Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Homage to Chana Bloch

The world lost a wonderful member of the literary community in 2017—Chana Bloch, poet, translator, and teacher of generations of creative writers and students of literature. I attended her memorial on October 8, 2017, at Mills College, where Chana taught for more than thirty years. It was moving to see women who had studied with Chana decades ago returning to campus to recount how Chana had changed their lives, including professionals who did not end up as writers but were still profoundly shaped by the experience of working with her.

Chana Bloch
Chana had a fantastic sense of humor, and she was a modest person, free of pretention, despite her numerous accomplishments. Chana collaborated on some of the best contemporary translations of Hebrew poetry. The English version of Yehuda Amichai’s collection Open Closed Open that she created with Chana Kronfeld is to me one of the finest literary translations of contemporary poetry into English. A friend told a story at Chana’s memorial about this book: Amichai was terminally ill while the two Chanas were working on the translation. The poet was pressuring them to finish so he could see his best collection in English before he died. According to the speaker at the memorial, Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld resisted the demands of the great Hebrew poet, knowing they would probably only have one chance to get the translation right, since books of poetry in translation rarely go into multiple editions. As it turned out, the Chanas finished their work to their satisfaction, and Amichai lived to see the book in print.

Chana Bloch’s translation in collaboration with Ariel Bloch of The Song of Songs is one of the most beautiful renditions of a biblical text into English. Their version brings out the freshness of the language and the imagery, and returns the romance and the raunch to The Song of Songs:

Let me lie among vine blossoms,
in a bed of apricots!
I am in the fever of love.           

This book of the Hebrew Bible is often bowdlerized in translation till the sensuality becomes only symbolic or veiled. Chana was determined to create a nakedly beautiful Song of Songs, and she succeeded. 

Chana Bloch’s own poetry is full of tantalizing complexity. The poet Judy Halebsky spoke at the memorial, recalling that she had asked Chana when she was a student at Mills College about an emotion that she was trying to express in a poem, which had not yet come across as she’d intended. Chana told her, “Every emotion is actually two conflicting emotions.” That’s not only true in life, it’s true in Chana’s poetry as well.

In Chana’s poem “The Joins,” included in her collection Blood Honey, she refers to the Japanese art of kintsugi, a method of repairing broken pottery where the seams are sprinkled with gold dust to create a gorgeous pattern out of the breaks. From the first line of the poem, Chana makes clear that she is speaking in metaphor:

What’s between us
often seems flexible as the webbing
between forefinger and thumb.

Seems flexible, but it’s not;
what’s between us
is made of clay

Human relationships are almost always Chana’s subject. Even though she’s talking about a technique in pottery, the poem is clearly about breakage—emotional, psychic, global:

We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history

In Chana Bloch’s poetry, she begins with the assumption that we are all wounded. But by recognizing those injuries, by learning from the pain, we can reach a state that might even be better than innocence:

Sometimes the joins
are so exquisite

they say the potter
may have broken the cup
just so he could mend it.

A couple of times Chana visited a class I taught regularly on contemporary world poetry at a college in San Francisco, where she spoke about the writing of Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch that she had cotranslated. I have to confess I was a little jealous of how instantaneously my students bonded with Chana, a stronger connection than I’d been able to weave during an entire semester. I think that ability to win the trust of students came from Chana’s piercing intellect, her genuine warmth, and her disarmingly frank comments, delivered in her Bronx accent. It just wasn’t in Chana’s constitution to be anything less than completely honest, as a professor, a poet, and a friend. I miss her. 

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 TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Monday, November 6, 2017

Reflections on the First Asian Literature Festival, Gwangju, South Korea, November 2017

I had the good fortune to be invited to speak at the First Asian Literature Festival, held in Gwangju, South Korea, from November 1 to 4, 2017. Convened by the conference organizer, the distinguished Korean poet Ko Un, the festival brought together topnotch writers from several Asian countries, including South Korea, China, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, and Mongolia. The festival also included authors such as France’s Claude Mouchard and Spain’s Antonio Colinas, writers who have a deep and enduring interest in Asian literature. 

Writers and festival staff at Mudeung-San, a mountain near Gwangju, South Korea
Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka from Nigeria gave the keynote address. He has a resounding basso voice, and a virtuoso ability with language that commands attention, not to mention a lofty physique surmounted by a white afro, which Ko Un described as a cloud of hair. Soyinka underlined two major problems for the world literary community: the one-sided view of culture by many in the West who see no reason to go beyond the walls of their own circles, and the threat to the freedom of imagination and speech from totalitarian forces, both religious and political power-hungry fanatics whom Soyinka called “anti-minds.”

“I know you, but do you know us?” Soyinka said, challenging the exclusiveness of the Western canon. “That is, I know Dante, I know Homer, I know the Symbolists, the Imagists, the Romantics. I know your Shakespeare, I know Baudelaire, I know Racine, I know T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gogol, Mangakis, and I know Proust…but do you know us? That is, do you know Sundiata? Gilgamesh? Mahabharata? Do you know Kahlil Gibran? Do you know the writings of Tierno Bokar, the Sage of Bandiagara? Do you know the Ozidi Epic? Do you even know the Legend of Chaka the Zulu or indeed the narratives of Fagunwa?

One magical part of this conference was Ko Un's role as organizer and host. He not only created intellectual and artistic sparks throughout the festival, he gave the invited writers a personal tour of his Korea. Ko Un showed us a South Korea that has bled to achieve democracy, a country with great natural and cultural treasures.

We began the conference with a visit to the May 18th National Cemetery, where the fallen of the 1980 rebellion are buried. That uprising resulted in a brief and free commune in the city of Gwangju, violently repressed by the military government’s forces after ten days.

The cemetery for the victims of that suppression is deeply stirring, with photos by the grave of each victim of the dictatorship’s repression in Gwangju, many of them not even old enough to attend high school or college when they were murdered. 

Ko Un at the grave of his friend who took part in the Gwangju uprising in 1980
It was moving to follow Ko Un through the burial ground as he stopped at the grave of each friend who had fallen or been imprisoned, giving details of their lives: Tae-il Jo, whom Ko Un characterized as a heavy drinker who took part in the protests on the streets of Gwangju; and Han-Bong Yun, a poet whom Ko Un knew in jail as such a principled purist that he cleaned his cell three times a day. Ko Un slapped the latter’s gravestone and said, “Take care.”

You might think that keeping up with a poet born in 1933 wouldn’t be that difficult, but you’d be wrong in the case of Ko Un. Two days later he led us on an amazing odyssey around the countryside near Gwangju, not one of us able to keep pace with him on the hikes. We visited Mudeung-san, a mountain known for its columns of granite, the tawny-tufted reeds that grow in its meadows, a candlelight procession against military rule that switchbacked up the slopes, and a down-to-earth monk who used to prowl its peaks centuries ago.

Nearby we stopped at Wonhyo Temple, the Zen monastery where Ko Un had been a monk in his youth. We sampled buckwheat tea, lotus flower tea, sugared ginger, and tangerine gelatin shaped in tiny flower molds, while we looked out over the mountains with the head monk. At that moment, stress seemed not to exist.

On that excursion Ko Un also took us through a bamboo forest in Damyang and recounted how an egalitarian circle of Chinese poets used to gather in a bamboo grove to read in the third century C.E.


Poet Cecilia Son recited a poem in the bamboo grove with the wind rushing through the leaves overhead, a wonderful accompaniment to the writing.

Ko Un’s nighttime reading in one of the four beautiful theaters in the new Asia Culture Center in Gwangju was one of the most energetic and engaging I can remember. That poet can scoop up an audience’s attention like no other, dominating a large stage and space.

In talking to many of the writers at the conference or reading their biographies, I was struck by how many of them had experienced either imprisonment, censorship, blacklisting, and/or exile by governments trying to silence them. Even torture, in the case of Ko Un. Getting to know these writers personally was eye-opening. I hear regularly about authors being deprived of the freedom to write, but to meet these wonderful people, and to know that they endured these terrible violations of their rights, reminded me keenly that we can never stop our vigilance in supporting freedom of speech wherever it is threatened.

The Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, site of the conference, was a fabulous venue for this event, which will continue on a biannual basis. Completed in 2015 and headed by its President Bang Sun-gyu, the center is a magnificent complex of theaters, art galleries, conference rooms, libraries, gardens, and offices, devoted to enhancing the knowledge of Asian arts. Designed by Kyu Sung Woo Architects, the center is located at the site of the final massacre of the 1980 democracy protestors. It is a moving memorial to those demonstrators, and a lasting embodiment of the free exchange of ideas that they fought for. As Wole Soyinka said in his keynote address, “When we set out into the realms of the imagination, we experience liberation at its most unsullied.…We are not only free, we see humanity as the very repository of Freedom.”

With Uriankhai Damdinsuren, poet from Mongolia
Writers at the 2017 Asian Literature Festival included:
Duo Duo (China)
Ko Un (South Korea, Chair of Organizing Committee)
Shams Langeroodi (Iran)
Claude Mouchard (France)
Zack Rogow (USA)
Sagawa Aki (Japan)
Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
Uriankhai Damdinsuren (Mongolia, recipient of first Asian Literature Award)

Ayu Utami (Indonesia)

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 TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ending Somewhere Different Than Where You Began

One of the key strategies in a work of literature is to start deliberately from a certain extreme place, and then end somewhere opposite by the end. In fiction or drama, this could involve a character or characters having a certain goal or outlook, and then finishing with an almost opposite state of mind by the climax of the story. An example would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the animals begin with an idealistic and egalitarian rebellion, and then their revolution becomes increasing compromised until the leaders of the farm are chowing down with the same farmers they overthrew.

In poetry, this transition from Point A to Point B often involves starting with a certain mood, emotion, or idea, and then shifting almost 180 degrees by the end of the poem. An example of a poem that does this beautifully is Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.” 

Robert Hass
At the start of the poem, the speaker defines a way of thinking that is current and popular in intellectual and artistic circles: “All the new thinking is about loss.” Hass goes on to describe how this sense of belonging to a fallen world without meaning has become pervasive:

The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea.…

…Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

At this point in the poem, we have hit a low point, a world in which even common words no longer seem to have any fixed or real significance, an idea that many contemporary writers and philosophers have propounded, such as the structuralist thinker Jacques Lacan, whose work became trendy in universities in the 1980s and 90s. 

But even as Robert Hass describes this idea, he starts to inch the poem in a different direction. Notice how carefully he describes the “bramble of blackberry.” The precise and original language he uses throughout builds a foundation that words actually are capable of describing something real.

The turning point in the poem comes in the next section:

After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed.

It’s one thing to give some credence to the idea that the word blackberry has lost its meaning, but when Hass adds the phrases woman, you and I, this suddenly calls up a memory for the speaker of an actual romantic encounter, with its unforgettable and remarkable particulars. Hass conveys the specifics of how that lovemaking felt on an emotional and spiritual level so clearly that we are no longer in the bloodless realm of philosophical skepticism. We are in a world where certain realities are too specific and compelling to be denied, and those facts sweep along with them even the almost trivial memories of the pleasure boat and the fish called pumpkinseed, the way a river’s current carries in it all sorts of flotsam.

The poem then concludes with almost a complete reversal of the world as initially described. Now the undeniable reality of that romantic episode ripples through all words, giving substance to the smallest mundane things:

There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Initially the blackberry was the perfect example of how words have become trivial and have lost their meaning. In just 31 lines, Robert Hass has taken us all the back way around to a state of grace where an everyday occurence, such as saying the word blackberry, testifies to the possibility of goodness and meaning in the world.


To make this point more generally, often when we writers are struggling with a draft, we haven’t yet found the potential opposites in the work. Those opposites can be implicit in an early draft, but buried. The challenge is to heighten and bring forward those contrasts, even if they seem extreme and scary. By emphasizing those polarities, and by being open to ending at a completely different point than where we started, we can surprise ourselves and the reader with a realization that can suddenly appear at the end, as unlikely as a rabbit in a top hat.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
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Putting Together a Book Manuscript
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How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Poetic Forms: The Villanelle

The villanelle is a beautiful and haunting form that began in French and took on its present shape in the mid-nineteenth century, according to Amanda French. It’s a demanding form in many ways. The first and third lines of the villanelle have to repeat throughout the poem in a set order. If the poet uses rhyme, only two rhymes are permitted in the entire poem.

The villanelle was originally a song form for country dances. The name derives from the Italian villano, which means “peasant” or “boor.” But there is nothing boorish about this form. It is very much like a country dance, though, with its deliberate repetitions and variations. Folk dances often take the participants through a series of steps that mirror one another from different angles and with different partners, but then wind up more or less where they started. 

French country dance
Here’s a video of a charming traditional French folk dance, for example, that has a theme and variations pattern similar to a villanelle. The pattern of the villanelle makes much more sense when you think about its origins in folk dance.

The Academy of American Poets website describes the form this way:

“The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.” 

Of course, slight variations on the repeated lines are allowed, even encouraged.

You’ve undoubtedly seen villanelles, even if you weren’t aware that was the form you were reading. Some of the most famous villanelles in English are “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

The most challenging aspect of the villanelle, from my standpoint, is that the refrains, the two lines that repeat, have to occur four times each in the space of the poem’s nineteen lines. Not only that, the two refrains have to rhyme.

One approach to these limitations is to choose refrains that are fairly general, and can reoccur in several contexts without stretching their meaning. W.H. Auden, for example, in his villanelle “If I Could Tell You,” begins his poem:

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Lines as general as “Time will say nothing but I told you so,” and  “If I could tell you I would let you know,” can make sense in many contexts, and Auden ingeniously creates several settings for these lines in his poem. 

W. H. Auden
That flexibility is a plus of a vanilla refrain. On the other hand, choosing fairly neutral refrains means that eight of your poem’s nineteen lines are something of a throwaway in terms of their poetic energy. 

To me, a more exciting solution to the villanelle’s restrictions is to pick two absolutely killer lines that bear repeating four times each. Dylan Thomas accomplishes this brilliantly:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In the first four words of the poem, he strategically violates the rules of grammar by using “gentle” instead of the adverb “gently” to modify the verb “go.” He also creates a sonorous but not predictable alliteration with “go,” “gentle,” and “good.” He embeds a paradox in just eight words: the “good night” is actually something to be resisted.

In Dylan Thomas’s second refrain, the repetition of the powerful word “Rage” at the start is unforgettable. It also adds assonance to the word “rave” in the previous line. “Light” and “night” are a dynamic pairing for the two main rhymes in the poem. 

The problem with the killer refrain is that it has to be complex enough—linguistically and emotionally—to merit all those repetitions.


Keep in mind that once you’ve written the first tercet, you’ve also written the last two lines of your villanelle, so plan ahead. Your two refrains have to work not only as a beginning but as an ending, and they have to continually surprise the reader. Easier said than done!

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
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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

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 cafĂ© 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