Friday, March 30, 2007

Hither and Thither

Back, but not exactly into the swing, more like a swizzle. I've been struggling to reorient myself to Central Time, so I've been walking around--or sitting around--feeling wiped and sluggish when not under the iffy weather. I heard that it'd been sunny and warm in Chicago, but since I've gotten back, it's been mostly mild and rainy, as if the city isn't sure whether or not to look forward, to spring, or back. If the rain ceases and it warms up this weekend, I plan to visit the lakeshore....

Yesterday, I did pull myself together to head down to Columbia College Chicago and chat, alongside Ed Roberson, with Crystal Williams's poetry classes. The topic was ekphrasis, a poetic mode I've long been interested in, with an emphasis on Seismosis, and the discussion was fruitful. The student poets posed sharp questions, and when in a later discussion on poems by several well-known writers, they expressed special enthusiasm for a Claudia Rankine prose poem--on Mahalia Jackson, from Don't Let Me Be Lonely--I almost felt like dancing around the tables. Of course I knew that under Crystal's guidance they'd be a very good group, and they were. Ed was, as always, profound. In addition to reading one of his poems, he found apt and succinct ways to make unforgettable points, such as when ekphrasis began. He suggested--and I'm probably screwing it up somewhat--that it was when the poet saw and felt and entered the artist's hand (or eye, or sense of the camera's lens, etc.) as it began to move and act on the image, the idea, the concept from which the work being explored originated. A version of this, in more mystificatory form, flows through Seismosis. At any rate, I'm very excited because Ed'll be in residence next fall at the university, benefitting both the students and the rest of us, and I look forward to being able to hang out with him more often.

But back to the sluggishness: I do plan to write a few impressions on our brief but enjoyable trip; C's version, with photos, is here.

The week before we traveled, a young scholar, Noura Wedell, delivered a presentation on Seismosis, among several other texts, at a conference, "Lyricisme et littérature," at the Centre d'études poétiques at the École nationale supérieure (ENS) Lyon. She was interested in several issues in particular, including genre, and the relation of the texts, as poems specifically, to the drawings; the politics of citation in the text, both obvious and more subtle (and the text is, specifically, a homage/hommage, to two important and little known figures, William White and Norman Pritchard, among others); and what sort of production the text "wills" itself to be, which is an open(-ended) question. I'd have loved to have been there, having only passed through Lyon with C. many years ago.

On other topics, I never watch the Oprah Winfrey Show (any more), but I intend to find out when she'll be interviewing the extremely reclusive author Cormac McCarthy (at right, from whose new novel, The Road, she selected for her Book Club. This is, I think, a major event in the annals of recent American literary culture, primarily because Oprah is again selecting contemporary fiction for the Book Club, after the Franzen flap and several years' hiatus, and because McCarthy, for the readers who may not be familiar with him, is one of the most reclusive and best living American fiction writers. I keep wondering what led him to agree to the interview, and how it'll proceed; he supposedly praised Oprah highly through his spokesman, but would admiration and respect for her and her book advocacy really be enough? He supposedly hasn't given more than 2 interviews in the last 40 years, and although not as extreme as Thomas Pynchon, has tended to shun the publicity circus that constitutes our broader literary scene. When I think of his works, I automatically summon up their highly poetic and fascinatingly arcane language, their consistency in terms of setting (usually the Southern Appalachia or Southwest) and plot (usually an outcast male character or characters are on the run or in pursuit of someone), the texts' relentless, forward-moving action (and comparative lack of interior characterization), and their often stomach-turning violence. McCarthy's novels--at least the several that I've read--are among the most insistently violent in American literature. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), his masterpiece, has scenes of violence possessing the power not only to provoke horror and astonishment, but awe. (A female writer I know refused, when we were in graduate school, to read his work because it was so violent.) Suttree (1979) comes close. All The Pretty Horses (1992), another of his best works, is less violent and also more straightforward and transparent in terms of its prose style; it's probably his best known work, and the sole one to win one of the three major US literary awards (so far), the National Book Award, in 1992. But back to the interview: I would bet that Oprah will send him a list of questions in advance, they'll perhaps go back and forth so that it's well scripted, and he'll be pleasant and polite, while she'll interview in total pro mode. If she has read any of his prior books, however, she might benefit readers everywhere by pressing him on the topic of extreme violence in his work, particularly in texts such as Child of God and Blood Meridian, as well as on his rendering of female characters, his larger, apparently very bleak vision of the world, the effect of his interactions at and with the Sante Fe Institute on his writing, and his thoughts on the Coen brothers' film version of his weakest novel, This Is No Country for Old Men. Really, he ought to answer any questions she poses, since after having his work selected by her, he'll sell more copies than he ever has before.

I saw that the Tuskegee Airmen were honored yesterday in Washington. On the one hand, I don't put much stock in official events like this, which are tend to be more about the spectacle and less about the substance, and yet given what these heroes and others like them had to endure, I had to ask yet again: why did it take so damned long? Their story is one I heard often growing up. Several of the airmen were native St. Louisans, and one, Wendell O. Pruitt (at right, receiving a handshake from fellow pilot John F. Briggs, photo from ALLSTAR Learning Laboratory's Blacks in Aviation page) who died in 1945, was a legend. (The infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project was named in part after him, as is a relative of mine.) The Preznit managed to stumble over his words, as always, and Republican Congressional leader John Boehner (Ohio) couldn't pronounce "Tuskegee" correctly to save his life, but that didn't diminish either the ceremony or its significance. As one of the airmen I heard on NPR say, their resolve, courage and remarkable record was central to the integration of the Army and US military in general, and they appreciated the government's recognition, however belated.

Tonight I had the opportunity to see three of graduate students I've taught, Rosemary Harp, Andrea Uptmor, and Heather Dewar, read with author Tara Ison, a former Blattner Fellow and visiting professor at a university-sponsored reading at the Chopin Theater in Chicago. I'm posting photos from the event, and I have to say I was beaming with pride and delight all the way through, because I had such a great time working with all of them, and their work tonight was so polished and engaging. I also enjoyed hearing the excerpt from Tara's new racy new novel, The List, about a couple's break-up, and purchased a copy. Once I get around to reading it, I'll probably add it to the list of recommended books.

Heather Dewar

Rosemary Harp

Andrea Uptmor

Tara Ison (the photo is terribly blurred)


  1. I'd never read McCarthy before The Road. No other book since, hmmm, Birdsong, has actually made me feel desperate on the characters' behalf, I was so drawn into the story. Until the last couple pages, I would have said that it was one of the very best, certainly most gripping, novels I'd ever read. And then those last two pages!!!! It was like watching a gymnast give a mind blowingly perfect performance on every event until the last, whereupon (s)he horrifyingly flubs everything. Did you read it?

    Kai in NYC

  2. LOL to AG!

    Kai, I haven't read The Road yet. I've only read several of the earlier books, but my favorite by far is Blood Meridian, because of the sheer accomplishment of the narration, the language, and so forth. All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, however, are also very fine novels, and Suttree is superb, but a big unshapely and perhaps too close to his own experiences to be as outstanding as the subsequent novels. I'll keep your critique in mind, however, when I do get to The Road, which was staring out at me and calling my name when I stopped by Three Lives Bookstores today....