I am so dependent on books, I sometimes feel bereft when I finish one. It’s a little like losing a lover, esp. if it’s a really good book/lover.
I like to have three books on hand—a poetry book, a novel, and a spiritual book that keeps me sane.
This week my poetry book is Matthew Minicucci’s Translation, which I just discovered at a Lit Youngstown Reading, and I am savoring . . . Oh, I love finding a new poet to spend time with.
But I always want to be in the middle of a novel.
These last few weeks I have been swept up by the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan Novels—a set of 4 books that so vividly describe the love/hate or maybe love/jealousy relationship between two women, they sounded almost autobiographical.
Sometimes the author goes on for pages and pages, describing the insecurities and jealousies of the main character, and often there isn’t a driving plot.
So why is she so interesting? And I mean hundreds of repetitive pages worth of interesting? I don't know. I really don't.
Like so many of her readers, I want to know who the real Ferrante is. Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume.
I suppose part of the appeal (but only a small part) is that the book brought up my own memories, some of my own brilliant friend, Anne Marie Slaughter, although I didn’t feel jealous of her as a girl. Rather, I somehow took personal pride in her brilliance, as if it had something to do with me. I still feel that way. (Funny, the logic of childhood.)
The main character also talks a lot about her teachers, those from childhood and beyond.And she talks about luck. She feels grateful. I do the same, babbling on and on . . .
I am so very grateful for the great professors who helped me.
Though sometimes the “greatness” of my profs was served up via negative. The first writing teacher I had was Diane Wakoski. As a freshman, I had finagled my way into her graduate writing class. At the time, I was writing truly awful poems.Wakoski, or Whak Me, as I called her, told me on no uncertain terms just how terrible my poetry was--week after week, day after day. I consoled myself with the fact that I wasn't her only victim. I can’t say I have fond memories of her class, but she was honest and saved me some time by telling the truth. Since then I have often wondered-- What is the appropriate response to terrible poetry? How does one say, graciously, what Diane said without any pretense of kindness?
The next professor I often feel thankful for is Michael Burkhard. Michael taught me, among other things, the fish bowl cure for bad poems. The fishbowl, he said, can save many a disastrous poem. And I only had bad poems then. So what is the fish bowl cure? you might ask.
Write a letter or two and then a poem or two. Then you take your poems and letters, cut them up, sentence by sentence, and put then in a bowl. Stir them around and then take them out and arrange the lines on your page.
I learned from Michael that poetry can be fun. It can be a kind of play. A puzzle. A discovery. Now, sometimes I will be reading a poem that has surprising connections, and I wonder if the writer used the fishbowl cure.
And then there is David Lehman for whom I feel such profound gratitude. A class with Lehman was like drinking ten cups of espresso at once. It was a shot of adrenaline, joy, love.
After every class, I wanted to read or write another poem asap. Through David, I discovered Borges, Michaux, Vallejo, Marquez, Ashbery, O’Hara, Strand, and so many others. And for a while (just a little while), I lost that critical voice that said, You’re no poet. And, Who do you think you are?
Unlike Wakoski, I don’t remember David ever saying that he disliked someone’s poem. When confronted with a poem he disliked, he would stare blankly at the page, all emotion vacuumed from his features. I suppose he didn’t need to say anything. But he celebrated what he loved, even if it was just a line or a single word. Every now and then, I felt celebrated. And lucky. He was an antidote to the Whak Me experience.