Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Tim Hunt Guest Blog: What the Poem Gives Us Through Writing It

The following blog is a wonderful guest post from poet and Professor Emeritus Tim Hunt.

Poet Tim Hunt

Poetry readings often end with the host inviting questions, and after an awkward pause, someone asks the reader or readers about their writing process. Some of us, it turns out, revise diligently, others less so or not at all. And some of us write at a set time in a specific place like reciting morning prayers or punching a time clock, while others wait for the lightning strike of inspiration, then scribble the gift to paper as the thunder fades away. Well, as my uncles in the California hill country would advise when I was a boy: There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and it seems that poetry can, just like that figurative cat, be skinned more ways than one.

Looking back, I realize I should have thought to ask my uncles: Why skin a cat? And with poetry, too, there’s a prior question: Why write it? Maybe we skip this question because we believe we already know the answer. We write to express ourselves. Or because we have something to say. These responses share an assumption. In both, the writer has something prior to the poem and gives it to the poem—crafting, encoding, and decorating the gift—then offering it to the reader. The trick, it seems, is to have something worthwhile enough to justify shaping it into a poem. But maybe there’s another answer. Perhaps we write to discover through the writing of the poem. Perhaps we write for the gift the poem might give us through the writing of it. As a corollary, we also write for the gift the poem might give the reader through the reading of it.

In William Stafford’s often anthologized poem, “Traveling Through the Dark,” the poem’s speaker comes around a blind curve on a mountain road where he stops to roll a dead deer into a canyon because “that road is narrow: to swerve might make more dead.” He then discovers that the dead doe is carrying a still living, unborn fawn:


Beside that mountain road I hesitated. 

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;

around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.


I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—

then pushed her over the edge into the river. 

William Stafford, “Traveling through the Dark” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1998 by William Stafford.  


I don’t think Stafford wrote this poem to express himself by revealing his conflicted state as he confronted the necessity of killing the fawn he couldn’t save. Nor do I think he wrote it to tell us that we should act and not hesitate when confronted with difficult choices. I do think, actually I believe, that Stafford wrote this poem to probe the situation and explore his responses to it. And through the writing of the poem as a mode of attention and process of engagement—through the process of writing it—Stafford not only reenters his experience but expands his awareness of it. One aspect of this is the way the poem leads him to hear the wilderness as a being, rather than simply as a setting. For Stafford, this in turns meant thinking “hard for all of us,” with the “us” implicitly including nature’s being, even as this moment of thinking, this hesitation to act, is a kind of “swerving.”

And it is precisely here that the poem offers its gift to Stafford in the writing of it—and to us, in the reading of it. Through writing the poem, Stafford both hears the wilderness and accepts that this requires thinking from within its being. Yet this moment of thinking, this hesitation, even the temptation to evade, is where his humane desire to preserve life threatens to overwrite his heightened awareness of—and acceptance of—necessity, and thus threatens to become a kind of sentimentality. In the poem, the opposite of “swerving” is acceptance. I’d suggest that acceptance is the gift the poem gave Stafford through the writing of it, and the gift it offers us through the engaged experience it enacts as we read it.

Just as there is more than one way to skin that figurative cat, there is more than one way to write a poem—and more than one reason for writing one. We may have a point to make and want to make it as forcefully as we can. Or we may need to work through an emotion. Or we may want to capture an intense moment of perception. Each of these involve taking something known and framing it into evocative language. But we can also write by taking something that has resonance for us—a moment we recall, or an image, or a phrase—and engage that through writing the poem, exploring as we go, and accepting whatever gifts of insight, discovery, or even just intensified awareness the poem might offer us. Writing to express a point or confess an emotion can lead us to treat the poem as a road we travel to reach a destination. Writing to engage through writing is to discover a destination—one that often takes us beyond the map.

Tim Hunt’s six poetry collections include Western Where and Voice to Voice in the Dark (both Broadstone Books) and Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes (winner of the 2018 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award). Originally from the hill country of Northern California, he and his wife Susan live in Normal, Illinois. 


Zack’s new memoir, Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Don’t Be the John Cleveland of Your Time

Do you know who John Cleveland was? If you don’t, you’re not alone. John Cleveland (1613–1658) was the most popular poet in the English language in the seventeenth century. His work was so widely read that his collection of poems went through twenty editions in his time—and books were luxury items then. 

John Cleveland
John Cleveland was part of the most acclaimed group of writers of his time, a school called the Metaphysical Poets. Ironically, the Metaphysical Poets were best known for their seduction poems. Think Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” The Metaphysical Poets were enormously popular in the 1600s in England, but Cleveland’s work is hardly ever read these days. 

What should that tell us about how we should be writing today? Well, it could tell us that just because a poet is wildly popular in the present day, it doesn’t mean that their work will last, or even that it’s good. 

On the other hand, Emily Dickinson wrote about 1800 poems, only ten of which were published in her lifetime. During Emily Dickinson’s own era of the late nineteenth century, her work was known mainly to a small circle of her literati friends in the Northeast of the United States. Today her work is internationally read, appreciated, and discussed. So what should that tell us? Again, often a writer’s fame in their own lifetime is not a measure of the quality of their work. Emily Dickinson’s writing was so daring in its style and subject matter that she didn’t publish most of it while she was alive. Her work has endured precisely because it had qualities that made it difficult to put into print in her day. 

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
I take these two contrasting trajectories for a writer’s reputation as a cautionary tale. If your work is in lock step with the literary fashions of your day, that may make your writing popular for a limited time. It’s no guarantee that your work will endure, however. To my mind, the writing that lasts surprises us in its style and content, and it also resonates with the deepest human impulses, emotions, and situations—not with literary fads. 

There are other reasons why Cleveland fell out of favor, and Dickinson has staying power. Cleveland’s style feels outmoded today since he often wrote in heroic couplets (ten-syllable, clinkety-clankety verses that predictably rhyme AABBCC, etc.). He was also an avid supporter of the monarch Charles I, who was beheaded in a revolution because of his insistence on the divine right of kings, so Cleveland was on the losing side of history as well. Dickinson, on the other hand, was an independent and bold woman long before that was looked upon favorably, she was an iconoclast in her religious beliefs, and she invented her own style that still feels modern, using slant rhyme and unexpected diction. Writers who are ahead of their time in their technique and ideas also stand a better chance of being read in the long run.  

I don’t mean to suggest, though, that John Cleveland’s poetry is completely unworthy of readers. He’s a minor writer, to my mind, but I do enjoy a couple of his poems. I particularly like “Fuscara, or the Bee Errant,” where a bee sensually explores the exposed arms of the speaker’s beloved. When the bee alights on

The mystic figures of her hand,
He tipples palmistry and dines
On all her fortune-telling lines. 


Zack’s new memoir, Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Literary Cryonics: “Freeze” the Work You Can’t Finish

The pseudoscience of cryonics advocates freezing human bodies in the hope of resurrecting them in the future. (Cryonics is sometimes mistakenly called cryogenics, which is actually the science of very low temperatures.) The idea of cryonics is to preserve a person’s body until the condition that caused their death can be cured. While most scientists believe this idea is impractical from a biological standpoint, I think there is some value in this idea for writers, in a purely metaphorical way.

I often work on a literary project for a long time without arriving at a satisfactory draft, no matter how often or how hard I work on it. The project is “dead,” so to speak. That can happen because the ending just doesn’t fulfill or match the build-up that precedes it. Or a work can feel unfinished because I haven’t established a deep enough emotional connection to the subject or the characters. Or maybe I don’t know enough about the actual life situation that I’m trying to write about. The reality is, I more often leave a literary project unfinished than I complete one. Let’s face it—it’s just damn hard to bring a work of writing to a successful conclusion.

So, throw those nasty rejects out, right? Who wants to be reminded of their failures? But not so fast!

I have a folder where I keep all my unfinished projects. They are “frozen” in the sense that I don’t often look at them or bring them to life in my thought process. Every once in a while, however, I go back to something I wrote years ago and see new possibilities that had alluded me when I last looked at it. That might be because I have the advantage of time to see the work with more distance and objectivity. It could also be because I have experienced more in the interim, and I hope, learned a thing or two about writing, about myself, or maybe even about life. For whatever reason, a work that remained an unsolvable puzzle for me sometimes suddenly falls into place. More precisely, I can see that a solution might be in reach if I just spend a little more time digging deeper into that project.


So, if a work feels frustratingly inadequate, despite all your best efforts, don’t give up on it. “Freeze” it—keep it somewhere you can go back over it in the fullness of time. Years or even decades later, you might find a cure for what ails it.

Monday, June 10, 2024

The Poetry of the American Songbook

The music of my childhood was the American Songbook, the ballads of Broadway and Hollywood musicals. While sipping extra dry martinis and smoking her unfiltered Pall Malls, my mother played vinyl albums of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Those singers crooned the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Irving Mills, and so many more.

Those songs were our psalms, the daily orisons we heard every day:

Once you warned me that if you scorned me

I’d say a lonely prayer again

And wish that you were there again

To get into my hair again

It never entered my mind


Lorenz Hart, “It Never Entered My Mind,” 1940


Interestingly, those rhymes follow the pattern of Hebrew prayers such as the Schehecheyanu, with the rhyming sound appearing before a repeated end word.

The romantic ballads of the American songbook also had a sophistication and wit that sparked my love of words and poetry:


Imagine all the lonely years I’ve wasted

Fishing for salmon

Losing at backgammon


What joys untasted!

My nights were sour

Spent with Schopenhauer


Ira Gershwin, “Isn’t It a Pity?” 1930


The lyrics often featured naked emotion and double entendres, at a time when that was very risqué. The verses crossed boundaries of gender and sexuality before those issues were openly discussed:

I’ve got you under my skin

I’ve got you deep in the heart of me

So deep in my heart, you're really a part of me

Cole Porter, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” 1936

Interestingly, this song was written by a man, and often covered by male singers such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Frankie Valli.

Often the lyrics of the American Songbook have a bittersweet flavor that tasted like the world of my upbringing. Our family had Jewish immigrant roots, like so many of the lyricists and composers of the American Songbook. We had found prosperity and acceptance in North America, but with the ghosts of persecution and trauma lingering from the past.


When I started studying at Yale University in 1970 and began majoring in English, that poetry I had known from the lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter had no place in our literature classrooms. That was ironic, because Cole Porter was not only a Yale alum, he had written several of Yale’s football fight songs, still sung then:


Bulldog!  Bulldog!

Bow, wow, wow—

Eli Yale.

Bulldog!  Bulldog!

Bow, wow, wow—

Our team can never fail.


But my elbow-patched professors preferred the stark poetry of the Lost Generation, the era of early modernism, when writers like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound took a skeptical view of popular culture and the milieu of the masses and urban life.


Another aspect of the American Songbook that modernism scorned was rhyme. Even “sonnets” now are not rhymed. It’s true, rhyme gave poetry a jingle-jangle quality that only detracted from the seriousness and elegance of the diction, when used in a facile way. But rhyme in the best of the American Songbook lyrics is a source of delight and an intellectual exercise. The rhyme often required an incredibly ingenious bending of words:


Just declaim a few lines from Othella

And they'll think you're a hell of a fella

If your blonde won't respond when you flatter ’er

Tell her what Tony told Cleopatterer


Cole Porter, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” 1948

The verses of the American Songbook were great, but I don’t think anyone would argue that current literary journals should be publishing rhymed lyrics of that sort. What I do think is that the best characteristics of the American Songbook can still help create great poems—wit, frank emotion, sensuality, great stories, and yes, maybe even rhymed verse—you could intersperse it!

Zack’s new memoir, Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Richard Chiappone on Why I Write Fiction, and How I Read Fiction

This post is a guest blog from author Richard Chiappone, whose most recent book is a collection of short stories, Uncommon Weather, now available for preorder from University of Alaska Press.

Richard Chiappone

“The person, be it gentleman or a lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.” —Jane Austen


I agree with Jane Austen that novels (or in my case, more often short stories) can bring great pleasure. But being neither a lady, nor much of a gentleman, and having no fear of being called intolerably stupid (I’ve heard it said!), I can report that—for me as a writer—great books can bring me great pleasure, but also propel me into fits of despair at the thought of ever writing another word myself.

Which brings me to the subject of why I write in the first place. I’m sure Jane would find my soul-searching unmanly, and would judge me an unsuitable suitor for any of the Bennett sisters. But here goes.

I think that after thirty years, I understand now that I write fiction to find out what’s important to me, what I value. I do that by putting fictitious characters in fictitious situations that cause them to act and reveal something about themselves in the process. What that reveals, I’m finding more and more, is that these characters are almost always—like real people—in need of something they don't yet have, or they are trying to hang onto something they fear they might lose.


One quote I like a lot is: “A man is what he desires…” which was said by the Theosophist Annie Besant. (Note: Theosophy is not the study of guys named Theodore.) And what do humans desire? They want to be treated decently, they want to be respected, and with luck maybe even loved. The want companionship. They want loyalty from their friends and families. Simply put, they want to be wanted. (I know that sounds like a Peter Frampton song.) And what I’ve learned about myself is that I care for my characters and hope they get what they want, and I’m a little sad when things don't work out for them. I think that’s called empathy.  


But I don't write just to prove that again and again by producing scenarios that confirm my own theories. I also write to see how that empathy can be generated by nothing more than words on a page. I’m astounded by the miracle when it occurs. Because, more than anyone, I know intellectually that my people don't exist and never have. What interests me is the challenge of making myself—and hopefully my readers—come to actually care about them, in spite of that.


And that’s how I read now. I read looking for clues about how other writers convince their readers (and me) to care about fictitious people. What makes us weep for self-destructive Emma Bovary or exult in the pluckiness of young Jane Eyre or Huck Finn?  And I read books to steal everything I can from them.


That results in two things:


1) I avoid books that are not character driven, even great authors who are more interested in form or language than in their own characters. I studied experimental writers when I  was a student—Donald Barthelme, John Barth, William Gass, Robert Coover, and others—and I still admire their spectacular accomplishment. But I’m just not interested in writing those kinds of stories (nor smart enough to do them well). And, of course, I don't read plot-driven books that reveal little or nothing about the inner life of their characters.


2) Basically, I just don't read fictions for pleasure anymore. In fact, I don't actually read fiction; I study fictions.


I don't read for pleasure anymore because I’m almost always aware of the writer behind the words on the page. If the writing is good and the characters are interesting, I may suspend disbelief and get caught up in the story at times, but only briefly. Then some word or some structural choice or narrative strategy catches my eye, and I’m thinking about how effective it is or isn’t. It’s a curse. I can never be truly entertained by books. I treat them like objects to learn from. For that reason, I can't read badly written books. I believe that you’ll never write books any better than the last book you read. Which is why I avoid books I wouldn’t want to put my name on. It’s like trying to eat food I’d be embarrassed to serve to guests.


Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that reading great books will make a reader into a great writer. If that were true, every William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, or Alice Munro scholar would be a Nobel Prize-winning author. But it will make each of us the most empathetic writer we can be. And I guess, in the end, that’s what’s really important to me.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Writing a Memoir about Someone I Hardly Knew

I recently published the memoir Hugging My Father’s Ghost, about my dad, the writer Lee Rogow. The biggest challenge I faced in writing this book was that I hardly knew my father. Lee Rogow was a widely published fiction writer, drama critic for the Hollywood Reporter, glamorous man-about-town in Manhattan of the 1950s, captain of a submarine-chaser in World War II—and he died tragically in a plane crash when I was only three years old. 

Lee Rogow at his typewriter
I have only one memory of my dad, his making what he called “mish-mosh soup” in the kitchen, a blend of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle and Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Not only did I lack recollections of my dad, but by the time I started writing my memoir, those who knew my father best had passed away long ago.

I realized that in order to assemble a three-dimensional picture of my father, I would have to create a collage of different materials, many of them not traditionally part of memoir writing. In fact, the books that provided the best template for Hugging My Father’s Ghost were not works of nonfiction at all, but literary fictions.

I borrowed liberally from two authors whose writings I love: W.G. Sebald and Manuel Puig. Puig, in books like Heartbreak Tango and Kiss of the Spider Woman, stretched the limits of the novel by inserting other kinds of text into his narratives. Puig invented newspaper articles, police reports, summaries of schlocky Hollywood flicks, diaries, and letters. All of that went into his books. W.G. Sebald also used collages in his fictions. One of my favorites is the “Ambros Adelwarth” section of Sebald’s book The Emigrants, about a star-crossed gay uncle who moved from Germany to the United States. Sebald has a way of suddenly plunking a vintage photograph or postcard down into his prose that I find absolutely haunting. Both Sebald and Puig may have been influenced by earlier experiments in fiction by John Dos Passos, including his U.S.A. trilogy of novels, which feature a mélange of newspaper headlines, vignettes, and “newsreels,” as well as more traditional narrative.

In my memoir about my dad, I used all of the techniques I borrowed (stole?) from Puig and Sebald. Instead of collaging invented material, though, I used documentary material. My memoir includes a mix of my father’s World War II diary, actual magazine clippings, old family photos, a letter my mom wrote my dad after his death, and writings by my father that he never published. Carbon copies of his typewritten manuscripts sat moldering in my sister’s basement for many, many decades before I chose many of them for this memoir. (My dad died in 1955.)


All those puzzle pieces helped create a more complete picture of my father. But while I was fitting those pieces together, voices kept appearing in my head. Most of the time, hearing voices is not a good thing. But for a writer, it’s the best thing. Writers have to pay the closest attention to those voices, and build a comfortably furnished living room in their thoughts for those voices so they will declaim, make jokes, argue with one another, and lament. My father became a character in conversations that I could hear in my head, and some of those conversations were with me. I also included those scenes in my memoir. There, I drew more on the techniques of theater.


So, Hugging My Father’s Ghost turned out to be a hybrid memoir, a memoir that mixes genres. The hybrid memoir is something of a trendy term right now. I didn’t set out to do anything experimental when I wrote this book, though. I was just trying to make something with very few ingredients to work with, like when you have to cook dinner with only what’s left in the fridge. I hope readers find this book tasty. Even though there is sharp tragedy in the memoir, my father was a very funny man, and I could not have created a true portrait of him without a lot of laugh-out-loud humor. Given the emotional charge of the material about my dad, writing this memoir was certainly the most cathartic experience I’ve ever had as a writer.

Publisher’s webpage for Hugging My Father’s Ghost