Friday, May 1, 2015

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris, a copy editor at the New Yorker, has written a book that touches a range of genres from Mad Men to The Elements of Style. Personal anecdotes dating back to the 1960s, when Norris first landed a job at that stylish New York magazine, are loosely intermixed with detailed analyses of picayune grammar issues that every copy editor faces—and often enjoys.

Norris herself is a likeable sort—so much so that I have no qualms about referring to her familiarly as "Mary." She worked her way up from a cheese factory in her hometown in Cleveland to the New Yorker editorial department via hard work and a series of accidents. 

Although the magazine has been through several editors and shifts of tone since she arrived there, Mary  isn't interested in that sort of thing. Her steady points of reference aren't William Shawn or David Remnick, but Eleanor Gould (grammarian and query proofreader) and Lu Burke (proofreader). She speaks with school-girl awe of the writers she's copy-edited, which range from Pauline Kael and Phillip Roth to John McPhee and Ian Frazier. Well, who wouldn't?

One of Mary's early "catches" was to hunt down and verify a minor misquotation from a children's book in a piece by Phillip Roth. The fiction editor, Bill Bufford, sent it along to Roth, highlighting Mary's discovery. Roth wrote back: "Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?"

Thus began Mary's abiding interest in Roth's fiction—and the man himself. "I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I'm still available."

Norris's enthusiasm for language and literature is contagious. She seems to have a robust curiosity about a lot of things, in fact, which is a good quality for any editor to cultivate. She writes:

"One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience."

Her motive for writing, she tells us, was to pass on the expertise she has acquired to us.

Early on in the book, Mary faces up to the fact that in the public imagination, editors are haughty, mysterious creatures who think they know best and always want to get their way.

"The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer but got stuck dotting the i's and crossing the t's and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers."

She shatters that stereotype by example. Her tone is modest, her judgments provisional, her respect for the author's intention sincere. She describes her position, tongue slightly in cheek, as "anti-ultracrepidationalism." In simple language, she strives not to go beyond her province.

Yet the position she holds at the magazine has a force of its own.

"I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of the New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas."

This passage may be taken as a typical example of Norris's writing style: breezy, chirpy, and occasionally  daring in its use of analogies drawn from daily life,  but also prone to minor solecisms. 

The phrase "I always forget...", for example, is a little off. If you are always in the process of forgetting something, then you aren't forgetting it at all—you simply have no recollection of it. "I often forget" or "I sometimes forget" or "I tend to forget" would have been better.

Then again, in the last sentence of the paragraph,  "as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen" is brilliant, at least to my mind, and corresponds perfectly with the "jumping back" she describes, while the second simile is hard to visualize and dulls the force of its predecessor.

In offering these petty suggestions for improvement, I'm obeying a sort of Murphy's Law, described by David Marsh of the Guardian (and quoted by Mary) as follows: "If you write anything criticizing editing or proof-reading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written."  

Alas, the more technical sections of subsequent chapters, such as when Norris tries to explain in detail how nominative and accusative positions affect word usage, can be pretty dull. And I suppose some subjects, such as word-breaks, are going to be dull no matter how you approach them. Then again, I had never considered the fact (until now) that where a word is broken may depend not only on how it's spelled but on how it's used. Thus, when I fire someone, I "ca-shier" him or her; but if I take a job behind the register, I become a "cash-ier." By the same token, a beer that I order might arrive in a "bum-per," but someone who bumps into me at the bar is a "bump-er." That's what Mary says, anyway.

Norris includes a long section on the relative merits of various dictionaries, and a slightly-too-long digression into the life and character of Daniel Webster himself. Her discussion of gender and pronoun issues is garbled a little oddly with anecdotes about her brother's first efforts at cross-dressing. And there are a few analogies to automotive repair that fall flat.

As for hyphens, the book presents us with numerous opportunities to challenge the positions she endorses, after she's finished weighing the pros and cons of her colleagues opinions against her own judgment.

"Eleanor Gould seemed to hyphenate everything," she writes, "and Lu Burke hated anything extra." So, where do you put the hyphen in "baby back ribs," "bad hair day," "bright red car," "blue stained glass"? Or is a hyphen necessary?

Norris settles on bright-red car, but that seems odd to me. I don't think a hyphen is necessary. Why not? Because "red" and "bright" are in two separate categories of attribute already. One refers to a tint, the other refers to a degree of luminosity. These two naturally go together to form a adjectival phrase, which is not quite the same thing as a compound adjective. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with describing autumn leaves as red-yellow, rather than merely orange.

She goes for blue-stained glass, which is once again a little bizarre. The phrase conjures an image of a piece of clear glass that someone has subsequently smeared with blueberries. In fact, the staining of the glass is coterminous with the production of it. The result of the process is stained glass. What color? In this case, it's blue stained glass.

You may not agree with these assertions of mine, but if you don't find such quibbles at least mildly interesting, you probably won't like this book.

Norris has an aversion to the semi-colon, for no other reason, I guess, than that she feels she's not the type of person who would use them. They're too rich for her blood—as my dad used to say about Jack Daniels. (He also thought semicolons were pretentious.)

But Mary admits she has an abiding appreciation for Henry James's semicolons.

"...Henry James uses semicolons for timing. They accumulate in a way that can make sentiments appear simultaneous, although it's impossible to read two things at once."

Of course, anyone can use semicolons for timing; it's like a rolling stop that keeps the reader moving ahead, while remaining cognizant of what came immediately before.

In the end, what Mary Norris passes on to us, more than any particular rule or concept, is her love of the language—its power, its logic (and lack thereof), its nuances. She also conjures the anxieties that haunt any conscientious copy editor. "Why didn't I query that?" "Why did I let that blooper through?"

Most writers, and many substantive editors, too, have the same feeling about a text as the one that biographer Nicholas Delbanco (quoted by Norris) describes Herman Melville as having regarding his masterpiece, Moby-Dick:  

"The proofs...were replete with errors, but ... he became impatient of such minute, gnat-like torments; he randomly corrected the worst, and let the rest go; jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics."

Both writers and editors depend on copy editors (and proofers) to alleviate their own anxieties on this account—and hope and pray that their publisher can afford such luxuries.

The New Yorker can. It has copy editors and proofers and fact-checkers galore. Mary Norris wrote a book about it. And it's a lot of fun to read.  

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Film Fest 2


The Minneapolis film fest is a three-week event. But when the leaves are opening on the trees you start saying to yourself, "I don't really need to see any of these films. No one else will ever see them. One is more or less like another." That's when it's nice to get an email from a friend:

"I'm lined up for Magicarena, Nowhere in Moravia, and 1001 Grams today, and am thinking about Grandad and El Critico  tomorrow, and possibly Tu Dors Nicole and Unlikely Heroes on Fri...if I don't totally burn out before then ... I do have a ticket for Cowboys on Saturday night as well (gonna hafta take a nap before that)."

My friend has some free time on his hands, and he's viewing for two—his wife is off monitoring an election in Kazakhstan. I was inspired to join him in his quest, and since that time I've added a few more films to my list.


Theeb (United Arab Emirates)

The best film I saw at the fest, Theeb is a tale of a man, the son of a sheik, who agrees to lead a British soldier across the wastes of Saudi Arabia along an old pilgrim trail, now mostly used by bandits, in search of a well. The Arab doesn't know what the soldier is up to, and perhaps doesn't like him much, but he's obliged by the unspoken rules of hospitality to take on the assignment. Matters are made considerably more difficult for him when his baby brother, Theeb, decides the follow the little caravan out into the desert.


Theeb bears some similarity to American westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and Ride the High Country, where the countryside is magnificent, danger is always near at hand, the law is nonexistent, and it's sometimes hard to tell friend from foe. But it's full of plot twists and subtle reversals of fortune that elevate it above the genre (if there is one). Meanwhile, the central role played by Theeb himself, who wants to become a man but is out of his element among seasoned and sometimes devious adults, further enriches the plot. In short, the film has a rock-solid storyline to go with its astounding scenery.   


 Magicarena (Italy)
This is one of those back-stage production documentaries like Michael Jackson's This Is It. But the venue is a Roman coliseum in Verona, and the piece being rehearsed in Verdi's Aida. The elephants involved are mechanical, and there are lots of other gizmos involved, too, including scads of glowing orbs and plastic crocodiles slithering by on skateboards. A few things catch fire backstage, rain and wind upset the proceedings. As usual with such films, we seldom get to hear an entire aria being performed, much less a complete scene. Nevertheless, all the razzle-dazzle is fun to watch.


Nowhere in Moravia (Czech Republic)

Alongside the deadpan tone of many Wes Anderson films, and the Irish good cheer of Ballykissangel, and the energy and genius for outlandish caricature of Amarcord, we have the drollery of the Czech school of comedy, tinged with absurdist overtones and black humor, but also, at its best, capable of developing a degree of existential momentum. Nowhere in Moravia may be taken as a case in point. 


It is never laugh-out-loud funny, but it maintains a consistent tone of stolid indifference that never quite sinks into weary resignation. The small cast of characters includes the barmaid, Maruna; the town's reluctant mayor, two brothers who share a house (and a loony woman), a homeless man named Stinky, a roofer and his young side-kick, and one or two other local laborers.

Most of the men in town are interested in getting into Maruna's pants, and she's very matter-of-fact and obliging for the most part. Maruna's chief distinction is that she used to be a school-teacher and can speak German. She lives with her mother and her sister, who's a nurse.

Nothing much happens during the film. The mayor tried to shoot a stag.  Roofs get repaired. People drink. They also eat a lot of sausages and bread. The countryside looms. It's a timeless world, where dreams have died and the villagers have learned to accept their lot. The rabbit stew is good. Someone gets killed. People drink.


The Iron Ministry (China)

Shot with a hand-held digital camera, this film focuses on feet and the trash under the seats on Chinese trains. We listen in on a few conversations, but most of the time we're watching people sleep, buy snacks from vendors moving down the aisle, butcher meat in the compartments between the cars, and look out the windows at the passing countryside. The film took two years to make, but it seems the footage could have been shot in a single day. The soundtrack is very loud. It's a visceral experience—clickety-clack, clickety-clack.

 
Betibu (Argentina)

Cut from the same cloth as Argentina's Oscar-winning The Secrets in Their Eyes, this film follows the lives of a wizened journalist, a rookie crime reporter, and a romance writer turned columnist as they investigate a murder at a posh country club estate. At times their investigations more closely resemble Almadovar's Flower of My Secret than Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, but the plotline will keep viewers guessing 'til the end, when the tension drops--and then gets ratcheted up again.


Belle and Sebastian (France)

If you liked Heidi, you'll probably like this film about a boy named Sebastian who's being raised by his wise but hard-drinking grandpa in the French Alps during WWII. The local shepherds are being terrorized by a savage beast that turns out to be a sweet, mangy dog whom Sebastian names Belle. There are a few subplots involving the local doctor who guides fugitives across the mountain passes, the German soldiers stationed in town to catch those fugitives, and Sebastian's young aunt Josephine, who's in love with the doctor—though the German commander also seems to be in love with her. The film has three drippy songs that might easily have been removed, and it's hard to escape the fact it was made for children, but the Alpine scenery is spectacular, the chase scenes are gripping, and the crusty peasant sentiments are noble. (I cried.)


Papusza (Poland)

Did the Polish film industry run out of color film, or what? First Ida, and now Papusza. Not that I'm complaining. Papusza tells the story of the gypsy poetess of that name and the gadja (i.e. non-gypsy) who comes to live with the band, recognizes Papusza's talent, and later shares her poetry with the wider world.


The film is rich in long-shots of campfires by the river in the moonlight, caravans slowly crossing fields of stubble, and riotous parties at which the gypsy musicians have been invited to play. But if the cinematography romanticizes Roma lifeways to a degree, the plot-line exposes their patriarchic cruelty and xenophobia. Things do not end well for Papusza. Her big mistake was to learn how to read and write.


Unlikely Heroes (Switzerland)

We return to the Alps for Unlikely Heroes, a film that deserves close scrutiny. Its central character is a Swiss housewife named Sabine. Recently separated from her husband, Sabine works as an assistant to a condescending psychotherapist who has decided to exclude her from a long-standing Christmas event with their mutual friends. 

Following a chain of freak events too complicated and fortuitous to describe, Sabine finds herself leading dramatic therapy sessions with a group of asylum-seekers from Zimbabwe, Turkey, SE Asia, and other unnamed parts of the world. These likeable but generally hapless individuals hardly speak German and have no idea what therapy is, but they perk up when Sabine begins to describe the story of William Tell, who is the classic hero of Swiss self-identity. She brings Tell up merely as an example of a national myth, hoping her students will chose stories from their own countries to act out, but before long they've decided to stage Schiller's famous play.


The poignancy of this should be clear. Although the asylum-seekers don't fit into modern-day Swiss society very well, they respond immediately to a tale involving escape, heroism, and resistance to arbitrary authority. That was Switzerland—a thousand years ago.

Much of the pleasure of watching Unlikely Heroes lies in the sweet dispositions, humorous lack of comprehension, naive enthusiasms, and petty squabbles of the asylum-seekers. But I would give Esther Gemsch, who plays Sabine, my vote for Best Actress of the festival. Her portrayal of an intelligent woman who chose to raise a family and paid the price by being abandoned by everyone, and is now floundering through an unexpected flurry of creativity and renown, still questioning her talent and her motives, is priceless.

The film has been criticized for giving a sugar-coated and unrealistic rendering of the problems that refuges seeking political asylum in Europe face. That's like saying Hogan's Heroes gives a false impression of life in a concentration camp. Unlikely Heroes is a morality tale and an inspirational journey. It chooses its themes carefully and develops them well.

The play turns out pretty good too. (I cried.)


   

Dukhtar (Pakistan)

I have never been to Kashmir, and I doubt if I will ever go there. So I was glad to see the fantastic scenery of Dukhtar. (The growling, machine-gun-toting clansmen I could do without.)

The story revolves around a young girl (maybe twelve?) who is to be married off to a clan-lord to patch up a long-running feud. The girl escapes with her mother, though there are not many places an unchaperoned woman can escape to in Kashmir...

*   *   *

To be able to travel so widely without leaving town is a real treat. And we often extended the experience after a film by hunting up more information back home. After seeing Theeb, for example, I pulled my copy of  The Arab of the Desert by H. R. P. Dickson (1949) off the shelf, and also Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes by Alqama, Shanfara, Labid, Antara, etc.

Home from Pabusza, I scoured The Faber Book of Modern European Poetry, but she was not among those anthologized. I thought I might have better luck with Contemporary East European Poetry, (expanded edition, 1993) but once again, no. During my futile search I at least had the pleasure of listening to a long-neglected CD by the preeminent Romanian gypsy band, Taraf de Haidouks.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Old Coots, Young Shoots


There's so much going on at this time of the year that it's hard to decide sometimes whether to shout or merely squeal with delight. The temperature's rising, leaves are returning to the trees. The ducks have been passing through for a month now, the grass is greening up, and it won't be long before the warblers arrive in good numbers. The AWP convention was a unique pleasure, and the international film festival has been in full swing for a fortnight. I've seen movies from the Czech Republic, China, Estonia, Cuba, The United Arab Emirates, Italy, France, Poland, Argentina, and the United States, with three or four more lined up for early next week.

Last week we began to run out of steam just a little. On Tuesday I was torn between attending a book release party for a new Nodin Press anthology at the University Club and listening to Laurie Herzel interview one of my favorite novelists, Per Pettersen, at Macalester College; in the end we spent a quiet evening at home, reading. 

On Thursday the choice was between a sneak preview performance of Far from the Madding Crowd and a reading/seminar on the current state of Swedish poetry at the Swedish Institute. We opted for Happy Hour at the Lowry Restaurant followed by a leisurely drive around the Minneapolis chain of lakes. The evening was simply too grand to ignore.

That was the first night when the air was warm, the leaves were a discernible yellow-green in the waning sunlight, and it seemed that everyone was out. Even the coots.

I normally don't pay much attention to coots. Perhaps I should. They're in the same clade—the Gruiformes—as the sandhill crane. But unlike the majestic cranes, the coot is a pudgy, ash-colored bird with a white beak and a slightly clown-like mien. They travel in large groups, often nervously zigging and zagging across the surface of the water, dependent on a collective will that seems unsure of itself. It's always a treat, when surveying a loose raft of coots, to spot a pied-bill grebe or a horned grebe in the crowd.

But that evening the coots themselves were lovely, swimming in a confident, purposeful pack—almost a V—along the left side of Lake Calhoun, no more than twenty feet off shore. Out beyond them, six or eight red-breasted mergansers were engaged in leisurely courtship displays. (I say "leisurely," but who really knows how intense duck-emotions are?)

The next morning we returned with binoculars. The weather was gray and the lake was choppy, but a few more birds had arrived. There may have been 300 coots all told on Calhoun and Harriet, and we also saw fifteen or twenty eared grebes, a few loons, and a group of shovelers farther out on the lake.

By Sunday morning the weather had cleared, and the leaves on the trees and shrubs were at the point where they were substantial yet still young enough to glow with incoming sunlight rather than merely blocking it. It's an exciting moment—often a fleeting one. 

The four crab apple trees just south of Highway 55 on Theodore Wirth Parkway were full of white blossoms. (I'd like to plant one of those in my yard.)



The ephemerals at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden were just getting started. Wild ginger, bloodroot, trout lilies, purple trillium. It was a nice stroll, though the only new bird we saw was a hermit thrush.

Ten minutes south of the garden, we were once again circling the lakes. The ducks were gone. Heading for Manitoba, no doubt, on this clear, bright morning. 



There may have been thirty coots near the south shore of Lake Calhoun. We watched half of them come ashore in a large group, re-oil their feathers (I guess?) and hop back into the lake to rejoin their cousins.    



  

  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Film Fest 2015


You can learn a lot about the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival just by striking up a conversation with the person standing beside you in line. That's because people who go to the fest usually go often. (If you wanted to see just one movie, you'd go to your local cineplex. No?)  So it isn't uncommon for a stranger standing next to you to ask, "What have you seen? What have you liked?"

That's how I found out about Tangerine, the best of the eight films I've seen at the festival thus far. It's a war film, but also an intimate drama. It takes place in a wooden valley in Abkhazia, a sub-region of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Georgia is now an independent state, but some of the residents of lower Abkhazia consider themselves more Russian that Georgian, and during the time the film takes place, they're fighting for their independence.


To complicate matters, the film's central character, Ivo,  is Estonian. Estonia is 1700 miles from Abkhazia, but during the nineteenth century many Estonians settled in Georgia. Now that Estonia is no longer part of the USSR, many Estonians are inclined to go home, and the fighting in Georgia provides an added incentive. But Ivo and his friend Margus have decided to stay on until they've harvested the tangerines. Ivo makes the crates, Margus picks the fruit. They've arranged for a local militia to escort the produce to the market, and even, perhaps, help them pick the fruit.

Their tranquil agricultural pursuits are shattered when a firefight takes place on the country road outside their farms, and Ivo finds himself taking care of two wounded soldiers, one Georgian, the other a Chechnian mercenary fighting on the side of Abkasia and Russia.


The Chechnian, Ahmed, vows to kill the Georgian, Niko, once he recovers from his wounds, but Ivo gets him to swear that he will kill no one within the house. Ivo is a man of his word, and so is Ahmed. Thus we witness two soldiers gaining strength day by day as they hurl insults (and sometimes hot tea) at one another at the kitchen table, waiting for the moment when they'll finally have it out.

Ivo is determined to bring these two soldiers back to health and defuse their animosity to one another.  And in time the situation within the house mellows, but things get more complicated as military patrols begin to show up, sometimes Georgian, sometimes Russian. "Who are these invalids?" they want to know.  Which one is the enemy?


Tangerines has been described as an anti-war film, but that's not the case. It's a drama about men getting to know each other in the context of homeland and religion, bravado and incipient violence, where the most thoughtful people seldom call the shots, and who gets hurt bears little relation to justice or right and wrong. 


La Sapienza

Oppositions abound in this didactic film set largely in Italy: male/female, rational/mystical, Bernini/Borromini, young/old. They're the stuff of drama, but also of cliché.


Here director Eugene Green keeps the drama to a minimum by forcing his actors to remain wooden in their actions and robotic in their speech. Every remark and gesture is followed by a long pause, people often look head-on into the camera. It might serve as a good instruction film for those learning to speak Italian or French. In short, the film is ridiculously stylized...but it's also sort of fun to watch. 

And moments of comic relief also crop up from time to time. The characters learn from one another, absorb the lessons of Renaissance Italian architecture, and loosen up, so that by the end of the film they're almost behaving like normal humans.


Green is better known for directing Baroque operas, where stylization is the norm. Seeing such things on the big screen without arias or orchestral accompaniment throws us out of our comfort zone and forces us to reflect a little more carefully on the few things that are being said, and the many things passing slowly in front of our eyes.
  
Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story

Heralded as "the next Charlie Parker" in the early 50s, alto saxophonist Frank Morgan took the path of heroin, bank-robbery, and thirty-years in prison. Here director N. C. Heikin tells Morgan's  story in jazzy style, with interviews of wives, fellow-inmates, family members, and fellow musicians.


Morgan comes across as a gifted musician and an irresponsible charmer who never believed he was as good as people seemed to think he was.    

A concert held in St. Quentin prison to honor Morgan's memory acts as the backbone to the narrative. Anyone who likes Bebop will like this film. Anyone who doesn't know what Bebop is should see it.

The director was present at the screening we attended, and also Frank Morgan's niece. Frank spent his last few years in Minneapolis, and she told us stories of how he would spend his days wandering the backyard, playing his saxophone.


Behavior

Behavior is a sprawling Cuban film about a young boy in Havana, life on the streets, dog-fighting, academic bureaucracy, and the challenges teachers face bringing along students whose home lives are a shambles. The tale is moving. The cinematography is stunning.  


Every Face Has a Name

The Swedish creators of this film, a sequel to Harbor of Hope, once again succeed in tracking down the people who arrived in Malmo at the end of WWII to start new lives. In comparison to the earlier film, it seems a little tired, a little uninspired. The stories are sadder, not because of the war, but because of who the individuals are.

Operation Popcorn


A documentary about Hmong leaders in Fresno, California, including General Vang Pao, who try to buy armaments to send to Laos. The dealings seem a little amateurish, the Hmong leaders don't seem to know what they're doing, and the film itself is short on visuals, but it's a mildly interesting story that exposes how loyalty to a home halfway around the world can really mix things up.

Medicine of the Wolf


Images of cuddly wolves and the eloquence of Jim Brandenberg cannot altogether obscure the fact that Julie Huffman, the woman who created Medicine of the Wolf, hasn't done much research on wolf management. Nevertheless, wolves are fun to watch and viewers may be inspired by the film to look more deeply into all the things that were never mentioned in the film.

Virtuosity


Competition films abound—spelling bees, opera try-outs, wine-tasting, dance contests. Here young  contestants in the Van Cliburn Competition in Ft. Worth, Texas, rehearse at the piano and discuss various aspects of their lives and music. These artists from Italy, China, Russia, and other places already know a great deal about career development and arts management, but their back-stories are only intermittently interesting. Fei Fei Dong, the young Chinese pianist, didn't come close to winning the trials, but she steals the show as the most sincere, sweet, and winsome personality in the group. 

As luck would have it, Fei Fei was in the audience for the event, and she and the film's producer shared some further anecdotes about making the film after the screening.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

AWP - Hanging Around the Booth


On the way back to the booth, I passed the table of Bad Penny Review. Those guys have been busy manufacturing little boxes filled with postcards, coasters, chapbooks and other printed material, and offering them for sale at very reasonable prices. (I would have bought one but it occurred to me I might just as well rummage a little through the drawers of my old desk.) 

I also ran into my colleagues at Bookmobile, Gretchen Franke, Nicole Baxter, and Rachel Holscher. I had never met Gretchen though we've emailed many times. I recently sent her a note saying: "Ignore that last PDF I sent. Some additional corrections are on the way." She replied, "Thanks, John. I usually do hold your files for a few hours before running them. I've noticed that your 'last minute corrections' are seldom really the last ones you send." It's sad, but true.


It was a special pleasure to reconnect with Rachel. The last time we spoke face-to-face was at a printing workshop in Brainerd maybe ten years ago. At that time her kids were young and she was a worried that her camping days were over. I asked if she'd been doing any camping lately.

"Oh, yes. We go twice a summer. My children are both teenagers now. They like it--though they'd rather sleep in their grandparents' fifth-wheel than on the floor of our tent." When I mentioned that Hilary and I were contemplating a backpacking trip, she brought up Isle Royale, where she and her husband had gone on their honeymoon.

Hanging Around the Booth

But hanging around the booth can also be fun. I work with authors from Nodin Press fairly often, and then, following the intimacy and intensity of assembling a book together, they disappear. Or maybe it's me who disappears.


In any case, it's always a pleasure to reconnect with poets and historians I've worked with, and also with those I hardly know.  At various times I shared the booth with Freya Manfred, Kate Dayton (who has a wonderful hoot of a laugh, and lets it loose often), Norita Ditterberger-Jax, and Margaret Hasse (who brought me a ham sandwich on Friday after watching me eat a deep-fried chicken fillet sandwich from the concessionaire the previous day. Gee thanks, Ma!)

I had never met Joyce Sutphen, though her poetry figures prominently in the new Nodin Anthology. I got to talking with her when she visited the booth, and after I made mention of her poem about the scythe that appears  in the new volume, she said:

"Right now I'm memorizing a poem by Robert Frost called 'The Mowing.' I often drive to St. Peter to teach, and I have the text beside me on the car seat." And then she recited the entire poem to me in one of the softest voiced I'd ever heard.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground...

It occurred to me only later that perhaps I'd now experienced the full decibel range of personal poetry recitation. Twenty years ago I ran into Robert Bly at the Blockbuster video store on Hennepin Avenue. Before long he was reciting a new poem he'd recently translated at the top of his lungs. Twice.

The point here isn't "brushes with fame." It's that people who love poetry and live in that world find it natural to recite poems to perfect strangers. I like that.

Joyce and I discussed the pronunciation of "scythe," and I confessed to her that the word "chasm" also troubled me. Was it "ka-sem" or "cha-sem"?

"I think it's "kas-em," she said, "but I haven't had occasion to say it very often."

Mike Hazard sauntered up with some poem-sticks in front of his face. I asked him what he'd been working on.

"Two days ago I finished my documentary about George Stoney," he said with a grin.

"That's huge," I replied. "You've been working on that for twenty years. Isn't he sort of an idol of yours?"

"Don't say idol," Mike corrected me. "Stoner was totally against idols." We chatted for a bit about Wiseman's recent film, National Gallery.

"That film was good," Mike said, "but it could have ended at any point. But all Wiseman's films are like that." 

Several people who stopped by were aspiring authors who told me stories of painful mental illnesses, autoimmune diseases, or of deaths in the family that were part of the memoirs they were writing and hoped we'd publish. Others had taken classes from Linda Back McKay, and were equally impressed by her motorcycle trips and her surreal imagination.


And my old buddy Glenn Freeman, who teaches creative writing at a small college in Iowa, stopped by early in the event.  He'd just attended a morning panel about funding college writing programs."Demand is up, funding is down," he told me. "At the panel a recent survey was unveiled that will help me convince the dean that my program is way underfunded."

Glenn and his wife, Mary Beth, had been over the previous evening for some impromptu catching up on the deck. I'd like to say we served them a fine platter of meze dishes, but the spread was actually concocted of odds and ends from the fridge. I guess that's more or less the same thing—sliced gruyere cheese, reheated ratatouille, cole slaw from CostCo, spanikopita from the freezer, and left-over quinoa salad with asparagus and mushrooms.

But the most surprising visitor to the booth was Tim McDonnell. The last time I saw Tim, he was a scrawny, sixteen-year-old pouring Swiss Miss from a box into small plastic bags. We worked at the same canoe base. He was the outfitter; I was a guide. In the forty years since then, Tim has lost most of his hair but grown a thick salt-and-pepper beard. Yet I recognized him immediately. He's still the same thoughtful, soft-spoken soul  that I once knew, and he's written a few books to prove it. He and his wife are both kindergarten teachers. "We love kids," he told me, "especially the ones that go home at 4:30."

Tim has moved on from canoeing, and now leads kayak trips in his spare time in Pukaskwa National Park, on a roadless section of the remote northeastern shore of  Lake Superior.

The Panels

The organizers of AWP winnowed down 1800 panel requests to a mere 550, but all the same, it's largely hit and miss whether you'll sit in on a good one.

I attended one devoted to non-fiction in the age of the internet, and the talks went like this:

A: I was suffering from postpartum depression so I started stalking my neighbor and made a video about it. It went viral, the text was included in a non-fiction anthology, and now I write a regular column for the New York Times.

B: Yeah, well I wrote a blog mythologizing myself, everything was true, but exaggerated, like me drinking from beer bottles that had been used as ash trays. I have done that - but not all the time. So you see, it's true, but not true.

Panel lesson number one: always sit near the door.

I attended another panel devoted to issues related to how "the past" can be used in travel writing. The first speaker, a professor from Chicago, used the F-word thirty times during her twelve-minute talk. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that the rest of her vocabulary was equally limited and cliché-ridden. Flaking paint in student apartments, etc.  

I felt sorry for her students and former students, many of whom were in attendance. But a woman who came by the booth later told me, "Her students love her. I thought she was funny myself!"

At another panel, I listened to a young scholar advance the argument that Paul Celan wrote poems that cannot be understood—on purpose. But everyone fails to understand Celan's poems in a different way, and the panelist made an attempt to describe how his failure to understand the poems differed from the mistaken interpretations of other scholars.

As I listened, I was reminded of the scene in Renoir's The Grand Illusion where one captive in a prison camp tells another that he's passing the time by translating Pindar. The first man picks up the book from the desk, then looks down at the translator's notebook, and says, "Poor Pindar."

On the other hand, listening to poet Tony Hoagland read for five minutes at a Greywolf reading was truly memorable. The words were thoughtful, the delivery restrained, the pacing perfect, the effect sublime.



I even served on a panel myself, doing my best to loosen up the crowd with a SNL intro to distinguished Nodin Press authors Lori Sturdevant, Jim Gilbert, and Margaret Hasse. The turnout wasn't bad, considering it was Saturday morning and people had already been there for three days.

And as far as I could tell, nobody slipped out early!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Surfeit of Creativity—AWP Arrives in Minneapolis


It's the largest literary conference in the US, and the numbers are impressive: 13,000 attendees, 550 panels, three hundred off-site events open to the public, 46 featured presenters (i.e. writers you might have heard of) and hundreds of booths on the Bookfair floor touting MFA programs, literary presses and journals, mainstream publishers, university presses, philanthropic foundations, printing services, and writing centers.

Convention A-B-Cs

I noticed that some of the exhibitors were very specific ornithologically—for example, Carolina Wren Press, Barn Owl Books, Carrier Pidgeon,  and Anhinga Press. Others had a gustatoral flavor—Black Radish Press, Chop Suey Books, Bodega Magazine, Carve. The geographic terminology extended far beyond the Ojibwe- and Dakota-esque nomenclature we Minnesotans are used to: The Chattahoochee Review, The Afgan Women's Writing Project, Black Mountain Books.

And then there are all the nutty names that might or might not meaning anything but are evocative, or make an impact: Action Books, Cardinal Sins, Alcamadus Press, BOMB Magazine, Antilever Press, burntdistrict, Area Sneaks, Bloof Books, Asterix Journal, Barefoot Muse Press, Cactus Heart, Barrelhouse, Bat Cat Press, Big Lucks, BookThug, Boulevard, Civil Coping Mechanisms.

I'm sure you've noticed that all the names I'm mentioning start with an A, B, or C—only a few of the exhibitors from that section of the alphabet, in fact. Multiply by a hundred and it will give you a fair idea of the enormous range of publications on display in the cavernous hall of the Minneapolis Convention Center.

I hesitate to call these publications obscure, considering  I don't know anything about the current literary scene. Conference attendees who are enrolled in MFA programs maintain a clearly defined hierarchy among them, no doubt, and a bevy of cliques and counter-hierarchies surely exist to sooth the egos and grease the career-paths of writers who haven't yet emerged on the top tier. More importantly, perhaps, these small-scale publications, based on the time-honored Shoot the Piano Player philosophy, "the shy can try," sustain a community of litterateurs  who are loyal to a lifestyle, a region, an aesthetic, or a small group of friends.


Attendees like me, who know nothing of this plurality of literary worlds, can't help but be impressed by the youthful energy and intelligence of those who fuel them. And also the artistry. I'm not referring to text so much as the manufacturing. Many of the chapbooks and journals I saw were beautifully made. Some were hand-tied.  
  
Wandering the Floor

The productions of Red Bird Chapbooks, a local group, stick in my mind. I was on the verge of buying one of their little pamphlets, Immanuel Kant vs. God, a 48-page erasure poem by a woman I'd never heard of named Lisa Mangini. And I couldn't help noticing the fine products of Ugly Duckling Press, a Brooklyn-based publisher that occupied the table next to ours. I was impressed by the steady stream of young hipsters stopping by their table to buy books and to chat.


In the center aisles near the door, local giants Greywolf, Coffee House, and Milkweed had set up shop in the vicinity of various university presses (Nebraska, Minnesota, Utah, etc.), East Coast organizations like Bookforum and the NEA, hallowed literary presses such as Copper Canyon, and writer's programs from Edinburgh, Surrey, and other far-flung places.

Everyone was eager to talk, though I found myself asking more questions about the landscapes than the literature, which was largely unfamiliar to me. I mentioned to the gentleman at Copper Canyon—one of the few people in the hall wearing a suit—that I'd stopped into their office at a state park outside Port Townsend, Washington, a few years ago.

"It was cool and foggy," I said.

"Gee, who would have thought?" he replied in a mildly sarcastic tone. "I hope they were cordial."

"Oh, yeah. We picked up a few books, including that thick volume of Machado, the Barnstone translation."

He nodded his approval.

"Have you been to any panels?" he asked.

"I'm going to one soon about something that wouldn't interest you, I suspect. Landscapes of the North Dakota imagination."

"Actually, I once bicycled across North Dakota," he replied.  

I had difficulty convincing the woman across the way at The New School, perhaps the most statuesque rep at the event, that her organization had been started to give employment for Jewish refugees from Germany during World War Two. (Perhaps because it isn't true. The New School was founded in 1919.)

"You know. Horkheimer, Adorno. I'm talking about the New School for Social Research," I said.

"I don't know about the Jewish element," she said. "And that's just one branch of the New School. There's a New School for design, for jazz."

Back at Versal (booth 536) I was entranced by a nice spread of novels in translation, though the only one I recognized was Elena Ferrante's Story of a New Name. The woman behind the table, Florencia Lauria, told me she had nothing to do with the press, but was standing in for a friend.

"Where are you from," I asked.

"I was raised in Argentine but I've lived many places."

"What are you doing here?"

"I recently graduated from the University of Minnesota's MFA program."

"Of course. I hear the people there are very nice."

"Yes, Patricia Hampl and Charles Baxter are very nice," and she grinned broadly.

I mentioned that I once met a woman from Argentina  whose father had been friends with the philosophers Julian Marias and Ortega y Gasset.

"I'm not surprised. In Argentine everyone lives in Buenos Aires, and they all know each other. My parents were friendly with Borges."

"But there must be a class element involved," I replied. (After all, everyone can't know everyone.)

"Oh, for sure. And we've had waves of immigrants. Italians. Then Germans. Recently it's other Latin Americans.

"The daughter of some friends of mine says that if anyone from Latin America starts to dance the merengue, she can tell in two steps what country they're from." She laughed.  

By this time in the day I'd talked to enough attendees to know that at a writers' convention, you don't ask, "What was your thesis about?" but rather, "Does your collection have a theme?"

"They're stories about Argentine ex-patriots. I got the kernel for some of them at an Argentine restaurant in South Minneapolis where I used to hang out."

"I remember that place. On Lake Street —"

"—No, it was on Franklin."

"Oh, yeah. South side of the street. I sort of wanted to check it out, but I didn't want to have a steak."

"Yes, we do eat a lot of meat." And she flashed another shy grin.

A few aisles away I came upon another literary goldmine—Archipelego Books. A book by Novalis caught my eye, with illustrations by Paul Klee.


"I just finished reading that," the tall young man behind the table said. "It's strikingly modern."

"Well, the German Romantics aren't fully appreciated today," I said. "They're far more surreal and metaphysical than their English counterparts. Have you read Pollen?" We chatted about Novalis and Frederich Schlegel, and I told the man—I never got a good look at his name tag—a story about trying to secure the rights to an image by Paul Klee for the cover of a book of poems I was designing.

"All the paperbacks are $10," he said. "And you can have these four volumes of Knausgard in hardcover for $40."

I shook my head. "I tried him but it didn't take. Do you like him?"

"Yes, I drank the Kool-Aide."

I left the table with three books in my hand: Ponge's Mute Objects of Expression, the Novalis book, and Time Ages in a Hurry by Antonio Tabucchi, which he gave me with the understanding that I might review it somewhere.

In the midst of the central booths, which were more substantial and had blue sheeting behind them, I came upon the New York Review. It recently issued a nice paperback reprint series of American, British, and European classics.

"I just ordered a few books from you guys," I said. "It was your half-price sale. The Halls of Uselessness, Onward and Upward in the Garden, Kabir's poems, and Sir Thomas Browne..." I paused, unsure of pronunciation, and he rattled off the title as if it were a single French word for a complicated sauce.

"You mean Religio Medici and Urne Buriall."

"Gee. That sounded convincing."

"I don't know if it's right, but what the heck. What did you think of Kabir?" And he flashed a sly grin.

"I'm not sure," I replied. "You're in Bly country here, I hope you realize ... They're certainly irreverent."

"Not your typical classical Indian poems."

As we chatted I became increasingly impressed by the rep's command of his list. He was very young, but anything I mentioned he seemed to have read. I pointed at Stoner, which was face-out on the table. "A Missouri literature professor?" That's all I could come up with.

"Correct." And he told me the entire story, nuancing it in such a way that he left me unsure whether, in the end, the man's life had been fulfilling or not.

"Well, now I won't have to buy that one," I said.

"No, I think you'd enjoy it. And I'm discounting everything."

I picked up a compact volume of Pierre Reverdry's poems with a stunning blue cover and said, "Rexroth did a good version of this guy's work many years ago for New Directions."

"I know. Some of those translations have been included in our little volume."

We had a chuckle over the fact that whenever you start talking about the New York Review of Books, people think you're talking about the much less detailed or informative New York Times Book Review.

Then I spotted the three volumes of Partick Leigh Fermor's narrative of his walk across Europe in 1933.

"Did you say you were giving some books away?" I asked disingenuously.

"No, I didn't. But I'll give you these for five bucks apiece."

"Sold."

Up next: the panels, the booth

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Meeting the Hmong (in Saint Paul)


The current exhibit of Hmong history and culture at the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul is both delightful and profound.

In the first of two rooms, we learn of the Hmong's traditional lifeways in the highlands of Laos and their contributions to the American war effort in southeast Asia during what is popularly known as the Vietnam War era.

Large video screens show us villagers hoeing fields on steep hillsides using hand tools, while other screens replay scenes of combat in endless tape-loops. Military uniforms are exhibited on the wall behind Plexiglas cases containing curved aboriginal multi-tube flutes. Other cases nearby recreate the mess of unexploded personnel bombs that still litter the Laotian countryside.

An attempt is made to outline the complex political environment of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam during the mid-to-late twentieth century. The various maps and text may be difficult to absorb fully, but they serve as a refreshing corrective to the simple-minded view many of us grew up with regarding the course of events prior to and during American involvement in the region.

One thing is clear: the Hmong who fought against the communist elements in Laos in those days were fighting for their lives, and after the war, hundreds of thousands of them were executed by the Pathet Lao. A smaller number escaped to refugee camps in Thailand, while fewer still were granted refugee status in St. Paul, Fresno, and other cities throughout the United States.


The second room of the exhibit contains artifacts of Hmong life in the New World. In one video, a young woman describes how important  a tape deck was to her father; he used it to send audio messages to relatives in refugee camps back home. Traditional notions of portable wealth are also on display: bars of solid silver and appliqué necklaces fringed with small coins.

One kiosk explains differences in Hmong dialects and orthography. A low-hung poster lists the eighteen Hmong clans. Examining the list, I noticed the Her clan, and was reminded that not so long ago we bought a Toyota off the lot from a saleswoman named Yer Her.

One corner of the room is devoted to the Hmong's impressive contributions to local farmers markets and truck gardening industry. And the back wall is covered with video screens displaying images of Hmong MTV-style pop music performances, Hmong fashion-runway shows, and news broadcasts in Hmong from TV stations in California. Just wait a minute and you'll see men dressed in traditional garb dancing as they play their wooden flutes—a scene that morphs into a young man breakdancing.

I left the exhibit with a powerful if inchoate sense of heroism, sacrifice, hardship, loyalty, sweetness, and the simple enjoyment of life and family in a new environment.