Chasing my demons

As this year’s NaNoWriMo is just around the corner (November 1), I find myself chasing my demons. I haven’t been reading. I haven’t been writing. I haven’t been painting or drawing. All I’ve been doing is working, studying Spanish, and walking. And listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. And I feel like something’s not right with the universe, and I can’t figure out what that is. But in a very surreal way, everything seems very superficial. It’s like a thin veil has been drawn over everything. Nothing is quite right. I’m starting to crave skyscrappers. I’m starting to eschew mountains. Who am I?

A couple of years ago, I bought Paulo Coelho’s book Veronika Decide Morir.  I tortured myself through the first chapter, defining every word as I went. And then I quit.

A couple of days ago, I picked up the book again and to my utter surprise, the Spanish words yielded to my gaze and  gave up their meanings. I could read the words and understand them—without a dictionary. I had gone from 10 percent comprehension to 90. And as I looked at the words, it seemed odd to me that at one time, I couldn’t understand them. Couldn’t I have divined their meanings?

Thank you DuoLingo.

During last year’s NaNoWriMo, I wrote about 33,000 words. I had a character in my head and he had to be written, but to my complete surprise another character came on the scene and took over the lead—quite without my permission. Who was this guy? What nerve! (I still don’t like him. There’s no clarity to him. What’s he doing in my head? Who is he?)

So I don’t know. I thought maybe I’d complete the book this November. Maybe get to the 50,000 word count. Some of the books I’ve most loved have been short: 1984, Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, The Compromise, Embers, Fight Club, The Zone, Fahrenheit 451. These books have compelling ideas but aren’t needy. They give you the meme and you take it forth and dwell on it, who knows, maybe forever, for the rest of your life.

I got some new information yesterday. It hit me like a ton of bricks. And I can’t figure out why. And that’s disturbing. Usually, I know my own mind. But this time, I feel stricken. The thin veil threatens to reveal us all as merely a hologram, and then what? What does any of it mean?

Maná: Ojala Pudiera Borrarte

WordWabbit:

Another catchy tune en español.

Originally posted on Olas de Palabras:

Ojala y te me borraras de mis sueños
Y poder desdibujarte
Ojala y pudiera ahogarte en un charco
Lleno de rosas y amor
Ojala y se me olvidara hasta tu nombre
Ahogarlo dentro del mar
Ojala y que tu sonrisa de verano
Se pudiera ya borrar

[Coro]
Vuelve corazón
Vuelve a mi lado
Vuelve corazón
No vuelve no vuelve no vuelve no

Ojala y te me borraras para siempre de mi vida
Para no volverte a ver
Ojala y te borraras por las noches en el día
Para no volverte a ver
Ojala y te me esfumaras de mis sueños, vida mía
Para no volverte a ver
No, ni en sueños

Como puedo yo borrar tus besos vida
Están tatuados en mi piel
Quiero de una vez por todas, ya largarte
Y borrarte de mi ser
Ojala y la lluvia me ahogue entre sus brazos
Para no pensar en ti

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Calle 13: La Perla

WordWabbit:

The lyrics are not exactly right, but close enough, for now.

Originally posted on Olas de Palabras:

Oye, esto va dedicado a todos los barrios de Puerto Rico. ¡Trujillo! Dedicado al barrio de la Perla.
¡Pocho! Dile a Johana que me haga un arroz con habichuela bien duro.
Un saludito a José, los cogemos bajando.
¯Y tú, qué estás mirando?
Yo tengo actitud desde los cinco años
Mi mae me la creó con tapabocas y regaños
Desde chiquito, canito, con el pelo castaño
Soy la oveja negra de todo el rebaño
Y fui creciendo poquito a poco
Brincando de techo en techo tumbado cocos
Y aunque casi me mato y casi me cocoto
Nunca me vieron llorando ni botando moco
Siempre perfumado y bien peinadito
Pa’ buscarme una novia con un apellido bonito
Larita, mi primer beso de amor
Se casó la bruja, lluvia con sol

[Coro:]
Allá abajo en el hueco en el boquete
Nacen flores por ramillete
Casitas de colores con la ventana abierta
Vecinas…

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Dan Carlin—A new find for me

I am an editor and proofreader by day, and that means that often when I get home, my eyes hurt. My eyes hurt so bad lately that even watching TV is painful. And, because I’ve already used up my eye doctor insurance for this year, I’m trying to wait until January to see about updating my prescription.

This is partially how I wandered upon Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast.

My grandmother always used to push history on me—and I resisted. I learned resistance early on. I attribute it to growing up in Central Texas with a bunch of Bible thumpers whose primary concern before getting to know me was encapsulated into one question: “Have you been saved?”

So now, when I sense that anyone is trying to push anything on me, I resist.

Anyway, lately I come home from work and shut my eyes and listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I started about a year ago with the story of Munster, a really long and horrific tale if there ever was one. This was the first time I realized just how tremendously awful humans can be to one another. And, that the little microshot I receive at work every day is miniscule in comparison.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Blueprint for Armageddon, which is the story of World War I, how it began, why, and then how the battles went. I found it hard to believe. I didn’t learn any of this in school. I didn’t quite believe Dan. Was he a crackpot? So I Googled the battle of Verdun. The photos are there, but hearing Carlin describe the scene makes it more real, makes you realize all of the contents of those photos.

Learning about the firebombings was also new for me. And again, I Googled, and I saw… the massive piles of bodies, civilians, in the streets, too many to cart off, so they just piled up.

You would think after World War I, no one would have wanted a sequel. You would think that everyone would have lost interest, in even getting out of bed, much less going off to fight. But we humans, I guess that’s a large part of who we are.

So, World War III, it’s what I grew up fearing. The Russians were sure to bomb us. And then I met some Russians, and I really liked them. They were very friendly, kind, warm, helpful, sincere, thoughtful, and intelligent. They were real. They had substance.

There’s something we all need to wake up to, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. But you can see it can’t you? It’s nothing I need to actually say.

Anyway, check out Dan Carlin. My grandmother was eight when WWI started. Oddly, you get the feeling that people were nicer back then. So if nice people could do that…

More thoughts on Dovlatov

It amazes me the courage it takes to call oneself a writer. To commit to it. Fully.

It’s a commitment to the mind—to thinking. To evaluating. To standing up to criticism, both from others and from yourself. It’s a commitment to ignoring that nagging little voice that tells you you’re not worthy, that this is all a waste of time.

I think about this today, prompted by seeing a picture of an old friend on the Internet. There she was, one of the two most interesting people from my long ago past. Wait, I thought, this woman looks familiar, but I don’t know her name. Hmm. Who is she? How am I linked up to her?

So I do something I don’t typically do. I clicked on her profile. I don’t do this because LinkedIn tattles on you if you do. “Hey, So-an-So, ol’ Word Wabbit here viewed your profile.” They make an issue out of idle curiosity.

Then I saw her maiden name. And then I knew—it was “Blondinka,” my friend who got drunk the night before we were supposed to leave Moscow—so drunk that I wound up dragging both her and her luggage out to the cab bound for the airport. Her other “friends” left her. (I learned a lot about friends on that trip.)

I was riff raff, I suppose, to Blondinka. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I wasn’t fluent in French by the time I was 19. My friends were not the daughters of Congressmen. I did not get to sit in a box seat at the Bolshoi Theatre. My Russian still sucks. German doesn’t move me and my Spanish, well I had given up completely on that until about five years ago.

About three years ago, I friended her on Facebook. We sent a couple of messages to each other.

My life is very different from hers.

She looks a little like a man now, with her beautiful blond hair cut short. She looks powerful. Like she has money. Like she knows French—really well.

She and Yuri, the other person who I found so interesting from back then, made it pretty big. They matched Dovlatov’s observation that some people are simply born to have money—and brains, I suppose. It’s just a natural way of being for them. While others are not.

Envious? Yes, and no. I mean wishing that I were like Blondinka or Yuri would be about as fruitful as wishing that I were a fish. An impossibility. Irrelevant. Wishing they were still in my life, well, that’s another thing. The answer to that question is: yes—I think so.

I’m more stubborn in my adulthood and no less idealistic. This is a difficult combination to deal with. My standards are higher than they used to be. I understand now how much of a pain-in-the-ass people can be when you let them get too close. Nice-looking people don’t get automatic entry into my life anymore. There has to be something to them, beyond money and looks. They have to understand things like my wanting to get to know an elephant, personally. They have to be able to walk away from corruption. They have to be able to shun some social commitments if there is a conflict between what they believe to be good and right and what is socially acceptable or expected.

I’m starting to live more of the monastic life now, the studying life. But I’m not brilliant and I see no results from this. Often, I dream of living the life of a nomad, the wandering life.

Look at her. Wow. Her face is hard and soft at the same time. This is what success looks like. Is she still kind? Is she still good?

There’s something more approachable in Dovlatov, the big, heavyweight, prison guard, Soviet emigre writer. He didn’t finish college. He never wrote in English. He observed life and lived life and remarked on life and joked about life. He struggled. He must have believed in himself. He wrote because he had a lot to say. The pain of life, I think, fed his artistic abilities.

I guess I live in the camp that believes that there is no art without pain. But how do you find time for both?

Well, best wishes to my old friends, ghosts now to me. Nevertheless, I hope you are both well and happy.

 

My interest in Cuba developed like this…

As a kid, I loved the rhythms of Cuban music.

One day, in Austin, Texas, a friend gave me a ticket to Austin City Limits.  Buena Vista Social Club was playing.

I heard Ibrahim Ferrer in person.

I bought the album.

I listened to it—a lot.

One day, as an adult I was bored and decided to take the Spanish class that was offered at work.

It uplifted my spirits. I had been very depressed, but the class offered a break from all that.

Searching for music in Spanish, I found Gloria Esteban’s: 90 Millas.

I love this CD! All of it.

I played this CD and learned some of the songs and translated some of the songs.

Spanish classes continued.

I bought a book of Cuban poetry. English/Spanish version.

Found a poem I really liked. Shared it.

Continued to study Spanish.

Joined DuoLingo.

Continued to study Spanish.

Guy at work told me that Cuba has a wonderful environment, not spoiled by corporate development.

Wondered at this statement.

Watched show on PBS about Cuba.

Was no longer tempted to go there.

Started listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.

Learned more about Cuba.

Was horrified by its history.

That’s where I am now.

Pushkin Hills

By Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov, Counterpoint Berkeley, @1983, translation@2013, 163 pages.

So it’s like this. I started reading this book a few months ago and it didn’t reach me. I wasn’t feeling it. I was about 50 pages in and not tremendously impressed. I wasn’t hearing Sergei’s voice in my head like the books that were translated by Anne Friedman, and I started to think maybe it was the new translator’s fault, Katherine, Sergei’s daughter. Maybe, well maybe, she just wasn’t capturing his voice. This depressed me. So I was already a little depressed, and this didn’t help—and my Russian, while it is good enough to get me food, shelter and a bus ticket, is not good enough to allow me to read Dovlatov in the original, though this is sort of an emerging goal.

Well, I was kind of giving myself a hard time about, well, was it Katherine’s translation, or maybe was it that I didn’t like Dovlatov as much as I thought? Was I possibly influenced by whomever it was who first gave me his name? Maybe my love of Dovlatov was a passing thing, you know, not real.

So I was just sitting around today, waiting for my rice to get done and not doing anything in particular but being stuck in the kitchen, and I picked up Pushkin Hills again. And there he was, Sergei, his voice, everything—and then he made me laugh—again and again and again. And I decided that I do really like him after all, and that Katherine did a fine job in translating him into English, and that it was just me. Just me being depressed and unreachable—before.

Lines like: “…I am simply horrified. You called Pushkin a crazed ape…”

and the story about Mitrofanov, p. 46, and what a complete genius he was and how he was completely lazy too. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of someone very close to me. “His tours were twice longer than the average. At times, tourists fainted from the strain.”

I also liked the story about Stasik Pototsky, the man who decided to become a writer of literary best sellers after reading 12. “A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.” And I started to think, hmmm, how far away is capitalism from communism?

Things changed when Pototsky left the provinces and went to Leningrad: “A complete absence of talent did not pay, while its presence made people nervous….What was forgiven in a provencial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.” Well, anyway, Stasik came to a bad end. And knowing Dovlatov’s difficulties getting published in the USSR, you get why.

But best of all was this: “The more I got to know Pushkin, the less I felt like talking about him.” This is said by a Dovlatov’s character, as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills. And you get the significance of this if you understand how revered Pushkin is. And that’s when I knew. Yes, I do really like Sergei, and I’ve missed him.

Chapter 1: Speak to us of Love

Taken from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Today, this seemed a fitting book to pick up. I read it first in high school as a Catholic high school student, even though I was not Catholic. A confused religious identity was one of the many gifts my mother left me. All the same, one of my favorite teachers of all time was Sister Annette, a woman who walked around with no makeup, unashamed and uninhibited, a student of the world. I enjoyed learning about the Old Testament from her. I was probably her most engaged student, having never heard the stories before. She recommended that I read The Prophet, and I found it to be a very wise book, though at the time I had no idea that its author was Catholic. I assumed from his name that he was Muslim. This made the book more alluring to me, and probably at least in part accounted for me reading the whole thing.

THEN said Almitra, Speak to us of Love,

And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them.

And with a great voice he said:

When love beckons you, follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.

He threshes you to make you naked.

He sifts you to free you from your husks.

He grinds you to whiteness.

He kneads you until you are pliant;

And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,

Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing floor,

Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”

And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.

But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.

To know the pain of too much tenderness.

To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;

To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;

To return home at eventide with gratitude;

And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

 

 

NaNoWriMo: My characters are calling

In an interview, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, said that there are all these stories wandering around up in the Ether that are just waiting to be written, and if you don’t write them, if you don’t act as a conduit to help them enter the world, they’ll find someone who will. Don’t let someone else write your story, she warns.

Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t “win.”  Well, that’s not exactly right. I didn’t “win” in the sense that I didn’t write 50,000  words. I wrote something like 33,00o, which was 33,000 more than I had ever written before. I considered it a win. My story was bizarre. It evolved rapidly. My main character was modeled loosely after someone who fascinated me. But then something odd happened. Another character emerged. One who hadn’t existed in my imagination before, and well, he demanded to be written. He wanted to exist. And then, he wanted to take over the whole bloody novel.

It was quite unsettling.

Maybe I’ve been rebelling. My novel’s not about you, I think to this character. I don’t even know who you are. Where did you come from? Why are you here? And now you want to take over everything?

Several months have gone by. Almost a full year. Things have happened. But now, scenes from my story are bubbling up in my consciousness. What happens next? What did I leave out? There seems to be new inspiration. A character wants to be written. Or developed. A nagging has begun. I haven’t looked at the story since November of last year, and now out of nowhere, it’s begun to call me back. There’s a depth of feeling that I must still have. Write us, they are clamoring. We want to live.

 

Fathers and Sons

By Ivan Turgenev, Modern Library New York, @ 1961 for the English translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney; first published in 1862, 281 pages.

I don’t know what it is, but if someone tells me to read a book or an author, I automatically resist. The more they rave, the more I resist. So way back when, I asked someone to make a list of must-read Russian authors, and Turgenev was on this list. So, some 20 years later, I am picking up Fathers and Sons.

Turgenev_Oxford

Ivan Turgenev

Or Fathers and “Children”—but maybe this is just me overly concerned with the correct translation—and accuracy. The topic is nihilism (am I a nihilist?) and this is what I should be concerned about. As explained in the novel, a nihilist is “a man who does not accede to authority, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how great the aura of respect which surrounds that principle”), but my mind is struck more with the situation the father is in. Nicholai Petrovich Kirsanov (aged 40 ish) has taken up with his servant girl (Theodosia or Feodosya or Phenechka aged 20 ish) and fathered a child. This sends my mind into a tailspin and derails me from any sophisticated discussion of nihilism to come.

The story begins on May 20, 1959 as Nicholai Petrovich awaits his son’s (Arcadii’s) return from Saint Petersburg as a university graduate. Arcadii has brought home a friend, Evgenii Vaselivich Bazarov, a medical student and a nihilist.

Since Bazarov isn’t too taken with Arcadii’s uncle Pavel, Arcadii explains his uncle’s early life and heartache. It’s a sad tale and told well by Turgenev—sad, because love hasn’t changed over time. Pavel is brokenhearted—I won’t rob you of the story, but Bazarov, our nihilist, remains unmoved:

“…I would say that a fellow who has staked his entire life on the card of woman’s love and who, when that card is trumped, goes all to pieces and sinks to such an extent that he’s not fit for anything—a fellow like that is no man, no male.”

I saw this in my mother (for my father), and it makes me sad to read it here. She would say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it love to have loved a phantom? One’s own illusion, someone with no more basis in reality than a character in a book?

I found Turgenev’s insight on aging interesting:

“Pavel…was…on the threshold of that troubled, twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes and of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has gone by while old age has not yet arrived.”

It’s a hot night as I write this. The television has been off. All the windows are open. A light cool breeze blows gently through. It’s summer here, like in the story. The crickets are chirping and once in a while a car goes by. It’s quiet as I read about Bazarov’s family. I feel I have met this family before. I have met his mother before. I wax nostalgic about this for a while. Tonight, after walking around town, appreciating the rolling hills and the setting sun, feeling the cooling of the night, I’m not so very sad. I wish for this lifestyle every night. This routine of coming home, eating dinner, studying Spanish, walking around town, and sitting down to read.

Authors love to torture their characters, so of course, Bazarov has to fall in love. He is quite wretched, probably more so because he thought he was immune to such things. It’s interesting for the reader to watch him squirm. We know that having love in his life would be good for him and we want to see him get it, but he’s in his own way. Oddly, he declares his love to the woman he cares for because he gets so worked up about it. She doesn’t respond, yeah or neah. And this given all of his pride and self conceit is difficult for him to take.

Turgenev captures youthful restlessness well. When Bazarov cuts his visit to his parents short, his father and mother are very sad. Children can’t help but mistreat their parents, without meaning to. And a long married couple who weathers the various storms of life ends up rather like this:

“It was then that Arina Vlassievna drew near to him [her husband] and, placing her gray head against his gray head, told him: ‘What can a body do, Vassya! A son is a slice cut off the loaf. He’s the same as a falcon: he felt like it, and he winged back to the nest; he felt like it, and he winged away. But you and I are like brown autumn mushrooms that grow on a hollow tree: stuck there side by side and never budging from our places. I alone will remain unchanged for you through all time, just as you will for me.”

This is a beautiful and apt way of putting marriage, I think.

[SPOILER ALERT]

But who is this guy Bazarov? Is Turgenev trying to tell us that he’s bizarre? And his first name, Evgenii (Eugene), a reference to Eugene Onegin, the bad boy of Russian literature? (Although for bad boys, I like Pucharin.)

But that’s just it. Bazarov isn’t bad. He’s just lost. And when he finally is lost, we feel sad. It was a waste, ridiculous, preventable, but a good thing for frogs, no doubt.

 

 

 

 

Meditation

Vacant meditation
an easy ritual from youth
lost to adulthood
now vaguely remembered
as dogs bark
a truck rattles down my street
joins the murmur on Speedway
and like ocean waves breaking
silence interrupts
the barking dogs
and thoughts of you.

Penguin Lost

062By Andrey Kurkov, Translated by George Bird, Melville International Crime, Melville House, Brooklyn, New York, @2002, 255 pages.

Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. The story begins with a betrayal and ends with redemption. Along the way, we journey from Kiev to Moscow and into Chechnya. I thought the last line was the best.

What I like so much about these penguin books, besides their bizarre nature, is that Kurkov has set up the scenario where there is interspecies friendship. I haven’t seen that done before, and I appreciate it. Misha, the penguin, is our protagonist’s (Victor’s) friend. But, Kurkov doesn’t make Misha cutsy or try to make him human. Misha remains a true penguin, with the heart of child, which still seems odd, but so be it.

It’s an interesting take on friendship, betrayal, and redemption, not exceptionally deep, but it does provide an interesting excursion elsewhere.

I would love to see these penguin books on the big screen. This morning I was thinking that I’d sure like to write that screenplay. I could see Victor as a Slavic James Bond with everything that might mean.

 

The He-Said-She-Said Of Dialogue Tags

WordWabbit:

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” she exclaimed extatically, wondering if she had spelled “ecstatically” correctly but then deciding not to worry about that. and to just reblog this relevant blog posting. Yes!

Originally posted on Lynette Noni:

dialogue-tags-1024x402

A few months ago I stumbled across a funny Tumblr post labelled ‘Dialog Tags of Doom’. I found it both entertaining and disheartening because it gives the opinion of a NYC book editor towards specific dialogue tags. I’ve copied the examples here and edited out the swearing, so if you choose to click on the link, just be aware that there is some offensive language in the original. Otherwise, here’s my PG-rated version:

~*~*~*~

“she whispered almost imperceptibly”: Good thing your protagonist has super-human powers of perception.

“she bubbled enthusiastically”: Redundant descriptors are redundant.

“he murmured”: Speak up!

“she whispered huskily”: What is she, a sled dog? Not sexy.

“he choked”: Ever hear someone choke? They can’t talk at the same time.

“he explicated”: Put down the thesaurus.

“she argued heatedly”: Show, don’t tell.

“she simpered”: Who actually simpers? It’s so 1970’s Idealized Movie Woman.

“he managed at last”: Over-used.

“he exploded”: CALL AN AMBULANCE.

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How to craft characters that resonate with an audience

WordWabbit:

Great post and lots of important points to remember and consider.

Originally posted on Craig Lumen:

Image

Whether you are writing a film or television script or a novel or even a play for the stage or radio, the need to create dynamic, challenging and complex characters is the same.

Every story is character-driven. Without characters, there are no stories.

We have already covered the basics for creating a compelling protagonist, which we defined by asking the following questions:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What do they want?
  • How badly do they want it?
  • How are they having difficulty achieving this goal?
  • Why do we care?

All your significant characters must change in some way or learn something, even if it is extremely subtle.

Each of them is there in your story to serve a specific purpose – make sure you work out what that purpose is. Once you know this, you can make sure you complete the character in satisfying fashion.

For example…

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NaPoWriMo (Day 20): Two souls

Two souls
lovers in a former life
find themselves
dissatisfied with each other’s clothes,
the skins they have chosen to wear
in this world, in this life…

The moment yet is undecided
once great lovers
now unsure,
it’s difficult to remember
from one life to another
what was it that put them together?

Sitting in a coffee shop,
uncommitted to a future together
uncommitted to a string of Christmas card correspondences,
uncommitted to a phone call next week,
figgeting,
shifting in their seats,
checking their watches,
then the clock on the wall,
picking at their pastries as if at
old and bitter wounds,
considering the questions.

Why hadn’t he waited for her?
Why had she wasted time on her makeup, her hair,
selected one skin, then worn another?
Why did nothing fit anymore?
Each hung up on what the other was
supposed to be.

Somehow they had found each other,
reconnected,
trespassed on the bridge between life and death
space and time
How could the depth of their love be as shallow
as the coffee in his cup?
Why couldn’t she have been slimmer?

Her eyes drift to the ring on his finger
watch as it refracts the light
tossing photons as if they didn’t matter,
his life, already formed, lived.

She searches his bespeckled eyes,
tries to pierce the glass, the tissue,
all the things organic and ephemeral
to see if who he was still is.

In this head-on moment,
the windows of the shop all shatter,
time slows down its rhythm,
every detail
hangs suspended.

Fallen Swan

Like an apple on toothpicks,
The elderly ballerina
Tiptoes across the yard

Finding the pond
She asks
The dark waters
For their old reflections

Like a duck
She submerges her head,
Draining away
The makeup
And the years

Emerging as swan
She swims the shadows
Echappe, pas ballonne, glissade

Remembering
Across the years
Across the algean floor,
Freeing dreams
Of Barishnikov.

Dreams can seem so real

I dreamed about you last night
Christina was there
But it wasn’t a dream about her
—Although I miss her too—
No, you were the star of this dream
As it should be
Me?
Well, I was there with someone else
A dandy in a nice vest
We were in some nightclub in New York City
You were holding a bag (Baggage?)
The dandy wanted to go off and dance
I let him
You approached me
With the bag
It was “designer”
Red, with a tan, square, embroidered patch in the lower corner
I complimented it
You recognized the wool sweater I was wearing
Also red
Decades old by now
—And I was still wearing it?—
Still not hip

(I’m still not hip)

I didn’t want you to leave
So I kept stalling
Saying anything
To keep you talking
You were talking

(I heard your voice)

But finally I had to leave
My back was killing me
I couldn’t stay
You came along with me
And slowly
We walked out together
Like we used to walk
—Slowly—
Into the light

(It was so nice to see you again)

NaPoWriMo Day 5 (Villanelle): Paris Witchcraft

Join me in Paris next Monday at nine
After dinner we’ll dance in the fountain
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

I hope you know French—I can’t read a line
Save me from ordering something not done
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine.

No reservations? I have some. Share mine.
Sergei will be with me sipping his rum
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

Your stern demeanor sends chills down my spine
Two ghosts for dinner are better than one
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine.

No matter—I’m thrilled you followed the signs
Let’s save some cake to eat in the fountain
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

Ghosts don’t eat cake, but the fountain is fine?
Avoiding dessert will save us a ton
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine
Let’s go for a swim—in vodka and rum.

NaPoWriMo Day 5 (Villanelle): Running for the Train

(see below for background on this poem)

I think I see you running for the train
The shock of recognition stops me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

Your form remains a blur in all this rain
I start to lift my hand and yet I’m still
I think I see you running for the train.

I see your happy eyes and I’m all pain
Sensations long forsaken prompt me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

You’re soaring with a girl down this wide lane
You’re thinner and your clothes are different, still
I think I see you running for the train.

I’m wrong, it isn’t you, my eyes complain
The need to know consumes me ’till I’m ill
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

It’s too late now, I know it’s all in vain,
I shut my eyes but see your image still
I think I see you running for the train
Our love’s been lost for years, so I remain.

***

I have only attempted a handful of poetry forms, but I really like the Villanelle. This is a poem I wrote many years ago as part of a poetry class. At that time, I was finding ideas everywhere. and I was commuting by train to and from work. One day, I thought I saw someone I hadn’t seen or talked to for years, but who had once been very important to me. The poem above is my reaction to that.

My professor shared with me that he had had a similar experience. He thought he had seen someone who he knew was dead, walking around. He shared with me how troubling and confusing this was. It was an interesting, if not morbid, idea. And I appreciated his interest in my poem. He then told me to make some changes. “The shock of recognition” is a theatrical term and is cliché. He advised me to take it out. But taking this phrase out caused a complete rewrite, caused things to shift around and changed the scene in my mind. I lost the original poem for years. Finally about two years ago, I was able to reconstruct it and I feel satisfied that this is the original version.

The experience with the rewrite taught me several things. It taught me about the delicacy of language and opened my eyes to how words affect and influence each other. It also taught me about artistic ownership. I didn’t want to make the change, but I let my professor convince me against my better judgement. That hurt the integrity of the poem and my integrity as an artist. For better of for worse the poem was mine and a true depiction of my feelings at the time—and a true depiction of that scene had been my goal—not publication. It was a personal release of emotion, which is what I think poetry should be.

Many years later, I came to suspect that I really had seen that fellow running for the train. My eyes had not deceived me, even though it had seemed completely impossible at the time.

It’s odd how a few silly lines can hold so much history. I maintain that language is miraculous and the skillful use of language is enormously powerful. Poetry trains this, even for “so-so” poets.

NaPoWriMo Day 4: Chocolate

String of chocolate candy wrappers
Genius
Long walks in the sunset
And at noon
A glass of wine in the evening
Even though I don’t like wine
—I said it—
Giving up on Death Valley
Who will teach the English?
Bucket lists galore
But where’s mine
Sad sacks
questioning me
telling me they’ve got my back
full of suspicions
And the Dovlatov fans
Who are they?
Is it you?
I can’t help it
I want to see where this goes
Even though
I’m sure it goes nowhere
Checklists
Plans
Step One: Pay off only credit card
Then there’s the house
And the car
There’s the film
If we can ever find the witch
Strange poems
for strange days
And if I could have tea with Dovlatov?
Now?
Games I play with myself.
Impossible dreams and then
Choices
—Of course—
There’s no question
But if there really was a choice
Dovlatov or Darcy?
A real case of Prejudice
And Pride
A real man, but dead
An ideal man, but fiction
For the first time
no lo sé
Against all logic
I decided to trust
Stuck my chin out
So now
I walk
and
wait.

NaPoWriMo Day 3 (Palindrome): It stopped with you

It stopped
amazingly
one day
when there was biology everywhere
Air became love
Alive again
Bees buzzing
Birds singing
Clouds flowing
Rain falling
finally there was
electricity with

—You—

With electricity finally
was there
Falling rain
Flowing clouds
Singing birds
Buzzing bees
Again alive
Beating hearts
Love became air
Everywhere biology was there when
Day One
Amazingly
stopped
it.

What does freedom mean to you?

Freedom means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s as simple as being able to decide what to do with your time. For others, it’s more complex such as being able to think and say what you want, to believe what you feel inclined to believe, to go where you want to go. After watching Adam Baker, I started wondering, what would our lives be like in the United States, or even across the world, if none of us had credit card debt? Or, no debt at all. What would we all do differently? What would we do the same?

War and Peace Book Review: Part II

By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.

I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.

The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.

Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.

Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:

“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”

Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????

Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.

Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.

A severe criticism of society:

“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.”

On the way some men talk to women:

“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”

On women who forget themselves:

“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”

The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:

“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”

First thoughts of Napoleon:

“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre

Makes you say, hmmm:

“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”

On marriage:

“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey

Social graces:

“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”

Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”

On Prince Andrey’s father:

“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”

The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:

“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.

“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”

On Crossing Lines:

“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”

Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.

On Fear in War:

“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”

Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.

Sharing a Bed with the Dog

Your warm body
rests partially on mine,
pushing me over,
opening a place for yourself on the bed.

I brace my hand
palm flat
against the floor.
Enslaved by your comfort, I
easily surrender
my territory
at three times your body weight.

I never worry about fire,
completely certain that you
will be one of those heroic dogs,
so well-practiced
are we
with wake-up drills
every morning at
4 a.m.

You begin with anxious signs
strategically exhaled
on my exposed ear.
I
bury my head,
hoping my pillow will protect me.
Growing impatient, you gingerly
astute to the laws of physics,
edge your regal snout
under my throat,
which yields.

Your head,
hard as a brick,
pushes under my neck,
then my sternum,
until suddenly,
I am upright.

Awake,
and amused by your ingenuity,
I get out of bed,
walk to the kitchen,
and get your breakfast.

Letters from Ukraine

Featured Image -- 2816

WordWabbit:

Here’s hoping that the situation in Ukraine will resolve peacefully.

Originally posted on Poetry International's Weblog:

Letters from Ukraine

This week, Russian troops invaded Crimea. Putin claims this invasion is an effort to protect the Russian-language population of the peninsula from Ukrainian nationalists.

I was born in the former USSR, and my home town, Odessa, is now a part of Ukraine. I came to the USA when I was sixteen, but kept in touch with family and friends in the region. However, rather than using this space for personal reflection, I want to include some communications I have had with Ukrainians, and particularly poets, in the region, to give voice to those whose world is in turmoil, and to give English speakers a better sense of current events.

— Ilya Kaminsky

First, an email from my cousin Piotr in Odessa:

“Our souls are worried, and we are frightened, but the city is safe. Once in a while some idiots rise up and announce that they are…

View original 2,406 more words

War and Peace: Book Review Part I

By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).

Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????

[Spoiler Alert]

It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.

If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.

The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:

  1. Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
  2. Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)

Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.

So let’s look at the two points again:

  1. Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
  2. Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)

Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.

“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”

“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”

If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.

It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.

In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.

I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.

Very interesting concepts, indeed.

Y: The Last Man: Book One

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By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and José Marzán, Jr., @ 2008, Vertigo, D.C. Comics, 246 pages.

I’m interested in learning more about the graphic novel scene, so a friend from work recommended (and loaned) Y: The Last Man: Book One to me.

The book opens as some weird virus has wiped out every animal on Earth that has a Y chromosome, except for a young man named Yorick and his pet monkey. My coworker laughs and says: this is every man’s fantasy, right? But it turns out to be nightmare.

I had to laugh. I could totally see that coming.

Stephen King calls Y the best graphic novel he has ever read. I thought it was pretty darn special too. After reading it for a couple of hours, I started to see everything in graphic novel style. I loved the art and the story kept me entertained. Now I want to read more, and try my hand at drawing a few scenes.

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The treason of the artist

I was trying to think of something to post today, and I saw that someone had searched and found my blog using this question: What does “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” mean?

This quote is from the short story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question. Alternatively, whoever asked the question might try contacting Ursula. Who knows, she might answer you. Some authors are quite friendly and happy to expound on the topics that interest them. But, sometimes I find questions in stories to be opportunities to do a little soul searching, a little probing to see what I can make of their significance.  So here is my take.

The quote that I put on my blog was this:

“They [the citizens of Omelas] were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Le Guin is contrasting the citizens of Omelas with us—the world she has created (a utopian world where everyone is happy) and the real world (where there is much hardship and pain).

The quote goes on to say:

“If you can’t lick ‘em join ‘em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy…”

To me, Ursula is saying that the treason of the artist is that artists regard evil as supremely interesting. Artists value pain and despair. These things drive creativity behind art; they are at its core. Artists don’t recognize the commonplace or ordinary nature of evil. Artists see evil as unique, worth writing about, worth centering stories around, worth painting and showing off. Evil fuels the news. We fight evil in our games. In a way, all this attention to evil elevates evil as though it were extraordinary, as though it were unique, as though it could be categorized as new and different.

But, argues Ursula, there is nothing new about evil, or pain. They are quite ordinary to our world and to our condition in the world. The treason of the artist, therefore, is to refuse to see evil this way. Artists idolize our world. Artists see the world as a place that should not have evil and pain, and therefore they continue their treason, that of regarding evil and pain as interesting above happiness, as extraordinary, as something worth examining in every creation. Evil and pain are the points of interest. Our resistance to them, how and why we resist, consumes our imagination as we obsessively and compulsively ruminate over these fundamental elements of our existence.

As for the terrible boredom of pain, I struggle with this idea. When someone is in pain, their pain fascinates them. Nothing else can absorb their interest. If someone, as in Ursula’s story, was condemned to a life of pain, I suppose there could be a terrible boredom in that. Would there come a horrible point when the pain became boring? And would that point result only from a hideous pain and psychological struggle hard for us to even imagine? I don’t know.

In the end, I think Ursula is saying that artists betray our trust. They commit “treason” against us by continuing to demonstrate that evil is unique/extraordinary and that pain is interesting.

But are artists by nature of our world and the very nature of our existence condemned to be treasonous? Writing exists (art) only when there is conflict. Art arises out of resistance to conflict. We regard our world as “creation.” Could “creation” exist without conflict? Is it even possible to have a world, “creation,” without pain?

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula has tried to not commit this treason; she has tried to create art, a utopian world, where pain is unique and not banal, not commonplace. This becomes a horrible world where everyone is in on inflicting the pain so that they don’t have to personally experience it. If there were such a world, asks Ursula, would you want to be part of it? Would you want to live in a world where evil is not unique because wouldn’t that mean that if you yourself did not experience the pain of evil, wouldn’t you then be the one who inflicts the evil? To not rescue someone in pain makes you a party to inflicting the pain.

Ursula also tell us that the victim of this pain and evil can never be truly rescued, can never be healed, can never recover. They are permanently damaged by all this pain and degradation beyond all repair. There is nothing you can do to help them. Even if they were released from their bondage, they are forever imprisoned psychologically. You can’t fix this.

And so, some people, a limited few, upon realizing their powerlessness to affect change in Omelas refuse to be a part of that society and they walk away. They leave a world where their happiness is ensured and enter a dark world where they will know suffering and despair. They chose to take on their part of the burden of the world’s suffering.

So in the end, do artists commit treason? Are artists by the very nature of the creation we all live in compelled to commit treason? Is it possible to create an interesting story without evil or pain?