On The Language. I had forgotten the connections blogging makes perhaps even better than reading.  I had been considering Thomas Wolfe’s distinction between “taker-outers” like Fitzgerald and “putter-inners” like himself since I read McGurl’s The Program Era two years ago.  I wonder if the difference comes down to a philosophy of writing – even to what drives different people to write – or to style alone.

After posting about “taker-outers” and “putter-inners” yesterday, I read Shai Gluskin’s post “Embracing Limitation” in which he describes limitation as one meaning of Gevurah – limitation that starts (and ends) with mortality but also encompasses boundaries set by law and custom.  (Peter, how do you encompass a boundary?)  In a comment that followed the post, Shai admitted that blogging was of the opposite genus (if genera have opposites) – “an expansive, thoroughly creative act.”

Steiner’s expansive language and the expanse Shai speaks of; Hemingway’s artful subtraction (“show, don’t tell”) and the limitation of Gevurah and of mortality – real connections?  I wonder at it.  Surely all of life and literature is a pair of lungs, expanding and contracting, but it solves nothing and circumscribes the wonder to say so.

The language

Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years I last read long ago.  Four Quartets is an exception: I started rereading it a decade ago.  But it’s typical – even a fugleman – of these books in another respect: I didn’t understand it when I read it in college, but I loved it anyway.

I wrote some pretty insightful notes in its margins back then, but I think that came from a professor’s lecture.  Anyway, none of that stayed with me.  What I remember is the language.  I loved it.  It’s what my younger self and I can share when we read it now.

Four Quartet’s thought helped save me from a dark time around age forty.  I never would have picked it back up then, though, if I hadn’t remembered it then like young love.

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Kahn too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch our hands out and gather them in?

(The first stanza of Charles Wright’s “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” the poem I rememorized this year for class when I couldn’t master Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”)

Eliot burned my ears.

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to ornate language.  I mean, look at whom I’ve been rereading: Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Fielding.  Wallace is almost baroque.  Stevens. And Lawrence Sterne, too.  All stuff from high school or college. It’s the sound of it that made me swallow their seeds and kept them inside me for decades, long enough to germinate, long enough for me to have made some sense of it, or – better – for it to have made some sense out of me.  Sound before insight: the thunder before the lightning, in my case.

All of this stress on short sentences (or at least simple ones) and plain language.  I like plain language; I even believe in it, particularly deceptively plain language.  How could I not, given the present age?  But plain words don’t impact me like the winding-road sentences of, say, Tristram Shandy.  I dream recurring dreams of paths leading to bright lands of purple trees and orange sky.  I fall asleep listening to Peter Barker’s reading of Sterne as if to the swoosh-swoosh and universe of my mother’s womb.

The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s delightful, 2009 romp through the last century of American fiction, points out two major approaches to literature, one epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other by Thomas Wolfe in an exchange of letters McGurl summarizes:

Taken up by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and subsequently by a great many of the writers who would be associated with writing programs after the Second World War, the poetics of “show don’t tell” would gradually evolve into a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.  Thus we find Fitzgerald, in an avuncular letter to his fellow Max Perkins protégé, encouraging Wolfe to cultivate “a more conscious artist” in himself, and to consider the aesthetic benefits of subtraction, as in the example of Flaubert, whose greatness is measured as much by what he left out as by what he put in.  Wolfe’s response to Fitzgerald was both churlish and impressively learned; he invoked a parallel tradition in the novel, including works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, produced not by “taker-outers” like Flaubert but by “putter-inners” like himself.  All he could take from Fitzgerald’s advice, he wrote, circling back as always to the primacy of authorial selfhood, was that “you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer than I am.” (99)

(The passage’s main point, for you kids using this post to prep for SAT’s, is how another Max Perkins is as unlikely to show up as another Shakespeare.)

Wolfe is always out of favor; he almost was from the start.  But as I’m looking homeward, myself, I might reread him, too.  (My grandmother gave me Look Homeward, Angel to help me cope with my adolescence, and maybe I’m coping with it still.)  I like Fitzgerald, but I’m a howling Wolfe man.

But don’t get George Steiner started!  Unlike McGurl, he takes sides.  He sees Hemingway as “a brilliant response to the diminution of linguistic possibility”:

Sparse, laconic, highly artificial in its conventions of brevity and understatement, that style sought to reduce the ideal of Flaubert – le mot juste – to a scale of basic language.  One may admire it or not.  But, undeniably, it is based on a most narrow conception of the resources of literacy. . . . By retrenching language to a kind of powerful, lyric shorthand, Hemingway narrows the compass of observed and rendered life.  He is often charged with his monotonous adherence to hunters, fisherman, bullfighters, or alcoholic soldiers.  But this constancy is a necessary result of the available medium.  How could Hemingway’s language convey the inward life of more manifold or articulate characters?  Imagine trying to translate the consciousness of Raskolnikov into the vocabulary of “The Killers.”  Which is not to deny the perfection of this grim snapshot.  But Crime and Punishment gathers into itself a sum of life entirely beyond Hemingway’s thin medium.

(From “The Retreat from the Word,” a 1961 essay republished in Steiner’s Language & Silence, pages 30 and 31.)

Steiner is more concerned in this essay with the extent of our functioning vocabulary than he is with sentence length or structure, strictly speaking.  But it’s all of a piece these days.  I heart Steiner’s précis of my man Faulkner, who loved big, fun-sounding words and vine-like syntax more than he loved merely long sentences:

Within a syntax whose convolutions are themselves expressive of Faulkner’s landscape, ornate, regional language makes a constant assault upon our feelings.  Often the words seem to grown cancerous, engendering other words in ungoverned foison.  At times, the sense is diluted as in a swamp-mist.  But nearly always, this idiosyncratic, Victorian night-parlance is a style.  Faulkner is not afraid of words even where they submerge him.  And where he is in control of them, Faulkner’s language has a thrust and vital sensuousness that carry all before them.  Much in Faulkner is overwritten or even badly written.  But the novel is always written through and through.  The act of eloquence, which is the very definition of a writer, is not let go by default. (32)

Steiner, who wrote this around age thirty, is an old soul, and, while I find that he often rushes too quickly to judgment for my taste, he is not afraid to say things that sound strange to me but I suspect were held true by most serious writers before McGurl’s “program era.”  So the act of eloquence is “the very definition of a writer.”  Who says that anymore?

Version 5

I thought I’d be signing off blogging this past February for a while for a couple of personal reasons, but I was wrong.  I realized recently that my announcement that I was suspending blogging operations happened around Ash Wednesday and that my new site would be ready around Passover.  That made me wonder if my old pattern of giving up blogging for Lent was so ingrained in me that, even when I wasn’t observing the fast, something inside me was still functioning in it.

I’ve usually done my site makeovers during late Lent when the pressure of not blogging was beginning to get to me.

I started blogging in February 2004 with a three-framed Dreamweaver template (above).  On the right was a Blogger template that I had stripped of all but the date, the title, the post, and the HaloScan comment field.  On the left was a monthly digest of my best blog writing as well as other writing – usually longer articles and essays — that never appeared on the blog side of the site.

My first Lenten makeover (above) brought everything into Dreamweaver.  Neither Blogger nor anything else I could find would allow me to highlight a few of the older posts.

The next change – the move from orange and black to purple, red, and white (above), was largely cosmetic.  It’s still my favorite look of the five.

The fourth version of slow reads (above) is the one you’ve seen for the past three years up until now.  It was the site’s second major change.  I rearranged the page navigation to approximate a book’s layout, complete with “front matter” and a search field I called “index” – it seems embarrassing to write about it now – and I started using an accordion plugin for Dreamweaver for navigation.

The fifth version of slow reads I’m introducing this week is probably the biggest change of all, even bigger than the move to version two, which was the move from half-Blogger to all-Dreamweaver.

I couldn’t get the promising plugin designed to turn Dreamweaver pages into WordPress pages and posts to work, so I’ve spent untold hours over the past fortnight, particularly over this past week’s spring break, copying and pasting each of the 158 pages I’ve deemed worthy to make the trip to slow reads’s new WordPress digs.

But once through each page wasn’t enough.  After copying and pasting them, I worked on each page four more times, once to assign each page one of several forms of secondary navigation (the navigation choices just below the masthead), once to assign each page one of several sidebars, once to re-link the images I decoupled from many of the pages when I changed permalink settings on them all, and once to create redirects from the old version of each page to its new version.

So I’ve seen a lot of my old writing (and the sixteen pages on this site written by my friends) over the past fortnight.  I also wandered a few times into the comment fields that I was happy to find I could usually copy and paste from Echo into WordPress’s pages.  It made me grateful again for blogging and for the friendships and support we’ve formed around one another’s writing.

November 3, 2012 update: In order to have all shots of my blog versions in one post, I’m including them now. Here’s version 5 toward its end:

And here’s version 6:

May 12, 2013 update: here’s version 7:


August 13, 2013 update: version 7 didn’t last long. Here’s version 8:


Exclusive interview with Robert J. Ray

Robert J. Ray is the author of The Art of Reading, the Murdock mystery series, and the Weekend Novelist series.

How did The Art of Reading come about?

I had been teaching an advanced exposition class at Beloit College in Wisconsin. I used that class to field test my ideas about reading and writing, and I came up with exercises to use in the class. The exercises turned into a book. I was talking about it to a classics professor at a cocktail party one night, and he happened to be an acquisitions editor at Blaisdell Publishing.

So you never marketed it?

No. I didn’t know anything about marketing back then.

How would you describe The Art of Reading‘s approach to reading and writing?

Using colored ballpoints, the reader circles words. If you’re reading for structure, you circle words that repeat. If you’re reading for content, you circle nouns and verbs. Nouns in red, say, and verbs in blue. When you draw connecting lines, the patterns jump out at you. Seeing the patterns takes you into the style and mind-set of the writer. I still circle words.

Has your approach to writing changed since The Art of Reading was published?

Yeah. When I took a seminar with Natalie Goldberg, who is the guru of timed writing. It’s so simple. Set the timer. Write until it beeps. Read your writing aloud. Set your timer, write until it beeps. The timer distracts the left brain editor-critic-judge. You zone out on the writing.

I guess that takes care of writer’s block.

Yes. You escape the editor in your brain. After you write, you let it sit, and then you take it up again and edit it. You might look at her book, Writing Down the Bones.

Maybe you could write a book combining your approaches – your slow reading and her fast writing.

That’s not a bad idea.

What are you doing these days?

I just quit teaching. I’m revising The Weekend Novelist series. And there are more weekend novelist books in the pipeline. One on rewriting. Another on the personal memoir.

The Weekend Novelist concept seems like a good draw for writers who are in no position to quit their day jobs. People love the concept. They can no longer wait for the proverbial “block of time.” Writing a novel is possible if you do writing practice and follow the steps.

What is your philosophy of reading and writing?

Whether you are writing or reading, you do a better job if you get a feel for the words. Most people skim. They don’t see syllables. Unless they are trained actors, they read without rhythm. If you circle words, you slow down. If you slow down, you read deeper. When you read deeper, you go deeper with the writing. Going deep helps you escape the world of screens. TV, computer, movie theatre, PDA. The great poets felt the words. Our job as writers is to help readers go deep.

Exclusive interview with Chester P. Michael

Chester P. Michael is the co-author of Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types.  The interview was conducted in April 2004.

What gave you and your prayer project the idea to link the Briggs-Myers research with prayer and meditation?

I was introduced to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] by Morton Kelsey in 1976. Immediately I saw the value of it for prayer and spirituality. I began to use it in all my retreats and individual spiritual direction. My associate, Marie Norrisey, said we should get some scientific proof of the connection between MBTI and prayer. Hence the prayer project of 1982. I canvassed the 800 persons on my mailing list for The Open Door. 500 of them responded.

The introduction to Prayer and Temperament describes the success of your group’s project. Generally, what results have you seen from your project since the book was published?

The good results of [applying MBTI to prayer and meditation] have been shown in the 340 women and men who have graduated from my two year course of training in the Spiritual Directions Institute. I have continued to use it in all my retreat work and spiritual direction work.

What has been the response to Prayer and Temperament?

We have sold more than 120,000 copies of the book worldwide.

What advice would you give someone wishing to explore meditation for the first time?

My advice for those wishing to explore meditation for the first time is to use all four methods of prayer based on the four temperaments. Then use the method that comes most easily for them most of the time. One should expose oneself at least occasionally to the other methods.

Have you enjoyed your retirement? And how have you come to define “retirement”?

For me, retirement means I am now a freelancer. I can can go in any direction in my journey of faith.

What has been the most satisfying part of your service over the years?

I think spiritual direction is the most satisfying part of my 62 years of priestly ministry.

“Language is a kind of play!”

Exclusive interview with Patricia T. O’Conner on grammar, Woe Is I Jr., and her new, preadolescent readers.
You’ve worked as an editor for more than twenty years, including fifteen years with The New York Times editing book reviews.  It seems obvious that working as an editor would improve one’s grammar, but I’m curious about how editing other people’s work helped to shape your ideas of how people could learn grammar better.

Working with reporters, reviewers, and essayists made me familiar with the kinds of grammatical difficulties that even the brightest, best-educated writers face every day.  These are the kinds of problems I used as a basis for writing Woe Is I.  What’s more, I found that on the job I had to explain the solutions in simple, plain English. This is what I tried to do in the book as well.

You wrote your original book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, in 1996 at the request of a book editor who wanted a lighthearted grammar guide.  Why do you think the book became a bestseller?

I don’t think anyone before me had ever tried to address grammar problems without using the complicated and intimidating terminology of formal grammar. And the book was funny besides, which was a novelty for a grammar book then.

What lead you to write Woe Is I Jr., a similar book for middle-graders?

When the original book came out, parents and teachers told me they found it helpful in explaining grammar to children, and suggested that an edition especially for kids would fill a niche. But I never acted on their suggestions until Susan Kochan, a very gifted editor at the Penguin Young Readers Group, pressed me to do an edition for fourth- through sixth-graders.

You seem to get middle-school kids: their reading level, their capacity for understanding grammar, and their humor.  What did you have to do to prepare for — and to adjust your writing for — what I suppose is your first children’s book?

I corralled the children of my friends, and I asked dozens of kids from my neighborhood school as well as young library patrons to answer questionnaires designed for ages 9 through 12. The responses were priceless! All the kids who helped are getting free copies of the book, as well as thanks in the acknowledgments.

What would you like to see children come away from Woe Is I Jr. with?

I’d like to encourage a love for language and a fascination with words. Words, after all, can be a lot of fun, and language is a kind of play! Too many kids find grammar intimidating, and that’s a real tragedy.

In the book’s acknowledgements you mention a particular fifth-grade class in Roxbury, Connecticut, as well as about thirty individual children.  Tell me how they assisted you, if you would.

They helped by telling me about the books and movies and television shows and musical groups they enjoy. This told me a lot about the way they interact with their culture and what kinds of examples I should use to illustrate grammatical concepts. It was important to me to make the book child-friendly and child-centered. Teachers and school administrators also helped tremendously.

What kinds of things did you enjoy about writing this book?

I loved thinking like a 10-year-old. I’m still trying to resume my adult persona!

The book contains delightful poetry that illustrates your points.  What gave you the idea to include poetry, and did you enjoy writing it?

I’ve always loved silly poems, and it was a treat to be able to write some.

You conclude Woe Is I Jr. with a chapter on online writing.  You seem encouraged that instant messaging, email, and blogging are getting young people to write more, but you are concerned that students may not transition their grammar and usage to fit their audience.  Is the chapter a summary of You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online, a book you co-authored with your husband, Stewart Kellerman?  (You sound like an editor when you write about that book on your web site: “The important thing is that we’re writing again, and it’s better to write badly than not at all.”)
No, the online writing tips in Woe Is I Jr. don’t exactly echo those in You Send Me, which was written for adults. Children approach e-mail and instant messaging and text messaging differently than adults do. For kids, it’s play, and for the time being I think we should allow it to be play, with certain guidelines of course. The good news is that kids are sitting at keyboards and writing—putting words together and making sentences. Hurray!

Where do you think English grammar will be in fifty years?  How, if at all, do you think it will be taught?

I think grammar—that is, the systematic study of how words form sentences—will make a comeback as a legitimate part of the school curriculum, not just a token “unit” inserted into the Language Arts curriculum. The same thing, I believe, has to happen with math. A society whose people don’t know how to compute, to read, or to write is not going to remain a world power for long.

You seem to have a dynamic philosophy about English grammatical rules, one more associated with Merriam-Webster’s reference book editors, say, than American Heritage’s.  Do you offer any principles or guidelines for when we may safely discard grammatical rules (e.g., ending sentences with prepositions and splitting “infinitives”) that earlier generations (such as my own) were taught as gospel, but now have often come to be seen as the inventions of centuries-old grammar textbooks?
Those so-called “rules” never were legitimate! They were the inventions of Latinists who felt English (a Germanic language) should more closely resemble Latin (a Romance language). Contrary to popular opinion, the true “rules” of English are eminently reasonable (subject and verb should agree, for example). The wacko, unreasonable ones are mere superstitions.
I’m sure schools will be interested in Woe Is I Jr., perhaps as a supplement to their grammar textbooks or perhaps as the centerpiece of their grammar curriculum.  How do you think schools might use Woe Is I Jr.?
I’m not an educator myself, and I didn’t intend the book to be used as a curriculum model. But it might be a helpful supplement for teachers wishing to explain certain concepts in plain English and with entertaining examples. Otherwise, parents and kids might find it helpful to keep around the house as usage issues crop up. I hope so!

How did you find such a wonderful illustrator for Woe Is I Jr.?

My editor, Susan Kochan, found him. Thank you, Susan!

You dedicate Woe Is I Jr. to your sister, Kathy Richard.  Are there any particular associations between her and the book’s subject matter?

Well, this is a book for kids, and since my sister and I spent our childhoods together, I wanted to make the book a tribute to her and to those years.

What plans do you have for marketing Woe Is I Jr.?  I missed your appearance on Oprah for the first Woe Is I book!

I’ll be doing broadcast appearances, but more important, I hope to meet lots of kids in book signings and talks. And I hope they’ll let me know how I can make the book even better. It’s their book you know!

Posted May 11, 2007.

Exclusive interview with Tom Montag, author of the Big Book of Ben Zen

There’s a quiet beauty in these simple poems that brings me back to them again and again. Part of why the Ben Zen poems work, it seems to me, is their setting. Here is a vaguely Chinese character who speaks like a Zen master and is transplanted to the upper middle west. The references to his surroundings never cease to surprise. His Zen-like – or at least foreign – point of view seems to highlight the holy and wise in what we consider common or dull.

What we have is all we have. If you see it as common or dull, I think Ben would find that the dullness is within you, not within the world as it is. We are a collection of atoms held together by desire more than anything; when we forget this, we lose our sense of awe. Without awe, without wonder, yes, the world might be common and dull. Ben is blessed, or cursed, with curiosity. With curiosity, nothing is dull; yet conversely curiosity has an intensity that tends to tire us. In our weariness we pay less attention. The paradox is resolved by one’s commitment to return to wonder again and again and again. Yeah, sure, the world is dull both when you don’t understand it and when you think you do, or let me put it: the world is dull in ignorance and in certainty.

I’ve seen aphorisms and koans reduced to verse, but rarely with the sensitivity to the placement of each word these poems exhibit. You credit Ben with the poems’ words, but may we credit you with the words’ arrangement within the poem?

If the words seem well-placed, I did it. And if they’re poorly put, those would be Ben’s. But I tease. Actually, some of the poems are things I said in conversation, with a sudden recognition, “Oh, that’s Ben.” Some of them, yes, I had to work them pretty hard so they’d make the sweetest sounding sense they could. And a third category of these poems I don’t have a clue about – Ben gave them to me; I don’t know what they mean; you, the reader, will have to struggle with them as I do. An example of the first is: “Why should I pay extra/For what I don’t want?” An example of the second is: “You can’t come out of/The ocean, Ben says, if you’re/Holding onto rocks” which started as something considerably more complicated and less clear. An example of the third is the poem is: “Your metaphor,/Ben says,//Is more/Than what you’re//Here for.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I try to figure it out and lose myself in complication.

You seem to capture the connection between Ben Zen and the middle west when you suggest that the middle western farmer and the Buddhist monk would each “understand the other’s silences.” How did the connection occur to you?

The connection lies in the heart. Both the monk and the farmer are charmed by the world. Both plug into the world directly. Both see its essential simplicity – either it rains or it doesn’t rain; and, as my farmer father said, “I’ll be a hell of a long dry spell if it don’t.” Both the monk and the farmer are parsimonious with their words, and neither would use a word as big as parsimonious. My father might say “Don’t spend what you don’t have.” The terseness of both monk and farmer sometimes makes them appear inscrutable.

Both the monk and the farmer understand they are part of something larger than themselves. The farmer sees the seasons cycling like a four-cylinder engine, hears the tromp tromp of the generations, knows that cornstalks become rubble to nourish the earth, and that we do too – dust to dust.

Both the monk and the farmer have a sense of investment in the world, of ownership, and yet at the same time they recognize they are not in control; both know that control is an illusion. That “Nothing matters/& everything matters,” as Ben says.

Ben reminds me of how you describe yourself in “Poet in a Business Suit,” an essay in Kissing Poetry’s Sister. Ben relates well to the world around him, but he still stands out. Sort of “in the world but not of it.” Do you see parts of yourself in Ben?

The short answer is Yes. I think there is a little Ben in all of us – each time we wonder at the paradox of love’s letting go and holding on; each time we turn a rock over to examine the underside; each time we swallow our fear and behave like gods rather than animals; each time we surprise ourselves with our own true greatness.

You have defined a poet as anyone who spends his life “grappling with pattern and similarity and emblem.” Using that definition, is Ben something of a poet himself?

Ah, yes, Ben is a poet. In fact, thirty-three pieces in Big Ben are marked “Ben’s Poems.” Ben sees pattern and similarity and emblem; which means he also sees that which is random and different and invested in emptiness.

Dylan Thomas once said, “. . . a poet is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his life; for the rest, he is a human being, one of whose responsibilities is to know and to feel, as much as he can, all that is moving around and within him, so that his poetry, when he comes to write it, can be his attempt at an expression of the summit of man’s experience . . .” You, on the other hand, suggest that a poet is always a poet, whether he writes poetry or not. Despite appearances, somehow I think you and Mr. Thomas are saying the same thing.

I think being a poet is like being pregnant – either you are or you’re not. There’s no part-time vs. full-time in poetry. Being a poet is how you approach the world.

I think the difference in the way Dylan Thomas and I frame the question is this: Thomas refers “being a poet” to the act of writing the poem. I am talking about the habit of “seeing,” which is what makes poetry possible in the first place. Some people go through life without asking what it means. Poets are asking all the time; they are turning over rocks, looking behind walls, climbing up on top of things to get a better view, sniffing the most god-awful thing to see what it smells like. They are always asking themselves, “How is this like that?” These are habits of mind, an approach to the world, a way of being in the world – in other words, a life, not an act.

You see yourself as a poet. What does that do for your work and for how you look at things?

Unfortunately, being a poet, I think of everything as possible “material” for a poem or essay. It means sometimes, maybe, that I appropriate chunks of life that are not entirely mine to do with as I choose – they belong to someone else, too, wife or daughter or a woman who doesn’t want her family’s story told in public or a girl in a far village on Reindeer Lake who believes that a writer should talk to people in town if he is going to write about the town. It means I always have a notebook in my pocket. It means I am never un-self-conscious, for I am always reflecting on my experience. I evaluate it even as I’m living it. This is a curse. It means I am continually sorting and weighing, tossing and saving.

Being a poet means I am never satisfied. Excellence is almost enough, which means I am often disappointed and essentially sad.

Being a poet means I am often alone even in a roomful of people. It means I don’t want to be like other people, and couldn’t be if I wanted to.

Being a poet means that no piece of work is ever finished, that I set a poem or essay aside so I can go onto other things, but it’s not “done,” it’s only as good as it’s going to get in the time available. It means that all my works are only one work, a single piece of cloth I’m weaving, whatever the title of the book, whether it is a poem or an essay.

Being a poet means I wake up at 4:10 a.m. with my mind working already, and I have to get up and get going to keep up.

Being a poet means sometimes I am observing when I should be acting, that I am writing it when I should be living it. It means I cannot be as direct and simple as the farmer and the monk, that I cannot plug straight into the universe, that I have to process everything.

And, yes, sometimes being a poet means I’m tough to live with, though that’s a question you should take up with my patient wife if you’ve got time for the long answer on just how tough it is. She’s a wonderful woman, to put up with me these many years. She is the blessing I’ve been given, my solace in this world.

What does a typical day of a full-time poet look like?

When I’m home, I rise between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. and post my daily blog entry to The Middlewesterner. I check the news at some e-news sites from Pakistan to the BBC and CNN, then see if any folks on my blog roll have posted for the day. Then I write (or re-write) until about 9:00 a.m. when I get the mail. I write again until lunch, respond to e-mails, and start working on my next day’s blog post. While I’m eating lunch, I check my blog roll again.

When I “retired,” the deal I made with my wife was that I’d take over a lot of the chores she’d been doing while I worked full-time and she worked part-time – laundry, cooking, shopping, cleaning. These tasks I do in the afternoon while I try to get some more writing done, answer e-mail, and finish the next day’s blog posting.

Mary can get home from work any time between 5-7 p.m. When she does, we have supper – something freshly made that afternoon, or left-overs, either. We both like left-overs, which frees us from the tyranny of cooking every day.

If Mary arrives home early enough, we try to walk for an hour before or after we eat. Afterwards, I try to write some more, then get to bed between 9:00-9:30 p.m.

When I retired, I promised the printing company I’d worked for that I’d come back and help them out in the bindery when they were especially busy. When I go in for that, I work from 3-11 p.m. and get to bed sometime after midnight. The next morning I like to sleep til between 6:00-7:00 a.m., yet sometimes I still wake at 5:00 a.m. or so and get at it. These demons of mine are beastly.

When I am out visiting my Vagabond communities, which is one or two weeks per month, I try to rise about 4:30 a.m. and write until my first appointment, usually an interview about 9:00 a.m.; or until I go downtown for breakfast or coffee and eavesdropping. Ideally, I’ll do only two interviews or tours per day when I’m out doing my research, because I start to lose my focus when I do a third, a fourth, or once even a fifth interview in a single day. Time between interviews is spent writing up my notes and observations, creating the “Vagabond Journals” from which a book is to be fashioned five years from now.

I usually have a quick lunch by myself when I’m out in my focus communities. Often I have supper with my host/hostess in the community. If it has been an intense day, I’ll retire as early as 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. If I have a presentation to do in the evening, it will be later than that when I get to bed.

My most productive time of day is usually three or four hours starting about 5:00 a.m.

Congratulations on having eleven of the poems from The Big Book of Ben Zen included in the America Zen anthology from Bottom Dog Press coming out this fall. When you consider the eleven poems they chose, what do you think they were looking for?

I know they were looking for recent expression of the Zen spirit in America, not only from true practitioners but also from Zen’s fellow-travelers here, like me. I’m listed in the same table of contents with such luminaries as Diane Di Prima Tess Gallager, Sam Hamill, Jane Hirschfield, David Ray, and Anne Waldman. Yet most of us are lesser known, the David Budbills, not the Gary Snyders. In terms of my poems specifically, they got work that snaps with that haiku-like realization yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. They got work that recognizes the connection between the Zen monk and the middle western farmer. They took poems from my Ben Zen series and also some from my series called “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.” Until the book is published this fall and I actually see it, I don’t know if I can say more than that. I do think I may use America Zen in workshops on how to write the short poem.

Do you have a favorite Ben Zen poem?

Oh, help me! Do you have a favorite child?

I point to this poem as representative of what Ben, and The Big Book of Ben Zen is about:

You can’t always go
To the cave of a thousand Buddhas,
Ben says, and you can never
Come back the same.

These poems point to other facets of the endeavor:

I push the mountain,
Ben says, and push

The mountain and
Still the mountain

Pushes back.


You are welcome,
The holy man said,
To all the wood I have.

I have no fish either.


The more I know
The more I know

I know nothing.


How like a poet, to die
Trying to embrace the moon.

How does Ben fit in with your other poetry, and with your work as a whole?

In one sense, Ben Zen is one voice among several voices in my work – I have written series of poems in the voices of a Civil War soldier, an Iowa farmer, and a woman widowed on the tall grass prairie about 1880. In that sense, then, Ben is just another voice.

I turned toward the short, zen-like expression earlier as well – in the collections This Gathering Season and Between Zen and Midwestern, and Ben’s manner of expression informs my current series, “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.”

In another sense, however, the Ben Zen poems are a leap. They are more playful than I have been. They seem sometimes more like aphorisms than poems, and that’s a legitimate charge against some of them. In the other voices, I knew who was speaking, that is, I had a clear picture of the persona pretty much at the outset. With Ben, the portrait was continually being painted and re-painted; each new piece added another detail and augmented my understanding of the fellow.

I think Ben Zen is of a piece with my other work, but it shows a different facet, the way light changes when you turn the diamond.

As I say, Ben’s mode of expression informs my “Plain Poems” series; and – strange as it may seem – it informs my prose work as well. Now in my essays I am sometimes given to summing up that sounds not unlike Ben. It may be that Ben has taught me now important every word is, even in prose. I like to think I’ve been a good student.

What are you doing now, and what are your thoughts about your future work?

The poetry I am working on is a series called “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.” For five years I kept a journal of my drive to work each day. The challenge was to write one good sentence each day. I had no plans for it when I started it. Yet after I finished 2001’s entries, I challenged myself to go back and find the poems in those entries, one per day. Did I find poems? Oh, yeah. At this point, I’ve drafted poems for the first half of the year. As I have time, I’m continuing to work on the second half. What do these poems share with Ben Zen? They aren’t zen-nish poems, particularly, but they are informed by knowing what Ben taught me. How could it be otherwise.

My other project is prose, “Vagabond in the Middle,” an attempt to understand what makes us middle western. It grew out of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew: Home. The strength and resilience of those people I knew at Curlew, was that special to them, or did it belong to others in the middle west? What are we made of? And how would I find out? I have selected twelve focus communities, one in each of the middle western states; I’m going to get to know these communities, the people in them, their history, the current conditions and future prospects. I know it sounds like sociology, but in reality it is almost like poetry when these people speak. So far I have interviewed 160 people, I’ve visited all of the towns once, many of them twice. I’m about a year and a half into the five years I’ll spend getting to know these places. I’ve got about 150,000 words of journal entry, all those interviews, and a pretty good sense that the project will succeed.

What does this have to do with Ben Zen? Certainly I am finding beauty in the most ordinary places. The commitment to watch the ordinary for these flashes – perhaps, again, that’s something I learned from Ben. The other thing is that I cannot go into a community with expectations. I must be open to what comes to me, to whatever presents itself, whether I think it’s what I’m looking for, or not. As soon as you set expectations, you close yourself to all sorts of wonderful surprises. My biggest challenge in the project is staying out of my own way, and to some degree Ben has taught me how to do that.

Have you had any Ben sightings since your last published Ben poem?

Ben has gone off. He hasn’t been seen since I put the Big Book together. That’s typical for me, I guess. Once the Civil War poems, my farmer poems, and the “Married to Prairie” poems were published in Middle Ground, those voices stopped speaking through me too.

Holy Week observances


This Wednesday, at 8:00 p.m., St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Elkhart will be celebrating Tenebrae, an ancient Holy Week service of psalms and readings. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows.” Fifteen candles are lighted in a stand called a hearse. At the end of each reading one candle is extinguished, until all but one candle is left burning. And that candle is hidden behind the altar, putting the church sanctuary in total darkness. A loud noise (Latin streptius) is made, usually by slamming a book shut or stomping on the floor, to symbolize the earthquake after Jesus’ death. After the great noise, the single lighted candle is returned to the hearse, signifying the light of Christ’s resurrection.

— Steve at On the Slow Train


This morning I passed by a Romanian Orthodox church in our neighborhood and noticed that the front door, usually closed, was open. So I went in. Stairs led down — to a community gathering area, I suspected — and up to the church, where I heard hushed voices. I went up, through another door, and into a warm sanctuary, wider than it was long, and sat down in a back pew. The walls were of wood. Painted Orthodox icons hung or stood everywhere: on the altar, on the walls, on the ceiling. There was one very precious icon of hammered gold and silver — a Madonna and Child – with a painted or enameled face and hands but most looked relatively new. Several people holding small prayer books knelt in the pews and prayed, and over on the western side of the sanctuary, a priest in a brocade robe prayed with a woman who was, perhaps, giving a confession. His arm was around her and a purple stole lay over his shoulders and her head; as he prayed or spoke to her I could see her head nodding in assent under the stole. In the front, bustling about the altar, three elderly women, dressed in full skirts and wearing kerchiefs, prepared the sanctuary for Easter. Huge pots of blue and pink hydrangeas had already been placed in tiers around the main altar, and the women raised and rearranged several large rugs piled atop a floral carpet with a large cabbage-rose pattern on a dark green background. A stand of votive candles flickered red, gold, and green, and behind me in niches in the wall were trays of sand and thin tapers lit by worshipers. In one corner, a tiny shop, hardly bigger than a cart, sold cards, candles, rosaries. Lingering incense perfumed the air.

— Beth at cassandra pages

Of Beth

Beth Adams’ blog, the cassandra pages, has long been part of it and I’ve been following her account of Easter services in the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral in Montreal, where she sings in the choir. She’s the blogger par excellence, sharing through musicsketches and photographsas well as words – a gentle, informal drawing into her daily reality. I have found myself riveted and ambivalent. Brought up Anglican, I was not much engaged and often bored by services and, by adolescence, increasingly alienated by the working-class Protestant ethic (work and cleanliness are next to godliness; we don’t have much and that’s what we deserve, but we’re more deserving than they are). Not hard, then, to identify with the young Spanish boy’s alienation from his church and its cooption by a repressive ideology. But also, there’s a deep pleasure in hymns and readings familiar so early they can never be forgotten, and the sheltering space and light of a church is something I learned to love as an adult seeking respite from the crowded chaos of the world outside. So there’s considerable allure in what Beth recounts, and the subtle, thoughtful interpretations of which she speaks, of which Anglican writer Esther de Waal speaks, are vastly different from those which affronted me as a child.

— Jean at tasting rhubarb


On Faster Writing.  When you publish a blog post, you just hit “Publish,” right?  Not me.

For the past five years, each time I posted I’ve taken steps you probably take for granted: 1. I copied, pasted, and updated a snippet of Echo’s JavaScript to give my post a comment field. 2. I copied and pasted the post’s text, including this comment code, from its own page to my blog’s main page.  3.  I typed out and hyperlinked “Link to just this post,” allowing visitors to my home page a way to get to a single page they could link to. 4.  I uploaded these two pages in Dreamweaver.  5.  I visited my new page with a browser and copied and pasted its contents to FeedForAll.  6.  I formatted the page’s feed in FeedForAll and saved it there.  7.  I went back to Dreamweaver and uploaded my updated feed.  8.  If I wanted to keep the post for posterity, I updated the Accordion Panel Magic plugin navigation bar in my template’s left sidebar with a link to the post under the proper subject.  9.  I applied the template changes to all of my files.  10.  I reloaded all of my updated files in Dreamweaver onto my remote server.  (Granted, under my new arrangement, I still have to update a menu with the link to the new post if I want to emphasize it in relative perpetuity.  But it’s one step instead of steps 8 through 10 above.)

All for a blog that organizes my pages the way I want!  When I looked around at WordPress themes recently, though, I found themes that did most of what I was doing by hand each post.  So, after five years, I’ve rediscovered push-button publishing.  Eliminate seven steps by clicking “Publish.” What a concept!