Story as vagabond: Intizar Hussain

Kahani to awara hoti hai. Story is a vagabond…My nani…used to tell me a story in which a girl says to her father, “I love you as much as salt.” My nani didn’t know about King Lear…She belonged to a tradition of storytelling in which space was unbounded and time was fluid; the hero could travel across forests instantly, and ignore borders separating Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Fairy princesses and monkeys spoke classical languages, and trees and birds told stories. This made for a more generous world, and, of course, a more imaginatively vibrant one; and it made the question “What does it mean to be human on this Earth?” a genuinely inclusive one–because the answers had to account for our relations with everything around us. It is because I am an inheritor of this way of thinking and being in which boundaries are always porous, always shifting, that I can accept that there is a grave of a Muslim disciple of Krishna in Brindiban…

~Intizar Hussain, Pakistani (but, earlier in  his life, Indian–from Dibai) fiction writer, from an interview with Alok Bhalla in Manoa journal. [The surname can be spelled either Hussain or Husain in English.]

33414458Bhalla–one of several translators of Husain’s work into English–comments during this interview: “The poet-storyteller is both blessed and cursed; he is exiled from Heaven and the courts, but he understands how integrally he is ‘of this Earth’–that is, secular. This seems to be the tradition in which you have been trying to locate yourself. Isn’t that why both the religious fanatics and the ideologically motivated find it difficult to accept you?”

~

Earth–we are embodied of earth, part of earth, indivisible from our earthliness, and we exist in relation to the things of this earth.

It might be wise to stay mindful of our necessary integration with all things earthly and embodied, to recognize how intricately we are connected. Bhalla, whom I met at this year’s AWP, mentioned that Husain was fundamentally opposed to identity politics; in  his generous inclusiveness, he believed that to define oneself under a single identity forces boundary-relationships with others, that tribalism has led to nationalism and thence to genocide in far too many instances of human history.

Naturally that means he had a fraught relationship with Pakistan itself, and–to quite some extent–with Islam [he upheld the notion of Mussalmani]. He was revered enough and diplomatic enough to keep those boundaries porous and those relationships open.

Few of us will ever be as wise.

~

This lovely issue of Manoa features cover artwork and illustrations by Imram Qureshi, whose work I walked upon at the Met in NYC, roof garden installation, 2013.

 

Advertisements

Relationships, resistance, AWP

This year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference vibrated with emotional content, resistance, persistence, and truths through facts and lived experiences–a host of perspectives and a sense of excitement enhanced by the host city: Washington, D.C., where the recent transition to a new government administration has been controversial, particularly among citizens who value social justice, education, the environment, and the arts. Some citizens feel that they are themselves outsiders, outliers, critical observers of the social norm, square pegs, immigrants, misfits, name your descriptor here:_______.

Maybe no surprise, but many of those who are not-quite-the-social-norm also happen to be writers.Adversaries 1

About 15,000 writers, teachers of writing, publishers of writing, promoters of writing, and lovers of writing showed up in D.C.; and I’m guessing a very large percentage of us feel we have, in one way or another, a little trouble “fitting in” with society and social expectations. We happen to write, also. What gives good writing its jazz is that there are zillions of fascinating, off-beat, marvelously creative perspectives a human being can write on just about anything.

One sense that came through to me as I listened to authors and teachers is that writing is almost automatically resistance. Resistance usually connotes against, as against a “negative” behavior, objective, rule, law, or person, for example. We can resist silence, though, and silence on its own is not negative; it is only something to resist in relation to an event or law that might be better spoken about. We write in relation to, and often that looks like against. But it isn’t that black and white (of course). Even when the ink is near-black and the page is near-white and the resistance feels like “writer’s block”–resisting the very act of revealing, speaking, communication.

Relation makes resistance and writing happen. Relationships make community and communication develop. Relationships connect the virtual world, and relationships link the long-dead writer to the living reader in a quiet room or on a crowded train.

~

This past week, thousands of (largely introverted) writers convened in a convention center in the nation’s Capitol; several square blocks hummed with interconnections that spanned far beyond those city streets, those bland conventional multi-storied buildings…into the social world and social media, into the range of the arts, the hearts of fellow human beings. The crowds could be overwhelming, but the energy was palpable and exciting (even to this introvert, who did need to retreat from the throngs now and then–thank goodness for “quiet lounges” and hotel rooms).

Did I mention the slightly off-the-cuff passion and stirring intensity of Azar Nafisi‘s speech, and the resonant coincidence of how relevant it was to have a naturalized American citizen, born and educated in Iran, as a keynote speaker? [The decision to have her speak was made over a year in advance of the conference.] Did I mention the honest and often amusing conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie, who is a dynamic one-person cultural ambassador, much as Nafisi is? What about poet Terrance Hayes‘ brilliant alliterative rhythmic sonnets that were sometimes-brutal take-downs of a president whose motives and values he mightily questions? Did I mention Rita Dove‘s transcendent reading? My discovery of a hugely famous Pakistani writer, Intizar Husain? Marvelous writing on The Body Electric, in three excellent essays–why, yes, I could say more, but I’m tired now and “still processing,” and post-conference life resumes…

~

Given some long-running, almost chronic adversity the beloveds and I are facing, before I close I want to give a thumbs-up to Emily McDowell. Emily McDowell’s line of Empathy Cards are really worth looking at when you have no words.

Sometimes, there isn’t a card for that.

What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.

~

I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.

~

§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”

Writers. Groups.

Untitled-writerCreative writers, who are often solitary creatures given the kind of work we do, nonetheless must communicate with the wider world: that is, after all, the purpose of poetry. It is a form of artistic communication using words as medium. I do not know much about the (possibly long?) history of writers offering feedback, critique, encouragement or collaboration with one another aside from the more well-known spats and criticisms of Some Famous Authors. I do know that during the 20th century, evolving from artistic and literary salons of the 1800s, there arose the idea of writers’ groups and writers’ retreats, seminars, getaways, workshops…culminating in the MFA program, I suppose. Despite the popularity of the concept, I have had people ask me about writers’ groups and whether or not I recommend joining one.

First, I think we must ask: What is the purpose of a writers’ group? What do writers gain by meeting regularly and discussing their work, sharing their drafts, listening to feedback, and offering one another advice on publishing or goals or career moves? Is the writing group a place for jealousies and competition, or an environment of encouragement and networking? A bit of both? Is it good for friendships? Is it useful?

Then, we can ask: For how long can one expect a writers’ group to run? Months? Years? Decades? And how committed to the group is it necessary for members to be; and what number of members works best? How does it work, assuming that it does benefit the members? What happens if someone gets hurt, or angry, at the group or at a member in the group?

And where do we put the apostrophe? Writers’ group, or writer’s group? Or do we ignore the apostrophe? (Sorry. Had to make a punctuation observation.)

Full disclosure: I have been a member of writers’ groups for most of my writing life. I joined my first group in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY. I joined a loose coalition of poets when I moved to Philadelphia and some of us met for critique, though mostly we participated in readings. When I moved to my current region, I was invited to a feminist writers group; my spouse and I purchased our first house from one of the member poets! After that, I was invited to two other groups. One of the groups “clicked” for me. I have met with this core group of poets and writers for nearly 25 years now, and the experience has changed me.

The artistic question here is: Has the experienced changed my work for the better?

The personal question is: Have I benefited from the experience?

bookmkheartleaf

Redbud leaf in fall

I could perhaps write a book on these questions, but I am far too lazy. As to whether my work is better because of the discussion and critique, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Even though my colleagues are not famous writers, they are excellent and thoughtful readers–and that is what one most requires from this sort of group. If you want to improve your writing, you must have readers who can tell you whether or not they “get” your work.

Or make you reflect carefully upon why it is they don’t.

Have I benefited personally? That one is an easy and certain yes. I have a community, a very small community, devoted to creative writing and willing to read and think about that sort of work. I have learned–from their writing itself and from our discussions surrounding ideas pertinent to the process of writing and revision–much about their daily lives, backgrounds and fears and hopes, their cultures and their passions, their careers, their health, their homes (in which we meet). We have shared recommendations on which books to read, which poets to learn more about. Often, we disagree. Without conflicting opinions, no forward momentum. We are passionate, we are gentle, we are probing. Sometimes we probe too deeply. We learn to back off when necessary. We also embrace.

During 25 years, there have been serious losses, real tragedies, that our members have lived through, written about, survived. Such strength. Such humility. Such proof of the ways art can help people to express to others that in their grief they are not alone. That in their love and in their confusion they are not alone. That others feel the weird varieties of joy, the ambiguous sensations, the coincidences, the empty hours, the gladness in small things that human beings experience.

And also…might you consider a different line break here? It might heighten the punch of that phrase, and function as stronger alliteration in the following line.

Just a suggestion.  😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing, watching

Garden update: my valley experiences, once again, a bit of drought.

And I have scored a victory–possibly temporary–against the bunnies, thanks to some very hard, hot work by a pair of my best beloveds and lots of chicken wire. Now, as the weather gets into long spates of heat and humidity, I watch and wait while the garden does its growing.

I watch the tomatoes ripen. I watch the birds:

IMG_2310

Three swallows among the tomatoes

The bluebirds enjoy perching on the fenceposts. This one doesn’t look too blue, but I promise it is a bluebird.

IMG_2312

I guess I need a longer lens.

I watch the herbs and vegetables flower. The cilantro and dill flowers bring all kinds of pollinators to the garden. I found a new kind of very tiny bee this morning, but my camera doesn’t have the best close-up lens. It was a cute bee, very small, grey, and fuzzy.

IMG_2309

The borage gets a bit thuggish but attracts pollinators; cilantro and dill manage to sow themselves among the onion rows.

The beans rows are missing, because the rabbits ate them all.

~

Speaking of bees and pollinators in general, I have found some lovely blogs by entomologists online, full of close-up photos, environmental information, and fascinating tidbits about bugs and their interactions with the flora and fauna that surrounds them. I am continually struck by the amazing interconnectedness of life when I read these posts. In addition, something about the sort of scientists who observe insects at close range and study their anatomy and life cycles seems to inspire a kind of geeky humor as they follow their biology passion into the field. Or maybe that quality exists only among the sort of entomologists who also blog!

Here’s one I like, Standing Out in My Field, the nature of a punny field biologist.

Possibly I should have followed my own third-grade dream of becoming “a scientist.” My tendency to watch things, especially as they grow–to be an observer–would have served me well in a scientific field discipline. Though it isn’t a bad quality for a writer to possess, either.

Writing process? Got that. Sort of.

Last year, I was invited into a blog-go-round for writers (see this post). Many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for tapping me for this 2014 blog tour on “the writing process.” I read Wheeler’s 2010 book Heterotopia and was wowed; she’s also the author of  The Receptionist and Other Tales, Heathen, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920′s to the Present  and other work. With Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and other members of a dedicated collective, she coedited Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv (Red Hen, 2008). We got introduced virtually via the Wom-po listserv.

Lesley is a formidable scholar and critic who writes a wise and witty blog, which you’ll find linked to her answers in the paragraph below this one. Now the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, Wheeler has held fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the American Association of University Women. Wheeler received her BA from Rutgers College, summa cum laude, and her PhD in English from Princeton University. Despite all these amazing academic chops, which could appear intimidating, Lesley strikes me as approachable, generously interested in the wide world (not just ivory towers), and funny.

Click here for her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

~water-rites_cover

1)     What am I working on?

I have a completed manuscript that I sent out last year, The Red Queen Hypothesis; but I have had a change of heart about it. I am revising it completely. It’s a major renovation, because as I revisited the not-yet-book I found myself re-thinking the purpose of the collected poems. I had originally conceived the manuscript as an experiment in nonce forms, with a biological theme threading the poems together. As I re-read my work, I realized that my thinking, my purpose, for the poems has altered. Let’s just say some major life changes have been underway in the background of my creative efforts, and the influences made themselves felt. The book as originally imagined turns out not to be the book I want to write.

So, what I’m working on this year turns out to be what I was working on last year, only re-envisioned. I did complete (I think!) a collection of poems centering on adolescent girls of the 1970s that is a sort of a girls’-eyes-view of Bruce Springsteen songs–it’s called Barefoot Girls.  I’ll be sending that out to find a publisher.

Meanwhile, I am writing new work which, alas, seems to be rather dark–if you happen to consider poems about mortality to be dark.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I would love to say that my poetry is wildly original in approach or style, but it isn’t. If you were to categorize my work as “eco-poetry,” it would be different from the genre because of a quieter rhetoric. If you were to call my poetry “nature poetry,” it would not fit quite comfortably into the genre because of its trending toward the intellectual. My poetry is usually “accessible,” but I don’t eschew the multisyllabic latinate vocabulary at all costs, and my allusions are often a bit arcane. I like form and classic poetic strategies, but I also like to break rules, and I adore free verse and prose poems. What did Stevens say? “All poetry is experimental poetry.” Yes. That.

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Journals, because of Harriet the Spy when I was 10, and ever since. Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_cover

Blogs, to practice the less emotional, more inquisitive side of myself and because I’m an autodidact.

Essays and criticism or reviews, because writing that type of work requires skills my brain needs to exercise in order to do other things, such as be an educator; and because I love to read and think about what I’m reading.

Libretti, because colleagues asked, and new things are compelling to attempt.

Poetry, because I can’t do without it.

4)     How does your writing process work?

Interesting question at this time, as I feel the way I go about writing is changing after many years of pretty solid operational process. It may be that I am getting older or because see above: significant life changes.

One thing hasn’t changed, and that is the need for a certain kind of solitude. Distractions aren’t in and of themselves anathema to my writing process, but the distractions need to be of a non-urgent kind. I don’t mind being distracted by a broad-winged hawk overhead or a siren in the distance or an overheard conversation, but sometimes even a loved one’s “Hello, I’m back from the grocery store!” shifts my focus irrevocably.

[aside: My loved ones do not really understand this effect.]

The way I begin a poem is akin to how I’ve heard mindfulness described. I allow myself to be relatively vacant, and something drops in to fill the moment. I assure you this is nothing like a bolt of inspiration from the blue; and usually all I get is a phrase, a metaphor, an image, an aphorism. But it’s a start. From there, the process is about association, relationships, combinations, experiment, and a certain amount of loopy freedom to write a bad poem if that’s what emerges.

Then, I pause. The draft sits there for days (weeks, months, years) until I decide to start revising poems, which I tend to attack in batches. That’s one thing I do differently these days: revise in bunches the way I did back in graduate school under a time crunch. What I currently notice changing, too, is the way that I enter emptiness. In years past, my favored way was to take a walk or to work in the garden. Physical issues have to some degree limited the amount of time I can spend doing those activities, and finding an acceptable substitute has been hard. I am muddling through, waiting to see what works best.

~

Next up, April Lindner and Zara Raab. They should have their writing process blog posts up sometime in the next 7-10 days; and I am excited to learn what approaches each of them takes.

April Lindner is the author of three Young Adult novels: Catherine, a modernization of Wuthering Heights; Jane, an update of Jane Eyre; and Love, Lucy, a retelling of E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, forthcoming in early 2015 from Poppy.  She also has published two poetry collections, Skin and This Bed Our Bodies Shaped.  With R. S. Gwynn, she co-edited the anthology Contemporary American Poetry for Longman’s Penguin Pocket Academic series.  April lives near Philadelphia with her husband and sons.

Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of Northern California in an earlier time. Her poems, essays and reviews appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast ReviewRumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name?  was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.

Studio. Space.

Contemporary artist and blogger Deborah Barlow writes: “A studio, like a womb, is a vesseled space, a geolocation from which one’s work, intentionally free of its context, can emerge.” http://www.slowmuse.com/2013/11/25/up-stairs-in-sight/

In another recent post, she talks about artists’ decisions about whether or not to offer studio tours, and art critics’ decisions about whether or not to visit studios. The critics she mentions (Saltz and Smith) prefer not to see the studios of artists whose work they are reviewing. The sense I get is that the critic needs more objectivity–a disinterestedness–and that a working artist’s studio is a personal space, one through which perhaps the critic might learn too much (context? biography? vulnerability? …one wonders).

I wrote my graduate thesis on how time works in poems, and for a long time I considered writing a followup on space in the poem, particularly the kind of vesseled, nested, interior space to which Barlow alludes (and Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space).

What spaces are conducive to the creative process? Such variety! I have friends who love to write in diner booths or cafes, and others who need complete silence, no distraction (Annie Dillard wrote in a closet; Robert Frost in a shed). One writer I know must be in bed to write. Another must be outdoors. The place matters to many people–but not to all of them.

Writing’s different from painting, sculpting–arts that require at least a few tools at hand.

But some of my writing friends need a computer, or a candle; a pencil and a legal pad, or a fountain pen and a spiral notebook; a bookshelf; darkness; classical music, or the blues.

I don’t really have a studio these days. Maybe it is time I lent my mind to carving out a creative space? –Somewhere nestled, vesseled, interior: (A Room of Her Own).

Below: A location…space, intentionally free of context.  🙂

IMG_0252