Category Archives: literature

mimicking the masters

You know when you visit an art museum and you see an art student sitting down with her own easel and paintbrush, copying the brushstrokes of Degas or van Gogh or Michelangelo? Mimicking the masters. Imitating the greats. Practicing on others’ paintings before she finds her own voice, so to speak.

In January, my professor recommended that we journalists do this too. Take a great piece of narrative nonfiction. Copy it straight out of the book, magazine, newspaper. Pay attention to diction, syntax, how the writers connect words and use imagery.

When I have writer’s block, as I did last night and, well, still have today; when I’ve got the ideas but the language gets stuck in some cortex of my brain, that’s when I mimic my masters.

Except I copy poetry. Not journalism. Can’t escape my B.A.

It isn’t to be pretentious — I have a genuine, nerdy love for poetry. Some poems I read over and over again, and I cry the good kind of tears, the kind of tears that remind me that I am human and so were Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and John Keats and e.e. cummings, and feeling defeated or paralyzed by emotions is so normal, so, so normal. Even on the shit days, you exist on this earth, a part of a large and beautiful ecosystem. It’s the type of crying that comforts.

Plus, writers of any sort (journalists included) can learn a whole lot from poets. Relying on their senses. Concise diction. Playing with language. It’s a comfort, sure. But it’s also inspiration.

Since it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share a few poems that I’ve copied down to try and heal my writer’s block. I only took my Derek Walcott and Anne Sexton collections off of my bookshelf, so the poems come from those writers.

Here you are. Have a good cry.

Love after Love (Derek Walcott)

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bead. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Endings (Walcott again)

Things do not explode,
they fail, the fade,

as sunlight fades from the flesh,
as the foam drains quick in the sand,

even love’s lighting flash
has no thunderous end,

it dies with the sound
of flowers fading like the flesh

from sweating pumice stone,
everything shapes this

till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head.

Anne Sexton’s re-writing of Cinderella (but just the end, as it’s very long)

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

 

 

 

 

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el gran mojado/arcangel

The myth of the first world is that
development is wealth and technology progress.
It is all rubbish.
It means  you are no longer human beings
but only labor.
It means that the land you live on is not earth
but only property.

This is not a benefit for UNESCO
We are not the world.
This is not a rock concert.

– Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange

ferguson/tempest/riots/racism

PROSPERO:

Abhorred slave,
Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which
good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock,
Who hadst deserved more than a prison.

CALIBAN

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

(Shakespeare, The Tempest, I.ii.353-368)

at the crossroads of literature and reporting

I should be studying my business reporting textbook. It’s called Show Me the Money, which is a great title, and I don’t want to be embarrassed tomorrow by showing my lack of knowledge during Business Terms Bingo.

I used to have a Tumblr, but I deleted it before journalism school required a social media peer review. Too many personal thoughts, too many journal entries, too many paragraphs that belonged in a diary instead of in the public forum on the Internet. It was strange to delete something that became a record of my Self for the past five years. I was sad, but only for an hour. Delete the baggage. On to the new. It’s healthier that way, after all.

But I miss having a space to write about my personal thoughts. Feeling stressed, conflicted, so anxious that I haven’t eaten in three days… let the word vomit spill on Tumblr, and feel a little better.

Now, I need to curate my Brand.  I’m a reporter. I need to work.  So I create an image of myself online.
It’s terribly dishonest.
I feel as though there are sharp rocks in the bottom of my stomach.

I wrote my first full-length book when I was six years old, I think. I told my father that I was going to grow up to be a writer. He said, “Do you know what a journalist is? You can be a writer, but you should be a journalist.”
And here I am. Studying for my master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. Same place where my father received his PhD.

If I’m going to construct this Brand for myself, I don’t want to be dishonest. I come from a literary background. I spent my childhood in the company of books instead of other kids. I studied literature in my undergraduate years. I read novels that I’ve torn through four times before instead of copying down business terms from Show Me the Money.

Reading, for me, means visceral pleasure. So does reporting, though. Trying to write about socially significant current events in a way that doesn’t flatten them ain’t easy, but the challenge gives me an adrenaline rush.
I don’t think literature and journalism are mutually exclusive.
Literary devices create ambiguity and represent complexities in a way that the Standard Model–featuring that old friend/fiend objectivity–can’t.
I’m going to use literature to build a new kind of journalism. I’m going to figure it out. No gimmicks, I’m not a hack. I’m going to figure it out.

I’ll start here, with this blog. I’ll still write about reporting and the news, but I’ll play with words and structure.
It might even get personal. Build that Brand. Turn myself into human capital, as one might say in Business Terms Bingo.

Okay. On to the new.

by way of books: accidental peeks into strangers’ lives

A year ago, I discovered Strand’s Tumblr, a corner of the Internet curated by employees of the 18-mile long used bookstore in New York. People who sell their books to Strand often leave behind pieces of themselves in the books, whether through notes scribbled in the margins or postcards used as bookmarks. Strand finds the best of these and posts them to this sort of online archive with bits and pieces of personal histories.

Take this passage, a boxed paragraph on page 76 of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

zora

At one moment in time, a person was reading this book, and whatever infrastructure determined her sense of self, and whatever thoughts crossed her mind that day, and whatever emotion she felt while reading this passage, caused her to pause, grab a pen and make not of these words. I want to know what images she had in her head when she read this passage–I want to know which person she was picturing as she drew this wavy blue line.

Sunday evenings are meant for scrolling and reading, so I’ve collected some tidbits of insights into others’ lives.

Underlined dialogue from The Assistant by Bernard Malamud, page 97:

theassistantpg97

And here’s an underlined passage from Chekhov, Five Plays, page 29:

chekhov

Photographs are sometimes left behind in the books’ pages…

…As are postcards with sweet notes.

This postcard was found in A Happy Death by Albert Camus.  “Remembering how I felt that day on the plane back from Paris….Set me at ease with my fears. Forever & ever, Ronny”

I hope Ronny found contentment in Miami Beach.

Strand also posts weird and fascinating books that are sold to them, like Interesting Origins of English Words…

…or This Noble Flame: An Anthology of a Hungarian Newspaper in America.

Here’s another that might catch the interest of any fellow: a promotional pamphlet for the New York Times in 1969.

So there you have it. Your annual update on Strand, from Kasia Redux to you. Go to their website for more. And–perhaps this is more a note to myself than my readers, but so it goes–slow down a bit. It’s Sunday evening, and pausing life is all right.

a woman who writes has power

Today is March 31st, and Women’s History Month is waning. Here’s the fun thing about women, though: our contributions to society are not limited to a 31-day time period. I know. Shocker.

With that radical reasoning in mind, I’ve compiled a list of five* of my favorite women writers from American history and today. Feel free to enjoy their poetry, stories, and novels in April. Or May. The summer months, too. Hey, if you’re feeling ambitious, try all year round.

Phillis Wheatley

Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley might be the most important person in American literary history, which is probably why she is never mentioned in public schools. Wheatley was the first-ever African American published poet and the second published woman in America, right after Anne Bradstreet. I might have forgotten to mention: she was born in Africa and sold into slavery at seven years old. A couple of other notable facts: she published her first poem in a newspaper when she was only twelve and her first book at age eighteen. Oh yeah, after she wrote a poem in support of George Washington, he invited her to his home so that he could personally thank her. No biggie.

All this from a teenager who was named after the inhumane ship that took her across the Atlantic and turned her into property.

Flannery O’Connor

O'Connor

Let’s skip forward to the 20th century (sorry, Dickinson and Alcott). I first read Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in a class I took my first semester of college called “God, Sex, and Violence in American Literature,” after which I decided to study English. O’Connor suffered from lupus and passed away when she was only 39 years old, but she spent her life writing some of the wittiest prose on the grotesque I’ve ever read. She once wrote in a letter, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”

She was also really into peacocks.

Anne Sexton

Sexton

Ask me what my favorite poem is, and I’ll answer without hesitation. It’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Anne Sexton version. Here’s an excerpt:

Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother,
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.

You can read the rest of the poem here, but I suggest picking up a volume of her collected works. Sexton’s reimagined fairy tales are only a few of her gems. Like her friend Sylvia Plath, she’s well known for writing her confessional poetry during a time when women who challenged the idea of the housewife were considered total nut jobs  Also like Plath, Sexton committed suicide; she dressed herself in her mother’s coat and took off her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, and locked herself in her garage, killing herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. She was in and out of mental institutes for her entire life, but her writings on her private life are actually fairly representative of many woman who felt trapped in their prescribed gender roles and later embraced second-wave feminism.

Karen Tei Yamashita

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, contemporary writers. I read Yamashita’s novel The Tropic of Cancer in my capstone on global literature during my senior year. This book is the literary embodiment of post-modernism. Instead of a table of contents, it has a grid outlining which parts of the book are written from which character’s perspective, and potentially, you could read it in any order.  Yamashita is Japanese-American, born in California, and The Tropic of Orange is set in a Los Angeles that isn’t white washed with so-called “beautiful people.” Her characters are Hispanic, Asian-American, black, poor, rich, and all in the throes of magical realism. It’s a book that’s as entertaining and nuanced as it is socially aware, and it doesn’t romanticize multiculturalism for the sake of self-righteousness.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Achidie

If you’ve listened to Beyoncé’s song ***Flawless, then you’ve heard Adichie’s voice.  Beyoncé actually samples a TED talk given by Adichie titled We Should All Be Feminists. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” she says. “We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.'” Adichie is not technically American, as she was born in Nigeria, but I’m including her on the list anyway. I’m about to finish her novel published last year called Americanah, written about race relations in the States from the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant to comes to Philadelphia for university. The book is brilliant, and I plan to write about it as soon as I’ve had time to process it. Immigrants like Adichie are the new Great American Authors.

Remember. “A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” – Gloria Anzaldúa

*A difficult list to narrow down, obviously. Perhaps this would be better phrased as “five women writers who I’ve been reading a lot of lately but sometimes you’re just strapped for time.”

jazz age january: “down and out in paris and london,” george orwell

The Paris of my imagination was no match for the Paris of my twenty-first birthday. I wasn’t expecting to visit the city at all, due to my dire lack of funds, but I was studying at Cambridge, and my parents bought the Chunnel ticket as a birthday present. I expected excitement, good wine, maybe a two-day love affair with a dark and handsome painter; instead, I found contentment, and I found George Orwell.

Specifically, I found Orwell’s book Down and Out in Paris and London in Shakespeare & Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. The first version was shut down during the German occupation in the Second World War, but before that, it was a pivotal place in Jazz Age literary history. During the 1920s, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway  and James Joyce gathered here; in fact, it was featured in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But I bypassed Ulysses and A Farewell to Arms to buy the lesser-known Down and Out. It seemed appropriate. I was in Paris, after all, my budget consisted of pocket change, and I hadn’t showered for almost three days because my cheap hostel shower room was suspiciously missing its door: down and out, indeed.

Orwell lived in Paris from spring 1928 to December 1929, but he certainly wasn’t featured alongside the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway and Dali and Picasso in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. As you may have deduced from the book’s title, he was dirt poor. He earned his money by teaching English and then washing dishes in grimy restaurants. Just as Paris represented two different places for me–one physical, one fancied–during the Jazz Age, it was a different city for those coming from privilege, and writers who sold the clothes on their back for a loaf of bread.

James Joyce, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier in the original Shakespeare & Co., 1920.

James Joyce, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier in the original Shakespeare & Co., 1920.

The book is divided into three parts: first, Paris; second, London; and third, a brief outline on the British laws concerning the poor and homeless.*  The book seems as though it was written in scraps, with stories about different characters lasting either a page or several chapters.  It’s almost more journal-like then a memoir, but Orwell’s descriptions of the places and people that he encountered during this time actually assigns Paris a living, breathing personality:

Life in the quarter. Our bistro, for instance, at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘Crédit est mort’; and red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives;… and extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to meet in the bistro in the evenings. I wish one could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.

This isn’t a book about glamorous parties, it’s about how the other half lives. It offers vivid descriptions of hunger from several days without food, and the foul conditions of writers that get by as dishwashers in restaurants that would be considered bastions for disease today. It does not romanticize the bohemian artist lifestyle, nor does it sentimentalize poverty. It is a matter of fact account, but (always) sincerely and (mostly) beautifully written.

The Rue du Coq d'Or in the 5th Arrondissement, where Orwell's narration begins. Photo from BBC.

The Rue du Coq d’Or in the 5th Arrondissement, where Orwell’s narration begins. Photo from BBC.

Down and Out reminds us that the debauchery and irresponsibility of the privileged comes at a cost, and that cost is largely the exploitation of the poor.

“There exists in our minds a sort of ideal or typical tramp – a repulsive, rather dangerous creature, who would die rather than work or wash, and wants nothing but to beg, drink and rob hen-houses… I am not saying, of course, that most tramps are ideal characters; I am only saying that they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.” (my emphasis)

I loved reading the book a second time just as much as the first, even if I finished it over several lunch breaks instead of the Chunnel ride back to London.  It reminded me that Paris is a signifier. Paris might be one geographical point on a map–but it is a different place, a totally different character–for different people.  Quelle ville, quel livre!

jazzage

*I didn’t reread the last part, since all of these laws are specific to the book’s publication date in 1933.