Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Patti Smith’s M Train: Focus on the Heart of Your Story

I recently listened to the audiobook of Patti Smith reading her own M Train. The book is a memoir about various pilgrimages that the singer/songwriter has made in recent years, particularly journeys related to literary figures she deeply admires.

The pilgrimage I loved reading about was the first one she narrates, an unlikely trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana, the godforsaken site of a prison that was the transfer point to the infamous Devil’s Island. Patti Smith and her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith travel there to gather stones from the prison, stones that she later places on the grave of the French writer Jean Genet, who lamented that his own jail sentence came too late to experience that most legendary of penal colonies.

Patti Smith and Family
I also really enjoyed Patti Smith’s account of a meeting in Berlin of the CDC (Continental Drift Club), an international society of 27 members dedicated to the memory of Alfred Wegener, an obscure but notable geophysicist who died on an ill-fated expedition to Greenland. Wegener was seeking evidence for his now widely accepted theory that the continents were originally all part of one connected landmass. The members of this society are known only by a number, and Patti Smith is an unexpected addition to this lovable collection of geology nerds. It’s a wonderful vignette.  

After several of these literary hajj narratives, though, I started to get bored. There’s only so many times I can hear about Patti Smith laying flowers on the graves of dead writers, all but one of them male. Her adulation of these writers, much as I also revere them, becomes somewhat sophomoric.

What I think Patti Smith loses in M Train is the heart of her story: her relationship with her husband, the MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. The most moving parts of M Train for me are the times when Patti Smith lifts the curtain and we see the deep love she and her husband shared—Patti giving up her dream of opening a literary café in New York to move to Detroit to be close to Fred, the boat that they owned in Michigan that didn’t float but that they spent time in together in their yard, his untimely death at age 45. Why isn’t there more in M Train about how they met, how they fell in love, what it was like to lose a husband so young, how their kids reacted to his passing?


I realize those are moments that she may not feel like imparting to strangers. I love and admire Patti Smith as an artist, but I feel that she let this book get away from her when she declined to tackle those more personal scenes. The lesson here for writers is that you’ve got to look your story right in the eyes. Don’t get distracted by its cool hat or shoes. Stick to the emotional heart of your story.

Other recent posts about 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 Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, July 29, 2017

George Orwell’s Response to “Alternative Facts”

On January 22, 2017, two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” as a way of describing lies. She was referring to the White House press secretary’s providing false estimates for the crowd that attended the inauguration.
This idea of “alternative facts” is actually not unique to the Trump administration. Although that term is new, the dictatorships that dominated Europe in the mid-twentieth century, the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler and the Soviet government of Josef Stalin, were no strangers to “alternative facts.” Those two authoritarian states regularly issued pronouncements and provided information that they knew were not true.
One of the greatest literary champions of truth in the face of these threats was George Orwell, who died all too soon at age 46 in 1950. 

George Orwell
Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, spent the final years of his life revealing in those two novels how dictatorships contort the truth to achieve their ends. In his book England Your England, composed largely after the end of World War II and the fall of Hitler, Orwell analyzed the effects of how Nazism and Russian communism constantly used “alternative facts” to promote their ends:
“Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. For example, it is impossible to calculate within millions, perhaps even tens of millions, the number of deaths caused by the war. [World War II] The calamities that were constantly being reported—battles, massacres, famines, revolutions—tended to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One had no way of verifying the facts, one was not even fully certain they had happened, and one was always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources….Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth…that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.” (p. 54)
This analysis describes all-too accurately the state of truth in the current era of “alternative facts.” The government in Washington baldly denies even the most obvious facts—the existence of global warming and climate change, the size of a crowd on the Mall in DC, the effects of a bill that deprives millions of people of their health insurance, the absence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, etc.. It’s frightening that the other examples of governments that use these tactics are two of the worst dictatorships in history.
What does Orwell recommend that writers do in response to governments denying obvious truths? He advocates political action, but interestingly, he cautions that opposition to regimes that embrace falsehoods can also lead to fanaticism and dogmatic ideas if we embrace activism without reflection:
“To suggest that a creative writer, in a time of conflict, must split his life into two compartments, may seem defeatist or frivolous: yet in practice I do not see what else he can do. To lock yourself up in the ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that  every choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the less, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. War, for example, may be necessary, but it is certainly not right or sane. Even a general election is not exactly a pleasant or edifying spectacle. If you have to take part in such things—and I think you do have to, unless you are armoured by old age or stupidity or hypocrisy—then you also have to keep part of yourself inviolate.” (p. 25)

In other words, writers have to curb the temptation to oppose fanatics with an equally fanatical ideology. We must act, and not be paralyzed by ethical dilemmas. But we must never let go of our critical and moral judgments, even if we have to bracket them in order to undo a terrible evil.

Other recent posts about 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 Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Motown Last Dollar Choice and What It Means for Writers


Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit, also called Hitsville U.S.A. 

The Motown Museum, Detroit

At the end of the guided tour through the museum, I got to stand in Studio A where a huge number of the greatest songs of the last half century were recorded (photo below).


These were hits sung by Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandelas, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye…the list goes on and on. So many of these incredibly talented artists were all living in Detroit at the same time in the mid- and late-1960s. That period reminds me of Florence during the Renaissance—Motown Records brought together that sort of concentration of artistic genius all in one place and time.

Our tour guide, Cecilia (the liveliest tour guide ever!),  told us an intriguing story about a decision-making strategy that Motown Records used at its height, a method that I think has important implications for writers. Every Friday morning, the entire Motown community—recording artists, executives, and staff would sit down for a weekly meeting. They would play the tapes of the songs that the singers and musicians had recorded that week and they would ask themselves as a group one key question about that song:

If you were down to your last dollar, would you buy this record or would you buy a sandwich?

If the answer was the record, they would release it. If the answer was the sandwich, it was back to the studio to continue working.

There is something refreshing and honest about this standard. It cuts through a lot of the pretention and gimickry that often plagues the arts.

I wonder how many poets and writers would be willing to subject their work to a similar metric? As a poet, I think there are all-too-many poems that could never in a million years hope to approach that standard. Are there any poems that could reach that bar?

I think there are some poems that are more nourishing to the soul than a sandwich would be to the body. I have my own list (see below), but that list would be different for each person.

I wonder how often we challenge ourselves to write a poem or other work of literature that would reach that bar, and whether we even should? I do think there are poems that contain such an important life lesson, and/or use language in such a beautiful and succinct way, that I would pick them over a pesto chicken Panini on an empty stomach.

I think few of us attempt to write in a way that is so universal and compelling because we are distracted by our own stories, our experiments with language, and our own preoccupations. There is also the danger of writing in a way that ends up being corny, or sententious, and those are unpardonable sins in contemporary art. We are so obsessed with authenticity and originality. I think we should be more tolerant of writers who err on the side of being preachy or schmaltzy, because they should be given credit for making the attempt at creating a poem that someone would pick over a sandwich. Academic criticism can be unforgiving of a writer such as Mary Oliver, who can go over the top with her Buddhist life-lesson poems collected in walks in the woods, but I salute her for trying to say something deep and universal, even if she only succeeds some of the time.

Here are the poems that come to my mind as reaching the poem-over-sandwich bar:

William Blake “The Tyger”
Chana Bloch “The Joins”
André Breton “Always for the first time” from The Air of the Water
Robert Desnos “No, Love Is Not Dead”
T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men”
Tess Gallagher “Each Bird Walking”
Federico García Lorca “Sleepwalking Ballad” (or “Somnambule Ballad”) and “Gacela of Unforeseen Love”
Allen Ginsberg “America”
Langston Hughes “Mother to Son”
Frank Paino “Each Bone of the Body”
Edgar Allen Poe “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”
Kenneth Rexroth, tanka translated in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Wislawa Szymborska “True Love”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Yosano Akiko, various tanka from Midaregami, including “tell me this evening as you gaze eastward…,” “my hands cover my breasts…,” “early evening moon rising over a field of flowers…”


Other recent posts about 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 Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Memories of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, 1967

I started hearing about the hippies in San Francisco in the mid-1960s when I was a teenager living in New York City. I mostly knew about the hippies from reading Ramparts, a political and arts magazine based in San Francisco. I devoured each issue of Ramparts that arrived in the mail, with its articles and photos on the radical experiments in lifestyles taking place in the Bay Area. I read about the collective called the Diggers distributing free food. I dug the solarized, DayGlo posters for the Fillmore Auditorium’s rock concerts with the letters rippling like flames. I saw the long hair for women and men and the loose-fitting garments made from paisley Indian bedspreads. The more I saw in Ramparts and heard about on the news, the more I was hooked. I had to experience all of it firsthand.

Rock poster, San Francisco, 1960s
I was only 15, but I had a mom who was an unusual free spirit. It didn’t take too much convincing to get her to agree to leave New York and spend June, July, and August in San Francisco in 1967. I might be the only person who went to the Summer of Love with his mother.


The Rogow family in 1967
My mother, my sister, and I arrived in San Francisco in early June with no clear idea of where we would stay. We found a hotel room near Union Square when we first arrived, but that proved extremely expensive. Our search in the San Francisco Chronicle for short-term rentals didn’t yield any results. Wandering around North Beach one day, we happened by chance to pass the office of Ramparts magazine. On an impulse we went inside and my mother asked the receptionist if she knew of any places for rent for the summer. It turned out the receptionist had an apartment nearby on Leavenworth Street at the top of Russian Hill, and offered to rent it to us for the summer, while she moved in with her boyfriend. Kismet!

You don’t hear much about this in the nostalgic recollections of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, but it turned out that the hippie movement had pretty much peaked in San Francisco by  June of 1967. Many of the original hippies had left the increasingly violent drug scene in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to move to communes in the country. Haight Street itself was bumper-to-bumper with rubbernecking tourists gawking at the latter-day hippies who were still in town, hawking copies of the San Francisco Oracle and the Berkeley Barb alternative newspaper to sightseers. There were head shops selling posters of Che Guevara and the guy on the Zig Zag rolling papers package, who looked strangely alike.

We went to the opening of a show by the artists who created the rock posters for the Fillmore Auditorium: Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and others. I idolized those artists and their rippled lettering that was like a secret code you had to learn by training your eyes to see the negative spaces. By the Summer of Love, though, those artists were selling their work in a fancy Union Square gallery, sitting in the back yakking about how much they were charging for their surrealist collages.

You could smell the pot in the air in Golden Gate Park, but beyond that, you could smell the freedom in the air. You could dress any way you liked (although the hippie rejection of style involved a style of its own). You could also love anyone you liked, and you could give things away for free (definitely verboten in the consumer culture of the U.S.A. post-World War II). At the Fillmore Auditorium, you could dance in a strange, unchoreographed way, wheeling your arms in the air and jumping up and down, while blobs of colored oils throbbed on the walls in a projected light show.

I remember my mother taking me to a gay bar on Grant Street (how many moms took their teenage sons to gay bars, especially in 1967?). We watched as two men partner danced to the tune of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” I’d never seen a gay couple dance together before—that was also eye-opening. We heard the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish playing free concerts in the parks.

My sister briefly dated the son of Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, so a whiff of the militant labor history of San Francisco also reached us. We socialized with the family of Earl Conrad, a radical novelist and nonfiction writer who lived with his wife in a very urban apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood. We had met Earl in New York when he was researching a book that mentioned my dad, also a writer.

The author Earl Conrad
Evenings we often took the N Judah trolley all the way to the end of the line near the beach, to watch foreign films at the now-defunct Surf Theatre, a great old neighborhood movie house from the 1920s that showed the innovative flicks of Bergman, Fellini, and the Italian avant-garde directors. The impenetrable fog at night in that part of the city resembled an apocalyptic landscape out of an Antonioni film.


That first glimpse of the West of the United States was an eye-opener for me. It wasn’t that New York was devoid of culture and liberty—just the opposite. But something different was happening on the West Coast, a new kind of freedom that made for a bubbling arts and literary scene, more open to new ideas and lifestyles and to the cultures of the Pacific Rim.

For me as a writer, that summer was formative because it gave me the sense that the old culture and politics were crumbling, particularly in the face of the Vietnam War and the rebellions in the ghettos of the United States. Despite the commercialization of hippie art and fashions, there was a shared sense that a new and more liberating culture was being created. The literature that we read in school was fine, but it wasn’t the fiction and poetry that the current era demanded. That was still to be invented. The sense of openness was enormously empowering.

One thing I came to recognize only much later about the Summer of Love and the hippie movement was that they were the continuation of centuries of social and artistic experimentation. From the French Enlightenment, to the commune in the Lake District that Wordsworth and Coleridge founded, to the utopian socialist philosophies and phalansteries of the mid-nineteenth century, to the free-form designs of art nouveau, to the international Arts and Crafts movement, to the bohemian lifestyles of the Left Bank and Greenwich Village, to the Bengali renaissance and the mysticism of Sri Aurobindo, the roots of the Summer of Love went very deep into culture and history.


If many of us had known that in 1967, or been willing to acknowledge that our New Age and New Left culture and politics were part of a long and rich legacy that had its ups and downs throughout history, I think it would have been easier to sustain the momentum of the 1960s for radical political, social, and artistic change. As it was, that momentum began to decline even as it peaked in 1968, the year that Richard Nixon was first elected president of the United States. Very soon, there was a mass exodus from the Counter Culture of the 1960s back toward the status quo and consumer culture. I hope that the revival of interest in the Summer of Love on its 50th anniversary will encourage new forms of social and artistic experimentation that will continue the legacy of social, personal, and artistic transformation.

Other recent posts about 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 Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Monday, May 8, 2017

Nicholas Nickleby: or, There’s More to a Story Than the Plot

A relatively early novel by Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby doesn’t have a well-oiled plot, unlike many of the author’s creations. In a work such as Great Expectations, published twenty-two years later, Dickens creates suspense right from the very first chapter, and then the reader is swept along in the fast-flowing river of the story all the way to the end. Nicholas Nickleby lacks that current of suspense. I think it’s fair to say that the reader’s emotional investment in the outcome of the plot doesn’t become much of a factor until a couple of hundred pages into the book.

Charles Dickens in 1839, around the time he wrote Nicholas Nickleby
Most of the numerous characters in Nicholas Nickleby also lack the complexity of Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations, for example, who starts out as the scariest and creepiest figure in the book, and evolves into perhaps the most sympathetic. The characters in Nicholas Nickleby are relatively flat, either all good or all bad, and they change little over time. The handsome and beautiful characters are universally good, and the ugly ones are all bad—very predictable

And yet…the book held my interest throughout. When I ask myself why, I think it’s partly because Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’s funniest novel. The satire is so daggered, the narrator always means the exact opposite of what he says, using comically grandiose diction. It is laugh-out-loud funny in so many places, and there are chuckles throughout. Here is Dickens’s initial description of the evil miser, Ralph Nickleby, older brother of the protagonist’s father:

Ralph, the elder, deduced from the often-repeated tale the two great morals that riches are the only true source of happiness and power, and that it is lawful and just to compass their acquisition by all means short of felony.

Dickens’s portrayal of almost limitless greed of some businessmen in 19th century London feels all-too contemporary today.

Even the names of the characters are sometimes hilarious, including the self-important actress Miss Snevellicci. Every time Nicholas Nickleby’s mother opens her mouth, the reader has to laugh at the strange meanderings of her mind (apparently based on Dickens’s own mater familias). Mrs. Nickleby always seems to get distracted by irrelevant details and to miss the main point of her own remarks. Here is Mrs. Nickleby’s attempt to explain why she believes her daughter, Kate, is very intelligent:

I recollect when she was only two years and a half old, that a gentleman who used to visit very much at our house—Mr. Watkins, you know, Kate, my dear, that your poor papa went bail for, who afterwards ran away to the United States, and sent us a pair of snow shoes, with such an affectionate letter that it made your poor dear father cry for a week. You remember the letter? In which he said that he was very sorry he couldn’t repay the fifty pounds just then, because his capital was all out at interest, and he was very busy making his fortune, but that he didn’t forget you were his god-daughter, and he should take it very unkind if we didn’t buy you a silver coral and put it down to his old account?

None of this has anything to do with whether her daughter Kate is intelligent, and not only that, Mrs. Nickleby seems completely unaware that Kate’s so-called godfather is a con man. The book is peppered with wonderful comic bits like this, and those moments are part of what sustains the reader until the plot finally kicks in.

The other affecting part of Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’s exposé of corrupt Yorkshire boarding schools where unwanted boys were dumped, forgotten, and abused. 


This part of the novel is linked to the most interesting character, Smike. The young man Smike has been so brutally treated in the boarding school where he works almost as a slave that he has lost much of his ability to think and feel for himself. And yet he is doggedly loyal to Nicholas and his sister, and has an instinct for the good despite his lack of mental acuity. The cleverest part of Dickens’s plot is the way he makes Smike seem as if he is a completely peripheral and minor character, but eventually Smike becomes the trigger of the book’s climax.


The takeaway for me as a writer, reading Nicholas Nickleby, is that there is more to a story than the plot. There is the voice of the author, the writer’s sense of humor and satiric wit, and the heart of the writer as s/he sympathizes with the characters and analyzes society’s flaws. All of those, while not enough to make a long novel work by themselves, are more than enough to keep the reader going at moments when the plot lags, especially if that writer is Charles Dickens.

Other recent posts about 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 Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration