Obsessed with the magic of words—their essence and their sound—I fell in love with the word de cid u ous when it fortuitously crossed my path. I embedded it like a seed. I imagined it as a poem. Its very sound parallels its meaning: a falling off, a shedding that also implies a continuing, a renewal – dying yet deathless.
I love the thought of deciduous parts of trees, of shrubs, of insects. I live in the Eastern United States where we have full seasons (or did before climate change). With luck, our trees turn brilliant shades of colors in autumn. Autumn brings shedding of leaves, suggests an in-between essence. As leaves begin to turn and fall, the earth feels as though a portal has been opened between this world and the next, between life and death. Autumn is a time of mystery.
“Migratory,” a poem by Les Murray, inspired “Deciduous.” A poet whom I adore, Murray writes penetratingly complex poems that are singular, forceful. Echoing the natural world, Murray’s poems are grounded yet otherworldly─pushing deeper into mystery by peeling back the layers to reveal inner essence. A line from “Migratory” reads: ”I am the right feeling on washed shine” (From: Learning Human: New Selected Poems/ ”Migratory”). Murray leaves me with a strange but right feeling, a clarity rendered violently, as though I’d been struck in the head. Continue reading
When the moon was just beginning to rise—
he could smell the sea from a considerable distance,
a scene from the Mediterranean. Neruda,
lighting a smoke, the men
rolling their nets like their fathers before them.
I don’t know what he brought back on that cold December morning:
a ball of string, a cup of grass,
a flower blowing across the graves
when he was forced to leave his house
in the middle of the night,
rain soaking his shirt,
peasants slashing a path through the mountains.
Whatever it was—he meant to keep them:
scraps of paper,
poems—stashed in his boots.
Not long ago, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died, I wrote a piece for Truthout.org titled, If Democratic Leader Hugo Chávez was a Dictator, as U.S. Media Claims, Why Do Millions of People Love Him? Continue reading
It’s like when someone on TV interviews a one hundred-year-old woman. They always ask her the same thing: What’s your secret? We’re all worried about the future; we want to know what she’s done to live so long. And she never says, “Oh, I don’t know. Don’t ask me. Luck, probably. Luck or lucky genetics or something.” Instead, she describes, as though it has magical properties, her daily regimen. And this regimen usually involves something bizarre like eating two pounds of shredded wheat soaked in bacon grease for breakfast, and then skipping lunch and dinner, instead fortifying herself with small beer-and-corn-syrup smoothies throughout the day. And we in the audience take our mental notes: huge amounts of fat, salt, carbs, and alcohol. Long life. Got it. Never mind that her longevity probably has nothing to do with her daily routine—which might even kill those of us who try it for ourselves—still we’re tempted to do what she does, just to see if it’ll help us survive.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if this is how it works whenever we take advice from successful writers. As a group, we’re hungry for advice—writers often prefer hearing about writing to actually doing it—so a lot of us snap to attention whenever somebody we admire drops some wisdom. But what if these admired writers are the same as the one hundred-year-old woman? What if their writing success (both the quality of the writing and the success in publishing) is the result not of their conscious writing strategies but of luck, or rare genius, or mysterious things that they aren’t even aware of? What if the advice is basically useless or even dangerous—so much bacon grease—and the only reason we never get to hear about its uselessness is that the many not-famous people who try it out (and fail) end up remaining not famous and so are not in a position to dole out writing guidance?
First and foremost, I am a community college English instructor. That’s my day—and sometimes night—job. I look for teachable moments in everything that I encounter. I am also a quirky reader. I suffer from periodic “misreads” wherein I drop a letter from a word or rearrange the letters in a word. Perhaps I am too distracted or in too much of a hurry, but the result provides me with an initial misinterpretation not intended by the author. I soon recognize my error. However, once I set the spelling straight, the misread continues to prick at my imagination. Continue reading
A finished novel is like a full-grown tree in your backyard. As your readers walk past, they see—and hopefully appreciate—the solid trunk, a kaleidoscope of branches, and the succulent green leaves shimmering in the sunlight and glowing in the moonlight. But what a casual reader doesn’t see is the complexity of what’s below it, the tangle of roots they never know is there. Some Australian eucalyptus tree roots reach down 180 feet—almost as far as the height of the tree—and your novel/tree is no different.
So, what are those roots beneath a finished novel? What are those extensions down there in the darkness that curl around rocks, anchoring the tree as they search for water and nutrients? Continue reading
When I was twenty-four and very poor and still far from sure of myself as a writer, I fell for a woman almost twice my age. D. was a Californian, a professor’s ex-wife who found herself living alone on a farm outside the small town where I was in grad school.
I’d noticed D. many times—looking too cool as she sipped whiskeys and puffed Camels in the main street bars. But it wasn’t until the winter of my final year that anything between us sparked. We got to chatting at a friend’s dinner party. We talked about her past (college and grad school in L.A.; six years in London and Marseille with her ex). We talked about her favorite artists (Twombly and DeKooning). After a few hours, and too many glasses of boxed red wine, we found ourselves alone on the porch. It was November and bitter cold. Somehow D. came up with a blanket. She covered our legs and took my hand. Within seconds, we were kissing. Continue reading
People sometimes ask me what I have learned as an editor about submitting my own work. Well, some of the things I’ve learned are probably well understood by most writers, but often forgotten. Literary magazines receive an overwhelming number of submissions. Of course, all editors are looking for excellence, but an editor must also keep in mind the theme — if any, and the shape of the coming issue. Sometimes a work editors admire and might want will lose out at the last moment because it doesn’t seem to fit in the overall make-up of the current issue. Maybe the tone is too different, or the theme duplicates too closely work already accepted.
Speaking now only for myself, here are some of my particular preferences (other editors may not feel the same way as I do) :
I lived for years on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where I worked as a miner as well as at other trades. One of the scenes that sticks most clearly in my mind is the pit of the Rocheleau Mine. It was a brooding presence, a yawning pit that had been shut down long before my arrival on The Range. I saw it often, though through a chain-link fence, as I walked to the end of the main downtown street of Virginia, a small town, and certainly small in relation to the mine.
The Rocheleau Mine was desolate in a breathtaking way, a hole in the earth three miles long and 450 feet deep. In winter the whiteness of the snow was dizzying, covering terraces and lakes of ice at the foot of sheer cliffs. Trees with sagging branches decked the far side, seemingly light-years away. On a typical winter day when the temperature might not climb above zero, time itself seemed to have frozen.
I remember how such winter scenes produced a contradictory impression. On the one hand, the steady snowfall, the relentless flake-by-flake accumulation, reminded me of the passage of time, the massing of it, second by second, year by year; but the end result was that of a pure and traceless timelessness, a total burial of the remembered landscape.
Over the years, thousands of miners had gathered in that now-abandoned pit, clowned and joked while waiting for the day to begin, stared bleary-eyed at towering equipment, and performed the hard and dirty work of their shifts. Desolate as it is now, this mine had once felt the warmth of human life and labor.