February 15, 2013, 12:01 am
This will be my last post for Lingua Franca. It’s been a good experience but I need to put my shoulder to some other wheels.
Last month, in Berkeley (at University Press Books), we launched the third issue of Mixed Blood, the national publication I started with two friends at Penn State. (Mixed Blood began auspiciously—it’s the result of a series of late afternoon conversations at Whiskers, the company bar at Penn State. The publication continues to reflect the interests and involvement of its founding editors—Jeffrey T. Nealon, William J. Harris, and me—but its new home is the University of California at Berkeley.)
We’re hoping that Mixed Blood is something different, more than one more literary magazine—we invite poets to the UC campus to give public readings of their work and to give talks as well about the connections (or lack thereof) between the languages of…
January 28, 2013, 12:01 am
“The Timbertoes,” from “Highlights” magazine
My ophthalmologist’s office was crowded. The doctor was behind, there would be a real wait. The place was packed with people (including myself) in unfashionable shades, post-op wear. I found a seat then realized that I had not brought a book or a newspaper. I was at the mercy of the magazine rack and a meager rack it was—Sports Illustrated, Highlights for Children, and a glossy publication about bat conservation.
As a child, I had never cared for Highlights. I’ll not address here the multiple issues of “Goofus and Gallant” but will mention another feature of the magazine, “The Timbertoes”—it’s a cartoon about “a little wooden family and their adventures.” The adventures are dull by any standard. I’d not thought of “The Timbertoes” for years until…
January 4, 2013, 12:01 am
In her anti-automobile screed of a few years ago, Katie Alvord wrote, “Coming after railroads, cars acquired what Wolfgang Sachs calls ‘a restorative significance’ for the rich. The train, he writes, threatened the wealthy’s sense of place and power: ‘What the common people welcomed as a democratic advance, individuals of more privileged position greeted with a snort.’ Indeed, the Duke of Wellington expressed disapproval of railroads in 1855, saying, ‘They only encourage common people to move around needlessly.’”
Few things are better, as an antidote to some damp, drizzly January in my soul, than settling into an Amtrak coach seat in the company of my fellow undesirables. I like trains. But I like travel in all the varieties of its experience and its literature.
Some time ago I began teaching a creative-writing course with travel as the focus. The students read, too, of course….
December 10, 2012, 12:01 am
Apollo, god of poetry, courtesy of Stephen Vincent
My friend Stephen Vincent, a Bay Area poet and raconteur, was in Turkey last summer and snapped a picture of the sculpture of Apollo at Nemrut just as the sun was coming up. Beardless Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, healing and plague both, and music. And poetry. Shelley wrote (in “Hymn of Apollo”), “I am the eye with which the Universe/ Beholds itself, and knows it is divine.” At a poetry reading in San Francisco last week Stephen said, of his encounter with the god, “I thought I should ask him, Do you have any thoughts about creative-writing programs?”
In the creative-writing industry one commonly comes across metaphors for and references to the mercantile. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs—the venerable old AWP—is the…
November 27, 2012, 12:01 am
A few years ago, following a stunningly silent moment in a class discussion, my creative-writing students let me know that race was indeed a taboo topic on campus, at least in polite conversation. (To be fair, creative-writing classes have often and famously suffered from an overabundance of politeness.) My response was to begin teaching a course I called “Race, [Creative] Writing, and Difference,” the title borrowed from the Kwame Anthony Appiah-Henry Louis Gates Jr. volume. We read some literature of race (Noel Ignatiev, Toni Morrrison, Kenji Yoshino, Mark Twain, many others), but the vehicle for the writing in the course is the personal essay, the most raucous and open-ended and close to poetry of the well-known prose forms. Phillip Lopate’s encyclopedic Art of the Personal Essay is the point of departure here—Lopate directs us toward both intimacy and experiment, he reminds…
November 6, 2012, 12:01 am
Sitting on the runway at Dulles, about to fly up to State College on one of United’s Dash-8s, I found myself behind two rows of university students, one on each side of the plane. It was the day of the Penn State-Ohio State football game and as we backed away from the terminal, the young people began a familiar cheer: They shouted, “WE ARE,” and waited for the response, for the small plane to rock with a matching-in-pitch-and-intensity, “PENN STATE!” The response didn’t come—a few passengers mumbled the school’s name but the cabin was, for the greatest part, silent, and the students—one of whom wore a PSU cheerleader T-shirt—did not try again.
It was a gray day in State College. It was a game day and the traffic was bad and my friend and I drove through groups of people heading for the stadium. I’d not been in town for a couple of years and noted the many signs…
October 23, 2012, 12:01 am
In Prince George, British Columbia, poetry readings are raucous and well-attended. Five hundred miles north of Vancouver, P.G. is a first giant step on the way to the Alaska Highway or to the coast at Prince Rupert, or to the Peace River country. You never know where poetry’s going to find a place to flourish. I read at the College of New Caledonia and the next night Sarah de Leeuw read at Books & Co.; we’d not met before but we came to each other’s events and, at the bookstore, she—a very interesting poet and essayist and a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia—was introduced as being a northern native from a place called Haida Gwaii. “What’s Haida Gwaii?” I whispered to my friend. “New name for the Charlottes,” he replied.
I was sitting with the Caledonia crowd—my …
October 10, 2012, 12:01 am
“Freight Cars Under a Bridge,” Charles Burchfield (Detroit Institute of Arts)
Recently on the radio I listened to a piece about the planned phaseout of nuclear power in Germany. Wind-based energy will call for “an expanded power grid” and “new high-capacity overhead lines.” Eric Westervelt, NPR’s man in Berlin, said, “The rise of the ‘Not in My Backyard,’ or Nimby, movement was perhaps inevitable.”
The acronym began to appear in print in the U.S. in the 1980s. In my relatively brief career on the railroad, we talked about the Nimby movement. The prevailing sentiment was that Nimbys—as the vocal members were known—thought that their earthly goods arrived from heaven. The apparatus for such? Well, they certainly didn’t care for a train creeping through the cut behind suburban houses, even…
September 27, 2012, 12:01 am
Early in my life I learned some things about geography—by which I mean here where places such as cities and countries are and where border-lines are drawn—from unlikely sources: stamp collecting, an obsession with railway schedules, and popular songs and rhymes. Years later I’m still interested by the ways places appear in song and how the language of songs—and poetry—documents place.
Last summer I found myself in Budapest with my daughter. I had earned some extra money that year so we were taking a series of trains “to the end of Europe,” Istanbul, certainly one of the great border towns. In Budapest, on the city tour, from the castle in Buda I saw the beautiful river, the Danube, and into my head, unbidden, came a rhyme I had learned as a child—
Now a tomb rises up where the blue Danube flows,
And engraved there in characters clear
Is “Stranger, when passing, …
September 14, 2012, 12:01 am
Egyptian vultures, also called Pharaoh’s chickens, by the Rev. Francis O. Morris (1810-1893), hand-colored wood engraving from A History of British Birds (1850-1857)
For a series of poems having to do with memory and mnemonic devices I found myself reading recently about chickens. Poultry is no stranger to poetry. As every schoolchild knows, “Hiawatha’s chickens” is Longfellow’s term for the wild birds of the forest; and Williams has told us that the location of the red wheelbarrow, upon which much depends, is “beside the white// chickens.” Among my contemporaries, Brenda Coultas writes (in “A Poultice From a Coultas” from The Marvelous Bones of Time), “Count on your chickens which are hatching or all resting in one basket// get your bacon caught in a ringer// like a mule at a trough or silk ear stolen from a so…