Thursday, June 18, 2009

Guest Post: The Safety of Memory by Mark Walther

My old friend Mark Walther has graciously agreed to write a guest post. I've stretched myself too thin this week, what with the children's final exams, the dreaded annual mammogram (all clear!), and futile attempts to whittle an avalanche of notes into shape for my third Jin Shin Jyutsu class in Ireland next week. 
Mark Walther and I met in high school at Brent School, the international school we attended in the northern Philippine city of Baguio, where I lived in my teens and early twenties. He was different from our rowdier American schoolmates - quiet, observant, thoughtful. Always had his nose in a book. I liked that about him because I was passionate about books, too. I was sure he'd be interesting to talk to, but was far too gauche to engage him in conversation. Mark's parents were missionaries in the Philippines, which he always considered home. After 11 years there, he returned to the America, the country of his birth. It was a strange and sometimes difficult experience for a 17 year-old, as he recounts here. 
Today, Mark and his wife Maureen live on a bluebell-carpeted ranch near Dallas, where he continues to lead a life that's part Lord Jim, part Buster Keaton, with grandchildren thrown in for extra spice. 
 Mark Walther in high school, circa 1975

It is already hot here in Texas with the expected highs this week in the upper 90's, and there's talk of hitting the century mark by the end of the week. Soon we will have the obligatory summer TV news report by a rookie reporter cooking an egg on the sidewalk. The tally sheets will come out, records will be compared, so many days over 100 degrees. It is quiet outside, silent in the mid-afternoon sun. I sit in the shade of a mimosa tree, the heat radiating off the ground like sitting in a vast outdoor oven. In the silence, memories start to stir.

Summertime, the heat and a James Taylor song always take me back to the summer of 1976.  Back to when the pain of loss and culture shock were fresh. Back to when I had just returned to America and was miserable over the friends and country I had left behind. With my long black hair and beard, I really stood out in a sea of Scandinavian rural midwestern conformity. People who could barely comprehend leaving the state, let alone the country. I desperately wanted to go home and at the same time I was excited at the adventure of being in a new country, at the prospect of what might be in store for me as I began my adult life. Yet, I was a stranger in a strange land. I had never seen so many white people all together at the same time. I longed for things that were familiar: foods, scenery and people. That summer I struggled to find my footing, re-acquainting with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The world was so much smaller in the Heartland, shrunk down to weather, crops and the State Fair. I worked my first jobs: my grandfather's farm, then at a feedmill. I learned to drive. I bought clothes at a store rather than having them tailor-made. Giving perpetual explanations to the never-ending question, "But why would you want to leave the U.S.? We have everything..." Candy bars, shopping malls, drive-in movies, Dairy Queen, pot-luck dinners and backyard barbecues. The shock of how much things cost back here in the U.S.A. Giving countless geography lessons ("So you lived next to France?"). Camping and sleeping on the ground because you wanted to. Hot running water you could use without boiling it first. American cars. Giving endless history lessons ("No, it was the Spanish-American War, not the Korean War"). Electricity 24 hours a day. TV, TV and more TV, all in English! Hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries and steaks. American girls of all shapes and sizes. A bus trip from Florida to Montreal and back again. Canned vegetables and TV dinners (why?!). Corn as far as the eye could see. Concerts of bands I had only known by word of mouth or the radio. The new world was trying to crowd out my old life. I was trapped, boxed in by decisions and choices beyond my control. I wore my memories like armor and carried them like a sword, protection from the isolated loneliness I felt in my new home, the place of my birth. But throughout that mad, hot summer, the thing that really kept me going was music.

Now, in the heat and silence 30 years later I can feel the fierceness and the passion of that teenage boy. My shoulders ache for the weight of that armor, my hand for the feel of that haft.  It is summertime and I am going to the Philippines in my mind.
  "In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina, can't you see the sunshine, can't you just feel the moonshine
 ain't it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind
Yes I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind
Dark and silent late last night I think I might have heard the highway calling
Geese in flight and dogs that bite. Signs that might be omens say I'm going, going
I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind

With a holy host of others standing 'round me, still I'm on the dark side of the moon
And it seems like it goes on like this forever You must forgive me
If I'm up and gone to Carolina in my mind"    

from "Carolina in My Mind" by James Taylor

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Clear as a (Marvin) Bell

Found this the other day via the wonderful writer Andrea Gillies who re-tweeted it on Twitter. Hay fever keeps my head in permanent fog. The old demons of Blighter's Rock are back as well, making writing fraught. This was exactly what I needed. Although I don't write poetry, all of this applies to me, too. Perhaps you'll find it pertinent and clear-headed as well.

Thank you, Marvin Bell.

Thirty-two Statements About Writing Poetry by Marvin Bell

1. Every poet is an experimentalist.

2. Learning to write is a simple process: read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else. And show in your writing what you have read.

3. There is no one way to write and no right way to write.

4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

8. Try to write poems at least one person in the room will hate.

9. The I in the poem is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

10. Autobiography rots.

11. A poem listens to itself as it goes.

12. It's not what one begins with that matters; it's the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

13. Language is subjective and relative, but it also overlaps; get on with it.

14. Every free verse writer must reinvent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

16. A short poem need not be small.

17. Rhyme and meter, too, can be experimental.

18. Poetry has content but is not strictly about its contents. A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.

19. You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed.

20. At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them.

21. The penalty for education is self-consciousness. But it is too late for ignorance.

22. What they say "there are no words for"--that's what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

24. The dictionary is beautiful; for some poets, it's enough.

25. Writing poetry is its own reward and needs no certification. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level.

26. A finished poem is also the draft of a later poem.

27. A poet sees the differences between his or her poems but a reader sees the similarities.

28. Poetry is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it's poetry! On the other, it's just poetry.

29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.

31. This Depression Era jingle could be about writing poetry: Use it up / wear it out / make it do / or do without.

32. Art is a way of life, not a career.

Marvin Bell, author of seventeen books, has been the recipient of the Lamont Award from the Academy of American Poets, Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and Senior Fulbright appointments to Yugoslavia and Australia. Bell is a longtime member of the faculty of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he is Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Oh woe.

The past week's been a bitch. Or rather, I have. I think I've lost it. Legs and Noodle have been playing squabble all week, and no, that wasn't a typo. My patience with them is at an end. I've gone on laundry strike with Legs. So disgusted am I by the clumps of fetid clothing littering her bedroom floor that I've refused to do any more of her laundry - at least until the sight of her struggling to do it herself unhinges me and makes me recant.

I have three months of New Yorker magazines and twelve books by my side of the bed, unread.

In two weeks I leave for a Jin Shin Jyutsu class in Ireland and my notes are as jumbled as they were 6 months ago when I smugly announced that I had plenty of time to get them ship-shape for June. What was the road to hell paved with again? No, don't tell me.

My hay fever has returned, reducing me to a pathetic blob of snot and snuffles, robbing me of sleep. It feels like there's an elephant sitting on my chest. If I'm outdoors for more than 10 minutes, the sneezing and coughing begin. I worry, too, that the sneezing fits I get when driving are turning me into a liability on the road.

Spring, thou art a bitch sometimes.

Everything in the garden is on the rampage, with nettles and dandelions leading the charge.  Evil bindweed is back. The brunnera and the linnaria have migrated out of their beds. Deep pink foxgloves are canoodling with yellow poppies, and it looks all wrong somehow. The raised beds will never get done now and the baby cabbage will have to grow in pots. Roquette (arugula) has sprouted all over the cracks on the terrace. I used to pay a premium for this stuff at the Delhaize only to have the children turn their noses up at it. I felt sure they'd change their minds about roquette if we grew it at home; so we did, and they didn't. At this point, trying to stay on top of anything in the garden feels like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. My horticultural get-up-and-go has gotten-up-and-left. Bugger the damn garden.

I mourn the demise of these beloved gloves. I loved them, literally, to pieces. They've been with me since the day 20 years ago when we planted the skinny little wisteria vine which now threatens to gobble up the house.

And to cap a perfectly dreary week, Belgium goes to the polls tomorrow for the regional and European elections. I don't know if there's anything more depressing than Belgian politics, except maybe Philippine politics and I want no part of either. America gets the magnificent Mister Obama, and we at the crossroads of Europe get to choose between the likes of Louis Michel and Elio Di Rupo and a host of other buffoons? Que barbaridad!

It's time to get my gratitude bowl out. I notice it's become dusty from lack of use, so busy have I been with doing that I've left no time for being.