The Golden Gate

by Vikram Seth. The third of four verse novels I’m reading in bits and pieces and all at the same time, kinda.

I have to say that this one is going nowhere for me, absolutely nowhere. The lives of a group of San Francisco yuppies, rendered in 690 Pushkin sonnets. Modeled on Eugene Onegin, one assumes.

I haven’t read Eugene Onegin, but ouch is all I can say about this one. Really ouch.

Definitely a cautionary tale for those with verse novel ambitions, I would say.

Be interested to hear from anyone who has had a better experience.

The Dirty Napkin

My poem a poem for mother’s day is up at The Dirty Napkin.

This is a great publication, edited by J. Argyl Plath, and this fourth issue completes its first full volume. Check it out! And while you are there, check out its great submission system. Honestly, it’s the coolest thing — lets you painlessly submit, and then just as painlessly check on your submission. It even tells you whether your submission is Unread or Read. Has my vote for Most Painless Submission of the year.

the valkyries on bald mountain

I’ve lately developed a rather absorbing hobby — picking through years of digital photos and compiling a photo-story on a particular theme and setting it to music. I line up the individual shots in whatever order suits the theme, apply various panning and zooming effects (as allowed by Windows Movie Maker) in order to give the collection movement and dynamism, then set the whole to a particular piece of music.

As you pick individual photos and put them together, you find they actually begin to call for a particular kind of music, and so in the end, the photos and the music seem to come together for a bit of mutual definition. As choices become clearer, the challenge for you, the compiler, becomes finding enough pieces (or cutting down to enough pieces) to match the exact length of a particular soundtrack (fading in and out early is for wusses!), and to arrange the photos so that the shifting mood of the music is at least peripherally reflected in the shifting atmosphere presented by the photos.

So far, things have been pretty anodyne — a series of portraits over several years of my two sons, for example, set to an unexceptionable Mozart piano concerto, or to a Bach for oboe and violin, or something easy by Vivaldi. We’re not talking Debussy or Rachmaninov and we are definitely not talking Wagner.

Well, we weren’t, that is, until I started putting together this crazy family reunion series. (My family is wonderful in its component parts, but am increasingly less sure what the sum of those parts is. And if I even want to know what that sum is, frankly.)

So, I’m pulling together these family reunion photos, going tum-ti-tum and ho-hum and wondering in an abstracted half-assed kind of way what music I’d end up picking for the series, when suddenly I realize I’m hearing The Ride of the Valkyries! Which I totally hate. I mean, really hate.

So I resist and fight that one – it’s the wrong length, and it doesn’t really fit that piece and that piece and that piece, ok? Fine. 

So what do I start hearing instead instead?

Night on Bald Mountain!

Which I totally hate just as much, if that’s possible.

Time for a commercial break. Here’s Arthur Rackham’s Ride of the Valkyries:

Shamrock Tea

by Ciaran Carson, is number two of the verse novels I’m looking at (and, yes, probably number six in The Big Pile Of Books I Am Reading At The Same Time). It has 101 short chapters, each named for a color, and I’m at 24.

The best way I can think of to describe its form is by evoking one of those photo-portraits that are made up – when you zoom in and in and in — of hundreds of other individual portraits. A tapestry/mosaic form, with lots and lots of zoom-inable detail in each stitch of the tapestry, each tiny square of the mosaic. A behold the particular, and therefore the general sort of worldview.

So far, there seem to be three overall focal points — a 15th century painting (the Arnolfini Portrait), its subjects and colors, by Jan Van Eyck; Catholic saints, their devoutness, their reported miracles and their feast days; and the deductive reasoning method of Sherlock Holmes. The chapters are tightly-written and each labeled with the name of a particular color. They link to each other, and within themselves, in myriad ways — the whole thing is a continuous flow of word-association, color-association, thought-association, concept-association, date-association — in a knitting, reaching kind of way that links lives and feelings across centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present day, looking askance at received notions of space and time. So far the present day “action” is taking place in relation to and through the prism of the Arnolfini portrait (which sounds magical/miraculous, which it is — there’s quite a bit of that in Shamrock Tea).

So far, anyhow. The “verse” part is prose-poem rather than free or formal stanzas, by the way. (Bizarre to be reading Barret-Browning in blank verse and this colorful poetic-prose in the same breath, as it were.)

I am reminded almost continuously  in reading Carson of Annie Dillard (Holy the Firm and For The Time Being, but also Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Although Carson’s focus is narrower and more specific, they share the same penchant for weaving historical, sociological, religious “trivia” into commentary that spans the ages and ends always in the present day. (No-one asked, but I have to say Dillard’s language and her “reach” win hands down for me….)

Here are three extracts:

From Ch 4: Scarlet – “For my twelfth birthday [my Uncle Celestine] gave me an omnibus edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories. To a great mind, says Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, nothing is little; and from a drop of water, he maintained, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara, without having seen or heard of one or the other; for all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known when we are shown a single link of it.”

From Ch 14: Raven – “Although he was occasionally mistaken for a wild animal by passing shepherds, Benedict’s reputation for sanctity and wisdom eventually became such that he was importuned to descend from his desolate cavern. He established a community of monks at Subiaco; about the year 530, he withdrew from thence to Monte Cassino, near Naples, where he founded the greatest monastery the world has ever known.

As recorded by his hagiographer, St. Gregory, the life of Benedict abounds in miracles. Standing one night, praying by his window, he experienced a vision whereby the whole world seemed to be gathered in one sunbeam, and brought thus before his eyes; for to him who is granted the light of eternity, all things are that light; and therefore every point in the universe can be visited from every other point.

St Benedict’s emblem is a raven.”

Ch 21: Permanent Black: “Van Eyck duplicated with the brush the work of goldsmiths in metal and gems, recapturing that glow which seemed to reflect the radiance of the Divine, the superessential light. For viewed in that eternal light, all things are equal, from the glint of a nail in the wooden floor of a burgher’s house, to the glittering spires of the New Jerusalem.”

sign up!

For the Caribbean Reading Challenge. It’s not until next year, so you have plenty of time to think about it. I hope re-reading counts, because I definitely want to re-read two V.S Naipauls (A House for Mr. Biswas and The Suffrage of Elvira) which I read as a heedless 20-year-old way back when, and ditto for Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, which I remember being blown away by, but not the component parts of that blowing away. Apart from that….?!

This looks like a good place to start.


When I asked Reginald Shepherd if he would participate in one of the Ten Questions series on this blog and he said yes, I felt like the Bandar Log, jumping up and down and going, Bagheera noticed us! Bagheera noticed us! I loved that he responded at all, that he agreed to participate, and that he sent such thoughtful, focused responses. And his courtesy. His emails were so courteous.

(Edit: I knew I was missing a word here, it kept bothering me and just came to me. I think I almost meant “courtly” – as in characterized by gentillesse in Chaucer’s way.)

Thanks for noticing the little people, Reginald Shepherd. And for everything else.

Ten Questions – Reginald Shepherd

skinning a goat

A thoughtful post at Leslie Harrison’s Always Winter defends the poetry contest system.

I agree that participation in one po-biz system or another (poetry contests vs micropress/POD, or whatever) does not constitute evidence of moral depravity or superiority (or moral anything, for that matter) and that each system has a useful role to play in po-biz’s overall bizyness.

What we’re all trying to do is skin a goat, with whatever tools and methods seem best to each of us. Poetry contests are just one goat-skinning option among several available to contemporary poets. As technology and poet demand have developed, those options have become more plentiful and varied, and lots of power to that trend, of course, but I agree with Leslie that knocking one methodology or another is unhelpful to the interests of the poetry community at large. Live and let live; skin and let skin, you know.

PS: Love this timely reminder: “Well, history is going to sort us out, and I can guarantee that whether you were published by a big press or small, or self published or stuck your poems in the rafters of your house, whether you worked as a doctor or lawyer or professor or chambermaid, history will not treat about 99.9% of us well.”

I’d settle for being treated badly by history, but Leslie’s being too kind, I fear — the reality is that history is not going to treat 99.9% of us at all….

Aurora Leigh

Getting started on Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s Aurora Leigh, per my earlier post on verse novels. Although I don’t recall doing so, I must have watched The Barretts of Wimpole Street at some point, because I can’t otherwise explain my complete familiarity with Barret-Browning’s life story and complete absence of familiarity with anything she ever wrote (except for the How do I love thee? sonnet in the vaguest sort of way and backgroundly knowing she wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese).

Just starting out, not quite done with Book I, which details Aurora’s early life — her Italian mother’s death at her age four, her childhood in Italy followed by her father’s death at her age 13, and subsequent transplanting to England and the care of a conventional spinster aunt.  (I love her description of nature a la England vice Italy: All the fields / are tied up fast with hedges, nosegay-like..! So true — it’s the best thing about England!)

Some cool turns of phrase that handily encapsulate things you always knew but never could encapsulate yourself:

I felt a mother-want about the world,
and still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
Left out at night in shutting up the fold -
As restless as a nest-deserted bird
Grown chill through something being away, though what
it knows not.

And this description of that thing that keeps those who must write on their imaginative toes even if they don’t yet know their fate:

I had relations in the Unseen, and drew
The elemental nutriment and heat
From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,
Or a babe sucks surely in the dark

And a couple of items for the Rocking Title for Novels file:

- A Doubt for Cloudy Seasons
– Dreamers After Dark

Nine books in blank verse. I suppose a key question might be — what does verse bring to this that prose would not have (or vice versa)? No idea yet.

The Essbaum-Sebastian Nanopress

First, there are some hugely generous poets in the blogosphere, and that in itself is enough to make a singing day and a great blog post. But there’s more: those poets are also willing to put themselves out to try something new, and I don’t just mean in their writing, but also where po-biz procedures and process and ways and means are concerned.

And surely poetry and the po-biz need just that, on a regular basis – something new.

So three millions cheers and applause well past the middle of next week for you guys. You know who you are.

Second, following my general appeal last week, so generously amplified by Reb Livingston, my manuscript in search of an editor (not a publisher) struck gold.

Jill Alexander Essbaum has agreed to edit it for me!!!

I’m still totally walking around in a daze at my good fortune. As everyone knows (or should know), Jill is the author of Harlot (published by NoTell Books), a Best American Poetry contributor and a total genius at fusing sex and religion in her poetry. She was asked (by Reb) in this interview: Christian spirituality and hot steamy sex. Explain how these two great tastes go together. Check out Jill’s response. Also check out her No Tell Motel poem series (there are ten of them — my favorite is definitely Judas Hausfrau). Jill is also currently the featured poet at Steve Schroeder’s  Anti-.

I mean, am I lucky, or what!

On a practical level, this is what we have agreed so far (jump in if I miss anything, Jill):

  • Assuming everything works out as we hope, the publication will cite both our names – Poems by Nic Sebastian; edited by Jill Alexander Essbaum.
  • Jill will focus on editing and I will focus on all the leg/foot-work associated with publishing – design, publication, marketing, etc. using a POD service, probably Lulu.
  • This will be a non-profit venture — the printed version will be available at cost from the POD service, and as a free PDF download.

Next steps: At the moment I’m steeped in overhauling the manuscript and will get it to Jill over the next few days. And now I know I’m getting it ready for a real actual person I know who is a real actual serious poet I’m having second thoughts by the mega-bushel and am all what the hell was I thinking, she’s going to hate it, I’ll be exposed as a loser fake ersatz-poet and all these poems suck, suck, suck!

But I’d better stop bleating and end by thanking Jill – and those heroic others who also offered to help – a great, great thanking. As I said, those offers in themselves are enough to make a singing day and a great blog post, never mind the rest of it. Bless you all.

Bad-ass Bible women: Jael and Judith

Judges 4:18 “And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.”

Judges 4:21 “Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.”

Judges 5:24-27
“Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent.

He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.

She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.

At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead.”

The Book of Judith is deuterocanonical, so not in all versions of the Bible. Here’s the Wikipedia version, which tells of:

“…Judith, a daring and beautiful widow,who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for being unwilling to engage their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, to whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, she remains unmarried for the rest of her life.”

Not surprisingly, there have been plenty of artists’ rendering of Jael/Sisera and Judith/Holofernes over the centuries.  Jael/Sisera images and Judith/Holofernes images, courtesy of Google search. Here Gentileschi’s takes, Judith on top and Jael below:

I could explain why I’m thinking of bad-ass Bible women, but it’s a long story.

To save in the Rocking Ideas for Book Titles file: Butter in a Lordly Dish