LETTING THE POET SPEAK FOR HIMSELF

I had long been perplexed why my modern American poetry class in the late ’60s had spent so much time on Edwin Arlington Robinson, especially since we never got up to more pressing figures like Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, or Gary Snyder.

I made a jab at this plaint in my Daffodil Sunrise novel, where our budding photographer was panicking while typing away on his take on Robinson.

More recently, when reworking that manuscript into Daffodil Uprising, I found myself running with the poet more fully.

For one thing, I had to admit he was more contemporary than I’d allowed back in college. His lines and insights are clean, prescient of new approaches, even snippy.

For another, he could be bitter, sarcastic, depressed – as were many beats and budding hippies.

Edwin Arlington Robinson. I still think he looks like a proto-hippie.

His parents themselves weren’t that far from bohemian, either. His mother couldn’t even come up with a name for him, after all, and that fell to a circle of “summer people” visiting Maine. They put names in a hat or whatever and the slip of paper that came up was Edwin. The woman was from Arlington, Massachusetts. Bingo. We have a middle name.

His eldest brother went from being a successful businessman to bankrupt and alcoholic to die in poverty with tuberculosis.

His other brother, a physician, became addicted to morphine and died of what might have been an intentional overdose.

Living the past 31 years in northern New England, I’m now familiar with the culture Robinson grew up within. Gardiner, Maine, is a few hours up the road from us. I have friends whose roots are there.

Without giving a spoiler, let me say Robinson is now an active figure in the new novel. He infuses some wonderful, if sardonic, perspectives to the younger generation, and becomes a foil for similar spirits from the Edwardian past that sway the photographer’s girlfriend, too.

Would he talk this way, though? Who knows.

By now we’re dealing with fantasy, anyway, and that’s so unlike the concrete details of his verse. Again, we’ll excuse ourselves with poetic license.

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THIS MATTER OF BRANDING AND SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

The Mixmaster is back.

When my first novel was published, back in 1990, I was described as “a mixmaster of ideas, images, jokes, philosophy, and nonsense that defies categorization” – as well as “very eclectic and ebullient.”

I’m realizing how much that still fits, and so I’m returning to it as a core of what some might call branding.

As one longtime friend recently described me, I’m “an eclectic human being with a funky sense of humor and a large perspective.”

That’s what I like to do as a writer and thinker – toss a wide range of colorful things together and concoct fresh and exciting connections.

So if that’s what I do and, as I hope, do well, that leads to a new label: Mixmaster Supreme.

Now, where are the frozen strawberries?

Remember, the drink is shaken, not stirred. As for the emotions? Let’s go for both. 

ONE WAY TO NAME A CHARACTER

Those highway signs can often take on whimsical readings.

One poetry journal, for instance, took its name from an exit marker of the Interstate crossing from Pennsylvania into Maryland: Northwest Rising Sun. It was for two different towns. Everybody knows the sun rises in the east, not the west. Still, a great name. It pays to be alert.

Likewise, orchestral conductor David Zinman was recording with humorist P.D.Q. Bach (in real life, Peter Schickele) but found his contract with another label prohibited him from using his own name on this project. What could he use instead? Inspiration struck when he was driving on Route 128 outside Boston. That exit sign read Newton Wayland.

More recently, while updating and seriously revising my previously published novels, I set about renaming many of the characters for a better fit.

I’ve passed this sign hundreds of times and often thought it sounded great as a possible character, if only I had the right situation. And then, as I reworked the volume that now stands as Daffodil Uprising, I had the perfect guy to go by the name: LEE MADBURY.

The sign along U.S. Route 4.

 

 

REWORKING A TEXT

When several of our lifeguards were complaining about their high-school term papers and having to meet the length requirements, I decided to show them a couple pages of my novel in progress, the book that’s emerged as What’s Left.

They were blown away.

It wasn’t any different from what I’ll assume all serious writers do. Just look at the examples in the Paris Review’s acclaimed author interviews. I remember my own shock at the first few I saw – what, we don’t write flawlessly the first time? Oh, the folly of youth!

Well, nowadays we don’t always work from typescript or even printouts – what I showed the teens-to-whom-I-fully-trusted-my-life had now become the exception. I should have photographed some for posterity but instead trashed them during a purging of my studio under the rafters.

Few readers imagine how thoroughly a serious writer or editor will rework a text – major sentences, even paragraphs, are struck out, new words and notes are scribbled everywhere, even fresh pages of inserts are taped to one side or the other of the page.

Tell them this is from the fifth or seventh revision of the manuscript, they’re even more incredulous. The discarded material is a flood compared to the drop or two they struggle to compose.

As the saying goes, inspiration goes in the first draft, genius comes in the revisions.

As we might add, if one’s lucky.

COMING OUT OF SEMI-SECLUSION AFTER BEING IMMERSED IN REVISIONS

Writers work in many different ways.

Some sit down and write two hours a day. When I read that in interviews, I used to think, “What slackers!” Only later, when I realized how much other work needs to be done to sustain that, did I revise my opinion. Research, reading, and correspondence are also crucial parts of the job. For many professional writers, you can add teaching to the list – it can be what really pays the bills.

Others charge up and then lock themselves away for an orgy of keyboarding. Say, two weeks to two months of doing nothing else. There are tales of some writers in the old days who would rent a hotel room for a week or so to do that – they must have had a very nice advance and known exactly what they were setting out to do, it seems too short a time for me these days.

When I was working full-time, my method was rather piecemeal. I’d plunge into writing heavily one day a week – it helped when my four-day workweek allowed me three days off in a row, though I paid for it with that double-shift each Saturday. The rest of the week I put in a couple of hours each day for keyboarding and the supporting labor.

That schedule, in fact, led me to concentrate on poetry much more than fiction, though the budding novels typically got their attention on my vacations and holidays. Looking back, it was a rather schizoid existence.

Since retiring, a major shift has happened, and I’m just now seeing its impact. I’ve been able to immerse myself in drafting and deeply revising a work, to live with it more thoroughly.

I’m going to blame Cassia, the voice of What’s Left. Working with her was unlike anything I’d attempted before. The focus shifted from her curiosity about her father’s past to a close examination of his photos and the family he discovered to, finally, Cassia herself and her siblings and close cousins – the Squad. The spotlight went from being on what happened to the individuals themselves. It was no longer action-driven but character-driven.

That, in turn, led to a similar reworking of my other novels, often with Cassia in effect sitting beside me. Again, unlike anything else I’d done before.

Doing this, though, has involved a lot of semi-seclusion. I’m definitely ready for a change.

SUGGESTING A CREATIVE TENSION BETWEEN INSPIRATION AND TECHNIQUE

In another of the grandiose outbursts I surgically excised from the final version of my new novel, What’s Left, her uncle Dimitri and her father-to-be are engaged in a heated late-night debate.

While their dialogue springs out of a consideration of photography as a fine art, it could extended much broader – perhaps even onto the plates served in the family restaurant.

Here’s how it stood:
Any fine art of the future cannot be an end in itself. It must reflect a much more comprehensive spiritual current. It must instill an awareness of a community. You, of all people must have noticed the only thing the university can teach is technique. The profs can’t instill the leap of psychic thunder. They may encourage a few people to take up vital self-discipline and daily practice.

~*~

Surgically excised? Looks like I actually used one of Barney’s super-sharp chef knives!

The dynamic of formal teaching and learning ultimately fell outside the parameters of my new novel anyway. The important thing is that Cassia’s Baba finds a true home.

I’d say her uncle Barney, the chef, practices a fine art, in his own way, and he’s never attended college. He just has an active curiosity and a place to engage it. Maybe that’s why he and her Baba get along so easily.

Do you practice an art or a craft? Have you ever tried to define your “mission”? How do you explain your motivation or activity? Who gives you the most positive feedback?

~*~

This Victorian house, with its witch-hat tower and roof, was erected in Allentown, Pa., around 1891. It is shown here in 1926 during construction of the New Pergola Theater next door. The house was torn down in 1960, replaced by Van’s Diner, a glass and aluminum structure. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

In my novel, the family home could have looked like this.

THE LONGEST GRASS AND THE SEARCH FOR A WORKABLE ITINERARY

Back in my college days I came across a column by a magazine writer who was retiring. He mentioned something he had recognized early in his career, that if you want to be a writer or a serious reader, you need to get comfortable with having the longest grass on your street. (An editor is something of both.)

It’s been a powerful – and to me, helpful – image.

Studious reading and writing require large chunks of time and concentration. Sacrifices have to be made. Quite simply, you can’t hope to do all the things everyone else does … or seems to do.

With my wife back in the workplace (and me now retired from paid employment), she’s looking at the list of things she’d like to see done to keep this old house and our big garden in shape. As that editor was saying about the grass?

A few weeks ago, I revisited some notes I had made in looking forward to retirement. It was embarrassing. I had always anticipated this as a time I could finally devote fully to my literary and spiritual callings rather than as a time to kick back and indulge in a life of leisure. (No golf clubs or even tennis racquet on my horizon.) Still, even then, I felt challenged in trying to find a balance for all that I wanted to accomplish. Frankly, these plans looked like boot camp for a senior citizen. Rise at 5, sit down to meditate, exercise, and hit the keyboard for three hours. That sort of thing.

What my theoretical charts didn’t include was housekeeping and the like. And then when I did retire, I hadn’t anticipated taking up daily swimming in the city’s indoor pool or online Spanish lessons or weekly choir rehearsals in Boston.

As for the big household projects like painting or ongoing repairs or time in the mountains to the north or at the beach to our east? Fuhgetaboutit, as a New Yorker would say.