“Tiara” by Mark Doty

 

I came across this poem by Mark Doty in a folder of mine. I’d first heard the poem when we were interviewing candidates, and one of the better ones used it in her teaching demonstration. I was so taken by it I asked for a copy.

Tiara
Peter died in a paper tiara
cut from a book of princess paper dolls;
he loved royalty, sashes

and jewels. I don’t know,
he said, when he woke in the hospice,
I was watching the Bette Davis film festival

on Channel 57 and then—
At the wake, the tension broke
when someone guessed

the casket closed because
he was in there in a big wig
and heels, and someone said,

You know he’s always late,
he probably isn’t here yet—
he’s still fixing his makeup.

And someone said he asked for it.
Asked for it—
when all he did was go down

into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk

or stoned it almost didn’t matter who,
though they were beautiful,
stampeding into him in the simple,

ravishing music of their hurry.
I think heaven is perfect stasis
poised over the realms of desire,

where dreaming and waking men lie
on the grass while wet horses
roam among them, huge fragments

of the music we die into
in the body’s paradise.
Sometimes we wake not knowing

how we came to lie here,
or who has crowned us with these temporary,
precious stones. And given

the world’s perfectly turned shoulders,
the deep hollows blued by longing,
given the irreplaceable silk

of horses rippling in orchards,
fruit thundering and chiming down,
given the ordinary marvels of form

and gravity, what could he do,
what could any of us ever do
but ask for it.

Vonnegut on Novelists

” . . . novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday

Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

The opening lines of a novel matter (there are lists, after all, for such things, the “Best First Lines from Novels“). Point of view is set. Characters are introduced. Voice is established. And maybe more, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.

So what happens when writers cast out those first lines? Where do the words come from? What is the writer looking for? And how does he or she know when they’ve found it? Below are author insights culled mostly from The Paris Review interviews.

John Steinbeck: I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing.

Edna O’Brien: I always have the first line. Even with my very first book, The Country Girls, I went around with this first sentence in my head long before I sat down to write it.

Joseph Heller: My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.

I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” Immediately, the lines presented a whole explosion of possibilities and choices—characters (working in a corporation), a tone, a mood of anxiety, or insecurity. In that first hour (before someone came along and asked me to go to the beach), I knew the beginning, the ending, most of the middle . . .

INTERVIEWER
Was it the same process of “receiving” a first line with Catch-22?

HELLER
Just about. I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half.

Joan Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Continue reading

NY Times: A Peek into Lost Lives

In the summer of 1991, as I was leaving the National Concert Hall in Dublin during an international writers’ conference, I was startled to see the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant walking alone ahead of me. She was small, had thick auburn hair and wore a red-and-black houndstooth suit and brown pumps. She crossed the street to the Conrad Hotel, where many visiting writers were staying. I found it impossible not to follow her.

Gallant was 68 then and didn’t strike me as frail, but she walked in a tentative way; when she approached the opposite curb, she paused to consider it, as if it were challenging her to leap across a creek. She entered the hotel. I trailed behind. I had read 11 of her books, marveling at the searing wit locked in embrace with bitter sadness, the intelligence wound around the loneliness. Her style was fast, knowing, brutally direct and so vivid it was outright filmic. Two years earlier she signed a book for me at an event in New York, but I was too stupidly awe-struck to speak to her then.

In the hotel lobby, four Irish women — local poets — were lounging on couches with the casual intimacy of women lying topless on a beach, yawning sumptuously, shoes kicked off, laughing loudly. Gallant stood silently near them, clearly at a loss. A conference official introduced her to the women. They said hello, extending their hands to her without standing up. I realized with dismay that they had no idea who she was.

Plenty of writers have gushed about Mavis Gallant’s work. Michael Ondaatje: “One of the great short-story writers of our time.” Fran Lebowitz: “The irrefutable master of the short story in English.” Russell Banks: “One of the immortals.” Margaret Atwood: “Wonderful.” Alice Munro: “Marvelous.” Alice Adams: “Astounding.” Why, then, did so few people know who Mavis Gallant was? Ondaatje called her work “a well-kept secret.” Yes, but what a pity to keep world-class literature a secret.

Gallant wandered off and sat in one of two empty chairs apart from the other writers. She appeared uncomfortable, isolated, out of place in her beautiful houndstooth suit. Suddenly some overwhelming impulse knocked my childish diffidence to the ground. I approached her. She said, “Yes?” smiling so eagerly that I had the impression she would have been thrilled at that moment to be addressed by any passing stranger. She invited me to sit with her. “I don’t know anyone here,” she said. “You’re only the second person who’s spoken to me since I arrived.”

I was disarmed by how uncertain and accessible she seemed. Uncertain? Forget that. With no uncertainty whatever she began shredding the writer’s conference — disorganized, haphazard and all that onstage nonsense about Europe becoming Americanized, the clichés about anti-intellectualism in America.

Eventually I said I admired her writing. She looked surprised, then pleased, then asked apprehensively: “Is that because I’m a woman? Because I read Proust, you know.”

It was like a line from one of her stories, momentarily startling, a non sequitur, until the meaning catches up with you and burrows deep, where it glows like a smoldering coal. She wouldn’t be categorized as a women’s writer, wouldn’t be categorized at all. No, I told her, I loved her work because she was a scarily great writer. Again, she smiled.

Finally, she had to travel by bus with the other writers to meet the president of Ireland. When we stood up, she held my forearm in both her freckled hands and said, “Do you want my address, Rosemary?”

Her address was so far-fetched a piece of intimacy that it had not occurred to me to want it. Floored, I took it. She hooked her arm in mine, and we went out. Boarding the bus, she said again, nervously, “I don’t know any of these people.” Somehow I found the nerve to tell her, “All you have to do is introduce yourself.” She laughed, thanked me and disappeared.

In “The Lives They Lived,” The New York Times offers unique insights, like the one above, into some of the lives that ended this year. There are a good many writers represented, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Walter Dean Myers, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and John Cheever’s wife, Mary, but also actors, comedians, directors, activists, teachers, musicians, politicians, sports legends, and victims.

NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2014

Holiday season is book time–time to read and time to give and receive. What better place to tap into the best contemporary writing than The New York Times‘ “100 Notable Books of 2014“?  Which ones have you read?

Henri Cole Interviewed in The Paris Review

There’s a wonderful interview with Henri Cole in The Paris Review–many insights on craft and the artistic mindset. Here’s a glimpse into how he wrote Middle Earth:

“I decided to try writing free-verse sonnets and bringing to them some of the qualities of Japanese poetry, valuing sincerity over artifice, frequent use of simile, the presence of nature as an emblem for interior states, and so on. The first poems I wrote were in a rather minimalist style, like a rock garden. I tried to write poems of pure contentment, because I was so deeply moved by the setting—the rice fields were being planted and were full of happy frogs that talked all night and accompanied my sleep. It was intense. And slowly, I wrote about it. And these were the poems that became Middle Earth.”

First Paragraphs: Padgett Powell’s “The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping”

I haven’t read all of Padgett Powell’s short stories, but I’ve read enough to know that “The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping” is my favorite of his stories.  The first paragraph alone is worth the price of the book, the 1991 collection, Typical. The story setting is contemporary, yet the reference to the eighteenth century oaks immediately pulls us into another time.

Mrs. Schuping lived on a moribund estate that had once been grand enough in trees alone that a shipbuilder scouting live oaks in the eighteenth century had bought the tract for wood to make warships for the British Navy. Oak of that sort, when fitted into six-inch walls, would not merely withstand or absorb cannonballs but repel them a good way toward their source. Mrs. Schuping did not know this, but she had big old trees, and she patted their flanks when she strolled the grounds.