Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Secret Handshake



Last summer at our mfa residency our guest Lance Olsen (self descriptor: "teacher of experimental narrative theory and practice."  Much practice!)  described that moment of recognition between lovers of the same lesser known literary work as a kind of “secret handshake.”  Our own secret handshake was based on a mutual appreciation for the works of David Markson.   But in that talk he was referring to  books like Mark Danielewki’s House of Leaves.  It’s quite a . . . literary artifact for those of you who don’t know it.  The text begins on the title page and a few pages in is what appears to be an epigraph: “This is not for you.”  The reader has been warned.


            At the Banff Film and Book Festival in the fall of 2017 David Roberts in conversation with the Canadian climber and writer Geoff Powter (Strange and Dangerous Dreams), spoke of a similar moment of recognition shared by him and his one-time student, long-time friend Jon Krakauer: “Does person x pass the Wilfrid Noyce test?”  I mention this pridefully because I  “pass,” knowing even that he was a Wilfrid with an i, not a Wilfred with an e.


            Roberts’ first book, the now classic Mountain of My Fear, has the rare distinction of having been blurbed (still hate that verb) by W.H. Auden. This is not too surprising if you know that Auden’s brother was a Himalayan explorer (geologist, more precisely) much discussed by Eric Shipton in A Blank on the Map.  And, it was that brother who supplied the inspiration for Auden’s collaboration with Christopher Isherwood on the drama The Ascent of F6.  Auden, too had his benchmark for measuring readers: “Do you love the names of the ships in the Illiad?” (Note: it’s an interminable list.  I wouldn’t have made it into Auden’s club.  I think you have to be poet.)
At another moment in the conversation Roberts recited the last paragraph of Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless (I prefer the original French title:
Les Conquérants de l'inutile, even though I am sure it is accurately translated) as follows:

My own scope must now go back down the scale.  My strength and my courage will not cease to diminish.  It will not be long before the Alps once again become the terrible mountains of my youth, and if truly, no stone, no tower of ice, no crevasse lies somewhere in wait for me, the day will come when, old and tired, I find peace among the animals and flowers.  The wheel will have turned full circle: I will be at last the simple peasant that once, as a child, I dreamed of becoming.


Someone else in the audience knew the paragraph by heart as well, and joined him in the recitation.  I was very envious of that exclusive little club and have vowed to join.
Terray, alas, perished four short years after writing those words in a climbing accident never having returned to his longed for simple peasant existence.



I finally have read Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives.  It was published at the end of the last century and I knew from everything I read about it that I would love it, and I did.  But I waited to read it until my own novel, Forty Crows, was out of my hands and a thing in the world.  This because, like The Savage Detectives, my novel is set mostly in Mexico City.  I knew I would give up if I had read Bolano first. His, as I suspected is an intimate Mexico City.  I like to think my Mexico City is a place the reader can believe in, but that’s not for me to say.  In any case, my version of the city is an imagined place based on forty year old impressions and pre-Google research.  I took my marching orders from John Irving, who in A Son of a Circus created an India that was “unknown and unknowable” to its main character.  A fictional India.

In any case, one of the beauties of The Savage Detectives is not only its portrayal of Mexico City but its litany of its street names.  Thus, going forward, for me it’s not the names of the warships in The Illiad but the names of the streets in Bolano’s The Savage Detectives:

            Calle Republica de Venezuela
            Calle Leonardo Da Vinci
Calle Independencia and Luis Moya
Camino Desierto de los Leones
Rue des Petites Écuries (Paris!)
And on and on.  There are hundreds.  Do you love them?



We readers, wandering through labyrinths of words of our own choosing.  The purpose of our reading is not to read what everyone else does, but works that reflect somehow our own peculiarities of thinking.  Why do I own four editions of René Daumal’s Mount Analogue?  (pictured here in the 1968 City Lights edition, the one I originally read and love best, its cover hinting [mostly falsely!] of  enlightenment.  Even finding a copy of this back in the early 70s was along journey in and of itself). Also, why one in French, which I will never read? 



Why do I own four editions of Under the Volcano?  (Again, Mexico City!)



Why the two different translations of Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow?  Why do I need both it and the F. David translation: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow?  I can’t explain it. 

“By their deeds they shall be known” the New Testament wisely tells us.  The corollary is: by the books they love they shall be known, or if not known, formed.  We are what we read.

Someday I hope to exchange secret handshakes with the literary traveler who has been lost in this labyrinth, also known as Dreamlives of Debris:



I have already exchanged a secret handshake with its author.







Thursday, February 22, 2018

While I Can Still Remember This



In which I begin by lamenting what I have forgotten and end by lamenting over what I cannot forget.

After not working out at the gym for about two years I surprised myself by opening my combination lock on the first try, the three numbers etched into my mind but uncalled upon for months.  I felt pretty smug about this.

My body has been steadily disintegrating for about fifteen years.  Whose hasn’t?

The Liard Hot Springs south of Whitehorse on the Al-Can Highway is one of my favorite stops.  I was therefore surprised that my sons were not looking forward to stopping there on our second time driving north together.  “We call that place the Pools of Misery.”  I didn’t get it.  “It’s all old people in there," they said, “Complaining about everything in the whole world.”

Last week I could not find within my memory the name of the largest mountain on the skyline on the west side of the Chugach Range.  It is a mountain I look at every single day (cloudlessness permitting) and have climbed dozens of times.  But I could not remember its name.  This was alarming.

Henry Staten used the metaphor of going to a library shelf and looking exactly where the book should be on the shelf, but finding the exact space the book was suppose to inhabit empty. I only remember the metaphor, not the phenomenon it was supposed to illustrate.

The Chugach skyline from north to south: Tiklisha, Tanaina, BLANK, O’Malley, Ptarmigan, Peak 3, Peak 2, Flattop.  They appear in different orders depending on your vantage point.

It’s happening, too, with names of books and authors.  I once had a heightened ability to call these to mind instantly. But less so now.

Although I generally sleep poorly, sometimes just before dawn I fall into a profoundly deep sleep.  When I awaken from this state I am conscious only of being awake, alive, in my body.  It takes a couple minutes before I remember I have an identity, a name, a history.

I lost the name of an author when I was teaching the other day and my students said I needed a memory box, like the kind Jonathan Lethem constructed (out of words) for his characters in Gun with Occasional Music, written in the early 1990s.

“Man,” Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1834, “is a tool-using animal.”  Though we now know of animals that use tools.

When someone “consults” their memory in Lethem’s dystopia they take out a small electronic box and ask it a question and the memory box answers them in their own voice, rather like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

“Memory was permissable when it was externalized. And rigorously edited. That left you with more room in your head for the latest pop tune—which was sure to be coming out of the nearest water fountain or cigarette machine.”~Lethem

My smart phone is sort of malfunctioning: it now must be turned off to be charged.  Every morning I turn it back on and a date and a time flash on the screen.  But it’s not today’s date or the present time, nor the previous day’s.  As far as I can tell it’s a completely random date and time.  Then after a pause, the correct date and time appear.

I am reminded that there is information stored in my mind that I don’t know is there.  To “prove” this to myself, I look at a list of the Top 100 Hit Songs from 1966.  Down at the bottom I see Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man.  Haven’t heard this, or thought of this, in decades. But the tune and words come back to me in a flash.

In the third quarter of 2012 one billion smart phones were in use.

Off and on throughout the day I tried to remember the name of the peak, but it would not be summoned.  A full day passed before I looked it up in my datebook.  I knew that I had last climbed it on New Year’s Day: Wolverine Peak.

No one knows anyone’s phone numbers any more: our phones “save” them for us.

But I remember the phone number of the house I lived in up to 1965: Garfield 2-6612.  I also remember the phone number of Twin Pines Dairy: Texas 41-100 and I hear it in the voice of their television ad: “If you want worry free/ home dee-liv-er-y/call Twin Pines/Texas four one one oh oh.”

My laptop computer and cell phone are memory boxes.  My journals, notebooks, drafts, photographs (slides), published works. My laptop tells me there are 12,348 photos stored in its memory.  In the future almost none of these will survive and what has it all been, really, except an overstatement of the fact: “He was here.”

After my son died I sometimes listened to a long voicemail message that he had left on my phone.  And wept again when that phone lost its memory.

Nietzsche defined man as “the remembering animal.”  But we all know that remembering is not specific to humans.

My grandmother spent about the last six years of her life in a nursing home bed.  She couldn’t see well, but recognized me because I wear a beard, that she did not like.  Conversing with her was difficult, but my aunt would prep us with “talking points,” as if much of what was in my grandmother’s head was inaccessible, but with key phrases we could unlock little anecdotes.

It’s okay, I guess, that my son’s voicemail message is lost forever because the message itself was sadder than the fact of having lost it.

My grandmother liked to talk about the night they arrived in Onaway in the Upper Peninsula on the train.  It was raining and they had supper at a diner where she ate stewed tomatoes from a chipped bowl.  This would have been about 1905.

I do have the last text message from him: Yo dude. I fell skating and I’m pretty sure I snapped my ankle. Could you drive me to the clinic please?  I did drive him to the clinic. His ankle would indeed turn out to be “snapped.”  When he died two months later he was still wearing the soft cast, crutches in the back of his snow-filled truck bed.

Nietzsche also claimed that the existence of forgetting has never been proved.  We only know that some things cannot be recollected when we want them.

I have often wondered what else was in my grandmother’s head in her final years, what else over and above the talking points?  We tried to get her to reveal the mystery of her brother’s death.  Uncle Jimmy, my mother and my aunt called him. But she wouldn’t tell us.  It was a secret that she would take to her grave and she wanted it to be that way.  Her knowing smile told us all we would ever know.

The cause of my son’s death, although essentially mysterious, was “accidental drowning.”  His brother and I have theorized that being out of cell phone coverage frustrated him and he threw his useless phone across the river.  Thought better of it and set to cross the river and retrieve it.  Winter in Alaska: hypothermia and drowning ensued. His phone was never recovered.

Human beings are smart phone using animals.  But there is no evidence this usage is making us any smarter: “A "smombie" (a combination of "smartphone" and "zombie") is a walking person using a smartphone and not paying attention as they walk, possibly risking an accident in the process, an increasing social phenomenon.”

My aunt recalled that my grandmother once said that she would never forget the look on her mother’s face when she was told the news about Jimmy.

The last image of my son ever taken was shown to me on the cell phone of one of the officers who delivered the awful news.  I wish that I could forget it, or find myself unable to recollect it.  But the opposite is true: I am unable to not recollect it.

Wolverine Peak.

Wolverine Peak.

Wolverine Peak.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

In Which I Interview Myself with Questions Stolen from Teddy Wayne




Without summarizing in any way what would you say your book (FORTY CROWS) is about?

Any descriptor is a form of summary, and summary is a reduction, so I hate to say it’s a coming-of-age story, even though that’s what it is.  It’s about getting in over your head.  Love, loss, history. You know: go big, or go home.

                                         Photo by Dave Jordano          www.davejordano.com


Without explaining why and without naming other writers or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?

I can barely talk about anything at all without naming writers or books.  But here goes: cultural and historical people and events: Diego Rivera, Henry Ford, Detroit, Viet Nam, Mexico City, the 1970s.  Boxing.  Childhood.






Without using complete sentences can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?

I already didn’t use complete sentences in the last answer, extra credit?  Mainly trying to be a parent.  The job there is never enough time for.  Most of the book was eked out a page at a time.




What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers/reviewers?

I haven’t had too may reviews, but most were positive.  One was not.  I remember thinking “I see what he means” and then instantly put it behind me.  I forget now what his critique was.






If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of requirements and/or talents) what would it be?

You can call writing a career if you want, but it doesn’t pay the bills for very many people.  Toni Morrison and Richard Ford work in universities!  I am lucky to have found teaching as a career and I have often thought about what I would do differently if given the chance and never been able to come up with a better choice.  I think about the first cardiologist I went to. I was about the same age as she was (late 30s!) and she was new in her practice.  It was probably the first time I spoke with a doctor as if we were equals.  Somehow it came out in the conversation that if she hadn’t amassed a zillion dollars in student loans, she would rather be baking bread.  And my condition went undiagnosed for another few decades.



What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?

While I feel reasonably competent at talking about the writing other people do, I tend to look at my own work as some mysterious object I had no conscious hand in producing, like: “Where did this thing come from?”   I have a tendency to want to tell the whole story when everyone would be a lot better off if I could just learn to start in the middle of things, like I always tell my students to do.




How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has, or should have, an interest in what you have to say about anything?

I’m very grateful for every reader who finds me, but, in truth, it’s not a very large club.  Hubris is a double-edged sword: if you don’t have any, you won’t write anything at all; if you have too much you will be appropriately resented.  In Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, a character says “I want what we all want.  To move certain parts of the interior of myself into the external world, to see if they can be embraced.”  Some days I feel like that.  But mostly when I’m working, I’m in the writing world, and what happens to the work when it leaves me is, quite literally, out of my hands. 



Note: These are the questions Teddy Wayne asked  in “5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers,” in lithub.com on February 13, 2018.

The photo of the four guys was taken by Dave Jordano, who has two books of photos about Detroit, visit him at www.davejordano.com. Used with permission.


Monday, July 24, 2017

My Closing Words to Our MFA Residency '17



I’m not sure how much of what I have to say here will have anything to do with writing.  These are just the thoughts I have had over the last two weeks while we were sharing this long/short intense journey.

I read on the internet about a young kid fishing in a pond who hooked a purse that had been lost 26 years earlier.  It was returned to its owner and the kid said, “I was lost for words.”

I am lost for words when I try to explain what happens here at the Residency.  I wish I knew the physics to explain the peculiar behaviors of time here.  Some days seem to never end and our time will go on forever.  By the time it’s over it seems to have occurred in a blink of an eye.  Jo Ann Beard’s visit ended three days ago, but those three days feel like a month.  I hope it takes 50 weeks for you to unpack all you’ve absorbed. I hope that, like me, you have a list of books you can’t wait to read and a list of work you can’t wait to write.

The Tour de France, the most famous bike race in the world, occurs every year during the Residency.  It comes on Alaska television at 4 a.m..  I start watching when I wake at about 5:30, every day.  I was telling this to Jo Ann and she asked, “What’s so interesting about it?”

Here’s what happened a couple days ago, I tell her.  They’re going downhill at 45 miles per hour.  A rider, one of the favorites, misjudges a curve and his rear tire slips off the pavement and he goes down.  He shoots across the pavement so fast he hits a bike that was a head of him and that guy goes down.  The guy who was hit pops up, but his heel inadvertently hits the derailleur of third rider.  The kick to the derailleur jams it into place so that the rider is stuck in that gear for the rest of the day; he can’t shift.  So: the guy who first fell, a pre-race favorite, breaks his pelvis and collarbone and is out of the race.  The guy he hit loses a full minute of time, but manages to finish in the top ten.  The guy whose derailleur is stuck?  He never has to think about shifting, he’s stuck on a very high gear, hard to pedal.  He just goes as hard as he can.  Relieved of the burden of strategizing, he finishes first on the day 3/10,000 of a second ahead of the second place finisher.

And, by the way, the announcer tells the audience to visualize it this way: “Imagine jumping out of a car going 45 m.p.h. wearing only your underwear and a styrofoam cup for a hat.”

Like I said, I don’t know if it has anything to do with writing.  Take away from it whatever you may.

Last week, my novel was rejected for about the 30th time.  I don’t get too worked up about it, as it happens three or four times a year.  This rejection letter was a particularly cold, though:

“Dear Contributor, We have selected a winner to our contest.  It was not you.  We posted the results on this link: . . . .”

This is only barely an exaggeration.

As I have told you many times, the rewards of writing are mostly personal.  The amount of money I have made from my writing over the years has been minimal.  I would hate to calculate it by dollars per hour or dollars (pennies!) per word.  But over the years I have experienced many gratifying moments.  One of the most gratifying also happened last week, within about 48 hours of my novel being rejected.

I received an email from Gary Snyder telling me how much he loved my book, how much he learned from it, and thanking me for writing it.  He’s 87 years old and I sent it to him as a gesture of gratitude, never really expecting him to read it.  So, there’s an unexpected highlight from the writing life.

I have gotten into the habit of sending a note of appreciation to writers whose work I really really love.  I do this about once a year.  I don’t say too much, do all I can not to give the impression of a stalker: “I just finished reading your book and was deeply moved by the experience.  Thanks for writing it.”  Usually, they write back to say thanks; sometimes a correspondence develops.

Last spring I read Manana by William Hjorstberg.  It was brilliant.  After reading three pages I could immediately see the inadequacies of my own novel (explaining, perhaps, the 30 rejections!).  So, I found his email address and told him how much I love his book.  That was on a Tuesday. He died the next Saturday.

In The Great Gatsby, a book that has been a touchstone in my reading life–no actually, just in my life period–the narrator Nick, who for much of the novel has mostly been just reporting what he has observed, tells Gatsby, “ You’re better than the whole damn bunch of them put together.” Gatsby will be murdered shortly after. 

After the funeral, attended only by Nick and one other person, Nick goes to one of Gatsby’s business associates, Wolfsheim, to find some answers to the mysteries of Gatsby’s life. He also wants to know why Wolfsheim hadn’t attended the funeral.  Wolfsheim explains that he believes that the time to express your love or admiration for someone is when they are alive.  When they’re gone it’s too late.  Move forward.

As you move forward now, my advice to you is that you tell the people you love that you love them.

See you all next year~