Thursday, October 21, 2010

Licking Knives - L.E. Leone


Don’t know why I do
it this way, just one of those
things one does, I guess,
a way. I stir
my pineapple juice
with the knife I sliced
it with, the pineapple. Then I lick
both sides, yes, tongue my tongue
up the cold, foamy steel, savoring
sweet and sexy. Once a guy wanted
me to give it back, what I’d
sucked from him. He guided me
my mouth to his, and parted my lips
with his little finger.

Then I lay back on my back
in the dark, eyes open,
and waited. He had a word
for this . . . I forget. Another one
wanted to tie me up and
I let him, even though, technically,
there was a shotgun
leaning against the wall
in his bedroom. The woman I ate
for hours until she shook
to life, for the first time ever (she said)
in her thirties. I love this shit,
the taste, even, of blood,
and imagine I’d be the sole
survivor of my airplane crash.

That woman, her husband
had a gun too, you know, and used to hold it
to her head: “Don’t ever leave me.”
Probably I shouldn’t have gotten
involved, but those
were the days. Now
I just lick knives. Thank you.

L.E. Leone
© 2010

Writer Talk - LE Leone

Please check out L.E. Leone's Writers Talk interview on Robert Frost's Banjo!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What We Know - Jonah Winter

What We Know

Knowing what we know
            about pineapples and tragic endings,

Knowing what we know
            about Shakespeare’s sonnets and The Statue of Liberty,

Knowing what we know
            about Godzilla vs. The Appalachian Lap Dulcimer,

Knowing volumes, as we must certainly know,
            about the frail balance of seemingly tiny things –
                    a passing smile, a glass of milk, a single raindrop
                    taken out of context, misquoted, magnified
                    until it is no longer just a raindrop
                    but rather a crystal ball
                    in the wagon of a Gypsy
                    whose eyes get big as she foretells great things
                    about the future of one particular fettuccine noodle,

Knowing how this delicate balance of seemingly disparate elements
            is what holds the universe in-tact,
            keeps the world from turning into one endless I Love Lucy re-run
            in which everything spins hopelessly out of control,
                                                as they say,

Knowing what we know
            about the Gods of Randomness, pranksters
            motivated by their singular love of paradox, up all hours
            like a night-shift of Wiley Coyote impersonators,
            planting dynamite behind our smallest and our greatest expectations,
            fiddling around with this or that unlikely outcome,
            moving us in unforeseen directions, pushing us
            like proverbial deer into the headlights
            of what comes next, what certainly must come next,

Knowing as we know
            that it has always been thus,
                    whatever that means,

But knowing as we know
            that our story, like all stories,
                    doth have a beginning, middle and an end
                    and was written in the stars
                    ages ago, long before the wondrous moments of our births,

Knowing as we know, however,
            that love has such small windows,
            and that sometimes it is necessary to bring a ladder
            for climbing up into those windows
            which hopefully will be unlocked
            on whatever textbook summer night,
            amidst a profusion of moonflower blossoms,
            we might be bold enough to reach across the galaxy
            between us, extending a hand
            for the first time, knowing, not knowing,
            but mainly knowing,

Knowing as we know
            about particle physics,
                        which ain’t much, admittedly,
            but nonetheless knowing the sheer unlikelihood, statistically,
that two such seemingly tiny, insignificant bodies in motion
            would ever cross paths,
                    much less collide, creating an explosion so massive
as to be felt and heard in the farthest reaches of Heaven,

Knowing all this, and so much more…,

How could we have ever doubted
            that whatever literal conveyor belts brought us right here
                    to this current instant
were purely random?
            How could we have doubted
                    the irrefutable truth
                                    that everything has always been leading to this one moment,
                        trickling, rushing, meandering, overflowing
                        like streams to a river
                        as yet to be named or even discovered,
                        how could we have doubted

that our fates are as inextricable as water?

How could we have doubted
            in the dungeons of our lowest hours
                    that we were never meant to be alone?

            We have arrived here,
            in this particular place, in this particular life,
            for one purpose, that we might some night,
                    aboard this twilight boat-ride through the Magic City,
            look up
                    and suddenly see the one face, so lovely,
            we know and have always known
            would someday appear, smiling, open, ready

              for the clock to start ticking,

              for this story to begin,
                                    whatever the ending might be,
                                    and whenever.

Jonah Winter
© 2010

Writers Talk - Jonah Winter

It’s with great pleasure that I introduce today’s Writers Talk interviewee, Jonah Winter.  I first met Jonah in Charlottesville in 1985 when we were both attending the MFA program at the University of Virginia, & we struck up a friendship “oriented around talking, analyzing, mulling,” as he puts it in this interview (I also hope I am a “good conversationalist.”)  I’ve always held Jonah’s poetry in high esteem, & tho our poetics diverge at some points, we share an enthusiasm for the surreal & for formal experiments, & I can honestly say that his poetry has not only been an inspiration but also an influence over the years.  Jonah also has been one of the best readers of my own poems, something that I value a great deal.

When Jonah & I weren’t mulling—or even sometimes while we were—we engaged in some memorable escapades, including an overnight road trip from Charlottesville to Niagara Falls with a couple of other “poets in their youth,” all intent on proving Wordsworth’s dictum, I fear (I described it in a poem as “No Exit except in a/Motel 6 in Tucumcari/one of those Hope-Crosby Road/extravaganzas gone wrong”)—a tale perhaps too wild & ultimately, too sad to tell—& a cross country road trip in an old Toyota that would keep running even if you pulled the key out of the ignition.  We both lived in San Francisco during the 90s at which point Jonah was yielding clarinet, mandolin, accordion & tin whistle in the band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities.

Jonah Winter’s poetry has been widely published.  In addition to his poems appearing in a number of magazines & in chapbooks, he has also published Maine & Amnesia; the latter book won the 2003 Field Poetry Prize.  Jonah has also published 20 children’s books on  subjects ranging from Roberto Clemente to Hildegard Von Bingen—perhaps my favorite is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude, his children’s book bio of Gertrude Stein!  

Please check out Jonah's dynamite poem "What We Know" on the Writers Talk blog.

Without further ado, Jonah Winter:

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

It was when I was a sophomore at Oberlin College, just having lost the key to my clarinet case (I’d been a music major at another school with the unrealistic hopes of somehow sneaking in to the Oberlin Conservatory through the back door) – that’s when my identity crisis over musician vs. poet came to an end…, well, uhhh…, for about 10 years at least (I later took up the clarinet again and started making some money as a musician).    I’ve struggled from the beginning over my identity, always inexplicably bewildered over just what the hairy heck I am.   At one point, in the ‘90s, I was making money as a musician, an illustrator, and as a poet and children’s book author.   I’m now in my 19th year of making a living as a children’s book author, so I guess I can safely call myself a children’s book writer, but “poet” – I don’t know.   The word seems fraught with pretension and self-importance.   To think of oneself as a poet seems a bit absurd (almost like seeing oneself as a “visionary”) – that being said, I continue to write things that might be called “poems” (and are certainly intended as such) and have several filing cabinets overflowing with such specimens that I’ve written through the years, and a few books to show for my efforts as well.   Should an artist depend on external validation for her or his identity?  After giving this question much thought, I’d have to answer with an emphatic “NO.”   You are what you are.  And if you don’t know what you are, or you aren’t willing to define yourself with a label, well then, nonetheless, you still are what you are, right?  If a tree falls in an unseen forest….     [Author strokes non-existent chin whiskers…]

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.
A few years ago, I wrote a sestina based on Anna Karenina.    Before I even chose my end-words, I had decided that I wanted it to be a sort of aural book report spoken by an inarticulate modern youth.   So, if memory serves me, I chose as my end-words “like,” “relationships,” “like,” “so,” “wow,” and “dude.”    It was a lot of fun to write!    I had to actually stop writing at certain points because I was doubled over in laughter – it was that fun!   I love cracking myself up – that’s probably what keeps me writing.   Who needs anti-depressants when you can come up with a poem called “Burt Lancaster’s Big Head”?!

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)
I have a fairly traditional, old-fashioned relationship to the publishing process.   I publish my books with regular old print-publishers, and for my children’s books, I have an agent.    Proudly “Luddite,” I have eschewed the temptations of turning my kids’ books into e-books thus far, and I am absolutely opposed to pretty much all forms of electronic publication for children, as I believe this is leading to mass-laziness, stupidity, and disconnectedness from reality.   I don’t have a blog, but I do have a website… that is pretty much non-functional!   I’ve published adult poems in online magazines, largely because I’ve been solicited by the editors of these magazines, whose taste is apparently compatible with my own.   Generally, though, I mistrust anything having to do with the internet…, uhhh…, except for this blog!   All of that being said, I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction the publishing industry is taking – in both the more lucrative trade publishing sector and the small presses of obscure poetry.   The trade publishers are becoming more crassly mercenary by the second, churning out more and more “celebrity” author books every year (in the hopes that this will somehow protect the industry from the ominous storm clouds of Amazon and electronic books), whilst the small poetry presses are doing nothing more than perpetuating the sickening alienation of poets from any real audience by printing increasingly obscure, hermetic, overly (pseudo-) intellectual garbage written by their grad school chums and intended for an audience mainly of other aspiring poets who’ve submitted their manuscripts to the demoralizing, rigged “contests” which provide the only means of getting one’s poems published nowadays other than self-publishing.  It’s enough to make someone throw up.   (Excuse me for one moment….)

How has being a writer affected your relationships?
Ha ha – that’s an interesting question!   Well, you know, being a writer has definitely helped me to meet some very interesting, creative, passionate people whom I might not have met had I gone into a field other than writing, for instance, plumbing, though of course one never knows.   If one is a writer, there’s a good chance that one will meet other writers, who by their natures generally love language, communication, talk.   Most of the writers I’ve known are good conversationalists, and our friendships or acquaintanceships have generally been oriented around talking, analyzing, mulling – activities for which I have a nearly pathological zeal.    The fact of being a writer, for me, also entails quite a bit of private time.  For 19 years, I’ve been self-employed as a writer.   I work at home – alone.    And I savor the huge chunks of alone time I have to get writing done or even just to daydream or to stare at goldfinches.    Such time helps me to feel more connected to the world around me and also to my own soul.   The sorts of limited-access relationships I have had with other humans, therefore, are not of the sort of daily, constant variety that might happen in a workplace or a communal living situation or any other environment which involves non-stop human interaction.   I suppose, though, that having a lot of alone time does not necessitate being a writer, per se.   But being a writer sure does afford a handy excuse for avoiding people!   The grandfather I never met used to say, apparently, that “the more I see of fish, the more I like bananas.”   The writer in me wants to revise this to “the more I see of humans, the more I like fish.”    Though I do find people “endlessly fascinating,” in general, I also generally find them very exhausting to be around.     Navigating around everyone’s neuroses and egos and opinions and cruelties and “boundaries” can be a fulltime job.   And I, thank God, am a freelancer.

Getting back to the word “relationships,” though:        Might this question also refer to the relationships one has to nature or animals or even inanimate objects?    I lived alone in rural Maine for 2 years, and the relationships I had there were mainly of this variety – and I found myself writing about this realm quite a bit:  moose, chipmunks, ducks, snow.   Writing about these things helped me to feel an even deeper bond with them than I would have experienced had I not been a writer.     So, I’d have to say that being a writer has generally had a positive impact on my relationships, especially my relationship with paper.

As far as humans go, though, I do my best to try and focus on the humans I love and admire and on the relationships which I value, but it’s an effort.   All I have to do is to walk outside my front door and see a couple of shirtless white guys with shaved heads and tattoos, shouting really stupid things in loud voices across the street to each other…, and it takes a full hour of yoga to bring me back to anything resembling peace.   Is my “relationship” to such people “caused” by my being a writer?   I don’t know.   Maybe.

For the most part, I prefer seals to humans.    Though I can’t say that I’ve ever had a relationship with a seal.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

The community of writers I belong to?   Non-existent!    I have a couple of friends with whom I exchange poems – but that’s different from a community.   In the best of all possible worlds, I would love to be a part of a community, but I simply haven’t found one that is right for me.   It would have to be a community of writers who are generally skeptical of modern writer communities.  This seems… unlikely.    As far as “virtual” communities go, I find them frighteningly alienating – which is not really what you want from a “community”!  I was on facebook for about 6 months, and I would have to agree with a writer friend of mine who summed it up as a “creepy online popularity contest.”   But I’d take that one step farther – it’s a corporation providing a template of sociability and self-definition that basically turns all its users into corporate clones:   Here are my “religious views.”   And here are my “political views.”    And here’s “what I’m doing today.”   And hey, if you like you can be “a Fan of Jonah Winter”…!    But only if you sell your soul to the devil and join, join, join this fun, fun, fun “network”…!    I know a lot of writers and editors who swear by facebook and other online communities as a way of “connecting” with other writers and for “promoting” their books and careers.   But as another writer friend of mine said when I joined facebook for that unfortunate 6-month period, “I hope you’ve now accomplished everything you want to accomplish in this life…, because from here on out all your time will be sucked into the soul-draining black hole which is facebook!”    (Not to put to fine a point on it.)

I wish there were more writer communities these days that revolved around real emotional and aesthetic connections rather than just some particular alma mater or the need to get published.   It must have been fun to be a part of the Beats, to be living out some youthful dream that was verbally in an intense relationship to the Real World (as opposed to some academic credo concocted in an Ivory Tower), something alive and pulsing, rumbling, sweating.   As opposed to hipster networking “book parties.”     To quote Ecclesiastes:  Vanity, vanity, vanity!

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

I really don’t know.   I have a feeling I’m in for some sort of big change on the writing front, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it will be.    Stay tuned.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

A player piano.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What’s in a Name? Meet Frances Burney - Audrey Bilger

What’s in a Name? Meet Frances Burney
Frances Burney has been called many things. She was most often referred to as Miss Burney or Madame D’Arblay during her lifetime. After her death, sections of her voluminous diary were published, and Victorian readers, given a window into her intimate secrets and family life, took to calling her Fanny, a nickname that stuck through most of the 20th century. With the advent of feminist literary criticism in the late 1970s, scholars began asking whether the name Fanny Burney was appropriate as the primary form of identification for this author. From everything we know of Burney’s sense of propriety, she would probably have been shocked to know that she would be on such familiar terms with generations to come. Using her nickname also emphasizes youth and puts her on chummy terms with readers. Since she lived to be 87 years of age and published her last book, a memoir of her father, when she was in her 70s, the pet name seems even more jarring.

In keeping with the conventions of the time, her name did not appear on the title pages of her books during her lifetime. Men as well as women of the middle class and above often shied away from putting their name in print, seeing this as a vulgar and largely unnecessary display. The English-speaking world was small enough that authors’ names became known in other ways, and title pages of successful writers such as Burney would include the names of the books already published. The habit of referring to Burney by her maiden name even though for more than half her life she would have been known as Madame D’Arblay most likely has to do with Evelina’s triumph over the other three novels. It was the only one of her books to remain in print throughout the 19th century and beyond. Many readers saw the author as identical to the 16-year-old heroine of her work, something that must also have helped along the tradition of calling her Fanny.

Nowadays, new editions of Burney’s work tend to give her back her adult name, Frances. Although there are those who still prefer to say Fanny, this no longer stands as her sole identity, and so it sounds a bit like when people call Shakespeare “Will” or Hemingway “Papa”—light and affectionate, but not definitive.  

Audrey Bilger
© 2010

Writers Talk - Audrey Bilger

I'm very happy to introduce today's Writers Talk participant, Audrey Bilger.  Audrey is a good friend & a staunch supporter of Robert Frost's Banjo.  In fact, she's written a number of popular posts for this blog, with subject matter ranging from esoteric points of 18th century literature to up & coming rock bands.  Which makes sense: Audrey is an English literature professor who has also been a drummer in a blues band!

Audrey—Dr Bilger in point of fact—obtained her PhD in literature from the University of Virginia, & is an Associate Professor of Literature, as well as Faculty Director of the Writing Center at Claremont-McKenna College.  She has an impressive list of publications, including Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen (Wayne State University Press, 1998); articles in The Paris Review, BITCH: FEMINIST RESPONSE TO POPULAR CULTURE, ROCKGRL & in various Women's Studies journals, as well as upcoming articles in the print version of Ms. magazine.  Audrey also is a regular contributor to the Ms. blog.

You can read one of Audrey's essays on the Writers Talk blog; I'd also recommend searching the "Audrey's Writing" label on this blog to see even more of her work.  & so—here's Audrey!

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with the written word. I stayed up late into the night when I was 6, 7, and 8, reading everything I could get my hands on. Black Beauty, Little Women, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time. Books were a means of escape, gateways to alternative universes where I was always at the center of the action.

My first creative works were funny poems. I enjoyed making people laugh and getting praise for coming up with clever rhymes—mostly in the sing-song rhythms of Dr. Seuss. When I hit adolescence, I switched to introspective material and started hiding what I wrote.

What I most remember about my earliest experiences as a writer was how I got lost in the process and how time got fuzzy around the edges. Like the best forms of play, writing was a world unto itself, a puzzle to be figured out, a mystery to be solved and put down on the page.

I don’t write poetry anymore and haven’t since I was a teenager in Oklahoma, but I still feel most at home when I get absorbed in a writing project. It’s a special form of magic.

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

Much of my writing has involved research and critical thinking. Almost every piece starts the same way. I get obsessed by an idea or a question—from a conversation, a news item, a book, a TV show, or just something I see out of the corner of my eye—and I have to figure out how the pieces fit together to make some sort of sense. If I’m lucky, at some point in the process, I know exactly what I’m doing, and the words make their way to my fingertips on the keyboard or to the end of my pen. Usually, I have to sit with a piece for a while before I get immersed and find flow. Whether I’m writing a script, a narrative, or a critical essay, the writing only gets good when that fuzzy sense of time sets in. Creativity requires a state of grace—and it comes to you with a mandate. When you’re in the creative zone, you find everything you need; and when you leave it, you know you have to get back there again.

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)

From my earliest days as a writer of silly poems, I recognized that sharing what you’ve written can be both exhilarating and agonizing. When I’m writing I can’t think about what anyone else will think about my work or I get stuck. Once a piece is published, in whatever form, it’s out there on its own and a part of me goes with it. The level of exposure is intense, and the outcomes can be mixed. I’m miserable when something I write doesn’t get noticed. I’m happy when I hear from someone who has read my work, especially things from a while back—and even more so when the person has good things to say about it!

Because the blogosphere moves so quickly, I usually feel a rush when something I’ve written goes live. This energy lasts for a day or so as I keep checking back to see if anyone has commented or left feedback (I’m sure I’ll do that with this!), and my mood goes up and down, depending on what I see. With print books and articles, the process gets stretched out over time, but it’s pretty much the same emotional ride.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

My wife, Cheryl, is extremely patient with my writing habits. I have to get up really early if I want to find my way to the creative zone, and when she wakes up, I’m either high or low, depending on how the writing has gone. Neither state is particularly pleasant for someone who’s looking for her first cup of coffee. She’s also extremely good about reading my work and dealing with my initial sensitivity to criticism.

I have several close friends—Eberle being one of my closest!—with whom I trade pages and share work. All of these relationships are deep and special to me. Since writing is something I usually do by myself (in the wee hours of the morning), my writing network makes what I do seem more real.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to collaborate with Eberle, and some of our work has appeared here on RFB. The community John has built here is delightfully supportive—it’s been lovely getting to know all of you—so many cool writers!

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

I’m currently working on an anthology, Here Come the Brides! The Brave New World of Lesbian Marriage with Michele Kort, a senior editor at Ms. magazine. [Here’s a link to our site, currently under construction.] I blog for Ms. and have a couple of pieces coming out in the next issue of the print magazine. I also have  a piece in mind for RFB that I hope to get to one of these days.

I took on a new position at Claremont McKenna College, where I am an associate professor of literature, as the Faculty Director of the Writing Center, so many of my goals are linked to developing a stronger culture of writing at my school and bringing people together to talk about the craft of writing.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

A drum set, of course! I lay down a rhythm and then listen as the melodies gather around.

pic of Audrey in the Writers Talk graphic is by Greg Allen