The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, May 26, 2020


Early Spring in the Field
by Tom Hennen

The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.

 

Tom Hennen, “Early Spring in the Field” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Hennen. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of novelist Alan Hollinghurst (books by this author), born in Stroud, England (1954). He was an only child, and Stroud was a very small, rural town. He said: “I think there is a sort of mystery to being an only child in the way that you make your own unshared world when you’re very young. […] I think being an only child was a good training for someone who takes as long to write novels as I seem to do. It requires a lot of solitude.” His father was a farming bank manager, and Alan accompanied him from farm to farm. When he was seven, his parents decided to send him off to boarding school.

Hollinghurst loved school. He read a lot of poetry and the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien — he used to write to his friends in Dwarvish runes. He wasn’t very interested in other novels. But after he went to Oxford, he decided to try writing. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), is the story of a gay man who saves the life of an aristocrat, an older gay man. The novel is full of explicit descriptions of gay sex. He said: “For a shy person, it strikes me now that my first book was rather bold. But I think shy people often have a strange, compensatory impulse. When they do something, it’s ridiculously outspoken.” Hollinghurst had a tough time selling the paperback rights for the book. It scared off all the publishers. But then the hardcover version of The Swimming-Pool Library was extremely popular and spent months on the best-seller list, and publishers ended up in a bidding war for the paperback rights.

Hollinghurst is a meticulous writer, spending years on each novel. Some days he only writes a couple of lines; other days he doesn’t write at all. His novel The Line of Beauty (2004), the story of a young gay man who is taken in by an upper-class British family, won the Booker Prize. His most recent novel is The Sparsholt Affair (2017).


It’s the birthday of jazz musician Miles Davis (works by this musician) born in Alton, Illinois (1926). His father was an oral surgeon, and he grew up in a nice home in East St. Louis. The family also owned a ranch in Arkansas. He was about seven or eight years old when he started listening to a radio show called Harlem Rhythms. It was a 15-minute show, and it came on at 8:45 in the morning. Davis started showing up late to school every day because he couldn’t bear to miss the music.

About that same time, he started paying attention to the music he heard in rural Arkansas. He said: “We’d be walking on these dark country roads at night and all of a sudden this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees that everybody said ghosts lived in. […] Somebody would be playing a guitar the way B.B. King plays. And I remember a man and a woman singing and talking about getting down! […] That music was something, especially that woman singing. But I think that kind of stuff stayed with me, you know what I mean? That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm. I think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas back-roads after dark when the owls came out hooting.”

A few years later, he started music lessons, playing the trumpet, and after that he didn’t stop. He was playing professionally by the age of 15. And when he was 18, he struck out for New York to find his hero, Charlie Parker. Soon they were playing together, and Davis continued to play jam sessions with other musicians, and experiment with new types of jazz. In 1959, he recorded Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.


It’s the birthday of photographer and author Dorothea Lange (works by this artist), born in Hoboken, New Jersey (1895). A bout with polio at the age of seven left Lange with a noticeable limp — and a hatred for school, where she was teased and alienated. She cut classes and wandered around New York City, carefully observing the life around her. She soon decided she wanted to become a photographer. While training to be a teacher, she apprenticed with several photographers. In 1918, she decided she could earn her way around the world taking pictures. She got as far as San Francisco, where she opened a portrait studio, and later met and married the painter Maynard Dixon. But by the late 1920s, she was too disturbed by the Depression to make photographs of rich clients.

She began to go out on the street, and took what became one of the most famous photographs of the time, called White Angel Breadline. It depicted a crowd of well-dressed, newly unemployed men waiting for food on a breadline. Another of her most famous works was Migrant Mother. In 1939, she and her husband published An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, which dealt with the problems of America’s migrant farmworkers.

She said: “One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it.”


It’s the 82nd birthday of American pianist and composer William Bolcom (works by this musician), born in Seattle Washington (1938). Bolcom was something of a musical prodigy: by the time he was 11, he was studying composition and piano privately at the University of Washington.

Bolcom has composed over 300 symphonic works and chamber pieces. He performs often with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. They’ve recorded popular parlour and vaudeville songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bolcom has also composed several operas based on literary works, like Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, Arthur Miller’s play, A View from the Bridge, and Robert Altman’s film, A Wedding.

When he was seventeen, he began what would become a thirty-year-long process of setting poet William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to music. It became a three-hour long composition for soloists, choruses, and orchestra. Along the way, he realized he wanted to bridge the gap between “popular” and “serious” music, so he incorporated elements of jazz, folk, soul, reggae, and vaudeville. The world premiere was held at Stuttgart Opera in 1984. On Blake’s work, Bolcom said, “I’ve been looking at these texts since I fell in love with them at 17. I thought that maybe they would make more sense sung than spoken. Singing spreads them out. When I read these poems aloud, they make a weird kind of sense. But people have gotten all ‘aw, shucks’ about reading poetry aloud today. It’s like listening to a bank draft. T. S. Eliot was like that. Blake is kind of a gloss on Handel. His prophecies are the arias of their time.”

William Bolcom won the Pulitzer Prize (1988) for 12 New Etudes for Piano.


It’s the birthday of American avant-garde composer and musician Moondog (1916), known as the “Viking of 6th Avenue” because he used to busk on 6th Avenue in New York, between 52nd and 55th Streets wearing a Viking helmet, dressed in a flowing cape, and wielding a sword. When Dizzy Gillespie encountered him in the 1950s, he thought Moondog looked like Christ.

Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin in Marysville, Kansas, to missionaries. He always loved music and made his own drums from cardboard when he was five years old. He was blinded at the age of 16 in a farming accident and sent to the Iowa School for the Blind, where he learned to read music by Braille. By 1943, he was in New York City, where he became acquainted with Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and Charlie Parker. He christened himself “Moondog” in honor of a dog “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of.”

His music was a mix of Native percussion and flute, jazz, classical, and ambient sounds like babies crying and ocean waves tumbling. People who passed him on the street often thought he was homeless, but he had an apartment and recorded several records with large labels like Epic. In the 1960s, his song “All My Loneliness” became a hit for Janis Joplin. He moved to Germany and gave up the helmet and the cloak because he was getting so many offers to serve as a guest conductor for orchestras. He was a major influence on avant-garde composer Philip Glass, who brought him back to the United States in 1989 to lead the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra at the New Music Festival in Brooklyn.

Moondog was a noted inventor of musical instruments, such as a small, triangular-shaped harp known as the “oo” and the trimba, a triangular, percussive instrument that is still used today. Moondog died in 1999. On what inspired his music, he said, “Mostly silence.”

He said: “I deny that there is such a thing as originality. All an artist can do is bring his personality to bear. If he is true to himself, he can’t help but be different, even unique, for no two persons are alike. I do not strive to be different for the sake of being different, but do not mind being different if my difference is the result of being myself.”

 

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

A modest proposal: Make today a new day

The beauty of quarantine is that you don’t have to see people you don’t want to see, which simplifies life, just as memory loss does. Life comes down to basics. Sleeping, eating, talking, reading, writing, cooking, doing your business. Days are so quiet that a cup of ginger tea might be a highlight or my wife’s beautiful shoulders where she stands in the kitchen and I put my hands on her, and feel like singing a few lines of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida”. But she’s slicing onions for supper so I don’t. Never sing a big aria to a woman holding a knife, she may forget which opera this is.

In the opera, Aida is locked in a tomb with her lover, Radamès, which is like quarantine but without grocery deliveries and no Zoom. Saturday I did a Zoom chat with fellow workers from back in our touring days, doing shows, and we reminisced about shows in outdoor venues in the rain and the show from Yellowstone where a bison lay down to sleep in front of the satellite dish and the show where squirrels ate the mike cables, the show in Dublin where the audience was completely schnockered.

We won’t be sitting around telling pandemic stories five years from now, stories about sitting on the terrace and looking at the moon, and that’s okay by me. I’m not as interested in stories as I was back in the day. Since January 2017, the nation has seen a thousand fascinating stories out of Washington, each one with the same name in the headline, all of them unbelievable and fascinating, and after three years, a person is exhausted. What remains to happen? Will there be a big statue of him holding a Bible? Will he sign an executive order making the coronavirus go away? Will Jared be put in charge of the Pentagon?

My wife, who I almost sang Verdi to, said a sweet thing the other day. She said, “I wish people would just focus on the future, rather than the past.” I had been saying something about renaming our national capital because George and Martha had 300 slaves, renaming it Emerson after Ralph Waldo who had no slaves and had all his teeth and said smart things, such as “If a man can make a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” He recommended good books, good friends, and a sleepy conscience. He was in favor of curiosity and science and ambition. All Washington said was “I cannot tell a lie” and that was not true. He was a general who got lucky and caught the British in a trap. Emerson was a philosopher and a poet. If you renamed Washington Emerson, people would start reading him and this would be a far better country.

But she’s right. This country is guilty of mistreating its children. Seventeen million of them struggle to get enough food; malnutrition in the first three years of life can cause enduring problems. Lousy schools limit a child’s prospects for a happy life. Feeding and teaching children are things we know how to do. A sensible society looks after its children, its future. Nothing you do for children is wasted. We can condemn each other for old mistakes, but if we decide that 2021 is a new start and we start looking forward with a clear eye, then we can get somewhere. If Mississippi can finally surrender the Confederacy and take down its flag, there’s hope for the rest of us.

The city of Washington is an object of general scorn and abuse across the land. Let’s wipe the slate clean, rename it Emerson, and restart the idea of good government and common sense. We desperately need his optimism. “Trust thyself,” he said. “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries. Let us not be invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” This year, we’ve seen the worst. Good. Now we know what it is. Now we can rise above it and join forces and work for what should be, equality, justice, prosperity, and good sense.

“Bad times have a scientific value,” he said. “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” Washington state and all the Washington counties are enough for George. “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” No need to make a statue of Ralph on a horse, just quoting him is good enough.

Some good advice from an old memoirist. Take it.

My advice to you, young people, is to start asking questions of your elders about family history and who did what when and why and don’t stop until you get answers because, though you’re much too cool to be interested in family history now, someday you’ll want to know these things and by that time they will all be dead.

Okay? Read that paragraph over a couple of times to yourself and then go do it.

I’m trying to finish a memoir and I realize now how much I don’t know and I was too busy careering around as my elders began taking the long walk and I didn’t sit down and ask for the story. My elders were self-effacing Midwesterners brought up not to talk about personal things and they kept many secrets from me such as how did the men fall in love with the women and vice versa, they being such righteous folk and sensible and circumspect. Mother came from a family of thirteen, Dad from eight, and when I knew them, they were all settled in comfortable marriages, and what I want to know is what transpired when they were infatuated and savoring sensual moments and looking forward to throwing caution to the wind.

It happened, even in cautious Christian families like mine. I see the pictures of my youthful aunts in their white summer dresses sashaying around the lakes of Minneapolis and I sense adventure and light-heartedness, not wary mothers I knew them as.

I know that my parents met on July 4, 1931, as teenagers at a picnic at the Keillor farm and were crazy about each other but I wish I’d asked them for more details. He was a farmboy, she was a city girl, slender and shy, and they didn’t marry until six years later, it being the Depression and all, but what happened in those six years? I grew up with two parents who held hands and flirted with each other all their long lives and I’m grateful and I want to know how come and there’s nobody left to ask.

I write about my life, the lost world of hitchhiking, which I knew as a kid and got picked up by angry half-drunk men who raged against the government, their bosses, their Army commanders, their wives, and I got a view of life you couldn’t get in school or from the newspaper. It’s gone and so are the downtown department stores of Minneapolis, the smells and bells, the ladies with white gloves who ran the elevators. I went to a state university back when tuition was so cheap you could pay for your education with a part-time low-wage job, no debt, no need to ask your dad for money, and so you were free to make impractical plans such as become a writer of fiction. I came from a fundamentalist family that was wary of higher education and I plunged into campus life and before I knew it I had four close friends, Larry and Barry and Maury and Arnie, all of them Jewish. I did an early-morning radio show back when people listened to radio religiously, before YouTube and Google and InnerTube and Bugle and iPod and pPod and all the other platforms.

It’s all interesting, but it’s the love stories that a person craves. You want to know that you’re descended from passionate irresponsibility, not a business arrangement or a science experiment, but two people mysteriously drawn to each other. My mother’s parents, William and Marian, courted in Glasgow and she was four months pregnant when they married. Their brood of thirteen children testifies to their feelings for each other. Dad’s parents, James and Dora, were twenty years apart in age. He was an old bachelor on the school board and she was a teacher; she boarded with him and his sister. He came to school and helped her clean blackboards and clap erasers and he kissed her and they ran off and got married. They came home in the buggy and he left the horses standing in harness all night, the reins on the ground, as he carried Dora into the house, his sister having disembarked for a house up the road. It’s good to know these things.

Sit your people down and ask questions. The secret of investigative journalism is: ask questions and keep asking — people want to spill the beans, they just need some warming up. Apply the heat. You will thank me for this someday. I won’t be around but you’re welcome.

In mid-June, we look ahead and think big

I’ve now spent three months in a Manhattan apartment with my wife and daughter, a life that is not so different from, say, living in a lighthouse in the Orkneys. We can see tall buildings, some bright lights, helicopters overhead, but it’s not the New York high life I dreamed of growing up in Minnesota. The problem is that I like it just fine. Solitude suits me pretty well. So why am I here?

I look back at dining out and I don’t miss it, two hours in a loud room where waiters with big personalities serve you tiny portions of a dish that includes much too much lentils to be worth $48. I look back at dinner parties and most of them were two hours too long and the conversation felt like a rehash of the Op-Ed page.

In quarantine, you learn that there’s a lot to be said for a fifteen-minute phone conversation with one other person who’s been in lockdown too and is excited by verbal communication with another human being.

I’m not complaining. People have died from the virus, many of them my age (77). I’m a writer, a trade that can be practiced in a lighthouse as well as in New York. I loved working in the reading room of the New York Public Library but sitting in my kitchen in the month of May, I wrote a novel about a small town in Minnesota. It can be done.

I’m a hermit in a cave. My daughter is fully engaged with her social circle via electronics that I, having grown up with a paper tablet and a No. 2 pencil, know zilch about. My wife knows about it and Zooms with people and puts on a mask and walks through Central Park and I, the fragile old guy with underlying conditions and other conditions lying under those, sit in my room and am okay with that. What once was a punishment is now a privilege.

Thanks to a sensible governor, New York has come through the plague reasonably well, but now comes the hard part: do we want to stay?

I came here because in the eighth grade, a teacher handed me a copy of the New Yorker magazine with a story by John Cheever and I loved his writing and loved the magazine, the urbanity, the humor, the curiosity. I once saw John Updike on the downtown Broadway local train, a thrilling experience. I once went to a party at a writer’s that was so wonderful I stayed until 5 a.m. and stood on the street and felt too happy to go home to bed. I bought a notebook at a newsstand and went to a café and sat and wrote and had breakfast. People passing, heading for the subway, the writer deep into invention.

For true New Yorkers, the city is the only place to be. But for a guy who wrote a novel in the back bedroom? I don’t think so. I don’t need to see Times Square and its flashing signs and canyons of glass where rivers of humanity move through, most of them simply for the experience of being in Times Square.

Locked up for three months, I’ve lost interest in the big city. The Orkneys have sandstone cliffs, seal colonies, and the electricity is wind-generated. Exports include beef, whiskey, cheese, and seafood. The climate is mild, thanks to the Gulf Stream. There are sheep and many lighthouses. Surely there would be one that would welcome a lightkeeper.

It sounds wonderful to me, sleeping in a room under the glass dome, the light sweeping over the North Sea, the sense of public service, warning fishermen from the rocks. Being the only novelist on the island. And I’d escape from the heavy burden of being an American, which has become onerous lately. In my Orknitude, I would only be an old man in a tower and a provider of light.

It’s a perfect plan and now all I need to do is convince my wife. I’m looking at her now as she reads the paper. Surely a man with my language skills can sway this woman’s heart. My darling, my love, take my hand, let us speak of things to come. We’ve done New York. Let me tell you of a wonderful place far away. Put your trust in your husband. If, after ten years, you don’t like the island of Graemsay, I promise we’ll move straight back.

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Writing

A modest proposal: Make today a new day

The beauty of quarantine is that you don’t have to see people you don’t want to see, which simplifies life, just as memory loss does. Life comes down to basics. Sleeping, eating, talking, reading, writing, cooking, doing your business. Days are so quiet that a cup of ginger tea might be a highlight or my wife’s beautiful shoulders where she stands in the kitchen and I put my hands on her, and feel like singing a few lines of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida”. But she’s slicing onions for supper so I don’t. Never sing a big aria to a woman holding a knife, she may forget which opera this is.

Read More

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I loved sitting and admiring Erica Rhodes on Zoom last night from a comedy club in Minneapolis.

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The News from Manhattan: Saturday, June 27, 2020

The reason to write a novel is to say what you think in a form that allows enormous freedom — you can put the thoughts in different characters.

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The News from Manhattan: Friday, June 26, 2020

An exciting day, editing galleys and I’m down to the last twenty pages. The end is in sight. An author has to be a tough critic, especially an old one.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A lovely evening on our New York terrace made even lovelier by the host, 77, arising from his chair, tripping on it, losing his balance, then stumbling over.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

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