Monday, April 13, 2015

Like a Llama Through a Quipu Knot

“Hace tiempo me preguntaron quienes eran mis maestros, aun hoy lo tengo claro: Me educan todos los días personas anónimas.” / "Some time ago they asked me who my teachers were, even today it’s clear to me: The anonymous ones educate me every day."


 --Eduardo Galeano (3 September 1940 - 13 April 2015)

Nine years ago, Eduardo Galeano visited the Seattle Public Library. He leaned back in his chair to look up at us, hundreds of admirers, and said slowly, “In English they have called my book Voices of Time.” He paused and gave the barest hint of a shrug. “It is okay. The voices are the intimacy of trees, of rocks, of stones.”
Seward Park, Seattle, 2014, WLC

Several months later, I showed off Seattle’s famed Elliott Bay Book Company to Mark Fried, Galeano's translator, who brought Bocas del Tiempo’s 341 pages into Voices of Time (though he also disagreed with the English title). We hunted the bookstore for his book, finally finding it in the Biography section.

“Why is it here?” I wondered.

“That’s what the publisher wanted,” Mark said. “They decided they had to market it as a memoir.”

A what?

Because some of the entries are autobiographical, Mark explained to me. I suppose in some cosmic way that’s true. Galeano’s rich life (one truly well-lived) included many discussions with trees and rocks and stones; his mind seems to work on the scale of evolutionary time, taking in everything from blue-green algae to smart bombs. The book’s English subtitle, A Life in Stories–invented by the publisher, Henry Holtis slightly more accurate than the translated title. It’s only one letter off: the book is about life in general, not just one life.

Many of Voices of Time’s short, mostly true stories originally appeared in Latin American newspapers. I first encountered one in August 2000, in Mexico City’s La Jornada. Titled “The Shrimp,” its 175 words appeared on the front page. Es la hora de los adioses del sol. – “It’s the hour of the sun’s goodbyes,” it began, then concluded: “From the looks of them, no one would imagine that these whiskery creatures harbored such a poetic bent. But from the taste of them, any human would swear to it.” What the hell is that? I thought at the time. Still, I was impressed: a prose poem on the front page of a major, national newspaper. It was Galeano at his best, inserting art into quotidian life.  
Language lesson on Radio Huave,
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 2007, WLC


It is the quotidian, on the smallest and largest scales, that occupied Galeano. In his books, people with household names and people whose names no one ever knew are given equal time. For Galeano, they were equally important, equally ephemeral. Three moments from Voices of Time:

“Every afternoon, Paulo Freire snuck into the movie theater in Recife’s Casa Forte neighborhood to see Tom Mix.”

“There she was born, there she took her first steps. / When Rigoberta returned, years later, her village was gone. Soldiers had left nothing alive in what had been called Laj Chimel….”

“At noon, in a beer hall on the docks of Hamburg, two men were drinking and talking. One was Philip Agee, the former CIA station chief in Uruguay. The other was me.”

Only a handful of Bocas del Tiempo’s stories are about Galeano and even those are “about him” in the way that “Song of Myself” was “about” Walt Whitman.A 1942 anthology titled A Concise Treasury of Great Poems English and American From the Foundations of the English Spirit To the Outstanding Poetry of Our Own Time With Lives of the Poets and Historical Settings Selected and Integrated offers a few of the tamest lines from “Song of Myself,” noting that the critics of Whitman’s time “were revolted not only by Whitman’s use of the vernacular, but by his egotism. They failed to realize that Whitman’s ‘I’ was a symbol representing the common man and that, when he seemed to celebrate himself, he was celebrating all men.”
Times have changed (is there anything beyond the ‘I’ these days?), but the marketing staff for Voices of Time made the same mistake: they failed to realize that Galeano’s ‘I’ represented not himself, but all people.The first time I read Bocas del Tiempo, Whitman’s poem came to mind again and again. Reading Mark Fried’s translation and “Song of Myself” side by side, they braid together. 

I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Galeano begins by telling the reader, “We are made of time.” He goes on to explain, “Then one fine day, a day that lasted millions of years, some blue algae decided to turn green. And bit by tiny bit, the green algae begat lichens, mushrooms, mold, medusas, and all the color and sound that came later….”

A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
Like Whitman, Galeano understands the wisdom of children; he listens to the answers they give to questions no one bothered to ask them. A three-year-old girl – “a young researcher,” Galeano calls her – thinks about immigration and then declares: “Poor people are the ones they close the door on.”

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, …Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic.
Galeano decodes bits of the earth’s hieroglyphics for us, noting those individuals that have figured them out. He writes of the Shibo people, who “avoid drowning whenever the Ucayali River wakes up in a bad mood and rolls its white-capped waters inland over everything in its path.” How do they know? “Snails give warning. Before each calamity, they lay their eggs on tree trunks above the line where the water will crest. And they never get it wrong.”

Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
God does not appear often in Voices of Time, but when he does, it’s without reverence. On Christmas Eve a young child overhears her aunt, recently widowed, declare, “They say we have to love God. I hate him.”
Fishing lantern, San Francisco del Mar,
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 2003, Chris Treter


The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?
Galeano tells us about the U’wa people of the Samoré Mountains in Columbia, whose land was drilled over and again by Occidental Petroleum, to no avail. They couldn’t find the oil they had been sure was there. “The U’wa proved once more that the earth is not deaf. She heard their pleas…. In their language, U’wa means people who think.

Unlike Walt Whitman, Eduardo Galeano does not seem optimistic, though he’s surely hopeful. Both are eyes-wide at the wonder of the human spirit. But if Voices of Time (and perhaps, all of Galeano’s work) has an overarching theme, it’s a tsk tsk at the train wreck of modernity and a nod to those who (still) know better. In Voices of Time’s 160th story, “Are You There?”:

Two trains crashed into each other just outside London’s Paddington Station. / A fireman fought his way on board with an ax and stepped into a car tipped on its side. Through the smoke, which added fog to the fog, he could see passengers strewn about like mannequins smashed to pieces amid the splintered wood and twisted steel. His flashlight moved across the debris searching in vain for some sign of life. / Not a moan could be heard. Nothing broke the silence except the ringing of cell phones, calling and calling and calling, from the pockets of the dead.
And yet, as Whitman reminds us, The smallest sprout shows there really is no death. Galeano leaves us with this final line in his book: “Do birds announce the morning? Or by singing, do they create it?”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What It Is I Think I'm Doing, Anyway

 

 

"Tell Me About Your Creative Process..."


 ~ Fellow Seattleite and writer Susan Rich just published her fourth (bravo!) book of poetry, Cloud Pharmacy. (See the gorgeous cover to the right.) She invited me to be part of this “creative process interview blog tour.”


She is also the co-editor of the wonderful anthology The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders published by McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation (2013). You can download this book—which I recommend to all writers and travelers, poets or not—for free from the Poetry Foundation’s website. You can read about Susan’s current work and creative process on her blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen. She is the co-founder of a number of literary ventures in the Pacific Northwest, including the retreat / workshop Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women (with poet Kelli Russell Agodon) and Poet At Your Table
 


 Here goes!


1.    What am I working on?   

Because I’m a procrastinator, I always have multiple projects underway. (So I can work on a second project while I’m faithfully procrastinating on what I really ought to be doing.) 

Saw palmetto ~ Everglades
WLC ~ January 2013
 Project #1: Made in America: Four Corners of Life
 I am working on a book-length series of essays (personal, lyric, collage, etc…) about our national parks—specifically, the strange braid of patriotism, imperialism, and environmentalism that characterizes the U.S. national park system. You can read an excerpt of one essay at Guernica and the full essay (“Tilled Paths Through Wilds of Thought”) in an anthology (edited by Erin Elizabeth Smith) just out from Sundress Publications: Not Somewhere Else but Here. You can also order a chapbook of “Tilled Paths” right here, at my blog. (See the column to the right.) This series of essays is based on artist residencies I completed in five national parks. You can read about my Everglades residency at this Knight Foundation blog post
 
Project #2: Grief's Hidden Gifts
I’m (very slowly) writing a series of short nonfiction pieces (ranging from memoir to essay to poem-like-object) about grief and loss. This work was informed by artist residencies I completed in 2010 at Harborview Medical Center and American Antiquarian Society. You can read the first essay in Yes! magazine and the most recent piece (to be published, not to be written), a single poem, in Tanya Chernov’s lovely new anthology Burden of Light: Poems of Illness and Loss.   

19th century funeral announcement
American Antiquarian Society
 2.    How does my work differ from others in its genre?   

I must admit this question confounds me—the only answer that comes to mind is one that I received in a very kind rejection letter a couple of weeks ago. It was the thirteenth literary journal to reject this particular essay, which I had submitted for a special issue on “breaking boundaries” in creative nonfiction. The editor said the essay was “not unconventional enough for the special issue and not conventional enough for the regular issue.”  

That sounds about right.


3.    Why do I write what I do? 

I write out of deep sense of urgency over the many losses we are experiencing on this planet: cultural, human, linguistic, ecological. I write nonfiction because it seems to be all that I’m wired to write.


4.    How does your writing process work?  

Not very well, usually. OK, I’ll try and put a lighter spin on it:

Nighttime goldenrod ~ Ragdale prairie
Lake Forest, Illinois ~ WLC ~ 2009
I am a night person, but I write best when I first get up, so I try very hard to avoid obligations before 1:00 pm. Of course, that’s often impossible. But I do try. For reasons I still don’t understand, I put up enormous amounts of mental resistance to writing, so I try to trick myself into doing it. I love timed freewriting exercises, elaborate writing prompts, and deadlines. I carry my journal everywhere, so that I can’t ever accuse anyone of wasting my time. My time is my own to waste.

Or not.


I’m passing the virtual pen on this “blog tour” my friends, poets and educators Natalia Treviño (in San Antonio) and Anastacia Tolbert (Seattle). Check back for links to their blog posts. Thanks for reading!




Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More of the Best-Ever Writing on Writing



"Ten of the greatest essays on writing ever written."


 A few days ago, Flavorwire published another of its infamous lists. With that title. I don’t disagree that the essays listed are brilliant. I admire them all. Return to many of them often. But the list irritated me for several reasons. Greatest essays on writing ever written. Ten white authors? Only three women? Nothing written more than ninety years ago? Nothing in translation?

So I decided to whip together my own list. It’s the Year of the List, apparently, so I’d better get mine out there before 2013 races off and leaves me brushing its dust off my coatsleeves. 

I welcome your additions to:  

Wendy's Top Ten: Some of the Best-Ever Writing on Writing ~


"Art Positions," Marco Rountree, from Madrid, 
Art Basel, Miami Beach, December 2011
 #1) Gloria Alzaldúa's  How to Tame a Wild Tongue or, even better, “Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink” 

These lovelies are back to back in Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Spinsters/Aunt Lute Press, 1987)


#2) Aristotle's Poetics 

Like the slogan for Goddard College’s low-residency creative writing programs: “the first and still the best.” Yes, Poetics is composed of incomplete lecture notes; it was never intended for publication. But it was definitely the first. And we’ve not lived it down yet, two-thousand-three-hundred years later....

#3) Toni Cade Bambara's “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow” (1980) 

This lovely, energetic essay contains one of my all-time favorite quotes on writing:


“The greatest challenge in writing, then, in the earlier stages, was to strike a balance between candor, honesty, integrity, and truth—terms that are fairly synonymous for crossword puzzlers and thesaurus ramblers but hard to equate as living actions.” 

You can find it, and many other lovely essays on writing, in Janet Sternberg’s The Writer on Her Work (Norton, 2000)

#4) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” (1691) 


In which sor Juana defends women’s write to study, write and teach, in a letter to her bishop, all the while addressing him as señora, as if he were a nun. A shortened version of this revolutionary essay, translated to English by Margaret Sayers Peyden, appears in Peyden’s anthology Mexican Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press, 2007).

#5) Gabriel García Márquez's brilliant 1981 interview with a (rather underinformed and badly outmatched) Paris Review interviewer

In spite of being asked terribly dull questions, with his then-teenaged son pressed into service as English-Spanish interpreter, García Márquez comes up with gems like this:
“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved.”

"Art Positions," Marco Rountree, from Madrid,
Art Basel, Miami Beach, 2011
#6) Walt Harrington's recreation of Rita Dove creating a poem, published by the Washington Post in 1995 as “A Narrow World Made Wide” 


Later published in anthologies as “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” it’s one of the best evocations and explications of the creative writing process that I’ve encountered.


This short-and-sweet essay began life as perhaps the only interesting presentation ever given the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conference, in 1977.

#8) Lu Chi
's The Art of Writing


This work in verse is as relevant today as when it was written seventeen hundred years ago. I wrote an essay inspired by it a few years ago, you can read it here.  

#9) Elena Poniatowska's introduction to Here’s to You, Jesusa!


This excellent exploration of the ethics and politics of immersion reporting appears only in the novel’s English version (published in 2001 and translated by Deanna Heikkenin).


#10) Luis Alberto Urrea's short essay about why he wrote his lovely 1999 book Wandering Time, titled “A Note from Luis” 

It is true that LAU could scribble driving directions on a cocktail napkin and I’d probably call it brilliant work, but this little ditty really is.
Post Art Basel, Miami, December 2011


It seems I'm always happy to fritter away my writing time reading essays on writing, so please send your suggestions along! 

 


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Thanks for the Beauty, Poetry. Thanks even more for the Truth!




“There are two ways to worry words. One is hoping for the greatest possible beauty in what one has created. The other is to tell the truth.”
--  June Jordan


Poetry reminds me of what’s possible, rejuvenates my faith in myself and all the other selves that crowd this ravaged planet, in those times when my faith stretches thin. This month, I give thanks to poetry for all it has given me. Yes, I should give thanks every month, as Kwame Dawes so sagely reminds us, but there are so many things for which to give thanks in this life. 

To celebrate poetry this month, my friend (a gifted poet) Susan Rich is curating the annual Big Poetry Giveaway. I’m happy to participate, giving away three books of poems that I love. All three tell the truth, and manage to be beautiful, too. (I think June would approve.) A few words about each one:

While I was in the MFA program in Bennington, Vermont, at one January residency, photographer and poet Star Black joined us. She documented several days of what is affectionately (and sometimes derisively) called “the vortex.” At the time, I knew nothing more about Star Black than this: she came from a military family (like me) and she wrote stellar sestinas (most decidedly not like me). On our last day together, she shared her visual documentation. In that vortex of sentences and fragments and punctuation marks (usually ?? or !!), Star created a (both beautiful and truthful) narrative and lyric representation of the place, without using a single word. And so, as part of the Big Poetry Giveaway, I want to share Star Black's 1995 book of poems, Waterworn.

One summer while I was in college, I fell in love with a boy from a small town near Ponce, Puerto Rico. In the dead of the following winter, I visited his island for the first (and, so far, only) time. Our romance disintegrated before winter had melted, but the visit stayed with me. During the 1990s, I devoted many hours to activism on behalf of Puerto Rican independentistas, honored to be part of a network that stretched from Chicago, Boston, and New York to San Juan. I thought a lot about the distance between Gringolandia y la isla. For these reasons, Naomi Ayala’s 1997 collection Wild Animals on the Moon & Other Poems spoke deeply to me. (You can read four poems from the collection at In Motion Magazine.) I hope her words might speak to you, too.
Yael Flusberg in Sarasota, Florida • WLC 2010

I was introduced to Naomi Ayala’s poetry by my dear friend Yael Flusberg, whose own 2010 collection, The Last of My Village, shows how love and wisdom can shimmer through pain. (You can read a poem from the collection and also see how beautifully she reads its title poem.) I’ve written about Yael’s poetry before. Twice I’ve invited her to come and share her poetry (and luminous self) with my students, once at New College of Florida and once at Pacific Lutheran University. Both times, the results were magical. I look forward to sending some magic in the mail, perhaps to you?

If you would like to be in the running to receive one of these gifts of poetry in the mail, please just leave a comment below, saying you'd like to be in the running for one, two or all three of the books. I'll pick from three hats at the end of the month, ask the winners for postal addresses, and send out the poetry books on May Day!  

Happy National Poetry Month!