Friday, August 2, 2019

The Limits of “Write What You Know”: Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I recently listened to the wonderful audiobook of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novella that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928. The book takes place in Peru in the early 1700s. Now, why would an author like Thornton Wilder, who spent his early years in Madison, Wisconsin, be writing about life in Lima two hundred years before his time? 

Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
New writers are often admonished to “write what you know.” Basically this means that authors are supposed to work best when personally familiar with the type of setting and characters they’re depicting. Not only that, but today critics and other writers often accuse authors of appropriation if they write about cultures, characters, and/or histories other than the ones from their own backgrounds and ancestry.

One difficulty with “write what you know” is that writing is always an act of the imagination. Even an autobiography involves huge leaps of the mind to recreate scenes and dialogue from the past. Why limit the reach of our compassion and insight to only ourselves? Isn’t literature all about extending our empathy beyond our own little circle?

Yes, there is a grave danger of misusing, exploiting, or distorting the stories and experiences of people from other cultures. That type of writing can be deeply hurtful to members of the appropriated group. But I do believe that danger can be swerved around in the right hands. If a writer is sufficiently empathetic and aware, and if s/he has something important to say, writing about another culture or history can be extremely effective.

In the case of Thornton Wilder, there were kinds of human interactions that he could portray better in 18th century Lima than he could in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1920s. This was possibly because the culture and society he grew up in was not a place that nourished certain personality traits that moved him, such as the character of a great actress who dazzled an audience that knew the classics of Spanish theater.

In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder not only creates a world of dimensional and sympathetic characters in 18th century South America, he does it with extraordinary perceptiveness. How is it possible, I asked myself as I listened to one incredible revelation after another in this book, that Wilder knows so much about the little kindnesses and jealousies that individuals show one another in this world? Had he spent a great deal of time in Peru? He was just over 30 when the novel was published.

When I investigated the background of the novel, I discovered to my astonishment that Wilder had never visited Peru or anywhere else in South America when he wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey. And yet he could describe in excruciating detail the experience of attending the theater in Lima in the early 1700s:

“She [the Marquesa de Montemayor] decided to go to the Comedia where the Perichole was playing Doña Leonor in Moreto’s Trampa Adelante.…The Marquesa sat in her box gazing with flagging attention at the brilliant stage. Between the acts it was the Perichole’s custom to lay aside the courtly role and appear before the curtain to sing a few topical songs. The malicious actress had seen the Marquesa arrive and presently began improvising couplets alluding to her appearance, her avarice, her drunkenness, and even to her daughter’s flight from her…”

Whether it is historically accurate that actors did this on stage in Lima in 1714 is not the point here. What’s important is that this scene is highly emotional. We, the readers, know that the Marquesa is a deep soul and a great writer, who is being wrung out in public by a superficial but sparkling person. In a dramatic turn of events, that actress later begs the Marquesa's forgiveness when she comes to know the generosity of the other woman’s heart.

Without the distance of writing about 18th century Peru, I doubt that Thornton Wilder could have created the moments of indelible pathos and insight in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Here are two of my favorites.

Writing about the artist’s constant striving for perfection, even after the audience thinks the work is good enough: “The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.”

“The whole purport of literature...is the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.”

Yes, write about what you know, but never forget that imagination is an electric vehicle of knowledge. 


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Olga Livshin’s A Life Replaced

The poet and translator Olga Livshin has published a new book, A Life Replaced, that includes both her original writing, and new translations of the work of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, as well as writing by a more recent poet, Vladimir Gandelsman. 




What makes this collection unique is that Livshin, who spent her childhood in the former Soviet Union and has since lived in the United States, engages energetically and creatively with the two poets she translates and with the countries she has lived in, asking thought-provoking questions about a range of topics.


Olga Livshin
Here is an example of one poem in the book where Livshin directly addresses the Akhmatova poem that comes before it in the collection, and uses that as a springboard to talk about history, Livshin’s own life, motherhood, and her reaction to the status quo in both the land of her birth and her adopted country.

Olga Livshin

Newscast Akhmatova

Always the same question. What makes this century worse than any before it?—the twenty-year-old Anna asks in a poem.

Her century swelled with the inequities of all the previous ones.—I grew up there—at the end of the revolution that overflowed by seventy years—was rocked with her tight-lipped grief of her poems—quoted by my mother, who had her face—whose face I now wear.

What news for her would make an adequate reply?

*

News: I have now lived most of my life in a country that, as Akhmatova would say, is relatively vegetarian.—People aren’t the main staple of its diet.—Immigrants the world over say, We didn’t come to this country, that country, or that country—any country but—to mourn our lives.

But the country where I went to high school, college, and grad school, where I later taught at my alma mater—school is one of the favorite dishes.—Routine cannibalism.—Bomb threats: we were evacuated into the parking-lot sunshine.—Spit three times over the shoulder: you and you, but not you, will avoid being eaten.

*

News: After three days in labor, I saw my son. Warmth rushed through me as I lay cut up, belly-up.—I said: We’ll have so much fun together, you and I.

The word fun thus entered my overcast Russian worldview.—Every day I meet him after school: he colors the world cerulean.

*

Anna Andreyevna’s son spent most of his life in a prison camp.—Because of his origins.—She could not rescue him even by writing odes to Stalin.—Most Russian readers do not know, or else cannot remember, whether she wrote such odes.—She did.

*

Old news: Russia is carnivorous.—New news: now carnivorous beyond its borders.

Sort-of-new news: this country never stopped being carnivorous.—America’s eye, more technologically avian, looks into every home.—News: we might need a different word than home.


*

In the home of her poetry, Akhmatova has found room for her whole country.—Found a chronology: from lush turn-of-the-century eroticism to imprisonment—to oblivion, intended—but not accomplished—by the state.—In her stance of the memory keeper, she stood immovable.—Like a steppe baba statue: Paleolithic, gray; huge.

*

At the end of her life, Akhmatova said: My life had been replaced.

*

News: A few years back, a young woman in Moscow founded the first hospice for children in Russia.—This woman, a friend of mine, is now in her early thirties, a seasoned administrator for the hospice, somewhat cynical.—Her hospice, that colorful refuge, is still alive.—

*

Because my replies are like light touch, their comfort cool and faithless, each fingertip a raindrop.—I refuse to be separated from her: to sum her up.—She is needed.

*

Who, me? you ask. You seem amused.

Your rhetorical questions are needed, for they demand a specific integrity from each of us.—Your stone house of womanhood is needed, a house of protest.

You are the one with the news for this next century: This century is worse than those before it. Change something.

Poem © 2019 Olga Livshin

Zack Rogow’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack Rogow’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, May 30, 2019

“Good Poets Borrow, Great Poets Steal”

It turns out that T.S. Eliot never said the phrase often attributed to him, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” According to a blog I read recently, what Eliot actually said was, “mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Either way, the phrase sings the praises of literary theft, which on the surface is an incredibly odd statement, particularly in the realm of the arts, where originality counts for so much.

T.S. Eliot
Eliot might have been thinking of works like his poem “The Waste Land.” That classic is, to a great extent, a collage of snippets “stolen” from a variety of sources, including Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, what U.K. bartenders say at closing (“HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME”), the Upanishads, and dozens of others. For Eliot and the poets who were close to him, like Ezra Pound, borrowing from the literary canon, as they read it, was a necessity, a way of showing that you knew your lineage. But to my mind, there is something terribly elitist about that way of looking at the poet’s calling, since the lineage that those poets acknowledged consisted only of certain types of writings by male poets in the Indo-European tradition, with a bit of Confucius thrown in for good measure.

What the phrase “mature poets steal” means to me is something different from what it meant to Eliot and Pound. At a certain point in my life as a writer, I developed a mania for originality. This was useful when I was attempting to free myself of all the influences that I’d cluttered my work with, when I first began writing. By prizing originality over anything else, I was challenging myself not to sound like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound or my favorite poet of the month, but to write from my own voice and experience. Easier said than done—finding that individual calling as a writer is a lifetime’s work.

What that fixation on originality left out was literary community. I eventually came to realize that I could take my work only so far on my own. I needed a community of writers to provide insight into my writing, and to sharpen my abilities as an editor of the work of other writers, and myself. The reality is that one pair of eyes can only see so much. Many pairs of eyes can see a much wider panorama.

I belong to a wonderful writers group that meets once a month for a potluck brunch and a round robin where we all read our latest poems. I hardly trust myself to finish a poem until I’ve run it past that group, called Thirteen Ways, because I highly respect their judgment. Even if I don’t take all their suggestions, I need to hear their reactions to my work to know if I’m headed in the right direction. I also show my work to other peers.

At first I was hesitant to take any specific suggestions that other writers gave me. I was still fixated on the need for originality. In time, I came to realize that finishing well the works I initiated was much more important than my personal claims as the author. If a member of my writing group read a line of mine that fell short in some way, s/he might suggest another wording. Originally I would note that down, but insist on altering the offered wording, to avoid stealing. Now, if I feel that the suggested wording is just what the poem needs and wants, I sometimes take the phrase word for word. It’s much more important for the poem to be as good as it can be, than for me to have written every single word in it. “Mature poets steal.”

Of course, if someone suggested completely rewriting my poem, and gave me all the specifics, I wouldn’t accept that. But one line, or a title?—I thank my lucky stars that I have such good literary friends, and I insert that gift into the poem. I know that I can’t always be the best editor of my own creations, and I am grateful that I have other writers I trust who can help me improve my work when I need it.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Marcus Jackson’s book of poems Pardon My Heart

I recently did a poetry reading at The Book Loft, a wonderful independent bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. The Book Loft is one of those safe harbors where you can browse to your heart’s content in a labyrinth of levels, leaf through books on benches in their garden, or hear authors reading their work.

The author I had the great pleasure of reading with was Marcus Jackson, poet and instructor in the MFA programs at The Ohio State University and Queens University of Charlotte. 

Poet Marcus Jackson
Since the reading, I’ve been pouring over his book Pardon My Heart, published in 2018 by TriQuarterly Books. It’s an amazing collection of poems, utterly sophisticated and polished in the poet’s use of metaphor and the music of words, and deeply grounded in streetwise, North American urban life.



My daughter Miranda attended the reading that Marcus and I did in Columbus—she’s used to hearing her dad's poems about topics that relate to the angst of graying hippies.  She was surprised by how much she could relate to Marcus's writing. “I felt his writing resonated with the millennial esprit,” she enthused. What’s so terrific about Pardon My Heart is that the poet not only speaks of growing up in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the world of pickup lines in bars, new marriages, and babysitters, Marcus Jackson writes about those topics with all the polish and panache of an author who’s been doing this for decades.

Here’s a short poem from Pardon My Heart where Marcus Jackson reflects on his mother:

Ashtray

Filling with my mother’s smolderings,
this tawny, six-sided, three-pound glass dish
has sat forty years at the table’s center.
During lapses in labor or happiness,
Mother smoked Merit after Merit, her mind
a crowded parlor of plans, self-hate,
and urgent glimpses of encounters long past.
She split the skin atop my father’s skull
once with this ashtray as he grabbed her.
Weekly, after she emptied and washed it, Friday’s light
entered the drafty sash and upheld this ashtray
as the crown of one woman’s quiet country.

This moving portrait, a capsule history of a family in twelve lines, is studded with dazzling details. In line 1, the ashtray holds the mother’s “smolderings,” which tells us so much about her temperament and fate. The word “lapses” in line 4 gives us in one word the understanding that labor and happiness were major parts of her being in the world. The brand of her smokes, Merits, is a both a tribute to the mom and a word that adds to the alliteration in a line where that repetition suggests chain smoking. When violence explodes in line 8, the poet describes it in perfect iambic pentameter: “She split the skin atop my father’s skull,” with the rhythm reinforcing the hammer of the ashtray. By the end of the poem, the author has alchemized this commonplace ashtray into a crown, testimony to the mother’s creating tranquility for her child in a stormy world.

Marcus Jackson also describes African American life with insight, irony, and pathos. In the poem “Homage to My Wife’s Hips,” he writes

In the presence of her hips, thin
White women lower their heads
like children who’ve broken a dish.

Another amazing metaphor, from a poet who is so adept at them.


Marcus Jackson has the heart, the craft, and the intellect of an important poet. Enjoy his work!

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry