Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

At play in the fields of the word--

What is the front of the jacket of Glimmerglass
doing here? Because the book is now in
pre-order, and I have a duty to thrust
it in front of noses! So here,
I have done my duty by my publisher,
and I hope you'll read it. If you do,
let me know what you think. It's
very, very different from my 2012 novel,
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage.
Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt.
OPENING THE MATRESHKAS

Today I feel like exploring Dan Piepenbring's article in The Daily Paris Review about Cory Arcangel's little book (Working on My Novel) of other people's tweets. The tweets are things like this: "Currently working on my novel and listen [sic] to music. Yeah I'm a writer deal with it." Examining the essay is a bit like exploring the outermost box in an array of puzzle boxes (tweeters inside Archangel inside Piepenbring), but I think the effort may reveal something about the state of things. What things? Oh, art, literature, writers.

CULTURAL BOX OR MULTIVERSE?

Dan Piepenbring is fairly severe on the book:
it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen.
Well, that is a sad assessment, isn't it? To counter it, I'd say that a good many of us have managed to build our own little world inhabited by fellow artists near and far, and that there are many worlds inside this one. It really is a multiverse, even when you don't leave the planet. I have plenty of friends in the arts who feel some sort of struggle with invisibility, but I don't see their attitudes in that depressing, sour list of adjectives. Nor do I find "exercise regimen" as a good description of novel-making by my friends, though I know exactly what Piepenbring means. Those of us who pursue the arts don't have to live in that kind of atmosphere. We can shape our own world within this world. We can choose.

PROVING GROUND OR JOYFUL PLAY?
Even as fewer people read novels, we’re made to feel that writing one is a worthy, rigorous enterprise for serious thinking people, a means of proving that we have reservoirs of mindfulness and discipline deeper than our peers’.
Really? Could this be a sincere statement? I am not made to feel such things. Making a piece of art does demand a certain amount of focus and persistence, but I'm bemused about why anybody would write one simply to prove him- or herself better than others. That's certainly not my experience. I write a novel when I have a whopping desire to tell a story, to thrust words around in wonderful patterns, and to revel in truth and beauty. I want to frolic in language.

And also I want to write a novel or story or poem because of that old-fashioned word, inspiration. I may feel a rush of inspiration; it's heady; it's joyous; it's wondrous. I want to make something because life is bigger and more satisfying when I make things. (Reading, I should say, is also a participation in making a world and is an experience made by writer and reader together.) For a writer, there's little better than what Tom Disch called the lyric gush, and once experienced, a writer tends to want that sensation again and again. It's found more in poetry, but also at times in the novel.

NEED TO? WANT TO?
And so we try to write fiction, though certainly we don’t need to, and, as this book attests, we often don’t especially want to, even if we greet the task steeled by a perfect cup of coffee, a glass of red wine and a hot bath, or an Eminem song.
Nah, we don't "need to"; the human race got along just fine without novels. But hey, some of us want to write novels and stories and poems and long-poems. We just do. We feel the desire bubbling up like a spring--like pent joy. We don't need the right pen or the right drink or the right background sound because we have the rush of desire, the onset of high playfulness, and the pleasure in pouring words into new shapes.

FAILING / BETTERING 
Indeed, if you hope to Fail Better—and if you hold up literature, as a writer or reader, as a form of bettering yourself, warts and all—you risk ensnaring yourself in a paradox that Jonathan Franzen wrote about in 1996, more than a decade before Twitter even existed:
You ask yourself, why am I bothering to write these books? ... I can’t stomach any kind of notion that serious fiction is good for us, because I don’t believe that everything that’s wrong with the world has a cure, and even if I did, what business would I, who feel like the sick one, have in offering it? It’s hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream; sooner or later the therapeutically minded reader will end up fingering reading itself as the sickness.
The Glimmerglass minotaur is here
because I thought he went well
with Beckett. Didn't Beckett
advise young writers to despair?
And youth was sacrificed to
 the original minotaur...
Okay, we're back to Beckett once again and the recent converting of a literary phrase into a fashionable buzzword for the business and sports world. Fail better. Failbetter. Really? Is that a workable goal? Did anybody ever continue reading and find out what came next? As, "Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good." Etcetera.

This "better yourself" business is a peculiar way to look at art. Piepenbring and Franzen are both right about that. But the idea is not wholly wrong because art is one of the things that makes you bigger on the inside. It just is. There's no way to avoid that change. Pursue truth and beauty (rather that bestsellerdom and fame), and you will live a larger life. Period. Maybe that's not something you can take to the bank, but it is wonderful. It's silly to reduce everything to dollars.

THE ARTIST OF THE BEAUTIFUL

Hawthorne's Artist of the Beautiful, Owen Warland, looked very strange to his American materialist friends, but the art he made and shared with them--whether they appreciated it or not--did indeed change the world. Pursuing beauty and mystery and the truth of nature changed him. It enlarged his being. It changed his life. It changed his discernment. It added to the sum of beauty and truth in the world, even if his perfect work of art lasted only a little while.

ESTRANGEMENT

Moreover, what's wrong with being estranged from the mainstream? I grasp the whole passage and its tone, but I still don't like it. Being "estranged" from the mainstream tends to be a positive good for that unfashionable substance, the soul--or if you don't like the idea of a soul, well, it's a positive good for the mind and heart. I think both writers probably know this, but it's not fashionable to talk about heart or soul except in an ironic way; that's part of why the reader ends up "fingering" literature itself as sickness-causing and estranging. He's already estranged from parts of himself...

UNTRAMMELED JOY IN CREATION
And so Working on My Novel is a brilliant litmus test—there are those who will read it as a paean to the fortitude of the creative spirit, and those who will read it as a confirmation of the novel’s increasing impotence. A form that should provide a “radical critique of the therapeutic society,” as Franzen writes, has instead been co-opted by that society. It’s failing better than the best Fail Better adherent could hope.
"Paean to the fortitude of the creative spirit" is deliberate jargon, a glass of liquid horse manure with a twist of lime, as the writer of the article meant it to be. The tweets chosen don't seem inspiring to him, so the writer may well be leaning toward "increasing impotence" in his judgment of culture and the novel. But you know what? Writing or making art generally is not about "fortitude" of "the creative spirit." It's about the unfailing energy of Creation; it's about a person longing to catch some of that waterfall energy in a net of words, in sub-creation. It's about the sheer, raging joy of playing with words. It's about having more life. It's about trying to make something live--to capture the feeling of life and energy in words.

THE LIVING NOVEL

There's more than one way to make "radical critique of the therapeutic society." A truly radical turn away from current-day culture could well be a book that looks nothing like the "realistic social novel" to those who like to categorize types of novels and romances. (I don't, and I don't believe in realism. As I've said many times, if we could reach realism, we could replace reality. Novels are all on a spectrum, and they are all fantastic in nature, being worlds made out of words.) In fact, any truly living novel would automatically be a critique of an ailing culture simply because it held life and energy.

You know, it doesn't matter if somebody thinks the novel increasingly impotent. Because the novel will either be replaced by other forms better suited to the age, or else people will come along and show us that everything we thought about the novel has to be considered anew. Why? Because they will take the form and do something irresistible with it. It's that simple.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Deepest longings

Interior art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass, now in pre-order
online or at your favorite indie
or directly from Mercer
From "TRAC: A Resurgence of Realism," by Theodore Prescott (American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2014), an article in response to The Representational Art Conference of March, 2014:
The dominant culture tries to find meaning in progress, [American painter Juliette Aristides] said, but everything that is uniquely and profoundly human becomes disposable in that vision--such as the two million plastic beverage bottles sold every five minutes, or the 208,000 photos uploaded to Facebook every second. For Aristides, the aim of art--real art--is different than the aim of progress, because it is directed toward what is of enduring value. Viktor Frankel, a Viennese psychologist who endured years in a Nazi concentration camp wrote, "Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life. . . . Man is able to live and die for the sake of his ideals and values." So artists need something to live for and work toward, which is of value both to them and to their audience, even if that audience is small. She cited J. R. R. Tolkien and the Inklings--an Oxford-based literary group that included C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams--as an example of a small group of people committed to an alternative vision that ultimately had enormous culture impact. The Inklings were not looking for critical success and commercial market share; they were driven to create mythic worlds that confirmed their deepest longings for goodness, truth and beauty. What they longed for was invisible, until they made it real.
Those lines are so very kindred to my own thought that it makes me feel happy to read it--to think that others are out there, working with similar thoughts and aims.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Yo ho for O-hi-o

photo by Paul Digby, July 2014
I had a wonderful time teaching at the Antioch workshops, and then promptly sailed off to Alliance, where I stayed for some days with painter Lynn Digby and composer (and more, as he does everything, I begin to think) Paul Digby. And I had a marvelous time there as well--lots of talk and frolic in their exceptionally lovely garden.

Paul recorded and filmed me reading bits of Glimmerglass, Thaliad, and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. He also made recordings of me reading poems from The Foliate Head, the some-day-to-be The Book of the Red King, and some other uncollected poems, including one that will be out in Sienna Latham's Hindsight in September, timed to match the appearance of Glimmerglass, now available as a pre-order. So now Paul is busy writing music, it seems...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blog hop, bog hlop for Richelle Hawkes

Now in pre-order
Available via Mercer, online shops,
and your favorite indie bookstore
Richelle Hawks of Shipwreck Dandy asked me to participate in her blog hop, and so here goes--

What am I working on?

Right now I have finished up a week at the Antioch Writing Workshops in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I ran a poetry workshop and also met one-on-one with various people to discuss both poetry and fiction manuscripts. It was great fun, and I met lots of wonderful people, and stayed with writers Robert Wexler and Rebecca Kuder. Now I’m staying with friends-in-the-arts Lynn and Paul Digby, and Paul is taping and filming me reading poems and some fiction. Later on he’ll make some videos (and there will be podcasts) with his own music.

When I go home, I need to finish up some manuscripts that have been lying around, waiting for attention.  I have a poetry manuscript and a novel for children that are in need of some final polish or tweaks here and there. I have a novel forthcoming next year that I mean to revise one more time—occurred to me that I really ought to change the order of a few things, long after it arrived at the publisher's office.

More here
I won’t start a large, new project until those things are done, though I’ll be writing poems and small stories. I’ll be doing some traveling on behalf of my  novel, Glimmerglass, beginning with SIBA in Norfolk in September. I really need to arrange more events at the moment. And I’m still doing some work to help out recent poetry and fiction books—The Throne of Psyche, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Thaliad, and The Foliate Head. (See tabs above for information.)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I write lyric poetry, long narrative poetry, short stories, novels of various sorts, and even a few Southern fantasies for young adults, so I find that one a daunting question. Think I’ll leave it for readers to answer!

Ferrol Sams Award,
Silver Award, ForeWord BOTYA
More here
Why do I create what I do?

One of the most beautiful, good, and true acts human beings can perform on planet Earth is to rejoice in the greater Creation by making things. To create art is to live a larger life, one with greater energy and joy and scope.  

I make things in order to speak to and give back to the created world—to make shapeliness and to seek power and truth in words that, once pushed into the right order, may become an experience for another human being. I love the thought that somewhere, someone may be reading one of my books and feel something of what I felt when I was making it.

How does my creative process work?


More here
I might as well say that it falls as a golden waterfall from a distant star. The more I go on, the less I know and the more I feel about the mystery of art. If my writing is moving in its most natural and most potent way (as opposed to my simply doodling with words because, say, I haven't written a poem in a while and want to do so), it simply pours through me like a wave of energy that becomes embodied in words. Words and stories and poems swoop in, and later on I polish them and play with them until they are right. 

All work falls short of the fire that burns in the mind, but approaching that original fever is a constant lure. I love that fay call from within (or perhaps from without?) and the attempt to answer back.

More here.
And who to tag for the Gob Holp, Ogh Bolp, Blog Hop?


Scott G. F. Bailey
Scott's blog hop response here

More to come...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Digby frolics

Last year with Paul and Lynn Digby
(Lynn is the photographer here)
in Cullowhee, North Carolina
Stayed up till 3:00 a.m. in Alliance, Ohio, talking to the man who made these:

In Extremis
The Birthday Roses
   from The Book of the Red King (yet to come!)
The Exile's Track
The Nesting Doll
A Fire in Ice

Most of those are from The Throne of Psyche.  Music and videography by the inimitable Paul Digby... Whee!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Word frolics / Glimmerglass

Word frolics at Yellow Springs 

Surfacing in Yellow Springs (iron, not sulphur) at week's end . . . I've had a splendid time at the Antioch Writing Workshops, where I taught the afternoon poetry workshop and also had 1-on-1 sessions with both poets and fiction writers. It was lovely to talk to other writers at all stages on the unending path. I'll go home . . . some time soon, with a brief stop to collaborate and visit with friends in the arts--Paul Digby, making of my videos, and Lynn Digby, painter. Thanks to writers Rebecca Kuder and Robert Wexler for hosting me. And thanks to director Sharon Short for making all things easy along the way. And thanks to my workshop members and 1-on-1 writers for being smart, entertaining, funny, and great lovers of words. 

More Glimmerglass confetti 

Glimmerglass is a series of mirrors and panes that splinter and soften to let you fall deeper into the heart of myth and artistic desire. A resonant, beautiful exploration of fragile hopes and the courage that comes from resisting their trampling by others.

--Margo Lanagan, author of Sea Hearts, Black Juice, and others; winner of World Fantasy and Printz awards

You might not even know what you are seeking, but once inside the pages of Glimmerglass, you’ll find exactly what you need: “a cup of music, a hill of sea.” In the Republic of Letters, Marly Youmans is our Magician in Chief.

--John Wilson, Editor, Books and Culture