Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

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The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

I’m in mourning for Mavis Gallant.

You don’t remember Mavis Gallant? If you’re older than 14, you shared a century with her characters. You would have passed them on the streets of Manhattan, or Montreal, or Paris. They were people you recognized… even if you might not have stopped to talk with them. Where you really got to know them was in the pages of The New Yorker, which published 116 of her stories over a span of 40 years.

Mavis Gallant died recently at the entirely respectable age of 91. She produced sharp, beautifully crafted and highly readable short stories for more than half of those years. Collections of her stories were published in 1956 (The Other Paris), 2009 (The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories), and a dozen more collections appeared in the years in between — it boggles the short story writer’s mind.

And here’s the rub for me: In addition to the mourning, there is envy, admiration and — to be honest — a dash of literary despair. On the one hand is the shimmering example of a writer — a woman writer at that! — still writing great stories well past the age of, ahem, this octogenarian writer. And on the other is the sheer heft of her oeuvre. One volume of collected stories alone ran to 900 pages. We are not talking pages of tripe.

Mavis Gallant understood the abandoned and deceived; her own mother deposited her at a boarding school when she was four, saying, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” She also understood the displaced, having left her Canadian home for France, briefly wandering elsewhere in the post-World War II years when displacement was a fact of life for much of Europe and Asia. As a woman who defined the phrase “living by one’s wits,” she turned those wits to short fiction in a singular way. She also wrote novels and essays, critically acclaimed nonfiction.

But here is another rub: On top of the lack of maternal love and affection, Gallant endured other unimaginable emotional assaults and upheavals, realities that underlie her fiction. As a girl of 10, she was lied to about her father — she waited two years for him to reappear because nobody told her he had died. She was briefly and unhappily married, and heart-breakingly betrayed by her literary agent, who pocketed the money from the first New Yorker stories while Gallant struggled with hunger and despair in Spain and France. Gallant took it all in, survived and turned her life to short fiction, to the benefit of us all.

The rubs boil down to this: Suppose you’re a writer with a plain old happy childhood? You’ve already watched with envy — sometimes admiration and way more than a dash of despair — the flood of memoirs documenting addiction, abuse and aberrations of every conceivable kind, most of which inhabit bestseller lists for months. And here are the obituaries for one hugely admired short story writer, with the news that she too has a personal depth of Shakespearean tragedy to mine. Bless her battered heart.

At least she shared it all with us, in those dozens and dozens of marvelous stories. And kept at it until the end of her 91 eventful years.

Rest in peace, Mavis.

 

iPad a pod too far for some

Delirious iFans are all over cyberspace these days with effusive praise for their new toy –

… an alternate computing reality in which the balance between content creation and consumption has shifted.

…a new computer that really plays to this new reality … shifts the priorities, … gets us more intimate with our media than we have ever been before…

…the iPad (has) finally given us a reason to think beyond our current relationship with computers.

Light and slim and sexy, the iPad is not a machine, its analysts would have us understand, as much as “an experience.” Boasting a volume rocker and a sleep/power button and a switch that locks into either horizontal or portrait view.

The talk is all about the “responsive screen that lets us interact with the things we care about. (It) quickly becomes the way you want to consume the Internet.”

This writer hereby admits to a relationship with a ThinkPad X61 that is, at times, excessive and does occasionally drive the husband to the brink of tossing it out the window. But interaction with the things I care about tends to happen when I shut the machine off. Which leads me to believe I’ll remain PC Luddite and iPad resistant.

IPad’s interactivity raises computing bar.