The Letter Project

December 27, 2009

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 1:00 am
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Marian Veverka writes to Professor Emeritus Larry Smith about James Wright and the creative process.   Marian is a retired library worker who has a BFA from BGSU.  She has spent a lot of time writing poetry & reading books.  She has lived most of her life on the shores of Lake Erie. –TW

On his blog, Larry Smith says of himself :   

I am the author of 8 books of poetry, 3 books of fiction, 2 literary biographies on Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and co-produced three documentaries on Patchen, James Wright, and d.a.levy. I am professor emeritus of Humanities at BGSU Firelands College. As founder-director of Bottom Dog Press/ Bird Dog Publishing we have published 105 books. I come from a working-class family in the industrial Ohio Valley. I believe in growth and change. 

Marblehead OH 

 17 November 2009

 Hi Larry

Theresa Williams’s letter project interested me because in the days before e-mail and internets, I enjoyed writing and receiving letters.  As the subject matter of the letterproject concerned writers and writing,  you seemed a likely correspondent as we have had many discussions on the subject at the Firelands Writing Center.  The next problem, the subject of my correspondence was solved when I visited our local bookstore/library and saw a copy of James Wrights’ poems Above the River.  We shared an interest in James Wright – I was introduced to his work at various Ohio Poetry Day celebrations and I knew you were from the same “neck of the woods” and also wrote of the once thriving economy along the Ohio River valley, now a haunted echo of its former prosperity.

When I studied poetry in my first attempt at college in the early 1950’s, the course we studied was called “Modern Poetry”, which was the poetry written in the beginning years of the 20th century.  Robert Frost and Edna St.Vincent Millay are the poets I remember as among the best,  I took out my books I had saved from those years and James Wright was not included.  However, the poems he wrote in his early years were those of meter and rhyme  They also echoed the rural sensibility of Frost and many, now all but forgotten others.  As I read those early poems, another theme emerged – Wright’s desire to leave the industrial Ohio valley.  St. Judas  & The Green Wall also contain hints from the surfacing “beat” poets,

What I consider the most interesting part of Wright’s career was the 5 year period he spent traveling and translating and writing very little that survives.  When he began publishing poetry again, it was not the conventional poetry of his earlier years.  Donald Hall, the poet who wrote the introduction to  Above the River ,

In July 1958, he wrote me a letter in which he announced he was through writing poems.’  Which may have been true at the time, but he began translating other poets, especially German & Spanish and continued to read, read, read, the modern stylists and when he  resumed his writing, the old rhyme and meter had been taken over my the styles of the post-world war 11 poets, influenced by the beats/  His subject matter continued to center around that region of south-east Ohio, once busy with industry, now a backwater, rusting & overgrown with weeds – the opposite of the boosterism so prevelant in the early 1950’s .

What I find interesting about James Wright is his ability to change his style of poetry writing.  During my years as a “writer” I had several periods where I did no writing at all.  When I resumed writing (always slowly)–the results were better poems and prose than I had written before the fallow period.  As a writer, do you think it is helpful to stop writing for a while–perhaps spend the time as Wright did, traveling & translating and studying the work of others.  Could there be something going on in our subconscious brain that still carries on the craft of putting words together to make some kind of sense and then presenting our version of that sense to the world?  Do you know of other poets and writers who have had the same experience ?

I have read some of your newer poems and there is a difference there,  a little deeper and perhaps a little darker than your earlier work.   But is this a normal process, is this the body and all its many parts in  a “wind-down” mode?.  I an curious about creativity.  There are many times I have written things & reading them later, had trouble believing that I actually wrote that. 

James Wright’s fallow period produced better poetry.  I hope mine and others can do the same.

Best wishes

Marian Veverka


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Filed under: Mailart — Theresa Williams @ 12:59 am
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From Theresa to R. J.

This hand-made postcard is in response to R. J. Ingram’s request to know which piece of Phil O’Connor’s I had read at a recent gathering of AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Chicago.  The card has an image of Phil’s book in which the story appears.  The cover of A Season of Unnatural Causes (Illini, 1975) has one of the best pictures of Phil on the cover that I have ever seen.  Phil was my teacher and mentor when I was in the writing program at BGSU.  I had read an excerpt from “The Thumb” to honor Phil’s life and writing.  He died in 2008.  –TW

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:58 am
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From R. J. Ingram

In this Illustrated letter, R. J. Ingram, a student at Bowling Green State University, wonders about the origin of something I read at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Chicago.  I had read from a work of fiction by Philip F. O’Connor, as part of his memorial.  Here, R. J. mistakingly refers to the work as a poem. –TW

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:56 am
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In the following letter, Wayne Barham talks of his upcoming 50th birthday and his ongoing struggle to discover what to write about, and why.  Wayne and I decided we would write a letter to each other once a month for a year.–TW

November 30, 2009

Dear Theresa,

Here I am writing my November letter on the last day of the month—I can be such a procrastinator—which is probably my greatest flaw! I’ve been able to rid myself of most others, but not that one for some reason. Actually it’s more that I can find a million things to do, some that are a waste of time (and can waste a lot of time), like playing computer games. I can get rather addicted to them.

From the pictures you posted on Facebook, I gather that you had a nice Thanksgiving with Allen and the three boys. How are your sons doing? I can’t remember their ages when I left Ohio, but I’m guessing them to be in their mid- to late twenties by now (maybe the oldest even thirty). The picture of Allen on his motorcycle made me chuckle, because that’s exactly how I would picture him. Do you ever ride with him? I have sometimes thought I’d like to get a motorcycle; I rode one for several months during the Spring/Summer of 1981 that I spent in Florida before starting at ECU, and really enjoyed it. Floyd wouldn’t like it though, and with all the maniacs on the roads down here, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. (Can anyone say, “midlife crisis”?)

Both Floyd and I worked Thanksgiving Day, but we went to a friend’s house for dinner afterward, which meant I didn’t have to cook dinner like I usually do. Most years, Floyd’s parents come down for Thanksgiving, but Floyd was going to a softball tournament down in Fort Lauderdale over the weekend and they didn’t feel like going to that this time, so they’re coming down for Christmas instead. Several years ago they went to that tournament with us, back when I was also playing, and our team ended up taking first place in our division, which was great fun, but even as a spectator, it makes for a tiring weekend. I actually only played for two seasons before developing bicipetal tendonitis, caused by too much repetitive throwing. I should have been more careful picking up a new sport at 45, but you know how men are when it comes to aging—we always think we’re still in our twenties! Because of the nice weather here, we get in a Fall and a Spring season, but don’t play during the sweltering heat of summer. It took almost two years for my arm to heal, and I was going to play again this Fall season, but starting a new job and not know what my schedule would be like, I decided not to play. As it turned out, I had most Sundays off and could have played 7 of the 10 weeks. Then again, my legs might not have taken it, since I’m now on my feet all day at work (ach, not in my twenties any more. )

Actually, my 50th birthday is a week from today and I’ve decided that I’m definitely not ready for it. I want to forget about it, but know I won’t be able (or allowed) to. I can already tell this one is going to be a traumatic one for me, but I’m trying to accept the inevitable by then. I guess with everything that’s happened this year, I just don’t feel I’m where I should be in my life at this point (not that I know where that is supposed to be.) Ah well, I’m trying to look at this year as a year of transition. Over all, I’ve always seen change as good, otherwise one is just stagnating, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still come with a certain amount of anxiety.

The weather turned cooler just in time for the holidays; it was actually in the 40’s during the night and quite chilly first thing in the morning; though it warmed up comfortably during the day—the kind of beautiful weather that people move down here for (at least for the winter.)

This letter I thought I’d return to some of the unanswered questions you asked in your October letter. We also rarely watch any TV, preferring to watch DVD’s, mostly all the seasons of the Simpsons, Futurama, and Family Guy that we have, as well as movies. We do have basic cable, which provides all the local networks, PBS, and so forth, but still rarely watch anything (Floyd hates the interruptions of commercials.)

I don’t have an iPod Touch, or anything like it, though it might be nice to have one. All the College Program students that I work with at Disney have them of course, and they do seem pretty neat. Don’t know that I really need one though; I think I’d rather have a laptop computer at this point, if I could afford one—it’d be more useful.

About the only writing I’ve been doing has been my monthly letters to you. The longer ones do take me many hours to write; even the shorter ones take around three hours or so. You asked about my writing space: I don’t know that it’s special or anything; my desk does face a nice window so I can get natural light during the day (though no great view), with a potted palm to my right and some shelving with books and pottery beyond that. Usually, my beautiful female cat is sitting or sleeping next to my keyboard on the left. She can be a bit aggravating when she wants to be scratched on the head or chin though, walking in front of the computer screen and all over the keyboard—even cutting the computer off! (I make sure I save frequently.) She’s extremely affectionate. We have two cats, which we dubbed Lady Guinevere and Sir Whiskers. Can you tell I’ve been a Camelot junkie? I sometimes even use the alias Gawain or Yvain (much like E. Wayne in pronunciation), which is the French equivalent. Speaking of which, she has just decided to walk across my keyboard to be rubbed. The poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has always been one of my favorites. I’ve also read quite a few of the various Arthurian series out there.

As you picked up on, writing last month’s letter was a lot like writing a short story. I liked your advice to approach story writing the same way: with no “thought for any deeper meaning at first.” I will have to try that. Though generally, I have a hard time even knowing where to begin. Events in my own life tend to come to mind (I usually see my life in terms of a novel, with various episodes and chapters), but I find them limiting to my imagination. I can’t seem to get away from the autobiographical. As a gay person, society does not provide the usual scripts of marriage, career, raising children, spoiling grandchildren, and so forth; instead I have had to write my own life from scratch. And yet, I haven’t wanted to become a “gay” writer, which has its own limitations, even though it is a big part of the world that I know, and influences how I view the world (one is automatically an “outsider.”) This has always been the biggest dilemma for me. Maybe I shouldn’t stay away from the world I know in my writing, or at least use it to get at larger themes, though I’ve never been able to figure out where to go with this (the cat’s writing again on my keyboard). Do you have any ideas to pass along on how to get started? Once I get going, the words start flowing then. Maybe I should dig out the textbook that Barbara McMillan used in the MFA techniques class. I think I still have it somewhere. Or maybe I should write sort of an informal “autobiography” (not to be published, of course)—just so I can purge it from my system. Writing even just a portion of it might get it out of my way.

Well, I’m beginning to wind down, so I’ll close. Hope you have a great holiday break and get lots of writing done (the semester should be ending about now.) I look forward to your next letter.

December 20, 2009

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:54 am
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In this letter to me, Ryan Wilson travels into Wallace Stevens’ poetry.  The letter came about as a result of an offhand remark I made to Ryan on the Internet about teaching Stevens and wishing I had more insight into the man and his work. 

Ryan Wilson holds an MFA in poetry from The Johns Hopkins University, where he won the Sankey Fellowship in poetry, and an MFA from Boston University where he won the Schmuel Traum Translation Prize. His most recent publications are in Unsplendid, Measure, and The Lyric. –TW

 Dear Theresa,

I hope this finds you healthy and happy in Ohio. It’s good to be back in touch after so long. Autumn has almost finished splashing its paints around down here, and winter is breathing deeply in the wings, eager to assert its Malevichian supremacy. Autumn in Georgia, unlike up north, is a graffiti spree, an act of rebellion that lasts for, seemingly, a few days, ruining the summer gaucheries overnight and stealing away hurriedly before winter arrives in its august uniform to perform its corrective offices. As I remember, up north, autumn is a season of languor, slow and methodical in temperament, a slow pageant of crepuscular colors, the taste of wood-smoke and a ghost of apples on the tongue. Not so, here. In Georgia, autumn is an act of juvenile delinquency.

I’m happy to hear you’re teaching the poems of Lawrence, Frost, and, most especially, the exquisite Edward Thomas, whose Classical restraint I find unparalleled among the catawampus figures cut by all those great Moderns… “Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved, / Cold, and yet had heat within me that was proof / Against the north wind, tired, yet so that rest / had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.” Wonderful…But I told you I would write regarding Stevens.

Let me begin by saying that, as you know, I am not a “scholar,” nor, in particular, a Stevensian scholar. So the following remarks will be, by and large, the impressionistic commentary of a possibly insane mind which has found Stevens perpetually stimulating. Secondly, I should add that the following notes will be concerned, primarily, with presenting the mind-set from which I approach Stevens, and from which, I believe, it is necessary to approach Stevens in order to appreciate both his successes and his failures.

Stevens’ work presents the attempts of a man, in my opinion, to unify the Classical world and the world of the moderns; it is a unique, in America, attempt to unite the cosmopolitan ideologies of the French Symbolists with the timeless concerns of antiquity upon which all modern civilizations have been built. In order to sympathize with this weltbild, we must start with the Symbolists. Baudelaire, in his extraordinary “Correspondences,” proclaims, Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se respondent … [1]  For Baudelaire, the state of reverie in which the mind finds in dissimilarities similarities was a state of holiness, an approaching of the mind of God, which unites all things.

If we examine what this state is, this state which blends the seemingly arbitrary together in Proustian fashion—the madeleine evoking a childhood—we see that this is the state when we evacuate our consciousness’s premises. When we no longer attempt to perceive what is immediately around us, when we approach non-existence, we suddenly find this unity overtake us. And this is why I would, despite his career and its lucre, and despite his snazzy suits, argue Stevens looked at Dionysus as his divine σúμμαχος . [2]

There is a myth about Dionysus, that he was torn to pieces by his followers, who then ate him. Later, yet still centuries before Jesus, he was resurrected. If we understand Dionysus to be that which is wild, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, we might perceive Dionysus to be the world before it is seen. He is the “nothing that is,” which we cannot see, unless we become snow-men, or dead things. When the mind enters the state of reverie, it approaches Dionysus, the unseen world. When we enter this state, the delineation of objects—which we rely upon to construct reason, to establish order, and to build all the myriad systems of thought which have served as foundations to civilizations— disappears. We realize that the world outside the self is one stuff, and that we are alienated from that stuff by consciousness, as the tale of the Garden of Eden, and the tale of Prometheus, and a great number of similar tales indicate. That is: Dionysus is the world before consciousness shapes it. That there is a world prior to the world of consciousness implies that the world of consciousness is fraudulent. When we perceive the world, rather than perceiving its unity, we see it piece by piece and, in seeing it, we take it into ourselves. That is: we rip Dionysus apart and ingest him, piece by piece. The great artist is the artist who can resurrect him, who can communicate the disordered and the wild which is the real, a circumstance which, of course, presents us with a paradox, as it requires speech to speak silence, presence absence.

Stevens borrowed from the Symbolists the techniques they used to attempt such a resurrection. Often, Stevens uses sound for the sake of sound, disregarding the signified which his signifiers point to in favor of music (for instance, when Stevens says people “will not dream baboons and periwinkles,” the primates and that actual light blue hue are irrelevant…the sense is in the sound: folks won’t dream strangely, or, as Anthony Hecht later and aptly put it, “Nobody will fly or turn into a moose”). It may be useful to keep in mind Pater’s edict: all arts aspire to be music. That is, music can communicate without representation, and all art forms, eventually, try to communicate without objective representation: they become expressive. Stevens is an expressive poet, and he attempts, like Mallarmé and Lewis Carroll before him, to make nonsense sense. To appreciate these sonic maneuvers, one must abandon the imminently useful techniques of the New Criticism and simply experience the poem, as if it were a painting, or a sonata. One’s first, almost unconscious, response is more likely to be correct than one’s 25th, reliant upon reason and systematic thought.

The reason Stevens employs these sonic techniques is that, by abandoning the material world tethered to our sounds, he attempts, and often succeeds, in escaping the material world, which is nothing if not our refuge in reduction. Stevens tries to reconnect us with the wildness before our lines are drawn. In this, he is the consummate poet. One way to understand this is that most of our language has been corrupted and diluted… Vernehmen wir und reden viele Worte , [3] as Hugo von Hoffmansthal commented… The words, “I love you,” which can, on occasion, be the most powerful three words in English, when spoken over and again, lose their meaning. One must come up with new ways to say this phrase to revitalize it in order to make the sentiment real again. Such a resurrection would be a pretty good definition of poetry, and it is a definition of what Stevens’ work tries to do. He wants to estrange the things we think we know in order to connect us to their primeval origins, their wildness, their power, their reality.

Along the same lines, Stevens also uses narrative in a lyric fashion, or makes external events symbols of the internal. A poem like “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” presents a narrative dramatic monologue that is ultimately a lyric, in that it is a narrative of the soul. The external or material elements in Stevens are rarely anything other than Emersonian correspondents for his interior reality because, for Stevens, there is no way to reach outside the self. Of course, Stevens was not a solipsist, and he saw the dire philosophical repercussions of such an inability to escape the self, and he explored those repercussions in poems like “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” But, ultimately, this was Stevens’ fundamental starting point: that one cannot know anything other than the self. And he explored the subsequent duality: one can either live in fear and trembling (as in “Domination of Black”) or one can exploit the richness of the self and attempt the “supreme fiction.”

Finally, Stevens, for all his philosophical doubts, generally presents clarion-calls to leave the material world of presence and to enter the abstract world of absence. The oompa-loompa short lyrics, the great blank verse poems like “Sunday Morning” and “Ideas of Order…” are all calls to us to embark upon inward journeys, to wander around that internal island of Innisfree, to seek the truth.

The problem with Stevens is not really a problem with Stevens. The problem is that he has been misinterpreted as the High Priest of Quirk, and he has “inspired” a few generations, now, of poets to assume that quirky content is the way to poetry. Let me put that delusion to rest. Content is, to paraphrase Eliot, something like the meat you throw to a dog while you burgle the house. The subject matter is almost irrelevant in Stevens; what he is concerned with is the way of looking at the subject matter. Kazoos and hoola-hoops do not a poem make, but the preposterous sonic evocations of kazoos and hoola-hoops can stand in for the absurd, the way “baboons and periwinkles” stand in for the strange. This is Stevens’ move; to alienate sound and literal sense, to let sound BE the sense, to paint with sound…ut pictura poesis , [4] as Horace exquisitely put it. Bloom has argued Stevens is Whitman’s descendant; true, but only insofar as Stevens’ inclusivity is understood to be symbolic and sonic, not political or substantial (that is, based in things themselves). Certainly, he employs image patterns, his light and dark, his cats and his more exotic beasts, but these all conform to rudimentary Nietzschean philosophy and its dualism of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. But what makes Stevens a poet, and not a philosopher “gone in the teeth” (to borrow from Pound), is that the images are secondary, or even tertiary to the music and the idea…the way that in a Picasso the subject is barely relevant in the sweeping gusto of the vision. Stevens’ truth is in his vision, not in his subject, and this vision is the sight which sees sight sees nothing. Consequently, in Dionysian fashion, he seeks to abolish the entity called the “self.”

This Dionysian desire for self-obliteration, for negation as a means of returning to the source of life, explains a great deal of Stevens and of the Symbolists too. Stevens says that “death is the mother of beauty,” not a far cry from Rilke’s das Schöne ist nichts / als des Schrecklichen Anfang …, [5] and this sort of conceptual peripeteia comes from a vision that sees all things unified, a vision that has given paradox visceral power from Sappho and Aeschylus to the mystics to Oscar Wilde. And it is what gives Stevens’ vision power. Consciousness arose from darkness and chaos, but that chaos never went away. It is still the origin of humanity, and it has continued to govern people from before the beginning of time to the present day because people, in their desire for civilization, repress the chaos. Instead of denying it, Stevens, like the mystics and the Bacchae and a great many of the Existentialists, knows that we must acknowledge the chaos and the darkness, and we must work through it to attempt transcendence, or even to be, in any meaningful sense of the word. If we are not to be defeated by chaos, we must give in to it, and work toward a light on the other side, find the other side of the sun. Such a journey, if ever completed, would, of course, be the creation of a new species: man, as we know him, would not exist. He would become god, or übermensch, or nothingness. And that is where we strike pay-dirt in Stevens, real truth.

Truth is not what can be proved. Truth is that which we know inside ourselves and are unable to express. As Lao Tzu says, “The man who claims to speak the truth can never know it; the man who knows the truth can never speak it.” The truth is the internal and the irreducible. And it is forever in flux. Consequently, Stevens’ poems often seem a hodge-podge, or what the critics called Horace’s early work, a satur. There is no self. The contemporary idea of authenticity is absurd: authenticity is a trope. There is no reason things happen. There is only a hopeful little boat called reason on a sea of chaos. There are no lines, no shapes, no colors: these are only ideas. The real is the place where these all blend together, the place we cannot reach because we are alive and conscious, the place to which we will all return when we die, and in which we will live forever, unseen, unseeable, but there, haunting the living who know we’re there and yet out of reach. The present world is an illusion. It is absence that unites all things, since all things are doomed to disappear. And because absence is where all things become one, absence is god. To touch god, you must only open an empty hand. You must have empty hands, like a vagrant, like god, like a juvenile delinquent.

With hopes of utility and with goodness and warmth,

P.S. I’ve attached a little critical essay on Stevens, with hopes that it will, as I hope this epistle might, be of some use to you.

P.P.S. It occurred to me to translate some of the quotations enclosed herein because I don’t know which languages you read.

[1] The smells and colors and sounds blend together…

[2] “summachos”: “ally in battle” (Sappho 1…in reference to Aphrodite)

[3] “We hear and speak countless words” (“Ballade des äusseren Lebens”)

[4] “As it is for painting, so it is for poetry” (Horace, “Epistle to the Pisos”)

[5] “Beauty is nothing except the start of terror” (Duino Elegies, “Die Erste Elegie”)

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