Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“Get in the dumpster with the hat and the dog.” And Ferlinghetti did.

Thursday, February 25th, 2021
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Photographer Margo Davis and the late poet-activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday, Feb 22, at 101, go back a long way. From about 1969 to 1970, she rented a downstairs apartment at the City Lights founder’s “classic red” house on Wisconsin Street, in the Potrero Hills district of San Francisco.

She was building her career as a photographer. The local celebrity was a natural subject. She wanted him to use the sombrero that was hanging in his house for a photo. Ferlinghetti told her he wanted the picture to include his dog Homer. “Get into the dumpster with the hat and the dog!” said the photographer. And so he did. This is the result.

Eventually, he sold the house, but she remembered one more story about him from those long-ago days. Davis’s then-husband, Professor Gregson Davis, taught Latin and classics at Stanford. One day Ferlinghetti burst in with a magnifying glass and a dollar bill. “Can you translate this dollar?” he asked. What did he want translated? E Pluribus Unum. What else?

Postscript: Margo Davis reminds me that there is also Latin on the other side of the dollar bill, around the pyramid with the eye. If I had a dollar bill in the house I’d run and check.

And another postscript, this time from Gregson Davis, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Duke University: On the reverse of the dollar bill there are two Latin citations above and below the pyramid: annuit coeptis (top) and novus ordo seclorum (below).  The latter is an allusion (not an exact quote) to Vergil’s 4th Eclogue: “A new order/cycle  of ages”.  I put Lawrence on to the Eclogues, which he had never read, and he immediately began composing a poem, originally called “The Nixon Eclogues,” but later published as “Tyrannus Nix.”  By the way, the top citation (which is loosely translated as “he favors our beginnings”) is inscribed in very large letters on the dome of the Capitol.  In one of the vivid mages that captured moments of the insurrection, an intruder can be seen hanging by one hand from the architrave directly under the large letters: ANNUIT COEPTIS. Ironies galore!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s editor remembers: “it was a thrill to get to work on his stuff.”

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021
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For his 100th: a poet reading outside Caffe Trieste (Photos: Regan McMahon)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is dead at 101. As someone said on Facebook, we thought he would go on and on – like Keith Richards. Many voices have been heard today memorializing the City Lights legend, but one aspect of the poet’s career has been forgotten: he once wrote a regular column for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was during the time David Kipen was the valiant book editor of the paper’s book section … back in the days when it had a standalone book section, and back in the days when I was writing for the section regularly, too. David signed up the poet and activist to write some time after Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco Poet Laureate in 1998.

Former Deputy Editor Regan McMahon (now books editor at Common Sense Media) remembers: “I was privileged to get to edit the column Ferlinghetti wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Books section for a while. Loved when he’d reminisce about his early days in San Francisco in the early ‘50s. A man of integrity, artistic vision, and wit. City Lights has always been a touchstone. Think how many travelers saw Ferlinghetti’s bookstore as a destination and walked away with a book of poetry. That alone should earn him sainthood.”

“I had to fret over it coming in late, as I recall. I basically copyedited it, and of course wanted to let his voice shine through, even if I had to make a few schoolmarmish fixes. He took ’em in stride. I forget how long he wrote for us or how or why it ended. I think he got tired of meeting deadlines. But the pieces were full of charm, wit, and wisdom. And it was a thrill to get to work on his stuff.”

She also remembers “the great day we had in North Beach for his 100th birthday celebration in 2019.” And she took some photos.

“Slid by Caffe Trieste, where a poet was reading outside on the sidewalk, natch, then walked down to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store, a family tradition.”

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Is Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” America’s Shakespeare?

Monday, February 22nd, 2021
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Bet I got your attention with that headline. But the argument is not mine, but rather made by Howard Sherman over at The Guardian here.

Here’s what he says:

“It may sound fulsome but I’m prepared to take a leap and suggest that Our Town is very likely on its way to being America’s first Shakespearean play. I’m not speaking of its language or scale, but rather the likelihood that it’s going to remain in the international repertoire for more than a hundred years – and beyond.”

He continues: “Our Town has lasted as one of the most produced US plays in the global modern repertoire. This is not for its statement on the American character or as a flag-waving paean to a simpler time, but because its true concerns transcend the specifics of turn-of-the-20th-century Grover’s Corners, where the play is set. That’s quite surprising for a play with a rather slim plot and no conventional conflict, which alternates between long narrated passages and select scenes of two families in small-town New Hampshire.”

I’ve always argued that the 1938 play has been consistently underrated. Too many low-budget high school productions, too many amateur performers. Thornton Wilder was a sophisticated man, at home in Shanghai and Rome. Gertrude Stein‘s The Making of Americans (1925) and Dante‘s Pugatorio inspired his writing of the play.

More radical than people remember.

An excerpt:

“That’s because the play is about mortality, about the brevity of human life and Wilder’s charge to the audience to appreciate what they have while they have it. It’s not about stoves and walls. For a play that many remember for its sweet romantic scene with two teenagers in Act II, or for the homespun charms that clung to it for so many years, this is a play that starts talking about death in its first few paragraphs, giving way in its third act to a scene of the aftermath of a tragedy from an atypical perspective.

“I spent 18 months conducting more than 100 interviews with theatre artists for a book about the play and it felt like I’d been running an Our Town focus group. Given the conventional wisdom that the play is old hat, I was surprised to find how many of the people I interviewed, in the US and the UK, either had already fallen for its message – or, in roughly equal number, had never previously seen or read the play, yet had formed definite and typically dismissive opinions about it. However, after working on a production, everyone seemed ready to proselytise others into the fold of Our Town.

“For a play as seemingly simple and plotless, there are depths to plumb in how to approach the play. Wilder may have written explicitly about what he wanted audiences to learn but he didn’t provide a precise map of how to get there. The largest role in the play is a narrator called only the Stage Manager, who has no personal story or even identifying details of character. We see mostly minor events in the lives of a few primary people. And yet, if one looks closely, topics like the extermination of indigenous peoples and immigration from eastern Europe are fleetingly recognised in a very homogeneous town, and the march of technology is transforming people’s lives.”

Read the whole thing here. Make your rejoinders in the comments section below.

Novelist Carol Edgarian comes home to Stanford for Another Look’s Feb. 26 discussion of “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game.”

Thursday, February 11th, 2021
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Carol Edgarian: “a remarkable writer of intelligence and compassion.”

Stanford’s Another Look book club will hold its long-postponed discussion honoring author William Kennedy, a Pulitzer-prizewinning, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, at 3 p.m. (PST) on Friday, February 26. The Zoom event is free and open to the public – register HERE. Read more about the event here.

The discussion will be led by National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, with panelists Carol Edgarian, novelist and a founding editor of Narrative Magazine, and Robert Pogue Harrisonan acclaimed author and host for the popular radio series, Entitled OpinionsWolff and Harrison are, respectively, the founding and current directors of Another Look.

Edgarian is a newcomer to Another Look, but no stranger to Stanford. She graduated from the university in 1984 – so she’ll have a Zoom homecoming with the Another Look event. Amy Tan, another celebrated local author, called her “a remarkable writer of intelligence and compassion.”

Her newest book, Vera, will be out on March 2 with Scribner. It’s a novel set against the 1906 San Francisco earthquake,

It’s already getting praise: “A novel of resilience in the face of disaster, just what we need right about now,” wrote fellow novelist T.C. Boyle. “Edgarian’s tale couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Her previous books include the New York Times bestseller Three Stages of Amazement and the international bestseller Rise The Euphrates, winner of the ANC Freedom Prize.  Her work has been described by The Washington Post as notable for its “generosity of spirit, intelligence, humanity, and finally ambition.”  

Her articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and W, among many others. But she is perhaps best known as co-founder of the Narrative (www.NarrativeMagazine.com), which publishes fiction, poetry, and art. It also sponsors Narrative in the Schools, which provides free libraries and writing resources for teachers and students around the world. Over the years, the online magazine has published  Ann BeattieT. C. BoyleJoyce Carol OatesJayne Anne Phillips and our own Tobias Wolff.

“When we started the magazine,” she told Ron Charles of The Washington Post in 2014, “the thinking about online reading was that readers would not sit still for more than 1,000 words. We set about working against that grain, and from the first, we published long-form work: stories, novellas, novel serializations. One of the great things about digital publication, in our view, is that we can go long.”

To bring you up to speed on our upcoming event: Pulitzer prizewinning novelist William Kennedy has been called the Bard of Albany, but he began his career as a reporter. After a stint in the military and in Puerto Rico, he returned to his hometown, and saw the city of his birth with new eyes: “Without a sense of place, you don’t, as a writer, have very much. Place is all those forces of a given society impinging upon and determining character. Without it, a book becomes bloodless.”

Tobias Wolff will lead the discussion

Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game belongs to William Kennedy’s celebrated Albany sequence of novels. According to Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, “Set during the Depression, it concerns a young gambler and bookie, the Billy of the title, who suffers a setback that compels him to embark on an odyssey – and I use that word advisedly – through the demimonde of his city, during which he encounters temptations and dangers that test his resolve to the limit. There are gangsters, there is a kidnapping, but at its core this novel is about character, and what this man will do and endure to preserve his honor.”

Like all our events, it is free and available to the public. Register HERE, and welcome Carol Edgarian back to Stanford … virtually speaking.

Regina Derieva: a posthumous birthday, a new book of poems for the woman Brodsky called “a great poet”

Sunday, February 7th, 2021
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Brodsky to Derieva: “You are a great poet.”

Alexander Deriev  reminds me, “Today would have been the 72nd birthday of Regina Derieva. Сегодня Регине Дериевой исполнилось бы 72 года.” The Russian poet Regina Derieva, who died in 2013, would have been 72.  We’ve written about her death here, and her life and work here and here and here. Her papers are now held at Stanford Libraries. I wrote about her for the Times Literary Supplement here.

Her epistolary friend (they never met) Joseph Brodsky wrote to her in 1990: “There is a point – literally the point of view – which makes it all the same how one’s life is going, whether it is happy or nightmarish (for a life has a very few options).  This point is over the life itself, over the literature, and it becomes accessible by a ladder, which has only sixteen steps (as in your poem titled “I Don’t Feel at Home Where I Am”).  For a poem is composed of other things than life, and the making of verses offers more choices than life does. And the closer one is to this point, the greater poet he, or she, is. …

“You, Regina, are indeed this case – a great poet. …The real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself. For a long time, I have not seen anything on a par with your poetry either among our fellow countrymen or among the English-speaking poets. And I can guess more or less – I can hear – what it cost you to reach this point, the point over the life and over yourself. This is why the joy of reading your poetry is also heartbreaking. In this poem, you exist in the plane where no one else exists, where no one else can help:  there are no kin and, a fortiori, there are no equal to you.”

The occasion of her birthday reminds me that I haven’t written about her new book, Earthly Lexicon: Selected Poems and Proseout with Marick Press a few months ago. Now is the perfect occasion for its Book Haven debut.

Many poets seem to have suffered a primal deprivation, for Derieva, it was her birthplace Odessa. As she writes in Quarter to Paradise (trans. Alex Cigale): “At so early an age, I was deprived of everything, all at once: the sea, the fruit gardens, the chestnuts and acacias, the alleyways and streets of Odessa. And I found myself in the Kazakh steppe. The wind there was always marauding, never allowing for a cultural layer to form on the barren spot. There was neither spring nor fall: with the end of the infernal winter began an infernal summer. It is not incidental that Stalin chose precisely this part of the country for his prison camps, where a human being had no time to live, thinking only of how best to survive … there, where fate offers to place its period.”

I haven’t had a chance to explore the volume fully, but so far her American poems are among my favorites, written during a brief sojourn in the States.

Below, two of them, translated by Alan Shaw:

WORCESTER, MA

A bird is crying out at dawn,
and at dusk grows still again:
“Little enough under the sun
have I and all my siblings seen.

“Golden sky at break of day,
growing azure towards the dark.
The voice is lost, which is to say,
time is emptiness’s mark.”

The voice fades out, just as if all
hint of bird were gone there too,
besides the readiness of a soul
to lose itself in heaven’s blue.

EAST NORWALK, CT

The hawk goes corkscrewing into the sky,
drawing with hard quill in three dimensions
on three-ply eternal paper his cry,
his whisper, a faithfulness that’s endless.

I see the whole thing, as the neighborhood darkens
and players come in from the playing field –
He cradles the ball like the nape of a girlfriend,
being so strong, and new, and thrilled

with this amorous ruckus, this game, this spat,
this trial and torture of wings, his calling.
The hawk drops down, having built his estate;
a heavy drop of sweat is falling.

Come then, since I have put lips into play,
search out and storm me, unleash a rushing
rain of heavy rough feathers; away,
you stoic of in- and exhalation,

historian of air, soul-striking lightning,
come, take me and lift me far out of sight
of the awful chance that an oath will be broken,
the secret be known of what madness can write.

(From Alexander Deriev on the photo above: “This photo of Regina was taken at the Karaganda TV studio sometime in the early 1970s. This was the only telecast of a series of poetic TV programs that Regina ever agreed to do. The program was devoted to Nikolay Zabolotsky who was forced to spend several years in Karaganda. The broadcast took place, but then the TV editor decided to claim authorship of the program and did not pay a dime to Regina. After this, Regina staunchly refused to participate in any TV projects.”)

Dana Gioia remembers a week with John Cheever at Stanford: “I was stunned by his voice.”

Monday, February 1st, 2021
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Cheever at Stanford, 1975 (Photo: Stanford News Service)

Poet Dana Gioia met John Cheever when the author was at a lowpoint of his literary reputation. His 1969 novel Bullet Park was received poorly, and a subsequent novel in 1973, The World of Apples, did not stop the decline. His work no longer appeared in The New Yorker. The occasion of the encounter was Stanford. Dana was a graduate student in Stanford’s Business School (he eventually became one of the few poets to have an MBA), and camped out in “FloMo,” more formally known as Florence Moore Hall. The occasion of Cheever’s arrival at campus was his son, who was thinking of enrolling at Stanford – and eventually did.

In his new book of recollections: Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoir’s from a Young Writer’s Life, the former National Endowments for the Arts chairman recalls his all-too-brief week with Cheever. “I was dazzled by his talk which could make a mortgage or a report card shimmer like a sacred script.”

The book, published by Paul Dry Books, has the distinction of being one of the few books ever to go into a third printing before it was officially out, thanks to pre-orders. 

A couple excerpts:

“Although Cheever looked exactly like his dust jacket photographs, three things surprised me. First, he was so small. For some reason, probably connected with my mental images of his fictional protagonists, I had expected a magisterially tall Yankee gentleman. Instead I met a slight, boyish man who stood only a few inches over five feet. Second, Cheever was the most perfectly poised man I had ever met. Every gesture was so graceful that he scarcely seemed part of the clumsy everyday world. Even the way he sat still seemed as carefully composed as a portrait. Not that his presence was dramatic; just the opposite was true. His manner was relaxed and understated. Nevertheless he had a style that captivated one’s attention the way a great actor can steal a scene without speaking a word. Finally, I was stunned by his voice.

“Cheever spoke a brand of patrician Massachusetts English that I know suspect he invented, for I have never heard anyone else speak quite like it. Nevertheless, he used this suave, fictive dialect so convincingly that in his voice it carried the force of ancient authority. I had talked to men funnier or wiser than Cheever, more inventive or intelligent, more perceptive or likeable, but I had never met anyone who possessed all these qualities so generously in such deft balance. His wasn’t the pedestrian balance of an earnest earthbound mind but the equilibrium of an acrobat.”

***

“He had never bothered to grow old. He still seemed more bright young man than sagacious patriarch. No one who met him that week would have guessed his full age.

“As his staff host, I expected to see little of Cheever after taking him to lunch the first day. To my astonishment, I spent most of the next week with him. He had arrived at Stanford with the best of intentions but the vaguest of plans. Since [his son] Fred was busy following his friends, his father had nothing to do except wait several days for a hastily arranged class visit and public reading. Cheever knew no one at Stanford, and the people who might have sought him out were mostly unaware he was on campus. He accepted his idleness and neglect without comment.

“For the next few days, Cheever just hung around Flo Mo, treating this large, spider-shaped complex like a resort hotel. He lingered over meals until the last student left and then sat in one of the run-down and usually deserted lounges. Whenever I returned from classes, I would find hi sitting by himself smoking in one of the huge Naugahyde chairs. He agreed to almost any suggestion I made – a walk, a drive, a visit. Eventually I gave him a key to my room so he could borrow books or listen to records when I was in class. …

So much about Cheever surprised me. First, I remember his modesty as a writer. He did not lack self-esteem, but it was tempered by his recognition of the immensity of the writer’s task. Having already met a few self-absorbed literary mediocrities, I found John’s humility before his vocation pure and unaffected. It was a kind of innocence. He was proud of what he had written but without pretension. He appeared unconcerned with posterity, which he claimed would take no note of him. What he valued was his relationship with his audience.

The book also includes a 21-page interview with Cheever, never before published in full. The Q&A was recorded by Michael Stillman, who died last month, with Stillman, Dana Gioia, and writer Millicent Dillon (formerly of the Stanford News Service) in conversation with Cheever. 

Postscript on 2/5: Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, comments on Facebook:   I was a freshman in college back in 1975, and got to have dinner with Saul Bellow and breakfast with John Cheever on the same weekend(!) This all happened because my older brother Dana, a grad student back at the time, was their informal host during their campus visits. I was 17 years old, and a freshman at Branner, while Dana was 23 and a first-year-student at the Stanford Business School. But Dana seemed to know everybody and be everywhere on the literary scene, even at that young age. He and I only had one class together, when we both took the same intermediate Italian language course. One day, Dana brought as his guest to the class Ezra Pound‘s daughter, the Princess Mary de Rachewiltz—how did he make these connections, and pull these things off? He’s just a student and he brings a princess to our class? It’s a grand mystery to me. I still don’t know he got me at the dinner table with Saul Bellow, when there were a thousand other people at Stanford who would have liked to have my seat. He just always seemed to be at the epicenter of everything and anything.

I can’t stress this too much: There is no substitute for seeing people up close who are operating at the highest levels of their vocation. And that’s true whether you are a poet, musician, novelist, painter, manager, cook, lawyer, or in any other profession. These experiences reveal possibilities in life you could not grasp in any other way.

 

At last! At last! Stanford spotlights William Kennedy’s “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” on Feb. 26!

Friday, January 29th, 2021
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The Bard of Albany, Irish-American author William Kennedy

It’s happening! It’s finally happening! At 3 p.m. (PST) on Friday, February 26, Stanford’s Another Look book club hold its long-postponed Another Look discussion honoring author William Kennedy, a Pulitzer-prizewinning, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Our event for the 1978 book was one of the early COVID casualties at Stanford last spring. Now it will be rescheduled as a Zoom event (isn’t everything nowadays)?

From our announcement:

Pulitzer prizewinning novelist William Kennedy has been called the Bard of Albany, but he began his career as a reporter. After a stint in the military and in Puerto Rico, he returned to his hometown, and saw the city of his birth with new eyes: “Without a sense of place, you don’t, as a writer, have very much. Place is all those forces of a given society impinging upon and determining character. Without it, a book becomes bloodless.”

According to Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, who will lead the discussion: Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game belongs to William Kennedy’s celebrated Albany sequence of novels. Set during the Depression, it concerns a young gambler and bookie, the Billy of the title, who suffers a setback that compels him to embark on an odyssey – and I use that word advisedly – through the demimonde of his city, during which he encounters temptations and dangers that test his resolve to the limit. There are gangsters, there is a kidnapping, but at its core this novel is about character, and what this man will do and endure to preserve his honor.”

The discussion will be led by National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, with panelists Carol Edgarian, novelist and founding editor of Narrative Magazine, and Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrisonan acclaimed author and host for the popular radio series, Entitled Opinions

Like all our events, it is free and available to the public. Register here.

And check out my Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Bill Kennedy, discussing his life and, in particular, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. An excerpt:

CYNTHIA HAVEN: Hemingway wrote: “Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.” It’s a thought you echo more than once in Billy Phelan, for example, when you write: “We are only as possible as what happened to us yesterday. We all change as we move.” You’ve said, “The movement is what creates the action, and the action is what creates the story” — which in turn creates more movement. Clearly, you’ve thought about this a lot. Could you share a few more thoughts?

WILLIAM KENNEDY: I must’ve been deeply persuaded by Hemingway’s lines to have lifted them without crediting him; but I always listened to what he said about writing. In The Angels and the Sparrows, I created Francis Phelan, a wino in his 30s, a clever, obnoxious loner returning home for his mother’s funeral (she kicked him out), who stops at a neighborhood bar for a beer and is hostile to the bartender. It was a good scene. He was a sad, broken young guy, but I disliked him seriously, even as I was creating him, and didn’t want to carry him forward.

Then, maybe 15 years later I started to write Billy Phelan and I reinvented the Phelan family. I had to get rid of Francis as that antipathetic young wino. He still had to be a bum, but I aged him into a tortured figure at the bottom of the world who was Billy’s father, and his life immediately became an open-ended challenge to my imagination. It turned out that he had abandoned his family 22 years earlier after his 13-day-old son, Gerald, slipped out of a diaper while he was changing him, fell off a table, broke his neck and died. In the fall of 1938, Francis drifts back to Albany to vote in a Democratic primary election, knowing the machine will pay him $5 for this; so he votes 21 times, earning $105, and is put in jail. Billy, the gambler, hears he’s in town and bails him out. The new Francis, after living through 16 years of shame and guilt over dropping the infant and running off, became a pitiable but likable human being. I don’t know where Gerald came from. There was no such incident in my life, nor can I remember hearing of one; perhaps I forgot it. But years ago I decided it was a gift from my unconscious, a fruitful one. In Billy, Francis was so vitally real that he leaped onto my typewriter and demanded his own novel. So I wrote Ironweed for him.

Again, register for the event here.

Alexei Navalny: “I am of sound mind. So if something happens to me, don’t believe it was suicide.” A smuggled message, a P.E.N. petition, as thousands take to the streets.

Saturday, January 23rd, 2021
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Demonstrations today in support of Alexei Navalny

Thousands took to the streets of Russia in anti-Putin demonstrations, and several thousand of them were arrested. The flashpoint is the recent arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with a nerve agent while traveling last August and barely survived. On his return to Russia a week ago, he was immediately detained by the government. A message was smuggled out of his detention center: “I am of sound mind. So if something happens to me, don’t believe it was suicide.” The petition below from P.E.N. in Moscow has been making the rounds, most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books:

Navalny arrested in 2017 (Photo: Evgeny Feldman)

We, the members of PEN-Club Moscow and the Free Word Association, in according with the principles formulated in the Charter of PEN-International — an obligation to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression — call for the Russian government to stop the persecution of Alexei Navalny under trumped-up and inadequate charges. The proclamations of the biggest Russian functionaries and politicians who called Navalny “a traitor, a turn-coat, and an agent of the US State Department,” testify to the fact that Navalny is being persecuted because of his civil actions and not because of any transgressions against the law. Firstly, these proclamations are in themselves an offense against the rule of law, being an extrajudicial accusation and, what’s worse, a call to lynching. Secondly, these texts make obvious the government’s real motivations and goals: an unprecedented pressure is being applied on civil society for the purpose of political manipulation.

War is being declared: not just on Navalny, but on the whole of Russian civil society. The actions of the power structures clearly express their barefaced desire to intimidate anyone who dares to criticize the existing regime. The moral atmosphere of the worst era in the history of our motherland is coming back.

We demand protection of the falsely accused and of the dignity of the country, which is humiliated and disgraced by the regime’s actions.

We demand freedom for Alexei Navalny!

The members of PEN-Club Moscow and the Free Word AssociationSt Petersburg PEN-Club, and other individuals have signed the petition, which has been translated by author and PEN-Club Moscow member Maria Rybakova.

From Twitter below. НЕ МОГУ ПЕРЕСТАТЬ СМОТРЕТЬ – “Can’t stop looking.”

Stanford poet, jazz saxophonist Michael Stillman: “Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work.”

Thursday, January 21st, 2021
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Mike Stillman and friend.

I learned of Michael Stillman’s long illness when Stanford Prof. Makota Ueda died last summer. The prominent haiku scholar was a critic and biographer of Japanese poets. But one link in the chain of connection leads to another: the Japanese professor was also a mentor and  inspiration for poet Michael Stillman, who died on Jan 12 at 80 years old, having survived the decade into 2021. Mike studied the haiku tradition under Ueda.

I had met Mike a dozen years ago at (of all places) Stanford’s  Archive of Recorded Sound. We quickly discovered we had a mutual friend in Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (and also a Stanford alum).  Mike was eager to show me his musical and literary preoccupations – as he wrote me: “not only the recordings project but the publications and activities associated with the Stanford Jazz Workshop and the Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics [a.k.a. CCRMA]. You may not be aware that I have published about twenty poems in prominent journals and textbooks, including “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which now appears in about seven anthologies, one of them edited by Dana Gioia and X. J. Kennedy. Also I’ve been making recordings of soprano saxophone jazz and duo performances with piano that you might like to hear.” He had his fingers in a lot of pies, to put it mildly. Our long-ago acquaintance was all-too-brief.

Dana has written a short remembrance for a poet he thinks should stick in the public memory longer:

The poet Michael B. Stillman was one of the truly talented poets I knew at Stanford back in the 1970s, though he gradually wandered away from poetry.  He was also a terrific saxophonist and a doctoral candidate in English. He never finished his dissertation on Charles Tomlinson.

Mike played sax in a jazz duet around the Bay Area with a guitarist, Tuck Andress. One night Tuck met and fell in love with Patti Cathcart to form the famous Tuck and Patti duo. Mike ended up in Las Vegas playing back-up for rock bands. He had other jobs. He and his wife Sally helped run the Montalvo Arts Center and the Djerassi Foundation. They never stayed anywhere too long; they were bohemians. At the time of Mike’s death they were living in rural Washington. Mike was still playing music professionally. (He lived to see their sixtieth wedding anniversary.)

At Stanford Mike worked on a dissertation under Donald Davie. In the familiar manner of graduate students, he did everything but write it. He was house master of Branner Hall. He played jazz at Ironworks on El Camino. He recorded visiting speakers at Stanford.

His tapes are now in the Stanford Library. He even issued a series of superb long-playing records of poets and novelists reading their works. This series documents many of the best writers the Stanford community has produced– such as Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, N. Scott Momaday, J.V. Cunningham, and Donald Davie. He also captured visiting writers, including Adrienne Rich and John Hawkes. Each LP had a fine short essay about the writer on the back cover.

Many fingers, many pies. (Courtesy Sally Stillman)

He also recorded an interview I did with John Cheever that was published in a short form in Sequoia. The full version appears in my book of literary memoirs, Studying with Miss Bishop. I sent him an early copy.

At Stanford Mike studied with the haiku scholar Makoto Ueda. He used to carry Ueda’s anthology, Modern Japanese Haiku around with him as his personal vademecum. Mike began to write almost entirely in haiku for several years. He produced a remarkable book of haiku, An Eye of Minnows, which I actually reviewed for the Stanford Daily in 1976. He did something remarkable with the form.

He used the haiku as a stanza for lyric poems–keeping its imagistic structure but allowing it to form larger units of meaning. The book, now completely forgotten, was remarkable.

I have consistently anthologized one of Mike’s poems, which has been picked up by quite a few other editors over the years. Here is the sort of work that Stillman once did. Like so many multi-talented people, he couldn’t focus on one thing for too long. Each stanza is a haiku. I was glad to lodge one of his poems into public memory.

In Memoriam John Coltrane

Listen to the coal
rolling, rolling through the cold
steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the
turning of the wheels this night
black as coal dust, steel

steel, listen to
these cars carry coal, listen
to the coal train roll.

Jazz duo Tuck & Patti (Photo: Thisisshun)

As a poet, Mike has been forgotten by the world. Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work. He wrote a great deal of fine poetry which has never been collected in books.

Postscript: Jazz scholar Ted Gioia also shared a story about Michael Stillman, elaborating on the jazz duo: “Michael was responsible for the famous husband-and-wife- jazz duo Tuck and Patti meeting—when he hired guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart for his band. Years later Tuck and Patti were not just a married couple but a hit musical act, with their debut album on the Windham Hill record label rising to the top of the jazz radio airplay chart. Mike might have shared in that success, because he wrote lyrics to a jazz song that they recorded for the album. But at the last minute the track had to be dropped from the album because the estate of the composer refused to give permission. Without rights to the song, Tuck and Patti couldn’t feature Mike’s lyrics. I can’t help thinking this was emblematic of Mike Stillman’s career—he was involved in so many seminal creative pursuits, but almost always behind the scenes, and getting very little credit himself.”

Ismail Kadare: how life is like a dream, and nightmares are just like life.

Monday, January 18th, 2021
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“Kadaria” – a land where the weather is always awful.

I missed the news last October:  Ismail Kadare has been awarded the Neustadt Prize for Literature, often considered a precursor for the Nobel. The award came to my attention because of Princeton’s David Bellos’s article in the current issue of World Literature Today. Why should we read the Albanian writer? Here’s why, he says:

If you read Ismail Kadare, you also cover all the ages since the invention of script: from Cheops building the Great Pyramid to arguments over the succession of Enver Hoxha in 1980s Albania, and on to events and situations that take place in western Europe after the fall of communism.

The largest number of Kadare’s stories are set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Broken April takes place in the 1930s, Chronicle in Stone in the 1940s, The General of the Dead Army in the 1950s, Agamemnon’s Daughter in the 1970s. These tales allow you to read the history of Albania—and of the world—through the prism of fiction. That’s one good reason why you should read Kadare, and why I love to do so. He has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form.

Kadare has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form. …

One of the most striking and constant features of Kadare’s world is the looming presence of certain myths from ancient Greece: not the whole of Greek mythology, but those myths that dramatize family hatreds and the intoxicating, corrupting, and fearsome effect of proximity to power.

The second thing that is always present in Kadare are Balkan folk tales. I call then “Balkan” rather than simply Albanian because these folk tales exist in many other languages of the region as well. Indeed, Kadare dramatizes precisely this question of the ethnic origins of Balkan cultures in The File on H, one of the most entrancing of his tales, based on the historical exploits of American folklorists in the Albanian borderlands in the 1930s.

The third dominant feature I want to mention is that Kadare explores in almost every one of his stories the relationship between the personal and the political. Not politics in the sense of topical or party-political issues, but politics in the broadest sense, that is to say, how groups and individuals manipulate others and exercise power over them.

Another characteristic of the world of Ismail Kadare—let’s call it Kadaria—is the weather, which, as others have said, functions almost like a character in its own right. The weather in Kadaria is always ghastly, and it makes the climate of Scotland seem by comparison as balmy as the Italian Riviera. As a reader, you quickly catch on to the almost comical dimension of Kadare’s climatic notations (fog, drizzle, rain, snow, cold, cloudy), since Albania’s climate is in fact more like the Italian Riviera than the banks of Loch Lomond. They are not plausible settings of any actual scene, but key signatures to the mood, which tells you that this is not going to be a happy story. But they do much more than that: they tell you that there are not going to be any blonde maidens sitting astride gleaming tractors bringing in the sun-ripened harvest of grain, and that the work will have no truck with the norms imposed on Albanian literature by Soviet doctrines of socialist realism. It is really a very sly way of carving out a uniquely critical position within a society where criticism was, shall we say, seriously underappreciated.

Many of Kadare’s human characters are often not sure whether they are awake or asleep. Typical introductions to the inner lives of protagonists begin: “it seemed to him that . . . ,” “he wasn’t quite sure whether . . . ,” and so on. The borderline between being able to see clearly and not being able to see clearly is never clear-cut. So that when you have finished reading a novel, whether it is the retelling of a legend like The Ghost Rider or a quasihistorical reconstruction like The General of the Dead Army, you are not quite sure whether you’ve had a dream or not. Kadare constantly nudges us toward doubting the difference between waking and dreaming, and makes us reflect on the ways in which life is like a dream, and in what way nightmares are just like life.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 1/20 from Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and NEA chairman: “What wonderful news that Kadare won the Neustadt Prize for Literature, one of the great international awards. He is such a powerful writer. Once I read “The General of the Dead Army,” I knew I was in the presence of a great novelist. I went on to read half a dozen other books. But I probably wouldn’t have read him at all had not one of my sons given me a copy of the book. Kadare remains too little known in the U.S. I keep hoping he is better known in Stockholm.”