Friday, March 24, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Derek Walcott

The poet Derek Walcott died last week at the age of eighty-seven. He was born on the island of St. Lucia and growing up on this isolated, former British colony had a strong influence on his life and work. When he was fourteen, a local newspaper published his first poem. Five years later, Walcott borrowed $200 to print his first poetry collection, which he handed out to people on the street. Walcott's extensive bibliography includes poetry and plays; he was also a painter. Recipient of many honors and accolades, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992. His biography can be read here.

This poem is a favorite of many, a reminder that in order to be loved by someone, you must first love yourself.

Love After Love
by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

And if you'd like to listen to this beautiful poem read by the beautiful actor, Tom Hiddleston, here you go:


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In Praise of Stories and the Graying of Genre

This year, like many, many other viewers, I’ve been taken with NBC’s new series, This is Us. I binge-watched the first ten episodes, and now have to watch and wait, week by week, for the rest. The show’s taken some ribbing for stringing along tragedy and its tendency to induce ugly crying, but fans can’t get enough. And I’ve been thinking about the structure of the show and trying to decide what we would call it, in book form.

For those who don’t pull up every week with a box of tissue and glass of something white or red, This is Us follows the story, past and present, of the Pearson family: mom and dad, and a set of untraditional triplets. Untraditional because one is adopted, while the other two are surviving twins, I guess, from a traditional set of triplets. Anyway, a current-day, linear narrative follows everyone’s lives when the triplets are 36 years old and this narrative is interspersed with stories from the past. Most prominently at first, events from the year 1980, when the parents were expecting, and immediately after the birth; but also, a smattering of stories that can catch the siblings at any point of their childhood, from young kids to adolescents and beyond. These anecdotes are woven through and follow no particular linear path. We may have a story from the year the Pearson brood was seven and the following week, a vignette about one of them as a teen. There is, of course, the current-day narrative binding everything and chugging forward, but some episodes include little or no sight of this train.

So what would we call this form, I wondered, if it were a book? Novel? Short stories? Novel-in-stories? And I was thinking about how, if you ask even avid readers about short stories, most will say they don’t read them. Either because they don’t like them, or they just don’t think about it. This is a generalization based on personal inquiry. Many, many readers appreciate stories of the more brief variety. But I wouldn’t say it’s a popular practice, the regular reading of short stories. Some readers will tell you it’s because they want the more satisfying, deeper experience of reading a novel, the finality of a complete, longer story and the answers they get at its conclusion. And yet, countless television viewers are perfectly content to wait, week by week, for the same answers from a drama like This is Us or many others.

It would seem that short stories or novel-in-stories are forms that follow most closely the way humans interact. Imagine two women at a public park, watching their kids and striking up a conversation. Oh, hello, one might say. My name is ___, and how are you? Which child is yours? Where are you from? Oh, I’ve been there many times. Once, I visited ___ and my plane was delayed and I spent three hours at the very famous ___. Oh, you have? That’s amazing. Etc. etc.

This conversation, mostly likely would not be: Oh, hello, my name is ___ and I was born in ____. My family lived for many years in ____ and as a young child, I was shy and pale, but I enjoyed reading and riding horses. At the age of five, I ____. Etc. etc.

Think about people you’ve known for a long time and yet, are still learning new things about. You can know someone ten years before you hear the story of how they spent their eighth summer in a body cast, or had an affair with that exchange student at nineteen.

Of course, all novels aren’t start-to-finish narratives. Most include things like backstory and foreshadowing, and all sorts of clues hopefully meted out in a way that’s pleasing for the reader. But when you’re dealing with short stories, or a novel-in-stories, you expect each memory, each vignette or moment (each episode!), to have a shiny, finished quality. To be satisfying in its own right, all by itself. So that you can finish a chapter and feel—at least somewhat—full. So that you can turn off the television and feel—at least somewhat—ready to wait a whole week for more.

And so, to those of you who think you don’t like short stories, or maybe even have no patience for something called a novel-in-stories, may I suggest the following, mind-opening reading experiences that might blur your notions of genre (all taken from my own personal list because this is, of course, my blog)? I’m including the genre label for each one, as determined by publisher, for reference only and so later, you can realize how hazy some of these distinctions are.

First, there are some flagships:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (novel, 1919)

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (novel, 1959)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (novel/stories/memoir??, 1990)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (stories, 2008)

And some recent reads I’d recommend:

We the Animals by Justin Torres (novel, 2011)

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (stories, 2012)

See How Small by Scott Blackwood (novel, 2015)

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (novel, 2015)

Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman (novel-in-stories, 2016)

I find myself reading in this genre-gray area quite a bit these days, seeking out books that have something to say in a different sort of way, in a way that seems most true-to-life, at least for me. There are many ways to tell a story and to make sense of the stories that, in effect, comprise our lives. I’d love to hear your suggestions for books that gray genre in a good way, and stories that took hold of you and never let go.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Reprise: Poem for the Weekend

A couple of years ago, I had a feature on this blog wherein I shared a poem every Friday. I enjoyed doing this very much. It had occurred to me that I didn't include enough poetry in my reading and this regular feature was a way to force the issue. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I continued Poem for the Weekend for a year or so, and then I stopped.

It's been a tough year and once again, it occurs to me that often, poetry can be a balm. Sometimes, simple words are the crack to break a dam; poetry can certainly lead the way to becoming a better writer, a better person. And so, I reintroduce Poem for the Weekend, beginning with one of our most prolific and persistent voices, Mary Oliver. You can read about the long career of this poet here, but mostly what you need to know is that her focus is often on the natural world and our place in it. Also, she reads to dogs, which says quite a lot about a person.

by Mary Oliver

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it's not really
hard. The whole business of
what's reality and what isn't has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don't care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That's a place
you just can't get into, not
entirely anyway, other people's

I'll just leave you with this.
I don't care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It's
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka