Tuesday, March 31, 2009

All Dickmans, All the Time

It was inevitable--the Dickman Brothers ("I'm Matthew!" "I'm Michael!" "No, I'm Michael!" "Did we fool you?" "Want to see us do it again?") made the New Yorker, with a lengthy profile by Rebecca Mead.

And of course, Michael Schiavo is right there with them.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Inside the Studio

Manuscript, with watch and cup of tea.

Desk, with Plesiosaur lamps.

Sunday, Sunday

This last was a week of general horror at work. And on Wednesday, I acquired a weird comes-and-goes cold that has me saying, "I'll just lay down for ten minutes," and then waking up 12 hours later. As a result, I have done little more than show-up as mandated, and such periods of inactivity (writing-and-reading-wise) make me nervous. On top of this, our weather (which has been chillish but sunny) took a turn for the worse when I was out with the dogs this morning. We now have an inch of snow on the ground and the promise of somewhat more to come. A bit of snow is not the end of the world, but the crappy weather has me discouraged at the moment. No big worry, just a tiny, little crisis in confidence.

I did pick up a few books yesterday, including David Gram's The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (Doubleday, 2009), a well-reviewed book on the lost expedition of the British explorer Percy Fawcett, and Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever, Cheever: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). I have been looking forward to both books and I hardly know where to start. I also bought several more books about the CIA in Central America, which I am reading for background on my beloved (if now slowly progressing) Project X. I also have several new and exciting poetry collections I will be writing about here, so stay tuned.

There is not much that interests me in this morning's New York Times Book Review. A better read may be the April 9, 2009, New York Review of Books, which has a review by Joyce Carol Oates of Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor and an essay by Ingrid Rowland on the painter-illustrator Maria Sibylla Merien.

On the cover of The Spring 2009, American Scholar, Brian Boyd asks the rhetorical question, Did This Man [Charles Darwin] Drain Our Lives of Meaning? To which I offer the rhetorical answer, "Not my life, only the lives of stupid people." But then, I haven't read the article yet. Perhaps I have been rendered a soulless wreck by The Voyage of the Beagle––a possibility that, if true, explains much.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Moment with Blossom Dearie

I love the music of Blossom Dearie, who died on February 7, 2009.

I thought we might spend a moment with her. I can vaguely remember her appearances with Dave Garroway on the old Today Show. Let's say I was a precocious child.

Sorry to have been such a poor blogger this week, but I have been overwhelmed at work. Today is Friday, isn't it?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pizza Day in English 113

Today was my students first day back from Spring Break. On the original syllabus, drafts of their fourth papers were due today. When I realized that this would mean they would have homework to do over Break, I told them that we would delay having them turn in their drafts until Wednesday and that today I would show a movie and buy them all pizza.

So we watched Casablanca (1942) in class and yes, ate pizza. It was fun, though it must be the squillionth time I have seen the film. I don't think any of my students had seen it before, however, and seeing films like Casablanca should be part of everyone's education.

Aren't I the nicest professor ever?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Moment with Annie Dillard

Who will teach me to write? A reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, the eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time's scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life's strength: that page which will teach you to write.

There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (Harper Perennial, 1989) pp. 58-59.


Project X Update: I am well into chapter 2. My plan was to write a "chapter" a month, so I am bit ahead of myself, but I'm sure things will slow down. I have a general idea of where the plot is going, but I am keeping things loose enough to allow for surprise. Because the novel is set in actual time and place, and involves fairly well-known historical events, the plot seems relatively simple to manage. My plan has been to write scene-by-scene, never overdrivng my headlights. I write until I don't know precisely what is coming next, then I stop until the next idea comes to me.

So far, so good.

I am going to write five or six chapters, then outline the balance of the manuscript. Rewrite the first five chapters and send the manuscript off to an agent.

"I am guided by a signal in the heavens."

Onward, my compadres, aiming always for the chopping block.

Jenny Sings Lenny––with Help from Stevie Ray

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within...

Orders of the Day


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Stalking the Billion Footed MFA

I always thought the point of an MFA (if any) was to make one a better writer--a bit more quickly, perhaps, than one might accomplish this working alone.

Apparently not.

So many pronouncements!

Seth Abramson is beginning to remind me of Tom Wolfe––in an Iowa sweatshirt, rather than a white suit.

And From the Best of Thirty Years Anniversary Issue of Watershed

The "Odessa Steps" scene from The Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein (1925)


Sources today described Russian President Boris Yeltsin
as suffering from a colossal weariness.

-National Public Radio


Word arrives in the steamy depths
of the American summer,
the torpor so general
I cannot rise from my couch.
I share your struggles, comrade.
My own weariness
is the prosecutor's vast troika,
the battleship Potemkin,
the weariness of Mandelstam,
the big beluga, it is
shall we say, humongous,
a heavyweight, major league, super-sized
forty ouncer, an Arch Deluxe,
a Double Whopper,
a big-mama kind of tired,
a hog-stomping, ass-thumping,
thunder-bumping lollapalooza.
It's the weariness of Jesus
watching Judas spill the salt,
the spent dime of Sonny Rollins
walking home at dawn,
the funky tired of James Brown
as he begins to moan,
it's the shot wad of Saddam,
heat-sought and laser-bombed
in the desert of his bunker,
it's the mother of all weariness,
plus-sized and full-figured, it is,
my friend,
every synonym for large.


This fall, Boris Nikolayevitch,
meet me in Oslo,
where we shall take the steaming baths
of the Toyenbad, commiserate
over shots of Stolichnaya,
restore ourselves with samovars of tea
and quiet readings
from Akhmatova's Requiem.
In the declining light
of a November afternoon,
let us sit quietly in the Galleriat
and contemplate the works
of our comrade, Edvard Munch.
Consider your likeness to
the man in the blue window
of Night in Saint-Cloud,
of which Edvard said,
"For me, life is a window in a cell.
I shall never enter the promised land."
I am turning away from the lakefront
in his canvas Melancholy.
"The air is mild," Edvard wrote of it,
"it must be wonderful to love now."
To see our lives depicted
with such exquisite clarity!
Barely ruling your vast country,
me, guarding the boundaries
of my unruly heart.

-Greg Rappleye

Night in Saint-Cloud (1890)

Melancholy (1892)

Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review

From the back cover:

This substantial anthology charts the development of this influential journal decade by decade, making clear that although it has close ties to a particular region, it has consistently maintained a national scope, publishing poets from all over the United States. SPR's goal has been to celebrate the poem above all, so although there are poems by major poets here, there are many gems by less famous, perhaps even obscure, writers too. Here are 183 poems by nearly as many poets, from A.R. Ammons, Kathryn Stripling Byer, James Dickey, Mark Doty, Claudia Emerson, David Ignatow, and Carolyn Kizer to Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Howard Nemerov, Sharon Olds, Linda Pastan, and Charles Wright.

Among the less-famous-but-I-hope-not-too-obscure poets published in Don't Leave Hungry: Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review (University of Arkansas Press, 2009) edited by James Smith is...uhm, me.


I'd bring you cauliflower
and the leaf tips of artichokes.
Or tiny radishes and
wild fennel, the violet ribs
of chard, shorn of all flesh;
sliced ginger root, the woody hearts
of parsnips––acidic, astringent.
You might try the leeks:
one end spring green, the other––
forged in mud––
resplendent, bone white.
You might cut through the pulp
of these purple beets,
splay them across wilted
spinach, swirl them
with turnips, pungent mustard
greens, weedy amaranth
or rapini, slightly past its prime,
saute them all with olive oil
and chopped garlic.
Are they bitter?
That is something best known
at the root of the tongue, where
muscle and blood run thick,
where the nerve ends fire,
fire, fire
at whatever starts to gag,
snapping shut the voice box
and binding the heart to silence.

-Greg Rappleye

Fire Above the Bookman

Last night there was a fire in the yoga studio above The Bookman, our local bookstore. I found out about it this morning when I went into town to check my mail. I stopped and spoke with John and Doug who were cleaning things up. The store was closed and they were still airing out smoke. There was some water leakage through the ceiling and some of the books were damaged. No one was hurt (the fire started after-hours) and the bookstore hopes to reopen as soon as possible.

I understand that the damage to the yoga studio was fairly extensive.

I hope the bookstore reopens soon. Without The Bookman, Grand Haven would...well...it would not be Grand Haven, would it?

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Moment with Jim Harrison


What if it were our privilege
to sculpt our dreams of animals?
But those shapes in the night
come and go too quickly to be held
in stone: but not to avoid these shapes
as if dreams were only a nighttime
pocket to be remembered and avoided.
Who can say in the depths of
his life and heart what beast
most stopped life, the animals
he watched, the animals he only touched
in dreams? Even our hearts don't beat
the way we want them to. What
can we know in that waking,
sleeping edge? We put down
my daughter's old horse, old and
arthritic, a home burial. By dawn with eye
half-open, I said to myself, is
he still running, is he still running
around, under the ground?

-Jim Harrison

-Jim Harrison, circa 1969, Leelanau County, Michigan


The painting at top is Cabin Fever (1976) by Susan Rothenberg

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Am Not a SpamBot!

I am a blog!

Yesterday, Blogger locked me out and said S@4AM was being reviewed as a "Spam Blog" or "SpamBot" or something. I think it's because of the wild popularity of this blog among my fourteen regular readers. Anyway, the incredible volume of traffic here set off the alarms at Blogger H.Q.

They said if I contacted them and requested a review, I would probably be unlocked, because SpamBots can't contact them and ask to be reviewed (duh!).

So, I contacted them--proving that I am in fact, a human, not a "SpamBot," and this morning my blog was unlocked.

I have no idea what a SpamBot is.

But I am not one of them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Good News!

Our daughter Hannah was just accepted at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Yes, we are celebrating for her.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thought for the Day

The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

The writer knows his field––what has been done, what could be done––the limits––the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. He hits up the line. In writing, he can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now, courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it, can he nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power?

The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature In working class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, "It is the trade entering his body." The art must enter the body, too. A painter cannot use paint like glue or screws to fasten down the world. The tubes of paint are like fingers; they work only if, inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, part of the brain changes physical shape to accommodate and fit the paint.

You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paint box. Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents. Klee called this insight, quite rightly, "an altogether revolutionary new discovery."

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (Harper Perennial, 1989), pp. 69-70.


Constant Reader, I am tired. I didn't write a word on Sunday, and I was very busy at my day job today, addressing many pressing problems. I have also been busy helping to judge a local literary contest for high school students.

Must do better.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Good Day for a Poet

This morning, I spent $25 for a contest fee and $22 for a subscription, plus postage, paper, gas, etc.

That was the money OUT.

But then IN my mailbox I received this semester's mileage supplement for adjunct faculty.

That's $288.

So, the way poets figure things, I am WAY AHEAD today.

No comments from economists, please.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Songs to Study for the Bar Exam By

In 1977, I would work all day and study late into the night for the bar exam.

Every night, before going to bed, I put on the headphones and listened to two songs.

This was one of them.

Yes, I passed.

Status Report



Though the lil' demon is actually gnawing on my right heel.

More later.

P.S.: Yes, Francine Prose was fabulous.

If you have a chance to hear her read, hear her read.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Francine Prose Tonight

Francine Prose will be reading tonight (7 P.M.) at the Knickerbocker Theatre in Holland, as part of Hope College's Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.

I am very much looking forward to this.


We've had a sudden rash of vehicles running into buildings in West Michigan. Seriously, it's happened four or five times in the past couple of weeks. Last night around 8 p.m., a minivan corkscrewed off the main drag in Spring Lake and took out the local Arby's (photo above).

In a not-really-a-close-call-but-still-enough-to-make-one-think realization, it occured to me that, at around 6:30 p.m., the boys and I were eating a scrumptious dinner at McDonald's, which is not-quite-exactly across the street from Arby's.

Luckily, no customers were in Arby's when the van hit the building.

Curly fries, anyone?


At 9 p.m. lat night, it was 50 degrees (F).
It is now 20 degrees and very windy.
"F" indeed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dear Poetry Blogosphere:

Remember a couple of year ago during the writers' strike when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Conan O'Brien got into that big "argument" about who "created" Mike Huckabee and they staged the big "fight" in that studio hallway where they whopped each other with baseball bats and did some rasslin' and broke fake bottles over each other's heads and stuff?

That was pretty funny.

People laughed about that for days.

Some really clever, funny guys like that--but these guys would be poets, see?--they should get together and promote each other's poetry books by writing long, over-the-top, negative book reviews of each other's books and posting anonymous comments about each other all over the web.

That would be pretty funny, too.

That would be true humor.

Like the show that Ashton Kutcher guy had on TV.

What was it called? Oh, yeah--"You Just Got Punk'd."

That was zany!

What a whacky, zany, funny guy Ashton Kutcher is!

And what a sweet, clever viral marketing campaign that would be!

You know, the whole "long, over-the-top, negative book review" thing.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Progress Notes

I spent yesterday typing away on Project X, and reading. Because I am writing a story which is definite in time and place, I have to know enough to make it realistic.

Today will be a busy day.


Photo of the USS Wisconsin in the Panama Canal, 1953

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Stan Getz: The Best of the Verve Years, Vol. 1

There is nothing better on a rainy Sunday afternoon in March than writing to the music of Stan Getz.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Almost Random Notes, Part 20

1. On Progress: I spent the latter part of the week revising bits and pieces of Tropical Landscape with Ten Hummingbirds, then added a longish poem I've been working on to the final third of the manuscript. I had not previously been happy with the ending, now I am. I know I have said several times, "Now, it is finished," but Yes, now it actually does feel finished. I sent the mansuscript out again this morning to a contest. I think that the changes I made were helpful and I have some faith in what I put in the mail.

It strikes me as a legitimate question--at one point does one retire from the contest business and settle upon (or resolve to seek out) a long-term relationship with a publisher?

Rhetorical Question: Do long-term relationships with publishers actually exist in the poetry world?

Perhaps for the Smart Set, but not for me.

Not yet.

Answer to the Actual Question: I suppose I will stop submitting to contests when (if ever) the poetry community discovers (i) that I exist, (ii) that I am not going away, and (iii) that my work is worth reading and makes a valuable contribution. So far, that level of acceptance hasn't happened, at least not in the sense––or to the extent--I would like. Until then, you'll see me standing, along with everyone else, in the welfare line, waiting for my handout of cheese.

And until then--and what the Hell, ever after--as that famous band sang, "Why can't we be friends?, why can't we be friends? Why can't..."

Yes, I am also working on Project X.

2. Bad Reviews: Perhaps the only review I've read recently that was worse than Jason Guriel's attack on Jane Mead's The Usable Field (Alice James Books, 2008) and Steven Schroeder's I-hate-this-guy take on Tryfon Tolides' An Almost Pure Empty Walking ( Penguin, 2006) was Michael Schiavo's hatchet job on Matthew Dickman's All-American Poem (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). Now, I don't know Tolides and I don't know either one of the Dickman twins, nor am I familiar with any of their work. Based upon what I read in the reviews, however, I have trouble believing that Tolides and Matt are two of the four donkey-boys of the poetry apocalypse. Even with twin bro' Michael Dickman riding scraggly burro No. 3.

They don't need my defense, in any event.

I will say that Jane Mead is a different matter. I know and love her work and (full disclosure) had the pleasure of meeting her personally about ten years ago. No, I haven't read her new book, but I intend to do so, and anticipate making a response to Guriel, based upon my (okay; as yet, not fully informed) sense that Guriel has treated her unfairly.

I am not opposed to negative reviews per se, but must say that I "like" them only when they are directed at poets I dislike personally and whose work I find execrable. I am afraid that is not a very principled position--in fact, I will concede that it is the essence of unprincipled, but there you have it.

Who are the poets I dislike and whose work I find execrable? Oh, Constant Reader, you tempt me so.

3. Cheap Shots: The Cheap Shot of the Week Award goes to David Wojahn in the most current American Poetry Review.* In an otherwise informative essay on capaciousness in poetry, Wojahn suddenly turns on Joe Wenderoth, variously––and to no particular point––calling one of Wenderoth's poems "listless," "muddled," "maladroit," "...parody, as something sampled from one of the more cheesy moments of a Presidential address. But we can't quite be sure. Wenderoth, like many younger poets, is a highly accomplished ironist. But here that very skill may have underscored his other limitations."


C'mon. Why can't we be friends?

The runner-up for Cheap Shot of the Week is Jim Holt, who, while reviewing Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, pointed out (in the last paragraph of the review--and again, to no particular purpose) that Alexander Waugh's grandfather, Evelyn, had an incestuous relationship with Alexander's aunt.**

Double ouch.

4. Final Notes: In the same issue of APR, C. Dale Young has four terrific poems, and that guy Michael Dickman has two.



* "'Though I Would Have Saved Them if I Could': On Capaciousness" by David Wojahn, The American Poetry Review, March / April 2009, pp. 11-17.

** "Suicide Squad: A History of the Morbid, Musical, Quarrelsome, Brilliant Wittgensteins" by Jim Holt, reviewing The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009, pp. 8-9.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thought for the Day

I went down to the crossroads,
trying to find a ride.
I went down to the crossroads,
trying to find a ride.

Nobody seemed to know me,
everybody passed me by.

-Robert Johnson

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Martin Johnson Heade and Charles Darwin

But it is a measure of the achievement of this remarkable exhibition, at the Yale Center for British Art here, that this work is seen differently, as we look at it through Darwinian eyes — as is nearly everything in the show. The cliffs and comet and shells allude to the lumbering processes of the ancient earth against which daily experience — the ebb of tides, the attentions of a distracted child in the painting’s foreground, the recollections of the artist himself — plays itself out. The image has an eerie beauty, but it also reflects a gnawing anxiety about the mismatch between the ageless and the temporal, the divine and the mortal, an anxiety not unlike the kind Darwin’s theories can still inspire.

An article in today's New York Times about an exhibit in New Haven featuring (among others) the work of Martin Johnson Heade, including Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds (1871)

Portrait of Charles Robert Darwin by Laura Russell (1869).

Monday, March 02, 2009

Kindle 2?

I buy a lot of books and love the "bookness" of books. I like the way they feel, the way the paper smells––I am, let's face it, a book addict. At the retinologists on Friday, however, we spoke with a woman who has a Kindle 1, and she spoke highly of it. This was the first time I've seen one "in action," so to speak––and yes, it was before my eyes were dilated,* after which I saw nothing very well.

I was impressed by the Kindle, particularly by the clarity of the screen and, for reasons that may be obvious, by the fact that the reader could easily enlarge the type size. I doubt very much that most of the books I buy will be readily available on Kindle anytime soon––if ever!––but it seemed like an attractive, and relatively inexpensive, option for buying more commercially accessible texts.

Does anyone out there have any experiece with the Kindle (1 or 2)?

Any thoughts?


* I originally spelled this "dialated." Great. Now I spell like George Bush speaks!

Progress Notes

Yesterday, I started Project X. I'll need a better name for it, but until I get a chapter or so finished, I hesitate to say "n-n-n-novel." I wrote for three hours, and spent the remainder of available time reading and taking notes. This will take a bit of historical research, but it is interesting work.

On Saturday, after everything went in the mail, we took the boys out for dinner to celebrate––it might be more accurate to call it a late lunch--and then on a mini-shopping spree ($20 each) at Target. We now have a light saber and a toy motorcycle that makes a tremendous amount of noise.

I'm looking forward to reading the Flannery O'Connor biography by Brad Gooch, which had the cover of yesterday's New York Times Book Review.* As timing would have it, I picked up a copy of the book on Saturday. Based on a flip-through evaluation, I think I am going to really like the book and may even adopt it as a text for my writing class.

Otherwise, I do have a busy week. This morning I must be in court––that's quite out of the ordinary––and then class late this afternoon.

It is 5 degrees (F) this morning.

It has been such a cold winter and the weekend was no exception. How odd that almost the nicest weather we've had in the Midwest was during the AWP Conference, when Chicago was actually quite lovely--as long as one kept moving.

I owe a number of things to people (you know who you are) and will get all of it in the mail this week.



*"Stranger Than Paradise," by Joy Williams, The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Crossing Genres

If you have a memory for minor figures, it will astonish you that I am alive.