Posts Tagged ‘Nick Owchar’

W.S. Merwin: “If something can’t be said, what do you do? You scream.”

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011
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"Famously handsome." (Photo: Dido Merwin)

Hat tip to Maureen Mroczek Morris for sending this Q&A with W.S. Merwin, former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer prizewinner.

In this interview with Nick Owchar of the Los Angeles Times, the poet talks about his friendship with Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.  He talks about that subject at more length in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, but here he talks about his relationship to technology, too:

Though Milosz is gone, can he still function as a mentor to other poets?

Oh, I think so, and I think every poet can do that. I still find myself reciting for pleasure, as I have ever since I was 18, [Yeats'] “Sailing to Byzantium” and hearing something in one of the lines that I didn’t hear before. You go on learning. What a great poem teaches you, and it’s not intellectual at all, is the resonance in the language that’s heard there. This goes back to the very origins of poetry and to the very origins of language. I think poetry is as old as language, and both come out of the same thing — an effort to try to express something that is inexpressible. If something can’t be said, what do you do? You scream. You make some terrible noise of pain or anguish or anger or something like that. You make a sound, an animal-like sound which, with time and society trying to calm you down, begins to take shape into something.

Is there still a place for this kind of primal expression in our wired-up culture?

I wonder, and I think one of the problems about so-called virtual reality — which is not even virtual and it’s certainly not reality either — is that homo faber ["man the creator"] is a creature who has made things that substitute for him doing them himself. These things may do them more conveniently, but they always atrophy his abilities to do them at all.

I’d guess that you probably don’t tweet.

No, and I don’t use email either.

Still a mentor

Yes, but convenience seems to be the answer to why we do everything now. I can’t believe it. That reminds me of something Czeslaw once said not to me but to [Milosz's wife] Carol. They were coming to stay with us on Maui, and our home isn’t easy to find. It’s a little remote, and you can’t see it from the road. Czeslaw told Carol, ‘Wherever we go to see William, I know one thing. It’s always going to be a little hard to get there, and there won’t be many other places around it.’ It’s true. All of the places I’ve ever loved in my life have been inconvenient, and that has been part of the beauty too, you know.

It’s the same with poetry. What about the student who asks, ‘Why do we need to memorize a poem when we can find it on the Internet?’ In other words, why should I have this experience when I can allow the computer to have it for me? That is one of the things that still makes me deeply suspicious.


The ongoing demise of the L.A. Times Book Review

Saturday, July 30th, 2011
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The “Incredible Shrinking Book Review Section,”  chapter 464:  this news from Publishers Weekly:

In a move as significant for its breadth as its implications for the future of book coverage, the Los Angeles Times book review laid off all of its freelance book reviewers and columnists on July 21.

Susan Salter Reynolds was with the Times for 23 years as both a staffer and freelancer and wrote the “Discoveries” column that appeared each week in the Sunday book review. She was told that her column was cancelled and will not be replaced by another writer. “I don’t know where these layoffs fit into the long-storied failure at the Times,” she said yesterday, “but these are not smart business decisions. This is shabby treatment.”

Four staffers remain in the book review section: David Ulin, Carolyn Kellogg, Nick Owchar, and [Jon] Thurber. In December 2009 the TimesTimes building.” Thurber did make an exception for Reynolds so she could come to the office to pick up the multiple review copies she received daily in order to produce her column.

In December 2009 the Times laid off 40 features writers, including Reynolds, but brought many of them back to work part-time. “We were paid about one-third of what we had been making, and lost our health insurance,” Reynolds says.

Reynolds nixed

Reynolds hadn’t quite finished having her say, and added in the comments section:  ‘There are probably ways to cut costs without eliminating a person’s entire income after twenty three years in one phone call. I offered to continue writing for very little money until things got better. Also the quote about continued commitment is insulting to readers’ intelligence. When I was laid off a year and a half ago I was assured by the editor of the book section that it was purely cost cutting and there would be no more hires. Next thing I knew he had become the book critic and then they hired a full time blogger one month later. I understand these are tough times but isn’t publishing a world in which expertise has some value?”

I remember writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review back in the days when it was under the visionary leadership of Steve Wasserman (and Tom Curwen, too, as the deputy book edior).  We’re not talking the neolithic period – we’re talking about within the past decade.  In my opinion, it was at that time the best book review in the country, with articles that were intelligent, innovative, cutting into the off-the-beat-track books that were going to influence our era, even if they didn’t make this year’s bestsellers list.

What a shame to see that legacy trashed.  By limiting itself to four writers, no matter how top-notch they might be, its isolating itself from the expertise that used to be its trademark.

Wrote Randy Rogers:  “Picking up my paper from the driveway this morning I looked at it and thought “If the LA Times gets any thinner I’m going to have to wait a few days just to have enough to line the bottom of a bird-cage.  Why am I still paying for this ghost of a rag?”