The Vermont College of Fine Arts Alumni Magazine asked me to contribute an article about “Life after the MFA” for its Winter 2014 issue. As graduation season approaches, I’d like to share these words of encouragement and strategies for coping with writers and artists everywhere who may be facing difficult transitions. Do let me know what you think.
The subject line of an email caught my attention last month: Devotional Exchange. The purveyor of the message hoped to start an interfaith/no-faith exchange and requested I send a number of friends my favorite motivational/devotional poem or meditation. When I looked at the names already on the list, I saw some were dear writer friends. This made me curious. I reread the request and decided to participate. Unlike the chain letter I blogged about in February, good luck was not being offered this time. What I did receive was much richer than mere luck. Participants shared devotional passages they treasured. I’ve copied some of them below. I’ve always felt that when emotional turbulence strikes, or when seeking advice on the human condition—go to the poets! Don’t many of us have a Rumi or Hafiz poem we pull out in emergencies? When I was fifteen and besotted by teenage love, I devoured Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poet Mary Oliver is regularly read at weddings and funerals, and Bob Dylan’s a prophet to some. So, here are some of the devotional pieces that came my way, the first, unfortunately, without a credit.
Always expect something wonderful is going to happen. Your mind is a powerful thing. When you fill it with good thoughts, your life will start to change.
—Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho (1983)
When the shell of my heart breaks open, tears shall pour forth and they shall be called the pearls of god.—Rumi (13th century)
Try to praise the mutilated world
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.—Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (2001) [Even though written before 9/11, this poem became affixed to the event when The New Yorker published it for the first time on its back cover on September 24, 2001]
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.—Rumi (c. 13th century) Translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011)
“To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. If you want to create yourself, then you do not begin with the best and the highest, but with the worst and the deepest. Therefore say that you are reluctant to live yourself. The flowing together of the stream of life is not joy but pain, since it is power against power, guilt, and shatters the sanctified.”—C.G. Jung, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (2009)
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”—Walt Whitman, from the Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)
Who do you go to for succor and inspiration? I’d love to hear what texts you turn to for uplift during challenging times.
What’s on my mind these days is spring, SPRING! shouted in capital letters into the milky-white March sky. My call and response goes like this:
Dale: Spring, are you there?
Melodious Spring replies: I’m here. I’m on my way.
Dale: Jeez. Can you hurry? Tulips, daffodils, warblers—PLEASE!
Am I the first human on my knees beseeching the heavenly spheres? Not likely. How reassuring, how intimidating and yet AWE-some must it have been for our primordial ancestors to converse with the vast Divine. How comforting to feel the abiding presence of cyclical time, the predictability of seasons, the endurance of species assured and unquestioned, the shifting angles of the sun and the pull of the moon felt in one’s bones.
And I have to admit to another reason I want it to be warm and inviting everywhere. The new paperback edition of The Conditions of Love will be sprouting on bookshelves come May. In the book world, paperback editions are truly thought of as a new life for a book. May this be so for TCOL, and may it reach many new readers here and abroad. I’ve just added links to the pre-order pages for the paperback on my home and book pages, if the mood strikes you. [Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink.]
But back to Spring! As far as I can tell, in the Midwest its span has been shrinking for decades. Last year the ice wasn’t out on our north woods lake until mid-June, almost a month later than usual, the chill air suddenly bolting into summer. This rapid-shift forty-to-eighty degrees seasonal pattern forces buds to mature and unfurl with unprecedented quickness. Gnats and no-see-ums whirl in knots while islands of ice still pattern the woods. The change in weather is kind of freaky, gut-deep alarming, as is the disappearance of frogs in our shallows. But what to do except shrug, sigh, stay green, pray?
Delayed or not, at least we still have seasons. Just this morning I hung a bird feeder filled with fresh thistle seed and the next time I looked, two lovely goldfinches, a bright yellow male and a muted female were plucking at seeds.
Spring feels like a season of surprises, maybe because it lifts the mind into imagining possibilities. That the rose bush will sprout its pinky buds is no surprise, but what volunteer weed or flower will pop up near the spruce? Two years ago my front yard was adorned with giant sunflowers of varying russet and gold hues undoubtedly sown by crows from a nearby farm. The whole concept of renewal, of starting again, of rebirth ushers in hope that has thinned during long, gray winter days.
Spring is going to be a busy time for me, an exciting time. I’m so honored to be one of the keynote speakers at University of Wisconsin-Madison Writer’s Institute Conference (April 4-6). You can view the program here. I’ll also be meeting privately with students and teaching a poetry workshop.
In May, I’ve been invited to be the featured speaker at the Friends of the Madison Public Library’s 17th Annual Book Club Café on Thursday, May 22 at 7 pm. This will take place in the gorgeous Olbrich Botanical Gardens amid tea and desserts.
I’ll be writing more about these later. For now, I’d like to recommend a poem very much of the almost-but-not-quite-yet season by my friend and one of my favorite poets, Jack Ridl, “Here in the Time Between.” Here’s a tease from it:
Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into
the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. . . .
Good luck. Bonne chance. Buona Fortuna. Mazel Tov. Who wouldn’t want to commend themselves to the favor of the gods, especially since the opposite of good luck is bad luck, or as my superstitious grandma admonished the malevolently lurking Kein En Horah, the evil eye.
As it turns out, the concept of the evil eye is present in just about every culture. (See Alan Dunde’s fascinating book and interview on the subject.) In Hindi the evil eye is known as Boori Nazar. Mal de Ojo in Spanish. The Italians say, Mal Occhio, and in Arabic the word is Ayin Harsha.
But whether natives refer to this deadly gaze as “stink eye” or “rotten eye,” whether the antidote is a prayer, a chant, a bracelet or charm, the message is to be vigilant and protect oneself from the invisible threat.
My own grandmother was forever spitting (feh, feh, feh) —into her hand, into the soup!—as a way of protecting us against evil, her equivalent of throwing salt over her shoulder or knocking on wood. My mother, too, was infected with this legacy and forbade us to walk under ladders or put shoes on a bed. I used to smirk at their contrivances and the ignorance they implied, but you can be sure I was simultaneously susceptible to their warnings and secretly awaited bad luck to befall me for my irreverence. Like many superstitious folks, my family engaged in a mish-mash of rituals that adhered to no one religion or ideology, but helped stoke the ever-present hope of keeping bad luck/bad spirits away. If evil was a superpower lurking outside the realm of humankind, bad luck was its twin. In both instances, the intention was, in today’s jargon, self-empowerment, a way to battle forces beyond one’s control. Like Job, I think they were attempting to understand the inexplainable and with the courage of innocence shape their destinies.
But maybe, just maybe, the irrational isn’t so…well…crazy. Something deeply primitive and instinctive resides in the old reptilian parts of our brain coexisting in a parallel universe with our rational, smarty pants frontal cortices.
Freud wrote brilliantly on what lurks within in his 1919 essay called The Uncanny that blends psychoanalysis and aesthetics.
From another perspective, Jung expanded our understanding of the unconscious by exploring the necessity of a symbolic life. Jung, among others, understood that there are ways of knowing outside the realm of our conscious, linear-thinking minds and that superstition is one symbolic way we humans act on and give meaning to this knowledge.
Myth is another.
Art—poetry, painting, dance—another way.
To concretize what we fear is very helpful! How else, unless by objectifying our fears and symbolizing our hopes, could we know how we feel about the invisible world? Try to imagine for a moment Christianity without the symbol of a cross, or Nazism without its swastika.
Farewell Maxine Kumin and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Two major artists died in recent days, one from an overdose of heroin, the other at the end of a long and well-lived life. Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor of extraordinary depth, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin seem, at first glance, to represent two poles of artistic sensibility. I find myself reflecting about the relationship between an artist and his or her life, and the myth of latent madness that still clings to the intensely creative among us.
I once had a Jungian analyst friend say to me that when the gates of the imagination are opened, one cannot predict if angels or demons or both will sail through. True enough. But isn’t it also true that depending on temperament, social conditions, and pure luck, some of us come equipped or grow skilled at battling even the fiercest demons? Why some survive and thrive despite enormous suffering continues to capture my attention.
Hoffman’s work shows an actor capable of embodying the dark recesses of the human psyche, those shadowy aspects of our nature that we deny, ignore, or hide in shame.
In the Sunday New York Times Week in Review of February 9th, Serge Schmenmann writes:
Since his death, there have been many articles about his life, his love of theater, his extraordinary talent. None of them can fully explain why he used drugs, but they do give us some sense of the intense emotional and physical exertions required of someone who fully lives not only his own life, but also the life of each of the people he portrays. All who saw Mr. Hoffman in different roles were astounded by how fully and convincingly he became the other person.
Maxine Kumin lived and died on her New Hampshire farm among her beloved family, horses and garden. She was 88. An accomplished horsewoman, in 1998, Kumin was thrown from a carriage she was driving and suffered severe injuries, including a broken neck. Though miraculously she recovered, the end of her life was lived in considerable pain. She kept writing poems and prose. Her memoir Inside the Halo and Beyond addresses her accident and the experience of recovery.
Clearly Ms. Kumin was a survivor, though we dare not guess why she and not Philip Seymour Hoffman lived into old age. It’s not as though she dismissed the tragedies inherent in the human condition, or that she herself did not suffer. But perhaps her closeness to the natural world with its beauty, predictable rhythms, glorious surprises, and cycles of renewal acted as an antidote and a container for the inevitable misfortunes of sorrow and loss.
Both these artists deserve our unqualified praise not only for their enormous talent, but also for their willingness to accept public scrutiny and the risk of personal vulnerability for a life dedicated to craft and illuminating truth.
Here is a poem I find quintessential Kumin from her book The Long Approach. If you would like to read more of her work, please visit her website: http://www.maxinekumin.com/
By Maxine Kumin
I want to apologize
for all the snow falling in
this poem so early in the season.
Falling on the calendar of bad news.
Already we have had snow lucid,
snow surprising, snow bees
and lambswool snow. Already
snows of exaltation have covered
some scars. Larks and the likes
of paisleys went up. But lately the sky
is letting down large-print flakes
of old age. Loving this poor place,
wanting to stay on, we have endured
an elegiac snow of whitest jade,
subdued biographical snows
and public storms, official and profuse.
Even if the world is ending
you can tell it’s February
by the architecture of the pastures.
Snow falls on the pregnant mares,
is followed by a thaw, and then
refreezes so that everywhere
their hill upheaves into a glass mountain.
The horses skid, stiff-legged, correct
position, break through the crust
and stand around disconsolate
lipping wisps of hay.
Animals are said to be soulless.
Unable to anticipate.
No mail today.
No newspapers. The phone’s dead.
Bombs and grenades, the newly disappeared,
a kidnapped ear, go unrecorded
but the foals flutter inside them
warm wet bags that carry them
eleven months in the dark.
It seems they lie transversely, thick
as logs. The outcome is well known.
If there’s an April
in the last frail snow of April
they will knock hard to be born.
Of late I’ve been thinking about how the past influences us, sometimes even haunts us. Most of us are aware that our childhoods shape and groom our adult selves, but how many of us realize that beyond our personal pasts we’re also influenced by the lives of our ancestors? I mean the actual events that happened to them—the sorrows, joys, fears, and ways of coping, which through some mysterious process, become ours.
The lucky among us are the recipients of stories passed down through the generations, but others of us search in vain for clues about our backgrounds and have only our imaginations and dreams to rely on.
Last weekend I was asked to speak at a local temple to discuss the influence of my secular Jewish upbringing on my writing, a subject I’d never explored before, or even really thought about until now. The assignment has sent me on a discovery process in which I hope to examine my own brand of “Jewishness”— how I might view the world through the values and perceptions and judgments passed down to me through the religion/culture, and how these, in turn, inhabit my writing.
During my childhood we attended a reformed synagogue. Our rabbi, young and handsome (I did have a crush on him!), was a liberal and intellectual humanist sort of guy who might well have been a Unitarian minister or the leader of an Ethical Culture congregation. I liked him well enough, but he was not the wisdom figure I craved.
I can see myself as a child already on the search for answers to the Big Questions, already a seeker and too interior for my own good. Also, I had a mystical bent. Movies like The Song of Bernadette starring the young and radiant Jennifer Jones set in motion in me a surge of longing to be a nun. I was hooked on movies in which a young woman (often pregnant and unmarried) sought solace in a church. Alone and on her knees, she’d pray to a statue of Mother Mary, whose face was preternaturally kindly and serene.
Before the actress rose from her knees, who would slip into the pew beside her to ease her burden and offer wise words—none other than Spencer Tracy or James Cagney or Robert Young in the costume of a priest! It seemed to me then that church was a place you go when in trouble and always, always, always find succor and help.
Those movies might have been pure romantic schmaltz, but they spoke to me in ways I couldn’t explain. It might have been the cathedral settings, candle flames casting shadows over the altar, Christ’s mournful face, or it might have been the sense of hush and holy evident on the awed or sorrowed faces of the congregants. In any case, the reformed synagogue, by contrast, was for me devoid of a sense of mystery, and my Sunday school lessons more a matter of learning Jewish history, mostly Old Testament stories about battles and exile and who smote whom, than instructions for the soul.
But I was not Catholic. And my upbringing, though not religious, was wholly Jewish in outlook and demeanor. The values imparted to me had to do with the importance of education; loyalty to family; care for the downtrodden; and a sense of the tragic—the Job question—that is, the inevitability of suffering as fate. My character, Mr. Tabachnik, in The Conditions of Love, exemplifies these values, but it wasn’t until I began to ponder how my “Jewishness” (as opposed to Judaism) has influenced my writing that Mr. Tabachnik’s role as Eunice’s moral compass hit me.
Another issue that arose as I was preparing for the temple discussion was my Jewish father’s dream of assimilation, his desire to disappear into the New World Promised Land presided over by the Horatio Alger myth of a friendly universe where anyone can be anything if he works hard enough. But like other immigrant populations, he was burdened by a sense of otherness that was impossible to shake.
My father had one way of looking, acting, and talking that he adopted for the outside world, but he slipped on another persona at home. At ease and unobserved, his gestures and even his language changed. Off came the suit and tie, wingtips, the gray fedora, and out of his mouth came words like goyim and shiksa, or a spew of Yiddish jokes. As a sensitive child, I noticed his quick change-artistry and was puzzled and maybe a little hurt by the discrepancy, sensing the shame behind it.
The dream of assimilation is really an impossible dream since it entails denying a past and an ancestry that cannot be cast off. Every family has its secrets, but perhaps immigrant families and minorities carry the added burden of disowning on the outside what they are on the inside, or in some cases attempting to dissolve their former identities completely. I remember visiting the FBI building in Washington, DC when I was ten and seeing pictures of master criminals who’d erased their fingerprints with acid. Those people too, though for different reasons, were fugitives from their own identities.
The unspoken, the unsayable, the hidden: our ancestors’ secrets come down to us, sometimes through dreams or sometimes by examining our own quirks and proclivities that find a resonance with the past. I suppose it’s not surprising that each of my characters has secrets and a back-story that shapes and influences how he or she acts in the story-present. As the plot unfolds, ghosts from the past haunt the present. As in art, so in life!
Who doesn’t sometimes feel as if they were standing outside a charmed circle, an outlier? But what does it mean to belong? Sharing the same values with the larger culture? The same religion? The same dietary preferences? The same physiognomy? Does feeling like an outsider come from the inside, a view of oneself that has difference at its core? Or is one made to feel Other by the reflection of our peers? Our family?
So many questions! The answers are a work-in-progress. But for now, here’s a short list of books that explore Otherness. I’m sure there are hundreds of others. Please feel free to add your own suggestions and comments to the list.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Beauty and the Beast by Charles Perrault
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Catcher In the Rye by J. D. Salinger
As Eunice’s charming and dangerous father, Frankie, a young Frank Sinatra.
Marshal’s blog collects similar “dreamcasts” from various authors about the “movie versions” of their books. Check out the list on the left of this page.
Dear Esteemed Friends and Curious Visitors:
Sorry to be so long away! My apologies if you’ve visited this site and found nothing new. I’d been hoping to write a new blog piece at least twice a month, but look what’s happened! Nothing new here since October and the list of things I WANT to write about grows longer and longer.
Exactly! Some of us have to figure out what it is we want to say, and then go about the task of creating sentences to convey our thoughts. After that comes the editing and refining, something I do meticulously (obsessively?) well as a poet. I am a vigilant refiner! (It strikes me now that for some people, writing a blog may be more similar to having a conversation than to writing an essay. I’m a good conversationalist, snappy even, but that quickness doesn’t translate to my writing style.)
The biggest problem is Time and not the kind measured by a clock. I’m talking about Time as Space, dream-time or walk-in-the-woods time in which an interlude of fifteen minutes can feel like an hour. It’s the kind of time this writer needs to enter into her thoughts, the kind that has depth and recesses, the kind of time that encourages stillness and contemplation. Couldn’t we all use a little more of it?
At a holiday party last week I was seated across the table from a poised and eloquent thirteen-year-old who was already quite accomplished in the theater arts. She had just written her first novel and was working on something new. We got to talking. “I never know what I’m going to write about until I start writing,” she said. I nodded. “I like to discover what I have to say,” she said. ”Yup, it’s all about discovery,” I said, secretly chanting me, too!
I love this from Gish Jen’s book, Tiger Writing: The novel knows more than the person writing it.(http://www.gishjen.com/)
I don’t know how my teenage friend came to understand so early in her life that trusting one’s instincts is a necessary foundation for pursuing a creative life, but I imagine the enthusiastic support of her parents have something to do with it. An optimistic temperament doesn’t hurt either.
I’m writing this from my studio. Outside, the sun is hidden behind a sky the color of milk. The falling snow is hypnotic and unrelenting. I can feel myself slipping into reverie. It’s a familiar feeling, difficult to describe because the sensations in my body are subtle and linked to an anticipatory sense that something mysterious is about to happen. (You’re eight years old, in a park, watching a squirrel disappear into a hole in a tree. Where has it gone? You imagine a labyrinth of tunnels, the squirrel’s bedroom complete with a canopy bed and candlestick on the night-table. You stand there blinking and waiting.)
And now I have an idea. I want to stay in touch with you, dear visitors, but until I’m able to write longer, thoughtful pieces, I’ll put up short posts—excerpts from a book I’m reading or something of my own—writing I hope will interest and inspire.
Memory takes up a lot of room in a writer’s toolbox. Here’s an elegiac poem I wrote awhile ago in honor of my father. He died in 1978 in a car crash. Over the years I’ve caught glimpses of him out of the corner of my eye—the same gray overcoat, the same slope of the shoulders, the same easy stride—the only thing missing his fedora.
What is it about the holiday season that brings back ghosts? And not just the ghosts of others. Our own past taps us on the shoulder and says, Remember who you were!
Here’s my poem.
I’m sitting on my bed with Father, thirty years dead.
He’s wiping his wire-rims
linen hanky plucked from a back pocket
like chiffon from a magician’s sleeve—
he’s wearing his lopsided grin.
Outside the wind is March’s anthem,
but inside we’ve broken and entered
memory’s mind. “Are you lonely?” I ask.
He shrugs and puts his glasses on.
Whatever he’s come for tonight he won’t say.
Which was always his way: Mr. Clown, Chaplin’s
jokes to ward off the cinderblock silence
building inside him,
his eyes so grave I’d have to look away.
I always did. To the blotched galaxy
framed in the bedroom window, one or two orphaned stars
you had to climb on the sill to see.
But the stars weren’t bright enough
to outshine my father’s sorrow.
How old was I then? Five? Six?
Once, snuggling in beside me,
I waited for him to reveal
The Something so sad and terrible
it dragged down the corners of his eyelids,
and made his voice catch like a gate latching shut.
But there never was a story
for the primal sorrow, his heart attack
still years away. Perhaps
he was about to warn me
how he’d come from a long line
of broken-hearted men. Perhaps he saw
that loving him had already shaped the woman
I would become,
and he wanted to call me back
from my future.
But he never said anything
more than it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.
Barbarians in the streets.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Here’s my interview with Stephanie Bedford of The Capital Times appearing just a week before the Wisconsin Book Festival. The timing is perfect.
We actually chatted a few months ago at our local EVP coffee house. Being a fiction writer herself, Stephanie and I got into wonderful conversations about fiction, about being a mother and a writer, about being an introverted person who suddenly moves into the public domain.
What I am discovering about this last issue is that I LOVE being with and talking to readers. It’s an intimate act to share a book with someone, an act that is almost like sharing a secret. It creates a bond.
Now that I’m on the road and meeting more readers of TCOL, I’m quite humbled by their astute questions and observations not only about my book, but about life. I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t books provoke us into thinking about all sorts of things—including our own lives?
If you’d like to read the details of my Cap Times interview, please click here:http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/madison-poet-s-debut-novel-is-engaging-unconventional/article_583ab0ee-9c48-57aa-8461-5add81dbfdcd.html
Right from the start of my writing life I fell into the habit of writing everything out in long-hand on a yellow legal pad using a black Pilot pen. This was the ritual: I’d make a pot of tea (my favorite is Pai Mu Tan), grab my legal pad and pen and in slippers and robe tread the short distance through the garage—past garbage cans, rakes, shovels and bikes—to my writing studio. The brief jaunt represented crossing a threshold, shedding my domestic for my creative self.
Without glancing at my dark computer screen, I’d nestle on the bed by the window and stare into the arms of a dogwood or the yard beyond, where summer or winter if I was up early enough, I might catch a glimpse of some ever-busy bird. The literal closing of one door and the opening of another activated the genies of thoughtfulness and introspection…and soon my pen would move across the page.
When I say “ritual,” I’m not kidding. If I understand the word correctly, it means “A detailed method of procedure faithfully or regularly followed,” or ceremonies or rites used in a place of worship. The word “ritual” comes from the Latin ritus meaning “rite.”
Marshal McLuhan, last century’s great communication theorist, declared that if you turn to page 69 in a book and like it, you’ll like the entire book. It’s a fascinating concept, one Marshal Zeringue has used for his blog called The Page 69 Test.
Happily and gratefully, I’m one of the writers Marshal Z invited to contribute to his site. Happily and gratefully, I returned to page 69 of TCOL and learned something new about my own novel. I call this “a writer’s hindsight education.”
How could it be that after years spent writing a book, after the drafts and gazillion discussions with friends and editors, I’m just now finding new revelations in the work? The experience is not dissimilar to picking up an old dream journal, rereading a dream, and understanding them at a deeper level: the meaning of the text keeps unfolding and amplifying over time.
Some of my post-publication education has also come via the astute questions and observations of readers and reviewers. At a book group discussing my novel, I was amazed by a fervent debate among participants concerning why Eunice, the book’s protagonist, decided to leave home. An eavesdropper might have mistaken the conversation (to which I was only a witness) for a heated round of gossip instead of a discussion about literary characters! One of the pleasures of being a reader among readers, of being in a book group is precisely this opportunity to exchange of ideas and opinions, to try-on theories and to engage in an investigation about human nature. That night, after the group, I went home and re-examined what I had actually written.
But getting back to a writer’s hindsight, this makes perfect sense to me since one of the engines that fuels the creative process is the unconscious mind. We may think we know why we are writing something, but the unconscious mind, often in its trickster mode, contributes in subtle ways to the resonance and archetypal dimension of the work.
For instance, I very consciously set the novel in the fifties and did lots of research on that period, especially on popular culture. But it’s only now I see that I was also writing about the dark side of the fifties— its repressive gender and racial attitudes, its propagation of the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger myth, its stifling of women’s creative lives. The Eisenhower years were a strange combination of hail-fellow-well-met optimism and rolling paranoia.
Mr. Tabachnik, a refugee from Eastern Europe, most concretely embodies the horror that was World War II. Only a few years before the novel begins, Americans saw the first pictures of the camps, starved prisoners in their striped pajamas that haunted our collective psyche. We hadn’t yet digested the scale of the holocaust or our role in dropping the atomic bomb or finished grieving our own war dead.
(Pico Iyer has written a very moving piece in the Times yesterday called The Value of Suffering. He too addresses the collective/cultural aspect of grief. I take his words, “to survive is to make sense of suffering” as a mantra for the times.)
My character, Mr Tabachnik, is a student of suffering. I mention Mr. T. in my piece for The Page 69 Test. Mr. T is my hero and his declaration, “From the terrible beauty comes” is another piece of wisdom I didn’t know I knew. When those words first fell from Mr. T’s mouth, I was astonished. It would seem I put those words into his mouth, but the truth is that until he said them, I didn’t know I believed them too.
Eunice, Mernie, Rose, Fox, Sam and the rest are over-the-moon happy about this fantastic new review by Kevin O’Kelly in the August 20th edition of The Rumpus. Stay tuned for more on my thoughts about his in-depth reading of the book, its mythical aspects and the power of names.
Would love to have your comments!
Writing my previous entry about Susanna Daniel reminds me that I did a post about what I’m reading several weeks ago for Marshall’s blog. If you’d like to read my thoughts on discovering Alexander Chee’s “hauntingly lyrical” Edinburgh, diving into Adrienne Rich’s “eloquent and empathic” A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, or delving into the depths of The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis by Peter Homans, Writers Read is the place to go.
I just met the wonderful Susanna Daniel several weeks ago and am completely humbled and delighted by the great things she’s saying about The Conditions of Love. I haven’t had a chance to read her just released second novel, Sea Creatures, but when I do I’m sure you’ll hear from me about it.
Susanna kindly included The Conditions of Love among the books she cited on Marshall Zeringue’s delightful Writers Read blog:
I’ve just finished Dale M. Kushner’s broad and impressive debut novel, The Conditions of Love, and I’m stunned – stunned – that I’m not hearing about it every time I pick up a newspaper or open a browser. It’s a classic, sweeping story of a girl’s life and the relationships that define her, from birth to old age – exquisitely detailed, finely paced, deliciously ambitious.
I was checking out at Whole Foods when I heard a friendly voice yell, “I love your book!” And there was Elizabeth, the checker two aisles down, grinning and waving. How cool is that? How wonderful to be surprised in surprising places by readers. It’s really wild. I took a photo op in the middle of Whole Foods. Here we are, mugging together!
I love how people come back into our lives when we least expect them. An old hippie friend used to say: some folks leave their imprints on your aura. Not sure about auras but I love the metaphor. I started The Writer’s Place in Madison in the late nineties and Rusty Russell—of poetry slam fame—was one of the first writers to contact us. In one life he was and is an economist for the Department of Transportation and in another, a poetry wild man. I say this with the utmost respect for writers who are also great performers.
I hadn’t heard from Rusty in years until he recently called me to do an interview with him on Radio Literature. I met him at the old WORT studio—I remembered the funky furniture, posters of Che and Dylan still on the walls. We talked about the writing process, writers as observers, how, as writers, we are constantly trying to balance our domestic and creative selves. I talked about my character, Mr. Tabachnik, and his world-view that “from the terrible beauty comes.” And then I read a short passage from the book. Here’s the link below.
WORT Interview (interview starts at 2:56)
I’m way overdue reporting on my joyous reading at Arcadia Books in downtown Spring Green, WI on a beautiful Sunday afternoon on June 23. Spring Green is a destination point for Frank Lloyd Wright fans who come to tour his Wisconsin home,Taliesen, and to see the fabulous American Players Theatre repertory company do Shakespeare, Miller, Brecht and other classics, but Arcadia Books should be a destination all on its own.
The store opened in 2011 and I gather is part of a very intriguing trend. Arcadia doesn’t just offer books. It also has a café with a decidedly local flavor. “The Kitchen” features Wisconsin beer and cheese and its pizza even uses locally sourced flour! I love that the chef uses cookbooks from the store to teach “Cook the Book” cooking classes.
This should be a model for how local stores can thrive. Little signs dot the store, “Read it here. Buy it here. Keep us here.” Housed In what was once the Spring Green post office, built in 1872, with high ceilings and big windows, Arcadia has a wonderful small town ambience. The store takes its name from the Tom Stoppard play, a favorite of its owner, James Bohnen, who also frequently directs plays at the nearby American Players Theatre.
In addition to great food, I’m sure one of the reasons Arcadia is such a popular community hangout is the geniality of its manager, John Christensen, who immediately made me feel right at home. He claims that Arcadia has “the best poetry case in the state,” which of course endeared him to me. It was so sweet to see the reading room fill with interested, animated locals, coming to hear me read when they could be anywhere else on such a sunny afternoon. These were true readers, which I came to appreciate as they peppered me with questions. One that really made me think was something like “How did I deal with an editor’s suggestion to revise or cut material?” I responded truthfully: for every cut or revision I asked myself, Will this add to or diminish from the integrity of the whole? How does the editor’s vision line up with mine? Some of my decisions came easily, I realized, but to address some queries I had to shift things around before I was satisfied.
I owe a lot to readers like this one who help me understand my own process in hindsight. My gratitude to such thoughtful folks and their beguiling curiosities. But back to Arcadia Books! If you happen to be near Spring Green, be sure to put it on your list of places to visit.
Cortnee Howard is the creator of the irreverent and infectiously addictive literary blog, The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, where she has been interviewing authors, reporting on publishing news, and reviewing new works of fiction for some five years now. Recently, she compiled her list of “The Best Damn Books of 2013 (So Far)” and I’m thrilled and honored that she selected The Conditions of Love to be one of them. Thanks, Cortnee! And what a great crew to be part of. Now I’m eager to read my nine damn buddies.
What a task! Choose three books that changed your life. That’s what Jeanne Kolker from the State Journal wanted from me. It was hard. The three I chose were The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank; On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich; and The Lover by Marguerite Duras. You can read why I chose them in WSJ’s “Just Read It” Sunday column.
But before I was a reader, I was a listener; I was a little girl with a vivid imagination and a penchant for fairy tales. The horrible, beautiful, compelling pitch of Claire Bloom’s voice reading Snow White is still in my ears. Likewise, I can still hear the tremulous narrator of Peter and The Wolf. These were on old vinyl records my mother played for me. I’m musing now—did these enchanting introductions to story and voice and to the musical sounds of words give birth to my writer-self? How I became a writer is still a mystery to me!
What books changed your life?
The thing about being interviewed is that it IS all about you, which takes some getting used to! But now that I’ve been interviewed by two skillful, thought-provoking radio talk show hosts—I’m looking at you Anne Strainchamps and Stephanie Lecci—I’m accumulating a list of WHY I ENJOY BEING INTERVIEWED.
Of course, it starts with the interviewers. When Anne asked me at the top of our 45-minute chat for 45 North, “what’s your book about?” I had to laugh. How could I possibly condense everything into a short sound bite. But, you know, it’s good to be asked to focus on what the story is and what was it that kept me wanting to return to these characters every day for so many years.
Stephanie had many great questions as well. When she asked me whether Eunice learns how to deal with loss – well, that just reminded me what’s so great about novels. You get to spend time with the characters and see how they change over time. In the third section, I believe that Eunice learns how not to get stuck in the past—she finds how to cultivate things that bring her joy. And I realized that I didn’t know it was going to turn out that way when I began. And that’s what great about writing novels.
But the best part of being interviewed is that these two incredibly perceptive readers connected me with a whole universe of other readers who I suspect—and hope–will see some of themselves in my story. Most of us write because we have a story to tell. That story, however personal or fabricated, emerges from our shared human experience. Mother troubles, love-life dilemmas, accidents, illness: my story is also your story in a slightly different version—is also her story, his story, their story.
Writers may work in solitude, but we are connected by invisible means to the pulse beat of humanity. Being interviewed has put me in touch with just how true this is. After one interview, a usually reserved and private woman approached me and whispered, “That happened to me too.” This is what most fiction writers live to hear: how our imaginations have created a world so rich and complicated it feels like real life.
If you haven’t read the book, I’m hoping you’ll hear something in these interviews to make you want to give TCOL a spin. And if you have read it, I’m curious whether your takeaways in any way resemble mine. In any event, take a listen and let me know what you think.
Short history of a writer: Began as a Jersey girl who left at 17 for university and fell in love with my best-and-always boyfriend. Grew to love the Midwest’s wide prairies and kind ways. But put me back on the East Coast and my heart chants home, home, home!
The landscapes of childhood are in us forever. The ancient oaks, the sea wind off the Atlantic, the Palisades: I remember I remember… in reverence and reverie.
On May 28th, we flew from Madison to LaGuardia with nary a predicted thunderstorm to mar our flight. Then a cab to our friends Liz and David’s glorious Soho digs. A thrilling new era had begun in the life of Dale M.
Next day, Jen, John, Jess and Troy, B and moi head to Katz’s deli (with a stop at the oldest pizzeria in NY) for pastrami on rye. Oi, the tumult! I’d forgotten. Oh, lost land of my youth!
Have you ever heard of syndicated love? EDGE is this company based in Boston that has websites dedicated to cities all around the country– Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and 13 other cities. Kitty Drexel, one of EDGE’s book reviewers, wrote this spectacular review of The Conditions of Love a few days ago and it’s now posted on all of these 21 sites. Talk about getting the word around. Who knew this kind of phenomenon existed? Here’s my favorite part:
Kushner has a divine understanding of the ties that bind people in relationships. The Conditions of Love is rife with truths about man’s equally selfish and selfless need to experience love in its many forms. Eunice might be the central player, but the hero of this tale is Love. Eunice experiences many kinds of loss. Before and after each misadventure she seeks solace in the stable relationships of her past and present: Mr. Tabachnik, a kind neighbor; her adopted guardian, Rose; Sam, a misguided role model. Although she may often be lonely, Eunice does not experience the destitution of abandonment.
Kushner’s writing consists of equal parts reverence for the human condition and sympathy for the pain that is a necessary part of that condition. This novel is an engrossing read and difficult to put down.
You can read the entire review here. .
I’m just cooling down from a heady week of book launch readings, my first opportunity to meet new and interested readers. Each event had its own special vibe and each presented an opportunity for me to understand more about what readers hunger for: a community, real or virtual, where they can discuss ideas, books, writing.
At Boswell’s in Milwaukee the crowd was pensive and curious, attentive to the two debut authors, Andrea Lochen and me. The owner Daniel Goldin stood at the ready, his infectious enthusiasm for all things literary infusing the air. One of the first questions asked in the Q & A, a question asked at each of my readings, was about finding an agent and getting published. I suspect folks assume I have a magic bullet answer, but alas, we all know finding the right agent is like finding the right partner in life — only in this case, the agent falls in love with your work and not you!
The Madison book launch at A Room of One’s Own — and the party following — were spectacular. I was blown away by the sheer number of people who showed up, maybe over 120, the room filled to standing room only. Oh what a night! Joy and celebration! And so much love in the room! I channeled Eunice, Mern, and company, their voices coming right through me. But it was really a call and response, the audience silently shouting right back to me their “right ons” and “amens.” So powerful, that wave of love that flows between us and others. Great questions here too: how did the story begin? And of course, how do you find an agent? A brief but interesting discussion on my character’s unusual names and why names are important for what they reveal. Someone asked about research. I told them I hope to be on an AWP panel in 2014 about how writers often have to figure out how to balance hardcore research with imagination.
My third reading was at The Book Stall in Illinois. What a wonder that bookstore is! Everyone will miss the retiring owner and founder, the amazing Roberta Rubin, but I’m sure the store will thrive under its new owner, Stephanie Hochschild. I felt warmly welcomed by the BStall staff, The Conditions of Love proudly on display. Lots of old friends in the audience; some drove almost two hours to get there. This is what touches me . . . the goodness of friendship . . . the desire we have to celebrate each other’s good fortune and the willingness of others to join in. I was definitely feeling the love! In the Q & A, someone asked me about moving from poetry to fiction, and I realize now how much I have to say on this subject. I think I’m not alone in changing genres. An essay is forming in my head!
Now off to NY, more readings, a book group, a special party and who knows what else. Please stand by. Notes from the field will continue
Josh Mallory’s long, lovingly detailed, and quite positive review on Bookreporter really knocked me out. It’s quite a thrill to see the story and my characters get this reaction. Here’s some of what Josh wrote:
With her debut novel, THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE, poet Dale M. Kushner has created a layered examination of love in all its forms and how it impacts and shapes one girl in the late 1950s and early 1960s from childhood to maturity.. . .
This is a book that begs to be read slowly. Kushner’s history with poetry serves her well. Her prose causes the reader to slow down and relish the words. She utilizes the five senses throughout the book, which gives the reader a sense of real intimacy with Eunice. She beautifully recounts the physical act of Eunice’s neighbor, Mr. Tabachnik, putting on an opera record, and then she tops it by describing the powerful music washing over a young Eunice.
THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE is an engaging story written in a lyrical style. It’s a stunningly self-assured novel for a debut, and it leaves the reader hoping that Kushner will write a second.
You can read the full review here.
On Sunday the Wisconsin State Journal published Jeanne Kolker’s interview with me about The Conditions of Love. Jeanne asked such thoughtful questions. It’s funny. Every time I talk with someone about the book, a differently phrased question seems to open up a new path into the story. I’m thinking of Jeanne’s last question:
SJ: What sort of themes do you think people will pull out of this book?
DK: I guess it’s a bit of a Rorshach, it means something different to every person. The reader co-creates the book in her head. Everyone is interested in love. The novel covers the difficulties of the love with families, it covers friendship, it covers erotic love and devotion. I can’t imagine what life hasn’t been touched by these themes.
You can read the full interview here.
I never anticipated how answering questions about The Conditions of Love would send me down paths I hadn’t explored before. Debbie Haupt’s thoughtful and provocative questions in the interview we did for The Reading Frenzy summoned responses that surprised even me. We talked about mentors, Jung, and the difference between poetry and fiction, among other things. Here’s an excerpt:
DH: The Conditions of Love is your debut novel yet you’ve written in other mediums like poetry and short stories.
Would you say that it was a natural progression for you to become a novelist, or was there a particular event or catalyst that led you down this road?
DK: Moving from poetry to fiction might be a natural progression but I’m not sure. For me it was more like moving from a hammock under the stars to a house with a kitchen and bath! By that I mean the inception of poetry seems to require a dreamlike solitude, an emphasis on contemplation but also a wide-focus, associative mind. Poetry is less time-bound than fiction and relies on the sensuous and metaphoric qualities of language and on image. To tell a story, I needed a different kind of language. I needed to work in time and place using the devices of fiction. But I wouldn’t trade the hammock for the house or visa versa.No single event sent me from one genre to another. I’m still a polymorphous writer!
Here it is publication day and I’m delighted to be able to share with you the splendid review Kendall Weaver wrote for The Associated Press.
Kushner’s scenes, like her characters, are expertly sketched, vivid and memorable. . . . Engrossing to the end, this is a fine first novel.
Because it’s syndicated, this review has already been picked up by The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, The Miami Herald, and many other newspapers and websites around the country. What a great thing to happen on publication day!
You can read the whole review here.
I had a wonderful time chatting over coffee with Becky Holmes a week or so ago about The Conditions of Love and my creative process. Isthmus published her piece about our chat last Thursday. I especially like how she found aspects of the story magical: :
The Conditions of Love has a magical quality. Kushner describes it as a fable. Yet this coming-of-age story about a teen girl, Eunice, and her search for love doesn’t seem like a fable at first. There are no anthropomorphic animals, no obvious moral lessons. But a careful reading reveals how Kushner uses elements of fable and myth to cast a spell on her readers, taking them to a place that both is and is not the rural Midwest of the 1950s. , , ,
I’m happy to share this with you. Please check out Fifth Wednesday. It’s a great journal.
Jodi Cohen—writer, performer of original work and improv queen extraordinaire shared these thoughts with me after reading a galley of The Conditions of Love. These are the kind of comments every writer hopes for. What are we doing, as writers, if not trying to convey the individual and universal predicaments of human life? When a reader says about one of your characters, Me, too, we know by way of empathy and imagination we got it right!
So, Jodi, here’s a public thank you for YOUR words posted below.
grace paley has always hands down across the board been my favorite writer. you are now sharing that spot with her.
your book is so delicious. makes me fall in love with language.
i want to underline the parts i love, but it would all be underlined.
so much poetry. so much detail that is poignant, startling.
i love these characters–in all their glory, with all their flaws. the language. the turtle. Mr T.
AND, more formally, for a review
What a world Dale Kushner has created. Words don’t seem adequate to express such large, surround-sound feelings. I fell in love with this book, the story, the poetry on every page. I inhaled the book and felt like I spent these last days in nature, seeing and experiencing everything up close, my senses awakened, doused, indulged.
These characters were powerful–their flaws and their magnificence. How well and accurately Dale captured how we are all broken, and broken open, full of texture and dimension, so much of which is unseen to the eye and yet felt so deeply.
What a constellation I had access to, filled with these brilliant people, collages, all of them.
This book filled every chamber of my heart and made me fall in love with language all over again, made me want to write because I could suddenly hear my own inner songs. The Conditions of Love breathed new, good life into my lungs and under my skin.
What I want more than anything, as a reader, is to experience a story in a way that causes the inner plates to shift. This book did that. I am forever humbled, grateful.
Q: THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE is your first novel. Did you always know you wanted to write? What made this moment right for your debut?
A: I never thought of becoming a writer until after I was married and had children, but I’d read voraciously as a child and reading saved my life. Luckily, I lived in a house filled with books, a strange mixture of highbrow and lowbrow stuff. We also had a set of World Book encyclopedias given to us by a wealthy cousin, which I pored over. Many writers, myself included, attached themselves to books early on, but not every ferocious reader becomes a writer. One of the things that probably contributes to the transformation from reader to writer is the presence of an inner pressure that seeks expression in language. I think it’s the unsayable demanding to be said. When I acknowledged this demanding spirit, I signed up for an MFA in poetry. Some time after I graduated, I realized I needed a more expansive format than lyric poetry and turned to fiction. Continue reading…
I was Dr Michael Conforti’s guest on “Art and Psyche”, January 6, 2010. Click on the audio button below to listen to the discussion.
In the spring of 2010, I was honored to participate in The Fetzer Institute’s First Writers’ Retreat. For six days, among the birch and pine on the Institute glorious property, fifteen writers from across the country met daily to discuss how compassion, love, and forgiveness were part of our creative process as we explored “the mysterious juncture between individual and community transformation.” Continue reading…
My poetry collection, Another Kingdom, was published in the Balkans. Stay tuned for the story and poems.
The Kalamazoo Gazette ran a profile on me in October, 2009. I was the featured guest at “Poetry Feast: A Writer’s Place” at the Kalamazoo Public Library.
Link: Kalamazoo Gazette