03 February
Events Around Los Angeles,MPW Events,Nonfiction Recommendations,Poetry Recommendations

Visiting Writer: Nick Flynn 1/25/2013

On January 25, poet and memoirist Nick Flynn visited the Master of Professional Writing Program to give a workshop open to students in all genres.  That evening, he also appeared at the  ALOUD series of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles at Los Angeles Central Library, where he read from his new memoir, The Reenactments.

The Reenactments , Nick’s third memoir, adds a new layer of experience to his first, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.   Nick watches–in the opening lines of the book, he is staring into a camera monitor–as director Paul Weitz and his cast and crew film a movie, Being Flynn, based on his first memoir of reconnecting with his father, Jonathan, when he appears as a client of the homeless shelter where Nick works.   

Nick shared with MPW students some of his ideas about writing poetry and prose, working in multiple genres, and having more than one project underway at a time–”I always have something to feel guilty about,” he joked.

A podcast of Nick’s reading and conversation with Elvis Mitchell will soon be available on the ALOUD site.

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14 November
Literary Potpourri

What we feel most…

Jack Gilbert

On the big bulletin board to the left of my desk:

Assorted postcards (most strikingly featured: a manatee, a hummingbird, a fishing spot on the Cape Cod Bay)
A list of 50 literary magazines that pay
Another of phone numbers for my office-mates
A luggage tag from American Airlines
A couple of yellowing cartoons from The New Yorker
An ancient photo of my niece and nephew
A Groupon for a month of unlimited classes from a local Yoga Studio
Several quotes, lifted from periodicals and programs, to comfort and inspire (Emerson, Thoreau, Helen Frankenthaler, Whitney Balliet, and Margo Jefferson)

And poems—
poems peeking out from behind poems—
poems I had to have in my sightlines because they got to the bottom of how I think and feel; because they expressed exactly-but-exactly what I hadn’t known I thought or felt, better than I’d ever be able to say it myself—

poems from Yeats, Ponsot, Ryan, Rector, Haas, Gerstler, and Laux, to name only a few—

poems about living, and poems about writing—

“Memoir” by Vijay Seshadri—
And “The New Song,” by W. S. Merwin—
and “The Problem of Sentences,” by Linda Gregg—

and here’s Czeslaw Milosz, the last stanza of “Ars Poetica”:

What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
As poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
Under unbearable duress and only with the hope
That good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

And from Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegy #9:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
Bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most, column tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing…

And today I’m adding a poem to the board (thanks to Dinty Moore, who posted it online this morning). I’m typing it out to feel the words in my fingers, pinning it smack in the middle of everything, to remind me how important it is to get it right, and how impossible, and how that’s the reason we keep trying, isn’t it?

Here, from Jack Gilbert, who died yesterday, who left us his poems, this one among them:


How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

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06 October
The Writing Life

Where I’m Writing From:

...the view from the bed...

The bed. The California king. In the master bedroom (not grand, but cozy, in the far bottom corner of the house). There’s nothing unseemly about the location; it just happens to be where I work these days—having to do with various developments: like, last winter I slipped on the ice in Vermont and broke my coccyx; like, my desk chair, which I’ve replaced with one of those enormous exercise balls, was lousy to begin with: but who can actually sit on a ball for any length of time (without bouncing—and bouncing isn’t actually conducive to reading or writing or thinking, not for me anyway); like, my college graduate has come home to L.A., so I can’t hole up in her room anymore. Long and short: if I were to open a fortune cookie? If it were to read, “You will finish an essay tomorrow”? Without affect, all joking aside, I’d be able to add in bed. Moreover, it turns out, though my husband is skeptical, this is as fine a place as any to get the job done. (Why is he skeptical? He’s afraid the work will interfere with my sleep, infect my dreams—and if only that were true; that’d be as good a reason as any to work here, right?) On the bed, I can spread out my papers every which way; if my feet get cold, my sock drawer is closeby; it’s quiet down here, and not dark exactly—more like a tree-house than a cave, thanks to the Chinese Elm that grows just outside the sliding glass doors—and the atmosphere, remote and isolated, promotes writerly/readerly immersion. Plus my office—my actual office—is just on the other side of the wall, if I happen to need a file or a book or an extra pencil.

But does it matter where we work? I think it must. It matters to me anyway, especially (though you might suppose it’d be the other way around) once I’m in the throes of whatever it is. This is not to say that whole paragraphs haven’t rushed me in Trader Joe’s, in line at the ATM, even at stoplights (the car is very good place to work, just ask Susan Straight, who’s written nine beautiful books, parked and waiting to pick up her daughters from here and there); goes without saying, of course, we should always carry a notebook, or, if we’re as put together (as dapper!) as New Yorker reporter Gay Talese, we might consider cutting cardboard into pieces to fit the interior breast pockets of our blazers. See and this is the sort of inside information that delights and inspires, right? Why didn’t I think to ask Aimee Bender, who read and spoke about writing to MPW students in Doheny library last Monday night, where exactly she spends that allotted two hours a day: would she be able to write those perfect stories just anywhere, or does she—like Virginia Woolf and me—need a room of her own?

“Houses, rooms, our designs of all sorts and all material things will eventually vanish,” wrote Mark Helprin earlier this week in an essay in The New York Times, celebrating not just his own work space, but the value of serendipity in a writer’s life. And last August Dani Shapiro blogged about “creating a narrative out of puzzle pieces…I have a feeling,” she went on to say, “that those of us who spend our days alone in our rooms working out stories on the page and in our heads obsess about the question of pattern and randomness.” Perhaps it’s because our work is mysterious and confounding in that way, that so many of us need the illusion, at least, of a safe, familiar reality, however impermanent it might turn out to be. And we have to believe, don’t we, that if we show up there with some regularity, we’re more likely to benefit from some wonderful ‘accident.’ Gay Talese says his “bunker,” his “subterranean think tank,” is where he can work “without any distractions.” Give yourself a treat and let him take you on a tour. And for more on where writers live and work, visit A. N. Devers’ wonderful site: http://writershouses.com/.

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30 August
Fiction Recommendations,Nonfiction Recommendations,Poetry Recommendations

The Books of Summer

Young Woman Reading—Gustav Courbert

Elvis Costello sings:

The sun struggles up another beautiful day
And I felt glad in my own suspicious way
Despite the contradiction and confusion
Felt tragic without reason
There’s malice and there’s magic in every season

Speaking of which, tell me it isn’t strange to be back to school, where oh where did the summer go? Still there are perks—and among them, it’s time for our bi-annual readers’ round-up, a list of recommendations from MPW faculty and staff—the best of what we read this summer—in the order in which they came in:

First up, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, “published about ten years ago,” says Gina Nahai, “it’s a great study of Voice. Four characters, all women, tell the story. They range in age from five to 40-something and each one is distinct and authentic and fascinating.”

Michael Price writes: “It’s been an all Robert Caro all the time summer for me; I listened to The Power Broker on audio and have plunged in to The Path To Power, the first volume of Caro’s biography of LBJ.”

From Brighde Mullins: “I’ve been reading Mary Gaitskill. I recommend reading her novel Veronica in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others—they are both explorations of the potential of others’ suffering to serve (merely) as schadenfreude. These are different approaches to the same ethical dilemma. Gaitskill writes like an angel-who-has-seen-it-all, Sontag’s clarity and wit are sublime.”

Howard Ho says, “I seem to have had a Chinese-American themed summer. I read David Henry Hwang’s hilarious new play Chinglish, which is notable for its very theatrical use of supertitle translations of spoken Mandarin Chinese that gets lost in translation. And MPW faculty member M.G. Lord let me borrow her copy of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (by Yunte Huang). Nominated for a Pen USA Literary Award, the book traces the Charlie Chan legacy from its roots in the real-life Chang Apana, a Hawaiian cowboy turned police detective, to his later fictional incarnation by novelist Earl Derr Biggers to the string of movies that were popular from the 1920s to 1940s. It’s a very quick read and engagingly touches upon many of the interesting historical landmarks which make Charlie Chan an enduring figure in American culture.”

And from Syd Field: “I hadn’t read James Lee Burke for a while so when Creole Bell was released I decided to read it. Amazing! The soul of a poet with razor sharp characters amid the smell and taste of of New Orleans.”

Amy Gerstler writes to say that she read “a lovely, sad and lyrically political epistolary novel by John Berger called From A to X.”

Kenny Turan recommends “the new novel by Norway’s Karin Fossum, The Caller. For my money, she is the best stylist of all current Scandinavian mystery writers, and the most chilling.”

And Tim Kirkman offers up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Although he, too, casts a vote for Robert Caro: “I’m working on a screenplay about a few weeks during the Johnson administration, so The Passage of Power has been an invaluable resource. It’s also a highly entertaining, informative and mammoth book. I’m still reading it!”

From Johanna Blakley: “I’m just finishing up Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It’s an oddly menacing story (not unlike Bolaño’s brilliant 2066) about a rag-tag bunch of Mexican and South American poets who are searching for God knows what: meaning? friendship? political truth? hot sex? I can safely say I still don’t get it. But I can’t stop reading it.”

Gabrielle Pina writes that “Red River by Lalita Tademy is a haunting and heartbreaking family saga about love, honor, and a devastating event that took place in Louisiana during the pre-reconstruction period of our painful history.”

And Cort Brinkerhoff says “the thing I read this summer that still haunts me is Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a deceptively simple play about ghost stories and the specters that linger in all our lives.”

From Sandra Tsing Loh: “This will NOT be a news flash, but nor do I turn away from work that is great and literarily definitive of its moment. What I loved about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is that it is a big male adventure book that’s wonderfully Melvillian, with more than a nod to James Michener (his Hawaii being a secret pleasure of many of us). As at times the zeitgeist of female fiction tends toward an anorectic, plotless East Coast preciousness (and God bless The New Yorker), the book’s massive success is wonderful news for Girl Writers of the West (never mind that some of us are 50!).

M.G. Lord writes, “Last summer I became atypically excited about new fiction. Two remarkable galleys arrived in my mailbox: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer and May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. Kramer (who is better known for writing “Thirtysomething” and adapting Maupin’s Tales of the City as a miniseries) has written an extraordinarily beautiful novel about a very 21st Century Manhattan family. Each character tells his or her own story, culminating in a tender, climactic exchange between a teenage boy and his father’s male lover. The book made me think of Salinger (except that Kramer’s vision is less dark) and, although it could not be more different in form, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. To ensure that my momentary optimism was tempered with despair, I next read A.M. Homes’ novel, expecting to pick it up for a few hours one Friday morning but being so riveted that I could not put it down until Saturday night. The book may be her bleakest…and her best. Both novels will be published in November.”

Dana Goodyear says, “I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s first book of poems, Interior with Sudden Joy, as a young editorial assistant, living in New York and wanting to write. It was a performance—arresting, stylish, witchy, and stone-cold frank—I couldn’t look away from. Twelve years later, she still has my attention. This summer I wrote to her publisher and asked for an advance copy of Our Andromeda, her third collection, which comes out in the fall. The poems are longer, more narrative, and tack closer to life, but the voice is the same: glinting, dark, tender, unafraid.”

And from Prince Gomolvilas: “Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a devastating portrait of a family forced to confront secrets and lies that most everyone—except for the memoir-writing daughter—wants to sweep under the rug. And David Henry Hwang’s refreshingly funny Chinglish addresses the very contemporary issues of business and transnationalism while wrapping them in classic themes like East vs. West, the perils of language, and the myriad ways in which we all (mis)communicate. What’s more, both plays will be having their Southern California premieres during the 2012-2013 theatre season—Other Desert Cities at the Mark Taper Forum and Chinglish at South Coast Repertory.”

(Hwang and Caro taking the lead…)

Judith Freeman writes: “I read, for the first time this summer, Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West—simply one of the best adventure stories ever told. And who knew that Lewis & Clark even had a dog with them, the remarkable Seaman, a Newfoundland, who made the entire trip, and was to Lewis such an important companion.”

And Bernard Cooper says, “I was under the false impression that Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was as charming as the movie starring Maggie Smith. I didn’t realize it was bleak and devastating, too; Spark foretells the deaths of each of Miss Brodie’s students just as the novel begins, so that the shadow of mortality hangs over every classroom scene and innocent blunder, deepening the story in stunning and unpredictable ways.”

Janet Fitch notes that she reviews everything she likes on Good Reads. “The book that really made it for me over the summer was Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences. Gorky was an keen observer with prodigious recall,” she writes, and then quotes from her review: “Gorky remembers so much that it seems he has looked at the world with eight or more eyes, evenly spaced around his head,” said the critic Viktor Shklovsky. He was largely self-taught, a proletarian writer who read enormously and remembered everything he read. His great, subtle and complex understanding of human beings, is reflected in his essays in this book, especially the ones on Tolstoy and on Chekhov–the best ever written on those two men, as men–and illustrates how their writing was in perfect keeping with their natures. His description of Tolstoy is a thing of beauty, his understanding of the heroic conflicts within the man, the techtonic plates of his inner contradictions that resulted in such great literature… and his portrait of Chekhov makes us love him as Gorky loved him. A treasure.”

She also recommends Brendan Constantine’s new book of poetry. Again, from Good Reads: “Poetry is the art of grabbing a fleeting moment of human truth and pinning it to the page in a perfect phrase, alive, iridescence intact. To compress broad experience into a crystalline memento, to pull the curtain aside on reality taking a shower–just a moment’s glimpse of its beauty and sorrow and perfection. Poem after poem, Brendan Constantine does just that in Calamity Joe.”

From Mark Richard: “Across Atlantic Ice (Authors, Stanford and Bradley)—a fascinating book using archeological studies, DNA testing, and paleoclimatic research suggesting some hardy ancient Solutrean peoples (from what is now Spain-France) came to the Americas 20,000 years ago in large ocean-going canoes under leather sails, possibly the forefathers of Clovis man. And after reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s (yes! yes! a former student!) excellent essay in the New York Times Book Review in June, I re-read Absalom! Absalom! (Faulkner) a book that simultaneously affirms and explodes everything I tell my students in our fiction workshop.”

As for me: I read Penelope Lively’s Passing On, in which she reveals the extraordinary inner lives of apparently ordinary people—examines the choices we make, the ones we don’t, and the courage it takes to live with them either way. And I could not put down Alice Mattison’s When We Argued All Night, an account of a friendship that lasts some 70 years, vivid, and true, and deep, and joyful, and sad. Like life, huh.

And what about you? What did you read last summer, tell us, please do…

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02 August
New Media,Writing Nonfiction

Show and Tell…

Joe Bonomo's Beatle Girl

A week or so ago I stumbled onto TriQuarterly Online, and into a trove of “video essays”—and I was intrigued: What could this mean, what might this be? I looked and listened to a few: Joe Bonomo’s beautiful  “Beatle Girl, Where Have You Gone?” ; Angela Mears’ astonishing  “You Are Here”; Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s  “The Lightning”—lyric and mysterious; and Dinty Moore’s compelling  History, which breaks the rules to mirror the writing process itself, the metaphor discovered and revealed in a kind of collage, whereas the others feature a writer reading aloud over a static, single image, the one that inspired their essays in the first place.

And who came up with the constraints? According to an interview on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, editor John Bresland gets credit for the project, and it’s he who says: “We basically set out to scare the bejesus out of writers by altering the rules of literary engagement. No printed words, just voice. And no continuous video, just a static image animated by thought. The idea was to get writers to explore the range of possibilities that digital media affords. In retrospect, it’s not a huge surprise that writers can make sense of the image.”

Well, no, it wouldn’t be: Think Rilke and Barthes. Consider more recent work from Geoff Dyer, Judith Kitchen, Mark Doty, Guy Davenport, Patricia Hampl, and Charles Simic—to name only a few—some of whom who have included the ‘inciting’ images for their readers in their published work, many of whom who have not—who are willing, determined even, to let their readers recall or conjure from their own imaginations.

Not that there’s anything wrong with providing an image. Not that providing an image cannot deepen the experience of the work; nor would it be fair to say that an essay couldn’t be just as rich, just as nuanced—only differently—if its audience were left to her own devices.

I should admit straight out: I loved TriQuarterly’s video essays—loved hearing Bonomo, and Wilkinson, and Mears, and Moore, fine readers all, and both voice and image enhanced my experience, though in the end I’d actually have liked to have seen the words on the page. I even closed my eyes, imagined them there, and admired them—the words—for making music and pictures in sentences and paragraphs: for their allegiance to the image at hand, and also for the ways in which they departed from that image, whatever it was. That was worth seeing, yesthat was something I might not have taken into account had I instead, as is usual for the reader, been encouraged to come up with my own associations. Still, how not to wonder and hope—and, in the case of these four writers, conclude—that these essays were meant to hold up as essays; that they are written, albeit written to be heard.

And why would that scare the bejesus out of anybody? Isn’t all writing meant to be heard? Aren’t writing and reading aural in nature? Leonard Michaels wrote that “sense follows sound.” And Louis Menand, in his intro to Best American Essays 2004, said that writing is closer to singing than speaking. And it’s Donald Hall who insists, “You hear a poem in your mouth.” Which must be why we have all been advised again and again to read our work aloud. If a public reading is a treat for writers and readers both, it isn’t exactly a radical idea, is it? So who said it was? you ask.

Well, over at TriQuarterly you can find “On the form of the Video Essay” by Marilyn Freeman, in traditional font, in which she quotes Theodor Adorno, harks to him again and again—“The essay’s innermost formal law is heresy,” he wrote—as if to imply that the video essay is a ground-breaking form: That to write from an image is novel; that to read the work out loud is an act of dissidence! For goodness’ sake, as if none of us ever heard or aspired to read an essay on NPR. As if nobody ever gave or attended a lecture with power point, and before that slides.

Images as inspiration and/or illustration have been around as long as any of us, and reading aloud is truly nothing new.

Am I thrilled about publishing online? Yes! And delighted by the possibilities of mixed media. Also keen, thanks to TriQuarterly, to come up with a video essay of my own. But to pretend this is revolutionary—dangerous or cutting edge—I’m not buying it. Why do we insist on sensationalizing the genre, as if it isn’t already sensational? As if it isn’t already challenging and brave to write as well as we know how about what we see, feel, think, remember, experience?

And it’s for that, that I applaud these writers; kudos to them and TriQuarterly for using new media effectively—for finding another way to celebrate the essay, to deliver it in all its original integrity to an audience with more sophisticated outer if not inner resources.

Now—go on over to Youtube and check out “Girl,” written and recorded  by the Beatles in 1965, before the music video was a twinkle in your eye. Consider the sylph in the field of flowers: Does she detract from the song? Make it better? Up to the audience, I guess, though in the end I’m certain the words and the melody carry the day, how about you?

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