Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Poet Mark Halliday

Mark Halliday seemed a little discombobulated at the first question. Professor Flanzbaum asked Halliday to compare his work to Keats. Her class had studied Keats's "Ode to Autumn." "How is it," she asked, "that two such disparate works can be grouped under the umbrella of poetry? What do you think the older poets, like Keats and Frost, would think of modern poetry, with its lack of regular meter, and lack of elaborate metaphor?"

I must admit it was fun to see the Q&A begin with a provocative question, one that put Halliday on the spot. And the beauty of this meaty question was that, for a poetry ignoramus like me, it drove Halliday to speak about poetry at its foundations. It didn't take long for Halliday to rise to the moment. After stumbling, for just a minute, he began to speak about poetry in general and, more specifically, his own work. He tried one answer then came at it from a slightly different angle. As he continued I could feel his passion for poetry, could hear it in each sentence. As Halliday got closer to what he wanted to say his language sharpened, and I began to feel, for the first time really, that I was approaching the first glimmers of understanding about this literary form.

Halliday explained that both older and modern poetry arise from a desire to take the torturous parts of the human experience and make sense of them -- all at one time. Poetry, he said, is a crystallized, focused, small, condensed and adequate response to the problem of life. One of the motivations behind poetry is to preserve a facet of life. Poetry reflects a hunger for the experience of seeing an individual come to terms with one of life's issues and reach a sense of fulfillment. He went on the say that poetry puts a magnifying glass on one person, in one place, at one specific time, as he or she gets a grip on that experience.

Halliday explained that poetry's scope is different than the novel's, which shows a passage of time. Fiction deals with plot, and how experience develops, showing itself in actions that occur over time, whereas poets have an obsession with the moment. Poets are obsessed with personal experience, whereas fiction writers have a curiosity about others. He quoted William Carlos Williams, who wrote that "People die every day for what is lacking in poetry." Halliday said that while he is drawn to voice-driven, conversational, discursive, explanatory poetry, other poets can speak to a different clutch of aesthetics.

I asked Halliday if he could share a pivotal moment from his earlier days, one of reading a poem that inspired him towards his life's work. He gave the example of the poem, "Fresh Air," by Kenneth Koch. Koch rose from a New York school of poets in the early '50s who were rebellious to academic approaches to poetry. The poem's irreverence struck Halliday, and stayed with him for years, circling back to him later in his life after reading the poet Frank O'Hara.

I wanted to share my favorite poem from Halliday's "Tasker Street," "The Zoo's Librarian," but couldn't find it online. Meanwhile, here's a link to the poem that inspired the poet, Koch's "Fresh Air."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Open, by Andre Agassi

Okay. Let me admit this right up. 1) I'm not a sports fan. 2) I listened to an abridged audiobook version of "Open." Despite that a lot of friends recommended "Open," there was no way I was going to commit to reading a 400-page sports memoir. So my comments here won't reflect as if I've "read" the whole book (technically, I guess I haven't read any of it.)
Whether or not you're a sports fan, though, it turns out "Open" is a compelling read. For the most part, Agassi digs deep, telling us how his tennis-obsessed father pushed him into a sport he quickly came to loathe. He comes clean about his drug use, his rebellious nature and failed marriage to Brooke Shields.
I had a few minor beefs with "Open," though. One is that I wanted to know how Agassi's father came to be such a driven, tennis-obsessed parent. I realize this complaint may not be fair, though, as Agassi may have addressed this in the unabridged version. My other complaint, though, is not one of omission, but of a bit of information Agassi chose to include that I considered petty. Agassi writes that Sampras once gave a valet outside a restaurant a one-dollar tip, with instructions to split it among his colleagues. (And this, according to Agassi, was not a response to bad service, but simply a manifestation of Sampras's cheap nature.) I have no idea if this story holds water but, to be honest, I doubt it. It strains credibility. It just doesn't make any sense. Why would Sampras, flush with prize money AND, knowing that eyes are on him at all times, do something that would cast him in such an unfavorable light? And, speaking of cheap, even if the story is true, isn't it a really cheap shot for Agassi to tell us this? Agassi works so hard at truth-telling through the rest of "Open" -- why would he narc on one of his rivals and risk undermining his readers' trust? Earlier in the book Agassi wrote of Sampras with admiration and affection, so I was perplexed that he included this spurious vignette. Still, these are small issues in an otherwise compelling memoir.
Overall "Open" was an eye-opening look into Agassi's life and the world of marquee tennis stars.
Happy Reading!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

George Saunders, Part Two

All the writers that come to Butler share their thoughts on the craft, but the ones who do so by opening up and sharing of themselves are the ones who remain with us. George Saunders was one of those authors.

Here are some of his comments from the Q & A sessions from his visit. Saunders was asked about his background in geophysics and how this informs his writing. He answered that back when he first worked in the oil fields of Sumatra he read Ayn Rand and saw himself as a right-winger. But, as time went on, working in far-flung parts of the world served to open his eyes and reform his politics, and, naturally, this informs his fiction. About writing in general he commented that all our minds are similar, and that anything that manifests in the world has a presence in each of us.

Saunders said that at one point in his life his worst fear came true: he had an office job. At that time he thought that in order to find stories he had to be in an exotic locale, but he soon realized that his boring office job was a blessing in disguise -- it showed him that stories were all around him, wherever he was.

Saunders reported that after the birth of his second child he found himself able to allow humor into his work, and that bits of wisdom manifested as he wrote freely. He sought to emulate the clean, spare sentences of Barry Hannah and Raymond Carver, and convey his ideas using as few words as possible, even if the sentences lost some of their elegance.

When asked what advice he would give aspiring writers he emphasized revision. He said any given piece of writing has infinite doors, and that a writer should live with a story a long time before sending it out. In this way, if the piece is rejected, at least the author can feel (s)he sent out his/her best work. Saunders revises obsessively, and he sees this same trait among other writers who succeed in publishing their work. Many pieces, he suggested, would improve if only the author let them sit awhile and then revisited them at a later date. Saunders emphasized how vital it is not to short-shrift revision.

I asked Saunders about his recent move into the realm of nonfiction with "The Brain-Dead Megaphone," a collection of essays. He replied that he sees himself primarily as a fiction writer, that he's better at short stories than big ideas (I'm not sure I agree with him on this point.) He said his essay, The New Mecca, was written as an assignment for GQ, He joked that his daughter claimed he never did anything cool, so he accepted the job, and was sent to four-star hotels in Dubai. He feels his nonfiction work allowed him to more fully describe the physical world in which his writing took place. When I asked Saunders if the book's title essay most conveyed his essence, Saunders said yes, although he added that he thought the piece was preachier than he would have liked.

I smile when I think about how his face brightened when he did an impersonation, as if morphing into a playful 15-year-old. Mr. Saunders, you were open-hearted and generous. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

George Saunders

I half-expected George Saunders to look like a sunken-faced crystal-meth addict. I mean, what kinds of person dreams up stories like these? Even as a crazed teenager, high in high school in the Haight-Ashbury, my hallucinations weren't nearly as vivid and outrageous as Saunders' stories.

But Saunders showed no hint of being a strung-out, crazy person. He was an affable, congenial man with an open heart, who gladly answered questions about his work and shared his thoughts on writing.

Not only did I have the privilege of joining Saunders and a group of other writers for dinner before his reading, but I also got to introduce him at his reading. For a writing geek like me it doesn't get much better than that.

I want to fill you in on everything I learned from Saunders, but it's late and I've got to turn in. When I'm rested and fresh I'll dish more, but for now I'll leave you with my introduction speech, which just hints at the genius of George Saunders.

My first taste of George Saunders' writing was in “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,” his children's book. Here, parasites take the center stage. They come in the shape of bright, orange balls known as Gappers, that crawl from the shore and attach themselves to the village's goats, rendering the goats incapable of producing milk. One day the Gappers begin to attach to the goats of one girl, Capable, while leaving the neighbors' goats alone. Now Capable can't manage by herself. She asks for help. Unfortunately, her neighbors hadn't yet heard the phrase 'it takes a village.” Not only do they refuse to help Capable, but they take their new Gapper-less status as a sign they are better than Capable. Here's a quote from the book:"Not that we're saying we're better than you, necessarily, it's just that, since gappers are bad, and since you and you alone now have them, it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us." “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip” is a fable that's entertaining, thought-provoking, and lesson-teaching. It opens a window for readers of all ages to look at the issues of justice, class, and dignity.

My next Saunders pick was “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a collection of short stories and a novella in which many of the same themes thread. Sad-sack characters struggle to find safety and happiness in the alternate versions of a dystopic America. Saunders puts his characters in outrageous setups that force them to commit savage and heroic acts just to survive. Saunders characters are so compellingly flawed, so tender, and so human that I was riveted. One character, for instance, is a 400-pound man who becomes the head honcho at Humane Raccoon Alternatives – a business that purports to rid its clients of pesky racoons without inflicting suffering or bloodshed on the animals. In fact, no surprise here, we're in a Saunders' book, their methods involve nothing but suffering and bloodshed. Another character, this time from Saunders' novella, Bounty, has been branded a Flawed, and that's flawed with a capital F. He's a sympathetic, loving brother who tries to reunite with his sister. He fights the shame he feels as a result of his deformity, hideously clawed feet. How could anyone not fall in love with characters like these? Just as in real life, Saunder's characters straddle the fence – they have facets that are both beautiful and revolting. They always have an altruistic side, but sometimes, when they're pushed over the edge, they just might murder their bosses. Their struggle is the human struggle – that of believing they are valuable despite the outside messages that tell them otherwise. Saunders' stories take place in alternate realities that serve to highlight the absurdities of the world we live in today. But no matter where he sets his stories, Saunders' exuberant, wacky voice comes through loud and clear. Saunders' most recent offering is a departure from the rest – a collection of essays that still manages to capture the clear-thinking, bullshit-exposing voice of whimsy and vitality that gives his fiction its bite.

Hasta Manana,


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Michael Dahlie, and "The Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living"

Last night Butler hosted its first author of 2011, Michael Dahlie. Dahlie, a PEN/Hemingway and Whiting Award winner, is Butler's first Booth Tarkington Writer-in-Residence, has published short fiction in prestigious literary journals such as The Kenyon Review, and has written several young adult novels.

Last night's reading was unique. Although I've attended most of the author lectures at Butler over the past year or two, this was the first time I've ever had occasion to meet the author beforehand. Dahlie was my teacher last semester, in a prose workshop. I could recall times in class when Michael, (am I showing off by casually calling him by his first name?), touched upon certain parts of his novel in making a point about a student's writing, so I approached his reading last night with curiosity, wondering what might lie behind those brief remarks.

One of the parts of "The Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living" Dahlie read from last night was the section that recounted Arthur Camden's childhood. The restaurant scene in which boy-Arthur insists on ordering Lobster Newburg only to realize that, despite its disgusting appearance, he would have to eat it in order to save face, was so poignant and vivid I couldn't help but recall a time from my own childhood when my brother found himself trapped in the same unfortunate circumstance.

In the Q & A portion of the evening I asked Michael if the plot of "The Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living" came to him in bits and pieces as he wrote the story, or if it came to him as a whole, even before he began writing it. He answered that the seed of the book was the first section, or quarter, in which Arthur accidentally burns down his fishing lodge. He originally wrote this as a short story, (which he claimed was unpublishable), and then decided to take the story further by adding three additional sections.

Dahlie was asked how he felt about the protagonist, Arthur Camden. (There was a buzz, both in the audience last night and in the Visiting Writers class I'm now taking, that Arthur's character is, for some readers, a challenge to embrace. Arthur tries to do the right thing but is ineffectual, and those around him use him as a punching bag.) It was clear Dahlie has a lot of affection for this character, and he explained that Arthur's struggles and missteps were a reflection of his own struggles as an adolescent. When Michael was twelve his family moved from London to New Jersey. That first year in America, trying to bridge the culture gap, proved to be a challenge. It was from that experience of eating lunch by himself everyday, from that geeky feeling of otherness, that Arthur emerged. Dahlie described Arthur as "an agent of his own misery," although in the end Arthur shows his essential goodness by nobly taking the higher road and not exacting revenge on those who have shunned him.

There was some discussion about the novel's title. Dahlie remarked that many books are published only to fade into obscurity, and that this catchy title was chosen in an attempt to bypass that potential pitfall. Even so, he said he has remorse about this title because it is somewhat misleading.

One of the English professors in the audience asked whether or not the book was a statement about class and politics, as the world Arthur and his cohorts inhabit is one wealth and privilege. Dahlie remarked that, because of the book, people often assume he is of that world, but that's not the case. Still, despite this, Dahlie pointed out that no one goes through life problem free, regardless of his or her socioeconomic status. Just because someone comes from a privileged background doesn't mean his or her life's challenges aren't interesting.

There's a thick layer of ice covering the streets today. School is cancelled. I had hoped to ask Michael more questions as he was due to come to my Visiting Writers class today. Let's hope for a thaw so I can post Part Two of Michael Dahlie.