Archive for April, 2017

Melissa Green and the long climb back from darkness

Sunday, April 30th, 2017
Share

green-melissaPoet Melissa Green has wrestled with mental illness all her life (we’ve written about her here and here). As a child, she knew she wanted to write poetry, but every two years she was felled by depression. Four years ago, the Massachusetts writer had a dozen shock treatments. The result was catastrophic: the woman whose poetry had entranced Nobel poets Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott could no longer read. She had no memory of having written anything, and said her “ziggurats of books meant no more to me than a pile of two-by-fours.” This is the story of her long climb back. She’s since published Magpiety: New and Selected Poems (2015), and last December a critical volume called Soundings: On the Poetry of Melissa Green was published about her (and Humble Moi has a short piece in it, too).

Melissa’s friend, Melissa Shook, a Boston artist and documentary videographer, made a short video about what she described as “my battle to find language again after a series of shock treatments destroyed my attachment to it, how as artists we try to negotiate Keats’ ‘negative capability’ when the press to be a maker is so strong.”

Conversation with Melissa Green is below.  She added: “I thank you from the bottom of my heart, for your caring friendships, and for taking the time to watch this, so important to me.” She’s not the only one suffering from mental illness. I think a lot of writers, poets, and ordinary people who have walked along the same difficult path will welcome this kindred spirit, and her courageous journey.

Conversation with Melissa Green from Melissa Shook on Vimeo.

Is it “the best thing he ever wrote”? Nabokov thought so. Join us for Dostoevsky’s The Double on Monday, May 15!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
Share
Dostoevskij_1872

He’s nervous. Very nervous. Be there.

Our spring “Another Look” event at Stanford will discuss Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Double: A Petersburg Poem. The 1846 novella portrays the disintegration of a neurotic government clerk into two distinct entities – one toadying and nervous; the other self-assured, exploitative, and aggressive. Vladimir Nabokov, not usually a fan of Dostoevsky, called The Double “the best thing he ever wrote” and “a perfect work of art.” And so Another Look champions The Double as an overlooked masterpiece from a familiar author. It is our final event of the season.

We’ll have a special guest for the event: Russian photographer Lena Herzog will be joining us from Los Angeles. Some of you met Lena at our event with Werner Herzog for J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. I interviewed her at that time for Music & Literature here. An excerpt, where she remembers moving to St. Petersburg as a teenager in 1986:

“Everybody wanted jeans, wanted to be a Westerner, but in the most superficial, shallow way. And yet it still was St. Petersburg. It still had walls and the canals that whispered with the voice of Dostoevsky. It still had culture and ideas and architecture. Saint Petersburg is such a beguiling city. … I loved to walk through the fog enveloping the cathedrals and canals, heart pounding, anticipating the gold-winged griffins on the Bank Bridge over the Griboyedov canal, which emerged from the fog as I walked past them.”

The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 15, at the Bechtel Conference Center. We recommend the Vintage Classic edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He and Lena will be joined by Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures. Many of you will remember Monika from our event on Joseph Conrad’s Shadow-Line, and some of you met Lena at our event with Werner Herzog for J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine.

The preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our times, Stanford’s Joseph Frank, said of the novella: “the internal split between self-image and truth, between what a person wishes to believe about himself and what he really is – constitutes Dostoevsky’s first grasp of a character type that became his hallmark as a writer.” The Double marks a turning point in the life of the author. While the book owes a debt to Nikolai Gogol, the younger author moves beyond social critique to the psychological drama that would become his trademark in the great novels that followed.

 

dostoyevsky-poster-EMAIL

 

 

Czesław Miłosz: the moment his world turned upside down

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017
Share
franaszek

Author, author!

My review of Andrzej Franaszek’s Miłosz: A biography (Harvard University Press) is in the current issue of the Times Literary SupplementI also discuss the publication of the Nobel poet’s fragmentary science fiction novel, Mountains of Parnassus (Yale University Press). Kudos to translators Aleksandra and Michael Parker for the former, Stanley Bill for the latter.

My piece, “Writing Not Fighting,” is behind a paywall, alas. But you can read the first few paragraphs here.  An excerpt:

It may be a cliché that the great poet gives everything to his art, but in [Czesław] Miłosz’s case the platitude appears to have been agonizingly true. Miłosz: A biography  by Andrzej Franaszek, abbreviated and translated from the 960-page Polish edition published in 2011 (TLS, November 25, 2011), describes Miłosz’s unsparing choices. Literary ambition drove him to abandon the woman he called his “true and tragic love” in his native Lithuania in the 1930s (she may have been pregnant as well). After the Warsaw Uprising, he told friends that he would not take arms, because he must survive the war. His death would be meaningless: he must write, not fight.

milosz-biographyAt one shattering moment in his life, however, he rejected his vocation: on February 1, 1951, Miłosz, in Paris as a cultural attaché for the Stalinist government of Poland, stepped into a waiting taxi that took him to Maisons-Laffitte in the suburbs. The thirty-nine-year-old defector spent three and a half months in hiding at the offices of Kultura, an important émigré journal of politics and literature. He wrote: “my decision marks the end of my literary career”. He had walked out on more than five years of service to the Communist government, most recently in the grim, barricaded Paris embassy where insubordinate employees were drugged and delivered to the airport, and where others never left the building for fear of being dismissed. He had longed for “a place on earth where I could wear a face and not a mask”, but still believed he had turned his back on the future by defecting.

parnassusMiłosz was the first writer and intellectual of such distinction to defect from the Soviet bloc, and the first to give his reasons publicly, saying that a lie is the source of all crime and that “the paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth”. For this, he was subjected to vicious slander and attacks from old friends in Poland, the left-wing Parisian intelligentsia, and even other émigrés. Miłosz became an Orwellian un-person in his native land, and would not see his wife and two sons again for more than two years.

At Maisons-Laffitte, he spent his days shouting, pacing, chain-smoking and drinking as he skirted a nervous breakdown. He could not “shake off his attraction towards Stalinism, like a rabbit toward a snake”, wrote Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor-in-chief at the publishing house Instytut Literacki as well as its journal Kultura. The émigrés who gathered round Kultura seemed to be history’s has-beens, fighting a rearguard action for a cause that had long ago been lost. But the “future of history” may not go where we imagine, and the cause that looks lost may, in fact, have time on its side. Today, Giedroyc is a legend, along with Józef Czapski, Zygmunt Hertz and his wife Zofia, who shared the villa in Maisons-Laffitte.

Well, we’ve told some of that story in the Book Haven after our own visit to the villa in Maisons-Laffitte. Again, the full article is here

Postscript: Oh, and we got a line on the cover of the issue. How cool is that?

.
tls

 

Be there! “A Company of Authors” talks books, books, books on Saturday, April 22

Thursday, April 20th, 2017
Share

booksFor most of the nation, if not world, this Saturday, April 22, is Earth Day. But a hundred or so people will be fêting a different sort of pleasure this weekend, when “A Company of Authors” celebrates books and those who write them for the fourteenth consecutive year. The gathering will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. on Earth Day, in Levinthall Hall at the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus.

“It’s exhilarating to hear from their creators of the extraordinary and varied works of rich scholarship and imagination that come into being at this University. Be part of the excitement!” says History Prof. Peter Stansky, who hosts the event every year (we’ve written about the Orwell scholar‘s own literary achievements here and here and here).

An impressive group of Stanford writers will be discussing their recently published books, on panels moderated by people who are wise and gifted writers in their own right. (Let me dissemble no longer, Gentle Reader, one of the moderators will be Humble Moi.) Each author will make a brief presentation, read from his or her book, and be on hand for improving conversation and book-signing. Light refreshments will be available to sate those weak souls for whom words are not enough.

stansky

Our host invites you.

Naturally, Stanford Bookstore will be on hand, too, eagerly flogging the books under discussion – and a few more. The books will be offered at a 10% discount for the event – another enticement.

Drop in, or even better, indulge yourself by spending the entire afternoon in the company of these bright, entertaining, and stimulating writers. History, poetry, law, and other worlds will be under discussion – and our genial host will be presenting a book of his own, his most recent Edward Upward: Art and Life.

And come up and introduce yourself! I’d love to meet you!

Here’s the schedule:

1:00 pm Welcome Remarks (Peter Stansky)

1:05 pm – 1:35 pm The Humanities Center Writes! 

Caroline Winterer, Chair

Zephyr Frank, Reading Rio de Janerio

Scott Bukatman, Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins

Norman Naimark, Genocide

1:40 pm – 2:20 pm Historians at Work

Paul Robinson, Chair

Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments

Steven Press, Rogue Empires

Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler

Amalia D. Kessler, Inventing American Exceptionalism

2:25 pm – 2:45 pm Poetry Forever

Cynthia Haven, Chair

Peter Neil Carroll, The Truth Lies on Earth: A Year by Dark, by Bright

Stina Katchadourian, Trans. Edith Södergran: Love, Solitude and the Face of Death

2:50 pm – 3:20 pm Law and Life

Larry Horton, Chair

Paul Blanc, Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon

Hank Greely, The End of Sex

Barbara Babcock, Fish Raincoats

3:25 pm – 3:55 pm Other Worlds

Tania Granoff, Chair

Stephen Orgel, The Reader in the Book

Millicent Dillon ed., Jane Bowles: Collected Writings (The Library of America)

Margo Davis, Antigua: Photographs 1967-1973

4:00 pm – 4:20 pm The Built World

Peter Stansky, Chair

Marian Adams et. al., Historic Stanford Houses Vol VII

Paul V. Turner, Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco

4:25 pm – 5:00 pm Stanford and Beyond

Charles Junkerman, Chair

Alison Carpenter Davis, Letters Home from Stanford

Robert Cherny, Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art

Peter Stansky, Edward Upward: Art and Life

Shakespeare’s first critic – discovered in Berkshire!

Monday, April 17th, 2017
Share
shakespeare4

And Shakespeare’s first critic had very, very tiny handwriting.

In the news earlier this month: a tiny little notebook was discovered in Berkshire. The cramped seventeenth-century handwriting contains notes on William Shakespeare‘s plays at the time they were performed, by someone who was watching them. The miniature volume is titled Shakespeare: Comedies and Tragedies, and it was discovered among the collection of 18th century antiquarian John Loveday of Caversham by one his descendants.

Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams, appraised the item for Antiques Roadshow, filmed at Caversham Park, Berkshire. The discovery of the “scientific scholarly notes” left him “completely knocked for six” and trembling. “Sometimes the best things come in small packages. My goodness this is a good thing.”

He said it included detailed notes in Latin and suggested the jottings could have been the work of a student analyzing the playwright’s work.

“There is so much research that can be done on this item,” he said. “It’s amazing, it’s almost completely illegible, but you can pick out the odd word, and you can pick out phrases that appear in Shakespeare.”

In addition to the BBC and The Express, Haley spoke to The Telegraph:

“Nobody started to edit Shakespeare’s works in an academic way or comparing texts until the 18th century. Shakespeare was known as the national playwright and the national poet, he’d acquired some sort of mythological status by that point, but people weren’t looking at him in an academic, analytical way. But maybe this note-taker was.

Mr Haley said the document, which is being transcribed, may provide evidence that not all of Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Bard himself in their entirety, while the lines quoted my differ from those in use today.

“I’m sure that very close study of it would identify quotes from some plays that are not necessarily all Shakespeare.”

Video below.

Happy birthday, Tomas Tranströmer!

Saturday, April 15th, 2017
Share

Transtromer“The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language.”

  — Nobel poet Tomas Tranströmer, born this day in 1931

birthday cake

“A Chicano on fire”: U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera returns home to Stanford

Sunday, April 9th, 2017
Share
herrera

Herrera offering cookies at the Poetry Foundation (Photo: Don Share)

Last month, U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera visited Stanford. We were still only two months into a new presidency. It was much on Herrera’s mind, and on the collective mind of the full house he had attracted to Cubberley Auditorium for a free-wheeling evening of reading, commentary, reflections, and audience participation.

He spoke of the United Farm Workers Movement – “those were my classrooms,” he said. He grew up in a different era, the era in the 1960s, where the vital question was: “Do you want to be in the classroom, or out in the streets, marching with people?” He remembered his “early occupied water tank poetry,” when he was director of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, headquartered in an occupied water tank in San Diego’s Balboa Park, which had been converted into an arts space.

He also referred to his time as a Stanford anthropology major: “I was sizzling on anthropology, sizzling on poetry – two major sizzles.” Of course we know which sizzle won.

“I was a Chicano on fire.” He still is. As poet laureate, he described meeting an 11-year-old who had written a poem about the children left behind because their parents had been deported. The story got a big round of applause, or perhaps the applause came when he said, “America! Stop deporting us!

He recalled saying “one thing they made sure – that we could never be authors” – that is, by prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write.

“You are the author. You are the author,” he told the audience.

From the director of Stanford’s Creative writing program, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, who gave an excellent (as usual) introduction:

As he traveled through those landscapes, in actuality and memory, he also explored the psyche of place, drawing into his work influences and affinities as far apart and yet as apposite as Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez.

And in all of these travels and writings he has been an innovative, restless stylist, in the words of  in the New York Times  becoming the creator of “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in HumanitiesIt is the something else, perhaps, that makes us especially eager to hear him this evening. In an interview with NPR he recalled his childhood. As the son of Mexican farm workers, he followed them the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys,migrating as his parents did, seeking work. But when he remembered those years in an interview given to NPR he also spoke about their meaning. This is what he said:

“And those landscapes, you know, those are some deep landscapes of mountains and grape fields and barns and tractors; families gathering at night to have little celebrations in the mountains and aquamarine lakes way down below. So, see, all that is like living in literature every day.”

Juan Felipe Hererra’s words here provide a pathway into his achievement. The idea of a literary enterprise which is lived rather than learned is everywhere in his work.  His words also remind us that the oldest life of poetry lies deep in its communal existence, in  its companionable relation to a people, to a language, to the future of both. It also reminds us of the association of this writer with one of the true traditions of poetry, the poet’s refusal from Homer onwards to disown the adventures and sorrows of a people, and the artistic determination to draw their story into the dignity of remembrance and beautiful speech.

An atrocity in Syria, and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko remembered

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017
Share

 

yevtushenko-nixon

With the high and mighty: Yevtushenko with President Nixon in 1972. (Photo: Oliver F. Atkins)

Syria has committed a crime against humanity, an atrocity.  At least 70 people have been killed, including at least 10 children, in one of the deadliest chemical attacks in Syria in years. Ghastly photos of gassed and dying children are being sent back to us to view as we browse the internet. I won’t look at them. Words fail on this occasion. And images fail, too. The headlines are hard to miss today.

BabiYar

Babi Yar today, in Ukraine. (Photo: Mark Voorendt)

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Yevgeny Yevtushenko was famous in his day, the rebellious, fiery young poet speaking truth to power. In the 1960s, his famous readings packed auditoriums. Yet his death at 84 on April 1 was dutifully covered by The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR, and others, but received surprisingly little comment and pickup in the social media and general buzz. One comment from the Guardian combox: “Sad to see so few comments here on such a major figure in 20th century history. And sad to read such a thin and begrudging obituary. In all my many contacts with ordinary [ie non-party] Soviet citizens over the years, it was very marked how often Yevtushenko’s name and his work crept into the conversation.” But hardly grudging, surely: the obituary was written by , one of Yevtushenko’s important early translators.

Despite his grand oratorical style, Yevtushenko’s reputation faded over the years. The Guardian is too quick to dismiss the charges that he collaborated with the U.S.S.R. regime. Yevtushenko was able to travel freely, and dropped the names of the Soviet bigwigs he hobnobbed with. Those privileges came with a price, and Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, for one, never forgave him. (Milner-Gulland notes “the fastidious Joseph Brodsky claimed to know several hundred lines of his by heart” – and that is also true.)

Since 2007, he divided his time between Russia and the University of Tulsa, where he taught poetry and world cinema.

So what does this death have to do with Syrian atrocities? This: Yevtushenko is best known for a poem on an atrocity that took place on his own Soviet soil. In 1961, the young poet visited a ravine just outside of Kiev known as Babi Yar. Twenty years earlier, on September 29-30, 1941, German troops had killed 33,771 Jews in that place. At spots like this there’s often a memorial or a plaque. But Yevtushenko didn’t find one, so he created his own.

“I was so ashamed that I wrote this poem very quickly,” he told NPR in 2000. “Probably it was three hours, four hours.”

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

Yet he wasn’t Jewish. But still he was ashamed. And perhaps that is something to be treasured in a world where there is so little of it. In the Soviet Union, the massacre was still contextualized within the “Great Patriotic War,” but Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem broke the code of silence about what the place and the occasion meant to Jews. The poem, as translated by Benjamin Okopnik, ends:

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

Postscript on 4/6: The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, a personal friend of the late poet, weighs in with a moving tribute here.