Tale of Two Treatments

Luis de Góngora y Argote by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Google_Art_Project

Luis de Góngora y Argote by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Google_Art_Project

I once took a poetry writing seminar conducted by a prominent American poet based at the time in Colby College. She was already an eminence in the early stages of her career and has achieved Olympian status since. I lunched with her several times outside class and was both flattered and dazzled by her attention.

When it was my turn to share my poems with the group she dealt unsparingly with them. Her critique was withering. I deserved it. I had been a cocky participant in the sessions, perhaps inflated by imagining that she had been receptive to my extracurricular flirtations. My work was undistinguished. For a long time I kept the copies of those poems that she had marked up as relics of my abandoned aspirations to be a poet.

Years later I had a friend who was also a recognized poet with a solid body of published work to his credit. He received multiple fellowships to teach poetry in public school districts around the state. In my town he solicited poems to be considered for inclusion in an anthology of local versifiers. It was calculated vanity press, but also flattering and vivifying for the community.

I worked in advertising at the time but, encouraged by the poet, provided several old stabs of my own at creating a poem. He saw a glimmering of merit in one. What he did has stayed with me.

He proceeded to carve out the poem, such as it was, that lurked in my draft. He published it in his anthology, crediting me as its author. It was much improved. He didn’t add or rephrase anything, just selected the words that should survive and discarded the rest. It was a nurturing and generous act of editing (and of teaching).

I doubt that what I submitted for the anthology was any better than what I had submitted for the seminar. The difference was in how it was dealt with. One treatment took the wind out of my sails; the other one gave me a puff. Both approaches helped me.

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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Comment on a Comment

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Aatish Taseer

I very much appreciate supportive comments. They encourage me to up my game.

I quoted a paragraph from a remembrance of V.S. Naipaul published by Aatish Taseer in the NYTimes:

Taseer is a writer I had not encountered previously. What struck me in his account was the dynamic it expressed between him and his assassinated father. It had resonances of my relationship with my own father, who died a natural death, but whom I too mourn in a complicated way.

Taseer knew Naipaul personally — calls him his “cruel friend” — and seemed to take comfort from Naipaul’s wry advice: Say your father died in, not for, Pakistan. It implied support for a son’s or daughter’s not feeling obligated to buy unconditionally into glib lionizing of a celebrated parent. Somehow, the Yes, yes, yes! in the anecdote gave, for me, just the tilt needed to support the perverse humor and insight behind Naipaul’s targeted mischief with prepositions.

I have a distinct weakness for humor based on parts of speech.

A quotation should be allowed to speak for itself is my working philosophy. It’s quite possible, though, that a little framing of why it speaks to me would not be amiss sometimes. I’ll think seriously about that.

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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On V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul in 2001, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.Credit Chris Ison Associated Press

V.S. Naipaul in 2001, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.Credit Chris Ison Associated Press

He never looked away. I was with him in Wiltshire soon after my father, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, was assassinated. I had been estranged from my father and was not sure how to mourn him. Mr. Naipaul, with an honesty that released me from guilt, said: “But your father was also your great enemy. So, his death must come with a feeling of relief.” It was something I would not have dared to think, let alone say. That honesty came alongside an immense and dangerous sense of humor. I’d been asked a number of times whether I thought my father had died for Pakistan. I was not sure how to reply. When I asked Mr. Naipaul what he thought, he paused for a moment then said, with a roll of that terrifying unsentimental laughter, “Better to say he died IN Pakistan. Yes, yes, yes. Better to say that.”
(Aatish Taseer, “V.S. Naipaul, My Wonderful, Cruel Friend,” NYTimes, 8-12-18)

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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Proportion

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

The most important word in art is “proportion.” How much? How long is this joke going to be? How many words? How many minutes? And getting that right is what makes it art or what makes it mediocre.
(Jerry Seinfeld, quoted by Dan Amira, “Jerry Seinfeld Says Jokes Are Not Real Life,” NYTimes, 8-15-18)

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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A Curtsy to the Cognoscenti

JMN2016, Puckering, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.

JMN2016, Puckering, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.

The poetry editors of The Atlantic apologized recently for a poem they had accepted and printed. They say the poem “caused harm to members of several communities.” The author, a young white man named Anders Carlson-Wee, adopts the vernacular of a homeless black man in “How-To.” It drew outrage from readers who saw bad things at work in it. “Know your lane!” tweeted another poet. Carlson-Wee himself publicly apologized. I’ve read the poem.

It seems to me that a writer of fiction or poetry should be permitted to inhabit, to voice, and to body forth any persona that’s conceivable by human ingenuity. How much the effort succeeds or fails is another matter, but it’s an esthetic call, and one that may change for better or worse over time. There would be no guarantee against mockery or bad art, of course. Hatred and mediocrity are as endemic to the human condition as viruses are. Yes, Vachel Lindsay is much discredited. I’m not sure how John Berryman’s reputation is holding up. I was reading and admiring his “Dream Songs” when he jumped off the bridge. But it seems reductively censorious to condemn out of hand an artist’s good-faith effort to occupy an imaginative space in another dimension as an act of straying from his or her “lane.” Do such efforts in the best instances tread in the domain of empathy somehow? The heaven I’d like to live in is where invention runs free.

In the purgative, quandary-infested world I do live in, rabid debate and snarkery run free (amplified by prominent voices on Twitter and elsewhere) around issues of race and gender. If it’s verboten to do voices across ethnic lines in writing, is it also damnable on stage and screen? In stand-up? It seems to me there could be potential value lost in popular and high culture if the answer is yes.

And so…, having spilled sententious highmindedness here in defense of artistic license, I still feel conflicted about the legitimacy (or wisdom) of trying to talk in another person’s dialect. I indulged in a hip-hoppish-sounding, tongue-in-cheeky bit of tomfoolery several years ago that makes me wince now. Not to mock but to garner a chuckle. I’ve given much of my life to mastering other tongues, but I’ll never try again to ape another American dialect. There’s trouble enough speaking in one’s own voice. I have a playlist of hip-hop music I enjoy, but I’ll leave the lingo to the cognoscenti and their adepts.

(Reference: Grace Schulman, “The Nation Magazine Betrays a Poet — And Itself,” NYTimes, 8-6-18.)

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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It seems as if…

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

It seems as if I had to divest myself of my own library before I could start reading any of it. The sheer weight of unread books can neutralize a person. I don’t know if I ever told you the story, told me by a young man who had a book business in Ann Arbor, about the poet Gary Snyder, who has delved considerably into Eastern religions, who never has more than one book in his house, which he is currently reading, and who then gives the book away, once read. I was selling, at the time, a number of my books to the fellow in Ann Arbor.
[Correspondence, 1987. Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All riches reserved.]

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Stoicism (I got past the gloom. Happy now. This is about reading, not suicide.)

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

[Domestic strife can cause one to seek comfort in odd places. During a time of gloom and stress I found relief by delving into some writings about the Stoics. I was retail advertising manager for the local newspaper, a highly deadline-driven job of long hours and many responsibilities. The home front offered little respite. In my prior abortive career as a scholar I had been interested in the polymath Spaniard Francisco de Quevedo, a prominent representative of the Stoic school of thought in his day. I wrote my
mother about my reading.]
Another area that I grope toward in my thoughts, in this fortyish second-thought time of life, is Stoicism. I wanted to develop this as a research area when at ***, and actually found some time to read two or three books about it when I was working at the Advocate. Needless to say, I didn’t find the time to do it when I was a professional academic. That reading is largely lost on me now, but the little I recall is that its roots go back to Greece; Seneca is a leading exponent in Roman times; Francisco de Quevedo is an important 17th-century Spanish Stoic; and I think I still have in a box a Xeroxed copy of a work in Latin by an English representative of Stoicism from the 17th or 18th century. What Stoicism is, or was, as a philosophy I can’t even say. There is the popular association of resignation in the face of adversity, but I know it involved much more. I know it sanctioned suicide in certain conditions; I believe Seneca did kill himself.

[Correspondence, 1987. Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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