Monday, August 31, 2009

Feeding the Muse

Saturday afternoon three poets and a supporter sat around the table, ate wonderful cheese, fruit, croissant, drank wine and chocolate coffee. We read poems and perused sample copies of publications we might send work to. Now that's a delightful way to network. I recommend it. And it grew out of the generosity of our hosts and an ongoing moveable workshop. Bill, our host on Saturday, has long been a member of a group of writers who respond to a prompt regularly and who publish to each other their latest efforts. Bill has created a second group. He sends out a prompt pulled from the work of Charles Simic, and we each create a poem that springs from that impetus. It works because we don't want to disappoint each other. And because of the email contacts, it does not require us to put on shoes or comb our hair and drive somewhere to work together. I think it does help that we know each other, have an occasional opportunity to see each other face to face, but it also helps that we do our level best (what would an unlevel effort look like?) to please one another.

Traditionally, poets and writers have complained about the isolation in which they work. I just saw an essay by Joyce Carol Oates that centered on this issue. And I agree, the work itself must be done in some uninterrupted, interior space in the mind, whether that mind occupies a body sitting on a rock or in an easy chair or at a desk or on a laptop. But pretty soon after the poem emerges from its cocoon, it ought to fly to welcoming ears and eyes, see if it can sustain itself in the sun. If it still feels right after that trial among friends--who may or may not give you a straight answer to the question, Is it good?--then it might be time to let it rest, revisit the process, and send it off to do its job in the larger world. Kay Ryan has said, "One of the elements of an art is the fact that it communicates. The transaction isn't complete if you don't publish." (Newsweek, July 13, 2009). Then again, in the same magazine, Louise Thomas says, "In the end, poetry needs only two caring people, one to write, and one to read." However you define publish, do it. Find that one to read, two or five if you can manage it, and watch their faces as you read to them, take to heart their emails, communicate. Otherwise, it's therapy, not art.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Nostalgia Lit

The public library's new books shelves are a delight to me, so much so that I often forget the list of books to read that lives on the back pages of my journal. This week I plucked off the shelf An Irish Country Christmas, by Patrick Taylor (Tom Doherty Associates, 2008). This book epitomizes a genre I love, what I call Irish nostalgia, the sort of book that Maeve Binchey does well. Taylor has hit the NY Times Best Seller List with his previous book about the fictional village of Ballybucklepo. (I pronounce it Bally-buck-lepo, based on the hyphenation when it runs over the line, and unpronounceable otherwise in my mind.) The book resembles another series that I like, the All Creatures Great and Small books that feature the doings of a country vet in a by-gone rural England. Like those books, Taylor's novel features a crusty, good hearted senior partner and a novice partner learning from experience what it means to become part of a community of odd characters and odder events.

I cannot help admiring this happy-ever-after book, despite its marzipan world in which the good come to no harm and the bad repent, despite its many information dumps: one could now do a fair job of delivering a breach birth after reading about Fingal, the senior doctor, doing just that in a cottage, with minimal equipment and supported by his own sweetheart, conveniently an experienced nurse and an equally wise midwife. The book is riddled with literary quotes and scientific/medical trivia, under the guise of a competitive brain game the two doctors play regularly. Like other nostalgia fiction, however, this book soothes and refreshes. Knowing a bit of the history of No. Ireland, I don't expect to find Ballybucklepo when I visit Ulster next month. It won't be on the map, because it exists in dreams. This is Dickens without the dark. Poverty in Ballybucklepo is benign, an opportunity to share, and The Troubles have long ended there. No one dies, and Christmas is a white setting for roast turkey, mince pie, and gifts for all. If only it were true.