Short books and re-reading

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clockWhen life gets busy and over-scheduled, even an inveterate reader may find she has to give up some of her precious book time to life’s other adventures and responsibilities. Philosophy and meditation require enough time for reflective, slow thinking; a hectic week precludes such activities. Creative thinking gets funneled into problem solving of a more mundane and practical variety. Creative writing? It may have to move, temporarily one hopes, to a back burner.

Last week was one of those over-scheduled periods when I take advantage of brief, unscheduled minutes to read short books. The beauty of reading short books is that the best short books reveal depths upon re-reading–one of the beauties of poetry as well. And if those short books happen to be books of poetry? “More’s the better,” as my great-aunt used to say.

During my crazy week, I managed to read three short collections of contemporary poetry, all by poets with whom I am personally (if marginally) acquainted. All three books are wonderful: layered, varied, well-crafted, interesting, moving, refreshing, surprising reflections on and of modern life with enough empathy and reach toward the “universal” to keep the poems valuable beyond today’s context. All three books are going on my re-read list so I can study and savor them again later, yet each collection is vivid and entertaining enough to read when crunched for time.

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Will Greenway’s 1999 collection Simmer Dim was published by University of Akron Press and offers the reader a travelogue to many places in the world without as well as the more interior worlds of memory, relationships, and reflection. Greenway writes in both free verse and in rhyme, which he employs so well it seems natural even in the informal diction his work often takes.

April Lindner’s 2012 collection This Bed Our Bodies Shaped was published by Able Muse this summer. The poems offer the sense of a personal speaker, suggesting intimacy that is revealed subtly through well-crafted lines and images of flowers, scene-settings, and  allusions from the classic to the modern (rock n roll). Lindner presents the woman’s perspective as individual, surprising, and non-stereotypical; when she writes about jobs, a lover, motherhood, or menopause, her observations are often quirky but wonderfully observed.

Elaine Terranova’s 2012 collection Dames Rocket was published by Penstroke Press. I love Elaine’s work, steeped as it is in the natural world, plausible and tactile, yet positively ascendant in tone. Her memoir-type poems evoke the kind of childhood that is fast becoming historical, and her awareness of that fact–the fact of aging–gives these pieces poignancy and occasional irony.

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All three books are also available on Amazon.com. Or ask your librarian to locate a copy for you.

Just-so

This classic illustration was posted here: http://www.jwoolfden.com/classics.html

OKAY, cynics, I know this may be a bit of a gloss; but here is another older post which is the keynote speech I gave for DeSales’ Sigma Tau Delta induction (Honors society of English majors), April 2010.

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Why the English Major Is So Adaptable: A ‘Just-So’ Story

When I was an undergraduate, Oh Best Beloved, I was not at all certain of my life path. I attended an alternative, seminar-college program that—gasp—did not require me to proclaim an academic major. In my first two years of college, I wandered through classes in studio art, Renaissance history, feminist literature, social anthropology, psych, physics, dance, and philosophy. Then, I began reading in earnest. Previously, reading had been merely an obsessively entertaining hobby; as a junior, I wanted to learn the “how” of writing. I graduated with enough credits in both English and Philosophy to have been a double-major, if my institution had required majors, or to have received an undergraduate creative writing degree, if such a thing had existed in days of yore.

And then, I was out in the world. The world was in a terrible recession. Jobs were scarce. Inflation was in the double digits. Gas prices were skyrocketing. The sky was falling, and I was a newly-minted English major.

All my Wise Elders advised me to specialize. That meant going to graduate school, which I probably should have done a little sooner, or learning a trade. I thought I could survive outside of academia despite the economic woes, the scarce want-ads. My reasoning was that I had four years of humanities training in critical thinking, research, and problem-solving and that at 21 years old it was time to put those theories into application. I thought I had learned to be adaptable.

And what do you think, O My Children?

I was right.

You are likewise English majors, and you are also facing a time of recession and a paucity of careers in your chosen area of interest. This will not hinder your success, though it may make your career journey a little more…circuitous. Or shall we say: intriguing. But you like a challenge, don’t you? That’s the most terrific thing about choosing creative writing, or English, or rhetoric, or literature—the more you study them, the more intricate and complex and revealing these subjects are. I have never met an English major who wasn’t also a dedicated life-long learner. But I have met English majors who are lawyers, and psychologists, and social workers, and business executives, and filmmakers, and visual artists, and physicians, and ecologists, and diplomats, even computer geeks, not to mention those other careers: screenwriters, playwrights, poets, novelists, journalists, bloggers, teachers…

So, Best Beloved, do not sell yourself short. Furthermore, do not expect a “Reader, I married him” moment with your career. Allow yourself room to transform. Carpe diem.

What that meant for me back in 1979 was a temp job for the legal discovery department of a large law firm. From there, I signed on as a member of the International Union of Typographers No. 6 and learned a specialty: typographical proofreading. That field went extinct with the advent of desktop publishing. But by then, I’d jumped to advertising, which I hated, and into magazine work, which wasn’t so bad. There’s a Darwinian term for this: co-adaptation. I was finally getting close to a more specialist use of my English major background as the economy improved; and I married and had children and, in time, went to graduate school for the scholarly pursuits I’d missed so much.

I didn’t starve. Neither will you. You can do research. You can make yourself clear. You know your audiences may require different modes or styles of you, and you’ve learned how to adapt yourself and your arguments to those audiences. You can be persuasive. That’s how I got my first job after the temp work wound down; I was inexperienced but convincing. Even in a tight job market, employers are seeking people like you—adaptable, well-educated people. My husband recently directed me to an article in the New York Times that stated today’s businesspeople want employees who are clear communicators, especially in writing. This is partly because executives do their own writing nowadays. Fewer secretaries to rely on; each person’s expected to make herself clear—on her own written merits. Even if it’s email instead of the paper memos of my day.

English majors can write.

The jobs I’ve briefly mentioned paid my bills and got me medical insurance but did not satisfy my urge to practice the how and why of writing, so I did what writers generally do: I wrote. I cannot emphasize enough the role that constant practice of craft plays in the development of a writer. It doesn’t matter if no one sees your work—though I encourage you to share it with others and get feedback and critique—what matters is that you continually practice what you’ve learned in college and extend your education through application and extension of those principles.

If you find yourself in a day job that has little, apparently, to do with your major, don’t despair. Because writing is portable. I still write most of my drafts with pen or pencil in a small notebook, and laptops are pretty easy to transport—you can, with a little self-discipline, write anywhere. In my day, I have written in small dingy office warrens, in the waiting rooms of doctors and music teachers, in the parking lot while the high school band wrapped up its practice, in the sun beside the dressage ring at the horse farm, while my babies were napping, while the laundry was cycling, in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else wakens. The poems and essays I drafted under these circumstances sometimes reflected the places of their composition—but not always. I have waxed metaphysical in playgrounds. Another example of becoming adaptable out of necessity, Best Beloved, when the Great Magician or the Djinn of All Deserts or the small god Nqa tried me with obstacles to test my persistence.

Make the time to write, because writers can get rusty. Above all, make the time to read, because after you graduate, reading is the best way to continue your literary education.

But you knew that.

Of course, there is graduate school. And there are writing seminars and getaways and retreats and conferences. If you haven’t got the time or money to get to writers’ conferences or workshops, you can adapt by exchanging literary emails with a few like-minded friends or gathering in a library or coffee shop to exchange work or discuss books that excite you. Scholarship may seem like a solitary pursuit, but it benefits from lively interactions with other human beings.

Yes, Oh Best Beloved, do remember other human beings. We do not, after all, write only for ourselves; we write in and of and for a community of people. If our work is obscure, obtuse, or unclear, we are not taking part in this communication. The most fundamental purpose of language is to make clear our intent to another person who is, after all, not inside our brain but functioning under his or her own neurological system. Language—in our case, English—is the most formidable tool for demanding, commanding, sharing, expressing. Those in this room are understandably passionate about it. I am pleased to be among you. The world badly needs your talents, enthusiasm, and the abilities you possess to analyze the facts and transform yourselves and others because, My Children, the English Major somehow became adaptable, and that is all to the good.

Outside the (type) box

Many years ago, back when there was a career called typographer, I was one. I apprenticed to typographers because I had superior proofreading skills, a background in art and design, there was a recession, jobs were few, and I was a quick learner. In an essentially blue-collar job, I was decidedly outside the box: I was a 21-year-old female with a BPhil in philosophy and literature. But I was a terrible waitress. So, in desperation, I essentially talked my way into a job at a typeshop in New York.

A voracious reader all my life, I felt attracted to the potential type offered for expression via the medium of words. I’d studied art since the second grade, so the aesthetic side of typography fascinated me, too. I got into the business just as the field was waning due to the innovations offered by phototype methods, digital typography, and the invention of desktop publishing. Nevertheless, typography kept me fed and housed for a few years while I learned to discern the differences between various counters, serifs, descenders, dashes,  x-heights, weights and the rest. I read books on the history of type design and the history of the alphabet itself. My obsession with words and letters kept me inside the typography box, though I suppose I was often more like a stray Caslon e in the Helvetica drawer.

Wood type was no longer in use, but I used to purchase wooden type fonts–the individual letters–and type cases, because they are so folk-art-appealing and so potentially useful. As collectors began to scour flea markets for wooden type, I bought metal fonts and slugs instead; I’m particularly fond of ampersands and dingbats. (If you’re in Wisconsin and you want to see what the age of wooden type in the USA was like, check out the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum.)

Two of the shops I worked at still used metal type occasionally, though they had mostly switched to digitally-mastered film type; and one shop boasted three Linotype machines. Two of the machines worked. The other was there for parts. The typesetters were all WWII veterans, and the smell of molten lead wafted through the building…it really felt like the end of an era. And it was.

Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

Working at typeshops engaged my brain in novel kinds of problem-solving and detailed observation, taught me about the lives and careers of men who could have been my great-uncles, satisfied–sometimes–my yearning for aesthetics in the workaday world. An elegant logo or headline still pleases me. I learned about all kinds of odd and wide-ranging things while proofreading, too, while I marked up thousands upon thousands of proof pages; and during my breaks, I read novels. One old-timer at a shop I used to work at told me, “Every proofreader I ever knew read books on his break.” He shook his head as if that were sheer lunacy.

Today, I might note that every computer programmer I know spends his or her break time (and post-work hours) at a computer. It is nice to love something about the work one does for a living.

Typographers today are designers and computer graphics folks who understand how to digitize and digitally set and “cut” fonts for virtual pages. The design tolerances are different, though the challenges of readability and clarity and appropriateness remain. As for proofreaders, there are fewer every year, even though we certainly could use them. AutoCorrect and SpellCheck are woefully inadequate proofreading systems, as I constantly remind my students who don’t know your from you’re or their from there or then from than.

And as for me, I have moved from proofreader and typographer to tutor, instructor, poet…jobs that suit me a bit better, where my quirkiness is more tolerated and thus more conventionally acceptable. I continue to admire thinking and being that is outside of the box, however, and in that spirit I offer you some artwork that moves type outside of its outmoded, old-fashioned box. Click on the cityscapes link to find metal-type cityscapes by Hong Seon Jang. For what artists can do with letters, see also my earlier post on Steve Tobin’s sculpture, “Syntax.”

Creative reading

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

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There’s a difference between simple literacy and genuine reading; that difference is partly discovery, partly imagination, partly hard work, and largely enthusiasm.

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences too,” said Walt Whitman.

Yes, I know I have covered this ground in previous posts. What interests me, though, is the way working on my writing has made me a more active and imaginative reader than I once was. Which may seem an odd thing for a lifelong bookworm to say, but as Stephen King has observed, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” The implication here suggests these skills–or crafts, or tools, or processes–are conspecific. Conspecific is a science term meaning belonging to the same species, and I think it’s an apt word to describe what I am trying to say here. We can have stories without writing, but we cannot have writing without context, whether it is grocery lists or epic narratives; in the literate world, our texts provide us with practically boundless context if we use our imaginations to proceed beyond our physical, past, or immediate experiences into hitherto unknown worlds. When writing imaginatively, we have to engage with what we’ve learned through reading. The writer must be a reader.

Perhaps there are other forms of reading: listening, observation. But we are basically still within the taxa of story. My latest reading material is Brain Boyd’s immense and intriguing volume On the Origin of Stories. This book and Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie are producing quite an intellectual and creative mash-up in my mind and firing up some slower synapses that tend to lead to writing of one kind or another. I think there will be poems…sprung from luminous manifold allusions…because these authors have forced my mind into working while I explore the depths of their invention.

O, let us labor over our books with joy! For one never knows what will result.

Cognition and storytelling

Apparently, there has been considerable excitement in the humanities and literature worlds concerning new discoveries in neurology and cognition. And while I have been thinking and reading along these lines for years in my own auto-didactic way, I’ve only recently stumbled upon the texts that specifically explore this cross-fertilization of the arts and sciences.

AWP featured a standing-room-only panel on the topic of Cognitive Science and Stories that alerted me to the work of Brian Boyd (more books for the to-read pile), for example; and just this past week, Annie Murphy Paul contributed an opinion essay titled “Your Brain on Fiction” to the New York Times Sunday Review. Oliver Sacks has, of course, worked along this territory for many years, mostly from the neurological viewpoint with research that suggests we consider the relationship of brain science to art. Leonard Shlain has written intriguing books on the subject as well; though he focuses on gender and visual/textual creativity in his earlier work (see The Alphabet vs. the Goddess), his more recent Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light takes on the “rational” brain (physics) and the world and work of art.

The science, which encompasses both ‘hard science’ such as neurology and social science such as psychology, uses fMRI brain imaging and other forms of feedback measurement to record the brain’s responses to imagery, metaphor, descriptive writing, emotionally-evocative literary passages, and other stimuli to gauge how the human brain takes in such stimuli and which regions of the brain ‘fire’ when encountering the materials.

Associations rule. Reading is associative.  The word “coffee,” as it turns out, engages the olfactory regions; so does the word “cinnamon.” Tactile word cues (velvet, sandy, rough) arouse sensory regions, notes Paul. We associate meaning with senses. Or perhaps senses evoke, in the human mind, associated meanings. This is one reason poetry engages its readers; poetry works via a series of different types of arousals by association–allusions to previously-known information, metaphorical associations by means of sensory-related responses, stimulation of brain regions by word-association, and also cultural or social association (contextual cues, which may also be physical). All of this means that the act of reading is an embodied behavior–we are actively encoding physical settings and sensations while we read!

Human brains fill in the gaps in memory and in event-series that may or may not be related. Some of these neurological studies suggest human brains seek patterns…and construct narratives. Hence, story-making may be something that evolved along with the human cortex while we learned that a growl in the bushes is likely to equal a hidden predator and that if we convey this information by narrative (or metaphor) it will be recalled more quickly by our listener. If the listener is offspring, and the lesson is remembered and used appropriately, the genes survive another generation. That scenario sounds pretty scientific/Darwinian; but to a writer or artist, the scenario is lush with the possibility of story-myth-legend-fiction-poem-art.

Storytelling facilitates sociality, claims Tim Horvath, who explained to the attendees at the AWP conference that sociality is the biologist’s “reciprocal altruism.” Because fiction meta-represents life, it simulates possible life scenarios that can help to foster understanding and offers a way to test out possible social reactions to behavior in a way that is low-risk for the reader. The reader can imagine, or play along, with the rebellious heroine and through this adaptive play (reading can be a form of play) learn how others around her might react if she were to try a similar form of rebellion. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson agrees that “The great virtue of the best fiction is to teach compassion.”

I look forward to learning more about the cognitive side of human narrative. I love it when science and the humanities discourse with one another.

Multi-booking

Ah, the pile of books at my bedside. And the ones on my desk at work. And the one I left by the living room sofa.

When I was a younger bookworm, I was resolute about reading, or devouring, one book at a time—often one book at a sitting, in those less-busy days. I cannot indulge myself in that sort of approach to reading anymore, however; I have learned to multi-book.

Some books lend themselves to multi-booking more than others. I do not think I could re-read The Brothers Karamazov while reading other texts. In fact, novels are the one form of reading that I still try to read with my former one-book-at-a-time method. Various forms of non-fiction, though, are terrific for book meshing. It’s amazing how sometimes a synthesis occurs in my mind while reading multiple, randomly-unrelated texts: a book on typography, a philosophy book, a brief treatise on tree-pruning, the biography of a writer or artist.

I can also read poetry collections severally and simultaneously. Diversity of style or subject matter doesn’t matter much; I read poems more or less individually, anyway, and then go back and re-read for a sense of the collection as a whole. The first read is one I can pick and choose from to get a sense of the style, craft, strategies, and tone of the poems. The second read I may approach more wholly, to get a sense of the poet. But first, I like to read the poems.

Something I can do while reading other poets’ work, as I would in a literary journal.

The diversity, the styles, the differing contexts…the books, the poems, the subjects seem to begin a discourse with one another that is often inspirational. Taking a walk after reading both Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and a few chapters of an entomology textbook resulted in my poem “Luminaries.”

Might I be interested in hearing a conversation between Whitman and Heaney? Sappho and Gregory Orr? Lorca and Kim Addonizio? Reading poetry puts them in touch with one another through their work and my imagination.

Sometimes, I still feel dismayed at how rarely I get the chance to curl up in a hammock or chair and allow myself the opportunity to plow through a book uninterrupted, undistracted. I have learned to adapt to other reading strategies, however, and have therefore never managed to stop gorging on books.

Which is all to the good.

100 Thousand Poets, and change.

 Reading, Pennsylvania has had its ups and downs. Recently, it made the national news for the sad distinction of being the poorest city in the USA. But like many struggling cities, it also has its share of citizens who are devoted to keeping the city not merely afloat and economically viable–a tough task in tough times–but also vibrant culturally. Where rents are cheap, artists can find studio space. Colleges can expand because there’s vacant space for parking garages and buildings ripe for re-tooling. Reading’s been host to quite a few poetry events lately, as a result of the aforesaid artist spaces and college expansions. (See GoggleWorks for one example of studio & performance space: http://www.goggleworks.org).

I spent the day at the Reading venue of the global event “100 Thousand Poets for Change.” On this overcast but mild day, there was a little disorganization at first, not uncommon for new festivals…but the  poets found one another, and before long there was a lively little crowd seated and standing near a performance space for what was billed as a series of featured readings with musical interludes but which became an open reading with music as background. And train sounds as background. And car and crowd sounds, and it didn’t matter because the audience members were paying attention to the readers.

At intervals, I wandered away and bought food from the vendors. Reading has some good ethnic food establishments, judging by the Vietnamese spring rolls and the falafel and such.

I sat on a park bench with my friend Marilyn Hazelton, a tanka poet and practitioner of haiku and haibun, and we discussed the young performance poets and the uses of structure in poetry and in life. We had a moment envying the young for simply being young and energetic, and then we spent a few more moments on what we’ve learned and the value of aging. Both of us are teachers, as are Craig Czury and Heather Thomas, two poets who were instrumental in putting the poetry aspect of today’s gathering together, so we also talked about teaching. Sometimes a quiet talk with a good friend revitalizes me. After our conversation, I felt energized enough to read a few more poems to the crowd. A man my son’s age shouted “Good stuff!”

All in all, a good way to spend the first Saturday of the autumn season.