Art is not fast food. Art is slow food that takes a long time in the kitchen to prepare. Art is a meal savored at the table along with bread, butter, and fine wine.
I am accustomed to fast food.
Only now after having slow food do I realize how hungry I have been.
A few weeks ago I saw a play called Threads at the Orlando Fringe Festival. The daughter of an English teacher who was driven to teach English to the masses in Vietnam in 1968 had interviewed her mother about her experiences there until the fall of Vietnam. From those interviews she found “threads” of memory and interwove them for the audience into a crazy quilt of experiences that was her mother.
I am up writing. I have not done this in a long time.
I am thinking about threads . . . about how we go through an existential life never understanding how one step leads to another until we are the only place we can be. Then something or someone stops us in our tracks and we make our own crazy quilts.
Here is mine. The threads are images and people that scroll through my head late at night . . . all guests at some strange cocktail party that is real but not real in any time or place anyone can get to but me. Einstein noted that time is what keeps everything from happening at once . . . until we make the crazy from the threads.
So I am up late at night in front of my bookshelf looking for the two books I have read late at night many times. It has been years since I have read these writers in daylight. I find them in the dark when I do not know where else to go.
The first poet/writer is Jack Butler who understands “The Frustration of Simple Desires”
And how many times have I drunk to forget
or swallowed a tab
to wander a mystical animal
in the church of the world’s stained light
and wound up shaking all night
And how many times have I thought
that words somehow on paper
would ease a man’s pain, or my own?
Oh how many times have I set out after
what I wanted
only to have it change to water
in my hands, and so amaze me
I let it slip through my fingers
Before I knew I was thirsty?
Words on paper so many times.
My words on paper started when I was eight. I had nothing to drink and no tab to swallow.
I have an eight-year-old now. She has to live life more heroically than my current self. She faces the world with fewer defenses.
I wrote this poem in fourth grade. It earned second place in the Arkansas Poetry Day contest in 1970. I know this only because my mother had it framed -- otherwise it would be lost to the ages. I remember writing it on the side deck feeling the cool evening air that precedes a summer storm.
I’m a child of the rain
and the wind and the dark
and I always will be.
In the dark and the rain
and the wind I see
what others don’t see:
rain washing away the tears
that came with daytime horrors,
jangled nerves being soothed
when the wind touches them.
Dark that only lets me hear
the warmth in people’s voices.
Rain and dark and wind
will help you if you let them.
Luckily Prozac was approved for American consumption in 1988 to aid those born afflicted with the melancholy ;0).
For me writing has always been feminine as described by Helene Cixous (an old or first wave feminist) who describes writing the feminine in “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays” as
Writing is working: being worked; questioning (in) the between (letting oneself be questioned) of same and of other without which nothing lives; undoing death’s work by willing the togetherness of one-another, infinitely charged with a ceaseless exchange of one with another – not knowing one another and beginning again only from what is more distant, from self, from other, from the other within. A course that multiplies transformations by the thousands.
And that is not done without danger, without pain, without loss – of moments of self, of consciousness, of persons one has been, goes beyond, leaves. It doesn’t happen without expense – of sense, time, direction.
Twenty years after I wrote that poem this happened.
The Bloomsbury Group
A waitress brought blue green ouzo (unsolicited) to my table of OS friends when we ate lunch at a Greek restaurant. I refused this ouzo because of the only time in my life that I have ever had ouzo. I usually don’t turn down such offers.
I was in London and lunching with a British scholar named James Britton (Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of London and former faculty at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference) in the late 1980s. Why I at 27 was lunching with the learned scholar in his late 70s is a story for another time but no sex or scandal was involved. Short version: I was supposedly representing my school and thesis professor but I did not behave like they would have liked so I never told school officials this whole story. Professor Britton pretty much invented the study of rhetoric and composition in its modern form or was one of the most significant fathers of the field in which I eventually earned a Ph.D. It was rather like being a scriptwriter and eating lunch with Shakespeare.
We were at a Greek restaurant. Britton picked the place because he served in Greece during WW II and learned to appreciate ouzo. We were somewhere near Bloomsbury I guess because he educated me about the Bloomsbury Group and their salons. First time I ever heard of a literary salon where people gathered to discuss literature and share their writing. Think Virginia Woolf and others of her set. I digress because I have a problem with the elitist concept of a room of one’s own. But that is not really related to the idea of salons.
This education took place over much ouzo. Professor Britton and I then went to the British Museum where I wanted to see the mummy room(s). Museums like libraries tend to be hushed places. After a lot of ouzo I am not hushed so Professor Britton shushed me more than once. In the mummy room I learned that before mummies the Egyptians just curled people up in fetal positions and threw them in caves. Some of these curved back skeletons were on display and I was standing rather unsteadily looking at them.
There was a school group of ten-year-old boys in cute little jackets in the mummy room. One of them took a liking to me for some reason, walked over, pulled on my sleeve, pointed at the Egyptian skeleton and said, “I feel sorry for that old chap.” I replied, “Don’t worry he has been dead a long lonnnnggggg time” and burst into drunken laughter.
Professor Britton whisked me out of there and we went to the manuscript room where he had even more fun explaining the odd appearance of Orthodox Jewish scholars with long braided (?) hair who were examining manuscripts. I was then and still am in many ways an Arkansas girl and such Jewish scholars aren’t often in Little Rock. Professor Britton also had to keep my swooning over the original text of a Keats poem to an acceptable level.
After that museum trip Professor Britton deposited me at the entrance to the underground that was to take me back to my hotel and mother. I assured him that I would get on one subway line and got off some stops later. I would be fine. He had some concerns because the effects of ouzo stay with one a long time. I said I would be fine. He left.
I somehow made it down the many stairs and THAT SUBWAY STOP OR LINE WAS OUT OF SERVICE. I did not have a cellphone since it was the 80s and a cellphone would have been briefcase sized. My mother was out on the town buying books for her antique bookstore.
The underground attendant told me to take one of the double-decker buses. I asked him which one. He asked where I was going. I was not particularly sure of streets etc. but told him the hotel was near Big Ben because the clock chimes made noise and woke me up at night which was irritating. I travel better now but then as now I am often lost and out of sorts and dependent on the kindness of strangers. The underground attendant walked me up to street level, waited with me, put me on a bus going the general direction of Big Ben and wished me luck.
I got back to the hotel eventually and SWORE never to drink ouzo again.
Professor Britton's obituary -- he was a really kind man.
Little Rock’s Tuesday Saloons
After my early marriage and divorce from a sports editor from Flippin, Arkansas my father was particularly determined that I would set my sights higher in life. He dragged me to political meetings to meet government officials. Yes, I met Clinton and he was polite and friendly but not impressed with me. There was an Attorney General at that time named Steve who sent the oddest letter after one meeting indicating he was impressed with me but that is a digression. There was one rather prominent female politician in Arkansas at the time named Jimmie Lou Fisher who was the state treasurer. She eventually ran for governor. My dad must have introduced me to this woman a dozen times over several years always noting that see she is the treasurer –you should aim higher.
My mother owned a bookstore so my mother was invited to the Tuesday Saloons once month which were a take-off on the Bloomsbury Group’s literary salon where people gathered to discuss literature and share their writing. Knowing I was interested in writing my parents took me to the Tuesday Saloons to meet writers. In Little Rock they were called saloons rather than salons because they were held at a rich doctor’s house and much alcohol was dispensed along with literary discussions and readings. The doctor had written a successful diet book emphasizing protein shakes so he could afford a house with a fancy pool with rocks in it. He was probably the most successful author in Little Rock at the time other than Dee Brown. First time I ever saw a pool like that for real and not in a magazine.
One of my former English professors read from her novel the first night. It was painful because as I remember it was about the failed love affair between a woman much like herself and a man much like another English professor who was her former boyfriend and well known by most people in the room. I still know him. He is a university official at the university in Orlando. We politely clapped because most of us liked the woman like I did and it was hard to see that much pain had been translated to text in such a raw fashion.
Then my father continued in his quest to introduce me to people who had achieved. I don’t work rooms well and never have. My father is a rather gifted politician and it is a no-brainer for him. First he introduced me to a novelist named Donald Harington who has never really achieved popular recognition but who is a novelist’s novelist. Many writers want to write if not like him as well as him. I was awed and nervous and shook his hand. Harington wrote a series of novels based in fictional Staymore, Arkansas. Harington was standing near a couch where my former English professor was sitting with several attractive couples. One man was discussing his latest venture which was reviewing an odd little book called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café for the New York Times Book Review. His name was Jack Butler and he was a poet/novelist from Mississippi known for Southern literature. My father introduced me to Butler and his lovely wife and I stuttered out something because that off-the-cuff New York Times reference rather terrified me.
Currently my students are learning more about cultural and universal commonplaces. There is writing such as I am doing now that might be instructive, mildly entertaining etc. but it will not be of much interest to readers hundreds of years from now or heck even now to you dear reader. Literary writing somehow manages to introduce universal commonplaces or concepts that are true over time and culture. So if the cultural commonplaces of the time during which a book was written (i.e. setting, transportation, and social status) change as they must the underlying message transcends. Think Romeo and Juliet. One does not have to be a long gone Italian aristocrat to understand the wonderful yet possibly destructive power of first love.
A novelist who wants to do a good job for the reader will have to entertain and relate to the reader by either referring to a world of cultural commonplaces familiar to an intended reader or create a world of cultural commonplaces and introduce the reader to them. The latter task is harder to pull off.
This task is exactly what Harington achieves in The Cockroaches of Staymore which is about a community of cockroaches living in or around two modest houses in rural Arkansas. Yes it is all about cockroaches all the time.
This task is also what Butler achieves in Nightshade which is about a former CIA agent living on Mars who is also a vampire “turned” during the FRENCH-INDIAN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY War. If that sounds somewhat familiar in plotline please be aware that Butler’s novel was published in 1989 and precedes True Blood.
Harington successfully describes the characters, daily life, and rituals in the cockroach world. The ritual that entertains me the most and is hard to condense is that of religious ceremony or church services. Such services take place at night when the cockroaches congregate in the living room of the Lord or man who owns the house. Sometimes the man types on a typewriter so he might be a writer. The Lord is fond of alcohol and imbibes while holding a firearm. Cockroaches fated to be raptured or taken to another world are those who are shot by the inreasingly drunken Lord. This sounds gruesome but is rather hysterical to read. The cockroaches also have sex and this is why The Cockroaches of Staymore is one my favorite books to give to friends who scratch their heads and ask WTF? while reading. I give you the initial meeting between a country girl and a reclusive almost deaf male cockroach who lives in one of the houses on the mantel clock.
It was his turn to laugh. He repeated the signs after her: You have to see everything in a different language to understand it. Then he signed, “I love that.” He loved this girl. He loved her so much that his tergal gland began to leak a drop of affy-dizzy. He backed away from her, but not quickly enough, not far enough . .. .
Now, there is no such thing as “just a taste” of the irresistible nectar of love which is called affy-dizzy. Like a bee drawn to a flower, a female is held by it, is lured to climb the male’s backs so that she can reach the fount of the affy-dizzy and greedily lap it up, that taste of which, unlike even the finest crumb fallen from Man’s (or Woman’s) table, is the most delectable substance every reach her touchers and her lips and it stimulates her appetite to consume all of it, every droplet, and each taste excites her more.
Because no female had ever lapped his affy-dizzy before, but because he had in his dreams, and night fantasies too, imagined the procedure, Sam was surprised to take leave of his body . . . .
Buy the book.
In Nightshade Jack Butler successfully creates a Mars with an artificial atmosphere, language, history of being colonized by Americans from the South and West, cities, rural areas of ranches, espionage, advanced technology, and advanced math (which hurt my head because anything much beyond long division is a stretch). These are all cultural commonplaces requiring much explanation that serve as social commentary.
The food depressions had been well underway even before the century turned, but no one had realized how long-lasting they would be. They weren’t depressions in the production of food – production had never been more successful. They were depressions in the cost and availability of food. People were starving while grain rotted in the elevators, while the farmers who had produced the grain failed to make their price and went out of business.
When I was a child, a Virginia farmer’s son, wheat was food, and fed those nearby. When it became a product, it was no longer wheat. It was a piece in a board game. Wheat’s character as food no longer determined its fate -- that was now determined as its function as an economic product. A clown in office doesn’t care that his people are starving. He knows he won’t. The first function of government, any government, is to protect and secure advantage for its personnel. So the clown feels his people’s starvation not as personal pain, which might motivate him, but as condition in a game.
Butler wrote this book 20 years ago before current proclivities for local food vs. agribusiness. I leave it to you to determine if the history Butler created is a cultural commonplace or a universal commonplace that is true across time.
His vampire who is a former CIA agent mourning his pre-Revolutionary war wife is recruited by government for nefarious purposes. During the various car umm plane/flying vehicle chases and action sequences that occur the vampire falls in love with a female Martian who is the double of his mourned wife. He describes love and sex on Mars.
The rich can now be whichever sex they desire, or both at once, or each in turn; they may have more than one organ of either type with built-in ticklers, tinglers, and titillators; rich or poor may make the beast of more than one back with others of the same or somewhat differing sex; and none of this is forbidden in ordinary conversation.
Yet we still find great difficulty in speaking plainly of love.
In the above description Butler describes a cultural practice in order to comment on a universal commonplace of love.
If you don’t get that is literary and will hold water over time then I will close with the following passage from Butler’s vampire tale.
When a woman decides to fall in love, she has seen where she means to get with you. It is not necessarily a visible place, but she can see it clearly, and she sees you as clearly as you see a bridge. There is no risk. There is only what you are and where she wants to get to. As for what you have been, what the spots and spoils of your character supposedly are – she gives all that no more thought than you give the thought of height from a bridge on your way home.
A.E. Coppard is an English/British short story writer that no one reads any more. . . . Coppard is the second author I read late at night.
The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard is my favorite book. Collected Tales was published in a sixth edition in 1951 (previous editions 1927, 1929, 1932, 1939, and 1948) and has a review on the inside flap by Ford Maddox Ford which is not shabby.
In the foreword Coppard argues against a direct connection between novels and short stories likening short stories to folk tales Coppard explains “the closer the modern short story conforms to the ancient tradition of being spoken to you, rather than being read at you, the more acceptable it becomes.” He believes that if we “cut off a person from all contact with tales he will assuredly begin to invent some – probably about himself.” Secondly he “urges” (his verb not mine) that “unity, verisimilitude, and completeness of contour are best obtained by plotting your story through the mind or consciousness of only one of your characters, a process that I used to think might be the secret hinted at in Henry James tale ‘The Figure in the Carpet’.”
Maddox Ford believes readers would appreciate Coppard because “hitherto no English prose writer has had the fancy, the turn of imagination, the wisdom, the as it were piety, and the beauty of the great seventeenth-century lyricists like Donne or Herbert – or even Herrick. And that peculiar quality is the best thing that England has to show.”
So why have the most voracious of readers rarely heard of Coppard? He was born in 1878 about 130 years ago. His short story called “The Higgler” about a traveling salesman (haggler) who refuses to marry a shy, pretty, rich woman basically because he lacks self-esteem marrying instead a coarse plain woman was assigned reading in my British Lit grad class. But that is not my favorite Coppard story.
I much prefer “Dusky Ruth” about an unsuccessful one-night stand at a country inn between a traveling salesman and barmaid “in the Cotswolds, though the towns are small and sweet and the inns snug, the general habit of the land is bleak and bare.” The barmaid freaks out which happens sometimes. Was A.E. Coppard ever a traveling salesman? Sounds like he got around. Anyway the narrator foreshadows he “had newly come upon upland roads so void of human affairs, so lonely, that they might have been made for some forgotten uses by departed men, and left to the unwitting passage of such strangers as himself.”
Coppard provides this labyrinthine Faulknerian sentence to describe the attraction of the salesman and barmaid as they sit by a fire:
Master traveler has indeed come into this room to be with this woman, and she as surely desired him, and for all that is accidental occasion it was as if he, walking the ways of the world, had suddenly come upon what, what so imaginable, with all permitted reverence as, well, just a shrine; and he, admirably humbler, bowed the instant head.
Stuff happens. Kissing. Hair caressing. He asks her to meet him in the coffee room. He then asks her for the key to his room and “what is my number?” She replies “number six . . . next to mine.”
She won’t let him in her room so he goes to bed frustrated and thinks, “Morality . . . what is it but an agreement with your own soul?”
Two hours later she invites him to her room where he discovers her naked and crying “her strange sorrow stifling his desire.” Instead of sex “he lifted her as easily as a mother does her child . . . and, in his clothes, he lay stretched beside her comforting her. They lay so, innocent as children for an hour, when she seemed to have gone to sleep. He rose then and went silently to his room full of weariness.”
I have a thing for spooning. Coppard doesn’t write about major events nor does he sanitize life.
He does make it clear that traveling salesmen might be somewhat lonely and lacking in romance.
There is a photo in my room of a 15-year-old boy from Westchester, Pennsylvania. The picture was taken 35 years ago. The boy is named Rich. He has dark hair and blue eyes. One of my wise girlfriends once called that photo “the source of all evil.”
As a writing exercise I once tried to describe the boy from Pennsylvania in the photo in less than 100 words.
Rehobeth Beach, Deleware. He is vacationing with friend’s family. I am with Karen’s family. First night there is large beach picnic. He plays guitar. All the girls like him but I am shy. Don’t talk to boys. He talks to me. Sings song “freeways, cars, and trucks . . . the sun is coming up.” Second night we walk half mile down beach to boardwalk to see Star Wars. Movie theater is from 1930s and not redone. Love movie. Walk back along beach under the stars. Arrive home very sandy. Very happy.
For years I have made a habit of walking along beaches looking across the water for something.
I found something in eyes the color of the ocean belonging to a man from Pennsylvania.
As the Bible notes repeatedly to love also means at times to fear.
Jack Butler knows that “Paradise is a Hard Gig”
The meanest people live in the finest places.
No chaos of laughter is ever permitted to soften
the bitter disappointment of their faces,
yet nothing is lacking. Everything is full.
Hand after hand they turn up kings and aces
then fold before the pay-off. Their bells toll
a dull salvation to the blessed air,
and dull against their eardrums beat, and roll
in thunderous echoes down their everywhere
green valleys, through which their rivers, fat with trout,
do leap and sparkle. Oh yay dey do, mon frere,
Br’er Rabbit. And you know why? Without a doubt
because they are so small against it, because
they take themselves so serious. They shut out
the mornings’ breezes, tune their radios
to squawking lowland frequencies, and, grim
with satisfaction, choose the damnedest news
to rebroadcast. No trickster gods for them,
Br’er Fox, Coyote, Crow. And no unbidden
rock-and-roll backbeat to make the black blues scram.
Why, what would it mean if everything were given,
if we were not our own, but children of joy,
that joy which only makes, and only makes heaven?
How would we get our gold stars then, Big Boy?
Affix those medals same color as our bruises?
Spring for the hundred-thousand-dollar toy?
We’d waste our time with double rainbows, roses
in opalescent vases, water-fountains
and apricots and bulldogs and plastic noses
with waggling Groucho mustaches, wild mountains
at mutinous altitudes outside the studio
of ten blue windows, in which we paint our paintings
when we aren’t arguing Zen, or watching the snow
come flying in from nowhere like subatomics
at quantum zero, or teaching our wings to grow
from the fourth chakra, or reading the Sunday comics
in bed, or fucking before we read the comics.
John Mellencamp and “No Better Than This”
Give me twenty-five dollars
And drive me around downtown
Solve all my problems
Don’t let me lose what I’ve found
Give me good lovin’
And seal it with a kiss
Then drop me off where the music’s loud
But it won’t get no better than this
Take me to a party
Where I’m the only man
With fifty women waitin’ on me
Who say they understand
Feed me milk and honey
Give me a story that I’ll never miss
Let me get one good night’s sleep
But it won’t get no better than this
Give me clear vision
And don’t let me miss anything
I’ll take the bird that whistles
And the world on a string
Fill my fist full of money
In these troubled times
And let me share the water
With all, all of mankind
Give me back my youth
And don’t let me waste it this time
Stand me up at the golden gates
At the front of the line
Let me lie in the sunshine
Covered in the morning mist
Then show me something I ain’t never seen
But it won’t get no better than this