Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Writing Prompt: Surrealist Proverbs

I’ve been leafing through John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations: Poetry, part of a monumental two-volume series of Ashbery’s translation work edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie. One of my favorite sections is called “The Original Judgment,” (as opposed to the Last Judgment?) a collection of sentences that I can only call surrealist proverbs. These wild aphorisms were a collaboration by André Breton and Paul Eluard, the French surrealist poets. 

Paul Eluard and André Breton, photographed by Man Ray
Here are a few of my favorites from Breton and Eluard’s text:

Put order in its place, disturb the stones of the road.

Form your eyes by closing them.

Sing the vast pity of monsters.

Speak according to the madness that has seduced you.

When they ask to see the inside of your hand, show them the undiscovered planets in the sky.

Do me the favor of entering and leaving on tiptoe.

Adjust your gait to that of the storms.

Perform miracles so as to deny them.

Write the imperishable in sand.

Never wait for yourself.

[translations © 2014 by John Ashbery]

I’ve been trying to think of what these remarkable sentences have in common. In other words, how do you create a surrealist proverb? First of all, the verbs are almost all imperatives or commands: put, write, sing, speak, etc. Proverbs often take this form: “Waste not, want not,” for instance. Breton and Eluard’s sentences frequently involve a jagged juxtaposition of opposites, as in “Adjust your gait to that of the storms.” Clearly, storms don’t really have a gait, so the authors have fused together two terms that normally aren’t combined, one of the key techniques of surrealism. The authors also assume a tone as if they are speaking the obvious—pure common sense—but what they say is only meaningful in the most Daffy Duck way: “Never wait for yourself.” Literally, we can’t wait for ourselves, but figuratively, we do that all the time, afraid to keep pace with our desires and impulses.

So, how would you go about writing a surrealist proverb? Some of these statements begin with a phrase that is perfectly logical: “Never wait for…” or “Sing…” or “Write the…” Start off with a phrase or structure that could have a rational outcome, but then twist the sentence into a Moebius strip that ends up somewhere completely unexpected.

Don’t think too much about how the sentence is going to turn out. Allow the surrealist spontaneity of your fingers to outpace your rational mind. Make a fanning generalization about something incredibly pinpoint.

Begin with what seems like a rational structure, something a “wise” elder would tell a young whippersnapper, and then suddenly flip it the way a flying saucer moves after take off, right as it hits warp speed. 

Here are a couple of my own takes on this form:

Be the writer your fingers want to be.

Take no chances, and you will taste no clouds.

Promote asymmetry in all that you touch.

I think you could also alter this form slightly and make the sentence a question. Instead of a surrealist proverb, a surrealist koan:

What role will you play in the inevitable fireworks?

If you'd like to leave your own surrealist proverb here, please add it as a comment. 

Zack Rogow is the cotranslator of André Breton’s Earthlight, selected poems from the first half of his career, reprinted in a bilingual edition by Black Widow Press. He also translated Breton’s Arcanum 17

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
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, November 7, 2014

Audiobooks vs. Print Books

It’s a commonplace notion that movies of great books never quite equal the texts they're based on. Maybe that’s because the author’s voice is such a crucial part of an excellent work of literature. The dialogue doesn’t really make up for losing the poetry of the narrative. How would you make a movie of To the Lighthouse, for instance, that could approach the wainscoted interior worlds of those characters?

On the other hand, not all audiobooks fall short in comparison to their hard copy cousins. I’ve been listening to a lot of recorded books this past year, since I now commute a little over 30 miles (50 kilometers) each way to my job. For me, some of the books gain as recordings. I’ve been thinking about which ones, and there seem to be some common denominators.

Recently I listened to the audiobook of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, read by Jay Long

Ernest J. Gaines
This extraordinary novel takes place in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s and concerns a young African American man who is wrongly convicted of first-degree murder. It’s a gripping story, and I got so caught up in the scenes that I found myself involuntarily reacting out loud to many passages, even though I’m alone in my car. That’s partly because the actor Jay Long has done extraordinary work creating the voices of many, many different characters, from the freethinking schoolteacher Grant Wiggins; to his Tante Lou, the tough and pious woman who raised Grant; to the narrator’s attractive and upstanding girlfriend; to the barely educated plantation farmhand who awaits execution; to the Southern sheriff with his ten-gallon hat. I’m sure this novel would be terrific anyway you heard or read it, but I think I would miss the varied and lively voices of Louisiana that are so much a part of the audiobook. I don’t know if I could have created those in my head if I’d read the book to myself.

A book where I actually had a chance to compare the audiobook and the print version was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. That novel has six different narrators, played by six different actors in the audiobook: Scott BrickCassandra CampbellKim Mai GuestKirby HeyborneJohn Lee, and Richard Matthews. Since I had to return the audiobook to the library when someone recalled it, I read the rest of the book in the print version, and I regretted not hearing those narrators with their quirky verbal mannerisms.

The kind of book that I would not want to hear out loud would be a very densely written book with an intricate plot, a book where I want to keep looking back to events that occurred earlier to understand how they connect to later action. A book like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Or a book where the passages are so tightly woven that you want to read each one several times in order to taste every phrase again. An example might be Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces.

I do really enjoy humorous audiobooks read by the authors, if those authors are fine comedians in their own right. I’ll list some favorites at the end.

But many books, especially books that use a distinct dialect or particular manner of speaking for the narrator, are probably just as good, if not better, as audiobooks. I always appreciate when an actor creates entirely distinct voices for each character in the book, and can bring to life personages with different ages and genders. Another advantage to audiobooks is that you can share them with others while you experience the book, and not just afterwards.

Here are several audiobooks I’ve enjoyed a great deal:

Humor
Wishful Drinking, written and read by the late, great Carrie Fisher
Bossypants, written and read by Tina Fey
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, written and read by Steve Martin

Novels
Jazz, by Toni Morrison, read by Lynne Thigpen
Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev, read by David Horovitch
Brideshead Revisitedby Evelyn Waugh, brilliantly read by Jeremy Irons
Great Expectationsby Charles Dickens, Books on Tape
Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, read by Robert Whitfield (incredible reading, he switches back and forth among so many voices!)
Paula Spencerby Roddy Doyle, read by Ger Ryan
My Name Is Lucy Bartonby Elizabeth Strout, read by Kimberly Farr
Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok, read by Angela Lin

Nonfiction
Reading Lolita inTehranby Azar Nafisi, read by Lisette Lecat
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoesby Maya Angelou, read by Lynne Thigpen 

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
How to Be an American Writer