Sunday, November 29, 2009

Casting and Gathering, Friendship - on the contrary

by Andrew Boobier

In his poem, Casting and Gathering, dedicated to his friend Ted Hughes,
Seamus Heaney writes:

I love hushed air. I trust contrariness.
Years and years go past and I do not move
For I see that when one man casts, the other gathers
And then vice versa, without changing sides.

Heaney evokes here the push-pull effect of friendship, the fact that
two people can have different natures, contrary impulses yet be united
in the common bond of mutuality and respect for each other as fishermen
and poets. The poem is also about growing up and learning to respect
these differences, 'I have grown older and can see them both...' he

There is a dialectical movement in which the two opposing forces of
Heaney's and Hughes' language (the 'hush' and 'lush') are not only
synthesised into their bonds of friendship but also as a resolution
within the poem and Heaney's own contrary. The strong resolutions
within Heaney's poetic output in general are indicative of his
allegiance to his Romantic forbears and his own particular need for
balance and redress (e.g. see his lecture, The Redress of Poetry -
essentially a post-romantic rebuttal of post-modernism).

I have a great [*word missing?] of sympathy with Heaney's trust of
contrariness, though I have a harder time coming up with cosy
resolutions. I once wrote a poem combining
suicidal American poets with the need for public displays of mourning
after national tragedy, it ended:

Human beings,
as Eliot says, cannot bear too much
History is a register of fancy.
War is a matter of personal
taste. Poetry is the language
of saints.
If only everything
were so black and white.

That last line is an ironic, wistful sigh mimicking the
romantic-capitalist desire to categorise discourse and ideology into
neat manageable parts which can be subsumed or appropriated into a neat
manageable whole. I certainly do not blame people for seeking these
kinds of resolutions; we're all looking for something to hold on to
when reality gets too heavy [*to] bear. But having been schooled these
last twenty years in existentialism, surrealism, and the works of
Georges Bataille, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida and Foucault, I tend to have
a more sceptical eye on such matters.

I, too, trust contrariness. But it is one that is intuitive, left open
to its own raw and rough edges, dark and often unresolved. This kind of
operation is not always easy to undertake when you have also been
influenced by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Heaney,
Hughes, and others who have trod the well-worn path of Romantic
academic poetry fed to the young on undergraduate courses. Like
Whitman, I say: Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict
myself. This attitude is undoubtedly rooted in the fact
that I am a working class kid educated to highfalutin middle class
intellectual values.

So, on the one hand I am a poet - the ne plus ultra of post-romantic
narcissistic navel-gazing. On the other, I hate that kind of widely
accepted and highly-acceptable form of egocentricism. Poor Andrew, torn
between the ego-impulse to express himself and desire to lose the
'self' in a more communal project!

Anyway, a few years ago this came to a head. I've always been too
much of a misanthrope to be enthused by 'community arts' and so instead
I was drawn into the more cerebral collective adventure of surrealism.

One day I was browsing through one of the larger chain-store bookshops
when I came across a strange 'calling card' which had been left in a
book of surrealist short stories. I can't recall what it said exactly
but it intrigued me enough to contact the authors. I thought it was a
flyer for a magazine and I had just starting writing 'surreal' poetry
and so I sent them a letter with a couple of poems and told them I was
familiar with surrealist history and had even translated a novel by
Georges Bataille at university. They wrote back immediately and set up
a meeting in a nearby pub. So I then met up with four people calling
themselves The Leeds Surrealist Group. They were four friends who'd
originally met at university, united by a passion for black attire and
exploring the darker side of the imagination first begun in the 1920's
by Breton and his band of collective adventurers.

For some time the Leeds Group had been adhering to strict Bretonian
principles: collectively drawing[s] and writing, and devising games in
the single-minded pursuit to wrench the imagination back from the
all-devouring profit-motive and market forces. It was all very
idealistic, historically informed and seemingly exactly what I was
looking for. Inevitably we hit it off and I passed the 'interview' - my
wife and I were invited to one of their creative evenings. In the
candlelight and semi-gothic darkness we'd sit drinking red wine
discussing the politics of surrealism, the activities of other groups
in Prague, Paris and Stockholm, the mutual respect for Artaud and the
equally mutual hatred of 'Avida Dollars'. We'd play exquisite corps and
initiate new games. Once every week we'd sit in a pub, seething into
our beers with hatred for the 'system', all the while plotting a
'revolution of the mind' by collectively drawing on a beer mat.

The real glue that held everyone together was a deep, though often
fraught, friendship. Being newcomers, it took some time for the others
to let their guard down and let us into their inner sanctum of trust
and bonhomie. And yet, group dynamics being what they are, a certain
strained tension was never far away. There was a definite leader of the
group. He was the one who would organise sessions, the intellectual
force behind the whole project, be the overall spokesman etc. Coming
into the group from my own intellectual position (my 'Bataille' to his
'Breton') shifted the weight in the boat a little. Not that this would
come out in any overt way - we never argued - it was more subtle in the
way I would question given assumptions or undermine some of the
pomposity of what we did with humour. The group could be very serious,
sometimes to a point of blind self-righteousness. I find it difficult
to be totally serious about anything that doesn't appreciate the
absurdity of one's own human, all too human, situation.

There is no text without a context, and I wanted to understand more the
context of what made the group and its friendships tick. I therefore
devised a collective game called The Misfortunes of Memory which would
explore the limits of surrealistic discourse and what held us all
together. The game itself was quite complex, involving players choosing
objects from their past, writing them down and distributing them
secretly among the others where they would undergo various
'transformations' (visual representations, narrative reconstructions,
etc). One controlling individual called 'The Puppet Master' would have
little to do with the game except at the end when he would create a
small 4 act play based on material given by the others. The players
would then have to act out this play. The fifth act would be an act of
revenge whereby the actors view the puppet master's objects and devise
an ending to the play (including the Puppet Master's inevitable
'death') based on this new material.

The idea of the game would be for people to give up some aspect of
their past, like a gift (in more anthropological terms, an act of
'potlatch') and allow this to be manipulated and changed by others to
create something new. It would be an act of artistic trust and faith in
the Other. What it ultimately meant was that no act of self-reflection
would fall into a single 'fetishised' discursive form; it would be open
to a series of manipulations and interpretations outside any
individual's controlling ego. All-in-all I thought it quite an exciting
(and difficult) challenge and felt it would take the group's activity
to a new level.

My wife was equally enthusiastic about it though the rest of the group
were highly suspicious of my motives. They didn't seem to take in the
spirit it was presented: as a game. They wanted to analyse it and
discuss it further, reformulate it so it conformed to a mutually agreed
format with a more defined outcome. The fact that the game was
dictatorial was intentional; imposed by an Other like so much that goes
on in society. That's why I included the role of the Puppet Master
(i.e. the role of Authority) who has an unequal amount of power yet
gets his comeuppance. What I hoped the game would produce was a
microcosm of the power structures both within the group's own dynamics
and in society 'out there', as well as how collective engagement (i.e.
artistic friendship) could transform and corrupt power's own corruption
through the work of the imagination. It was everything we'd talked
about, enacted. OK, it might not work as a piece of art - it was the
taking part that was most important - lessons would be learned; the
armour (amour) of our friendship would have been tempered in the
white-hot forge of collective and imaginative engagement. Blimey, it
would have at least been a laugh!

It was not to be. I felt by this time the group had moved on and fallen
foul of the need to justify its existence through the production of
more bone fide 'works'.

Endless discussions, overt lack of enthusiasm, needless suspicion... it
was the beginning of the end, at least for us. And my wife and I began
to see less of the group.

In the end we re-enacted one of the more sordid episodes in the history
of surrealism - the ideological split. Breton vs Bataille all over

You cannot blame the group or any individual for this outcome. It was
an experiment after all. It's just disappointing that we couldn't take
the risk and that, in the end, the ego's defences were set too strong
for this particular collective adventure.

People confuse my contrariness with being just plain awkward or
difficult. Perhaps I am. But being contrary, for me, means exploring
given assumptions about the world, seeing how far you can push things
before they fall off the edge or transform into something new. For me
it's nothing aggressive or nasty; it should be fun, playful. It's just
a tool of the imagination that many poets and artists employ. How far
should it go though? Should this imaginative prodding extend to the
bonds and boundaries of friendship too? As I found out there's a risk
involved. Is it worth taking? That depends. One man casts the other

All this happened six or seven years ago now and I haven't heard from
the group since. Despite our differences, I still think about them and
wonder what they are up to. As for myself, I still live a contrary life
- relatively alone - between writing acceptably narcissistic poetry
(which has found a modicum of success) and devising more 'weird' stuff
with a new writer, Anton Brassiere (which has also had a slight drizzle
of public approval).

My wife and I have also resurrected the Misfortunes of Memory game
which we are currently playing: less as husband and wife but, more
comfortably, as friends. Where it's going, we're not sure yet, but we
are enjoying the ride!

Andrew Boobier was born in Haworth, West Yorkshire in 1963.
He has published poetry and translations in the UK &
US. In 2003 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Andrew is also the editor of the Alsop Review's
prestigious online quarterly magazine, Octavo
( Andrew has just
launched his own web site at;
He'd be pleased to hear from you.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Beyond Cats and Chocolate: Two Writers Learn Through Friendship and Work

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

--Anais Nin


by Suki Wessling

I met Penny Cagan at the Vermont College Post-Graduate Writers Conference. It was the first conference---or workshop, for that matter---that had attracted me for years. My last writing group had descended into psychotherapy on the cheap---"What does this story say about Suki's relationship with her mother?"---rather than real critique. But I hoped that this conference would be different. At least, I assumed, there would be no beginning writers there who would ask what point of view was.

I was a fiction writer at the time. I was suspicious of poetry and poets. The former because I'd been taught very badly in high school that poetry was "serious," and I'd taken refuge in fiction, which could be "fun" as well as meaningful. The latter because MFA programs seem to foster this mutual suspicion, in spite of the many cross-over writers who are among our greats. There was a poet in my fiction workshop at Michigan, and without fail she was critiqued with a sort of patronizing pity---"her images are beautiful, but the plot doesn't hold together."

So there I was in Vermont, in the middle of a room where everyone seemed to know each other. For the most part, they did. Most of the students were former MFA grads of the college. There were chairs set up for a reading. Sitting alone in a sea of empty chairs was a striking woman in black. "I have always felt like a head without a body," was one of the first things she said to me. Then we found out that we both had beloved cats, and loved chocolate. Not much more is needed for a friendship.

What grew from my friendship with Penny, however, has been much more than girlish chats (we've had many of those), support through hard times (I think we rate well there, too), and loyal enthusiasm for what the other is doing. Penny introduced me---again---to poetry. This time, the right way. Penny's love of poetry is deep and instinctive. She can keep up with the best of them in literary analysis, but when you ask her what she likes in a poem, she tells it from the soul. She's introduced me to some of my favorite poets, suggested I read others I didn't care for. In every case, I've learned from her long love affair with poetry.

Early on in our friendship, when I had a small graphic design business, I confided in Penny that I'd always had the dream of starting a publishing company. "Then you'll publish my first book," she said matter-of-factly. It seemed silly to me---she'd been published in many fine journals and had a growing reputation. Why have a novice publisher put out her book? But I thought it would be fun, so we put together a chapbook of what I called her "city poems"---her work that reflected her great love of New York City. It was a great thrill and also instructive---never again will I hand-bind 250 copies of a book with a rivet gun!

I assumed that Penny would go on to publish with a larger publisher, as I made plans to go forward with my small company. She did, in fact, start working with a very well-known publisher on her book, but she felt that her work was just getting lost in a large bureaucracy. Once again, she came to me to publish her work. I was honored but also wary of the responsibility. I warned her that I wouldn't be able to get the distribution that the large company would have, that the Chatoyant name on a book would mean nothing to people who didn't know her work. But she had loved the intimate process of her first book so much, that she convinced me it was the way she wanted to go.

Penny's book And Today I Am Happy is now on Chatoyant's list, and doing well. Penny is still working and living in New York City. I am now a mother of a small child (with another on the way) and going on with my publishing. Our friendship thrives. I know that my relationship with other authors will probably not be one founded first on friendship, but I hold my relationship with Penny as an example of how writers can work together, teach each other, and also be friends. Penny has never let any professional disagreement we might have get in the way of our friendship, and I continue to learn from her and enjoy her company---whether we're talking about writing and publishing or cuddling with our cats and a good cup of hot cocoa!


Suki Wessling is a writer and publisher of Chatoyant, a small poetry press. Her work has been published in a variety of literary journals, and she has a great stash of rejected novels on her hard drive.

Mort Marcus, 1936 - 2009

In a piece, a prose poem titled "The Library," my friend Morton Marcus wrote, "When I die I will be a book on a shelf in the library, and this notion doesn't bother me. I look forward to leaning against Melville and Montagine, and I can't wait to stand in the ranks..."

Attended Mort's Memorial at Cabrillo College, Aptos, CA, where he taught for 30 years... profound sense of loss, outpouring of emotion... An extraordinary event and extraordinary, too, was that sense of Mort as impressario, poet as magician... Mort with a magic flute... overseeing it all... it was as if the man was hosting his own funeral and, following that, the wake. In the last weeks of his life, dying of renal cancer, dealing with the pain and the one or two good hours a day left to him he managed to function, he put together the program, invited the various speakers and performers (businessman and long-time friend George Ow, Jr.; historian Sandy Lydon; poet Joe Stroud; novelist Kirby Wilkins... musician John Walther, artist James Aschbacher and writer Lisa Jensen, poets Gary Young and Stephen Kessler, Leonard Gardner and Jack Marshall, California Poet Laureate Al Young and Mark Ong, San Francisco author and book designer...).

The word _gravitas_ comes to mind, that, and bravery, facing one's death and preparing at the same time to mount a celebration. Yeah, Mort had more than the usual amount of vitality and appetite for life... an impressario, he knew how to make an entrance, and he knew how to make a departure.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mort Marcus - Last Poetry Reading

Left to Right - Robert Sward, Mort Marcus, Gary Young

It seemed an utterly natural thing to do, to be dying of cancer, to have suffered a year or two of agony, and yet to agree to give one last poetry reading. Still, with Mort Marcus you can never be too sure. I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere down the line he managed to do another. And of course he has two new books coming out and, once he has actual copies in hand, they'll need to be properly launched, though he did a decent enough job of reading poems from both and alerting his audience at last night's reading (Tues., Sept. 1, 41st Street Book Cafe, Capitola, CA).

Mort is an impressive storyteller, a teacher and a performer... an actor... and he knows how to make an dramatic entrance and, as he proved at last night's reading , he knows how to make an exit. Yeah, I'm thinking "exit," as in "exit dying..." And he looked good doing it. "Mort looks like he's already gone to heaven," said my wife, a woman not given to exaggeration.

I don't know many people who could carry it off, attracting an overflow audience, and delivering, 'bringing it on home,' reaching deep and giving an all-out reading, a reading answered by a standing ovation... 30 years of teaching in a really good community college, years of hosting what is said to be this country's longest running Poetry Show (KUSP-FM radio), and serving as a film reviewer for radio and TV...

My friend, poet Gary Young said afterward, "Robert, we're lucky to be here, even to have bad luck..."

If you're gonna have bad luck, well, it's better to have bad luck in some places than in others. I somehow left the reading feeling grateful as much as anything else. Grateful for a place that values its writers and artists. .

Wallace Baine in a moving front page tribute to Mort Marcus in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Aug. 30, 2009), concludes by saying,

"Yet the struggle to maintain his lifestyle in the face of painful treatments has taught him a few things about the emotional strength it takes to face the stiff headwinds of mortal illness. Reflecting on his life-long love of film, Marcus turns to the memorable climactic scene of the classic 1954 film On the Waterfront.

"There's the scene on the waterfront when Lee J. Cobb and his goons get Marlon Brando down in the meeting house there and just beat the hell out of him and leave him there. Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint jump down in there and say, 'You all right? We got to get you an ambulance.' And Brando says, 'No, no. Just stand me up.' And they lift him up into a standing position, and he says, 'Am I standing?'

"Marcus added, his voice thick with emotion, 'Yeah, I know what that's like.'"

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Misery loves company

He calls it "the poetry wars." The little world of poetry. The pie, i.e., the poetry pie... there's never enough to go around. Awards, publications, readings, honors, "A" and "B" list parties... a slice of this, a slice of that. My distinguished friend tells me of a fellow poet (also a friend) who won a major award (much deserved!) following which he hosted a party to celebrate the event, neglecting to invite my friend or myself. The truth is, I'd rather not have known of the "A" list party and puzzled as to why my distinguished friend would think I needed to know or could in any way benefit from knowing?

It's a human thing to do, says my wife. It's a way--his way--of bonding with you, this "big" literary event neither of you were invited to.

I think of Gloria Alford's print, "The Ego Like A Bizarre Balloon Rises Ever Upward." It's a variation on the title of Redon's print "The Eye..." A man on a horse--an Eighteenth Century symbol of pride--is taking an "ego trip." The horse is suspended from a puffed-up and protruding balloon, which is the only soft and vulnerable part of the print. The rest is encased in clear, flat plastic covering a blue sky full of clouds. Two Seventeenth Century angels with bows and arrows are poised ready to shoot down the balloon. The blue border, also of plastic, is a continuation of the sky.

As for myself, I grab a towel and head for the swimming pool. Even swimming, even swimming, it gets to me! As for Buddhist practice and Mindfulness, well, I'd give myself a C-.

Monday, May 4, 2009

UCLA Study on Friendship Among Women

I dunno, this may not be specifically on "Writers' Friendship," but I can't imagine _not_ including it. Feedback welcome!

By Gale Berkowitz

A landmark UCLA study suggests friendships between women are
special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe
our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage,
and help us remember who we really are. By the way, they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can
actually counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us
experience on a daily basis. A landmark UCLA study suggests that
women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause
us to make and maintain friendships with other women.. It's a
stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research most
of it on men upside down.

"Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that
when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that
revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as
possible," explains Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant
Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one
of the study's authors. "It's an ancient survival mechanism left
over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed

Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral
repertoire than just "fight or flight."

"In fact," says Dr. Klein, "it seems that when the hormone oxytocin
is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers
the "fight or flight" response and encourages her to tend children
and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in
this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is
released, which further counters stress and produces a calming

This calming response does not occur in men", says Dr. Klein,
"because testosterone" which men produce in high levels when they're
under stress seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen, she
adds, seems to enhance it.

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was
made in a classic "aha!" moment shared by two women scientists who
were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. "There was this joke that
when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in,
cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded", says Dr. Klein." When the
men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own.

I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly
90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from
my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto
something." The women cleared their schedules and started meeting
with one scientist after another from various research specialties.
Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Taylor discovered that by not including
women in stress research, scientists had made a huge mistake: The
fact that women respond to stress differently than men has
significant implications for our health.

It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that
oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other
women, but the "tend and befriend" notion developed by Drs. Klein
and Taylor may explain why women consistently outlive men.

Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of
disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.
"There's no doubt," says Dr. Klein, "that friends are helping us
live." In one study, for example, researchers found that people who
had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period.

In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year
period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses' Health
Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women
had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as
they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful
life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers
concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as
detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!

And that's not all! When the researchers looked at how well the
women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that
even in the face of this biggest stressor of all, those women who
had a close friend confidante were more likely to survive the
experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of
vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.

Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much
of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years
to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That's
a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D.,
co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls and
Women's Friendships (Three Rivers Press, 1998). "Every time we get
overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of
friendships with other women," explains Dr. Josselson. "We push
them right to the back burner. That's really a mistake because women
are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another.
And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special
kind of talk that women do when they're with other women It's a very healing experience."

Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T.
L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Female Responses to Stress:
Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

James Houston, 1933 - 2009 - #2

By James D. Houston

(cont.) ... "[Raymond Carver] also had a brotherly demon in him, and this was appealing in another kind of way. Ray [Carver] could talk you into things, cajole you or seduce you into things you were not perhaps ready for: a pied piper on the prose and poetry circuit.

One afternoon stands out in my memory. This must have been six years later. I was upstairs working on something, I can’t remember what, when I heard footsteps down below. We have an old Victorian-style place with an attic that has been converted into a writing space. It’s private yet still not entirely cut off because the building is old and poorly insulated. Rising toward me came the sound of large and deliberate footsteps, too heavy to be those of my wife or one of our kids. I listened until the footsteps stopped, in the room directly below me. A voice called my name.

I didn’t answer. I didn’t care who it was. I didn’t want to see anybody just then or get into a conversation. It was about three in the afternoon.

Whoever this was had now moved to the doorway at the bottom of the attic stairs.

"Houston, you sonofabitch, I know you’re up there."
Again I didn’t speak.
"Answer me!" he shouted.
I knew this voice, but I said, "Who is it?"
"It’s Carver."
"What do you want?"
"Goddamn it, come down here and say hello to some people."
"I’m busy. I’m working."
"Of course you’re working. We’re all working. We’re busy as bees. Do you want to come down or shall we come up?"
"I’ll be there in a minute."

He was traveling with Bill Kittredge and a big, red-bearded fellow named John, recently arrived from Alaska—all large men, large and thick. The four of us completely filled my living room. Ray was carrying two bottles, a gallon of vodka and a half gallon of grapefruit juice, which he carefully set upon the rug. From a plastic bag he withdrew a plastic cup and began to fill it.

With his rascal grin he said, "You tell me when," though he paid no attention to my reply. They had been at it since lunch, or earlier. Ray was living in Palo Alto at the time. On and off he’d been teaching here at U.C. Santa Cruz. He had them on a kind of sightseeing tour with no clear agenda, making it up as they went along. I surrendered to the inevitable and began to quench my thirst with the drink he had prepared, which ran forty-sixty in favor of the vodka.

I don’t remember all that we talked about. Kittredge was down from Montana as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, so we must have talked about that. Ray’s first book of stories, Will You Please be Quiet Please, had been put together, so we must have talked about that. It was a rambling conversation about books and writers and schemes and plans, that grew noisier as I caught up with them, as we sat and sipped and argued and laughed, and while Ray, self-appointed host, refilled and refilled the plastic glasses.

I guess an hour had passed when someone mentioned starting back.

"What do you mean?" said Ray.
"Who can drive?" said Kittredge.
"My God, you’re right," said Ray. It was his car. "Who’s going to do it?"

This led to a long debate over who was most qualified to navigate Highway 17, the curving mountain speedway that connects Santa Cruz to Santa Clara Valley and the Peninsula.

"Maybe Houston should," said Ray, at one point, "while he can still see."
"Gladly," I said, "though there is a problem with that. Once we got to your place, I would need a ride over the hill."
He leaned toward me with a raspy and infectious giggle. "Well, it goes without saying. One good turn deserves another. We’d just have to give you a lift back home."

The next thing I knew they were lunging through the house, down the hallway, out the back door and into the yard. While they piled into the car we shouted our good-byes. It was a big, unkempt American car, a car from a Ray Carver story, with low tires and a rumbling exhaust. It lurched a couple of times, kicking up dust. Ray took the corner without braking. The rear end swung wide, he gunned it, and they were gone.

There was no wind. The sky was clear, ordinarily a great time to be outdoors. But my head was throbbing. I was alone in a sudden stillness. In those days my driveway wasn’t paved. It had not rained in a month or so. Dust hung in the slanting light of late afternoon and slowly settled around me, and I stood there wondering what I was now supposed to do, stunned with drink at quarter to five and abandoned in my own driveway.

Later on we would talk about that trip and others like it, and Ray would always laugh the hardest, hearing his escapades repeated. But it doesn’t seem so funny now. It fills me with sadness, thinking back on the turmoil of those mid-1970s days, when he was always on the run. I prefer to remember him as he was in the years after the running ended, after the drinking stopped.

The last time I saw him was in February 1987, maybe six months before he learned about the cancer in his lungs. By that time he had gone back home to Washington. He and Tess Gallagher were living in Port Angeles. He had come down to the Bay Area to spend a few days as the Lane Lecturer at Stanford, which included a public reading at Kresge Auditorium. It was a triumphant return to the campus and to the region where he had honed his writing style. To a packed house he read "Elephant," which had recently appeared in The New Yorker, and got a standing ovation. Ray had a hulking, self-effacing way of receiving praise. At the podium he looked a bit surprised. He also looked genuinely prosperous. He was wearing an elegant suit, light beige, almost cream colored. It had an Italian look, single breasted, with narrow lapels.

As I stood there applauding with all the others I was thinking about a time I had flown to Tucson, fall of 1979, on my way home from a trip to Albuquerque. Tess had a one-year appointment at the University of Arizona, and Ray was on a Guggenheim. He’d been moving around so much I hadn’t seen him for a while. I’d heard about the big changes in his life, from him, and from others, but I wasn’t sure quite what this meant, until we went out that night for Mexican food. "You have whatever you want," Ray said, when it came time to order the beverages, "I’m sticking with the iced tea."

As we began to talk I saw that the crazy restlessness had gone out of his body. he had lost some weight. He was calmer, clearer, his laugh was softer. He had spiraled all the way down, he told me, drunk himself into the final coma, which he described as being at the dark bottom of a very deep well.

"I was almost a goner, I see that now. I was ready to go out. I could have. I was ready to. But I saw this pinpoint of light, so far up there it seemed an impossible distance. It seemed completely beyond my reach, and yet something told me I had to try and reach it. Somehow I had to climb up toward that last tiny glimmer. And by God, I managed to do that. What do you call it? The survival instinct? I climbed out of that hole and I realized how close I had come, and that was it. I haven’t had a drop from that day to this, and I’ve never felt better in my life."

He had always had the will to write, no matter what. Now he had joined that with the will to live. It made a powerful combination. You can see the effects in his later stories, and you could see it in his face the night he read at Stanford.

After the reception that followed the reading we found some time to chat, catch up on things, old times, new times—a chat which turned out to be our last, face to face. I had never seen him so happy. There was a lot of light around him, the kind of light given off by a man who feels good about himself and his work, a light enhanced by the ivory-tinted cloth of his tailored suit. Ray had quite a bit of money tied up in that suit, and he liked it. That is, he liked the idea of it, though my guess is he was not entirely comfortable wearing it.

He had a way of leaning in and lowering his voice, even when no one else was around, as if what he was about to say should not be overheard or repeated. "I have to tell you something," he said. "Every day I feel blessed. Every day I give thanks. Every day I am simply amazed at the way things have turned out. All you have to do is look at what I’m wearing. Look at this suit . . ."

He laughed his high, light, conspiratorial laugh. "Can you imagine me wearing anything like this? It’s just astounding!"

THE DAYS WITH RAY, copyright ©1999, by James D. Houston appeared earlier with Jim Houston's permission in my Writers’ Friendship series, courtesy and with thanks also to Web Del Sol / Perihelion.


James Houston, 1933 - 2009 - #1

Stunned, still reeling… just learned of Jim Houston’s death via email from a mutual friend… turned to San Jose Mercury News to read the headline, Famed author James Houston dead at 75.

We’re the same age and Jim was one of the first writers I met when I moved to Santa Cruz in 1985. We’ve been friends ever since… witty, sharp, heartful and an astonishingly fine writer. As an example of his warmth and wonderfully natural style, I think of his book The Men in My Life. And Gloria and I were privileged to be asked to read and comment on Jim’s “Snow Mountain Passage” when it was still in manuscript form.

Hard to write this… newspaper account lifted from Mercury News:

SANTA CRUZ — James D. Houston, one of California's richest literary voices who made Santa Cruz his home for 47 years, died Thursday of complications from cancer. He was 75.

Houston, past winner of the American Book Award and the Humanitas Prize, wrote vividly and warmly about California in his long career, from insightful essays on the state's magnetic sense of place to the fictional chronicle of the famous Donner Party journey in his celebrated novel "Snow Mountain Passage."

He lived with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston in a historic redwood home in the Twin Lakes area of Santa Cruz, a home he had written about glowingly, most recently in his anthology "Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea..."


It seems appropriate to reprint Jim’s essay on Raymond Carver who, years ago, lived in Santa Cruz and taught at UCSC…

THE DAYS WITH RAY appeared with Jim’s permission in my Writers’ Friendship series, courtesy and with thanks to Mike Neff, Web Del Sol / Perihelion.
Material that follows copyright ©1999, by James D. Houston.

James Houston on Raymond Carver

I first met him at a collating party in San Francisco back in 1969. This was when George Hitchcock was editing and publishing Kayak magazine out of his house on Laguna Street. I had just come back from two months in Mexico and had to think twice about climbing into a car again to drive the eighty miles from Santa Cruz into the city. But it was considered something of an honor to be invited to one of these gatherings, a little nod of recognition from George, the small-press impresario. And I had been told that Ray Carver would be there. George was about to bring out Winter Insomnia, Ray’s second book of poems. I had been seeing his stories and wanting to meet him for a couple of years.

Among other things, I was struck by his clothing, a plain white long-sleeve shirt and dark slacks. I liked him for that. 1969 was the height of the counter-culture, which had its world headquarters right there in San Francisco. The streets were teeming with headbands and broad-brim hats, turquoise pendants, amulets, moccasins, Roman sandals, shirts covered with hand-sewn embroidery and leather fringe hanging from every vest and jacket. But the Bay Area scene did not interest Ray much at all. He was not affecting the look of a hippie or a cowboy or a Buddhist or trail guide or a lumberjack. Oblivious to the costumery of the times, he was a man of the west who dressed in a sort of Midwestern way, conservative, though not entirely respectable, since the white shirt was wrinkled and the slacks were rumpled as if he might have spent the night in these clothes.

After an hour or so of snacks and drinks, George put everyone to work on his literary assembly line, someone to collate the pages, someone to add the cover, someone to trim the edges, to staple, to fold, to stack, and so on. I was assigned to the stapling gun. Ray ended up next to me, working the trimmer with its guillotine blade.

Neither of us was mechanically inclined. We had already talked about various forms of car trouble that had bewildered and defeated us. We wondered if our participation that afternoon would have any effect upon sales. That is, we wondered if readers would buy a poetry magazine spotted with the drops of blood that would inevitably fall upon its pages once we touched the machines we’d been asked to operate. We wondered if Hitchcock might get sued, the way angry consumers will sue a food processor when a loose fingernail turns up inside the can of stewed tomatoes.

Then the joking subsided. We bent to our tasks. What I remember most about that day is standing next to him for the next hour or so, not talking much, standing shoulder to shoulder, stapling, trimming, stapling, trimming, as we worked along with George and the others to put this issue of the magazine together.

Ray was an easy and comfortable man to be with, to stand next to, or to sit with for long periods of time. He had a ready wit, and an infectious laugh, and no pretensions about him, no attitude. In every way he was unassuming. From the first meeting I felt a strong kinship, and I realize now that it was due, at least in part, to our similar origins. Years later we would finally talk about how both our fathers had come west during the early 1930s looking for any kind of work, his from Arkansas into the state of Washington, mine from east Texas to the California coast.

There was something else about Ray that I found enormously appealing. I think of it as a priestly quality. I never imagined I would be making such a statement about him, but as I look back I believe it’s true. He could be very brotherly. He often seemed filled with wonder. And you knew he would never judge you for your sins, whatever they might be. That was my experience, at any rate. In later years he had the capacity for genuine forgiveness.

[this is part 1... see next entry for part 2]