Carlos Gamerro@Grinnell

You might be forgiven for thinking this blog has become a Writers@Grinnell column, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but fear not, I can promise some more varied content soon. In the meantime, the next writer I saw at Grinnell was Argentinian novelist Carlos Gamerro, who is an International Writing Program resident at the University of Iowa this fall. He taught a short course at Grinnell on the vanishing narrator (which reminded me of Philip Pullman’s fondness for the omniscient narrator, which he touched on in this wonderful recent interview). As he explained it at the reading, Gamerro’s class was on the historical progression from omniscient narrators to forms of storytelling without a narrator at all.

At his Writers@Grinnell event, Gamerro read from his latest novel, Cardenio. In fact the excerpts he read were dialogues, so he and Dean Bakopolous of the English Department read them as though they were scenes from a play. Cardenio is a character in Don Quixote and presumably the eponymous hero of a play, Cardenio, written by Shakespeare and his contemporary, John Fletcher. The play was lost, but Gamerro’s novel centers on John Fletcher and the writing of Cardenio. The scenes they performed for us were mostly comic exchanges between Shakespeare and Fletcher, as Fletcher tried to convince him it was worth writing a play from this material, and between Fletcher and Thomas Middleton, another playwright who has written his own Cardenio in two days and wants Fletcher to buy it, lest Middleton have it released before theirs.

Gamerro introduced these lesser-known English playwrights with not a little enthusiasm. He described how Fletcher and his friend and collaborator Francis Beaumont lived together, wrote plays together, shared their clothes, and shared the same girl, Joan. All three lived together in a happy ménage à trois (this was how I interpreted it, at least) until Beaumont decided to make a good marriage and left. Gamerro made it sound like Fletcher was left bereft. Poor fellow. He also told us Fletcher had written a play, The Tamer Tamed (the full title seems to have been The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed), a perhaps rather feminist follow-up to Shakespeare’s nowadays reviled The Taming of the Shrew.

According to Gamerro, there is evidence that Fletcher knew Spanish and thus read Don Quixote before his compatriots, though the first English translation was produced relatively early. Gamerro said you can hear the Spanish in this first translation. Interestingly, to prepare to write his novel, Gamerro immersed himself in primary sources of the time. He decided this was the best strategy after being frustrated by the clearly false generalizations being made in works of history on that era: “We want to think the past is much more homogenous than the present.” He consumed lots of English plays from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, till the language and the way people spoke began to come to him. He resolved to at least write a first version of his novel in English, even if he didn’t publish it. From what I can gather, the first edition of Cardenio is Gamerro’s own Spanish translation of the novel he originally wrote in English. The reading was from the English version.

I find it interesting when writers write in a language other than their first, or other than the language they typically write their original drafts in. There are so many reasons to do it. Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian comes to mind, and François Cheng. I’ve written a few original works in French, most of which I then tried translating into English, and I think I always preferred the French version. One example, from a long time ago, is “L’orchestre de Jénine,” which appeared with its English translation in an issue of Voyages, Swarthmore’s journal of original works and their translations. Writing in French isn’t something I do regularly, though; I think it has to spring from a specific impulse, and I don’t get many such impulses.

Kaveh Akbar@Grinnell

A couple of weeks ago, I went to another poetry reading. (I don’t even go to all the Writers@Grinnell events! Just…most of them.) It was in the evening; earlier that day I’d been to Kate Manne’s scholars’ convocation on epistemic entitlement, mansplaining, and gaslighting. Somebody I went to college with is now Kate Manne’s advisee and had always spoken highly of her, and the talk and, especially, the following Q & A were excellent. I am rather enjoying being at a small liberal arts college again, where I might see the same people at a philosophy talk in the morning and a poetry reading in the evening. But anyway!

The poet was Kaveh Akbar. In his introduction, we learned he writes an advice column for The Paris Review, in which he prescribes poems to suit the letter writers’ particular needs. He also told us early on that when he was young he read Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote thinking it was the novel on all those lists of Novels You Must Read.

That evening, he told us he would mostly be reading new stuff. He had a sheaf of papers in his hands. After the first poem, he added that by new stuff he meant work from the past couple of years or so. The first poem was entitled “How to Say the Impossible Thing.” He said it was the only poem he’d written in the last six months, and this was the first time he’d be reading it in public. So, how does one say the impossible thing? The first word of the poem was “plainly.” There was another line I noted: “I don’t trust myself.”

Akbar had told us he’d also be reading some poems by Not Him, and the first was one by Suji Kwock Kim. I had to look up the title, but it’s “Fugue.” The poem is about the birth of a child, and I was struck almost from the beginning by the magic of wordsmithing, how the right words combined the right way, by their sound and their meaning, create the most perfect phrase or image. That “skull-keel and heel-hull” is almost tactile. And then there was the line, “Memory, stay faithful to this moment, which will never return”; I doubt I’m the only one to relate to wanting to hang on to a beautiful moment, to be assured of never forgetting any detail of it, because it’s already so precious as it’s happening.

The last poem he read was a long one, “The Palace,” and so he invited people to lean their head on a neighbor’s shoulder (with enthusiastic consent, of course). Danez Smith issued a similar invitation to hold hands when he read his last poem of the night. The lines that struck me most in “The Palace” were: “Mistyping in an e-mail I write, / I lose you so much today, / then leave it” and then the reprise at the very end: “Lose me today, so much.”

In the lovely Q & A that followed the reading, somebody asked Akbar about writing as a lonely pursuit. He said, “I am a person who can be lonely at a table of friends.” Then he said (and I’m passing over swaths of his answer) that art is defamiliarization, and that loneliness, that not-being-among, gives one a vantage point that’s really useful to an artist. Some amount of loneliness is essential, but you have to learn how to harness that loneliness (and also take care of yourself).

A religious studies major asked him about religion in his poems, and he talked about praying in Arabic with his family as a child, reciting in a language that none of them spoke. Today, he sees poetry as having the same function as those prayers did, namely, thinning the membrane between oneself and the divine (however that’s interpreted). Someone else asked him how he viewed the poems in his first collection now, and he said that anyone who’s ever written a book will tell you they’re not the person who wrote that book by the time it’s actually a book. He sees his older work as a portal to a person that he was. I’m not sure I feel that as strongly, but certainly I can see how the stories I’ve written in the last couple of years reflect facets of my life in that time.

Charles Baxter@Grinnell

The same day I drove back to Iowa after the Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, I went to a Writers@Grinnell event with Charles Baxter, another Minnesotan author who went to Macalester back in the day. It was billed as a roundtable, like with Danez Smith, but it actually turned out to be a craft lecture, a talk genre apparently well known to MFA students, but not to me.

The topic of the lecture was the request moment, which I guess is what it sounds like: a moment in a story when someone asks a character to do something. It makes sense to me that such a moment could be revealing. There’s the content of the request, the requestee’s reaction and response, what it means that the requester feels able/entitled/obliged to make the request, the meaning attached to the response (proof of loyalty, affection, etc.), and so on. Baxter said people often talk about the importance of what characters want, but he’s also interested in transferred desire, that is, when characters do things because other characters want them to.

Some memorable quotes from the lecture:

  • “I can’t go back to being the person I was–that’s what it means to be undone.” I believe this was just in reference to the power of stories to undo us.
  • “Don’t ever ask anybody how much that person loves you”–he pronounced this a terrible idea.
  • “Literature often doesn’t work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t.”
  • “Often aftermaths are more interesting than violence that precedes them.” This was related to Alice Munro’s short story “Child’s Play.”

The part of the lecture that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a startling coincidence. Baxter incorporated musical examples into his talk. The first was Ralph Vaughn Williams’s orchestral setting of Poem 32 from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The second, he said, was a traditional ballad that exemplified how a request moment can also be a prohibition (i.e. don’t do this). He said it was called “The Silver Dagger” and asked if anyone knew it. I half raised my hand, but I think he saw me, because he said, “One person.” Maybe somebody else raised their hand too? I knew exactly why it exemplified a prohibition because it begins, “Don’t sing love songs.” Baxter proceeded to recite the entire text, which I knew, and then he played us a recording of the song. But the weirdest part is that a few hours earlier, I’d sung “The Silver Dagger” while driving on an Iowa highway, and it’s not a song I sing that often these days. I’ve talked about liking Solas’s version before, which is different from the version he played us. That was the one I was singing earlier that day.

The 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention

This past weekend I drove up to the Twin Cities for the 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention. I’ve managed to attend this convention a couple of times in grad school–last year with Isabelle, in 2014 when Sparkers came out–thanks to UCLA’s late start to the academic year, but it’s certainly easier to drive up from Iowa than to fly from California. I didn’t know it was the 30th annual singing until I arrived. Turns out the first Minnesota convention took place the year I was born!

The first day, we sang at Olivet Congregational Church in St. Paul, not far from St. Sahag’s, home of my local shape note singing the year I lived in the Summit-University neighborhood. I also vaguely recalled having gone to an English country dance at Olivet UCC that year, and Midge, a fellow singer and dancer and one of the convention’s co-chairs, confirmed that the Playford ball was held there. I led 203 Florida in the morning.

During the breaks, I caught up with Ivy, a fellow linguist now in the Twin Cities. We first met as prospective students at UCLA. I also met an ethnomusicologist who came to the convention from Winnipeg but who lived in Georgia for a year and a half studying the language and the music! Where else do you meet Georgian music singers than at the Sacred Harp convention, I guess. I also “networked” with other Iowa singers; there are a number of us scattered throughout the state. There aren’t any regular singings very close to me, but at least there’s an all-day in the spring to look forward to.

Local singer Claudia had put together a mini-exhibit of six old shape note tunebooks which were on display Saturday morning in the church library. The oldest was a copy of The Easy Instructor from 1816, I believe. There were also two books in German (or bilingual in English and German), printed in Fraktur! One of them was Die Franklin Harmonie. I didn’t know shape note tunebooks in other languages existed; these were apparently used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. As I was looking at the books, another singer noticed my name tag said Grinnell, and she told me she used to hitchhike to Grinnell, passing through Austin, MN, to visit her best friend, who studied at the college.

Shape notes and Fraktur! (Excuse the shadow…)

On Sunday, we sang at The Landing, on the Minnesota River. Last year, I was there with Isabelle. At the end of lunch and at the following break, the ethnomusicologist, Midge and her husband (both Georgian singing aficionados, who’ve visited the country multiple times and who brought Zedashe to the Twin Cities), one other singer, and I attempted to sing a Mravalzhamier we all knew. It was rocky, but it was still lovely to at least try some Georgian polyphony at the convention!

I led 296 Sardinia, in the afternoon. At the end of the day, the co-chairs, as is customary, invited out-of-town singers to invite everyone to major singings in their parts of the country. A singer from Kentucky, who I knew I’d seen before, made such an announcement, and in it he mentioned the opportunity to experience an Old Regular Baptists’ service with lined-out hymnody. Somebody else said that alone was worth the trip. I had never heard of such a thing and wasn’t even sure I’d heard right until I looked it up later. I’m still not totally clear what lined-out hymnody is, but Wikipedia tries to explain. Shape note seems positively mainstream compared to this.

After the convention was over, I wandered around The Landing a little bit, like we had last year. I walked past the schoolhouse and around behind the barn to see if the cows we’d seen last year were in the enclosure, but instead of cows I found three sheep!

Danez Smith@Grinnell

One of the perks of being at Grinnell is getting to experience Writers@Grinnell, the English department’s visiting author series. The first visitor this year was the Minnesotan poet Danez Smith. I’m often not much of a poetry person (whatever that means), though occasionally I’ll stumble upon a poem that really resonates with me (see Gina Myers’ “Memorial”), but I was interested in Smith’s visit because 1) they’re from Minnesota and 2) their next poetry collection, coming out next spring from Graywolf Press, is about friendship.

Another new professor told me she was going to the afternoon roundtable, so I decided to go too, though I wasn’t sure what to expect (I was hardly going to participate in a craft discussion about poetry!). It turned out to be a Q & A with mostly students (as it should be). Now, going in, I thought I’d never heard of Danez Smith before, but as they opened the roundtable by reading one of their poems, I was suddenly certain that they had written a poem I’d discovered a few years ago and loved. It was about being in California and missing the Minnesota cold (and something deeper). Later I checked, and I was right (but I’d been certain); the poem is “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense.”

Smith kept reading, and the poem mentioned Hague St., and I started because when I lived in St. Paul I lived on Hague Ave., and Smith was from St. Paul. Was it…?

After reading one more poem (with audience participation), Smith fielded questions from students. The following are some bits of answers I liked best or found most intriguing (filtered through my memory):

  • Joy is hard to make special. So maybe this is why there’s less writing about happiness?
  • You should write about the things you think you’re avoiding because good writing is dangerous.
  • At the same time, while you find your voice in the place that scares you, you also find it in the spaces where you feel safety, love, and intimacy.
  • Your best work should surprise you.
  • Poetry is about being immortal, not inaccessible. (That is, poetry shouldn’t be abstruse work produced by members of a small elite for one another.)
  • They said they were excited for their next book, Homie, because it was going to force people to ask them about their friends (among other things).

In the evening, I went to Smith’s reading in the auditorium at Hotel Grinnell. It was very well attended, and this being a small town and a small college, I recognized all sorts of people I’d met in the less-than-a-month I’ve been here. They came from all manner of departments too. (I think this reading encapsulated exactly what I meant when I tried to express what appealed to me about small liberal arts colleges to faculty search committees!)

The reading was lively, powerful, alternately raucous and still, and Smith had no trouble engaging us all. Among the most memorable poems was “my president,” about all the people they would be proud and happy to call their president (celebrities, family members, and so on). Sometimes I felt like Smith was not talking to me, that I was on the outside looking in, because I’m not black, but this felt right in a way, because not everything we say is for everyone.

The most moving moment of the night, for me, was the reading of the last poem. Smith said they’d posted on social media asking people to give them a very brief description of when they knew their best friend was their best friend. I believe the responses fed into the poem, which is entitled “acknowledgments.” It was funny and beautiful and poignant, and I loved it.

New Story: The Mailbox

My short story “The Mailbox” is out in the September issue of The Society of Misfit Stories. Unfortunately, it isn’t available to read for free online, but you can purchase the issue in a variety of formats here (Amazon even has print, if you like).

“The Mailbox” is about loneliness, grief, friendship, writing letters to the dead, and dangerous plants. Parts of the setting were inspired by Los Angeles (though San Francisco and Paris each had their contributions). In particular, the nursery is based on a nursery in Sawtelle.

Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon

Late in August, my mother helped me move from Los Angeles to Grinnell. Our road trip took us from California through Nevada, Arizona (just a tiny corner!), Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska to Iowa. On our first day of driving, we took nearly the exact same route I’d taken almost exactly two years earlier when Isabelle, Olivier, Adam, and I took our trip to Utah. Instead of going to Cedar City, we spent the night in Hurricane, UT, where the high temperature was predicted to be over 100°F every day that week. The next day, to beat the heat, we drove up to Cedar Breaks National Monument, where at an elevation of about 10,000 feet it was much cooler. Cedar Breaks is a gorgeuos amphitheater where the layers of the earth are exposed in shades of ocher and erosion has sculpted rock into formations similar to those at Bryce Canyon. There was also an abundance of wildflowers–columbine, elkweed, lupines, and more–and an adorable Uinta chipmunk!

Cedar Breaks National Monument

The same day, we drove to Bryce Canyon National Park. We visited the park that evening, driving in past crepuscular mule deer attracting admirers by the side of the road. We walked along the rim between Sunset and Sunrise Points. The sun was setting behind us as we looked out upon the canyon, but for a while it illuminated some of the red cliff faces in the distance. My first glimpse of Bryce Canyon was kind of like my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon on the road trip that brought me to UCLA. You approach the rim, and suddenly there’s a breathtaking view laid out before and below you. The Grand Canyon was more staggering in scale, but they’re equally wondrous.

First view of Bryce Canyon

As dusk fell, the air seemed to grow increasingly clouded, and I also smelled smoke a few times while we were at Bryce Canyon. We were pretty sure there were fires somewhere in the area.

Illuminated cliffs and smoke

The next morning, we hiked the Queen’s Garden Trail, following switchbacks from the rim down into the canyon among the hoodoos. The trail is named for a hoodoo that resembles Queen Victoria, and we arrived at that landmark before making our way back up.

Setting out from Sunrise Point

View from the trail

There’s Queen Victoria in the upper right

In my many flights between Los Angeles and the Twin Cities, I’ve had a lot of chances to admire the natural beauty of Utah from above. It was equally if not more beautiful to drive through (and the empty country highways were rather nice!).

Next was Colorado, where we went peach hunting near Grand Junction and spent the night in the quaint (always decorated for Christmas?) ski town of Frisco. The next day, we stopped at the Denver Botanic Gardens before continuing on through eastern Colorado and Nebraska, which are a bit less picturesque. We ate dinner at the same Japanese restaurant in Kearney, NE where we’d eaten on our road trip to Los Angeles six years before. I mean no disrespect, and maybe this goes without saying, but Kearney is not Sawtelle or Little Tokyo.

After a night in Lincoln, our last day brought us to Grinnell. And so I’ve left the West for now!