Think Good Thoughts

Now that we have elected a frightening man-baby to become the 45th President of the United States, many commentators have observed that we are entering “uncharted territory.”

But that’s not true at all.

The territory has already been charted, in an episode of Twilight Zone titled “It’s a Good Life.”

In this episode, all that is left of earth is the tiny town of Peaksville, Ohio. The rest of the world has been destroyed by a six-year old child, Anthony Freemont, who has unlimited mental powers. Anthony is pure, uncontrolled id, and he can create and destroy at will, though he mostly enjoys destroying. He can read minds, too, so you better think good thoughts. He terrorizes the few remaining adults in the world, including his mother and father. The only frail hope of reining him in is to praise whatever latest monstrous deed he has committed. “It’s good what you did, Anthony, real good,” is the episode’s common, fearful, fawning refrain.

Billy Mumy, the orange-haired (I kid you not) child actor, gives a chilling, memorable performance.


The episode first aired in November of 1961, and here are some of the highlights:

Already, the man-baby who will be president is sending out dead-of-the-night angry tweets about the New York Times and its election coverage. He has no respect for or understanding of the First Amendment, and that’s certainly just one small example of his vast store of ignorance. And as for his seemingly bottomless anger issues, two days before the election he actually threw out of one of his rallies a wheelchair-bound boy with cerebral palsy who had the temerity of raising a Hillary sign.

Remember, until January 20th, he’s still a private citizen. What will this man-baby do or say once he takes hold of the vast powers of the presidency? I can already imagine his aides tip-toeing around him, saying as gently as possible, “It’s good what you did, Mr. President, real good.”

“It’s a Good Life” is a deeply unsettling episode under any circumstances, but in light of the 70-year old monster-child who will soon be the most powerful human on earth, it’s almost unbearable to watch, a Coming Attractions for the worst possible nightmare of our future. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that our future “leader” doesn’t have super powers, and he can’t read minds.

If you can bear it, here’s the entire episode.

“It’s a Good Life” isn’t the only prescient warning from our past. In 1998, the great Octavia E. Butler published The Parable of the Talents, which imagined the end of the United States. In the beginning of the novel one of the main characters, Taylor Franklin Bankole, says,

“I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as “the Apocalypse” or more commonly, more bitterly, “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.

“I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused those problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. I have heard people deny this, but I was born in 1970. I have seen enough to know that it is true. I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.”

By the way, the fictional and authoritarian American president of this novel has his own motto: Make American Great Again.

Again, I kid you not.


The literary critic Gerry Canavan offers an excellent overview of Butler’s book here.

So, only a TV show, only a novel?

Think good thoughts.

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November 17th, 2016 by admin

The Country We Want Our Country To Be

I don’t write much about politics directly on this website, probably because I assume my liberal sensibility pervades much of what I offer here about the art of writing and literature anyway.

Today will be different. After this long and monstrous election cycle and its unspeakably monstrous result, I feel flattened, and I know so many others who feel the same way. And so I offer “Parable,” a prose poem by the great Wislawa Szymborska (winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature):

Some fishermen pulled a bottle from the deep. It held a piece
of paper, with these words: “Somebody save me! I’m here. The
ocean cast me on this desert island. I am standing on the shore
waiting for help. Hurry! I’m here!”

“There’s no date. I bet it’s already too late anyway. It could
have been floating for years,” the first fisherman said.

“And he doesn’t say where. It’s not even clear which ocean,”
the second fisherman said.

“It’s not too late, or too far. The island Here is everywhere,”
the third fisherman said.

They all felt awkward. No one spoke. That’s how it goes with
universal truths.


So Here many of us are, crushed. Time to get up. Time to get angry and stay determined. I’m inspired by my daughter, Hannah, who yesterday walked out of her college literature class because her professor wouldn’t let the shell-shocked students speak at all about the election, or even take a short break to see Hillary’s concession speech (the class subject of the day was: Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady; what a missed teaching opportunity that was). Brave young woman! Later in the day she took part in a giant protest march in NYC from Union Square to Trump Tower.

The Obama years are over, unfortunately, and what is coming will look nothing like them. Yes, we are all separate souls, all in need of individual help, but we are also Here together, not alone at all, not distant, not lost, and it’s time, yet again, to stand up for the country we want our country to be.


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November 10th, 2016 by admin

The Difference Between an Artist and a Performer

What makes some art memorable, and other art merely pleasurable? It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot during my career as a writer and reader, teacher and editor, and much more so now this past year, when my wife Alma and I have moved from Illinois to Rhode Island, as part of the reshaping of our lives that is called retirement but that we prefer to redefine as rewirement. As part of the move I had to cull my professional library, contained in both a home and university office. Over the course of nearly a year, I kept chipping away at my book collection, filling bag after bag for donations to our local public library. I must have shed 60% of the books that had found their way to me for over forty years.

And now I sit in my new and cozy home office, surrounded by my favorite books, the ones I loved when reading them and still love when remembering them. And then there are the books I haven’t yet read, but brought along because I can’t wait to delve into them, now that I have the time. These shelves in my new office feel more personal than any others in my life.


But how did I know which books to bring and which to leave behind? Was it simply personal preference, choice by choice by choice, or was some principle involved, even if only intuited?

One way to answer this question is to take a different, though related tack: my CD collection. I love music, of all kinds, and have always possessed an oversized collection (I have a lot of music downloads too—yay, Bandcamp!—but that’s another issue). Here too, I had to cull, and now in the living room and sun room are shelves filled with my favorite music.

One decision was easy: the music of John Martyn. A British folk/blues/rock/jazz master, Martyn produced consistently excellent records, from 1967 until his death in 2009. He was a brilliant and often tortured soul, capable of expressing deep passion unusual for popular music, yet he was equally adept at writing and performing songs of sweet, even transcendent beauty.


The essence of why all of Martyn’s albums made the cut, however, boils down to one song: “Lookin’ On.” It’s from Grace and Danger, released in 1980, an album that recounts the breakup of his marriage to the folksinger Beverly Kuttner, arguably the love of his life.

The first stanza of the lyrics of “Lookin’ On” sets the scene: a post-coital moment, two lovers lying on their backs in bed, but all is not right:

What kind of love is this
Concealed behind your kiss
What kind of love would try
Behind a silent cry
To come stealing in, with an innocent grin
To leave you staring
At the empty ceiling, feeling nothing
Lookin’ on
I’m just lookin’ on.

The song develops this portrait of physical intimacy no longer able to sustain emotional intimacy. It’s deeply sad, and the combination of electric piano and acoustic guitar, layering minor chords, perfectly echoes the lyrics.

But it’s a ferocious and disturbing rock ‘n’ roll version of “Lookin’ On,” recorded live in 1983 at The Bottom Line in New York, that turns this artful song into something remarkable. It’s clear from the performance that Martyn still hasn’t moved on from the hurt of the breakup. As he sings the angry fatalistic lyric “I’m just lookin’ on,” he improvises a verbal riff not present in the original version of the song, words that underline his deep ambivalence. “I’m just lookin’ on” becomes “I can’t look at you anymore, I can’t stop looking at you, I don’t want to watch you anymore, don’t make me watch you” and so on in helpless rage, until finally he’s whispering into the microphone his reluctant resignation. Martyn isn’t singing only to the audience at The Bottom Line, he’s singing to his absent ex-wife, revealing his conflicted feelings, how hard it is to let her go. She might as well be in the room and the audience is simply eavesdropping.

And here, I think, is the difference between an artist and a performer. A mere performer sings directly to the audience, the relationship resembles a straight line. The performer is A, the audience is B. Very direct, nothing complicated about it.


But an artist does something different, creates not a line but a triangle. In Martyn’s case, he is singing to his absent ex-wife. He is A, and she is B, and the audience is C.


Only the audience can physically hear him, of course. She isn’t there. And yet, in a way she is, she’s the reason for the song being sung, the message of his still conflicted feelings is for her. The fact that she’s not there to receive this message is another part of the drama that the audience overhears.

A triangle is richer than a single line. That’s the art the best writers (and artists and musicians) strive for. Perhaps art needs to speak to someone, to an actual someone whether present or absent, alive or dead, a someone in an artist’s life who has fueled the need for art making. In the case of writers, an abstract readership is a dull target. Readers, I believe, are most drawn to work that wasn’t written for them and yet still speaks to them. We long, whether we know it or not, to be the C in the A, B and C of an invisible triangle, we want a more complex geometry in art than a simple straight line. We want to eavesdrop on a drama, not to be merely told about it. Whomever James Baldwin, Dostoevsky, José Saramago, Flannery O’Connor or Wistawa Szymborska is speaking to, I want to listen.

And that, I think, must have been the guiding principle in my decisions of what to keep, and which of my books to let go of (often reluctantly), in preparing for a cross-country move. And now my shelves are filled with books and CDs that are secret triangles, waiting for me to take my place in their equation.

There is no video of the John Martyn performance I describe above, unfortunately, but this video of a performance of “Lookin’ On” from 1985 comes close.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also include a video of one of Martyn’s most graceful songs, “Small Hours,” from a 1978 performance. A single voice, a single guitar multiplied by an echoplex tape delay that is manipulated by his foot, and a gentle and timeless sonic world is created.

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September 15th, 2016 by admin

Between Before and After

I’ve recently returned from a month-long trip to Europe—first Oxford (to visit our daughter, who’s studying art history at the university there for her junior year abroad), then London (to give a reading at University College London), and then to Hungary, to explore a city—Budapest—that my wife and I had never been to before. Before the First World War, Budapest was then a capital of one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two parts of this beautiful city—Buda and Pest—are divided by the Danube River, and are joined by a series of magnificent bridges and by tragic history.

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Just before arriving in Budapest and also while exploring there, I read two works of Hungarian literature, both first-rate in their own different ways: The Door, a novel by Magda Szabo, and The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, by the artist Béla Zombory-Moldován.

Different—novel, memoir—and yet united in their stunning opening pages. Each engenders in a reader an unsettling dread that at the same time piques curiosity.

In the case of The Burning of the World, the dread begins with the introduction of the translator, Peter Zombory-Moldován (a grandson of the author). He begins by describing a photo (a partial version of which serves as the book’s cover) that was taken of his grandfather vacationing with friends at an Adriatic beach resort:

“The beach is at Novi Vinodolksi, on the Adriatic. The confident man of twenty-nine sitting at the bottom of the photograph is my grandfather Béla Zombory-Moldován, a young artist oblivious to the fact that his carefree holiday is about to be cut short. In three days his country, Austria-Hungary, will be at war. A week from now he will be in uniform, and in just over a month he will be a thousand kilometers away, watching in horror as his comrades are torn apart by Russian artillery in the forests of Galicia.”

The Burning of the World

The translator/grandson continues:

“Béla’s birthplace, on April 20, 1885, was the small and ancient city of Munkács, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It lay in the east of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria and holy apostolic king of Hungary.

“The Carpathians are still there. All the rest is gone.”

When the memoir proper begins, we soon see Béla receiving word of the declaration of war and the announcement that he has been called up to serve in the military. The reader knows that terrible, terrible events will soon follow, but can also assume that Béla will somehow survive them in order to write his memoir. So how can a reader with an ounce of curiosity not turn the page?

Magda Szabo’s novel The Door is set many decades later in the 20th century, after all that hadn’t yet been lost in Zombory-Moldován’s memoir has been lost, and a dreary post-World War II Soviet-puppet government in Hungary has settled in place. But politics and history are mostly vague presences in this novel.

The Door

It begins with a dream.

“I seldom dream. When I do, I wake up with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night’s spell. As a child and a young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors of my past, all the more dismaying because, compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.

“My dreams are always the same, down to the finest detail, a vision that returns again and again. In this never-changing dream I am standing in our entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, facing the steel frame and reinforced shatterproof window of the outer door, and I am struggling to turn the lock. Outside in the street is an ambulance. Through the glass I can make out the shimmering silhouettes of the paramedics, distorted to unnatural size, their swollen faces haloed like moons. The key turns, but my efforts are in vain: I cannot open the door. But I must let the rescuers in, or they’ll be too late to save my patient. The lock refuses to budge, the door remains solid, as if welded to its steel frame. I shout for help, but none of the residents of our three-story building responds; and they cannot because—I am suddenly aware—I’m mouthing vacantly, like a fish, and the horror of the dream reaches new depths as I realize that not only am I unable to open the door to the rescuers but I have also lost the power of speech.”

The narrator goes on to confess that this dream is a vivid though distorted return to the past and a door she once did open, and should never have. The novel then goes back in time, and who she betrayed, and how, and why, slowly unfurls. The reader, filled with terrible knowledge of a predicted doom, understands more than any of the characters–including the self-justifying narrator–and yet the pages turn, in this case for, I think, two reasons. One, the nature of that inevitable and yet unplanned betrayal isn’t clear until it finally occurs, and two, the reader comes to care so much about the two main characters that he/she continues reading with the frail, foolish and yet utterly human hope that what will happen will somehow be averted.

Why does the fuel of conflicted emotion drive us forward?

When I read the first page of Zombory-Moldován’s memoir, I found the description of his friends at the resort, who cannot see the future awaiting them, nearly unbearable to read, and yet I kept returning to and rereading the passage:

“The usual group of us had gone on an outing to Bribir. Knoll, who was a county magistrate, had planned the itinerary . . . Judge Kriegl’s two daughters were lively young women, and easy company. Antal Hajnal, from the Franklin publishing house, was there; his factotum, Jankoviusz, flirted outrageously with one of the Kriegl girls. There was much eating and drinking of vino nero, and almost childlike high spirits . . .”

And soon, all to be altered! I couldn’t help being reminded that everyone has some sort of life-altering event, whether caused by an unexpected historical crisis or a family drama, that scorches the past into an eternal before. Though Zombory-Moldován’s memoir takes place over a century ago, and in a country far from my experience until my visit, it haunts because we are all haunted by at least one border between before and after.

The narrator of The Door is haunted by a similar border: a door remains closed, that door is opened, and all is changed. And no manner of regret will undo what was done. And no reader is a stranger to that regret, however personal and secret his or hers might be. Thus does the “local” of a book expand to the “global” of the memories of every potential reader. The best books give us the guise of ourselves, their time and place become our own, as we relive what has been irrevocably lived.

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January 11th, 2016 by admin

A Writing Residency on Steroids

In just a few days, I’ll be flying off for a month in China, to take part in Sun Yat-sen University’s first International Writers’ Residency. I’ve been preparing for months, reading book after book of Chinese fiction, and nonfiction books on Chinese history and culture. This residency will be the first of its kind in contemporary China, and will be a gathering of fourteen writers and two documentary filmmakers, hailing from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Egypt, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada, China and the U.S.

I couldn’t be more excited, especially since I’ve also been reading extraordinary work by some of my fellow residency participants: so far, the poetry of George Szirtes and Ricardo de Ungria, the fiction of Khaled Khamissi and Madeleine Thien, and the nonfiction of Patricia Foster and Lieve Joris. I’m looking forward to discovering the work of the other writers as well.

This residency is sponsored by the Creative Writing in English program at Sun Yat-sen University (the only such program in mainland China), in the city of Guangzhou. My many thanks to Dai Fan, the program’s director, for the invitation!

Screen Shot Sun Yat-sen

We won’t be spending that much time in Guangzhou, though. Most of the residency’s month will be devoted to giving us all a place to write in two idyllic settings. First, we’ll be ensconced for two weeks in the almost fairy tale-like landscape of the karst mountains of Yangshuo.

Screen Shot Yangshuo

After that, we’ll spend nine days near the hot springs of Jiangmen for more writing time. Basically, this international residency will be like a McDowell Artists’ Colony residency on steroids.

Screen Shot  Jiangmen

Besides all this writing time (I’ll be wrapping up the last nagging revisions of my novel, Invisible Country), we’ll also spend a few days of our residency by each giving a reading, a lecture, and leading a short writing workshop. We’ll meet with Chinese writers, and with translators who will be reading through our work with an eye toward translating it into Chinese. My head spins. Bless the Writing Gods who sent this adventure my way.


I’m back! Curious how this residency played out? You can find out here.

And here you can find a Ninth Letter special web issue featuring the work of all my fellow residency writers, “Opening the River Up to the Sky,” which I had the great pleasure of curating and editing.

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October 12th, 2015 by admin

More Quiet Than You Can Imagine

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As I mentioned in my last post, in the mid to late-1970s I was a bit of an itinerant creative writing teacher. I worked for the Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program and traveled from school district to school district, teaching creative writing to elementary, middle, and high school students.

I also held teaching and writing residencies during the summers at the Richmond Humanities Center, and Norfolk’s Center Theater. I was so busy that I actually managed to make something approaching a living. For the Norfolk Theater, I taught adult classes, nursing home residents and inmates at the Norfolk jail. I also wrote a few longish prose poems that the theater’s resident dance troupe would perform (these pieces, “Silence,” “Shadow,” and “The Distance,” eventually made their way into my short story collection, The Art of the Knock).

The classes at the nursing home didn’t start out too well. I made the mistake of using some of the exercises I’d honed in my teaching to middle and high school students, like the “verbal dueling” form I discussed in my previous post. There I stood, a twenty-something young man enthusiastically pitching magical transformations to a group of elderly people. One man grumbled that this was “kid stuff,” and everyone else in the room nodded in agreement.

What to do?

I knew that the poet Kenneth Koch had written a book about teaching writing in a nursing home, I Never Told Anybody, and I belatedly searched out a copy, in the hopes that I could redeem myself in the next class meeting, only a week away. Finally paging through the book, I came upon a section titled “Quiet,” and I thought I’d give this a try. Old people liked quiet, right?

Today, in my last few hours as a 63 year old (I’m on the cusp of being the subject of a Beatles song!), I think, Quiet? Anything but!

And sure enough, the initial reaction to the Quiet assignment wasn’t promising. Luckily, a single line in one of the examples Koch gave from one of his nursing home students stood out:

The quietest time I ever remember in my life
Was when they took off my leg.

Here was a quiet that had nothing to do with a peaceful sunset. This memory had some teeth in it. And only then did my elderly students dig in. I wish I could find the examples of their writing now, but apparently they’ve been lost in one of too many moves in the past. But I do remember one poem that spoke of a man’s nearly drowning, seeing the bubbles of his breath reaching up to the water’s surface that he couldn’t yet reach. It was a powerful moment, a perfect blend of quiet and drama. And it opened up a host of varied memories in the other students, because quiet, as it turned out, has many different flavors.

I’d managed to salvage that class, so I wondered if this exercise might transfer to different types of students. I was also leading a writing workshop with prisoners at the Norfolk City Jail.

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I decided to give it a try and discovered another kind of quiet, in this unsettling student poem:

The quietest moment that I can remember
was when I first arrived in Vietnam
and stepped from inside the plane. It seemed
as though all the bombing stopped, and the
killing ceased, the workers who were building
the remaining parts of the airstrip stopped their
work. It seemed as though someone dropped
a needle among the haystack of dead bodies
and I heard it as it fell through the air.

–Ellery P.,
Norfolk City Jail

This writing exercise soon developed legs. Even young people, of course, host powerful memories (Flannery O’Connor would certainly agree), so the following fall I brought my inmate and nursing home students’ examples to the high schools I traveled to.

It was 2:17 in the morning
when the next door neighbor
had a stroke.
My mother went over there—
there was no sound
of their watchdog barking
because of her entrance in the yard.
She forced open the back door and
the watchdog was silently
lying in the corner.

–Laura Travis
Manchester High School, Virginia

What impresses me most about this poem is that it isn’t the student’s own memory, but a story that had been told to her by her mother. And yet it seems remembered, the image of the normally threatening guard dog transformed into a quiet, mourning pet becoming the writer’s own.

I discovered that there was nearly no end to the types of quiet that could be conjured from memory, as in this poem of temporary quiet and its jarring end:

The quietest moment I can remember is when I fell off a roof.
The moment my foot left it all time slowed down then stopped.
I was floating down to the ground, all was quiet.
When I hit the ground the peace was broken like a glass.

–André Baskins
Matoaca High School, Virginia

And this last poem achingly combines external joy with internal sadness:

When I was small, I became very sick.
I had to stay home from school and couldn’t see any of my friends.
As I looked out my window, I saw all the other kids in my neighborhood,
next door playing a game I liked.
They were all yelling and making a lot of noise.
They were having fun.
But from up in my window, looking down upon this scene, inside I felt
very quiet.

–Kim Hawkins,
Charlottesville High School, Virginia

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Those early teaching days of mine certainly focused my respect for the art of pedagogy, and above all for its unpredictable discoveries. My idea of “quiet” until then had been fairly ordinary—soothing silence, mostly. But my students taught me more than I taught them. They gave me something to take out of the classroom: a sense that the world offered layer upon unsuspected layer, if one only chose to look or listen.

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August 25th, 2015 by admin

The Art of Verbal Dueling

Writing about African dilemma tales in my last post reminded me of another form of African oral literature that I’m a fan of: verbal dueling. It’s an improvised performance, whereby two opponents try to best each other by their wit and quick thinking. It’s a practice that continues in African-American culture, known as the dozens, or freestyle, or a rapper’s boast.

I was also reminded that I used to teach the original African version back in the mid- to late 1970s, when I freelanced in Virginia’s Poets-in-the Schools (PITS) program (back in the day, I considered myself a prose poet, and my first book, The Vanishings, is a collection of those early efforts).

In the PITS program, I would visit a school for a week or two and offer writing workshops for selected classes of students. And when that residency was over, I’d head off to another school in another district. I was always the stranger (I liked to think of myself as the Lone Ranger of Poetry), and I had to prove myself anew with my first arrival in the first classroom of the latest school (which might be either an elementary, middle or high school).

Out of necessity I had to come up with a sure-fire opening assignment if I wasn’t going to founder for the rest of the residency, and a little experimentation finally led me to give African verbal dueling a try. I started by reading to the students a section from Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali.


This is a grand epic of the founding of the Malian Empire in the 13th century by Sundiata Keita, an empire that at its height extended through most of West Africa (roughly equivalent to the continental United States).


Since the 13th century this epic has been memorized and then told and transmitted by generations of griots, a traditional class of storytellers who are considered to be “walking libraries.” One such griot, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, recited the epic to D.T. Niane, who wrote it down and published Kouyaté’s version in 1965.

The section I read to the students came from a tense moment, filled with magic, before the great battle of Krina, where Sundiata defeated a king who was oppressing the Malian people:

Soumaoro advanced as far as Krina, near the village of Dayala on the Niger River and decided to assert his rights before joining battle. Soumaoro knew that Sundiata also was a sorcerer, so, instead of sending an embassy, he committed his words to one of his owls. The night bird came and perched on the roof of Sundiata’s tent and spoke. The son of Sologon in his turn sent his owl to Soumaoro. Here is the dialogue of the sorcerer kings.

“Stop, young man. Henceforth I am the king of Mali. If you want peace, return to where you came from,” said Soumaoro.

“I am coming back, Soumaoro, to recapture my kingdom. If you want peace you will make amends to my allies and return to Sosso where you are the king.”

“I am the king of Mali by force of arms. My rights have been established by conquest.”

“Then I will take Mali from you by force of arms and chase you from my kingdom.”

“Know, then, that I am the wild yam of the rock; nothing can make me leave Mali.’

Know, also that I have in my camp seven master smiths who will shatter the rocks. Then, yam, I will eat you.”

“I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit.”

“As for me, I am the ravenous cock, the poison does not matter to me.”

“Behave yourself, little boy, or you will burn your foot, for I am the red-hot cinder.”

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“But me, I am the rain that extinguishes the cinder; I am the boisterous torrent that will carry you off.”

“I am the mighty silk-cotton tree that looks from on high on the tops of other trees.”

“And I, I am the strangling creeper that climbs to the top of the forest giant.”

“Enough of this argument. You shall not have Mali.”

(from Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali)

As I observed to my students, Soumaoro, unable to best Sundiata verbally, breaks off the challenge, and this is a presage of his defeat by arms on the battlefield the following day. Words matter.

Plus, love those owls.

The second example came from a novel by the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.


If you haven’t read this novel but the title sounds a little familiar, it may be because it was borrowed for the title of an album by Brian Eno and David Byrne that marked an early crossover of electronic, ambient and sampled world music (Tutuola has always been very cool; one of his earliest literary admirers was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas).

Tutuola, who published his work from the 1950s through to the 1980s, was a kind of crossover artist himself, who fit fantastical African folktales into novels of exploration and journey. He also combined the poetry of his rough-and-ready English with hints of the phrasing of his first language, Yoruba.


In Tutuola’s novel, a young man manages to escape a raiding party on his village by hiding in a clump of bushes. What he doesn’t know is that these bushes mark an entrance to the Bush of Ghosts, where the dead live. He is soon lost in this otherwise invisible realm, and along the way of his twenty-year journey to return home, he develops spiritual powers, which he absolutely needs when confronted by a greedy ghost magician:

Having left this village to a distance of a mile this ghost magician came to me on the way, he asked me to let both of us share the gifts, but when I refused he changed into a poisonous snake, he wanted to bite me to death, so I myself used my magical power and changed to a long stick at the same moment and started to beat him repeatedly. When he felt much pain and near to die, then he changed from a snake to a great fire and burnt this stick to ashes, after that he started to burn me, too. Without hesitation I myself changed to rain, so I quenched him at once. Again he controlled the place that I stood to become a deep well in which I found myself unexpectedly, and without any ado he controlled this rain to be raining into the well while I was inside. Within a second the well was full with water. But when he wanted to close the door of the well so that I might not be able to come out again or to die inside it, I myself changed to a big fish to swim out. But at the same moment he saw the fish he himself changed to a crocodile, he jumped into the well and came to swallow me, but before he could I changed to a bird and also changed the gifts to a single palm fruit, I held it with my beak and then flew out of the well straight to the 18th town of ghosts. Without any ado he changed himself to a hawk to kill me as his prey.

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But when I believed that no doubt he would catch me very soon, then I changed again, to the air, and blew within a second to a distance which a person could not travel on foot for thirty years. But when I changed to my former form at the end of this distance, to my surprise, there I met him already, he had reached there before me and was waiting for me for a long time.

(from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts)

Once I read these two selections to the students, I then asked them to pair up and write their own verbal dueling. As I came to expect, this request was never greeted with groans or protests. Instead, the kids grabbed pencils, paper and partners and had at it. Once they got started, I’d walk around the classroom and read aloud from brief examples of what some of the students were writing, and this seemed to further inspire the rest. After about twenty minutes, it was hard to get them to stop, and when I announced that they could now read theirs out loud to the rest of the class, hands waved wildly to be the first picked.

I’m the mightiest wave in the ocean
But I’m the strongest pier on the beach and I’ll break you up
So? I’m the heaviest ship and I’ll run into you
I’m a coral reef and you’ll run into me and wreck
But I’m a great diver and I will survive
I’m a shark and I’ll get you anyway
I’m a dolphin and I can protect myself from you
Well, I’m the undertow and I’ll carry you to land
I’m a shell and I want to go to the shore
Well, I’m a dune buggy and I’ll crush you to pieces
So, I’m a nail and I’ll blow your tire out
But now I’m the mightiest wave in the ocean and I’ll carry you out to sea
I’m a seagull and I’ll fly away
So, I’m a huge butterfly net and I’ll trap you

(Linda Barbour and Kim Slayton, Manchester High School, Virginia, 1979)

I am the highest balloon in the air
I am an arrow and I will puncture you
So? I am a metal wall that you will run into and then you will be bent
I am a hot fire that will melt you
I am sand that will be dumped on top of you
I am the ocean and I will wash you away
I am the sun and I will evaporate you
So? I will be time and I will burn you out
So I will be a clock and turn you back
I will be your burned out battery
I will be a charger to recharge you
I will be the electricity that shorts your circuits
So I will be the circuit breaker that trips you back on
I will be the storm that cuts you off completely
So I will be the place after the storm

(Ann Wampler and Melissa Robertson, Manchester High School, Virginia, 1979)

It took me a while to fully figure out why this first writing assignment turned out to be so successful. The first reason, I think, is that the Sundiata and Tutuola examples are so exciting that they banish any lingering doubts the students might have that poetry or writing is a boring exercise. Then when I asked them to write their own versions, they all had the cover of a partner, and the welcoming ease of a readymade structure, and so didn’t balk about writing in class, or reading their work aloud. A verbal battle, after all, might have to be written down first, but it’s best when performed. Also, they had the opportunity to let out a little aggression, accompanied by the safety (and frustration!) of knowing that no matter what kind of a fix they might put their partner in, escape was always inevitable. And they learned a little about the power, and limits, of the imagination, as well as the insinuating pleasures of metaphor.

I had another agenda, too. There I was, a transplanted New Yorker teaching in a Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program in the late 1970s, and I was quite aware of racial politics. Most of the kids chosen in advance for my various classes were white, though there was always a handful of black students chosen as well. I had a pretty good feeling that none of the kids, black or white, had ever heard of or been taught that there was any such thing as African literature. Time to set the record straight, give the black kids something to brag about, and give the white kids something to think about. And, I realized, why stop there? In future classes I’d be reading to them not only contemporary American poetry, but also Asian proverbs, African praise poems, poetry from Cuba and Turkey, whatever I suspected they weren’t getting in their regular classes.

I’d nearly forgotten about those long ago years, and all that itinerant teaching I did. It was a training ground that gave me a love of teaching that has stayed with me ever since, a love that has also nurtured my writing—perhaps something I’ll write about in a future post.

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June 3rd, 2015 by admin

If This Thing Came to You, What Would You Choose?

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many ways to reinvent the endgame of a story, and one of my favorite examples is a form of African oral literature called Dilemma Tales.

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These sorts of tales are truly “oral” literature, and don’t necessarily travel well to the page, outside the event of their telling. That’s because the greatest energy of dilemma tales comes from an audience’s response to the story, which poses some moral or narrative conundrum, one that can be answered by anyone listening. In small villages, African folk tales are often told in a group setting, at night, with people of all ages sitting and listening by fire or lamplight. With a dilemma tale, they get to participate. As the folklorist William Bascom writes, because such narratives “leave the listeners with a choice between alternatives,” they “evoke spirited discussions, and they train those who participate in the skills of debate and argumentation.”

Here’s an eerie dilemma tale from the Bura people of Nigeria, “The Leftover Eye”:

“Pay heed to this tale. It is a tale of things that have never happened. But we will suppose these things did happen for certainly such things are possible.

“This is a tale of a man who was blind. His mother, too, was blind. His wife and his wife’s mother were also blind. They dwelt together in a wretched condition; their farm was poor and their home was badly built. They consulted together and decided to go away. They would journey until they came to some place where their lot would be better.

“They set out and traveled along the road. As they walked, the man stumbled over something. He picked it up and felt it, and then knew that he had come upon seven eyes. He immediately gave two eyes to his wife, and then took two for himself. Of the three eyes remaining to him, he gave one to his mother and another to his wife’s mother. He was left with one eye in his hand. Kai, this was a startling thing. Here was his mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. There was his wife’s mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. To whom should he give the leftover eye?

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“If he gives the eye to his mother he will forever be ashamed before his wife and her mother. If he gives it to his wife’s mother, he will fear the angry and disappointed heart of his own mother. A mother, know you, is not something to be played with.

“This is difficult indeed. There is the sweetness of his wife. She is good and loving. How can he hurt her? Yet his mother, too, is a good mother and loving. Can he thus injure her? Which would be easier, and which would be the right way to do this thing?

“If this thing would come to you, which would you choose?”

Some tough choices here. I often teach this story to my undergraduate fiction students, when we’re discussing story structure and story endings. I throw that last line at them and ask them to respond. There are always inventive suggestions, but what quickly becomes clear is how hard it is to resolve the story in any neat way. The two mothers, for example could simply share the extra eye, each week one of them fully sighted, the other not. But is this really a solution, especially when the older women fall into vicious fights when the time for the switch arrives?

Or what if the husband takes out one of his eyes, so each mother could then have two eyes? How respectful and self-sacrificing of him! Problem solved, right? But then, with his one eye he notices the looks of pity his mother and mother-in-law begin to direct his way, and worse, he sees the lingering glances his wife bestows on passing two-eyed men . . .

This is what I love about dilemma tales, aside from the raucous fun of listeners challenging each other’s choices: they make it clear that narratives don’t like to be so easily tucked into bed and instead much prefer kicking off the sheets and throwing some pillows. Every ending has lurking within it a “but then,” or “what if” or “even though.”

Good to remember, that any fictional ending really is a stage set for further, though unwritten, possibilities. Just like our messy, unpredictable lives.


“The Leftover Eye,” can be found in African Myths & Tales, edited by Susan Feldmann.

The quotes from William Bascom are from his article “African Dilemma Tales: an Introduction,” in African Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson.

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May 24th, 2015 by admin

Choose Your Own Ending

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction books about China these days, and Chinese fiction, because I was invited recently to Sun Yat-sen University’s inaugural International Writer’s Residency, which will convene this fall with a 28-day program that will include readings and workshops, but mostly three weeks of extended time for “reflection and writing.” This last part will take place in Yangshuo, as idyllic a spot on the planet as I’ve ever seen.

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Whenever the anticipation of travel kicks in, I turn to books—history and journalism, of course, but especially fiction, all to allow my ignorant eyes the opportunity of opening just a little wider. So many more books to go! I’m especially looking forward to Decoded: A Novel, by Mai Jia; another novel, A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong; and a science-fiction novel by Cixin Lui, The Three-Body Problem.

One of the best books I’ve read so far is Yu Hua’s memoir, China in Ten Words. Yu is the author of the celebrated novel To Live, made into an equally celebrated film. Yu’s memoir is filled with insights into the recent history of China, but the best parts for me are those where he recounts his budding love of reading and writing when he was a child living in an isolated town during China’s Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Even at a young age, Yu had a love of stories, and he’d scour the footnotes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong because they contained “explanatory summaries of historical events and biographical details about historical figures . . . Although there was no emotion to be found in the footnotes, they did have stories, and they did have characters.”

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During the strict fervor of the Cultural Revolution, books of fiction (“poisonous weeds”) were more often burned than read, and yet some did survive. These forbidden books were passed secretly from reader to reader, thousands of readers, and by the time one of them reached Yu, “they were in a terrible state of disrepair, with easily a dozen or more pages missing from the beginning and the same number missing at the end. So I knew neither the books’ titles nor their authors, neither how the stories began nor how they ended.”

An incomplete book was no deterrent to a reader desperate for the internal paths nurtured by narrative, but there was also a cost. “To not know how a story began was not such a hardship,” Yu continues, “but to not know how it ended was a painful deprivation. Every time I read one of these headless, tailless novels I was like an ant on a hot wok, running around everywhere in search of someone who could tell me the ending. But everyone was in the same boat. Such was our experience of reading: our books were constantly losing pages as they passed through the hands of several—or several dozen—readers. It left me disconsolate, mentally cursing those earlier readers who had been able to finish the book but never bothered to stick the pages that had fallen out back in.”

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And then came a moment for Yu when those difficulties no longer mattered, and their frustrations disappeared: “Nobody could help me, so I began to think up endings for myself . . . Every night when I went to bed and turned off the light, my eyes would blink as I entered the world of imagination, creating endings to those stories that stirred me so deeply tears would run down my face. It was, I realize now, good training for things to come, and I owe a debt to those truncated novels for sparking creative tendencies in me.”

This is a wonderful story of deprivation overcome, chronicling as it does the birth of a major writer’s imagination, a young boy lying in the dark and granting himself—as he might never have otherwise—the permission to invent.

Those missing endings that Yu learned to supply for himself could easily be adapted into a writing exercise. This summer I’ll be teaching a short creative writing course, “The Art of Revision,” and I think I’ll pick a short story from the reading assignments and cut out its last page. Then I’ll ask each student to write his or her own version of the missing ending. Comparing notes should be instructive on the multiple ways a story might be ended, how one possibility might be more satisfying than another, or if a definitive resolution suffers in comparison with a more ambiguous ending. I’m thinking here of Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story “A Family Supper,” in which the reader is left uncertain whether or not the patriarch of a family has served his son and daughter a dish of fugu, a fatally poisonous pufferfish.

There are other ways of reinventing the endgame of a story, such as the African oral literature form called a dilemma tale, but I’ll save that for another post.

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March 28th, 2015 by admin

That Hidden Second Story

I’m back on the beat as the fiction editor of Ninth Letter, after a hiatus as the nonfiction editor and as an “editor-at-large” for the magazine’s website. I have to say, it’s good to be back.

Recently we had an editorial meeting about a story that the assistant editors liked enough to “bring to table” –a final meeting in which we make a decision about acceptance or rejection.

The story in question had many strengths, and it was obvious why we were now giving it serious consideration. But something was missing, we all felt this, and instead we decided to write a letter encouraging the author to send us more work, perhaps even try us again with a revision of what we’d just passed on.

So what was missing?

My long-ago writing mentor, the extraordinary fiction writer and poet Grace Paley, might have said that the second story was missing. In workshops, all those years ago when I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, she would often observe that any single short story was really two stories: the one on the page, and the one behind or beneath it that the words on the page pointed to. Discovering this is not easy. To quote Grace Paley again (now from one of her stories), “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”

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So what is this mysterious second story?

I’ll give an example from a short story I recently taught, Ann Beattie’s “The Burning House.” A dinner party is described in a seemingly roundabout, even random manner, gossip is shared, mud is tracked in the house by a dog, dishes are washed, a child’s sleepover is negotiated by phone, a guest arrives late. No house actually burns down. But as the evening and the story proceed, it becomes clear that the family hosting this party is indeed “burning down,” heading toward an inevitable end game, and that the various dinner guests are in the midst of their own invisible flames. The author doesn’t need to overtly point this out for a reader to see the conflagration of the second story that has slowly revealed itself.

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As I tell my students, often a first draft offers little or no sign of that second story. The author might not yet fully suspect what’s hiding behind the plot, what secret motivations are fueling the characters’ complications and the story’s nascent energy. In that first draft (and, sometimes sadly, many more drafts after that!) you’ve made it inside the story you’ll eventually finish, but you’re only in the foyer. It may actually be a nicely decorated foyer, but you don’t want to mistake it for the entire building. If, during revision, you merely concentrate on shifting word choices, honing physical description, even sculpting a scene a bit better, you will keep that story stuck in the entryway. Don’t necessarily try to fix what is already there on the page, try instead to suss out what is waiting to be discovered. For instance, why has a young man become a kind of second son to his boss, and just how strong or fragile is that unspoken fictive kinship?

To quote Grace Paley once more, “You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” In this way, you take your first true steps out of the original conception of your story and you begin to exit the foyer. And just in time, too. There’s a staircase that awaits you, and a hallway that leads you to a closed door.

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What’s on the other side of that door on the first floor? Your main character’s fear, perhaps, of a possible future abandonment in her final years.

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And at the top of the stairs? Another room, where a character dreams a dream so intense he doesn’t know you’ve opened the door and entered.

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But you linger only briefly. There’s so much more, you now realize, to explore elsewhere.


Related posts you might enjoy:
Welcome to a Hidden World
The Hidden Face

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February 12th, 2015 by admin