Category Archives: Writing

Don’t miss the reading by John Irwin & Wyatt Prunty on Thursday, February 25

The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars will host a reading by two long-time friends and JHU Press authors, John Irwin and Wyatt Prunty, on Thursday, February 25, at 6:30 p.m.  The reading, reception, and book signing take place in Gilman Hall, Room 50, on JHU’s Homewood campus.  The event is free and open to the public; find more information on the Writing Seminars website.

bricuthJohn Irwin has been an extraordinary friend and partner to JHU Press over many decades, publishing six scholarly books with us under his own name; three volumes of poetry under his pen name, John Bricuth; editing some 97 volumes in the distinguished series, Johns Hopkins: Poetry & Fiction, on behalf of the Press and the Writing Seminars; relaunching the literary journal, The Hopkins Review, in 2008; and serving as the intrepid cheer-leader, fundraiser, and inspiration for all these projects.  We extend boundless thanks and good wishes to John, who retired last year as Decker Professor of the Humanities at JHU.  He will be reading from and signing copies of his (John Bricuth’s) latest volume of poetry, Pure Products of America. Inc.

pruntyWyatt Prunty is a professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South and the founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is the author of nine collections of poems (eight published with JHUP), including Unarmed and DANGEROUS and The Lover’s Guide to Trapping. He will be reading from and signing copies his  latest collection from JHUP, Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Book talks, Literature, Poetry, Poetry, Press Events, Writing

Don’t miss the 2015 Baltimore Book Festival, September 25-27

BBF 2015 logo-bbfLook for books from Johns Hopkins University Press at the Ivy Bookshop tent at this year’s Baltimore Book Festival!  The Festival takes place at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor  this weekend–with great music, food, and books, books, books (and more books).  The Ivy tent on Rash Field features a JHUP table with a display of some of our latest regional titles, and several of our authors will speak and sign books during the weekend. Read on for more information and a 2015 festival map.


Friday, September 25, 3:00 p.m. at the Inner Harbor Stage
Michael Olesker, Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age
Charles W. Mitchell, Travels through American History in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide for All Ages


Saturday, September 26, 12:00 p.m. at the Ivy Bookshop Stage
Martha Joynt Kumar, Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power

kumar


Saturday, September 26, 12:30 p.m. at the Food for Thought Stage
John Shields, Chesapeake Bay Cooking

shields


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Filed under American History, Baltimore, Book talks, Current Affairs, Food / Cooking, Press Events, Regional-Chesapeake Bay, University Presses, Writing

“As an editor, I like words…”

Guest post by Michele Callaghan

As an editor, I like words. It is safe to say that I love them. But sometimes there are just too many of them. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Turning perfectly good verbs into nouns just so you can add a preposition, repeating ideas and even whole sentences so the reader won’t miss that really great theory—these are just some of the things editors have to be on the lookout for. Today I want to offer you an editorial version of Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes. I feel impelled to indulge in a low key but fervent rant about the overuse of the wiggle words “hours” and “area.”

prroof reading marksRegarding hours: a trend in recent years is for weather forecasters to add this word to the end of all times of day in their reports. “The rain will begin the afternoon hours and continue into the evening hours and wrap up in the overnight hours.” Meteorologists, please, humor this editor and leave off the needless words! “The rain will begin in the afternoon, continue into the evening, and wrap up overnight.” Your listeners will know that the day and night are subdivided into hours.

Regarding area: a second trend is what sociologists call the HGTV factor. Our views on what houses should look like and expectations about what a perfect home might be are shaped by programs on that network. These shows accurately capture changes in the ways families live, with more people wanting a large open space than the small rooms with different functions of decades past. An offshoot of this is the growth of the word “area” to describe a room even when it is not necessary. So, an “open concept” house has a dining area because there are no walls separating it from the living area. But sometimes a room is just a room. There will be no confusion if you mention the kitchen; we all know where the stove and refrigerator are.

Remember what Mom always said: “Just because your friends are doing it doesn’t mean you have to.” So, just because some sloppy thinkers on TV are doing it doesn’t mean you don’t have to. People who love words treasure them and don’t waste them. Remove these areas of concern from your speech!

Michele Callaghan is a freelance editor, lover of words, and occasional contributor to the JHU Press Blog.

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Filed under Behind the Scenes, Editing, Writing

The writer’s life: Daniel Anderson

By Hilary S. Jacqmin, JHUP Staff

How did you become a writer? What drew you to poetry specifically? What were your early poems like?

It’s hard to imagine that my early poems weren’t a lot like those of many others. Long on adolescent angst and abstraction. A little lonely and sad with a healthy twist of alienation and a garden variety of anxieties associated with growing up. All those things probably got me into writing in the first place—at sixteen or seventeen. If those first poems I wrote are embarrassing, I can’t very well disown the person who composed them. I mean, I’m still trying to figure that kid out all these years later. As for what drew me to poetry specifically, I’d probably say it was my early belief, as a “sensitive” boy, that poetry (as opposed to prose) was the appropriate venue for my griefs and my grievances and hurt.

Anderson_Daniel_auWhat was the Writing Seminars MA program at Johns Hopkins like when you attended? How was your work shaped by the program?

When I went through the Writing Seminars it was a one-year program. This was in the late 80s. It all passed by so quickly, to be honest. I couldn’t get past the feeling that everyone I was at Hopkins with (poets and prose writers alike) was smarter and better educated than I was. I still think that’s true. In the end, though, they made me scrutinize who I was and what I wanted to do as a writer and a teacher. It wasn’t that they were back-biting or competitive at all. In fact, quite the opposite. They were generous critics and friends. We took ourselves quite seriously. But we also managed to laugh a lot, too. It was a very happy, if dizzyingly brief, time.

How has your writing changed over the years? And what are you doing differently in The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel? It seems to me, for example, that your lines—while iambic—have gotten shorter and more flexible since your first book of poetry, January Rain, came out.

I suspect that the technical answers to that question—about line length and measure—wouldn’t be that interesting to many people. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve learned to listen over the years. The big difference or progression, I think, is that the older you get, the more you actually have to write about. At least that’s what I believe. When I was in my twenties, starting out, I had to pretend to know more than I did, that I was wiser than I was, or that I’d experienced more than I had. I suppose if you stay at it long enough, for better or worse, life gives you plenty to work with. Looking at the difference between my three books, I’d say my subjects are more my own. My ideas are more my own, too.

anderson2014Why are you drawn to formalism, to rhyme and meter?

I’m probably drawn to rhyme and meter because the poets I love and study and teach use rhyme and meter in their work—or, at the very least, they explored the possibilities of those elements in their poetry. Even someone like Whitman, right? It also seems to me, because I have a challenged and atrocious memory myself, that rhyme and meter increase the odds (however overwhelming and futile and depressing those odds actually are!) that someone just might remember something I have written. Not that I expect this to happen, mind you, but isn’t that what all writers want or should want? To compose something memorable?

The New Formalist wrangling of the 90s—by which I mean the battle (however academic) fought both for and against New Formalist poetry—has ebbed, but many poets writing now seem perhaps better versed in formal techniques than they were a few decades ago. What do you make of the presence of form in contemporary poetry? Who is currently shaping the field, and to what end?

I studied with and alongside of people who were associated with the New Formalist conversation, but I wasn’t too involved. Or let’s put it this way, the opposing dogmas were pretty uninteresting for me and remain so today. Those debates often turn out to be more about the people arguing than the matter at hand. I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would suggest that rhyme and meter and received formal structures in poetry are something oppressive or obsolete. Similarly, I’m equally ambivalent people clubbing readers over the head with their sonnet sequences and sestinas and villanelles.

I take a lot of pleasure asking students to consider the basic formal (and musical) elements in poetry. Most of the students I’m around get teased out of their complacency by rhyme and meter. It can be fun to watch—when they write a line that really works. It’s important for anyone who wants to be a poet to understand just how difficult it is to write a formal line that sounds like natural speech, or one that sounds like someone thinking beautifully and intelligently out loud about the world. Plenty of people can do a forced march through the form—and I think this was the case with a lot of the New Formalists—but that’s not the same thing as writing a poem necessarily. But then again, neither is talking your way down a page, snapping your sentences off here and there in the name of line breaks, and addressing an unnamed intimate second person who you and—thanks to the obscurity of the poem—only you have feelings about.

I really wouldn’t be able to say who is shaping the field. In part because I think in this age there are many fields or schools or cartels that yell at and over and around one another all in the name of poetry. The only thing that seems to unite poets is when someone criticizes Poetry at large, about how irrelevant it often seems or out-of-touch or impenetrable or self-absorbed or small-minded. When that happens, look out! Everyone becomes indignant. They organize rallies. They write angry letters about whoever said such a thing. They start long-winded threads in the public forums and on Facebook. It’s hard not to be somewhat overwhelmed and discouraged by the bickering. Who learns what from it? I’m never sure.

The poems that appear in The Night Guard are wonderfully image-heavy and meditative. They are engaged with rich detail, light and color, the contrast between society’s rules and nature, nostalgia, householding, food, love, regret, death. Are there any particular themes or subjects that you are interested in writing about at the moment, or any incidents from your life that demand to be written about, but that you feel you haven’t been able to adequately address thus far? And I was hoping as well that you could tell us a bit about your childhood and growing up, as well as your family, which comes into play in poems like “Insomnia at Forty-Six” (“My mother, who was never very young / or happy or at ease”).

I’m working on a nonfiction prose project right now about a childhood friend who committed suicide. Some of the essays I’ve been writing have started cross-pollinating with the poems. In fact, one from The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel, “Someone is Burning Leaves,” percolated out of the prose endeavor. A couple more poems seem to be itching to come out, too. But that’s just a small handful. I have poems in the queue I want to write or think I want to write. But you never know how your childhood or family experiences will sneak up on you when you’re writing a poem.

As for my upbringing, it was fairly unremarkable. I grew up in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. I was the last of five children and, technically, just squeaked in under the wire to be a “Baby Boomer,” in December 1964. My parents were older than the parents of nearly all my peers, and that was always something I was aware of and somewhat self-conscious over. It certainly wasn’t their fault. But that’s where the observation in “Insomnia at Forty-Six” originates. My parents also divorced when I was seven. I seemed to have grown up in the uncomfortable gap between the generation that was born around the Great Depression and fought in WWII, and the generation that was sent off to fight in Vietnam. I’d say those two conflicts are something I still think about today, and how they shaped my perspective. Throw in Watergate, then Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It was a bit of a rollercoaster looking back on it, though at the time (as a kid) I had no idea what was going on. Zero.

In a way, these poems, even though they speak so much of nostalgia, seem out of time, perhaps because they allow the reader to linger in a concentrated moment. The primary exception to this timelessness would perhaps be “Provinces,” which conjures up a scene straight out of today’s Middle East, most likely Iraq, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, although the poem is never actually placed specifically: “It is a chiseled, godforsaken place. / Unmapped. Ambiguous. Potato-beige . . . / But lately, on the hamlet’s Western edge, / there have been strange movements— / convoys of trucks arriving after dark. The construction of a generator shed. / An ever-slight increase / in local population.” The poem’s introspective attitude is characteristic of your usual voice, and its uncertainty about the possibility of terrorism—and how to thwart it—is moving, as is the way you contrast this scene with the supposed innocence of a typical middle American summer. Why did you take on what some might think of as a politicized subject?

It’s interesting that you would make the observation that “Provinces” has a politicized subject. I’ve always thought I did a fairly decent job keeping it apolitical. In much the same way WWII and Vietnam shaped my psyche growing up, September 11th certainly shaped my perspective as an adult (as it did for many people as well as our government). I have strong opinions about what we did after 9/11, opinions that are clearly political and unapologetically partisan toward the people who led us into Iraq, for instance. The same people who began that destabilization now insist on blaming the current holder of the presidency for not being able to foster order and tranquility and, above all else, fear and respect for the United States. And frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered which party held the Presidency in the aftermath of the Iraq war. The irreversible spiral had begun. You can’t have it both ways—you can’t make the mess then blame others for not being able to make it better. See, now that’s what I would call political.

In “Provinces,” I never intended to blame anyone for the persistent and sometimes exhausting anxiety that came in the wake of 9/11. I certainly don’t hold any one political party responsible for that change in our lives. I guess I always saw the writing of that poem as an exercise in expressing a dark and rather guilty gratitude for the peace we do enjoy here. At least the peace I myself am fortunate to enjoy.

I was hoping that you could speak more about “Four Voices for the Afterlife,” a sort of multi-part eulogy for an anonymous figure (M.M.). Why four parts? And how did you compose this poem?

“Four Voices” is a kind of elegy in-the-round, though the poem is a fiction. I wanted to play with different voices that meditated on a particular common grief—the suicide of a woman named Martha McEnroe. I had a lot of models in my head when I was writing it. William Faulkner and William Blake for starters. But also Emily Dickinson and I would also say Anthony Hecht, too. But you almost always have someone’s voice going off in your brain when you’re writing a poem. I believe that.

How do you think about organizing a collection of poetry? What goes where, and why?

That’s a hard question. Much of it is intuitive. I usually lay all the poems that are going into to the book on a table and start grouping them, putting them next to one another, stacking them, rearranging them, etc. It can be a little unnerving, though, because you start seeing patterns and all your tricks and gimmicks—or things that can start to bother you as your own personal tricks and gimmicks—neatly lined up in front of you. At a certain point, you just have to give it up to the higher powers and hope that no one sees the faults you recognize in your own work. I suppose it’s a lot like looking at your reflection. I’m reminded of the line from Auden’s poem about The Tempest, “The Sea and the Mirror”: “All we are not stares back at what we are.”

I was hoping that you could tell me a bit about your writing and revision process. What do you do when a poem is giving you trouble?

I usually write quite slowly and revise as I go along. I get a few lines down then give myself permission to proceed. I don’t write whole drafts and go back and re-write. And when a poem gives you trouble, you learn that there are plenty of others that are waiting for your attention. It took a long time for me to figure that out, but now I’m relatively quick to let a poem sit in a quiet space on its own until I come back to it. Makes for much healthier and happier relationships with the work, I find. That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated because I do. I’m just less obsessive than I used to be about insisting a poem into the world.

Which poets are you reading now? Whose work is inspiring yours?

I’m mostly reading nonfiction. I just finished a biography on Norman Rockwell and am starting one about Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m teaching a craft seminar at the University of Oregon next year on Shakespeare, whom I never tire of reading. So I’ll be going back to those plays over the summer, which I’m looking forward to. As far as poetry goes, I find myself often returning to three poets in particular—Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin. They’re the ones who always seem to be hanging around in my brain most of the time. They make good company.

And finally, you’ve spent a long time as a teacher at several very distinguished universities. What advice would you give to young poets?

I am so unbelievable lucky to have the job I do. I taught prep school for eight years before I was fortunate enough to get a visiting position at the college level. There was a lot of uncertainty along the way, and there were times when it looked like I would have to give up teaching altogether because the market was so brutal. It’s still brutal, and I worry for all of the fine writers who are also excellent and deeply committed teachers who will be driven out of the field because there are infinitely more candidates than there are jobs. I don’t think setting your sites on teaching at the university level is a viable career plan, that’s for sure. I know that’s not advice, exactly. (Again, I feel unbelievably lucky to be where I am in this age.) If I have any advice at all, it’s to pay attention to the work—your own work—rather than all the noise and chest-thumping and quasi-author photos your friends and contemporaries and even nemeses are posting on social media. I think about the things I scold myself over on a daily basis—not that anyone should use me as a model—and much of it just has to do with getting to the quiet place for clean, uninterrupted blocks of time, where there aren’t any bright colors on a screen blinking at me or ringtones or text-tones jarring me out of my thoughts. Where there are a couple poems and notebooks on a desk or in a stack near that desk. Or where, next to a comfortable reading chair, there are a couple of books. Someplace where people aren’t yelling at each other on the TV about a presidential race that’s a year and a half away, either. I guess I’m saying this more to myself than offering advice.

 

This First Hot Saturday in May
by Daniel Anderson

The plump, governing bees
discover our tomato blooms,
our squash and watermelon blooms.
They tickle, kiss, and plumb
the open, velvet flower heads
of iris and hibiscus blooms.
They levitate and drift
among the purple hanging clouds
of blossoming wisteria.
This first hot Saturday of May,
the doused and dripping garden smells of green.
The catbird and electric finch,
the feisty jay and oriole
nip thistle, millet, milo seed, and corn
from feeders I have filled.
The world has come alive
with energy and appetite
and all the grand astonishments of sex.
It used to be the only thing
I ever thought about.
Cleavage. Athletic legs.
Tan lines, tight jeans, and lacy bras.
Now it’s the nest egg and the ass at work,
a water heater that’s about to blow,
election politics, and how
it feels the globe is going all to hell.

 

This would have seemed miraculous if not
entirely impossible to me
a quarter century ago.
What do the young expect?
I guarantee it isn’t this:
a mortgage and a morning picking weeds,
the pleasurable shade
and savory tobacco scent of mulch.
Our fig tree and our lemon tree
survived an April frost.
Now they relax in clear, gold light,
and this, I confess, this brings me joy,
but more than joy it brings
a thankfulness that I’m no longer young,
uncertain, and obsessed.
Besides, it isn’t youth I want.
Who needs the grudges and the big ideas?
The idiot decisions and the hurt?
It isn’t youth I want,
only the high, luxuriating sense,
beneath these excellent and clean
procrastinations of the sun,
that certain days—this one
may never end.

Daniel Anderson teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Oregon and is a winner of the Pushcart Prize. He is the author of January Rain, Drunk in Sunlight, and The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel and the editor of The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov.

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Filed under Literature, Poetry, Poetry, Writing

April is Poetry Month: Wyatt Prunty

prunty photoWe’re celebrating Poetry Month on the Blog in April with selections from recent books in the Johns Hopkins: Poetry & Fiction series.  First up, three poems by Wyatt Prunty from his new volume, Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise. Robert Hass calls Prunty “a classic poet in the tradition of Frost, Wilbur, Merrill, and Justice,” and finds in this latest collection work that “involves a wry sanity toward the world and an impeccable ear for both prosody and the rhythms of American speech.”


 

Bad Dog

He was a bad dog, and he did not care.
When nature called he stood and lifted there.
He chewed socks, rugs, and shoes, the rungs of chairs.
Put on a leash, he locked his legs. He would not budge.
Asleep, he barked and chased what was not there.
Awake, he barked and chased what was not there.
When danger knocked he shrugged.

I see him still that way, facing the door,
Floppy and kind, wet nose against the glass
Or scratching over ears where going bald,
Then sniffing round to find just where he lifted earlier;
The which he did just once more when at last
Nature called and he followed.

 

The Gladiator of Misgivings

The small boy with the booming voice,
Whose father seemed forever on a trip,
Knew what to do. We pushed the crates
Together, tumbled the cat-ruined carpet
Down the attic steps to the garage,
Then strung the Christmas lights and lettered signs
That shorted Shakespeare of his final e.

After that, Lionel Higgenbotham took the stage,
Telling us he was Prince Hall and we,
We were those soldiers of the great events.

Our audience was H’s mother
Who would sometimes read from Tennyson,
Having us repeat each line; repeat again.
And there was also H’s ancient aunt
Who smiled and nodded yes to everything.

But once, out on the vasty fields of France,
Even the aunt had darkened thoughtfully
As looking back Hall said, “All right you Bustards, Charge.”

And with our brooms and garbage lids, we did.

 

What Kind

Personalize it, if you must. Somewhere
Love’s gone off for a weekend in the mountains
Or to the beach; love’s driving somewhere other
Than your little life, watchful and welcoming fan
Of yourself, to what was always coming anyway—
Something like expensive fixtures hanging from
High ceilings with a light so generalized
You are your old self even as you’re not,
Reiterative to the end, not scared exactly,
Just slowing as you feel someone familiar
Taking your side in things, cooling you down
On things, and by that making you
Think of tomorrow more fondly than before.

 

pruntyWyatt Prunty is the Ogden D. Carlton III Distinguished Professor at Sewanee: The University of the South, where he teaches poetry. The founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Series, and the Tennessee Williams Fellowship program, he is the author of nine books of poetry and one critical work, as well as the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. He also serves as the chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.  He is the author of Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise, the most recent of  eight books of poetry included in JHUP’s Johns Hopkins: Poetry & Fiction series, published in partnership with JHU’s Writing Seminars and edited by John T. Irwin.

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Filed under AWP, Poetry, Writing

A Writer’s Life (continued): Tracy Daugherty

Interveiw by Hilary Jacqmin, Assistant Manuscript Editor

We continue our conversation with Tracy Daugherty, author of the new collection of short stories, Empire of the Dead.

 daughertyThis book is very much a post-9/11 creation. Some of the stories take place before 2001—The Magnitudes, most significantly, deals in a very personal way with the Oklahoma City bombing and Timothy McVeigh’s execution, two events that also play pointedly off 9/11—and the collection as a whole is heavily weighted with the multiple consequences of terrorism: physical, emotional, architectural, and even philosophical. Was this a conscious choice? Why did 9/11 resonate so much for you?

9-11, coinciding as it did with the beginning of a new century, and thus—unfortunately—setting the tone for this period, was a turning point in our national life. As individuals, we may or may not have been touched by the event, but the fact is that ever since, the United States has been in a perpetual state of war and the battleground is the entire planet, including our own cities. Whether we know it or not, this affects all of us, and the ramifications of the pursuit of endless war are still unfolding. We find ourselves in a new world, trapped in old ways of thinking. And contemporary terrorism is bound up with the new technologies that are shaping modern life, for better or worse—at the moment, no one uses social media more effectively than ISIS.

I have no desire to write directly about 9-11 or terrorism—for one thing, there’s the risk of exploiting tragedy for the sake of your story, which is not just offensive, it’s bad art. But in the same way that language changes over time—the word “gay,” for example, has quite different connotations now than it did sixty years ago—cultures change as a result of history, and these changes can’t be ignored in the textures of a story. I would argue that every American story written now is a post-9-11 story, whether the author likes it or not—even if it’s a simple piece about, say, a cat in a kitchen in Nebraska, or a historical novel set in the California Gold Rush.

The Oklahoma City bombing felt very personal to me—not only do I have strong family ties to Oklahoma, but my grandfather, an Oklahoma politician, used to tour me around government buildings in Oklahoma City when I was a child, and taught me to respect these symbols of the public good: architecture embodying our cherished democratic ideals! And I’ve spoken to survivors of the bombing, over the years, and tried to tell some of their stories in writing.

Ralph Ellison, you know, grew up in Oklahoma City. He used to listen to the stirring oratory of the legislators in the Senate chambers and then he’d go down to the capitol basement and listen to the janitors’ stories and jokes: the richness of American language is born of this wild mix of the High and the Low, and public spaces are necessary sites of discourse and debate. Among the many things that terrorism seeks to destroy is our language: directly or indirectly, every writer is engaged in this fight.

 

Although these stories are not religious per se, the characters grapple with questions of spirituality and the soul (sometimes as embodied in buildings or spaces), which intersect with musings on Dante, saint candles, and churches like “mysterious groves… forests encased in stone, hiding secret rituals.” I’m interested as well in Bern’s own occasional recollections of his childhood experiences with Judaism. As a Jew myself, I think I’m always intrigued by the Jewish experience in the South, which always seems somewhat unusual. Have your own personal religious experiences influenced your work?

Initially, in college, I was a religion major and thought I might be headed for the Christian ministry. The more I studied world religions (their histories as well as their primary texts), the more my thinking expanded and diversified. I’d put it this way: I became less interested in religion and drawn more deeply to spirituality. The spiritual realm seems to me as vast and ultimately unknowable as the physical universe. This is one reason I love Dante so: at the end of his long spiritual journey, he admits that language utterly fails him. And that’s why he’s a great poet!

To return to our earlier terms: if spirituality is Paradise, then that crude wooden chair we’ve built is religion, made to approximate it. It’s shabby and rickety and not terribly comfortable, but it tends to serve its purpose. Or it can. Religion, of course, is also implicated in many of the terrorist acts we’re witnessing worldwide, and that we’ve seen throughout history. Spirituality is something else: as simple as the fluttering you feel in your belly when you see something is not right in the world, as profound as a dream of your dead mother that feels like something much more than a dream.

Your reference to the “Jewish experience in the South” is intriguing and suggests another reason why religion can be a rich subject in fiction. The mix of faith, politics, and cultural tics can be explosive, funny, revealing, and very powerful. My wife is Jewish—what she calls “cultural Judaism,” which, on the surface at least, has less to do with faith (though she’s a very spiritual woman) than it has to do with childhood memories, family rituals, and community-building.

At some point, as a kid visiting my grandfather in Oklahoma, I realized that a lot of the poetic diction in his political speeches came straight out of black churches: the rhetoric of his oratory was spiced with the King James Bible set to the rhythms of African drums as altered by the pace of work in a cotton field in the American South: what Ralph Ellison calls a “mammy-made” language. Nothing—not religion, politics, or poetry—is ever pure. And that’s a blessing for a writer. What a peppery stew for us to stir our spoons in!

 

You’ve written five short story collections and four novels, as well as several critical works. How has your writing style changed over the years? What questions, themes, and techniques engage you these days? What writers (and artists of all kinds) do you find influencing your work?

Many writing teachers give young writers the mantra “Show, don’t tell,” and as a general rule of thumb, it’s useful advice: rather than saying, flatly and dully, “Michael was sad,” it’s more effective to create a visual picture on the page, using detail: “Michael straggled along the curb with his head lowered, moaning, and carrying two empty bottles of Boone’s Farm in each hand.” But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I do have a great deal to tell, directly and insistently, and I’m less shy about including discursive writing in my fiction than I used to be (probably as a result of writing non-fiction, where direct narrative intrusions are not only more tolerated by readers, they’re sort of expected).

William Maxwell is an inspiring model in this regard: in novel after novel, over the course of many decades, he wrote about the death of his mother when he was a child. The early novels are in the mold of “Show, don’t tell,” with lots of dramatic detail about the child’s suffering, but by the end of his career he’d stopped futzing around and got right to the point. The direct telling about the loss of his mother is infinitely more powerful than any of the earlier dramatizations. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a very discursive novel, and it’s one of the best works of fiction ever written by an American.

In writing biographies, I’ve been learning how to tell an individual’s story within a broad cultural context—trying to do for contemporary America what Dickens did for London in his long, sweeping novels. As for questions, themes, and techniques, you’ve nicely identified the major ones. The linked-story form has been a delight—using the gaps and silences between stories as part of the narrative design.

And oh my yes, the other arts are essential! The jazz drummers and visual artists you mentioned earlier are all very important to me. I’m a ragged amateur drummer; this has taught me that rhythm and music are crucial in writing. Paul Motian can lighten the mood of a song by moving from the tom toms to the crown of the ride cymbal—writers have a great deal to learn from that sort of artistry. Joseph Cornell is one of my personal saints, not only for what he shows us about the power and playfulness of collage, but for his ambition of enclosing the entire universe (in the form of a star chart) inside a small box: a nice metaphor for short story writing.

Reading habits change with time. These days, my reading tends to be eclectic and tied to particular subjects I’m working on, but there are a couple of ongoing projects right now in American literature to which we should all pay close attention: Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of novels, Gilead, Home, and Lila, an exploration of the American soul, and Robert A. Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, the finest explication of American political power ever written.

 

I see that you’ve got a biography of Joan Didion coming out this summer. What else are you working on at the moment? And how do you approach the process of researching and writing a biography, as opposed to writing fiction?

In addition to the new Bern stories I’ve got a finished novella and a couple of biographical projects at the research stage, still somewhat undefined as to scope. One of them concerns a Victorian-era British woman who aspired to be an astronomer and who wound up sitting in a hilltop observatory in India writing about Dante.

Biography and fiction are finally not so different, I’ve discovered. It’s all about constructing an engaging narrative. Here’s one difference, perhaps: in a short story about Bern, I hope to condense and embody certain aspects of American culture within his character; in a biography about Joan Didion, I hope to use Didion as a vehicle to carry me into the heart of those cultural realms. A question of emphasis and direction.

 

 Why (and/or how) did you become a writer?

I mentioned my grandfather earlier. I was named after him and the first time I saw “Tracy Daugherty” in print, it was on a campaign poster advertising a speech he was going to give. I liked seeing my name in cold, hard type! And my first brushes with crafted language were through my grandfather’s oratory—language in service of humane values and social justice. He showed me that trying to make a good sentence could be a noble way to spend a life.

 

What kind of writing process or schedule do you have?

I try to write every day, in the same place at roughly the same time—I believe in habit, ritual, and work rather than inspiration. I’m more of a marathoner than a sprinter: long hours of concentration. I’m keenly aware that time is short (no matter how much time there is). I have more projects in my head than I’ll ever be able to complete—not that the world will care, but working this way, out of sight, on the edges, confers a blessed freedom.

 

Tracy Daugherty is the author of five short story collections, four novels, a book of personal essays, and three biographies, including the forthcoming The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan DidionHe has been a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

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A writer’s life: Tracy Daugherty

Interview by Hilary Jacqmin, Assistant Manuscript Editor

We are pleased to introduce A Writer’s Life, an occasional series on the JHUP Blog featuring interviews with the authors included in our Johns Hopkins: Poetry and Fiction series. First up is Tracy Daugherty, author of the recently published collection of short fiction, Empire of the Dead.

daughertyFive out of seven of the short stories in your book—including the titular story—feature the character of Bern, a divorced, middle-aged architect who feels profoundly alienated from his colleagues and neighbors. What drew you to him? Why did his voice become the presiding perspective in the collection?

Bern’s DNA was formed over thirty years ago, though I didn’t know it at the time. In the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student at the University of Houston, my teacher, Donald Barthelme, gave me a book one day: On Adam’s House in Paradise, by Joseph Rykwert. It was a book about architectural origins—speculations on what the first human shelters might have looked like and what materials might have been included in their designs. Architecture was not a particular interest of mine in those days. Don didn’t say why he’d given me the book, what he thought it had to do with me or my work. We never talked about it, even when I brought it up with him later. The book was way over my head, then, and I didn’t finish it.

I forgot about it until nearly twenty-five years later when I spotted it, randomly, on my bookshelf, took it down, and began to read it. It stunned me. The concerns with history, culture, place, and shelter—material and spiritual—dovetailed precisely with the obsessions I’d pursued as my writing developed over time. Don saw something in my way of thinking long before I did: he planted a seed that he knew would flourish someday. This is the magic, the drama, and the risk of teaching: you never know when a lesson will take: maybe instantly, maybe half-a-century later. In Thomas Pynchon’s words, I’m a slow learner.

Bern’s character began to evolve out of Rykwert’s playful speculations. I envisioned a contemporary urban man whose job is to build shelters for the Here and Now, but who also knows the importance of Origins—for it’s in the origins of an activity that the essentials are revealed. In the case of architecture, we can fancy-up the façade all we want, but the essentials, which we can never ignore, are warmth and protection from storms. In many ways, of course, this is a powerful metaphor for any kind of human endeavor.

Bern’s solitary nature accords with the literary tradition of the flaneur—the lone city walker, the figure who both observes and embodies his surroundings. Bern stands apart from much of the life around him, but I don’t know that he’s alienated, exactly—to me, it’s a little like the distinction between depression and melancholy. The depressive’s passivity is a form of paralysis and surrender, whereas melancholy sadness is a deeply-engaged awe: in Nadine Gordimer’s beautiful formulation, it’s a matter of viewing and accepting the world as if you were already dead; seeing yourself not as the center of anything, but as a vastly unimportant participant in the wonder. I think that’s the tribe to which Bern belongs.

And I’m happy to say he seems to strike a chord in certain readers. Clyde Haberman, who for years wrote a column about Manhattan life for the New York Times, called me out of the blue one day after reading one of the Bern stories, and said some of Bern’s post 9-11 reflections perfectly caught the mood of many New Yorkers. He mentioned Bern in one of his columns, so the character has taken on a life beyond me now. I’m pleased for Bern.

I should add that he seems to be sticking around. Since finishing The Empire of the Dead, I’ve written five more Bern stories, following him as he weathers our particularly turbulent cultural moment. I’m no Updike or Richard Ford, but I like to think Bern is a raggedy cousin of their wonderful characters Rabbit Angstrom and Frank Bascombe: a sort of Everyman out there testing the waters for us.

 

All of your stories are deeply invested in and evocative of place. You pay special attention to New York City, Oklahoma, and Texas (where you grew up), although the characters also ponder escaping to more dreamy foreign milieus, which often seem like stand-ins for Paradise. Bern, who is deeply entrenched in NYC, is originally from Houston, and the echoes of that past still resound in his more culturally urbane present. Why is place so important to you? And how do you incorporate so many vivid, visually-oriented, place-specific details (about, say, the Catacombs of Paris) into your work? Do they come from personal experience, from historical research, from long-ago coursework?

I love your phrase, “stand-ins for Paradise.” That may be the best definition of “place” I’ve ever heard! Wherever we happen to linger on this poor old battered planet, we try to make our living space as comfortable as it can be, and it almost always falls short of our expectations and needs. That’s what it means to inhabit place: striving for something always out of our reach. Our occupations of acres and rooms reveal our longings—that’s why “place” is so important to me in writing stories.

Further, your phrase suggests a Platonic view of things. Our life on Earth is a series of shadows: inadequate outlines of Paradise’s Perfect Furnishings, beyond the apprehension of our senses. From one such shadow, we get a dim conception of what an Ideal Chair should be, so we grab our hammer and nails out of the basement and jerry-rig that four-legged wooden monstrosity sitting in the corner over there: it’s the best we can do to spruce up the “place.”

Whether or not the Platonic view is an accurate depiction of existence, it’s certainly rife with tension, paradox, and drama, all of which are good for storytelling. Dante’s The Divine Comedy is perhaps the supreme example of the powerful literary uses to which this conception of place can be put—though he was not, strictly speaking, a Platonist. Aristotle was his man! The concrete, recognizable Italy of Dante’s day becomes inseparable from abstract notions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. In Dante’s telling, Italy is Hell. Every year, I re-read Dante in various translations and I’m still learning from him, though he moved through a very different universe (one apparently more orderly) than we do.

In the title story in The Empire of the Dead, the scene in the Paris Catacombs is fairly autobiographical. I’m not interested in autobiography per se, but I am fascinated by the tension between how fleeting life is, moment by moment, and how desperate we are to hold on to it by remembering those moments, turning them into anecdotes to tell our friends, by writing about them in our journals and diaries—or our fiction—by Tweeting about them and snapping digital pictures. All documentation is Elegy—and it’s all futile, which is sad and beautiful, beautiful when we recognize that it’s the fleeting quality of life that gives each moment its absolute value.

 

Each story in the book mixes high and low (or popular) culture. There are constant references to historic and contemporary newspaper headlines, jazz drummers, artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell, writers from Shakespeare to Edith Wharton, and, of course, in Signs, multiple references to Janis Joplin. Why are you so interested in these kinds of lists and juxtapositions, this rummaging through art and media?

“Rummaging” is right—like climbing into a cobwebby attic and inventorying all the stuff in boxes you’d forgotten had composed your life, like those old Janis Joplin records! List-making is a humble activity, as mundane as checking off the groceries for the week, and yet it’s also profound: a cataloguing and ordering of our world. Music, art, news dispatches—each of these is a filter through which we try to understand experience. We mix and match these filters and still we know so little. The attempt to know, as well as the vulnerability that drives the attempt, are powerful elements in storytelling. Specific cultural references are ephemeral—in and of themselves, they’re not so important, but their inclusion, if handled smartly, can lend an elegiac tone to a tale. “Nothing left to lose,” Janis sings—oh, but there is, there is.

For years I had on my office wall a facsimile of the inscription on Shakespeare’s tombstone: “Bleste be the man that spares these stones / And curst be he that moves my bones.” You know how people will place a sheet of waxed paper on a grave marker and make rubbings from the stones? I once thought of a name for this—“Rubbage,” the echo of “rubbish” in the word indicating the act’s ultimate uselessness, even as “rub” suggests a lovely sensual engagement with the materials. In many ways, this is the essence of writing, the relationship of the writer to the surrounding culture: you press your consciousness hard against the world to see what will rub off on you.

Look for part two of our interview with Tracy Daugherty on Wednesday on the JHU Press Blog.

Tracy Daugherty is the author of five short story collections, four novels, a book of personal essays, and three biographies, including the forthcoming The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan DidionHe has been a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

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The history of generic drugs is far from generic

Guest post by Jeremy A. Greene

I entered medical school during a strange interlude in the history of drug marketing. Perhaps you also remember those confusing months in 1997, after the FDA issued statements supporting widespread direct-to-consumer promotion of prescription drugs, but before the regulation of these ads had been fully worked out. Pharmaceutical brand names were suddenly everywhere—on billboards, at football games, on the radio, on the television—but their presence felt both new and uncertain. Here one found cabalistic, inscrutable ads for something called “Claritin” with no explanation of what is was or what it did; there one found ads praising a new but unnamed breakthrough drug that promised to liberate hundreds of thousands of allergy sufferers from their daily burdens. Other advertisements tinkered with the FDA’s principle of “fair balance,” countering every minute spent extolling the virtues of a drug with 60 seconds of rapidly recited side effects, from somnambulism to prolonged erections. By now we have learned to think of these catechisms of ailments as a regular and recurring backdrop to evening television programs, but right then, at the beginning of my medical training, they stood out as jarring reminders of the outsized role that pharmaceutical marketing played in shaping how doctors and patients think about their bodies in health and in disease.

Like many medical students skeptical of the influence of Big Pharma, I developed a preference for “little pharma,” learning to prescribe generic names and generic drugs wherever possible.  I came to see the brand name as a veneer of marketing plastered awkwardly over an underlying chemical which could be better known by its generic name. That inner, generic drug was the true drug: it possessed efficacy, safety, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, all the things one needed to practice medicine. By contrast, the superficial, brand name drug represented everything commercial about biomedicine: advertising budgets, market share, return on investment. The difference between brand and generic seemed to recapitulate Marx’s distinction between use-value and exchange value: if the brand-name symbolized all that was wasteful in commodified, profit-driven healthcare, the generic drug represented medicine at its most useful, affordable, and accessible.

But as I studied the history of the pharmaceutical industry in more detail, this interpretation was interrupted by a series of stories that stubbornly refused to conform to these dichotomies. In the archives of the FDA, I found reams of inspections of early generic drug companies in the 1960s and 1970s documenting gross violations of manufacturing practices, as well as cases in which the generic drug had been substantially inferior to the original brand name product. Decades later, in thousands of pages of Congressional hearings, I found testimonies and documentary evidence depicting the Generic Drug Division of the FDA as a weak bureaucracy riddled with graft and bribery which had approved generic products on the basis of fraudulent data. On the one hand, therapeutically equivalent generic drugs had clearly played an important role in improving access to care in the American health system.  On the other hand, the generic drug industry was clearly not a benign outgrowth of the U.S. Public Health Service but an industry in its own right, no more and no less susceptible to collusion or graft than the brand-name drug industry. And by the end of the century, with roughly 80% of American prescriptions being filled generically, it could not really properly be called “little pharma” any more, either.

These materials suggested that the generic drug was not a timeless ideal but a dynamic and historically contingent object that emerged at the intersection of key economic and political fault lines in the business and practice of American medicine. Studying the origins and evolution of the generic drug gave me a chance to examine the broader problems of similarity and difference in modern biomedicine: What forms of science, and what kinds of politics, were involved in declaring two drugs to be the same, or at least the same in all ways that matter? Who decided when a medicine was good enough to be substituted for another? How and when and where did these sciences of similarity emerge? The research that led to Generic: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine took me through thousands of letters to and from the FDA, stacks of Congressional hearings, scores of personal and institutional archives, and hundreds of debates that raced through the pages of popular, scientific, clinical, policy, and industry journals.

The story that emerged was far from generic. The availability of cheap, safe, equivalent therapeutics is crucial to the practice of medicine today: as a patient and a physician, I can’t go a week without using generic drugs in some form. Yet their emergence has been both recent and rocky. If it is important for consumers  to understand the outsized role of the pharmaceutical brand name in modern health care, it is just as important to understand the structures that lead to their unbranding.

To listen to Science Friday’s interview with Jeremy Greene, click here.

greeneJeremy A. Greene, MD, PhD, is an associate professor of medicine and the history of medicine and the Elizabeth Treide and A. McGehee Harvey Chair in the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is the author of Generic: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine and Prescribing by Numbers: Drugs and the Definition of Disease and the coeditor of Prescribed: Writing, Filling, Using, and Abusing the Prescription in Modern America, all published by Johns Hopkins.

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Oz and There’s No Place But Home

Guest post by Jerry Griswold

Margaret Hamilton’s life was irrevocably changed seventy-five years ago when MGM released The Wizard of Oz on August 15, 1939. Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the film, mentioned in the journal Children’s Literature how ever afterwards she was accosted in the street by fans and how she was often late for dentist appointments. Finally, after one more missed appointment, she decided at last to sit down and find “the answer to that question which had plagued and fascinated me for years: What is it that makes that picture so special?”

The answer, Hamilton suggests, has to do with the idea of “home.” “What that picture tells me,” she wrote in 1982, “coincides with the wonderful lesson Dorothy says she has learned at last, about feeling she has lost her home. Her answer to the Good Fairy is ‘If I have lost something and I look all over for it and can’t find it, it means I really never lost it in the first place.’ That is subtle, but finally I understood. If you can’t find it, it is still there somewhere—you still have it. I pondered over that for years. I used to think, ‘But I never really had it!’ Then I listened and thought and remembered, and then, one time, I knew. I had been there. And I still am.”

Hamilton’s gnomic remarks may suggest an alternate understanding of that classic film, beginning with its most well known line. When, near the end of the movie, Dorothy says,  “There’s no place like home,” that is commonly taken as an expression of the girl’s affection for the Kansas farm where she lives with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. But remember that in the beginning of the film, Dorothy wants to run away from home, escape to “somewhere where there isn’t any trouble,” somewhere where Miss Gulch isn’t trying to get her dog Toto, “somewhere over the rainbow.” When she is injured in the cyclone, her imagination answers her desires by remaking Kansas into Oz, the hired hands (Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory) into her companions (the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion), Professor Marvel into the Wizard, and Elvira Gulch into the Wicked Witch. All these transformations make a subtle point: Dorothy cannot escape her troubles by going elsewhere. The last words of the movie, “There’s no place like home,” really amount to “There’s no place but home.”

Following Hamilton’s lead, we can say that Dorothy discovers that this here-and-now is all there is to life and more than enough. Fantasizing, resemblance-making, daydreaming are symptoms of existential dis-ease. Instead of being at-home in this life, these failures of nerve and moments of escapism amount to an automobile covered with bumper stickers that read “I’d rather be windsurfing” or “I’d rather be anywhere else but here.”

We can understand this in terms of the Zen story about a samurai who came to his teacher and asked him to explain the Christian concepts of “heaven” and “hell.” The master began to insult the samurai and his family until the warrior could stand it no longer and reached for his sword, beginning to unsheath it. “Behold hell,” the teacher said. Stunned, the samurai paused and realized the point. Then he began to sheath his sword. “Behold heaven,” the teacher said.

Likewise, at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” an awakened Dorothy is surrounded at bedside by those she knows and she witnesses their fantasy-world likenesses collapse and retreat to their source. As Margaret Hamilton explains, though she has hunted hither and yon for her heart’s desire, she never really lost it in the first place. She is at home and always has been.

 

Griswold_Audacious KidsJerry Griswold is professor emeritus of literature at San Diego State University and former director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. He is the author of seven books, including Audacious Kids: The Classic American Childrens Story and Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literatureboth published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

 

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Explaining How Things Worked

Guest post by David B. Danbom

I wrote Sod Busting: How Families Made Farms on the 19th-Century Plains as the result of a conversation I had with Bob Brugger at the JHU Press booth at an Organization of American Historians meeting a few years ago.

I was complaining about how poorly American history textbooks actually explained things, especially when it came to the economy. Bob told me the Press was coming out with this “How Things Worked” series and asked whether I would be willing to do a volume on the settlement of the Plains. Having just complained about how poorly other historians explained how things worked, I could hardly turn him down.

Once I got into this project, I realized that historians don’t explain things very well because it is so hard to do. Take federal land policy, for example. The Homestead Act was laid on top of lots of other land legislation, was immensely complicated in itself, and was modified by virtually every Congress in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. No wonder farmers had so much trouble satisfying its requirements!

Another issue that required some hard thinking was credit. Plains farmers were dependent on credit, of course, but they got it from a variety of sources and it was extended to them in a variety of ways. Most challenging for me was figuring out the machinations of mortgage companies, which seemed to behave a lot like the big banks at the time of the 2008 financial crisis.

It is one thing to gain an understanding of land policy or farm credit and to explain it clearly enough that a college student can understand it. It is another thing to make material with a tendency to be as dry as the western Plains interesting. In order to do that, I mined the reminiscences of Plains settlers, many of whom struggled with the problems of land acquisition, home and farm making, credit, and the creation of schools, churches, and other institutions that I was trying to explain. I hope that these research assistants from the past helped make this book come alive for students, making it as much about how people made things work as it is about how things worked.

Sod Busting is designed to give students a clear idea of how people made farms and lives on the Plains. I hope it is brief enough, inexpensive enough, and interesting enough that it is not burdensome for students. And I hope that it helps their instructors convey to them how things worked on the Plains.

danbom

David B. Danbom is a retired professor of history. His many books include Born in the Country: A History of Rural America, also published by Johns Hopkins.

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