Archive for August 30th, 2011

Maxine Hong Kingston: Not scared of poetry

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

But does she understand men? (Photo: David Shankbone)

Maxine Hong Kingston decided a few years back that she preferred writing poetry to prose.  “No more big, full dramatic scenes,” she explained to a Middlebrook Salon gathering on Sunday in Palo Alto.

The most recent result is “a book-length book about me” – I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, published in March.  There are downsides to doing poetry, she said.  Publishers don’t like it.

“They’re scared of poetry.  Poetry doesn’t sell.”

“They insisted on calling it a memoir,” she said.  “But I don’t think that’s right.  A memoir remembers the past. I am remembering the future.”  Her book discusses “how we accumulate and lose time.”

The silver-haired author was competing with sunlight.  The conversation and reading took place on Marilyn and Irv Yalom‘s lawn, a lush green setting for the drone of the hummingbirds and the plashing of an unseen fountain on the beautiful August late afternoon.  (I wrote about the dedication of the Diane Middlebrook Memorial Residence here.)

Clearly, times have changed. Maxine recalled the days when finishing a manuscript meant hopping on a plane to New York, and meeting her publisher face-to-face to hand it over.  After some time he would finish reading it.  She would hope on a plane back to New York.  The publisher would have marked the manuscript with scores of post-its.  They would go through the manuscript page by page.

Then there was the terrible day in 1979 when her publisher met her and said, “Well, my dear, I’m afraid this book is a failure.”

“You don’t understand men,” he told her.

By bus, she returned back to the friends’ apartment where she was staying. They had arranged a party to celebrate the new book with champagne.  Instead, she sat down to her IBM Selectric as the others partied.  She wrote a new scene for her revised book.

One of the people at that party – an actor named Earl – was on hand to read the chapter with her that night.

The book, China Men, was published in 1980.

Maxine said the New York Times called it a “virtually perfect book.”