Posts Tagged ‘Jack Kerouac’

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

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Poet Moore Moran: A death in Ordinary Time

Sunday, March 6th, 2011
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Moore Moran, Sept. 27, 1931 - Feb. 27, 2011

I received an email from my publisher at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press earlier this week – the poet Moore Moran, known to his friends as Mike, died on February 27.  He was 79.

I had blogged about the Santa Rosa poet here and here. He had published his first full-length book, Firebreaks, in 1999 – it bagged a National Poetry Book Award.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published last year.

“Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road. You don’t have to imagine him. He exists. He has many skills, all of them beautifully bright, and on occasions when he looks into the abyss they take him safely over it,” said Turner Cassity of Moran’s poems.

But I was startled when I reread the email a few days later and realized I had overlooked that the memorial would not be in Santa Rosa, but nearby, in Menlo Park – where, it turns out, he had graduated from high school before getting two degrees from Stanford.

So I dropped in on Friday afternoon to pay my respects to a poet in the century-old Church of the Nativity.  But it was not a poet who was being honored so much as  “husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, father-in-law, friend, poet,” according to the program.

He was much loved.  About 150-200 friends and family came to the mass, with bluegrass guitar and bass fiddle performers Dennis and Ehlert Lassen singing “Amazing Grace” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Not necessarily what one would expect from the poems, with their bleak, spare mystery.

Surprisingly, everyone looked like they had come for the same event – the men were all in jackets and ties, and the women in somber suits and dresses. Banished were all traces of “California casual,” where some people look as if they had wandered in from the garden or the beach or a cocktail party.  Nor did there seem to be any poets on hand from the “Yvor Winters Circle” – but then, the room was crowded and I was in a back corner, and this was a very quiet death, after all.

The priest, referred to only as “Father Davenport,” recalled that Moore Moran, despite disability, was “always smiling” and “a good man.”

His son, businessman Mike Moran, said, “I never stopped amazing my dad, and my dad never stopped amazing me.”  The son, to put it mildly, was not a poet or lit freak.

His father taught the kids Latin and music, as well as Yvor Winters, John Steinbeck, and J.D. Salinger.  He was “an encyclopedia of jokes,” recalled his son.  And, in fact, the program included his poem “Just Joking,” written on his 51st birthday, when he had “maybe a third of a tank left”:

…the bewildered heart in us which,
Year by year, measuring our slim attainments
With mounting despair, still feeds
In its recesses some faint hope, despite
The certain knowledge that what it hopes for
Cannot change the tide…

“He was often lost in afterthought,” said his son.  “I’m certainly no poet, but I came to appreciate my father’s poetry.” He recalled the children’s hesitancy to have their father correct their writing, because “then we’d go back for another hour of writing.”

But sometimes dad came in handy.  Moran Jr. recalled a long discussion his father launched when the son was having trouble “getting” Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales.  The next day in class,  Moran Jr. performed the usual duck-and-hide with averted gaze, to avoid the teacher targeting him with a question.  The teacher targeted him anyway.

Thanks to his dad’s monologue, the so-so student poured forth with a reply “at a depth and level far beyond what my teacher had.”

The class was “absolutely stunned.  The whole room was silent,” he recalled.

“I was bumped up to AP English,” he said, and paused for only an instant. “That lasted about four days.”

On Moran’s memorial page at legacy.com, David Sanders wrote: “A gentleman and a fine poet. It was an honor to edit and publish his last book.”

“Just Joking,” with its rambling style is nice, but my favorite Moran poems are quick and cryptic – like this one:

Ordinary Time in the Pews

Church of the Nativity, Menlo Park

Ordinary days again.
Advent, Pentecost are past;
who now will accept our sins,
raise the dust in which we’re cast?

Cold the God flesh on the tree,
banned the crèche to attic murk,
sheer the silence after prayer.
Nothing seems at all to work.

Yet we try and try again
serving Him we hardly know:
honk if you love Jesus, friend,
beeping blessings as we go.

Here we meet who, somehow, must
rescue meaning from the dust,
where betrayal’s kiss presents
our best hope of relevance.

PostscriptPatrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence has added a lovely tribute here.  “Earth only will find him cold.”

Postscript on 3/7: Looking online for others who remember Moore Moran, I found this mini-memoir from Peter Robinson.