well, I'm looking forward to catching Joyce Carol Oates in a rare career-summary event at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC this Monday night, so maybe I'll decide then whether to dive into her new one or not.
And, hell, I have to admit that I've never read an entire novel by Margaret Atwood, though I've enjoyed listening to her at live events. Jeannette Winterson's cover article in the Book Review makes Atwood's new The Year of the Flood, a scary vision of our future, sound like a must read.
How am I going to find the time to read even one of these books? I don't see any lazy days coming up on my calendar soon. Hmmm ...
I don't think I'll linger long here today, anyway, but I would also like to mention a few good articles on history and public policy. Ira Berlin provides a fascinating summary of Deliver Us From Evil, a book about the American Civil War by Lacy K. Ford that actually manages to deliver something new: an analysis of the intense internal debate about slavery that went on in the Southern states before they became the Confederate nation.
I'm a bit taken aback by Irshad Manji's positive review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I have heard of the oppressions and crimes detailed in this book, but it's shocking to read that "gendercide" (a word I've never heard before) "steals more lives in any given decade 'than all the genocides of the 20th Century'". Is this true? If so, it's an absolutely shocking fact, because if you include Stalin's manufactured famines in the Ukraine and Mao's manufactured famines in China along with the familiar horrors of Eastern Europe, Turkey, Rwanda and Cambodia, you're talking about at least 50 million deaths. I have no reason to cast doubt on a subject I know nothing about, but if global gendercide kills 50 million women every 10 years, then this book should be on the cover of this weekend's Book Review, not buried somewhere in the middle. In fact it should be on the cover of the New York Times, not just today but everyday. But I'm not sure I'm understanding the facts correctly. Another book I'll have to read.
Finally, Ada Calhoun's capsule review of T. R. Reid's The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care is highly relevant today, and worth quoting in full:
With all the hysteria over health care and the public option, it’s high time for the facts behind buzzwords like "socialized medicine" and "death panels." Reid, a correspondent for The Washington Post, provides a lucid examination of health care around the world, and shows how the United States compares on coverage, cost, quality and choice. The results are humbling. In a humanizing twist, Reid details his own experiences as he tries to get treatment for a bum shoulder. At a $10 consultation in Versailles, he is told that he should have physical therapy but that he may choose surgery done by any doctor in France, on the national dime. In Japan he’s offered a vast range of treatments. When he asks about shoulder reconstruction, he is told: "Tomorrow would be a little difficult. But next week would probably work." So much for national health care inevitably resulting in a lack of choice or endless waits. But not all the statistics and fun facts in "The Healing of America" are equally persuasive. Reid writes, for example, that "British women tend to have their babies at home; Japanese women, in contrast, almost always give birth in the hospital." Actually, home births account for less than 3 percent of births in each country. Still, this doesn't detract from Reid’s conclusion that every advanced nation in the world has a cheaper and fairer health care system than we do. He deftly counters the notion that "American exceptionalism" prevents us from successfully adapting another country's system. Evidently, when it comes to health care, America is exceptional only in that it’s a rich country with a poor country's approach to taking care of people.
1. Here are the teenage classics covered in Lizzie Skurnick's delightful new reading memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading that I've also read:
• From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwieler by E. L. Konigsburg
• Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
• Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
• Blubber by Judy Blume
• The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume
• The Pigman by Paul Zindel
• Deenie by Judy Blume
• Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
• My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel
• Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.
• All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Lizzie Skurnick writes best about the books that excite her most, like From the Mixed-up Files, which she illuminates in surprising ways (I never actually thought about it, but the Michelangelo statue does seem to symbolize Claudia herself) and the two great Louise Fitzhugh novels, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. Skurnick gets extra points for recognizing that The Long Secret is every bit as good as Harriet the Spy, though very different (it also occurs to me, thinking of these books today, that a good friend of mine recently went through an experience very much like the climactic scene in Harriet the Spy).
(This is chapter 26 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The day I began working at iVillage was the first day I ever found myself truly excited to meet the president of a company I worked for. But there has never been, and probably never will be again, a CEO like Candice Carpenter.
This wiry and fierce woman was one of the most controversial figures in the Internet industry in the early months of 1999. Her company's IPO was widely expected to succeed, despite the fact that many industry commentators considered her a bewitching fake. It was true that she could thrill a crowd (I had become inspired to join iVillage myself after hearing her speak), and she was obviously thrilling Wall Street as well, even though iVillage was the epitome of a money-losing, big-spending dot-com, with a highly uncertain financial future.
To those who wanted more substance in their dot-coms -- more e-commerce revenue, more advertising dollars, fewer press releases, fewer TV commercials -- iVillage represented the worst of hype-crazed Silicon Alley. I guess that's why I thought Candice Carpenter was so cool.
She would take the criticism and spit it back in their faces. On talk shows and newspaper or magazine interviews, Candice Carpenter would insist that iVillage had a great business model and true staying power (despite the current lack of revenue), and I never heard her back down or hedge this bet. She always spoke with style and verve, often while wearing skin-tight leather dresses, pink jungle-print mini-skirts or other truly strange outfits, and was known to say outrageously philosophical things about the true meaning of work, about why people are afraid to compete, about the business world as a character-building exercise. Most of the things she said made sense to me.
The photo above is me, reading Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor (appropriately titled Flannery), and my yawning dog. She's a tough critic. Anyway, I've been a fan of Flannery O'Connor since I first read her story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" back when I was in high school, and as I got older and read more of her work, my appreciation of her grew. In fact, on my personal list of Date Book-Talk Gone Wrong is the following snippet:
Him: What kind of books do you like?
Me: A lot of different kinds. I just read a short story by Flannery O'Connor this morning, actually. Do you like Flannery O'Connor?
Him: Oh, that Irish guy? He's really good.
(A literary sensation and National Book Award nominee at age 21, Eleanor Lerman has paid her dues, been there and back, and has now published a new book of short stories. Here's her story. -- Levi).
Person wanted to sweep up in harpsichord factory. That was the ad in the Village Voice that I answered in 1970 when I was eighteen years old and looking for a job so I could support myself in the city, where I was headed to join the revolution. It also happens to be the first line in Civilization,” a story in my new collection of short stories, The Blonde on the Train (Mayapple Press). The story is fiction, but the ad, the job -- and the way they both changed my life -- are still the touchstones I go back to again and again whenever someone asks, "What made you want to be a writer?"
It was actually reading Leonard Cohen that made me think I could write poetry (until I found The Spice Box of Earth on a drugstore rack in Far Rockaway, the lost and windy peninsula at the end of the earth -- excuse me, I mean, the end of Queens, where I lived when I was a teenager -- I was under the impression that poetry was written by people like Robert Browning and Lord Byron, who didn’t exactly resonate with me). But it was the harpsichord kit factory where I worked, the long-lost Greenwich Village of artists and gay bars and roller-skating queens, along with my neighbor, a film producer, who introduced me to a community of writers, and my boss, Michael Zuckermann, who gave me the job because he said I had soulful eyes (I hope I still do!), which in the psychedelic days was the only qualification you needed, I guess, to make harpsichord kit parts (I graduated from the sweeping up part pretty quickly) that made me believe it was possible to actually live the life of a writer. Thirty-five years later, I’m still trying, but I think I’m getting closer.
At the time, Zuckermann Harpsichords (now a thriving company owned by other people and based in Connecticut -- look them up if you want a nifty harpsichord kit to build in your spare time) was housed in the first floor of a small, quirky 19th century building on Charles Street. Michael not only gave me a job, he gave me a tiny apartment upstairs. The whole operation employed about five girls, who drilled pin blocks, used a table saw and a lathe, but also worked on eccentric machines that Michael had made himself out of sewing machine parts: we used those to wind wire, cut felt and velvet, and make the jacks that pluck harpsichord strings. Sometimes we ran out of parts and I was supposed to write what we needed on a blackboard. Instead, inspired by Leonard Cohen, I used the blackboard to write poems.
The film producer, who lived in a carriage house on the lane behind the harpsichord workshop, had to walk through our space every day to get his mail, and he began stopping by the blackboard to read my poetry. One day, he said something to me like, You know, that’s pretty good. You ought to try to get your work published. It had never occurred to me that was possible until he suggested it. (So thank you forever, Harrison Starr.)
Branching Out, a joint project of Poets House and the Poetry Society of America, with funding from the National Endowment for Humanities, presents Hettie Jones on the Beat Poets, Tuesday, May 6 @ 6:00 PM.
In New York’s Greenwich Village from 1957 to 1963, poets Hettie Jones and her then-husband LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) published a magazine called Yugen, showcasing poetry and writings by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and others. Hettie also started Totem Press, which published poets such as Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Frank O’Hara, and Edward Dorn.
Jones is currently involved with PEN American Center's Prison Writing Committee and teaches writing at the New School in New York. She also runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills. The Bedford Hills workshop has published two books of poetry, More In Than Out and Aliens At the Border. I purchased a used copy of Aliens At the Border and I agree with Bibi Wein of the PEN American Center when she says, “Each of these women has a unique voice, and the writing is luminous, surprisingly lyrical, tender, and hopeful as a candle in the dark.”
You can enter Shelby’s Coffee House from the street, or through the new Downtown Public Library in Jacksonville, Florida. I arrived early, hoping I could meet Hettie Jones in person before she took the podium. It paid off. Hettie arrived an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, accompanied by a guide from the city. I introduced myself and she invited me to sit at her table while library staff rearranged the chairs and tables to face the microphone.
“This is a beautiful library,” she said. “With a great children’s section.”
When I gave her a brief summary of the revitalization projects of downtown Jacksonville, Hettie’s first question was, “Has anyone been displaced by all the new construction?” I didn’t know for sure.
I said I was interested in her prison writing classes, and wanted to if she would be talking about that aspect of her work. Jones said she wasn’t really supposed to talk about anything but the Beats. “That’s what they brought me here for,” she said.
“Will you take questions from the audience later?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“Well, then, if I raise my hand and ask about Bedford Correctional, they can’t blame you for talking about it.”
“True!” she said.
I apologized for being a pest, but I wanted to talk some more, in case we ran out of time later. Hettie is as cool as anyone I’ve ever met. “No, it’s quite all right,” she said. “I like talking about the prison workshop. It’s important to me. The thing about teaching in a correctional facility is, you accept people for what they want to become, not what they have done in the past. I got my start in 1988 when I got paid $50.00 to teach a prose workshop in Sing Sing. It went well, but the funding ran out. Soon after that, I got the chance to teach at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, and I did that for about a dozen years.”
“Is that through PEN?” I asked.
“No, PEN is different. I was elected to PEN in 1984, and because of my involvement with prisons, PEN insisted that I join their Prison Writing committee.”
By now, most of the chairs were filled and it was time for Hettie Jones to speak to the audience. She gave a brief introduction to the Beats, and spoke about several key players individually, reading a sample of each writer’s work.
“I first met Allen Ginsberg,” said Hettie, “When I was 24 years old. Allen needed to hear the Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, to help with the poem he was writing. He had never learned it. LeRoi brought me over to Allen’s place because I knew the Kaddish. And here you have a good picture of how the Beat movement mixed people from different backgrounds together. Here I was, a Jewish girl disowned by my parents for marrying a black man (LeRoi Jones), chanting the Kaddish to a homosexual poet who would later become a Buddhist!”
Speaking of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, Hettie said that Jack didn’t say that writers shouldn’t rewrite or keep journals. The best thought may be the best thought, and you write that thought in a journal, but you still must “Edit, edit, edit,” said Hettie. “And that is a hard lesson to learn.”
Asked about LeRoi Jones’ relation to the other Beats, Hettie said, “The fact that he was a black man was less important than the fact that he and I were publishing people.”
Someone wanted to know about William S. Burroughs. Hettie said that Burroughs was a loner, didn’t hang out at parties, and was hard to know. “Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, although gay, still had female friends to whom they showed love. Burroughs seemed to have no use for women at all.”
I raised my hand and asked if there were any paid positions for teachers in prisons.
“Nobody wants to pay you to do it,” said Hettie. “You have to raise your own funding, that’s what I did. Prisons are like little fiefdoms. It’s hard to get in the door. Most prisons have an Office of Volunteer Services, and that would be the place to start.
“If you teach at a university, it’s a good antidote to go teach at a prison for a while. The poetry is as good, sometimes better, than poetry written elsewhere. It’s rewarding. You go in with the attitude of accepting people for what they want to become, not what they have done.”
The last questioner asked if their were any writers today that Hettie would compare to the Beats.
“We have one running for President,” she said, to a smattering of applause. I assumed she was talking about Barack Obama because of articles like this, and when I asked her later, she confirmed that I was correct.
“We have many good poets today,” Hettie continued, “And a lot of them are not coming from universities. In New York, we have the Bowery Poetry club run by Bob Holman, a dear friend of mine. We have the Internet. We have Hip Hop. We have Def Poetry on television.”
After the event, I had one more question. A friend of mine wanted to know if there was ever a rivalry between Hettie Jones and Diane De Prima. This was a sensitive subject because both women had been involved romantically with LeRoi Jones during the fifties.
I got up the nerve to ask.
“You should just tell your friend to read my book, How I Became Hettie Jones,” she said. “I tell all about it in the book.”
Hettie Jones, to me, is a reminder that we have to keep improving. An important question for fans and students of Beat Literature is, where do we go from here? We know about the restless few, post-World War II, seeing beyond suburban conformity, crafting fresh free forms of verse, and of course, looking for kicks. But a lot of young writers seem to ride Kerouac’s Mobius road in circles. Hettie Jones is moving forward.
I interviewed Philomene here on LitKicks last year. I was fascinated by the fact that she was a nun before she was a beat poet, and we talked a lot about religion during this interview. Philomene was also a filmmaker, as well as a close friend and creative partner of Charles Bukowski. You can read more about here at this Empty Mirror Books page or this other Empty Mirror Books page. Here's an interview with the Santa Monica Mirror, and here's an early LitKicks review of her movie, The Beats: An Existential Comedy.
But for the best link of all, check out Philomene and her husband John Thomas Philomene reading the great poem "Marriage" by Gregory Corso on YouTube.
Grace Paley was from a post-beat generation. One hears about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth -- all of whom were dear friends of Grace's. But there was also a strong female counterpoint to these writers. And Grace embodied it. We used to call her "headquarters" because she was the mother of our needy female selves. Heterosexual, a lover of men, she helped us say things which were "feminist" but not hateful of men. And we all needed her maternity so much.
Grace was spurned by generations before her. W. H. Auden was her greatest influence, as well as Joyce's Dubliners (some say she protrayed New York as Joyce had portrayed Dublin, full of multicultural genes and voices and irreverancies). She did not believe in pandering to the "major media", in comforting audiences, in writers becoming "stars" instead of truth-tellers. Writing was not there to make people feel good and sell copies. It was there as an expression of social and personal turmoil, as truth, and even as a disturbance in the skies -- dark, troubling, discomforting.
This is most missed in what we see today, from my standpoint and hers. We had talked often about when the shift into writing as a consumer-pleasing commodity happened. I don't know how to express this without seeming unkind to so many "current" writers, but Grace deeply resented the course writers who needed celebritization of their work were taking these days. Writing was truth. And truth was uncomfortable. And one didn't write for a "consumer", One wrote to live and breathe and because one had to. She was subversive, quietly on this point.
While people often think Grace was a "political writer", what she meant by this was well quoted in a New York Times article written a long time ago (I was with her while she was being interviewed):
Mrs. Paley -- who has made no secret of her support for the peace movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam and her progressive political views -- had come to some non-literary prominence as a member of various demonstrations. Some of the reviews took note of these involvements, and suggested they distracted her from concentrated literary effort, an accusation that irritated Mrs. Paley.
"It was ridiculous," she said. "I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I'm not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life."
This is quintessential to an understanding of Grace, I think ...
Many other salient parts of her literary vision focused on "personal voice", the personal as it hits against the global canvas, the daily news reports. The personal, small voice of everyday, inconsequential, searching. Not famous and loud.
Artistically, I think there is no better example of Grace's literary theory than the desciption she used in a famous short story called "A Conversation with My Father". It was an anti-linear, anti-narrative-arc policy. She believed it was the dailiness of of ordinary interaction that made fiction, not contrived "arcs".
This, of course, spoke to so many us as women. We had been left out entirely of the tradition which was based on that all-prevalent Aristotlean "narrative arc" principle. A friend of mine and I used to laugh, asking "doesn't anybody see this is a male ejection theory of literature? Come on, an arc? It arcs and ...uh ... ejaculates after penetration?" For Grace, fiction could also be like a feminine sexual experience. She was very sexual about writing. We women, she used to say, have little, multiple spasms of pleasure and truth, very modest. Not arcs!
Of course, Grace loved men. And I do, too! The above isn't meant as a rejection of men. Both Grace and I married two first-class men, and have both been married to the same guys for over thirty-five years! So I always resented people labeling Grace Paley a "male-hater" She loved men and I think this set her apart from the bitterness you will opten find in other "feminist writers" of her generation. She once remarked: "Bitterness only comes when one doesn't take an action, if one didn't exercise choice. I walked out on my first marriage. I took an action and I feel in love again!" So she called herself an "activist"!
Here is her most famous description of an anti-arc narrative approach, told with her initimable sense of humor from "A Conversation With My Father:
'I would like you to write a simple story just once more,' he (my father) says, 'the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.' I say, 'Yes, why not? That's possible.' I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: 'There was a woman...' followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised, not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."
The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.