Tag Archive | Grinnell

Sheree Renée Thomas and Zine Making at Grinnell

Every year, the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize recognizes “individuals who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and who show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change.” The prize is awarded in October, when the recipient visits campus for Grinnell Prize Week. I know the prize has gone to many cool people doing amazing things to make the world a better place, but I’ve never actually paid much attention to the Grinnell Prize Week events, until this year. The 2021 recipient of the Grinnell Prize is Victoria Jones of Memphis, who founded and is the executive director of TONE, an organization that “support[s] and uplift[s] Black artists and Memphis by incubating Black arts innovation, challenging the status quo of the Memphis art scene, and mobilizing Black land ownership, and economic independence.” In perusing the e-mail describing the Grinnell Prize Week events on campus, I noticed a panel entitled Conjuring Futures: Black Women Writers Reimagining the World. One of the panelists was Sheree Renée Thomas, an SFF author and the new editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a major speculative fiction magazine. My reaction was, OMG, Sheree Renée Thomas is coming to Grinnell?! I immediately put this panel on my calendar, along with a zine-making workshop the next day.

On Saturday, I arrived at the panel early, hoping to get a good seat. In fact, I was the first to arrive! The panel ended up starting very late because the previous event, a workshop on local community and movement building, ran over by a lot. Sheree Renée Thomas was actually the first panelist to arrive, and she asked students to raise their hands by class year before asking whether there were any faculty present. I was the only one to raise my hand, and she asked me what I taught. That said, the president of the college also attended the panel, so it wasn’t as though I was the only non-student. Victoria Jones, the Grinnell Prize winner, arrived from the workshop, and the third panelist, author Jamey Hatley, joined by video conferencing.

Jones named right off the bat that she was emotionally devastated from the previous session, and maybe that set the tone for the whole panel, I don’t know. It wasn’t quite what the label on the tin said (though Thomas talked a bit about Octavia Butler’s work and her own relationship to and friendship with Butler), but it was still good. After some readings from Thomas and Hatley, the panelists took turns talking at length, evoking the history of Black Americans and the traditions they grew up with and the present ills of our racism-riddled country. They also talked to each other: during the panel, Thomas and Hatley, who have been close for decades, discovered they both had connections to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, an independent Black community I had never heard of before. Thomas held forth about how absolutely vital it was for Black creators and movement builders to fireproof what they brought into the world because if history tells us anything it’s that the oppressors will tear down anything good they make, leaving them to start over again. There was this narrative of fitful progress, of Black success meeting with destructive backlash, making fireproofing crucial. I found the session wholly worthwhile, but it was heavy; there was a weight in that space.

On Sunday, I returned to campus for Scraps: A Workshop on Zine Making and Visual Storytelling with Nubia Yasin, another Memphis-based artist and activist. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for zines, and I hadn’t been to a zine-making workshop since the last one Isabelle and I participated in at the West LA public library. The session took place in the rotunda of the performing arts center, and this time I believe I was the only non-student in attendance, at least from the Grinnell College community. Victoria Jones, Sheree Renée Thomas, and other Grinnell Prize Week presenters also came to the workshop. Nubia Yasin, the leader of the session, first had us write down our answers to three questions: Who are you? What story are you wanting to tell? What does that story look like? Then she set us loose on the table of art supplies, though not before clarifying that our stories didn’t need to be about who we were but would inevitably be shaped by our identities.

On and around the table were markers, colored pencils, glue sticks, and bins of collage materials, including magazines, street maps, calendars, wallpaper, cardstock, scrapbooking paper, and a bin of irregular triangles cut from thin metallic gold or silver cardboard. I’d been considering making a one-page zine about how I ended up becoming a linguist, but Yasin told us that we actually weren’t going to be making the whole zine but rather just one page of a zine, which would clearly communicate what the whole zine was about. I wasn’t so sure about this, and I considered ignoring the workshop directions and just making a whole zine, but in the end I decided to just go with it.

I found a piece of folded white cardstock, like a blank greeting card, and I took some colored pencils in shades of blue, green, and purple, and I started drawing overlapping clouds in different shapes and orientations. I decided my zine “page” would be a sort of identity/geneaology piece, so I wrote the surnames of my eight great-grandparents (four in English, four in Chinese) around the four sides of the front of my card. Then I went bin diving again and happened upon a street map of the Twin Cities suburbs. What were the odds! I found the street I grew up on and carefully tore out a thumbprint-sized piece of map including that street. Then I glued it in the center of my card. I still had some time, so I opened the card and started to draw some colored pencil flowers inside. I started with a lotus, but I drew it in blue, and I was working on some forget-me-nots when Yasin announced that it was time to display our zine pages at our tables and walk around to take in everyone’s work. It was fun to see what everyone had created. A lot of people had gone with a larger format than me, and there were a lot of collages, which made sense, given the available materials. Someone, a student, I think, even asked to take a picture of my zine/card!

I’d also been hoping to talk to Sheree Renée Thomas, however briefly, over the course of the weekend, so I finally mustered the courage to approach her. I did tell her I was a writer as well as a linguist and had thus been very excited the editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction was coming to Grinnell, but after our short conversation, I realized I’d forgotten to introduce myself! Ah, well. I just need to write some new short stories to submit to her.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi@Grinnell

Writers@Grinnell is back with quite the fall line-up! Earlier this month, I attended poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s roundtable with the Grinnell College community. Times being what they are, this was a virtual event, and it was my first time attending a virtual author event (although I have done virtual events myself, before they became an absolute necessity). I don’t know if Calvocoressi is just exceptionally good at setting the tone and making a mosaic of faces on a screen feel somewhat like an intimate gathering, but the roundtable was great.

They started off by asking everyone to write in the chat what they could see from their window. Or if there was no window, what they could see where they were. The responses started accumulating, and soon after Calvocoressi began reading the chat transcript as though it were a poem (you know, with those poetry reading cadences and intonation). As they read, answers were still popping up, but I was dithering about whether or not I wanted to participate. In my hobbit hole of an apartment, there is exactly one window on the outside world, and all I ever see through it is a square of sky (or, as I learned this week, workmen and their ladders on the roof). But then the responses stopped, and the poet was reading their way down, and I knew if I submitted my patch of sky now, it would be the last line of the poem, which sounded like way too much. So I never said anything. Maybe I was the only one! In any case, I thought this was such a neat idea: it was the first reading of the evening, and the poem was a collective act of creation, and now somehow we were all bound together by how magical and atmospheric they’d made the views from our windows sound.

What followed was a sometimes meandering discussion, punctuated by poems and questions from the audience (“Gender, poetry, and God–are they friends or something else?”). Calvocoressi was always genuine and open and thoughtful. They talked about growing up in New England, raised with the rigidity of the Pilgrims (the first person to fall off the Mayflower was in their family). The inner Pilgrim was a recurring motif during the roundtable, a part of yourself that you know is wrong but that can still reprimand you and make you feel shame. Calvocoressi said the work of their life was to not be ashamed of themself all the time.

In recalling how they started writing, they talked about their writing coming from a place of silence. Their poems always start as fantasy and in daydreaming. And they compared writing poems to playing the saxophone (they’d played music for many years). Someone asked whether they kept a journal, and they said they kept a notebook but not a journal (and they use their phone a lot for poetry purposes!). They also like to draw and have a watercolor pad, and they find art very helpful to writing. They added that sometimes their brain is their notebook, as they have a better memory than they should. Someone else asked how to stop the stream of consciousness in writing a poem, and Calvocoressi said they actually use stream of consciousness a lot in their poems. They like a poem that feels like it never ends, that keeps leaping and leaping along associative connections, and the only way to get that is if the connections are really tight. Calvocoressi also teaches poetry writing and explained that they teach from a place of praise, which can be hard for some of their students. This is an approach they learned from their first poetry teachers.

They had some interesting things to say about revising poems too. They’ve tried to stop thinking of it as revision and to think of it as variation instead. What else does the poem seem to want to do? What are the other things the poem can do? One thing they’ve tried is making variations of a poem without changing any of the words, instead changing only the punctuation and seeing whether they can change the power dynamics or priorities of the poem.

Finally, I scribbled down a quote from towards the end of the roundtable: “I was hugely popular with the gravestones.” But to be honest, I’ve forgotten what this was about. Hanging out in graveyards? I suppose that’s a good way to usher in October.

Hello again, Grinnell!

First, here is a very nice review of Sparkers in French! To be clear, the review is in French; the reviewer listened to the English audiobook. There is no French translation of Sparkers, but I was delighted to discover a foreign language review I could read.

It’s been just over a year since I moved to small town Iowa from the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles. But although I have been an Iowa resident for a year, I spent almost half of that time away from Grinnell because pandemic. Recently, I returned for the start of the new academic year, and I’m wondering if there’s a word for the nostalgia you feel for a place upon coming back to it. I liked Grinnell well enough in my aborted first year here, but now I’m discovering a charm that feels more bewitching than before.

An old brick façade downtown

The water tower seen down an alley

The mural on the north wall of the Grinnell Railroad Club, beside the tracks

The setting sun illumating the stained glass windows of the Methodist church

Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor@Grinnell

Earlier this month I attended the Writers@Grinnell afternoon roundtable with novelists Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor. Greenwell’s latest novel is Cleanness, and Taylor’s debut novel is Real Life. I first saw Greenwell last fall in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado at her reading at Praire Lights in Iowa City.

I took notes at the event, but I don’t have them with me now, so this will be from memory, and not entirely chronological. The roundtable began with Greenwell and Taylor asking each other a couple of questions. Greenwell asked Taylor how he’d decided on the compressed time frame of his novel (a long weekend), as well as the structure and the shifting tense (present vs. past) and POV (first person vs. third person). The tense and POV came naturally, almost subconsciously, and once Taylor realized what he was writing in he didn’t want to go back and change it. This line of questioning also led to musing on one’s weaknesses as a writer and writing–indeed, creating art–from one’s infirmities (I think).

Both authors’ novels seem to mirror their own lives in a lot of ways, but I was drawn to Taylor’s because its protagonist is trying to survive grad school (I think he has it a lot worse than I did). Taylor himself wrote the novel in grad school, I believe, and in the Q & A a student asked him about his interest in both science (he studied biochemistry) and writing and literature. Taylor saw lots of commonalities between these two fields or pursuits. For instance, both as a scientist and as a novelist you can spend years of your life working on something and not know whether it’ll come to anything (how reassuring).

Greenwell and Taylor both talked about not being able to watch TV shows because they’re uninterested in serial stories that just continue and never end. It’s boring when every episode ends in a cliffhanger intended to lure you back for more. Greenwell said that a story can only have a shape if it has an ending, and I suppose the serial nature of TV, and the perpetual hope of another season, makes that impossible. (I wouldn’t really know; I don’t watch TV either, though not for that reason.) He said he liked works of literature that laid out the whole plot at the beginning, so you knew the shape of the story. My interpretation was that he was much more interested in execution than plot or even storytelling (in a conventional sense).

Another student asked Greenwell how he could write so bravely and unflinchingly; this student sometimes wrote things and then was filled with the sense that they should never write about such things again. In his response, Greenwell talked about shame as an intrinsic aspect of growing up gay, or queer, in the U.S. I think he meant one should do something with that shame rather than deny it? I believe both authors concluded that writers shouldn’t let anyone else hold them back from writing what they want to express.

The most heartwarming aspect of the roundtable were their comments about their friendship, to which they returned again and again. Basically, they seem to have the ideal literary friendship. Greenwell alluded to Taylor making living in Iowa City bearable for him. It sounds as though they meet up in coffee shops almost daily. Taylor also talked about the importance of having that one friend who will instantly get your Jane Austen reference, who will know just what obscure character you mean and share your feelings about them. In fact, they ended the whole roundtable by saying, “Friendship!” in unison, with a kind of ironically sentimental intonation. But at the same time you knew at some level they really meant it.

Writers@Grinnell

After I blogged about a number of the fall Writers@Grinnell events, Dean Bakopoulos of the English Department invited me to do my own Writers@Grinnell event. It took place last month in the Mears Cottage Living Room. I was quite surprised–pleasantly so!–by the turnout. There were so many people that some of them had to sit on the floor behind the sofa where I was seated. There were a lot of students, most of whom I didn’t know (I did have one former student and one current student in attendance). There were some of my fellow speculative fiction reading group members. And there were some English Department faculty.

Hosting me was Paula V. Smith, also of the English Department. She gave me a lovely introduction and then revealed (to the audience and to me) that she had a surprise gift for me. It was a copy of Small CraftWarnings Vol. 1 No. 2, which she and her best friend had co-edited in 1981. Jonathan Franzen was also on staff at the time. Small Craft Warnings is one of Swarthmore College’s literary magazines; when I was there, I served on the editorial board for three years. The issue Paula gave me was one of the first under the magazine’s new name. I was delighted to receive it. The issue consists of poetry and photography, and a number of the poems are translations, from Chinese, Spanish, and French.

I spoke briefly about how Sparkers and Wildings came to be (the long journey for Sparkers and the much quicker crafting of Wildings), and then I took questions. They were all interesting! A couple had to do with my approach to writing specifically for middle grade readers: whether I thought about my audience or how I’d had to revise my books to make them suited to young readers (the political machinations can only be so twisty!). Someone asked about how to balance exposition and action when you have a lot of worldbuilding to do. Somehow the subject of what I’m writing next came up, so I gave away a couple of details about the project I hope will be my next book. My current student asked me about the languages in my fantasy worlds, and I explained that there were no full-fledged conlangs behind the languages in Sparkers and Wildings. But the language in my next book actually has a sketched-out grammar and a deeper vocabulary beyond what little makes it onto the page. Paula asked me about the names in Sparkers and Wildings, a topic I’ve thought about and get asked about relatively often.

Afterwards, I signed a few books, breaking out Isabelle’s stamp again, and chatted with a few students. One of them asked me about story ideas and length. That is, how do you generate enough stuff for a whole novel but not so much that it becomes too much? I wasn’t sure how to answer at first because I always write too long and then embark on epic word-cutting sessions. I’m not very good at writing short stories that are actually short. But upon reflection, I think it’s best, at least when drafting, to let a story grow to the length it wants to be, even if it’s awkward. Novellas exist! Then you can always revise, fleshing out bare bones or carving away excess until you have the story you intended.

My First Iowa Caucus

Iowa is, of course, famous for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, the subject of intense attention on the part of candidates and the media in presidential election years when multiple contenders are vying for a party’s nomination. Last year, when I accepted my current job at Grinnell, I realized I’d be an Iowan for the 2020 caucuses. And more generally, I’d be living in Iowa for the remainder of the presidential race.

Many candidates made campaign stops in Grinnell (and many downtown storefronts were converted to campaign offices), but I didn’t actually see any of them. Either I found out about their visit only when it was already happening (Pete Buttigieg), or I didn’t try to get into their CNN town hall on campus (Joe Biden, Tom Steyer), or I just didn’t try to go (Elizabeth Warren). Bernie Sanders came to our local coffee shop, Saints Rest, with Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal the Saturday before caucus night; I found out a few hours earlier on Facebook and later heard there’d only been room for 60 people inside. I kind of regret not seeing any candidate give their stump speech to an Iowa crowd, but ah, well.

I was looking forward to the caucus because I figured it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could participate in a political event that the eyes of the nation were glued to! (For the record, I don’t think it makes sense that Iowa plays this outsized role in the presidential nomination process, but that’s another discussion.) At 6:30, I walked the few blocks to my caucus site. Now, it had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to caucusing (as opposed to voting in a primary). I don’t really like talking to people I don’t know, especially about my political views. Consider this: I had contemplated going into the caucus uncommitted. When I arrived, a young campaign worker in a Pete t-shirt asked me who I was supporting that night, and I demurred, partly out of that lingering indecision and partly because I was not there to caucus for Pete. He immediately asked me what I was looking for in a candidate, and I started looking for the quickest way out of this interaction. I mean, the whole point of caucusing is to talk to your neighbors about why you’re supporting who, but I am clearly not meant for this type of gathering. But I at least wanted to witness it and be in the same room as people having those conversations. (Also, as far as I could tell, nobody was uncommitted in the first alignment at our caucus, so if I had been, I’m sure I would’ve been swarmed by representatives from every other candidate’s huddle, and that would’ve been an introvert’s nightmare.)

There were quite a few other new faculty in my precinct, most, if not all, of us caucusing for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. It was gratifying that everyone respected one another’s choice. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about one’s vote being public; I mean, now we all know who supports who. I’m a pretty big believer in voter privacy. But respect for political differences is supposed to be a hallmark of the Iowa caucuses, I’m told, and I felt it was observed at my caucus. There were also some new faculty in the observer section; they must not be registered to vote locally. We were not in the same precinct as the college students, and I believe our caucus was smaller than at least a couple of the other Grinnell caucuses. I was definitely reminded I now live in a small town (like most Iowans): one of the check-in volunteers was a former president of the college who attends the same church I do and whose name is on the local public library, and I also saw my landlord. The other day, I stopped by the grocery store, and one of the clerks at my register looked incredibly familiar. I knew I’d seen her somewhere recently, but I couldn’t figure out where, until it hit me: she’d been the precinct captain for our candidate’s group at the caucus.

After the election of the chair and secretary, we all lined up to receive a preference card (and be counted). The chair announced that there were 132 of us caucusing, and so the number of supporters a candidate had to reach in the first alignment to be viable was 20. Looking around the room, only Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg looked to have that much support. Indeed, after the first alignment, they were the only candidates to have passed the threshold (Sanders: 48, Warren: 33, Buttigieg: 25). Next, each precinct captain made a one-minute timed speech in support of their candidate. They spoke for Sanders, Gabbard (literally one guy), Yang, Warren, Klobuchar, Biden, and Buttigieg. Then everyone whose candidate was no longer viable had to find a new group. People in viable groups were not allowed to change allegiances. I thought it looked like most people flocked to Warren.

After the second alignment and a little math, our caucus was ultimately to send to the county party convention 5 delegates for Sanders, 4 for Warren, and 3 for Buttigieg. The chair was pleased to report that exactly 132 preference cards had been collected. Precinct captains recruited actual delegates and alternates, and then after a little business it was over. The whole thing had taken a little over an hour. We new Iowans left the caucus feeling pretty happy about our role in participatory democracy.

Later that night, national news outlets began wringing their hands: where were the results from Iowa? I was puzzled and a bit worried. Our caucus had gone so smoothly, so what was going on? I wasn’t too troubled, though, and I went to bed assuming I’d learn who the winner had been in the morning. Well. We all know how that went. At least the part about there being a winner.

But here’s where it got interesting for me. Despite being an Iowan on paper, I don’t actually think of myself as an Iowan. But I did caucus in Iowa last week, and I do live here. And suddenly it was really weird to me to be seeing all these opinion pieces in The New York Times about Iowa, mostly written, I believe, by columnists who haven’t actually been here, at least not for this caucus season. I had a bit of a What do they know? reaction, which should probably make me think harder when I read those same columnists on other parts of the country they may not have been to (I read The New York Times a lot). The caucuses were being portrayed in the media as a train wreck, with talk of the “debacle” and the “fiasco”; #IowaCaucusDisaster was trending on Twitter when I got up the next morning. And it was just so dissonant with my own caucus experience of orderliness, efficiency, and clear results. I’ve heard other Grinnell folks emphasize that the caucus process itself did work, and a lot of volunteers worked very hard to make sure it did.

My initial take was that the caucuses had gone just fine and it was the reporting that was the problem: an app that crashed and swamped phone lines. (Trying to implement the app without adequate training and testing was clearly a mistake.) But I didn’t think the rest of the country was making this distinction; from the headlines in the papers, they were probably concluding that the whole thing had been a horror show. And I knew from direct experience that this just wasn’t true. Moreover, there was a paper trail, so we’d know the real results in the end. I did think the reporting issues and the fact that there was no winner to report to a nation on tenterhooks was very unfortunate. I think it will undermine people’s trust in our electoral systems and make people more skeptical of and cynical about our democratic processes. And the last thing we need is for people to be discouraged from voting because they don’t think their vote will be counted properly. I was chagrined that the optics were so bad for Iowa when my caucus experience had been entirely positive, and I knew the Democrats’ nomination process was off to a very rocky start.

Later, I read a more worrisome report (yes, in The New York Times) about caucus numbers that didn’t add up or were internally inconsistent. If this report is true, that is bad. (The New York Times has since reported even more.) Caucus officers did have to report more sets of numbers this year, and I can imagine how this might’ve led to confusion. As far as I know, the caucuses are basically run by volunteers, many of whom probably have years of experience and are very competent. I would hope that there’s careful training and built-in safeguards to ensure that caucus results are reported accurately. I hope that the final Iowa results will express what happened on caucus night because with all the other flaws in our electoral system, at the very least we need well-run local elections.

Dangerous Instruments

Last Friday I went to the opening reception of the Stewart Gallery exhibit “Dangerous Instruments.” The Stewart Gallery, run by the Grinnell Area Arts Council, is inside the old Stewart library, now the Grinnell Arts Center, next door to the post office. The Arts Council runs all sorts of interesting activities that would probably be worth checking out. There’s even a pipe band. As in Scottish bagpipes. Am I missing my chance to realize my childhood ambition of learning to play the bagpipes? (Am I also missing my chance to learn to play viola da gamba through the Collegium Musicum?)

I digress.

“Dangerous Instruments” featured the creations of Eric McIntyre, hornist, composer, professor of music, and conductor of the Grinnell College orchestra. He built his musical instruments-cum-works of art from excavated pianos, horn bells, saw blades, axe heads, used munitions, bedpans, pitchforks, a tractor fuel pump, a mailbox, gun barrels, and more. Many of them were beautiful (with a certain rustic-ness) and elegant, and some of them literally had teeth.

A Dangerous Piano

The reception was crowded, and I think there was good representation from the ranks of the college orchestra. Gallery visitors were invited to play many of the instruments (gently), using little metal implements, beaters of various types, or giant washers. I tapped tentatively at a few things myself.

The Schlüsselspiel, one of the more melodious instruments

Around 7:00pm, the artist gave a little talk introducing all of his instruments and explaining how he’d made them. He goes to auctions to buy things like the equipment from an old sawmill. He performed on some of the instruments or demonstrated the kinds of sounds they could make. He seemed really interested in different types of resonances and showing how you could pluck or strum the tines of a pitchfork. He’d made a bow out of an old lightning rod and some bicycle part and used it to bow his “mailbox bass.” Honestly, I was not always particularly taken with the sounds these instruments made; they weren’t very musical to me (though I guess music is in the ear of the beholder). But other instruments had more delightful surprises: suspended wrenches and axe heads make surprisingly sweet bell-like sounds.

He also performed on some of the instruments, playing a Saint-Saëns romance on a horn with a bedpan for a bell and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on a double-belled horn built with the double barrels from an old rifle. He’d composed a piece for horn and these three motorized saw blade-and-bullet casings instruments, each of which made a perpetual tinkling sound.

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.