Archive for March, 2019

Blaise Cendrars, on the life of the writer: “I never forget that work is a curse—which is why I’ve never made it a habit.”

Sunday, March 31st, 2019
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Before he lost his arm in WWI (Photo: August Monbaron)

Never heard of him? No surprise. He’s been somewhat overlooked since his death in 1961 at age 73. Blaise Cendrars was an influential  French modernist poet and novelist who was chums with Guillaume Apollinaire and Henry Miller. He was one of the first to praise Miller’s Tropic of Cancer – “A royal book, atrocious book, exactly the sort of book I love best…” In my research, I ran across this 1966 Paris Review Q&A from a 1950 radio interview with Michel Manoll. (You can read the whole thing here, but it’s subscription only, except for this snippet). You’ll love the tone:

Michel Manoll: All writers complain of the constraint under which they work and of the difficulty of writing.

Blaise Cendrars: To make themselves sound interesting, and they exaggerate. They should talk a little more about their privileges and how lucky they are to be able to earn some return from the practice of their art, a practice I personally detest, it’s true, but which is all the same a noble privilege compared with the lot of most people, who live like parts of a machine, who live only to keep the gears of society pointlessly turning. I pity them with all my heart. Since my return to Paris I have been saddened as never before by the anonymous crowd I see from my windows engulfing itself in the métro or pouring out of the métro at fixed hours. Truly, that isn’t a life. It isn’t human. It must come to a stop. It’s slavery … not only for the humble and poor, but the absurdity of life in general.

When a simple character like myself, who has faith in modern life, who admires all these pretty factories, all these ingenious machines, stops to think about where it’s all leading, he can’t help but condemn it because, really, it’s not exactly encouraging.

Manoll: And your work habits? You’ve said somewhere that you get up at dawn and work for several hours.

Cendrars: I never forget that work is a curse—which is why I’ve never made it a habit. Certainly, to be like everyone else, lately I’ve wanted to work regularly from a given hour to a given hour; I’m over fifty-five and I wanted to produce four books in a row. That finished, I had enough on my back. I have no method of work. I’ve tried one, it worked, but that’s no reason to fix on it for the rest of my life. One has other things to do in life aside from writing books.

Apollinaire, with a shrapnel wound, 1916

A writer should never install himself before a panorama, however grandiose it may be. Like Saint Jerome, a writer should work in his cell. Turn the back. Writing is a view of the spirit. “The world is my representation.” Humanity lives in its fiction. This is why a conqueror always wants to transform the face of the world into his image. Today, I even veil the mirrors.

The workroom of Remy de Gourmont was on a court, 71, rue des Saints-Pères, in Paris. At 202 Boulevard Saint-Germain, Guillaume Apollinaire, who had a vast apartment with large rooms and with a belvedere and terrace on the roof, wrote by preference in his kitchen, at a little card table where he was very uncomfortable, having had to shrink this little table even smaller in order to succeed in sliding it under a bull’s-eye window in the mansard, which was also on a court. Edouard Peisson, who has a nice little house in the hills near Aix-en-Provence, does not work in one of the front rooms where he could enjoy a beautiful view of the valley and the play of light in the distance, but has had a little library corner constructed in back, the window of which gives on an embankment bordered with lilacs. And myself, in the country, in my house at Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, I’ve never worked on the upper floor which looks out on the orchards but in the lower room which looks in one direction on an impasse behind a stable and in another on a wall which encloses my garden.

Among the very few writers I’ve had occasion to see much of, only one man of letters, celebrated for his frenetic cult of Napoleon, installed himself before a panorama to work—a historical one—the window of his study had a full view of the Arc de Triomphe. But this window was most often closed because the living spectacle of the glory of his great man, far from inspiring him, clipped his wings. He could be heard through the door coming and going in his study, beating his sides, roaring his phrases, trying out phrases and cadences, groaning, weeping, laboring himself sick like Flaubert in his “gueuloir.” His wife then said to the servants, Pay no attention. It is Monsieur castigating his style.

Why is light verse in disfavor? The crusade to save it.

Friday, March 29th, 2019
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The man behind “Anecdotal Evidence”

One of our favorite fellow bloggers, Patrick Kurp of the highly (and justly) respected Anecdotal Evidence, has a article on light verse in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It makes a thoughtful, rewarding read, recognizing in particular Light, the biannual journal founded by a retired Chicago postal worker, John Mella.

One of his goals, Patrick writes, was “to salvage verse from what he called the ‘cheerless, obscure, and finally forgettable muck’ of poetry written by and for academics.” The journal was launched in 1992 and has become a modest literary industry of its own, continuing after his death in 2012. It’s all online now, here.

There has long been a prejudice against light verse in such magazines as The New Yorker, that used to champion the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker, the sparkle of Ogden Nash. “It’s a shame the sophisticated humor in its cartoons can no longer be found in its poetry, which is fairly dreary and has been for years,” according to R.S. Gwynn (we’ve written about him here and here). “Maybe the magazine is too high-minded to think that poetry can entertain.”

Joe Kennedy, éminence grise

It’s a commonplace attitude, writes Kurp, that light verse “kids’ stuff, doggerel, greeting-card fodder, unhappy echoes of Richard Armour, whose whimsical riffs appeared in Sunday newspaper supplements starting in the Great Depression. Definitions of light verse are notoriously slippery.”

We’ve written about X.J. Kennedy here and here. Kurp calls him “the éminence grise of American light verse.” His poem “The Purpose of Time Is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once” is one of my all-time favorites of the genre, and I tend to repost it everywhere on his birthday. (He just turned 89 on August 21.)

According to A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here and here), who is quoted in the article: ““Light verse has to deal with the timeless issues the way that Martial, Horace, Swift, Byron, Dorothy Parker at her best, and Wendy Cope do, to have any longevity at all. Just wordplay and/or inside jokes on the issues of the day doesn’t last. Dialect poems, which were also popular in the first half of the 20th century, went almost immediately from funny to the elite to offensive to everyone.”

“Light verse requires polish.”

Athens-based A.E. Stallings, a MacArthur Fellow and translator of Hesiod and Lucretius, recalls her early publication in Light, and her interactions with Mella, “I was often less successful in placing poems I truly considered ‘light’ verse with Light,” she says. “Rather, [Mella] seemed to like darker things with music to them. It was often a place where I would send in things that were quite polished, but perhaps didn’t have the scope or gravitas for a ‘serious’ magazine. But light verse requires a great deal of polish. It can be harder to turn out a perfect squib than a publishable page-and-a-halfer, the typical form around the millennium.” It seems to have paid off: read the moving short poems on the refugee crisis, which seem to draw their conciseness from some of her work in a lighter genre.

Discussing a poem by Barbara Loots, Patrick writes:”Deflation — reducing human vanity to its ridiculous or distasteful essentials — is a frequent strategy of light verse. Loots’s poem starts as the 10-thousandth Robert Burns parody and quickly turns Swiftian and more substantial. Critics risk killing the patient when dissecting light verse (or dissecting any kind of humor), but one can’t imagine Loots’s poem written as free verse.”  Here’s her matchless “Colonoscopy: A Love Poem”:

My love is like a red, red rose.
I know because I’ve seen
the photographs inside of him
projected on a screen:

the petal-like appearance of
his proximal transverse,
his mid-ascending colon
like a rose’s opening purse,

appendiceal orifice,
a bud not yet unfurled —
Oh, what a pleasing garden is
my true love’s inner world!

How very like a red, red rose
his clean and healthy gut.
I love my laddie all the more
since looking up his butt.

The magic of Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019
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Together again (on the balcony): The wandering Silenus (Rodney Gardiner) is reunited with Bacchus (Benjamin Ismail) at last. All photos by Kevin Berne for Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Photos don’t do it justice. Never did. Award-winning Metamorphoses came to Berkeley again, under the Tony award-winning direction of the playwright Mary Zimmerman at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I attended one of the early productions in New York City, a decade or two ago. Broadway, or off-Broadway … I can’t recall which anymore. But I do remember that it was mind-shaking and soul-stirring – just as you always want theater to be, though it rarely is. Well, it’s based tales from Ovid‘s epic, so it’s built on a sound foundation. Years later at Stanford, Zimmerman signed my copy of the published script – and sketched two little seabirds above her signature. Ceyx and Alcyone perhaps, those passionate drowned lovers, who are transformed into birds.

Alcyone (Louise Lamson) searches for her lost love.

When I heard it was coming back, I hesitated. Could it possibly match the first performance? Or would it be a big fat flop? Especially since I would be hauling a millennial daughter and son-in-law along with me (not to mention ticket prices), I didn’t want to take chances. I waited and I waited … reviews weren’t prompt. The show was extended and then extended again. The San Francisco Chronicle rave review finally appeared, and the the little man was out of his chair clapping.

A good sign. But it’s easy to imagine how a play that centers on a big pool of water in the middle of the stage could flop. Check out the videos on Youtube to see what I mean. It’s a play that needs crackerjack timing and professionalism, but also a lot of resources to manage the pool that can turn skin to parchment and rust curtain clips.

The three of us caught the final weekend of the show, and we’re glad we did. Although this production was slow to get started, the second half picked up an irreversible momentum with Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche, and others.

Yes, yes, I know that Eros and Psyche aren’t in Ovid; she included them anyway.

“I’ll tell you what drew me to it – and what continues to draw me to it – is that the word Psyche, in Greek, means ‘the soul,'” Zimmerman explains in the theater program. “There’s this element to the story which is fairy-tale-like, and there’s this injunction that Psyche must not look directly on love. That love is very dangerous or forbidden. It’s mysterious to me. I’ve been with this show for a while. For decades. I’m still not to the bottom of that mystery.”

“Let me die the moment my love dies,” say the cast members in the finale. “Let me not outlive my own capacity to love.”

I wondered if the bereaved and hysterical Alcyone would be as good as I remembered. I had my doubts when actress Louise Lamson was barely audible in the first scene (all performers have multiple roles). Yet in her doomed search for Ceyx, she seemed exactly as I remembered. And so it was: I checked the program, and Lamson played in both the Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, all those years ago.

Phaeton (Rodney Gardiner) talks to his therapist. (Photo: Berkeley Rep/Berne)

Steven Epp as Morpheus

“The beating heart of good prose”: Robert Alter on rhythm and translating the Hebrew Bible

Sunday, March 24th, 2019
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Alter at Berkeley’s Heyday (Photo: Wendy Ruebman)

This week, Berkeley’s Robert Alter honored a lunchtime gathering at Heyday Books with his gentle presence and his scholarly wisdom – just in time for Purim. Alter is the translator of the surprise hit of the year: the new acclaimed 3,500-page Hebrew Bible (Norton). (We’ve written about his work here and here.) He’s also the author of Princeton’s The Art of Bible Translation.

I’ve been a big fan since I read his translation of Genesis more than two decades ago, and so I lugged my big-splurge purchase of 2019, the three-volume set, for his signature. (Gauche, I know, but I couldn’t resist – he only signed one volume before he rushed off to pick up his wife.)

The largely atheist/agnostic/”none” crowd was skeptical of the foundational masterpiece of Western civilization, but in a short hour or so, the amiable, learned Alter had them eating out of his hand. Rhythm, he said, is “the beating heart of good prose” and “not merely decorative.” He spoke about the iambic rhythm of Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville – “it wasn’t just icing on the cake for Melville” – and the intricacies of replicating the rhythm of ancient Hebrew. He decried “the dumbed-down modern versions – and they’re all dumbed-down.” He had to “scrape off the theological veneer” for “the detective work of language.”

I had a chance to chat with him for a few minutes before his talk. I mentioned that René Girard calls the Genesis story of Joseph the first representation of forgiveness, as something more than letting go of a debt or not clubbing an enemy, after all. Alter didn’t disagree, but he pointed out that the Old Testament also shows the first hero who changes over time, i.e., “character development.” To wit: the patriarch Jacob, who begins as a trickster on the make, ends by being tricked himself, and suffers cruel loss and bereavement. On his deathbed – humbled, broken, mourning – he says: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning” (in Alter’s translation, of course). Ancient heroes like Ulysses don’t do that – when he gets back home to Ithaca after twenty years  he turns right back and heads for the sea again. (Dante condemned it, though Tennyson rendered it as an act of heroism.)

In his introduction, Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman called Alter “enviably erudite and lovely.” He is, he is.

Update: The future of books at “The San Francisco Chronicle”

Thursday, March 21st, 2019
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Earlier meeting at Heyday: clockwise, from lower left: Frances Dinkelspiel, Andy Ross, Cherilyn Parsons, Calvin Crosby, Leslie Jobson, Praveen Madan, T.J. Stiles, Steve Wasserman, Ethan Nosowsky, Paul Yamazaki,

A few days ago we reported on John McMurtrie’s recent layoff at the San Francisco Chronicle. He was the paper’s veteran book critic and book editor. Many Bay Area book-lovers have feared a diminution and dumbing-down of coverage in one of America’s literary capitals. A meeting on March 13 at Berkeley’s Heyday Books discussed the outlook for book coverage in the Bay Area. On Monday, March 18, a group met with San Francisco Chronicle editors to discuss the paper’s intentions and direction. Here are the notes of that meeting (with suggestions from others attending) taken by Frances Dinkelspiel, an award-winning author and journalist and founder of Berkleyside.com. The other writers at the Chronicle meeting included Elizabeth Rosner, Wendy Tokunaga, Lucy Gray, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Regina Marler, Marissa Moss, Donna Levin, and Marian Palaia.

I’m a long-ago reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle myself, when the section was headed by David Kipen and Oscar Villalon, so the changes leave me with much to say, which I’ll keep to myself. But I’d love to hear from you, Book Haven readers. I welcome comments in the combox below.

Frances Dinkelspiel

A group of nine authors met on Monday, March 18 with Audrey Cooper, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and Kitty Morgan, who oversees all the arts and culture coverage. We had an amiable, broad discussion about the Chronicle’s books coverage in the light of the layoff of the books editor. The sound bite: Don’t expect many book reviews in the future but look for expanded coverage of the literary scene through more frequent author features, trend articles, and maybe even podcasts. Freelancers would do these things, most likely. The paper is not planning on hiring new staff writers or a new dedicated books editor.

Kitty and Audrey opened the discussion by talking about what the “Home and Garden” and “Food” sections looked like five years ago. They were not well read and the “Home and Garden” section was losing $1 million a year. They could not continue in that form.

Kitty, the former editor of Sunset magazine, was brought in to overhaul the “old-fashioned” sections. In the course of five years, the section was “re-imagined” and revitalized and was made more relevant. The new restaurant critic Soleil Ho is getting thousands of clicks on her reviews. The paper is excited about how she is writing about new places and is drawing in new audiences.

Like all newspapers in the country, the Chronicle is facing economic pressure. The paper edition still accounts for 50% of the readership and subscriptions and advertising produce the bulk of the revenue. The Chronicle is paid $1.74 for every 1,000 clicks on an ad. They also discussed how expensive it is to get the printed paper to each household. It costs $20 a week and the figure does not include staff costs, just the cost of newsprint, production and delivery expenses, which are increasing. [Note: Audrey Cooper has corrected some of these figures, in a note below.] Audrey said some in the organization think the printed Chronicle will eventually go away. She hopes that happens after she retires.

Given that, the Chronicle is looking hard at what gets audience “engagement” and what does not.

Audrey Cooper

Audrey compared the book review section of the Chronicle to the old food and home and garden sections. While they could not determine how many people read the book reviews in the Sunday paper, which has about 145,000 readers, one recent book review only got 25 clicks online. A recent review by Janet Napolitano only got 50 clicks, said Kitty. (She later said some reviews got 200 clicks). That level of non-engagement cannot continue, they said.

Northwestern University just completed a study where researchers looked at 13 terabytes of data about what people read online at the Chronicle. Audrey said there is commodity content, broadly available, and non-commodity content, which is unique. The Chronicle needs to produce unique stories that bring people to the site, keeps them for a while, and then converts them to subscribers. She emphasized several times that gaining subscribers is essential; a wider readership isn’t nearly as important as getting people to sustain the existence of the paper over time. Audrey said her goal as editor is to “get new readers and save the world through journalism.” (Note: A number of those at the meeting subscribed to the Chronicle in a show of support.)

Given those numbers Audrey said: “We need to differentiate reviews in a different way to get people to read them.” They felt that the Chronicle should not be reviewing big national books that are also being reviewed by the New York Times or the Washington Post. The Chronicle should be writing about interesting local books and what makes the Bay Area unique. Kitty pointed out that the Chronicle had not been writing enough about a number of emerging areas such as books about the environment, about LGBTQ writers, and stuff like the popularity of health and spiritualism to Silicon Valley bros. They have been missing trends.

How to do this?

There are no current plans to hire anyone dedicated to covering books, Audrey said. That could change in the future, though, if readership of literary topics picks up. The Chronicle needs to “fix its focus of coverage” and its “distribution of coverage” before additional hiring occurs. The Chronicle plans to continue to use a combination of reviews by local writers and reviews purchased from the wire. The number of reviews will definitely not go up; if anything they are likely to decrease.

Kitty Morgan

There are two editors in charge of book coverage: Robert Morast, a senior arts editor and Laura Compton, the former Style editor. She may actually have the most responsibility for the book coverage.

Since there no longer is one person in charge of knowing what is happening in the literary scene, Kitty has hired two “book whisperers” to work as consultants as she moves forward reshaping the book coverage. She would not name them but said they are getting paid. One, a male, is a former book publisher who is very good with data. The other is a woman. She called them “contributing books editors.”

The paper is considering hiring a freelance book columnist to write about the literary scene.

The rest of the stories will come from staff writers and freelancers. Kitty sees the paper doing “one good feature story a week.”

“I’m excited about how we can do this differently,” said Kitty.

Kitty said the Chronicle needed to better capitalize on opportunities. She was very excited about an idea of collaborating with T.C. Boyle who is coming to town. His new novel is about drugs and Kitty wanted to pair up Boyle and Michael Pollan, and then tape their conversation for a broadcast. The Chronicle could do a feature of the event. Pollan might not be available though. Someone suggested she ask Ayelet Waldman instead. Kitty liked that idea.

At this point a number of Womba (Word-of-Mouth Bay Area, a group of about 200 published female writers) writers talked about different ideas the Chronicle might do, like running features on “what is on my nightstand,” or other quick hits that will keep books in the public eye as well as make use of local/regional talent. Suggestions included using more multimedia, interviews, author profiles, and increased focus on the exceptionally rich saturation of writers in the Bay Area.

The authors also expressed a commitment to helping promote the “new look/approach” once the editors are clear on what they intend to do moving forward.

One writer said she follows the Chronicle’s art and theater critics because of their “voices” and the paper could build up a similar readership if there was a book critic with a distinctive writing style. There did not seem to be an appetite for this approach.

Audrey said the Chronicle wants to expand the literary listings and make “Datebook” the place online to come to look for events. This is being done for the benefit of subscribers, not booksellers. There will be a lag before this happens though. While it is easy to scrape music and art events from the web, it is not that easy to do so with book events. So the Chronicle has to build a better tool to scrape events.

Both Audrey and Kitty said no one should look at the coverage that has happened since the departure of the book editor in early March as an indicator of what the paper wants to do. It will take until at least mid-April before they are up to speed and even longer, perhaps, to work out a future plan.

We forgot to ask how many pages of book coverage there would be in the Pink “Datebook” section. Last week there were four, down from six when John was there. But Audrey wants to run more articles during the week. They do not see putting more content online than what runs in the paper.

Postscript on 3/21: San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper has written to correct the statement that the print edition is 50 percent of The Chronicle‘s readership: “Our total audience is (depending on how you count it) at most 35 million unique visitors a month and at the least about 7 million a month. The print circulation is a sliver of that. And while print is the bulk of revenue, it is also the bulk of the expense.”

“Secondly, to be clear, it’s not that The Chronicle gets $1.74 CPM for online ads. That’s an average value of a programmatic ad. Actual rates go up and down depending on how you manage ad yield. So it would be true to say the average online ad has a $1.74 CPM, but not correct to say that is the average Chronicle ad. It’s an internet-wide thing.”

Postscript on 3/25: We’re in Publisher’s Lunch today! (See below.) And our comment section made Books Inq.

“A poet of this world”: Jane Hirshfield remembers W.S. Merwin

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019
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In Hawaii together: W.S. Merwin’s wife Paula Dunaway snapped the photo.

Former U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin died on March 15. He was 91. He was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, among other honors. I knew him slightly, so I have stepped aside for others to speak. Here’s one of them, Marin poet (and friend) Jane Hirshfield, who has provided today’s guest post, with attention to their common Buddhism outlook:

The last time I saw William Merwin was in late March-early April, 2016, when I went to read for the Merwin Conservancy’s Green Room series in Maui. His wife Paula was still alive, and I was able to see them three times in the house William had built decades before with his own hands; to walk through the palm trees he’d planted, now fully grown; to see the nursery with new, young palm trees waiting to be planted.

Famously handsome. (Photo: Dido Merwin)

One screen-walled outbuilding was William’s zendo, a meditation room that resembled the nearby toolshed, except that in place of trowel and shovel there were two very small Buddha figures, some rocks, a few incense bowls. A low block of rough-cut wood served as altar. A hand-made clay water pitcher was set just off to one end, as if the one-flavored water of the Lotus Sutra’s teaching might be poured from it whenever needed. As if confident that here, thirst could be simply, straightforwardly addressed, within gathered rain and the poet’s hand-created, permeable concentration.

William was almost completely blind by then, yet still poured the tea Paula had made, asking only for a little guidance to know where my upheld cup was. His superb memory allowed him to move through the long familiar spaces and our conversations’ various rooms with equal ease. One of his beloved chows was still alive, keeping near. The Merwins offered me a tin of organic bug balm to keep at bay the mosquitoes. What William’s eyes could no longer take in, it seemed to me, radiated instead outward from them: the world’s wonder, along with – and just outweighing – its suffering.

William’s poems and example have travelled with me all my life as a person and poet. His openness and his ability to bring into some of his poems what is felt as beyond any saying yet somehow is said. His rigor and his ability to bring into other of his poems his clear-eyed perceptions of the failings of our culture, civilization, and species. His translations were without border, and his compassion without limit. When we first met, at a Dodge Festival, we were sitting next to each other in the big white tent of those days, each of us unable to take our eyes off a nearby seeing-eye Golden Lab. In later years, William would sometimes phone me to talk about Zen and its unfolding in each of our lives—we both wanted practice to be a thing deeply background, not foreground, and perhaps I am wrong to mention it here; yet we both appeared in the PBS documentary, The Buddha, and so I do— as much as of poems, other reading, ideas. Paula was part of these conversations as well, bringing her own steady wisdom and practical affirmation of the centrality of love and human connection in their shared life.

William is sometimes described as a poet of the numinous and absence. But he was a poet of this world, which he loved, cultivated, and restored. The poems continue to hold it all, just as each planted tree in France and in Hawaii does, just as that small, empty, open, still-waiting-to-serve water pitcher does.

William, with so many others this first day of your death, an anniversary now knowable, I thank you.