An interview with Jesse Zuba, author of “The First Book”

Literary debuts both launch and define careers, and have a unique impact on the literary marketplace. In The First Book, Jesse Zuba has written a cultural history and literary analysis of “first books”, focusing on poetic debuts, that will intrigue writers and publishers alike. Recently, Zuba spoke to PUP about his first book, The First Book:

The First Book jacket“First books” hold such a special place in the public imagination. How did you come up with the idea of writing about first books?

I was interested in how poets came to see themselves as poets, and be recognized as such by others, before they had anything more than their unpublished writing to show for their efforts, and at a cultural moment when poetry generally didn’t count for a whole lot. I tried to write a research paper about this in college. I remember checking out Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium and John Ashbery’s Some Trees from the library, and re-reading Gary Snyder’s Riprap. But I didn’t follow through. I was fascinated by Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote,” but I didn’t have any idea what it meant, let alone how to link it to other debut poems.

Eventually I saw that my questions about vocation were exactly what poets usually brooded on as they began their careers. I also noticed the improbable amount of fuss made over debuts in reviews, essays, advertisements, and elsewhere, and I got curious. Four dozen annual first book prizes? For poetry? I liked that the topic gave me a chance to discuss a wide range of poets handling vocational anxieties in different ways, and also to talk about the first book as a complex artifact that is more central to the poetry scene than you might expect.

What does “The First Book” have to do with “Twentieth-Century Poetic Careers in America”?

The first book anticipates others to come. I couldn’t discuss it without placing it in the context of the poetic career. But what was that? Was the classic sequence of pastoral, georgic, and epic still relevant, or was it just a series of books? How did jobs, relationships, and receptions get factored in? And what about the oppositional bent of modern poetry, with its ambivalent relation to the very forms of success that conventional careers aim to achieve?

By focusing on the representation of career, I followed the lead of the poets themselves, who obsessively address questions of self-fashioning in their debuts. That they talk so much about it, both obliquely and sometimes quite explicitly, suits the occasion, since the poetic career – always precarious, and especially so in twentieth-century America – is bound to be radically uncertain at the outset, when it’s all still to do.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you worked on the book?

One challenge was the complexity of the career notion I just mentioned. Most of the criticism dealing with it comes out of Renaissance studies, which has only an indirect relevance to my project. I gradually found my way to books like Edward Said’s Beginnings, and sociological studies of art and professionalism, which helped me to find the handles on the issue. But in the early going, it was sometimes tough to work with a concept that was at once so hazy and yet so pervasive in literary criticism.

In a similar way, the idea of the first book itself proved more difficult to pin down than I expected. If Stevens’s Harmonium, published in 1923, was his first book, was the expanded 1931 edition of Harmonium his second book, or the definitive edition of his first? Was Observations Marianne Moore’s debut, or was Poems, which was published three years earlier by her friends, without her say-so? What about early publications whose authors later destroyed them, like Lyn Hejinian’s The Grreat Adventure, or omitted them from collected editions, like Robert Hayden’s Heart-Shape in the Dust? It was a while before I learned to look at examples like these as evidence of the interest poets and publishers have taken in debuts, which are often staged and re-staged in tellingly energetic ways.

In the book you list lots of debut titles that deal with beginning, from James Merrill’s First Poems and Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note to Eleni Sikelianos’s Earliest Worlds and Ken Chen’s Juvenilia. Is this part of the secret formula for getting published? Do poets write for prizes?

I don’t see much evidence of any formula, though there are some interesting similarities among first books, and I’m sure many poets have considered current trends and judges’ tastes in the hopes of increasing their odds. There are too many constantly-changing variables involved for a formula to be more than minimally effective, and the checklists you sometimes see in prize advertisements with qualities like “willingness to take risks” and “formal virtuosity” not only raise more questions than they answer, but are much more easily said than done: they might as well say “write like W. B. Yeats” or “write like Frank O’Hara.”

Only Chen’s book won a prize out of the titles you mentioned, and plenty of debuts are published and win prizes without drawing on the theme of beginning in their titles or elsewhere. I see the emphasis on beginning that pervades post-1945 poetic debuts as part of a complex response to the increasingly institutionalized environment in which poetry is often written, published, and read these days, not as a subtle advertisement of a poet’s promise, designed to win over editors.

What are you reading?

I just finished recording a reading of Emerson’s Nature for Librivox – a great volunteer organization that makes audio versions of public domain texts available online for free. At the moment I’m in the middle of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, A Bernadette Mayer Reader, and Gillian White’s Lyric Shame. I’m looking forward to James Richardson’s During and the newly translated early novels of Haruki Murakami. I’m always re-reading Philip Roth.

What’s next for you?

A new project dealing with what I think of as “the scandal of authorship” has roots in reading Roth. Why is the author seen as a bad guy in a novel like The Counterlife? How is it that fiction elicits such harsh judgments? What does it mean that writers sometimes take pains to forestall such judgments – by judging themselves guilty in advance, for example, or through sheer tact? I’m casting a fairly wide net for now: Roth, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov. I’d like to explore tensions between social responsibility and the autonomy of the aesthetic in the post-1945 period, think some more about literary careers, and hopefully tell some good stories along the way.

Jesse Zuba is assistant professor of English at Delaware State University.

Read the introduction to The First Book here.

Memorable Quotes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandHere at PUP, we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with a new edition that combines the text of the 1897 version (thought to be the most authentic and correct by Lewis Carroll himself) with the illustrations done by Salvador Dalí for the 1969 Random House version. Readers can enjoy this familiar tale alongside Dalí’s hyper-saturated, surrealist pictures. In honor of Alice, here are some of the most memorable quotes from the book. Which is your favorite?

 

“Off with her head!”
–the Queen of Hearts

“A cat may look at a king.”
–Alice

“Curiouser and curiouser!”
–Alice

“[W]e’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
–the Cheshire Cat

“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
–the Duchess

“For the Duchess. An invitation from the Queen to play croquet.”
–the Frog-Footman

“Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
the King

“I ca’n’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir … because I’m not myself, you see.”
Alice

“The Duchess! The Duchess! Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!”
–the White Rabbit

150 years ago today, Alice in Wonderland was published

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandJuly 4, 2015 may be about Independence Day in the United States, but in Oxford, it’s about one of the great heroes of fiction, a young girl who followed a white rabbit, met a hookah-smoking caterpillar and asked, “Who are you?” 

In July 1865, 150 years ago, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a professor of mathematics and Anglican deacon, published Alice’s Adventures Underground, a story about a little girl who tumbles down a rabbit hole into a world of nonsense, but keeps her wits about her. With this the world was first introduced to Alice (who was inspired by a real child named Alice Liddell) and her pseudonymous creator, Lewis Carroll. To commemorate the anniversary, the rare first edition recently went on display in Oxford. Princeton University Press is honored to publish our own beautiful new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandwith rarely seen illustrations by none other than Salvador Dalí.

Of course, Alice doesn’t just have a whimsical adventure full of anthropomorphic creatures. She falls into a world that is curiously logical and mathematical. Carroll expert Mark Burstein discusses Dalí’s connections with Carroll, his treatment of the symbolic figure of Alice, and the mathematical nature of Wonderland. In addition, mathematician Thomas Banchoff reflects on the friendship he shared with Dalí and the mathematical undercurrents in Dalí’s work.

Explore chapter one in full here, view the best illustrations over the years on Brain Pickings, or click here for a list of anniversary-related events. If you’re here in New Jersey, Washington Crossing’s Open Air Theater will be performing Alice in Wonderland in the park today at 11 and tomorrow at 4.

Happy birthday, Alice!

Jeff Nunokawa on Mothers

In Note Book, Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa writes frequently (and beautifully) about his mother, from her approach to moles to her aversion to fiction. It’s a perfect day for these choice excerpts from Note Book. Happy Mother’s Day!

1340. The Afterlife of Moles

My mother just hated them—moles, I mean—and if you were a child of hers, your earliest premonition of Ahab had to be the sight of her, out in the backyard, smoking, frowning, and plotting to destroy her own version of the White Whale. It was trench warfare: the moles would dig up the yard, pissing my mother off, big time, and my mother would stick garden hoses into the underground passages through which they, the moles, would go about their business, and whose upward and visible signs were the mounds of dirt that would drive her, my mother, to a state of more than domestic Fury. And then, having set out the means of flushing out her enemy, she would sit back, shovel in hand, watching and waiting, waiting and watching. She got one once. My brother, four or five at the time, overheard her describe her gruesome triumph to a neighbor.

“Mommy, do Moles go to Heaven?”

“I hope not!” she replied with confusing candor. “Why did you say that to him?” I asked.

“I had to tell the truth!” she answered.

And she does. Always—have to tell what she regards as the truth, no matter what.
Note: What’s there to add to the Truth?


1388. “The Unteachable Monkey,” “The Fables of
Panchatantra,” “Indian Humor”

The Wisdom of China and India, ed. Lin Yutang (1942)

Inspecting my mother’s primary bookshelf, one last time, before my second sleep and flight home, I realize with a mild start that I perform this ritual whenever I am about to leave her. And that’s right: these books, a small community library, are the bibliographic correlative and component of her moral competence. Of course I open these books almost never. Most are very old and unpleasant in appearance, and by the looks of them, to my impatient eye at least, not at all “my bag”—Pearl Buck novels; heroic accounts of Andrew Jackson, depicting “Old Hickory” as a paradigm populist; atavistic exposés of power elites, et cetera. In a rare impulse, I take one of these books down from the place where it has rested unnoticed for decades—Professor Lin Yutang’s tome, cited above. A smooth and surprising volume, filled with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar satire and solemnity.

Reading along, I come across the story whose title forms the title of this note. The story is amusing and enlightening enough—all about a monkey whose resistance to helpful instruction becomes sufficiently violent to murder the emissary of enlightenment. I am struck more, though, by the wilderness of teachable monkeys the title of this anecdote obliquely surveys.

I hope I am one of the teachable ones. My mother, I suppose, thinks that I am, but mothers often give their children the benefit of the doubt.

Note: In fairness to her, she is hardly uncritical on the subject of Andrew Jackson.


3027. “What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?”

The Author’s Mother: A Play in Eleven Lines
The Author’s Mother: What do you want for your birthday? Jeff: I’m glad you asked. Two books by
Bob Venturi, preferably early editions …
The Author’s Mother: You’ll get whatever edition is cheapest. …
Jeff: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
The Author’s Mother: Hold on, I have to write this down … “Complexity and what?”
Jeff: Contradiction!
The Author’s Mother: Complexity and Continuation in Architecture would have been a better title.
Jeff: Yes, but that would have been a different book, now wouldn’t it?
The Author’s Mother: Yeah. A better book! Jeff: Also, Learning from Las Vegas.
The Author’s Mother: What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?!

Note: You see my problem.


3302. Tradition and the Individual Eavesdropper

Kafka eavesdropped on tradition. … The main reason why this eavesdropping demands such effort is that only the most indistinct sounds reach the listener.

(W. Benjamin to G. Scholem, June 12, 1938)

—which doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit a little, the Tradition you only half hear, pass it on in bits and pieces—the defense of the truth, and of those who would extend it, even by evading it; the opposition to war and the devotion to peace; the styles of elegance and expertise in art and science; the beauty of the plain and simple (and the cryptic and the complicated); the methods for coping with the unbearable, and caring for that which makes it less so; the ways of loving what is, and laboring to bring about what should be.

My mom likes to tell the story about how once, when she and my dad were first married (this must have been sometime during the second Eisenhower administration), they were out somewhere in the woods with some other newlyweds, staying in some kind of log cabin (somewhere in eastern Washington State, I suppose—I can’t recall the details) without electricity or running water. One morning, my dad came back from the well with an empty bucket. (“Your father didn’t know anything about priming the pump!” my mother reports with gleeful and affectionate condescension.) Well, as little as he knew, I know less, and my ears glaze over whenever my mother seeks to explain with methodical clarity the practice and principle of this hydraulic feat for drawing water where all seems dry. I have never delved to consider the literal ground of what is best known as a popularizing metaphor for a central element of Keynesian economics, and certainly have no interest in disturbing the perfect record of my ignorance. But I like to think about how much my mother likes to tell me all about it.

Note: “(a sort of theology passed on by whispers dealing with matters discredited and obsolete)”
(Benjamin to Scholem).


4004. “a love stronger than any impulse that could have marred it”

She never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw. … They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulse which could have marred it.

(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My mother likes to remind me regularly of her aversion to fiction and, in particular, the kind of “fancy” fiction I have spent a good portion of my life studying and teaching. I was thus surprised this morning, in my semi-annual survey of her strange library—manuals for Hikers, Self-Helpers, and Chinese Communists; a celebratory biography of Andrew Jack- son; memoirs of Native American Warriors and dictionaries of Ancient Hawaiian Chants; histories of the Middle East and the Wild West; old (very old) field guides to flora and fauna, near and far; textbooks on Organic Chemistry and the like— to discover, nearly hidden in the thickets of this old curiosity shop, one of “my” books—a novel I am not alone in regarding as one of the greatest stories ever told. More surprising, still: the volume is, throughout, underlined and annotated by what could only be her hand.

I was less surprised to discover that amongst the passages she has marked for note are the lines that begin this report. Decades after their divorce, my parents remain bound together by an unfaded, though now hardly mentioned, belief that risking anything short of everything to marry each other (they are of different races; that was a different time) would have been a cowardice they would have both repented till the day they died. I like to think that my mother took some satisfaction when she came across a bare statement of the fact of the faith that determined the direction of her life—“a feeling that,

Note: in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world” (E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).


4047. “Several people on the trip told me that I was an
inspiration, which made me feel good” (The Author’s
Mother)

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.

(Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”)

Many years ago, in the middle of the hardest defeat of my life, my mother came to visit me in New York. My apartment there is small; I, especially in my compromised state, smaller still, and my powers to accommodate her sizable stock of certitudes and self-doubts—their aggregate volume sufficient to fill any proscenium worth its salt—powers of forbearance that hardly amount to the armor of Hercules even in the best of times, reduced to the tattered thinness of a single fig leaf. She couldn’t have come at a worse time, I thought—until I realized that she couldn’t have come at a better one.

Seeing that I was in no shape to chaperone her, she struck out on her own. (She is, after all, according to her own Ancient History, of “pioneer stock.”) One morning, she left before I was awake and called me later from the viewing platform at the top of what was then the City’s tallest building, while I was still in bed. From this height, she felt called upon to tell me something about herself that she instructed me not to repeat, and I will not disobey her. What I can tell you is that what she conveyed to me when I was troubled, and in need of forbearance, was a memory of falling down and getting up again that dissipated the disturbance that left me thinking I could travel no more.

And now I no longer wonder that my sorrow at the thought of the day that she will pass beyond me is matched by the strength with which she has prepared me to meet it.

Note: “The two days in Athens were great but tiring. I actually made all of the excursions (one exception: a Venetian castle in Crete, but went everywhere else). Some people did not climb up the Acropolis, but I did. Why come to Greece and not go up? Was worth it. I was glad that I had both walking sticks. It really made it possible. Several people on the trip told me that I was an inspiration, which made me feel good. I will tell you all more about the trip later, and show you the pictures when I get them done” (extracted from my mother’s report on her most recent travels; her destination this time was the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan).

Which of these 15 myths of digital-age English do you believe?

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:

Myth 1 image1.  In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.

2.  My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.

Myth 3 image3.  My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.

4.  “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.

5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”

Cioffi jacket6.  Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.

7.  People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.

8.  “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.

9.  Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?

10.  Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.

11.  Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.

12.  There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.

13.  If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.

myth 4 image14.  The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.

Myth 15 image

15.  I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.

How did you do?

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Graphics by Chris Ferrante

Writers on Writers Giveaway

writersonwriters

We have a new giveaway! Enter for a chance to win the complete set of Writers on Writers, a series of brief, personal books by contemporary writers about an author, past or present, who has inspired or influenced them in some way.

Each book gives the reader a window into both the life and work of the chosen author and the mind of the writer. In On Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Tóibín highlights the parallels between his life and that of his subject, particularly in their experience of loss and exile. He traces her footsteps to Nova Scotia, Key West, and Brazil and shows the reader how her influence helped to shape him as a novelist. Compared to Tóibín’s measured, deeply personal account, Alexander McCall Smith’s contribution, What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, is a playful, charming take on the manifold ways that Auden has been a guiding force in his life. McCall Smith calls him one of the best guides on how to live. He shows us how he has been inspired by Auden and how each of us can benefit from his work.

One of the most famous nineteenth-century novelists, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has provided inspiration to many. On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling by Pulitzer-prize winning critic Michael Dirda is not only an engaging introduction to the author and his work, it is a rare glimpse into the best-known of all Sherlockian groups, the Baker Street Irregulars, of which Dirda is a member. Another famous nineteenth-century author, Walter Whitman, is the subject of Pulitzer-prize winning poet C.K. Williams. On Whitman explores the reasons why Leaves of Grass continues to inspire. Williams shows what Whitman had in common with other poets of his time and how his influence continues to be felt today.

Finally, renowned essayist Phillip Lopate describes Sontag as one of the “foremost interpreters of…our recent contemporary moment” in Notes on Sontag. While admiring her free-thinking originality, Lopate is critical of her tendency toward exaggeration, feeling that it undermines her common sense. Lopate provides a clever and enjoyable reflection on his chosen writer through a series of essays, a form used by Sontag herself.

Writers on Writers is necessary reading for anyone interested in the creative process and the often-complex relationship between writers. To enter for a chance to win the complete series, please follow the directions in the RaffleCopter box below. Winners will be selected on or around May 19, 2015.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Jeff Nunokawa on Poetry

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoJeff Nunokawa, author of Note Book, has woken up and written a brief essay in the Notes section of his Facebook page every morning since 2007. Note Book is the compilation of 250 of these essays. A topic that Nunokawa is particularly articulate about is poetry, and as we are currently celebrating National Poetry Month, we thought it would be fun to highlight five of Nunokawa’s best poetry notes. (Quite a few of the notes listed below are prompted from poems written by W.H. Auden. If you want to read more of W.H. Auden’s poems, check out The Complete Works of W.H. Auden.) Without further ado, enjoy the following excerpts from Note Book and sample the first chapter, here.

3505. “Telephone Directory,” “Heaven”

W. H. Auden

One could conceive of Heaven having
a Telephone Directory (“Postscript …”).

We mostly don’t call each other anymore. Not like we used to, anyway. And when we do, we mostly
don’t pick up. That’s cool, though. It just makes us appreciate more the times we do get through.
Now, when we answer, it’s like the reverse charge of the bye, which always sounds like the
beginning of the big one; it’s like a hello from here, all the way to Heaven. That’s why our
hope goes way beyond the bounds of all area codes when we hear the ring at the other end of the
line—
Note: “Stardust in negative, between the rings” (Merrill, “Mirabell”).


3313. “Money is a kind of poetry”

Wallace Stevens

Yesterday, after my annual visit, I left my accountant’s office with tears in my eyes. I don’t
think I’ve ever left my accountant’s office actually weeping. Maybe I have and just forgot-
ten. I cry a lot, and I have a terrible memory.

Once a year, I see him about my taxes. My brother thinks I’m wasting my money. I think I’m
saving my soul. Also, a lot of time and peace of mind: I’m terrible with numbers.
Especially numbers that are symbols for money. Or maybe those numbers are bad with me—hell,
either way, it’s an ugly relationship, and I’ve basically given up on it. (Don’t tell them
that—the numbers, I mean: they know exactly where I live, and they’ll come after me six ways to
Sunday.)

On the other hand, like you, I hope, I’m involved in a lot of relationships—close encounters,
lifelong romances, or some- thing simpler (like a good neighbor)—that just get better every
year. With each passing year, for example, my appreciation for the kinds of words that help
people get through a dark night or a long day just grows and grows. With each passing year, the
kinds of words that help people get brave or loving, or help them know that they can become
so—their interest compounds like nobody’s business.

Appreciating words like that, and helping others do so, too: well, that’s the better part of my
business. Of course, I lack the instruments to quantify the rescuing resonances of the
kinds of words that are the stock in trade for retail outfits like mine—like I say, unlike my
accountant, I’m not a numbers man. But let me tell you something: every year, I leave his
office a little less worried than I was when I walked in, and numbers or no numbers, I have to
figure that the better part of both our businesses is pretty much the same.

Note: “All these forms, familiar to all the arts, place us at a distance from the substance of
things; they speak to us ‘as from afar’; reality is touched not with direct confidence but with
fingertips that are immediately withdrawn” (Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money).


4301. “an extraordinary mildness”

Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,

Auden, “Herman Melville” (for Lincoln Kirstein)

I’ve never met a mildness that didn’t seem extraordinary, and something toward the end: the
smoothing something of a final act of forgiveness after a long, jagged drama of anger and anguish
and being out at sea: some compassionate writing (don’t worry: it’s all right) that coaxes
something upset to right its balance long enough to make its way back to port; some signal sent
straight to a wayward heart that it’s safe to come home; some memory of wholeness that recalls the
amputated adventurer to the going grace of the last dance, just this side of the closing
curtain.

Lately, I’ve been meeting with another mildness as well, twin of the first, I think, and no less
extraordinary. It stretches toward a new start rather than the last rest—the one that comes
after the big fall, but well before the final flight.

Note: “so tender and mild” (“Silent Night”).


4304. “Mine would, sir, were I human”

Ariel: … if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Not being a human being himself, the spirit settles instead for making someone who is a better
one. He’s like a poem or a page or a play or a pool that prepares its pupil to navigate the sea
of tears that surrounds us. He’s like the first song you heard about someone breaking up—the one
you go back to whenever you’re breaking up, yourself, to learn again some basic lessons in
tenderness and decency under duress. He’s like the strokes you were taught in your first swim
lessons when, later, you suddenly find yourself really over your head and very far from shore.
That’s what he’s like, and all you have to do is to remember what those like him have to teach
you, and then, no matter how dark and stormy, you’ll always make it back to where you have to be.

Note: “lessons at love’s pain and heartache school” (Jackson
Browne, “Fountain of Sorrow”).

Nunokawa Blog on Poetry


4349. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to
each”

T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

—oh, I’ve heard a lot of amazing creatures sing and say a lot of amazing things. And I still
do—every day of the week, and sometimes twice on Sundays. I want to tell you the secret of
my continuing hearing, because someday (maybe not today,
but maybe someday, ten years or fifty years from today), it may come in handy for you: I don’t
worry, like I used to worry, whether what I’m hearing is meant for my ears. Now, when I listen
to people talk about what or who or how they love, I don’t care as much as I once did, if
they’re talking about me, or even to me. I’m just glad that the waves of sound are so pitched
with devotion.

If this sounds too good to be true, all I can say is that it seems like all the truest goods
sound too good to be true—something as good as clearing (slow or swift) from deafness to delight,
or a change in the mood of a verb, or a vision, that gives a new form of life to the most
tried and tired drab directions.

“You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being
addressed.”—That is a grammati- cal remark (Wittgenstein). But grammar can be transformed at the
speed of a dream or the shift of a continent, and before you know it, you could wind up at a
case where you can only hear what you might call God speaking to someone else; never when you are being addressed, alone.

In any case, that’s all I have to say to you. And I’ll leave you in peace now, since I
know you have plenty to talk about amongst yourselves.
Note: “poetry is overheard” (John Stuart Mill, “What Is
Poetry?”).

Jeff Nunokawa on the day after taxes

Comprised of 250 handpicked meditations from a Facebook page that has garnered past attention from The New Yorker, Note Book  by Jeff Nunokawa is a new kind of literary work for the age of social media. The New Yorker called the notes “evidence of Nunokawa’s dawning sense of the importance of being earnest,” while Jeff himself says he wants his meditations to “note truth, but encourage”.  On a day that might call for both, Jeff turns his attention on Facebook to the aftermath of tax day:

4484. Day After Taxes

Unbalanced in the painful sum of things (Merrill, “For Proust”)

You wake up feeling that you still owe something, but you’re not really sure what, or to whom. And you’re worried that you don’t have what it takes to pay off your debt all at once. Maybe you can pay it in monthly installments, but how can you even do that if you don’t know what you owe or to whom?  Is it the Internal Revenue Service that’s still after you, or the Eternal One? (Maybe they’ve finally merged.)

I hope my father did my taxes, a young friend said the other night. I used to hope that, too.

Someone should look for an agent. Maybe that agent is you.

————————————-

Note: Your suit is granted (Herbert, “Redemption”)

Check our website for more about Note Book, including a sample chapter.

 

An interview with Jeff Nunokawa, author of “Note Book”

Note BookEach morning since 2007, Jeff Nunokawa, English professor at Princeton University, logs onto Facebook and writes something. But unlike most of us who take part in this simple exercise in connection, Nunokawa is both effortlessly lyrical and impressively well-read, drawing in references from Henry James to Joni Mitchell.  Note Book, which compiles the 250 most striking of the brief, daily essays Nunokawa has shared on his “notes” page, resembles an extensive multimedia project, but retains a remarkable sense of intimacy.  Laura Kipnis compares his posts to “witty billets-doux from an astonishingly literate secret admirer”, and if you take a look at the way he writes, you’ll see why. Recently, Jeff was kind enough to indulge us with some personal insights into his writing process, motivations, and obsession with revision on the social media platform. It’s fascinating stuff:

What are you doing when you write these essays for Facebook, and why are you doing it?

JN: Well, I write these brief essays every morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night because I’m alone a lot and lonely and very talkative but being alone, there’s no one to talk to. But actually, I’m not really alone, even when I’m by myself. I’ve read a lot of books and they’re all around me. Mostly literature although other things as well: a fair amount of philosophy, for example, and every Eleanor Roosevelt biography and memoir I can get my hands on. Also, a picture of my mother’s dog and various soccer players and my feeling of the presence of all kinds of spirits. And when I’m quiet enough for a while, these things all speak to me, if I let them. And after that, if they let me, I write a little essay which conveys as best it can the courage and clarity and good humor of the above spirits—some of the above spirits can be incredibly witty! (you should hear what Eleanor Roosevelt has to say about JFK!)—to others who might be able to use it.

I guess what I’m trying to do is to put to use what I’ve learned over the course of a long, strange life reading and teaching and telling stories. I’m trying to make it useful to other people.

How?

JN: Well, I think most people are like me, in at least one respect. I think everyone feels deeply in the dark, sometimes—sometimes, just lying in bed, wondering how they’re going to make it through the day. Sometimes it takes the best voices you’ve ever heard in your life just to get from horizontal to vertical. That’s where a lot of what I write tries to come in and give people a lift.

How has your writing changed over the course of the time you have been engaged in this project?

JN: Well, I think I used to be much more concerned with showing off when I started—showing off what I knew and how “knowing” I was. I think I’m less concerned now with showing off than I am with *showing*. I’ll put it this way: when I started out, my model was Walter Benjamin—a crazy beautiful German Philosopher-Mystic, who wrote these astonishing often very mysterious, fragmentary aphorisms. Now, I think, I’m a little more taken with example of the Reverend Paul Osumi.

Who?

JN: The Reverend Paul Osumi had a daily column in the Honolulu Advertiser when I was a kid. Actually, it wasn’t so much a column—it was one those “thought for the day” kind of deals: just these little daily inspirations to get through the day with as much light in your soul and your step as you could. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I remember how important that column was for half of Honolulu. When I was a kid (like till about last year), I used to think he was some kind of shallow smiley-faced fool. Now he’s pretty much my role model.

Well aside from the Reverend Paul Osumi, do you have other role models that influence your writing?

JN: Sure: let’s see: lots of the big essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries—Hume, Johnson and Lamb and Pater, writers like that who were so concerned with using what they knew to try to help live better.

What about prose models—stylists whom you model yourself on? As you must know, your writing can be a little “quirky” as your editor calls it.

JN: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m really trying to be a little more mainstream and accessible—less Gerard Manley Hopkins and more E.B. White—but I’m always going to hear the call of “Pied Beauty” and all that gorgeous jazz that makes you cry and see the world more clearly through all the tears, all the Tears of this Beautiful Broken World. I don’t mean to sound all precious. Heck, I hear E. B. White wept whenever he read out loud and the passage in Charlotte’s Web where the spider dies.

The writing that you do on Facebook, you revise compulsively.  It’s ironic that the writing you do on Facebook, on a virtual platform of ephemerality, should be the site where you are most concerned with revising, so that you might produce something polished for the ages. What’s that about, I wonder?

JN: Good question. It may be that the answer would only be interesting to my therapist. Oh wait. I forgot. I don’t have a therapist. The writing itself is my only therapy, now. It used to be that I needed Therapy to write. Now writing is therapy. Funny how life turns out.

Anyway, to return to the question. I don’t know, except that the irony you’re touching on here informs the spirit and style of some of the greatest essayists and I’m happy to follow their lead: the impulse to put the realms of conversation—and what is the internet, if not a place where the live sense of ephemeral conversation crackles like an electric wire into contact with the realms of solid learning (“for the ages”). Hume says, on his essay on essay writing,

I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation

and by gum, what’s good enough for Hume is good enough for me.

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-Logo

Author photo by Phoebe

Author photo by Phoebe Ling

In the first entry in this month’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) blog series, we are proud to feature Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, the latest title in the Writers on Writers series. Irish novelist, critic, and playwright Tóibín is both a fan of and known as a master of subtle language (as evidenced by his selection of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as current host of The Wall Street Journal Book Club), so it is apt that he considers the famously enigmatic American poet Bishop among one of his lasting literary influences.

Tóibín discovered Bishop in his teens and brought her Selected Poems in his suitcase to Barcelona (the setting of his first novels The South and Homage to Barcelona). He offers a personal and incisive introduction to Bishop’s life and work. Spanning her poetry, biography, letters, and prose works, Tóibín creates a beautiful and complex picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has shaped his sensibility as a writer and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own relationships to place, memory, and language.

Tampa Bay TiToibin_OnElizabethBishopmes book editor Colette Bancroft recently selected On Elizabeth Bishop as one of her notable prose books on poetry. Kirkus Reviews writes that Tóibín’s book is “[a]n admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety….An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.” A Starred Review in Publishers Weekly reads, “Novelist Tóibín gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.” At the Arts Fuse, Lloyd Schwartz calls it “a particularly welcome addition to the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series. . . . [F]ew critics have dealt more revealingly than Tóibin with Bishop’s habitual illusion of ‘spontaneous’ self-correction, her process of thinking aloud on the page.” Across the pond, poet Eavan Boland writes in the Irish Times:

[C]ritical method at its best….Unorthodox, original and deeply effective….The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.

Read the first chapter of On Elizabeth Bishop on the PUP site. You can also read eleven of Bishop’s poems, including “One Art” and “The Fish,” at the Academy of American Poets site.

Don’t forget that this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is coming up at the end of the month (April 30; #pocketpoem). Which of Bishop’s poems would you want to carry around in your pocket to share with friends and family?

Spotlight on…Letter-Writers

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

Italo Calvino:
Letters, 1941-1985

For the final post in this series, we turn to the raw materials of biography with two volumes of collected letters. Private letters often give a very different picture from public writings – less guarded, more spontaneous and immediate. They can shed light on the development of ideas and concepts over time, revealing the struggle so often obscured by the perfection of the finished work. These letters are a vital primary source for biographers. It seems certain that the rise of email and decline of letter-writing will profoundly affect the work of future biographers. Will email prove as durable as paper? Will the sheer volume of electronic correspondence defeat even the most dedicated researchers? It may be decades before the answers to these questions are clear. For now, we are still seeing significant collections of letters published, allowing readers to make their own first-hand acquaintance with Carl Jung and Italo Calvino.

Analytical Psychology in Exile collects the correspondence between Jung and one of his most brilliant students, Erich Neumann. The letters span nearly three decades, offering a fascinating insight into the maturing of Jung’s theories as he shares them with, and defends them against, the younger Neumann. Jung has been accused of sympathy with the Nazi regime in Germany, and of anti-semitism, yet here we see him in dialogue with a Zionist Jew who was forced to flee Germany for Tel Aviv in 1934. Inevitably, given the impending catastrophe, these letters touch on complex and controversial issues such as the psychology of fascism and anti-semitism, and the crushing experience of exile. Neumann lived to see the founding of the state of Israel and died there in 1960; although nearly thirty years his senior, Jung outlived him by a year.

While Jung passed the Second World War in the comparative security of Switzerland, Italo Calvino experienced first-hand the dangers of life in Fascist Italy. In Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, that experience is most profoundly seen in an absence, the lack of any correspondence from his years in hiding as a member of the Italian resistance. Although his letters rarely refer to the war, his time fighting with the resistance resulted in a deep philosophical and personal commitment to communism. We see his disillusion and resignation from the Communist Party following the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and his excitement at the fresh hope offered by the événements of 1968 in Paris. The course of his writing, from the autobiographical realism of The Path to the Nest of Spiders to the dazzling metafiction of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, perhaps reflects his withdrawal from political life. Nonetheless, Calvino remained an acute critic and his letters are filled with sharp assessments of post-war Italy’s vibrant cultural life.

PUP celebrates National Poetry Month

Princeton University Press will be kicking off National Poetry Month by featuring a new poetry-related title each week on the blog, starting with Colm Tóibín’s deeply personal introduction to the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. The first National Poetry Month was held in 1996, inspired in part by the success of Black History Month. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, this month-long April holiday has become a widespread way to bolster the appreciation of poetry. Poets.org offers a wealth of free educational resources and information on local poetry events, from PoemCity in Montpelier, VT, to Poetry & the Creative Mind in New York City.

In addition to retrospectives like Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop from our Writers on Writers series, and cultural histories like Catherine Robson’s on poetry recitation, Princeton University Press has long published the best of emerging and established poets in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently under the editorship of Princeton professor and former MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart. Here are some poetry-related choices to enjoy this April:

 

On Elizabeth Bishop What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume V The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume VI
Heart Beats The Eternal City: Poems