Saturday, December 20, 2008


One of the most often used later publicity photos of Ray Carver shows him seated, leaning forward, hands crossed in front of him, wearing a soft leather flying jacket, eyes peering intently, almost challengingly at the viewer. His hair is mussed but recently razored to fashionably fit his face. He looks like he's just come from a polo match or his fortieth bombing mission over Schweinfurt. He's cool, in control, almost aggressively, intimidatingly self-confident. There are several variations of this photograph, most taken by Marion Ettlinger, but they all insist on the intensity of those eyes, on that self-confidence, and on the hair razored fashionably short and mussed.

The Ray Carver I knew looked nothing like that. He wore ties and rumpled sport jackets and never appeared quite right in them. Not that the jackets didn't fit, but that he seemed awkward, even uncomfortable wearing them: he held his shoulders too high, away from his body, like adolescent weights, giving the impression that there was an iron bar lashed across his upper back and that his body hung slackly from it. Sometimes it seemed as if that bar was the only thing holding him up. As for his hair, it grew over his ears and sat in uncombed chunks around his head. A nervous, raspy laugh punctuated his sentences and he had trouble looking people in the eye. The word youthful comes to mind, and shy, bashful, ingenuous. Or boyish. Eternally boyish. A boy who woke in a nightmare to find himself in an adult's body hemmed in on all sides by sport jackets and snatches of menacing conversation.

As for props, he usually had a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Like the imagined bar across his back, they held him up in their own way, although now I can't help seeing that cigarette as a piece of chalk he used to chart his lifeline on the cosmic blackboard, or as a baton with which he was learning to conduct his own requiem.

At the outset, I want to say that my relationship with Ray never reached the boozy intimacy he had with others. I knew him from 1967 - 1977, his most notoriously alcoholic period, and even though I can still sit and talk in bars for hours on end, I don't drink now and I didn't drink then. For that reason alone it may seem impossible that we were friends at all. Another impediment to our friendship was our personae: Ray internalized everything -- the pains, the uncertainties, the humiliations, the fears -- whereas I gushed them in a torrent of emotions and operatic gestures. Add to this that Ray was a small-town boy, and a small-town boy from the Northwest at that, while I was a city boy from the East Coast and you've got what seems an almost insurmountable barrier to friendship.

Running counter to the differences, however, were the similarities. Ray and I didn't put on airs; that's what we had most in common. Although I was from New York City, I never pretended to be cool or hip. Ray -- and Maryann, too -- were open and generous-spirited from the start. I knew they had no rocks in their hands and they knew I had none in mine. We never analyzed our friendship or even once questioned why we liked one another because whenever we saw each other we talked, laughed, shared our work, and generally enjoyed one another's company. No matter how many months would go by between meetings we resumed our friendship where we had left off.

In 1981 Ray sent me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In it he had inscribed this dedication: "For Mort, with nothing but love, and admiration." That about says it, although the word "admiration" needs to be explained. I'd like to think it refers to the writing, which truly cemented the friendship, the recognition on both our parts that under the sport coats we were two kids trying to figure out what this life meant, no matter how horrendous the revelations, and that we were both pursuing that goal through a mutually ferocious dedication to words. That commitment was out inseparable bond.
Besides this I was a poet whose work Ray liked, and poets were something special to him. He said toward the end of his life that he would like to be remembered as a poet and I wish now I had told him more often
how good I thought his poetry was. There is a lack of pretentiousness in his poems -- in tone and diction -- which is unique in contemporary American poetry, and we can all learn from it. It is disarming and therefore makes the implications, ironies and juxtapositions of images that much more powerful. Ray wrote poetry as if it were written with a small, not a capital, "p", conveying an impression of almost artless naturalness that no other American poet of his generation -- and maybe any other generation -- has been able to evoke. In his last volume, A New Path To The Waterfall (1989), this naturalness reaches its apex, spilling with an appearance of artlessness that resembles nothing so much as water, which assumes the shapes of every channel it enters yet remains itself, and appears as swirls, slurs, elongations and a variety of textures and colors under the shifts of light and sediments it travels over yet remains as transparent and ephemeral as breath when you attempt to lift it in your hands.


Ray always insisted that we knew each other in Iowa, and so did Maryann, but I can't recall it. And our dates of tenure there don't correspond. Sometimes I think that he meant that he knew of me from Iowa. Maybe that was it. As far as I'm concerned we met at George Hitchcock's house on Laguna Street in San Francisco at one of those parties Hitchcock gave four times a year to put Kayak magazine together. There were always about twenty of us, an interchangeable group of contributors, friends, actors, and writers or painters passing through, all turned into happy workers by Hitchcock, a commanding presence with a voice like a wave booming in a sea cave, who directed us to collate and staple pages, stuff and address envelopes, and encouraged us to meet each other, while he kept bread, cold cuts, beer and pies stacked on the kitchen table.

At that time Kayak was one of the important literary magazines in the country and fostered a sort of deep image or "near surrealist" approach to poetry. But as a kayak is a one-man vessel, so the magazine was a product of one man's taste, a man who abhorred categories, George Hitchcock. The magazine displayed his many talents as poet, editor, printer, visual artist and organizer. He was the sun from which all things grew and ideas radiated, the center we looked toward for direction. Well over six feet, a recognized playwright, and an actor in the grand manner -- on those Sundays he directed the closest thing to an American-style Parisian salon I have ever attended.

It was at one of those collating parties in the spring of 1967, I think, that Hitchcock introduced me to Ray and Maryann, an indulgence to which George's laissez-fair attitude towards social etiquette usually didn't succumb. Ray said he remembered me from Iowa and was an admirer of my poetry, but even then I wondered if he had asked George to introduce us. As I have said, I still don't remember Ray from Iowa and it wouldn't be until many years later that I learned that he had been the student of two special and talented friends of mine, the fiction writer Richard Day at Humboldt State University and the poet Dennis Schmidt at Sacramento State University, both of whom could have exposed Ray to my work. When I learned that, I suspected even more that Ray had asked Hitchcock to introduce us and that he hadn't said he knew me from Iowa but rather had heard about me there.

Whatever the reason, Ray and I were soon chatting like old friends. There was an openness about Ray and Maryann that could win over anyone. There was nothing morbid or precious about them. They weren't ego-centered or self-absorbed as are so many of the literati I've met. We talked about everything -- from literature to sports to politics, and kept talking from one collating party to the next. Within a year or two Hitchcock and his wife broke up and Maryann's sister, Amy, a vivacious, talented actress, began coming to the collating parties. She and George were entranced with each other immediately, and I remember staying late a number of times to watch them perform some hilarious, ingenious, spontaneous bit of nonsense after which the five of us would go off to dinner somewhere, joined by any odd member of the collating squad who wanted to come with us.

At about this time (1969) Hitchcock put out my first book of poems, Origins, and a year later he brought out Ray's first major book of poems, Winter Insomnia. During this period, I knew Ray as a poet. That is what we talked about mostly and I'd seen some of him poems in Kayak and other magazines. He never lost this focus on poetry and I think the extreme concentration he exercised in his prose at times can be traced to his poetic practices. Gradually he showed me one or two stories, then added others, many in manuscript or in pages stripped from magazines. I was astonished by them, to say the least. As I remember, the first one I saw was "The Student's Wife," and soon after that "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please," and within the next year or two, in the early seventies, "Fat" and "Neighbors."

What was astonishing, even unique about Ray's stories at that time was not that they engaged everyday American life and went behind the doors of suburban middle-class and blue-collar homes, but that they were scenarios of our worst dreams about the reality of our neighbors' existences, scenarios about the spiritual barrenness at the heart of American life which on the surface the majority of us were living, whether we admitted it or not. Ray had the courage to face this barrenness and the genius to make it come alive.

I sensed that a lot of Ray's writing was autobiographical, things that had happened to him and Maryann or, more, things which he feared might. That's why I call them scenarios. He was writing his worst dreams, readying himself for whatever might happen to him and his family, innocent small-town American kids moving through the world like victims in search of an oppressor.

That's why Ray's vaunted realism is so strange, or rather "unrealistic" in the end, and seems to be steeped not in bleakness but in nightmare and approaches the surreal. His poetry, especially. It is a poetry of the threatened. Winter Insomnia is propelled by a kind of paranoia, a fear that everyone the speaker encounters means him and his family harm or poses the possibility of it. Menace is everywhere, especially in the poems that deal with the Middle East. It is the paranoia one finds in a Hitchcock film or an Eric Ambler thriller: Everyone out there is a threat. This is not "realism" or "super-realism," it is, if anything, expressionism, a reality shaped and shadowed by the mind of the artist. That is why I think Ray's poems and stories were so admired by the Kayak crowd and why Winter Insomnia came out under the Kayak imprint.

One more word about the work. Not so much those of us around Kayak, but later, in Santa Cruz from 1970 to 1976, just before What We Talk About When We Talk About Love hurled Ray to the heights of the literary world, a number of writers I knew thought Ray's stories too depressing. I wonder if they would think that now, not because Ray has become a legend, but because in the last few years what he imagined about America has become the truth of our lives -- the unemployment, the fear of homelessness and the lack of medical security; I mean the terror of being poor or disenfranchised in this land of milk and acid. Intuitively Ray knew what that part of America was all about and the terror of that knowledge drove him to the bottle and cigarettes, or so I thought then and think to this day.

Now it might seem too simple to assign the fear of the small town boy with the weak father, who didn't even provide him with a location of good places to fish, as the reason for Ray's drinking and smoking, but I did, as many of us do with our friends. The bottle lip and cigarette tip were nipples on a milk bottle that gave Ray security, pacifiers that let him relax -- pacifiers he didn't need any more when he met Tess and that he had needed with Maryann because he and Maryann were both young and he had to grow through his fears and out of them when he was with her. Which means Tess was the lucky one and Maryann was not. Or Tess had that certain trait that could wean him away from the bottle where Maryann couldn't. Maybe those notions are too easy. And, again, maybe they're not.


By late summer of 1968 I'd moved seventy miles south of San Francisco to the small coastal town of Santa Cruz, where I had gotten a job teaching English at a community college. I still journeyed to San Francisco for the Kayak collating parties, but within a year Hitchcock followed me to Santa Cruz and was teaching poetry and acting at the local University of California campus. He continued printing Kayak magazine and books from his Santa Cruz address.

Ray and Maryann were living in Cupertino, a suburban town thirty miles south of San Francisco and ten miles north of San Jose, the center of a middle-class residential area which in the late sixties and early seventies served the families of the burgeoning computer micro-chip industry called Silicon Valley. Ray and Maryann were living the TV version of the American good life. As I remember, their house was a one-story, upper middle-class showpiece complete with swimming pool, field-stone walls, and huge bay windows set in angles like transparent guillotines -- although I suspect my hyperbolic imagination has galloped off here with the frail damsel of memory. I do recall that at night you could see all the way to the bay, several miles away, street lights and house windows along the way glittering like an overturned jewel box. I remember at least several memorable parties there, each with dozens of people -- a lot of writers and businessmen and engineers, the last two groups obviously neighbors and fellow workers.

I'm not sure but I think Ray was still employed as a text-book editor at Science Research Associates and Maryann was teaching high school in Los Altos. What is certain is that they were living beyond their means and soon it was difficult to reach them by phone. The creditors were descending and any friendly "Hi!" chirping from the receiver could be followed by demands for payment of overdue bills. Was it that year, 1970, or five years later, that Ray's mother or Maryann would answer the phone explaining that the Carvers no longer resided at that address? When I came to visit once, Ray's mother, who didn't know me, insisted I had the wrong house, until Ray, who was standing behind an inner door, rescued me.

At about this time Ray showed me the manuscript of a new story called "What Is It?" (later renamed "Are These Actual Miles?"), one of the most terrifying pieces he ever wrote. It was about the day in the life of a man burdened with bills whose wife goes off to sell the family car. At different points during the afternoon and evening the man receives calls from his wife who says she is on the verge of making a "great deal" on the car. Finally, in the early hours of the next morning, drunk, she is covertly dropped at home by the car salesman, and the husband stoically puts her to bed. But the salesman returns to place the wife's handbag, which she had left in his car, on the porch. Observing the salesman through the window, the husband wrenches the door open to confront him, but he is unable to say anything to the man, who retreats and drives off behind a nervous spattering of excuses.

The story is filled with a sense of humiliation for both husband and wife, a sense of hopelessness for anyone caught in our socioeconomic treadmill. Few writers anywhere have portrayed economic degradation this nakedly. At the time I was overwhelmed by the story and wondered if it was yet another scenario of Ray's terrors, but I never asked him. Now I assign the story to the category of those chilling pieces of literature which depict the end of an age, such as Ray's beloved Chekhov continually wrote so relentlessly about in plays and stories. The cultures and times are different, but the vision and subject are the same, although Chekhov's vision is not as raw as Ray's.


During this period I was teaching a course I had designed for the University of California Extension called "Writers Off the Page." the class met all day Saturday. In the morning we discussed a novel or book of poems by a contemporary author, and in the afternoon the author met with the class to read aloud, answer questions, and discuss his work.

I asked Ray to be one of the participants and select several stories. He chose "What Is It?" ("Are These Actual Miles?"), "Neighbors," "Fat," and an initiation story he had just finished called "Steelhead Summer" (which appeared renamed and revised, not for the better, as "Nobody Said Anything" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and later as the first piece in Ray's selected stories, Where I'm Calling From). The story is about a boy who does combat with a giant fish in the river on the other side of his home town. What makes the story unique is its frame, which comments ironically on the boy's coming of age ritual: at the beginning and the end of the story, the boy is witness to his parents arguing. This intrusion of the mundane,
drearily unhappy adult world of 1950's America destroys the boy's heroic undertaking which had charged his imagination by making the everyday world marvelous, all of which was suggested in the original story by medieval quest imagery that paralleling the contemporary images, but was cut by the time the story reached What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as "Nobody Said Anything."

(Ray puts the frame to similar use in another story that would have been ordinary without it. The piece, called "Distance," first appeared in the Furious Seasons and in severely truncated form under the title "Everything Stuck to Him" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The story line deals with the first serious argument between a young married couple with a sick child. The husband wants to go hunting, as he has done for years, but his wife wants him to stay home because of the child's condition. He goes but returns early and the couple make up, dancing in their small house and vowing eternal love. However, the frame occurs twenty years later when the child, now a young woman, visits her father, divorced from her mother and living in Rome, and begs him to tell her a story about when he and her mother were married. The sense of loss and pathos is conveyed by the use of the frame. Even the poignancy in the story is created by the frame. It is a brilliant choice here. So is the original title, which Ray later restored. Distance, in time and place, colors the central meaning of the story, reminding the reader of how transitory human relationships are. I should also mention that Chekhov, Ray's favorite writer, put the frame to similar use in a number of stories -- "Gooseberries" and "In Exile" come immediately to mind -- and the bittersweet nostalgia in "Distance" comes closest to echoing the Russian master's in tone and coloring. As does "Errand," of course. Generally, however, Ray's stories are much more brutal than Chekhov's.)

The class was composed mostly of teachers taking the course for graduate units. Ray's stories excited and horrified them because of their freshness and the way he had directly faced the dark side of American life. The group was filled with admiration and generated the kind of energy one feels when a group discovers someone in their midst who is going to be a celebrity.

This was the third time I had given the class, and the powers that be had decided to move its location to Palo Alto, fifty miles northeast of Santa Cruz, as an experiment to draw new students. Weather permitting, we would meet for the afternoon session under a shady clump of trees in a rolling, open park.

When I met Ray to guide him to our glade, I was surprised by how nervous he was. He was more jumpy than I had ever seen him. I pretended not to notice at first, but as he tremblingly lit one cigarette after another I finally asked what was wrong.

"This is the first time," he said.
"For what?" I replied.
"This is the first time I ever taught a class."
"On your own work?"
"On anything."

It had never occurred to me that Ray hadn't taught before. I tried to calm him down, give him confidence and a few basic pointers -- a coach's pep talk. I tried to make him see that he had already introduced himself through his stories, that everyone in the class thought they knew him to the quick because of who they imagined the writer of those stories to be. I don't think that set him at ease at all.

He was dry-mouthed and twitching as he began the class. But many of the women, seeing his nervousness, gave him maternal encouragement; and the outright admiration of the entire group was so apparent that within fifteen minutes my rhetorical questions and other verbal aides were no longer necessary. Ray's shy, humble manner won everyone over, and he warmed to the serious conversation about his work. I like to think he developed his unassuming, open classroom style because of what happened that day, but the truth is he was just being Ray and sooner or later he would have realized that simple secret of teaching. As I remember, I invited him to talk to the class for several successive semesters; those who took the course repeatedly insisted on it.

One more thing. Neither the class nor I could convince Ray that "Steelhead Summer" ("Nobody Said Anything") was a first-rate story. I nagged him about it endlessly over the next several years and he did finally
send it out and get it published in Sou'Wester, but he always felt unsure about it. Maybe he thought it was too much like Hemingway's The Old Man In The Sea. Maybe he was piqued at himself for writing an initiation story, the kind of tale he had been raised on and knew had become cliched by the late fifties. I don't know. But I was happy to see it as the lead off story in Where I'm Calling From, even in its severely revised form.


By 1972 Hitchcock had gotten Ray a teaching assignment at the University of California Santa Cruz. That had to have been accomplished through the man who had hired Hitchcock, the well-known short-story writer, James B. Hall, who had been made the Provost of the new Creative Arts College on campus, which was called, for lack of a financial donor, College Five. George worked there and now so did Ray.

While he was at the University, Ray influenced a lot of students, including a number of my former pupils who would tell me how much they loved him as both a teacher and a human being. I, of course, would tell those of my students heading up to the University to be sure and take a class with him. Although he was only working at the University part-time and would soon begin a dizzying travel week teaching at both Santa Cruz and the University of Iowa, a schedule reminiscent of the feverish peregrinations across Siberia of Vasily Sergeich in Chekhov's "In Exile," Ray had the energy to convert UC Santa Cruz's literary magazine, Quarry, into a publication of national stature, under the name Quarry West, by lobbying many of the poets and fiction writers he knew to submit work to it.

It was during his tenure at Santa Cruz that one of the more revealing episodes in my relationship with him took place. As I recall, it was in 1973. Ray had been chosen to host Charles Bukowski, who was to give a reading at the University. When he met Bukowski at the airport he discovered that the irascible poet had been on a binge for more than a week. I wonder if Ray saw a future image of himself in the creased, pockmarked face of his older contemporary. I know something early on made him decide not to drink glass for glass with Bukowski, and when we met before the reading Ray was completely sober -- and worried. He didn't have any idea of how Bukowski was going to behave, and had quickly realized that the Los Angeles poet operated on both insult and shock.

"Stick close," Ray said to me, "and be sure to come to the party after -- please."

Bukowski, on his part, must have taken one look at Ray in his corduroy trousers and rumpled sports jacket and decided to dismiss him as an insipid academic. The reading drew a full audience and was a wild affair. Bukowski punctuated each poem by sucking from a large bottle of gin and tossing raspy insults at the audience -- at all the spoiled middle-class students and prissy professors, as far as he was concerned. The professors grinned condescendingly or left. Or grinned and then left. But by and large the students were titillated and warmed to this old drunk telling them what little shits they were. I got the impression that Bukowski was delighted in parading his image and that the students were experiencing the taboo excitement of slumming, or being in touch with "real life" -- at least for the evening.

Ray wasn't amused by any of it. His worried expression was a mask stuck to his face throughout the reading. As host, he said later, he felt responsible for whatever happened and I translated this into meaning that he saw his credibility slipping with his superiors at the University with every insult Bukowski growled.

At the party, held in the house of two former students of mine who were currently students of Ray, things got wilder. Only students were present after the first ten minutes. Rock music and pot smoke engulfed the shabby room. Bukowski, drinking everything in sight, muttered, bragged, cursed, and getting drunker by the minute, grabbed the girls and mashed his whiskery face against theirs, or shot his hand to the crotch of their jeans or down their shirts. Several of the girls screamed and ran from the house. A number of the more cerebral students sat back and stared straight ahead, probably stoned. A group of rough town poets watched Bukowski's every move adoringly, as if they were learning how to be real poets with every belch or snort. Ray started drinking.

Bukowski blinked when he saw me coming up the stairs. "Allen," he said, "I didn't know you were here. Why doncha recite some lines from 'Howl'."

I shot back some stupid remark to the effect that "My name isn't Allen. It's Kenneth, Kenneth Pachen."

A malevolent smile lit Bukowski's face, making him look like a sinister pumpkin, as he turned toward Ray. "Hey, Professor, why didntcha tell me that Allen was going to be here?" Then he turned back to me and said, "Come on Allen give us some 'Howl'."

My former students were so poor they didn't own a couch and Bukowski was seated like a malicious Buddha on a mattress set on the living room floor, stubbing out his cigarettes on the floorboards until one of the students who lived in the apartment stopped him.

Bukowski kept turning to Ray between drinks and grabs, derisively calling him "professor" and treating him like the most menial servant, every once in a while turning to me with that sinister pumpkin face and saying, "Come on, Allen, let's hear it."

I smiled back as malevolently as I could. Bukowski continued drinking. More students ran squealing from the house. Soon Ray, fed up, and by now drunk himself, stalked out. There was no one left but my two former students, Bukowski and two or three others. Bukowski had not risen from the mattress in several hours. Now, obviously exhausted, he subsided into a stupor, his chin on his chest. "So, Allen," he muttered one more time, "what do you think of this shit?"

At this point Ray clumped up the stairs. Bukowski spied him and raised his head for a moment. "Professor," he said with the last bit of derision he could muster, "Professor..."

Ray looked down at him, swaying, but said nothing, his expression caught midway between disgust and pity. But maybe it was neither: Ray was drunker than I'd ever seen him. Something about Bukowski's behavior struck deep inside him, like a pickaxe sinking into the wall of a mine, something he never spoke to me about. My sense of the extremity of Ray's reaction, however, suggests that there was something more to it than just disgust or pity. I'm convinced he saw in Bukowski's drinking and behavior intimations of his own future, a sort of Mr. Hyde who would be released by his incessant boozing. On the other hand, this is said with a good deal of hindsight and may be just literary balderdash.

It was a revelatory evening, an historic non-meeting of two major American writers. For the first time I saw Ray act uncomfortably, feeling responsible for someone else and not knowing how to handle the situation. Bukowski was too much for him: Ray couldn't deal with his continual insults and venomous behavior. But Bukowski was more revealing to me. He showed that the self image he chose to establish in his poems, an image which limited the poems in both reach and meaning, had taken him over. He had become the mask he chose to face the world wearing. More than this he was so overwhelmed by this image, and the easy assumptions of others that went with it, that he stereotyped Ray and never realized that he was in the presence of the one artist whose work, on the same subjects and themes, had achieved what he rarely, if ever, could for the very reasons he failed to recognize who Ray was -- lack of real interest in others and compassion.

The upshot of the incident was a nasty poem by Bukowski about the uptight academic host who took care of him in Santa Cruz and a reply from Ray, the collage-barrage of lines he heard or thought he heard Bukowski speak throughout the evening incorporated into the poem "You Don't Know What Love Is," a poem that can be found in Fires.

I've often wondered if Bukowski ever read any of Ray's work and realized that that Ray Carver, that "uptight academic" host was was no prissy professor but the author of stories of more depth, passion, and authenticity than he allowed himself to write.


During the winter of 1972, Noel Young of Capra Press asked to bring out two of my books. That request grew into a friendship and, for the next several years, my sending along a dozen writers or so to Capra for Noel's burgeoning chapbook series, a dozen or so west coast writers, I should add, for there was a feeling among us of neglect and downright hostility from the publishers and editors of the good green east.

The first author I introduced Noel to was James D. Houston, a novelist whose subject matter and themes are the mores and lifestyles of the California central coast, a thinker who in book after book has insightfully defined what California means to the psyches of those who live here. Jim, also a friend of Ray, was completing a group of stories at that time concerning a character named Charlie Bates whose very existence, often depicted in Kafkaesque comic situations, was bound up with cars and freeways, certainly a most California subject. Noel immediately took one of the stories for the chapbook series and a year later brought out all the Charlie Bates stories in one volume. Now both Jim and I were feeding Noel authors, and I'm sure that both of us urged him to get in touch with Ray, while urging Ray to get in touch with Noel.

Nothing happened until the spring of 1972 or '73, and Jim and I were both involved in it. It was at the annual Swanton Corn Roast, a spring ritual in those years when all the local craftspersons -- potters, weavers, jewelry makers and leather workers -- showed their wares in makeshift stalls set up in the wilds of a rural road north of the coastal hamlet of Davenport. The scenery was the epitome of old California, open farmlands surrounded by woods. The corn roast was held in a meadow hemmed in by redwoods, madrone trees with their sweet potato-colored bark, lime-colored lichen-splotched coast live oaks, and spicy-smelling California bay trees, all tangled together by vines and jumbles of weeds and poison oak still green and succulent from the winter rains.

The corn roast drew people from as far away as San Jose and San Francisco. Hundreds of cars lined the narrow road. The roast was an event, a reason to get into the country for city-dwellers and come away with a pitcher or belt or beaded necklace made by local artisans, not mass-produced by anonymous third world workers. The roast was a result of the return to the earth movement that gripped the nation in the early seventies.

As Noel remembers it, I was strolling with him, both of us looking at the displays. Jim Houston was playing bass with a blue grass band called The Red Mountain Boys, a traditional part of the day's entertainment, and as the banjos caplunketed and the fiddles whined and the guitars thwanged, and Jim plucked baritone sounds of gastric disorder from his phlegmatic bass, Noel and I came upon a tall galoot lying on his side in the grass with his head propped in one hand, listening to the music. Noel remembers that he had a purple wine mustache. I remember that there was several paper cups on the ground near by.

I turned to Noel and said something like "Remember I told you about a terrific short story and writer you should get a hold of? Well, here he is." Then I spoke to the reclining figure. "How you doing, Ray? Remember that publisher from down south I've been urging you to send stuff to, Noel Young? Well, here he is. Noel, Ray. Ray, Noel."

Now that may sound like one of the great shaggy dog stories of all time, an anti-anecdote, the report of one of the great non-events in any memoir. But truth to tell, it was an historic meeting. Out of it Noel would eventually publish Ray's short story collection, The Furious Seasons, in 1977 and the potpourri of short stories, poems and essays, Fires, in 1983. Capra would become the publishing house where the original and restored
versions of some of Ray's best stories would be permanently maintained. That Ray returned to Capra to publish Fires after he had become one of the nation's most publicized writers was a symbolic return to the west from the frenetic east, a move he would make physically within two years after the book came out. Fires contains the definitive versions of those stories that first appeared in The Furious Seasons and that, in two instances, appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the book that made him famous but which also contained drastically revised versions -- to my taste, far too drastically -- of many previously published stories. In Fires Ray re-revised (actually restored) two of the stories which I consider among his best, "Distance" and "So Much Water So Close To Home." For that reason, and its plenteous helping of poems, Fires is an important source for understanding Ray's work. We can thank Noel Young for that as well as for the original versions of the stories in The Furious Seasons.


In a letter to an editor inquiring about Ray, I wrote that "I knew him before the fame, before he became a legend, I knew him as he groped his way through the thicket of his problems and I can tell you that even then he was a lovable man who, despite the debt and drinking, I would trust with my life, and for me that is the test of a human being's mettle." A friend, who is a therapist, told me that such values are typical of people abandoned in childhood, which I was. Who knows. But loyalty and a good heart go a long way to winning my affections, and Ray had both. Do those words smack of sentimentality? So be it. There was a man here I loved who is a hole in the air now, a doorway the wind shuttles through. This man left us gifts at great personal expense, a suitcase full of small trick mirrors in which we can see our distorted inner selves. I remember this person as someone who shaped and polished those mirrors day after day through cigarette smoke, alcohol fumes, unpaid bills and domestic dog fights. He came and is gone, but the gifts he made for us remain, each one a kiss on our lives.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ferris Wheel in the Sky - Web Del Sol

Mike Neff and Robert Sward, iPhone photo courtesy Doug Lawson.

Last night (12.16.08) for the first time since the 2001 Associated Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Palm Springs, I connect with two East Coast friends, Mike Neff of Web Del Sol and Doug Lawson of Blue Moon Review. Both, it turns out, are newly settled in Northern California and we get together at Aqua Blue Restaurant in Santa Cruz. Dear friends who I had long associated with the East, Mike from Washington, D.C. and Doug Lawson from Virginia, where, like Mike, in 1994, he founded and began editing one of the few consistently high quality literary eZines. I was privileged to serve as contributing editor to both Mike's Web Del Sol and to Doug's Blue Moon Review.

It was Doug Lawson who published, among other things, my 25 page Earthquake Collage, and did so with imaginative tweakings of photos I took following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which destroyed 70 percent of Santa Cruz' downtown. Earthquake Collage, BTW, will be published soon by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH).

Aqua Blue, a seafood restaurant, coincidentally decorated with several blue moons, i.e., large spherical blue lamps… the word spherical, it turns out, can refer to astronomical objects and spheres of ancient astronomy.
By chance… what follows seems to have some connection with these two old friends. Ferris Wheel in the Sky, A Dream.

Mountain. Then a still higher mountain behind the first. Then, at end of dream, a giant ferris wheel fully lit and filled with people as at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, only this one is rotating, it seems, in the sky above the second of the two mountains. At first I simply see it, then I see it rotating. What's that about?

Begins: I'm inside some bland community room at a yoga meditation retreat. Then called out to join the others and am amazed to see first one mountain, then another, higher, taller, steeper just beyond the first. First thought is, This is the Sermon on the Mount, it is that kind of mountain. It seems a combination of the Old Testament and the contemporary Santa Cruz Boardwalk as when, for example, the ferris wheel begins rotating. It seems nothing out of the ordinary and yet totally extraordinary.

At first I am facing outward toward an open field where yoga classes might be held and I see people, Esalen like scene, everyone relaxed, picnic like atmosphere, quiet, peaceful… a partially clouded yet sunny afternoon. That's the setting and, asked to join the group, I choose an unoccupied reclining chair, old worn wooden lawn chair with a folded meditation mat or blanket. Nothing special.

Then aware of someone to my left, a male figure dressed in a loose, khaki-colored robe. I put out my arm to touch him and he withdraws… the gesture is unwelcome. At once I realize the seat I chose belongs to this man, the leader. I never actually see his face, but imagine him to be a man in his mid 40s or 50s.

And I am embarrassed and want to vacate and want to do so quickly, quietly and without notice. Suddenly self-conscious… I am about to move elsewhere… I turn 180 degrees and see this amazing mountain, only this time animated… complete with a giant ferris wheel and it is rotating and there are people on it.

And it turns out, in dream, that the upper mountain, the one above and beyond the first, the one I understand to be the Sermon on the Mount mountain, is where people on this Zen Meditation Retreat sleep, where they are housed and it is from there they come down for classes or whatever goes on down below, in the area where I am sitting, the one with the large open field. That is a long way to come, I think, but somehow realize at the same time that it is only walking distance, from mountain top to the main yoga or instruction area. Tassajara. Big Sur. Esalen.

I wake thinking the ferris wheel is Web Del Sol, my friend Mike Neffs website extraordinaire. Web Del Sol. Web of the sun. It is a ferris wheel, spinning, with 60,000 visitors a day or a week or something…
Dream connected somehow with Mike and Doug, and our friendship, virtual, virtual friendship that goes back 14 years, to early Internet, early eZines, when WDS and Blue Moon first began publishing.

Following the dinner, I worked on Robert Dana Writers Friendship essay on British poet Stephen Spender… and the awe and warmth Robert Dana expresses for his friend.

Chicago born, transplanted to Santa Cruz. Here since 1985, I wake asking myself, What am I doing having such a West Coast Esalen-like dream? I am just a transplanted mid Westerner.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Robert Dana - Spender Once More

Until 1976 when he became my distinguished colleague in the writing program at the University of Florida, Stephen Spender was just biographical essay and a handful of brilliant lyrics I first encountered in Louis Untermeyer’s anthology of Modern American and Modern British Poetry.

Oh, I’d met him at close range back in the 1950’s when he came to give a reading at the University of Iowa and to talk to a bunch of fledgling poets at the Writers’ Workshop. After Spender’s reading that evening in the senate chambers of Old Capitol, Paul Engle had arranged a rump session so that the students could talk with Spender one on one over beer in the basement of a local bar, perhaps Irene Kenney’s. It’s with no small amount of embarrassment that I recall the subject of our conversation, in which I had the presumptuousness and dim wit to chide him for certain Britishisms in his Lorca translations.

Of course, Stephen’s world was so large and his history so long and rich that, when we really did meet in Florida and share several months of our lives, he retained no memory at all of our having met twenty years earlier, and, thank god, no memory of my youthful stupidities.

Stephen was part of the bait dangled before me by the late Richard Green, then chairman of the English Department at the University of Florida. He also offered me a much lighter teaching load and the chance to teach graduate students, and more money than I was presently making at Cornell College in Iowa. I had just returned from a sabbatical in England where I’d gone to recover from some serious surgery and to try to finish the book which later became In A Fugitive Season, so I didn’t think my dean would give his permission for another leave of absence.

Encouraged, however, by my new wife, Peg, and by Dick Green, I explored the possibility with my colleagues and the dean, and was granted permission to accept Florida’s offer. It would be a full year visiting writer appointment, and I would be Stephen Spender’s colleague when he arrived for the third quarter. It turned out to be a seminal year, needless to say.

Our friendship began in a very personal way.

Shortly before Stephen’s arrival in the spring, I casually asked someone, at my wife’s prompting, perhaps Dick Green, where Stephen would be living. He was, at the time, nearly seventy. I was shocked to find that neither the department nor the university had made arrangements for their distinguished guest. In addition to getting on in years, he would be arriving in Florida from wintry England. Peg and I reasoned that someone needed to make a move on his behalf.

So we contacted the supervisor of our building to find out what furnished apartments might be available. There were several. We got the department’s approval, and then canvassed department members via their mailboxes, to round up dishes, pots and pans, silverware, blankets and linens, so that when Stephen arrived he’d have decent digs awaiting him.

When he did arrive, he needed phone service, of course. And it was here that Peg stepped in, and the episode provided one of our favorite stories. Stephen had trouble understanding the operator at Bell Southern, and she had trouble understanding his English accent, so he asked Peg to do his talking for him. At one point, she said,
“Stephen, they want an idea of how much of a bill you might average a month.” “Oh tell them a hundred dollars,” he said, grinning, and then sotto voce, “It’s probably more like five hundred.”

The bill was probably “more like five hundred” given the family calls—to his wife, Natasha and his daughter Lizzie in London and to his son Matthew in Italy; and the business calls—to his old friend Christopher Isherwood in L.A, and to International PEN on Taiwan (No, he wouldn’t be coming), and to his editor Jason Epstein at Random House in New York. Perhaps it was at that moment that it began to be clear that Stephen dealt with people straight on, by and large. He didn’t see himself as either a “great man” or a “great writer.” In fact, he saw himself as sometimes a comic “figger” as he would have said.

So began a friendship I could never have imagined having, and one that would last nearly twenty years until Spender’s death in 1995. A friendship from which I learned at least as much about human decency and perspective as I did about literature and what it means to live a life of letters.

One of the first things I learned from Stephen was what real achievement and fame were. His record spoke for itself. I was forty-six, had published two books, and was still getting rejection slips from various magazines. I was certainly not getting phone calls from PEN International. So there was no question of competition between us, as there always is to a certain degree, between contemporaries. Stephen wasn’t my mentor, nor
was I his student. It was a case of two poets from different generations and different cultures sharing what was there to be shared.

He shared his wisdom, his stories—of himself and Auden at Oxford (“I printed his first little book on my card press in my room.”), of his experiences in Spain during the civil war and in Britain as an air-raid warden during the blitz, and his attitudes toward poetry.

For my part, I drove him to the university when needed, explained him to his undergraduate class, which didn’t know what to make of him and treated him, at first, like a fragile family heirloom; and plied him with questions about his life and work.

In May of 1976, in my role as a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review, I actually conducted a formal interview with him. It took place, as I recall, in the living room of our Gainesville apartment. Here are a few clips from that afternoon:

“…If one thinks of one’s own contemporaries who had talent or even genius. I think that, really, three qualities are necessary. First of all, to have a little genius; then to have quite a lot of talent, and then, thirdly, to want to do it... You have to want, in some crazy way, to write poetry. I think quite a lot of people want to be a poet, but that’s rather different from actually wanting to write poetry.”

“Eliot in ‘The Four Quartets’, for instance, is always really a thinking poet. And also a poet with a mystical vision. And when the thinking is intense and the mystical vision is intense, he discovers a language which is very strange, and which is what we think of as the best of Eliot. But when the thinking is sententious—about, you know, growing old, and all that kind of thing,--the form can become sententious. He hasn’t got the talent
which can invent an interest in the language which is beyond what is actually being said…
“…I think that American poets believe that, as Walt Whitman said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too... And I think the American poet does feel that deeply, and he feels it’s something of a tragedy if he doesn’t get a great audience… I think that’s a tragic point of view, that you need vast audiences.”

Once, during one of our evening conversations, I asked him how he’d felt when Auden died. “I felt the way I did when my brother died—“ he said, “that now I could go out and drive the car.

“At the end of this life, dealing with Auden was like dealing with a corporation—Auden, Auden, Auden, & Auden. It wasn’t very pleasant.” And so I learned that fame, if it comes to one, is something best carried lightly. I learned that when Spender spoke of walking the shore of Lake Geneva with Merleau-Ponty, or of spending an afternoon with his friend Henry Moore, or told some anecdote about Louis Mac Neice, he wasn’t trying to impress you. He was merely recounting an interesting or pleasant moment in his life or a personal opinion.

Stephen had no need of boasting or name-dropping because he was sure of who he was, even if he tended to underplay his achievements. His autobiography World Within A World makes it clear that early on he had ceased to lie to himself or anyone else aboutwho he was, or why he did what he did. (“Oh, it wasn’t politics that caused us to go to Berlin. We went there to chase boys,” he said to me once, with a laugh.) He had learned
young to rely on his intelligence and his sense of humor. His dignity, generally, was as sure and casual as his rumpled clothes.
After Florida, we met almost once a year between 1976 and 1978, and sporadically thereafter, both in England and the U.S. When I left the University, they offered me a position. But upon returning to Iowa, I learned that the poet I’d replaced, and whom I’d thought of as a friend, was circulating a document damning both me and another member of the writing faculty. I was stunned and couldn’t believe it. When Stephen heard what happened he was furious and came to my defense. Even after the poet had been let go, Stephen telephoned him and demanded that he apologize to me and withdraw his remarks. The man refused, of course, but it was
a surprising measure of our friendship.

I was instrumental during these years in bringing Spender to Detroit where I was the visiting poet at Wayne State. He gave a reading and a lecture on Modern Poetry and Modern Art. It so happened that the original paper wall-sized cartoons of Diego Rivera’s mural in the Detroit Institute of Art had just been discovered in some dusty old archive of the museum. We were invited to view them from a mezzanine where they were rolled out below us.

He also came to Cornell College where I taught and spent a month there. He taught a seminar on Modern Poetry to a group of handpicked students, and gave three lectures and a farewell reading to packed houses. Writers and literary people came from all over Iowa came to hear him.

Mount Vernon, Iowa, is of course, a very small stage for such a large player, so one weekend, Peg and I arranged a visit to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Since Stephen had known Tyrone Guthrie, the theater people set us up with fine seats and a backstage tour.

One of the plays was “Waiting For Godot.” It was a compelling and polished performance, so when it was over Peg and I inquired what Stephen thought of it. “It was quite good, you know. I saw the play in London and didn’t like it at all and walked out after the first act,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
I saw Stephen several times after that, once at his house one evening in St. John’s Wood where we had a wonderful supper of “scraps” that Natasha had prepared, and another time with Peg at Westminster Abbey when he delivered the eulogy for Henry Moore, after which he took us to The Groucho Club, a spot whose patrons' books were displayed behind the bar.
My world’s a smaller place without Stephen. But the sense of perspective I gained from being in his presence from time to time, my sense of what’s really important, my sense of decency and compassion and craft is a
legacy that’s still with me.

“I think continually of those who were truly great/Who, from the womb, remembered the
soul’s history,” Stephen wrote in an early poem. Oh, yes. And so should we all.


Robert Dana was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1929. He served in the South Pacific in World War II as a U.S. Navy radio operator. After the War, he moved from Boston to Des Moines, Iowa, where he attended Drake University and worked as a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register. Later he studied at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and received a Masters Degree in 1954. From 1954-1994 he served as Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa. In 1964, Dana was responsible for the resumption of the publication of The North American Review, and served as its editor for a number of years. He also taught at the University of Florida.

Dana has published over a dozen collections of his poetry. In addition, Dana's work has appeared in publications such as The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Poetry (magazine), The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, and The Sewanee Review.

Dana's poetry has won a number of awards. His poetry collection "Starting Out for the Difficult World" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. In 1989 he was the recipient of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award for Poetry, given by New York University. He received a Pushcart Prize in 1996, and has been awarded the Rainer Maria Rilke Prize for Poetry. He has also been the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1985 and 1993).

In September 2004, Robert Dana was named poet laureate for the State of Iowa. He has also served as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Stockholm University and at several American colleges and universities.


Tony Barnstone - Letters from Dead Friends

“Po Chui, dead these many years---ah, he's not dead.
Agnew is dead.
What we've got to reach in America is some understanding of the great Chinese.”

—James Wright, from an interview with Michael André

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

—Robert Hass, from “Meditation at Lagunitas”

I have always loved the poetry of poor, alcoholic James Wright, who until cancer of the tongue rendered him silent wrote beautifully of the sadnesses of the devastated coal mining towns of the midwest, populated by the “ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,” the “sons grow[ing] suicidally beautiful,” the dead Indians, “the chemical riffles of the Ohio River,” where as the “nostrils of slow horses / Breathe evenly” “the moon darkens” and he is “lost in the beautiful white ruins / Of America.” His images are recorded with the precision and subtlety of the best Chinese poems, which blaze across the centuries without diminishment. For Wright, the Chinese poets seemed "to have saved their souls in the most violent circumstances" (Wright 1983 124), so that for us, in at time when our "imaginations have been threatened with numbness and our moral beings are nearly shattered by the moral ghastliness of public events and private corporations," the Chinese poets retain an "abiding radiance," they are a kind of salvation (Wright 1983 125).

Here is Wright’s poem about the great Tang Dynasty poet Po Chü-I (better known these days as Bai Juyi):


And how can I, born in evil days
And fresh from failure, ask a kindness of Fate?
—Written A.D. 819

Po Chu-i, balding old politician,
What's the use?
I think of you,
Uneasily entering the gorges of the Yang-Tze,
When you were being towed up the rapids
Toward some political job or other
In the city of Chungshou.
You made it, I guess,
By dark.

But it is 1960, it is almost spring again,
And the tall rocks of Minneapolis
Build me my own black twilight
Of bamboo ropes and waters.
Where is Yuan Chen, the friend you loved?
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness
Of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing
But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope
For a thousand years?

Bai Juyi was a scholar-official who shared with his friend Yuan Chen (Yuan Zhen), the dream of being a reformer. It was a common dream among Chinese poets, rooted in Confucian tradition due to the model of the first Chinese poet whose name we know, Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 B.C.), a reformer who suffered slander and exile for his efforts and eventually drowned himself.1 Bai Juyi also found himself banished from the capital (in 815 a.d.) for his reformist efforts. His lifelong friend Yuan Zhen suffered a similar fate, and the two poets sent beautiful poems of friendship to each other across the great expanse of China, for years meeting each other only in dream:


In spring snow at Blue Bridge you were called back to Changan.
In autumn wind I was exiled to the Qin Mountains.
Whenever I got to a horse station I would dismount
and meander around walls and pillars, hoping to find your poems.
—Bai Juyi2


A dying lamp’s low flame tosses the shadows.
This evening, told you’ve been demoted to Jiujiang,
I am so startled I sit up in my final sickbed.
Dark wind is blowing rain into cold windows.

—Yuan Zhen3

For two thousand years, poetry was the high road to political power and social success in China, and for the old scholar-officials it also spurred this sort of epistolary connection, a genre of farewell poems, visitation poems, exile poems, commemorating friendship. For the American poet, who has suffered an intense decline in the cultural importance of his or her art, these poems seem to have had special importance, coming across the centuries like missives from lost companions. In fact, there is a whole subgenre in American poetry of intimate poems of friendship written in homage or response to the spirits of the great, dead, Chinese poets.

When I was a young teen, I had a fantasy about spirits. I thought, if there is a god, or a world spirit, it must be a dumb god, a mute one, a force that doesn’t know itself, but manifests itself in the world as a way of articulating itself to itself. Here is a poem I wrote to my best friend of that time, titled “Hungry Ghosts”:


Old friend, you write, Why write? It’s all trash,
nothing to say. Maybe you’re right. Why keep writing
with this tool to inscribe time, line by line, measuring
what is lost as it leaves? No one reads this stuff.

If only the words were a body I could inhabit
and you could feel me through this membrane,
like skins touching. I remember one day telling you
I felt I was just starting to wake from the long dumb

sleep of childhood, but was lost in the dark rush
of the senses, and I imagined my spirit
as a blind reaching through flesh and tickertape
consciousness, a hand trying to grasp itself.

I would like to believe in souls reaching through
the flesh for understanding, hungry to be seen
and detecting each other through defective means.
I would like to believe this life is a sleep we’ll wake from,

that some conductor drives our spirits through
this tunnel and for a reason. But I find myself talking
in darkness, huddled around the narrow flame
of my own being, the way a child I knew, yes, me,

would walk home from the bus stop chanting nonsense
because when he fell silent the empty dark
closed in and made him know how blind he was,
how ravenous for dinner, lights, and mother.

And he would make the television blaze and shout
just to stop that dead black eye from staring.
And in bed, he’d pull the covers over his head
when his mother said, Lights out, and pray for sleep.

It’s a nice fantasy–that the universe is seeking gnosis, making itself into creatures because it seeks to awaken to itself, and finding that knowledge through love and through friendship. (I like the fact that the Quakers call themselves “friends” as they search for the inner light.) Sure, it’s science fiction, but it’s no nuttier than any other religious belief, and I still have fondness for it, because helps answers for me the question of why poets bother to write at all. We write, or at least I write, “to inscribe time, line by line, measuring / what is lost as it leaves.” We write, as my friend Li-Young Lee says, with our deaths perched upon our shoulders, always aware of our own mortality, and determined to know something before we die. We write because like Andrew Marvell, at our back we “always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.”

In “To Wei Ba,” The great Chinese poet, Du Fu, visits a friend he rarely sees, and they mourn their dead friends, their advancing age, and share many cups of wine, since “Tomorrow mountains will come between us, / and we’ll be lost in the world like mist.” Contemporary poets, even those lucky few who have the plum jobs, win the large prizes, are chased after by presses and the better magazines, are lost in the world like mist, making great art for a diminished and skeptical audience. And so James Wright writes: “Po Chu-i, balding old politician, / What's the use?” What’s the use of poetry when we are all in exile, in our “own black twilight,” longing for absent friends, for the lost paradise of Peach Tree Spring, “the city of isolated men beyond mountains,” even for the obliteration of everything by the vanished sea “that once solved the whole loneliness / Of the Midwest.” What’s the use of poetry when Bai Juyi and his friend are dead, when Du Fu and his friend are long dead? What the use when James Wright is also dead, and will be frozen in his loneliness in the spring of 1960 for the next thousand years?

Perhaps there is no use, except to make a temporary stay against loneliness, to “roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball,” which we call a poem. The poetry I love is like that of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (1909 - 1944), a Jew whose poems were seized and banned, and who was shot in the head during a forced march from a Nazi camp. In 1946, when a mass grave was exhumed, his wife found a notebook of his last poems in the pocket of his overcoat, many of them written to her as he walked to his death. In his poem “Picture Postcards,” he writes of the murder of another prisoner, "I fell beside him; his body turned over, / already taut as a string about to snap. / Shot in the back of the neck. That's how you too will end, / I whispered to myself; just lie quietly.” Each time we pick up a book of old poems, we are reading postcards written from the grave. Like Walt Whitman in “To You” the poem speaks from the tomb and says:

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear.
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.

It comes to us like a letter tied to the leg of a migrating crane, carrying word of the keening of the ghosts on the battlefields of the north, of how the flowers silently fell all night and covered the steps in blossoms, of how the moonlight on the floor tonight looked like snow. It whispers softly in our ears, like the voice of a friend, and, as the distance between collapses, we might even smile in our exile.


Tony Barnstone is Associate Professor of creative writing at Whittier College. His first book of poetry, Impure, a finalist for the Walt Whitman Prize, the National Poetry Series Prize, and the White Pine Prize, appeared with the UP of Florida in June 1999. His chapbook of poems, Naked Magic, appeared in 2002 with Main Street Rag Press. Other books include Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1993), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Selected Poems of Wang Wei (Hanover: UP of New England, 1991), The Art of Writing: Teachings of Chinese Masters (Boston: Shambhala, 1996), and a number of textbooks, most recently The Literatures of Asia and The Literatures of the Middle East (Prentice Hall). His poetry, translations, essays on poetics, and fiction have appeared in dozens of American literary journals, from APR to Agni. He has won an Artists Fellowship from the California Arts Council, as well as many national poetry awards. A few of his other books are The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2003) and a number of textbooks for Prentice Hall, including The Pleasures of Poetry: An Introduction (2005), World Literature (two volumes, 2003), and Modern Poetry: An Anthology with Contexts (2004).


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lola Haskins - Writers' Friendship

When I meet someone on a plane, and they ask what I do for a living, I
say, well, I teach Computer Science for a day job, but my profession is
poetry. What usually happens next is that their eyes glaze over and I
can see them mentally checking their watches to see how much longer the
flight is going to take. Then, unless they think to ask me something
about computers, usually to do with whether they should scrap their pcs
for the latest hot-lick models, they tend to develop a sudden, burning,
interest in Sky Mall. If I’d been some other kind of writer, a
novelist or a screenwriter for instance, I’ve always thought it would
have been better, but maybe not, because to most people watching cars go
airborne over the top of Gough Street, heading down towards the bay,
screenwriters seem as irrelevant as tinsel on last year’s Christmas
tree. Be that as it may, I think it’s fair to say that we poets find
ourselves at the bottom of the interest scale with most of the non
reading public.

One of the consequences of that is that we have fewer chances to
connect with audiences than people who work in other literary genres do.

So, being in the minority and being relatively poor, even in the
literary world, we help each other out whenever we can, right? Well,
in my experience, not necessarily.

For example, when I meet some poets, I get the feeling that they’re
sizing me up to see if I’m any threat. If the verdict is that I’m not,
then they relax. If they decide otherwise, they clam up and start
looking over my shoulder for someone more useful to talk to. Sometimes,
it goes much farther than this, perhaps even to the point of paranoia.

For instance, a few years ago, when two poets came to my town to teach
in the writing program, I thought, great, more poets, and bought their
books. But not only have they not been polite to me, without ever
exchanging more than ten words total with me in all the years since
they’ve come they put me down to their students on a regular basis. So
why are they doing this? I’ve decided it’s because they’re protecting
English, which they see as their territory. It seems such a pity, but I
know it’s not an isolated case. I’ve heard other stories like that,
where certain writers seem to have peed on their four corners, to make
sure interlopers are aware that only they, the purveyors of urine, and
their students are welcome within their borders. And if someone tries
to cross that line, he or she finds out what that odd odor means and, to
mix a metaphor, in spades.

Luckily, this isn’t universally the case, maybe not even generally so.
Over the years, I’ve met some hugely generous people, to name only a
few: Andrea Hollander Budy, Nick Samaras, Jo MacDougall, Frank Gaspar,
Maurya Simon and, more recently, Ruth Schwartz, all terrific poets and
all genuinely happy when any of us gets lucky. We buy each others’
books and tell people about each others’ work. To be fair, we’ve often
became friends in the first place because we did like each others’ work.

If you think about it, how much more deeply can you know someone than
by living with his/her poetry. And sometimes -- in the ancient
tradition-- we talk in poetry. For instance, a few years ago, Andrea
and I had a poetry conversation, with the goal being neither of our
greater glory but both of our greater growth. During that exchange,
Andrea wrote some lovely poems which wended their way into her most
recent collection, and I profited too, spinning off her intelligence in
directions of my own. Nick Samaras and I are now doing a similar thing-
we send each other a poem a month, which we then critique back and
forth until it falls to rest. Nick’s a fine critic, and I’ve learned a
lot from him. And those are only a couple of examples. I have many
wonderful friends and teachers among other poets. In fact, like many of
us, I feel friendship, even kinship, to writers I’ve never met, just
from their work.

But the most important of my own friendships are the warm, live ones.
It’s a wonderful feeling not to need to explain why I do what I do,
because they already know since they’re the same, and in that mutual
knowing I feel the sort of acceptance which I can’t always, in the last
analysis, get from those closest to me. In fact, sometimes I think of
my friendships with other writers as a kind of home base on the field of
my life.

I’d like to leave you with an analogy. My husband makes beautiful
stained glass. And because he wants to give something back, he donates
windows to poor churches. We go to Mexico often, making that part of
our trips, and when Gerald’s finished a project, we prospect for
another. A few years ago, it was a church on a bumpy street in a barrio
in Patzcuaro. Ger spent an especially long time on those windows-
there were eight, and he designed them beautifully, with an Indian
woman in the foreground and colors which seemed just right for the
bright plastic streamers which adorned the inside of that church. When
the windows were ready, we took them to the sacristans in Patzcuaro, a
couple named Adolfo and Josefina, to explain how install them and help
them do it.

It wasn’t an easy job because the windows weren’t set up to
receive glass, so there was a fair amount of improvisational
engineering- a sort of engineering skat- to be done before we could
start the actual installation. The three of us, Adolfo, Ger, and I had
been working for several days, and neither Adolfo not Josefina had said
a word about the windows. Now, I knew how hard Ger had worked on them–
months and months in the barn. So, though I felt guilty about it, I
was also beginning to feel let down and a little annoyed. More and
more, I wanted someone besides me to admire those windows. Or at least
thank Ger for his trouble. But then one day Josefina and I were
sitting at the table in her tiny house with its glass-less windows and
its dog on the roof, where they lived with their eight children, and
she said: You know, we don’t have much, but everything we have, each
person gets a little bit.” And then I understood why they hadn’t
thanked us. Because, of course we’d shared what we had. And that felt
right to me, and I think it’s how we poets should be to each other too,
how my dear friends are already and how I’d like to be too: we don’t
have much, but everything we have, each of us gets a little bit.


Lola Haskins’ poetry advice book, Not Feathers Yet: A Beginner’s Guide to
the Poetic Life (Backwaters Press) appeared in 2007, as did a collection
of her fables about women, with images by Maggie Taylor, Solutions
Beginning with A (Modernbook). Her most recent of eight books of poems
is a new and selected called Desire Lines (BOA, 2004). She continues to
do as much radio as she can and to collaborate with other artists, her
most recent collaboration being poetry with dance and cello called Of Air
and the Water, performed at the Hippodrome State Theater, Gainesville, FL,

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lucille Lang Day - Living With A Writer

You are a writer. Imagine that in the next room is someone who has read a lot of your work, perhaps more than anyone else, and that although this person is not available 24 hours a day to read your new work, you never need wait more than a few hours for an opportunity to say, "Would you read this?" He or she, being a writer too, has come to you many times with this same request. Each of you knows that at worst a short wait will follow: the answer will always be "Yes."

My husband, Richard Levine, writes mostly prose; I write mostly poetry. I have absolutely no sense of competing with him. Our work is so different from each other's that the idea of competition seems as remote to me as the idea of competition with someone who practices a different art form, say music or painting. Yet, since we both work with words, we are able to respond critically to each other.

We are honest when we read each other's work: we don't automatically say the things ("Brilliant!" "Incredible!") that the other longs to hear. I am friends with many writers, and I often share unpublished work with them. There are only a few, however, who've ever ventured to say anything downright negative, such as "That image is a cliché" or "The ending of that poem is really unsatisfying." Every writer needs someone who will do this, and I am grateful whenever I hear it from my spouse instead of embarrassing myself by showing my pimply young poems to other friends.

Richard's feedback is the most detailed I get from anyone. He seems to consider each word in my poems as carefully as if he'd written them himself. He even comes up with alternative images for me. For example, in a poem I wrote about the war in Iraq, I had the lines "fear gathers like clouds/and saturates the earth—unwelcome rain." Richard, bless his directness, said, "That's a cliché." He didn't stop there, but went on to generate a list of alternative images, including "fear falls like feathers of birds/shot from the sky." This inspired me to work more on these lines, and eventually I came up with "fear rises and swirls like a dust storm/engulfing the streets." To get from the clouds to the dust storm, Richard and I considered 15 versions of these two lines—three of his and 12 of mine. Who but your spouse would put up with this? Afterward I asked him if it bothered him, when, after he'd put so much time into the poem, I didn't use one of his images. He said "No," that he understood my need to make it my own.

Both of us feel that giving feedback to the other is helpful to our own development as a writer, that the process gives us experience that enables us to look more critically at our own work. After all, both poets and prose writers use images, are concerned with voice, and need to get rid of unnecessary words. I have to admit, though, that responding to Richard's stories would be a lot less rewarding if he weren't such a good writer and I didn't enjoy his work so much.

If Richard is disgruntled for any reason when I give him a poem to read—e.g., if he's feeling frustrated with his own work or annoyed with me—he waits until later to read it. He says he's harsher when he's not in a good mood. I don't think his mood affects his ability to evaluate a poem, but it definitely has an impact on how he presents his criticism!

When we work on one of his stories or my poems, it's always clear whose piece of writing it is, and who will therefore have the last word. I'm not sure Richard and I could co-author something unless we were writing separate chapters of a book or separate sections of an article. We once spent an hour working on a single sentence for the guest book at a bed and breakfast inn: "It was lovely to stay in such a personal space, watched over by the mermaid—a magical eyrie." Richard preferred "the Motel 6 of our dreams" to "a magical eyrie." He finally threw up his hands and said, "I'm taking the suitcases to the car. Write whatever you want."

It would be dishonest to leave the impression that the bed-and-breakfast incident was the most serious disagreement Richard and I have ever had over writing. A worse one that stands out in my mind (and I am sure there are others in his) was the night I wanted to work on a poem when he felt that he needed my help because all he could get was snow on our new television set. I will leave the details of this one to your imagination. We survived it, we are still married, and he is still my best editor and my best friend.

In addition to discussing our own writing, we talk about poetry and fiction we've read, as well as theoretical issues such as deconstruction and reader-response criticism, and the aesthetics of schools of writing such as Language Poetry and New Formalism. We often revisit the question, "Is an interpretation of a story or poem valid if the author didn't have it in mind?" I would say "Yes"; Richard would say "No." There doesn't tend to be a winner or loser in these discussions; we just get clearer and clearer about what someone else thinks.

Our bookshelves hold many volumes by authors that one of us wouldn't have read if it weren't for the other. To name just a few, I wouldn't have read novels by Charles Baxter and Ann Patchett if Richard hadn't said "I think you'll like this," and he would probably have missed the poetry of Pattiann Rogers and Ruth Daigon if it weren't for my enthusiastic oral reviews. Every Friday evening before dinner, we light candles, say blessings over the bread and wine, and read a poem to celebrate the cycle of the week.


Lucille Lang Day's poetry collections are Infinities, Wild One, Fire in the Garden, and Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope, which was selected by Robert Pinsky for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in Literature. She has also published three poetry chapbooks, most recently The Book of Answers (Finishing Line, 2006) and God of the Jellyfish (Cervena Barva, 2007). She is the founder and director of Scarlet Tanager Books (, and the director of the Hall of Health, a museum in Berkeley.



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Comments - "A Random Reader"

Just wanted to drop a note to let you know how much I am enjoying the series 'On the Nature of Literary Friendship'. I stumbled upon it, and am delighted with the diversity of both the writing and the perspectives offered. Thanks for compiling it.

--Valerie Polichar (a random reader & editor of the journal Grasslimb)

Comments -Good job!

Hello Robert!
My name is Jalina Mhyana. I was just reading your
article about writers' friendships and was completely
engaged by the idea and the honesty with which you both
approached it. Wow, great stuff! Most writers are so damn
irritatingly appropriate that they would never admit to such
feelings. For instance, in my MFA program, all of the
students agree with whatever the guru-writer of the day is
saying, without question, wagging their tails and nodding
their heads. Gee whiz! I love this honesty stuff you're
giving us. Let's have more humanity, less phony
graciousness. Good job!
My Best,
Jalina Mhyana


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

J.J. Webb remembers Michael McNeilley, 1947 - 2001


In Memory - Michael McNeilley
So the computer screen passes writers at me on a constantly evolving Internet and this one blues piece, in '93, holds my screen a long time with its intricacies. I ask, "who the hell is this guy McNeilley?" The screen says, 'editor of the Olympia Review, in Olympia, Washington.' Within a few days there is an introduction. Within a few more days there's plotting. A few more, collaboration. And one day, friendship.

The collaboration started on one of the Internet's first Ezines. An Art and Literary Ezine called 'The Hawk' had started in '93. Michael became the fiction editor of 'The Hawk' just before its second issue. When the Ezine became 'poetry only' in '95, its name was changed to 'ZeroCity'. And Michael and I became its co-editors.

A recluse, I know friendships with other reclusive men and women who do the same kinds of things with their reclusive natures. Write. Carve. Sculpt. Paint. They want to be alone, mostly, to examine the insides of their imaginations and to distort time, or so some have told me. Some of those friends, when called to oppose their natural, comfortable routines, come out of their seclusion gregarious, self-assured, eager, even arrogant in their approach to their friends. Demanding. Imposing. Exciting. Provocative. That friend is the most stimulating and dangerous kind of friend. Including major investments of time in revelation of naked spirit to another. And fear, too, of being overwhelmed. Of being too influenced.

Michael McNeilley pushed writers at me faster than I thought possible. Where he found them didn't matter
to me. We'd decided to do an Ezine and the fact he was three times faster than me at finding writers only
bothered me a little bit. Eventually, I told him I felt like we were in a competition and I was running second.
He said, "Great! You are the man with the perfect life AND you want to come in first in everything you do, too?
You greedy thing. So, when did this become a competition?"

"You think I have a perfect life?"
"You think you don't?"
* * *
A few weeks ago, during a discussion on the history of poetry on the Internet, Robert Sward informed me of a 1996 magazine article on Internet Ezines. He said the Ezine Michael and I had edited was mentioned favorably, though only Michael had been listed as editor. Grrrrrr. And the article was written a decade ago.

* * *
"Tell me again, why did we agree to release tomorrow?"
"We thought it would be less work?"
"At least there's only Virg and three others left to format."
"Michael, your buddy Virg is a dick. You know that?"

"Easy now, Virgil and I go way back. What's the problem?"
"He's a lawyer. Let's start there. That alone's enough, but
he's a 'know-it-all' too, and he thinks he's a better writer
than me ..."

"Well, that's probably true .."
".. hell, he thinks he's a better writer than you."

"The dick! You think we should can his pieces from the issue?"

* * *
On the next to last day of June, 2002, we spread Michael McNeilley's ashes around one of the trees in the redwood cathedral here at the Poetry Grove. Stephanie and Thom, his ex-wife and son, Jeff, one of his boyhood friends, and I scattered the ashes. My wife and daughter watched. We read poetry by Auden and by Michael. We talked about heart attacks and dying young, about turtles and Napoleon. We talked about Michael, his brother, his wives, his sons, his daughter, his poetry. We remembered him with his friends and his acquaintances. We drove out to Big Basin and Stephanie spread some of his ashes around one of the trees near 'the mother of the forest', a spot he'd taken a liking to when he visited in '99.

There were stories of Washington, New York, New Mexico, Texas and a dozen other places. Stories of drum beats on wooden legs and reckless ramblings in a gold convertible. There were conjectures on how many lives he'd saved, how many wars he'd settled, how many he had waged.

We ate steak and corn and baked potatoes on the balcony under the oak tree where Michael spent time staring out at Empire Ridge in the distance. No one can look out at these huge trees, this beautiful forest, these Holy Cross Mountains and not see heaven. And certainly, heaven is where Michael McNeilley belongs.
--Beau Blue

McNeilley was founding director of the National Student News Service; worked as a reporter and correspondent in Washington, DC; His stories and poems have appeared in hundreds of magazines, Ezines, anthologies and broadsides, including the New York Quarterly, Poet, Chicago Review, Oyster Boy Review, Cross-Connect, Mississippi Review, Chiron Review, Poetry Motel, Minotaur, Slipstream, Cafe Review, Pink Cadillac, and many others. He was editor of the Olympia Review in Olympia Washington, publisher & editor of the 'Olympia Review Anthology'. He was co-editor with JJ Webb of the online Ezine ZeroCity from 1994 to 1998. His books and broadsides include 'Love & Beer', and 'My religion is your ass' (with Mere Smith) from Techline, 'Situational Reality' from Dream Horse Press, 'McNeilley's Monsters' & '10 by mcn' from Cruzio Communications.


Beau Blue (JJ Webb) - Blue's books & recordings include 'Appalachian Canticles' (Jarus Books, 1979), 'Human Tricks' (A Little Licks Record, 1981), 'in the Electric Shadows' (A daVinci Media publication, 1994). He was co-editor with Michael McNeilley of the online Ezine ZeroCity from 1994 to 1998. A performance poet and storyteller, Blue has performed extensively in Northern California, Oregon and Nevada for the last 30 years. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Beau Blue Presents -


Catherine Graham - Grief, Poems & Friendship

Grief, Poems & Friendship

Grief is like waiting for fifty giant black kettles to boil.

    For whatever reason deep literary friendships have eluded me. Perhaps this is due to my current geographic location as I live in the suburbs, away from downtown Toronto - the centre of Canada's literary scene. Perhaps this is due to my solitary nature - an only child I'm quite comfortable spending time by myself. Or perhaps this is due to my social shyness - I often feel more alone during literary gatherings than I do when I'm actually alone. But having said that...

   Myna Wallin and I were introduced during an Art Bar reading at The Victory Café on Markham Street in Toronto. The affinity was immediate. We had much in common, budding poets living the freelance life. But we soon discovered we shared more than that, we'd been through the loss of both parents. We were both adult orphans.

    "I think about you," Myna said. Another Art Bar reading had just ended. We stood at the corner of Bloor and Bathhurst, Myna beside her bicycle, I beside my car, about to say goodbye. The fact that my brief presence had had an impact on Myna made me feel special, appreciated, seen.

     That fall after my first book of poetry was published, Myna came to the Toronto launch at the Mockingbird on King Street.

    "I have something for you," she said. She handed me a long white box. "I saw it today and got it on impulse. I hope you don't mind."

  Sandwiched between two long cotton strips I pulled out a finely carved wooden butterfly. Myna fastened the choker around my neck. Not only did I wear it that night I chose to wear it for subsequent readings; a fitting image as my first book of poetry was titled Pupa. Myna's intuitive and impulsive gesture moved me deeply. I had myself a friend.

    During the months that followed I was booked to do a series of readings and radio interviews. One of the interviews was with the University of Toronto's campus station CIUT, a Sunday afternoon hour-long program with hosts Nik Beat and Nancy Bullis. After climbing the narrow, rickety stairs, I was ushered into a waiting room and introduced to the poet I would be sharing the program with. Dark-haired like Myna, she too had kind, warm eyes. Sincere smile.

    "I'm Merle Nudelman. Do you mind if I go first? My husband and I need to attend a wedding reception."

    "No problem," I said. We exchanged cards.

    Before readings and interviews not only do I experience the flutter of butterfly wings in my stomach, my listening abilities go out the window. This is normal, so I'm told, but unfortunate, for it means that I'm incapable of enjoying any presenter before me. My mind is brim-filled with questions. What will I say? Which poems shall I read? So when Merle sat across from Nancy Bullis I assumed I would not be able to listen. My mind would be too muddled.

    This was not the case.

    Like my first book of poetry Pupa, Merle's first book Borrowed Light contained poems that captured her personal grieving journey after the loss of both parents. I couldn't help but listen. The poems she read were tight and effective, humorous and gut wrenching. She'd traveled that flat black landscape I knew so well. And like me she'd made her way through it.

   A few weeks later Merle and I met up for a coffee and chat. Because Merle had to leave right after her interview she hadn't heard mine. A look of amazement washed over her face when I shared my story of how I'd come to write poetry.

    "That's my story," she said. We've been friends ever since.

    When grief hits us it slams doors shut. But it if you look closely, very closely, it also opens them. After the deaths of my parents the door to poetry opened to me. Grief acted as the catalyst towards the creative life. Once I became conscious of this - journal outpourings were more than emotional release - I began to take the craft of writing poetry seriously.

   Perhaps deep literary friendships haven't eluded me after all.

Catherine Graham is the author of The Watch and The Red Element. She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto, designs and delivers workshops on creativity for the business and academic communities, and is Vice-President of Project Bookmark Canada. Visit: