1 Art & Apps
“All these years I haven’t been a laborer trying to be an artist or a steelworker trying to be an artist, you know. I was an artist trying to be all those other things.” So says, Ricky Syers, a musician and puppeteer who now makes his living on the street. And, who makes some really delightful puppets, including one in the likeness of his friend and sometimes co-performer, Doris.
While Syers’s art has a way of bringing people together, an installation in Batumi, Georgia, reflects on the ways that humans keep one another apart. The sculpture, “Man and Woman, ” by Tamara Kvesitadze is a pair of statues constructed of metal discs. Once a day, the two (who are said to be characters in a Kurban Said novel, Ali and Nino) move slowly toward each other, eventually passing through and moving away. (Independent)
Helpful (and humorous) painter Jennie Ottinger is making the work of being able to talk about the classics easier with her hand-lettered summaries and reimagined watercolor book covers. The paintings, featured recently at Huffington Post, are wonderful and whimsical; the summaries amusing. For instance, in her summary of Moby-Dick, Ottinger writes, “The captain, Ahab, has lost his leg in a row with a sperm whale. He has replaced it with one fashioned out of a whale jaw bone. DIY leg.” Or of Jane Eyre, “Then, out of the blue, [Mr. R.] proposes to Jane! ‘Who, me? I had no idea!’ It’s all very John Hughes. She accepts, of course, because she is the Molly Ringwald character. But it soon becomes clear why Ms. Bronte did not write 80’s teen movie screenplays…”
2 News & Opinions
Ottinger handled Dostoevsky in her summaries, with an iteration of Crime and Punishment. While Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany didn’t produce any watercolors for Dostoevsky, he does paint a beautiful picture of the way that literature is “a tool for human understanding, ” contemplating a scene in The House of the Dead, which portray’s the author’s years in a Siberian labor camp, and the torture he experienced. In The Atlantic, Al Aswany describes a scene in the novel in which a prisoner is dying:
As he dies, another criminal stands watch before his bed, and he begins to cry. We must not forget that these are people who committed terrible crimes. The narrator describes how a soldier was looking at him because he was crying for another prisoner. And the prisoner says:
He, also, had a mother.
‘Also’ is the important word in the sentence. This man committed crimes. He was not useful to the society. He did terrible things. But he is also a human being. He also had a mother like we have. To me, the role of literature is in this ‘also.’ It means we’re going to understand, we’re going to forgive, we’re not going to judge. We should understand that people are not bad, but they can do bad things under particular circumstances.
How many books is too many for an author to publish? Stephen King, who has himself published more than 55 novels (one of which he started and finished in a week), suggested in an op-ed at the New York Times that there’s no such thing as too many, and that to suggest that an author not write so many, when the stories are there waiting to be told, is to raise the worry of John Keats’s poem that reads, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain …” The worry, according to King, is that it will be a loss to the world if such prolific writers as himself and Joyce Carol Oates and James Patterson and others were to hold back. Drew Nellins Smith suggests in a response at The Millions that while that might be true, the end result ends up a wash, since the books are lost to us who haven’t the capacity to read as many books as our favorite authors might be able to write. A spirited discussion, both great reads.
(As an aside, in the event that you would like to keep up with your favorite prolific author(s), you might find some help in this article, 5 Strategies for Prolific Reading, written by our editor Glynn Young who, after naming the books he read last week—”a biography of Gino Bartoli, the Italian cycling champion; two novellas by noir detective writer Dashiell Hammett; three books of poetry; a children’s novel; and a book about a mission project in Uganda”—commented that it was a “slow week for reading.”)
So, one of the things that is commonly held in publishing circles as helpful for book sales is to win, or to be long- or short-listed for an award. And, one would think, the more prestigious the better. But when the Man Booker and National Book Awards long lists were published recently, it put the spotlight on the not so lively state of book sales, even for top tier authors like one might find in contention for these awards, with only one of the books selling in six figures, and most in the single thousands or less. So one thing leads to another and the next thing we know, according to an article at NPR, we’re all looking at the Authors Guild survey which revealed that “more than half the respondents earned less than $11, 670 (the federal poverty level) from their writing related income.” Of course, this figure includes both those who are full- and part-time writers. But either way, it’s a 30% drop in author income since the group’s last survey in 2009, thanks to an economically volatile cocktail of market factors.
4 Poetry at Work
It seems that some good folks in Melbourne, Australia, have given new life to the moniker “tree hugger, ” which was once used to disparage someone who cared a little more about nature than his neighbor would have liked. The city, hoping to create a simple process for residents to make them aware of problems with trees (like disease or branches dangerously in need of a trim), assigned ID numbers and email addresses to the trees. Simple enough. See an issue, tap off an email to the city. But the project took an unintended, but delightful, turn when residents (and even a 350-year-old White Oak on a farm in Mississippi ) started emailing personal messages to the trees themselves. And then, the trees started answering (seems the trees are smart, and have a snappy sense of humor, too).
The Atlantic has published a few of the letters, including this excerpt from a letter to Algerian Oak, No. 1032705:
Thank you for being so pretty.
I don’t know where I’d be without you to extract my carbon dioxide. (I would probably be in heaven) Stay strong, stand tall amongst the crowd.
Academia Obscura recently featured tweets written for the #AcademicNurseryRhymes hashtag, which is an amusing little collection that speaks (in nursery rhymes) for itself.
Cognitive bias is this pesky little thing that humans do where we think we are acting in rational, logical way, but really, because our brains have developed shortcuts to processing information, we often act in error. Business Insider has put together a helpful graphic illustrating 20 common cognitive biases that “screw up your decisions.” Like, Clustering Illusion, “the tendency to see patterns in random events” or Confirmation Bias, how “we tend to listen only to information that confirms our preconceptions.” Check the list out, and see which biases might be getting in the way of your creative process.
Now, “the tendency to see patterns in random events” can be a cognitive bias when it prevents you from making good decisions. But in other cases, finding the connections between things that don’t seem to be related can be a helpful way of jump-starting your creativity. So says Copyblogger, in an article suggesting this and two other ways to boost creativity.
We had a conversation here a few weeks ago about what makes a writer “a writer.” And we had another conversation after that about priorities and routines and whether it is essential to “write every day.” Novelist Daniel José Older helps us out in a piece at Seven Scribes in which he encourages writers not to write every day, but to find their own way:
Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way. Finding our path through the complex landscape of craft, process, and different versions of success is a deeply personal, often painful journey. It is a very real example of making the road by walking. Mentors and fellow travelers can point you towards new possibilities, challenge you and expand your imagination, but no one can tell you how to manage your writing process.
Still, it seems, there is a school of writerly thought that says there is such a one way to do it, and this can create a sense of frustration and shame for the writer who doesn’t feel like she’s attaining that standard. Older has a word of encouragement for that writer, and it begins before the writing:
Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns it to being a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation. I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it. My body unclenches; a new lightness takes over once that burden has floated off. There is room, now, for story, idea, life.
In a different take (though it needn’t be seen as an opposing view, as Older’s own work certainly doesn’t suggest that he favors a lack of effort), author and Atlantic columnist Ta Nahesi Coates talks in this video about the pressure he brings to bear on himself to reach a creative breakthrough. He considers writing an “act of physical courage” and speaks pointedly about the way in which we might never quite be satisfied that what we had in our head is what we’ve written on the page.
One of the best things about poetry is its images, particularly those that you might never have found yourself contemplating otherwise. For instance, can you see “rain’s lonely sopranos” in your mind’s eye? Or hear the sound of “a mere lisp of dried flowers in the wind”? This poem by Jennifer Militello is a marvelous example of the way that a poem can do its work whether or not you actually “get” what it’s trying to say (or not to say.)
Answering Fear as if It Were a Question
I first saw all the tiny murders in rain,
all the wartime verses: rain leading children
into the classroom of looking, into
the being afraid. Rain chipping its way
into the apple trees, into the mouths of rivers.
Stop, says the hypnosis. I cannot stop.
I’ve been thinking slivers of loneliness into
a handsewn shroud, thinking my toy heart
to ticking. Lying in bed at night, rain’s
lonely sopranos open in the palm like swimmers,
a mere lisp of dried flowers in the wind.
All the verbs are ceaseless dioramas
of its wounds. Last night, the raindrops
opened where I felt my mouth, into
flesh-electric briars that said, breathe in.
This dark bulb being born is your sight.
Let it trample you beyond all recognition.
Last night, I dreamed for the first time since.
I dreamed in concrete. I dreamed in wool.
I must have slept for years.
— Jennifer Militello, author of Flinch of Song
The World Series just ended sadly for the Mets, joyously for the Kansas City Royals. That’s baseball, for those of you who are less sports inclined. Ever hear the one about how Allen Ginsberg read a poem at Candlestick Park before a Giants game? And, despite his claim that he’d never been in a ball park before “except to see the Rolling Stones, ” he threw out a perfect first pitch. Meanwhile, cranky Giants fans booed the poet. At SF Gate, Peter Hartlaub says that the fans in the stadium that day in 1994 owe Allen Ginsberg “an apology in the afterlife. The dude is one of the greatest poets of his generation, prevailed in a key First Amendment battle, was an out gay man in the 1950s and threw a strike while wearing a pocket protector. There should be a statue of him throwing that pitch right next to Willie Mays.”
Since we’re still talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates (yes, no, we’re not; we’re talking about Allen Ginsberg), here’s his reading list, compiled by the New York Public Library based on a talk Coates recently delivered at the Schomburg Center. If you ever wonder how a writer comes to think or write in a particular direction, much could be said about reading the things that writer reads.
9 Reading and Teaching
Do you ever wonder if you are actually from a novel? I mean, do you ever feel like some author developed you as a character, set you in motion in his plot, and then somehow or other, a reader turned the page on a particularly windy day and you blew out of the story and you’ve been trying to navigate life in a real-as-real-gets non-fiction world ever since.
No? Me neither. But apparently some folks must feel this way, as The Toast publishes a series called How to Tell if You’re in a Novel. Recently, they ran a piece on How to Tell If You’re in an Edward Gorey Book. Now, if it were me, I think I’d be able to tell if I were living life surrounded by the Gashlycrumb Tinies without needing a checklist. But for those who live life a little more obliviously, and also happen to be in a Gorey novel, there’s help. For instance: “Your personal style can best be described as ‘librarian up to no good.'” Or, “As you understand it, the ideal place for a large statue or urn is the most precarious ledge in your home.” And finally, “You’ve seen a ghost once or twice, but neither time were you particularly impressed.” (And if you really think you are from an Edward Gorey book, then be sure to check our tour of the Edward Gorey House and see what happened when the Edward Gorey cats took on the Cape Cod Trail.)
Assuming you’re not actually living in a novel where any number of unrealistic personal finance plans might await, you probably recognize the need to earn a living for yourself. And so we find ourselves in the midst of the liberal arts education debate once again. Here’s something to think about. While young adults are often encourage to bypass their passions and go for the fields where the good jobs are (which for the sake of the argument are not going to be the same thing), what would you say if I (or rather, SUNY philosophy professor Jennifer Uleman) told you that by mid-career, an awful lot of those philosophy majors are making more money than the folks who got their degrees in accounting? Uleman writes a great article on the ways that a liberal arts education, true to its name, makes those who possess it free.
10 Sound ‘n Motion
I have some trouble reading Emily Dickinson, in part because I can’t ever quite get a feel for the meter, whatever it happens to be. So that the late David Blair set Dickinson poems to music, and to what feels a little like an old spiritual to boot, seems like a real treat. Enjoy this adaptation of “Farewell” featured at Brain Pickings.
This is not iambic pentameter, nor dactylic hexameter. But maybe you can see in it the circular winding of the villanelle. (Or, you can see it for just what it is. A beautiful video of donuts, in slow motion.)
We’ll make your Saturdays happy with a regular delivery of the best in poetry (and poetic things_. Need a little convincing? Enjoy a free sample.
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