Tuesday, December 27, 2016

It Takes More Than One Book to Make a Writer

There’s a great line in the classic Hollywood movie Shanghai Express where a man says to Marlene Dietrich, who is playing the role of Shanghai Lily: “I see you’ve changed your name since we last met. Did you get married?” To which Dietrich replies in her breathy German accent, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Well, it takes more than one book to make a writer.

Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express 
The first time we write a book, we’re often just fumbling around, trying to find our unique calling as an artist. Everything is new to us: themes, characters, style, approach, diction. Often the first book, even if it takes years to write, is just practice, a dress rehearsal for another project. And, sorry to say, that can be true of the second or third or fourth book as well.

It may take the better part of a lifetime to really figure out what your project is, and how to realize that project.

Then how do you know if you really can be a writer, if you spend years on different books and none of them works out quite the way you had hoped? Well, even a book that you might consider to have fallen short of your expectations might have passages that show your true abilities as a writer. That page, that stanza, that paragraph, that chapter—if you can figure out what you did right there, and get yourself into the state of mind you were in when you wrote that, you can possibly sustain that higher level of work for a longer stretch, maybe even an entire book.

In order to do that, though, you’ve got to be willing to listen to criticism, hear the truth about your work, and implement it in your writing. And not just the praise of your friends who love you and can't see your work objectively. You have to get that objective feedback because on your own, it’s extremely difficult to identify the strongest elements in your work. Often the difference between talent and a writer who consistently turns out quality work is the ability to take criticism seriously, and to learn from it. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you don’t keep repeating them.

I know that it’s tempting to give up after a book or two if the end product isn’t as good as what you’d imagined when you first got the inspiration. It’s so much easier to take up throwing pots, or hip-hop dance, or playing the didgeridoo. When you first start a new art, you learn so much, so fast. It’s thrilling. You feel as if you’re making enormous progress. But then the hard work always sets in—learning from your mistakes, revising, polishing. No art is easy.

It may be that you are better suited to pottery or hip-hop dance. Didgeridoo, or didgeridon’t, either way it’s cool. If that is the art that energizes you, more power to you. But if your dream is really to be a writer, don’t give up after one book or two or three. You don’t get to be Shanghai Lily overnight.

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Writers and Collaboration, Part 2: Repurposing Existing Content

In the last blog I talked about collaborations where the writer doesn’t have to change much in an existing work. The example I gave is when a poet has his or her work illustrated by a visual artist.

In this blog, I’m going to discuss collaborations where a writer repurposes existing text to create a new work with another artist. Here are some examples:

• Adapt a work of narrative prose into a play (for more, please see this blog)
• Turn one of your poems into a song lyric and collaborate with a composer who writes the music
• Edit a literary anthology that includes work by a visual artist or artists
• Work with an artist to create an artist’s book that includes text that you rewrite for the project

One example in my own work of text repurposed for a collaboration is an adult poem I wrote that became a children’s picture book. The book started as a two-page poem called “Oranges” that appeared in my collection A Preview of the Dream, published by Gull Books, a literary publishing house run by Carolyn Bennett. A Preview of the Dream sold all of 200 copies, which is not unusual for a small press book of poems.

Cover art by Rachael Romero
My poem “Oranges” honors the diverse group of people whose labor goes into creating a single orange:

Somebody cleared the fields.
Somebody toppled the pines,
upturned the stumps.
Someone plowed the rows
straight as sunbeams in the heat
that made them swab their temples.
Probably they spoke Spanish.

The widely published and much lauded children’s writer Marilyn Sachs heard me read the poem and said, “With a little rewriting, that could be a picture book.” I’d never thought of writing a children’s book, so I asked her what she meant by rewriting the text. Marilyn pointed out that the ending was a little too adult for children:

A world of work
is in this ripe orange that I strip apart,
longitude by longitude.
I place a section
in my willing mouth
and its liquid fibers
dissolve on my tongue.

When I wrote that adult poem, I wanted to emphasize the sexiness of eating a section of orange. But in a children’s picture book?—not so much. I kept much of the poem as it was, but I rewrote the last lines:

A world of work
is in this ripe orange that I pry apart.
I place a section
in my mouth
and its liquid fibers
dissolve on my tongue.

Less sexy, but it still conveys some of the sensual experience of eating fruit, and in a way that children could appreciate.

A lesson I learned here: with collaboration, not every detail in a text has to be spelled out. The artwork ended up conveying much of the sensual experience of eating an orange. 

Oranges by Zack Rogow, illustration by Mary Szilagyi
Not only that, the illustrator communicated the entire concept of an orange containing a world of work  simply by drawing a frontispiece with an orange floating in space like a planet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book was still only an idea. How to get it in print? Carolyn Bennett, the publisher of the small press book that included the poem, agreed to act as the agent for the text. Sometimes, in a collaboration, people take on unaccustomed roles.

Carolyn did great job in this new role. She sent the text to Richard Jackson, an editor at Orchard Books who had successfully steered the careers of many writers, including Judy Blume. It happened, by coincidence, that Dick Jackson was interested in a book that dealt with diversity—he immediately bought the manuscript. It was an incredible stroke of luck, but it would never have happened without rewriting the text. That repurposing made all the difference.

I originally had in mind for the drawings an artist I liked who had never done book illustration. Dick Jackson quickly let me know that he had his own ideas on this subject. Dick selected the experienced illustrator Mary Szilagyi, and Mary created gorgeous paintings to illustrate the book, working much harder on her artwork than I had on my short text. The hours spent on a collaboration don’t always even out, I’m afraid.

Large publishers do tend to like to pick the illustrator they want for a children’s book that comes to them as a text. They have a stable of artists whose work they admire and they know they can rely on. The publishers like to give those artists a steady diet of work, partly because they genuinely like their artwork, partly to keep the artists’ loyalty, and partly to support and promote their careers.

Dick Jackson made a truly excellent suggestion to improve the text, but I was such a young, hothead radical at the time, that I refused to listen, thinking that Big Business was trying to co-opt my political message. This was a side of collaboration I hadn’t learned yet—it also involves taking advice, even if it means changing your beloved text.

But in the end, Oranges turned out to be a successful children’s book. It was selected as a Junior Library Guild Book of the Month, and it sold about 10,000 copies. Much more than all of my poetry books put together. That’s another side of writers’ collaborations worth mentioning—the work of other artists can sometimes make literature way more accessible.

Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 3Part 4

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Writers and Collaboration: Part 1—Working with Illustrators

I’ve been involved in many different collaborations in my career as a writer. These projects have been among the most exciting, rewarding, and well received that I’ve ever worked on. This series of blogs will discuss collaborations and writers—how collaborations function, and the pros and cons of working together with others.

The first type of collaboration I’d like to discuss is working with visual artists who illustrate a book or poem. There is a collective product at the end of this sort of collaboration, but the author does not necessarily engage in much collaborative work. The writer could, if the artist is open to suggestions or ideas from the author. In some cases, though, the two artists work separately. Often the visual artist is interpreting or reacting to the work of the writer.

I’ve worked with visual artists who have illustrated some of my books of poetry. I collaborated with the fantastic artist Linda Touby, for instance, on my very first book, Glimmerings. I met Linda before she became a well-known painter whose work is displayed in U.S. embassies and many private collections. 

Linda Touby
I got to know Linda in a figure drawing classes at the venerable Art Students League in New York City in the mid-1970s. Linda was the star of that class, turning out gorgeous sketches of the nude models, and breaking all the rules that the instructors were setting for us.

For one thing, Linda never used shading or modeling to define shapes. She had such a command of line that she could suggest volumes just by the way she waltzed the tip of a pen around the page. I admired Linda’s work enormously, and I was thrilled when this skilled artist agreed to illustrate my poems.

There’s a lesson for writers here—you may think that your work is not up to the level of a potential collaborator, but you still might find that there is common ground for a joint project. Don’t be afraid to ask another artist or writer you admire to work together.

I was extremely lucky to work with longtime friend Ilse Gordon on my book Make It Last. Ilse’s lovely ink drawings created a unified look to the collection that in many ways defines the aesthetic of the book. 

Ilse is multitalented. Her work includes luscious oil paintings, as well as furnishings such as painted screens and tables that she tiles herself. 

The incredibly gifted artist Rachael Romero did the cover for my book A Preview of the Dream. I admired Rachael’s work from her woodblock postcards of artists and writers that were popular in bookstores in New York City in the 1980s. I got in touch with Rachael though the contact information on the back one of the cards.

Postcard of James Joyce © by Rachael Romero
At the time that Rachael did the woodblock print for the cover of my collection of poetry, she was making her living partly by sketching portraits of tourists on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village in New York City, usually on warm summer nights. When I wanted to discuss the project with her, I stood next to Rachael on the sidewalk as she created quick and insightful pastels of passerby who would stop to have their likenesses done.

Portraits © by Rachael Romero
This brings up another point about collaborations—you inevitably have to go outside your comfort zone in working with another artist. You might find yourself discussing your project standing on a corner under a streetlamp at ten o'clock at night. 

I once remarked to Rachael Romero that her work greatly resembled some of the political posters that I liked from the 1960s and 70s, produced by a group that signed itself the San Francisco Poster Brigade. “I was the San Francisco Poster Brigade,” she confided, not without a touch of pride.

Poster © by Rachael Romero as the San Franciso Poster Brigade
The style of Rachael’s that evokes the period of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s—I love it!

Another artist I admired enormously whose work is on the cover of one of my books of poetry is Mona Caron. Mona is an amazing and accomplished mural painter whose artwork graces many buildings internationally, including the bikeway mural on the Safeway supermarket at the busy intersection of Market Street and Duboce Street in San Francisco.

Duboce Bikeway Mural © Mona Caron
I met Mona Caron at the dedication ceremony for one of her murals. Whenever I wanted to discuss our collaborative project, I had to find her at the site of the mural she was painting at the time and shout up to her while she was high on a scaffold above the street. 

Mona Caron painting
Mona did a fabulous cover for my book of love poems, The Number Before Infinity. We had multiple discussions about the artwork. Mona was concerned that in portraying a sensual woman, she might be objectifying the person in the image. I think she found a way to evoke the eroticism of the love poems in the book while still depicting the female figure as powerful.

Interestingly, Mona elected to handwrite the type on the cover in black letters, in order to have it match the wind-swept hair of the woman in the illustration.

I’ve found these collaborations with visual artists so fascinating. I’ve gotten to work with painters and graphic artists whose work I was a huge fan of, and felt a deep affinity for. To see their work displayed in tandem with my own is humbling and gratifying. Their artwork and interpretations of the poems add greatly to the reader’s experience.

Writers and Collaboration, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Advice from Writers I’ve Mentored and Taught

In this blog I’m featuring advice from writers I’ve mentored when they were students or interns. I’m so proud of the many writers I’ve worked with over the years who have become excellent published authors in their own right.

Tara Ballard studied with me at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). Her recent poems include “Unfinished Letter to Officer [Insert Name]” in HEArt Online. Tara’s advice:

Don’t try to dictate the direction of the poem as you are drafting. Examine your tendencies and habits. 

Kersten Christianson was a mentee at UAA. She is working on a chapbook, What Caught Raven’s Eye, through Petroglyph Press. Her creative manuscript Something Yet to Be Named will be published by Aldrich Press in July 2017.  Kersten’s advice:

Write what is most important to  you. Read globally, expand your literary citizenship.  

Allison DeLauer is a poet who also writes for performers. Allison studied with me at California College of the Arts (CCA). Her publications include the chapbook, Eve Out West; and a fascinating and witty poem called “The Neighbors Knew I Divined Water.” Her advice:

Spend time walking outdoors. Use the microphone on your phone to record your poem-thoughts, when walking. 

Makenzie DeVries is a poet who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and studied with me at UAA. She’s been published in Duty Bound from the Alaska Humanities Forum. Her advice:

This is relevant to me these days, being the crazy busy person I have unfortunately become: make time to write, at least a couple days a week. Well—at least one day a week.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc was an intern for the Lunch Poems Reading Series at UC Berkeley when I was the coordinator there. His poems have recently been published in Field, jubilat, the Literary Review, and are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest. Gibson’s recommendations:

I’ve always been partial to Philip Levine's advice: “Fuck writer’s block. Lower your standards.” Levine was repeating advice from William Stafford, though he added the f-bomb for fun. It’s a reminder that I find I often need, and I repeat it to students (though I might substitute “forget” for the swear if they’re young). We have to be willing to write anything, even and maybe especially the terrible stuff, to get to what’s real and worth pursuing. 

Margaret Elysia Garcia was my student at University of San Francisco. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and plays—yes, and she’s good at all of them. Her audiobook, Mary of the Chance Encounters, was produced by Wretched Productions. recently collected 15,000 books for the school library in the town of Indian Valley, California, where she lives. See this news item. Her advice:

Take interest in and promote other writers. Too many writers—especially women writers—do not take themselves seriously. Own what it is you do and find the community that will support your voice. I used to try writing from home, but home can be invaded by other identities and other people. Now I write from my little office with another writer typing away upstairs and it has made all the difference.

Martha Grover was my mentee at CCA. She’s published two books of nonfiction: One More for the People and The End of My Career, both from Perfect Day Publishing. Her suggestion for writers:

One great piece of advice was given to me by my very first creative writing teacher, the poet Joseph Millar. He would often tell us to “put this poem in a drawer and take it out again in three to six months.” I think we often give up too easily on our writing, or edit it to death. The point is to let time pass and be able to look at the piece with fresh eyes. Good writing takes time. 

Andrea Hackbarth studied with me at UAA. Two recent poems of hers were published in Mezzo Cammin. Her advice:

Always read more than you write. Spend time reading and rereading the poets and other writers that you love. When you do write, aim for that kind of greatness.

Alice-Catherine Jennings also was a student in the UAA program. She recently published a chapbook: Katherine of Aragon A Collection of Poems. Alice suggests:

Study another language. It will increase your vocabulary, shake up your syntax, and change the way you think.

Mandy Kahn was an intern in the Lunch Poems Series at UC Berkeley when I was the coordinator there. Mandy’s numerous publications include the critically acclaimed poetry collection Math, Heaven, Time and a wise and thoughtful blog, “Thirteen Thoughts on Poetry in the Digital Age,” in the Huffington Post. Her advice:

Love the making process and all you make will carry love.

Laura LeHew was a student of mine at CCA. Her books of poetry include Becoming from Another New Calligraphy and Willingly Would I Burn from MoonPath Press.

My advice to writers is to be an entrepreneur. Writing is your business. If you are not writing you should be submitting and if you are not submitting you should be writing. Rejection happens, don’t take it personally. Network, join a professional organization like the AWP or your local or state association. Network with the people who run reading series. Start a reading series. Volunteer and/or intern. Start a blog. Join Facebook. Have your own website. Collaborate with other writers on interesting projects. Run and/or participate in critique groups. Give a workshop. Teach. Align yourself with a good mentor and then pay it back by mentoring others.

Myron Michael is a poet and essayist who studied with me at CCA. He won the Eastern Iowa Review’s experimental essay award. His advice:

Make time to write. All of the good things.

Rheea Mukherjee, who studied with me at CCA, just published an engaging first book of short stories, Transit for Beginners, from Kitaab International in Singapore. Rheea lives in Bangalore, India. Her advice:

It’s an essential time for writers to explore “the other”—mentally, physically, spiritually, and politically. Stepping into the shoes of the unknown and writing from that perspective can bring new potential and purpose to writing and its place in our world. 

Mae Remme studied with me at UAA. Her recent works include a powerful prose poem, “Bloody Marys,” in Tethered by Letters. Mae’s advice:

When inspiration hits, even if the timing isn't right to sit and put it all on paper (or screen) take note. I have too often thought I would never forget an idea only to later lose the line, image, or revision. And one of the many things Zack advised that stuck was even if a revision comes to mind after you submit or publish a piece, still make the revision for future opportunities.  

Lisa Stice was my mentee at UAA. Her first book of poems, Uniform, from Aldrich Press, deals with the moving experiences of the wife of a U.S. Marine. Her advice:

Don’t give up on writing or submitting. There’s going to be writer’s block. Push through and be open to what you need to write, instead of what you want to write. There will be rejection. Once you find your niche as a writer, you’ll more easily find the journals and publishers that are right for your work.

Laura Wetherington was a Lunch Poems intern at UC Berkeley. Her book A Map Predetermined and Chance was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books. Her advice:

Write everyday, even if just for five minutes. A daily practice keeps the creative pump primed.

I feel so lucky for all the amazing students I’ve worked with in my teaching and mentoring. I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to keep the river running.—Zack

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Reflections on Bob Dylan Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

On the one hand…I’m absolutely thrilled. It feels like an incredible affirmation of the beliefs and aesthetic that I cut my teeth on. I remember listening over and over to Dylan’s albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited in the late 1960s.

One of my most vivid Dylan memories is hanging out in a café in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the summer of 1970 with the temperature 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius), drinking a peach and kefir drink over ice and listening to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album again and again, since it was the only record they had.

Bob Dylan’s music was so much a part of the counterculture and radical politics of the 1960s that it feels like the Nobel Prize went to the entire movement, as if the award actually belongs in that café in Morocco or to the be-ins in Central Park with acid heads gyrating like helicopters in clothes as multicolored as reptile skins.

Dylan is the master of the kiss-off-your-old-lover song, a particular variation on the ballad that he perfected:

When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry, and it was your world.

(“Just Like a Woman”)

He has that lovely snarl in his voice that sounds like Woody Guthrie reincarnated as a schnauzer. I think many of the best recordings of Dylan’s songs are by women, like Etta James’s rendition of “Gotta Serve Somebody” or the jazz vocalist Barbara Sfraga’s almost a capella version of “Every Grain of Sand” or Mary Travers shaking her blond Niagara while she croons “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Something about the combination of Dylan’s hard edge and the heart of a great chanteuse feels like justice to me. Has anyone  yet compiled the Women Sing Dylan anthology?

Bob Dylan freed poetry from the prison of the page. He is a modern troubadour, a true successor to the Provençal poets who roamed the hill towns of Southern France in the Middle Ages using their lutes to find rhyming forms that had never existed, even in Granada.

On the other hand…every literary prize always makes me think almost more of the writers who didn’t win or have never received that honor. What about the novelists and essayists and poets who’ve done the hard work of assembling a lifetime of work, an entire shelf of words. What has Bob Dylan written to compare to Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto and memoir Truth & Beauty, for instance; or Tawara Machi, who has remade the ancient tanka form; or Argentina’s Ana María Shua, the master of flash fiction and author of more than forty books?

Ana María Shua
Not to mention Leonard Cohen, who, like Bob Dylan, has married poetry and song lyrics in his own way, maybe with more compassion and wisdom.

In the end, isn’t the whole point of the Nobel Prize for Literature that it gets us to read writers whose work we wouldn’t know otherwise? And since we already know Dylan, every phase of his work from folk to rock to neo-country, more numerous than Picasso’s periods, what has the world gained by this award? Isn’t this a missed opportunity to introduce the community of readers to a neglected genius?

Maybe. But I still get a thrill every time I hear “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Basket Poem

Not long ago I wrote a blog where I talked about Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem, “I Hear America Singing.” In discussing this poem, I realized that it’s actually part of a category of poems that I would call “basket poems.”

In a basket poem, a writer comes up with a container that many different events or things can be gathered in. For example, in Whitman’s poem, he collects incidents where he hears or imagines Americans singing while they work. In the first line, Whitman describes the basket that he’s going to use to assemble all these images:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear

Then he proceeds to put one incident after another into his basket:

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the      steamboat deck…

All in all, Whitman describes eleven different types of workers, each with a different task, each with a different song.

I can imagine Whitman getting the idea for this poem by hearing two or three of these singers during a stroll around his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He then either stayed attentive to others who sing while they work, or invented or remembered the rest. Whitman’s basket for this poem is: American worker singing. The poem becomes an assortment of these different carolers, each one representing the dignity and joy of honest, democratic labor. It’s a sort of innocent socialist realism, before there was actually such a thing as socialist realism. Maybe we could call it “socialist lyricism.”

Interestingly, the poem does not arbitrarily list these workers and their songs. It begins with the heavier sorts of labor: mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman. It then becomes somewhat more domestic and rural, and the time of day changes to a later hour, the end of the workday:

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown…

Then the singer/workers become distinctively female:

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing…

Finally Whitman ends the poem not with daytime labor but with the fun and leisure of the nighttime after work is done:

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s poem is an excellent template for a basket poem:

1) Choose a category of images, incidents, objects, or phrases.
2) Collect a satisfyingly diverse assortment of like objects or phrases in your basket.
3) Sort the objects in the basket so they form a sort of order.
4) Begin and/or end with an object or phrase or image that doesn’t quite match the others, that provides some closure, some break in the list.

You might ask, “What’s the difference between a basket poem and a list poem?” Well, a list poem could also be a basket poem. But a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list. I wouldn’t exactly call “I Hear America Singing” a list, though it has list-like qualities. In fact, a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list at all.

I’m thinking about Mary Ruefle’s poem, “Merengue.” After the first three introductory lines, the whole poem is a series of questions. 

Mary Ruefle
You could hardly call this poem a list. But I would call it a basket poem, since Mary Ruefle collected questions that interested her, put them in her poetic basket, and formed a poem out of them. Here is the middle section of the poem:

Did you learn how to cut a pineapple,
open a coconut?
Did you carry a body once it had died?
For how long and how far?
Did you do the merengue?
Did you wave at the train?
Did you finish the puzzle, or save it for morning?

All these experiences seem like possibilities for fairly simple activities that we could know in a lifetime. The poem’s implicit question is, to my mind, “Have you lived life to its fullest, or have you failed to experience many wonderful things?” What’s lovely about the poem is that this most important question is left unasked. Was it Alice Notley who said, “What you want to say in a poem is what you should leave out”? “Merengue” is a fine example of that.

Like Whitman, Mary Ruefle begins and ends her poems with lines that don’t fit in the same category as her basket, which is questions about simple actions. She starts and ends the poem with declarations, allowing for both an introduction to her list at the beginning, and closure at the end. She also prepares us for the ending by tackling bigger issues in the last two questions:

Have you been born?
What book will you be reading when you die?

Although the last question might seem somewhat random, it does continue the subject of life and death that the previous, ambiguous question broaches.

Basket poems can take a surprisingly long to time write. It may happen that the category you choose to put into your basket is a fairly obscure one. The more esoteric the basket, the longer it will probably take to fill. Remember to sort the objects—they can’t all be equal or have the same resonance, or you will have nothing more than a shopping list. Once you have collected all your objects or phrases in the basket, you might also have to add or subtract in order to form the pattern that the objects seem to want to be part of.

Other recent posts about writing topics:

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to Be An American Writer, Part 9: Conclusion

In this series of blogs, I’ve talked about four different approaches that American writers have taken toward U.S. society:
1) Expatriates
2) Populists

3) Internal exiles
4) Critics and satirists

I don’t mean to suggest that these approaches are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think many U.S. writers partake of two or even all of these attitudes at one time or another in their literary careers. On the other hand, there are American writers who don’t fit into any of these categories.

In this blog, I’m going to try to make some generalizations and draw some conclusions about these four approaches.

The Balance among These Approaches Has Changed
An interesting sidelight to these four approaches is how the balance among them has changed over the years. In the 1920s, for instance, there were probably as many leading American writers living in Europe as in the United States. These days, there are very few expatriate writers, and even the ones who do live abroad often spend only half the year overseas. For instance, the poet Marilyn Hacker lives in Paris, but only part-time. Why this shift away from the expatriate writer?

The Expatriates Won
Well, for one thing, I think the expatriates won. They waged their struggle to convince Americans that the customs and tolerance of Europe and the Mediterranean are in many ways more conducive to the good life. Nowadays, almost every American city contains elements of what used to be only available in sophisticated Europe—a diversity of lifestyles, for example. Not to mention the espresso machine; the croissant; yogurt; shallots and radicchio; artisan goat cheeses; fine wine, beer, and liqueurs. And the profusion of art galleries. It’s not necessary anymore to be an expatriate to partake of all these pleasures. There’s a quite a lot of what you can get of Paris or Florence right at your local Whole Foods Store, café, or gallery.

But the Populists Are Now the Largest Group
Looking at the lists of American writers and which ones take which approach, I think it’s safe to say that the populists are by far the plurality now, if not an outright majority. Why? The resurgence of writing by women and by people of color and in the LGBTQ community has re-energized writing about moments that matter in everyday U.S. life and the stories of Americans. Not only that, the victory of the expatriates in terms of lifestyles has made it largely unnecessary for U.S. writers to go abroad in order to find the tolerance, sophistication, and artistic ambiance they sought in 1920s Paris. 

There Are Fewer Literary Satirists and Critics
I think the ranks of the satirists and critics have also thinned compared to previous decades. Television and the Internet have become more likely venues for satire and criticism than literature. Satire and criticism are so time constrained—what’s funny or politically astute this week is not necessarily even comprehensible in a few months. So why try to immortalize it in literature? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it has to be done now with more of an eye to what is universal in the satire or the criticism than was the case in the past. Literary reformers are sometimes the victims of their own success, and the conditions they protest change and sometimes even disappear.

So, Where Does This Leave American Writers?
Should we be booking passage on the next cruise ship to Europe in order to hang out at a Left Bank café? Should we wave the flag on Main Street? Should we retreat to a homestead where our only neighbors are grizzlies? Should we mercilessly mock all that is sacred in American life? The point of these blogs is not so much to recommend any of these approaches. Instead, I’m hoping that you will recognize in some of the writers I’ve discussed some impulses of your own, and come to know them better.

I think that each of the four approaches that I’ve described has its strengths and weaknesses, and we can learn something about our selves as writers from considering those.

Expatriates—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths of the expatriate, for instance, are sophistication and tolerance. The expatriate usually accepts a range of human facets and pursuits more comprehensive and accepting than what is often welcome in much of the United States. The weakness of the expatriate, from my standpoint, is that this stance can lean toward snobbism, or even elitism with regard to Main Street. There is a sort of disdain for the common American in some expatriates that risks losing what is genuine and democratic in the U.S. experience.
Read more about U.S. expatriate writers >

Populists—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strong point of the populist, on the other hand, is an appreciation for exactly the quality that the expatriate is somewhat indifferent to—the authenticity, camaraderie, and egalitarian impulses of America. Along with the populist attitude goes enthusiasm for the diversity of U.S. society. The weak spot of the populist, I would say, is a certain naïveté, a willingness to ignore what is materialistic and gruff in American society.
Read more about U.S. populist writers >

Internal Exiles—Strengths and Weaknesses
The forte of the internal exile is uncompromising, high principles. The internal exile has the ability to tell the truth about America’s destructive and overly mercantile tendencies. Sometimes the internal exile has an inspiring prophetic side. The internal exile is also sometimes an advocate for nature over wanton human development. The downside of the internal exile is a sort of misanthropy—painting all of the urban experience with a brush that is too wide and too negative. I think some internal exiles are open to the criticism that they are blind to the benefits of diversity in the United States.
Read more about U.S. internal exile writers >

Satirists and Critics—Strengths and Weaknesses
The satirist or critic’s strong point is being able to instruct at the same time he or she makes us laugh. The satirist does not let cultural icons go unchallenged. There is a bravery in that willingness to take on the powers that be. The Achilles’ heel of the satirist, for me, is an occasional blindness to the small, meaningful moments that the populist celebrates. There can also be elitist undertones to some satires or criticisms of American life.
Read more about U.S. writers who are satirists and critics >

Whichever approach to being an American writer feels familiar and comfortable, consider learning from the other approaches as well. Whatever the approach, it’s crucial to appreciate what is true in the other viewpoints.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8