December 22, 2011

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, part two

Wallace Stevens

Last week I began an in depth study of Wallace Stevens’ work that I deeply admire and my contention, despite the great love I have for his work, that he did not confront, perhaps not until close to his death, the primary issues of faith: a subject he deals with again and again through his view of the imagination as all, his view that whatever is spiritual comes out of the mind.

To review from the end of part one of my essay: I do not believe Stevens confronted the absurdist implications of his philosophical stance. One cannot have it both ways: If the writer who creates in words and whose subject is the nature and meaning of existence—and I believe this is Stevens’ subject—if this writer concludes there is nothing but human consciousness, then he must also, at the very least, confront faith as an insurmountable abyss.

To read part one of my essay, go here.

First here is the poem  “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon,” the first poem I discuss in detail here in part two.

Tea at the Palaz at Hoon

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed inside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

                                    Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, p. 65

Here is the full text of the second poem, “On the Road Home,” discussed here as well in part two:

On the Road Home

It was when I said.
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.

You . . . You said,
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,
Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

It was when I said,
“Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts;
The world must be measures by the eye”;

It was when you said,
“The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth”;

It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.

                        Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, pp. 203-4

In this and following posts, I will discuss Stevens’ essays and five poems (“Tea at the Palaz at Hoon,” 1921; “On the Road Home” and “The Man on the Dump,” 1938; “The Auroras of Autumn,” 1948; and “The Planet on the Table,” 1953) covering his early, middle and late work in both forms. I do not pretend that this is a comprehensive overview or that I may even presume to be conclusive in this large undertaking. And certainly five poems are not representative of Stevens’ enormously impressive body of work. But, within the confines of this blog, certain limits and caveats are necessary.

            Frank Kermode notes that “Stevens thought of his poetry as a world, which to distinguish it from the ‘real’ world, he called his mundo.”[1] Stevens’ nonsense language, images and assertions create this world. Helen Vendler, in the introduction of her study of his work, notes that she does not focus on Stevens’ imagery because “[it] is not particularly obscure once one knows the Collected Poems: It is a system of self-reference, and is its own explanation.”[2]

            The title, “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon”[3] , is an example of Stevens’ unusual language, his world. The poem seems to have nothing to do with having tea anywhere and “Hoon” is nowhere to be found in the poem. I believe there is some purposeful nonsense in this title. And Dana Gioia appears to agree; he says, “Nonsense can be serious stuff, and from this point of view, Stevens is the finest nonsense poet in American literature, an Edward Lear for epistemologists, and later Gioia quotes the first stanza of this poem and says that Stevens, after his day at the office, let “himself go by inventing foreign-sounding word and names, prizing paradoxes, and giving his difficult poems brilliant but mysterious titles.”[4] Stevens’ play with language here and elsewhere creates his world.

            Gass notes that “it is impossible to imagine that the language of literature is not ontologically of another order than that of ordinary life, its chronology, concerns, and accounts.”[5] In this same essay, Gass plays with nonsense: “And roses are intolerably frivolous too, and those who grow them, snowmen and those who raise them up, and drinking songs and drinking, and every activity performed for its own inherent worth”—a fragment of poetic prose to make his point that the writer, “is villain, who puts words together with no intention of stating, hoping, praying or persuading . . . only imagining, only creating. . . [Gass’s ellipses].”[6]  But in contrast to Gass who makes no pretense toward the spiritual, Stevens seems to assert that whatever is spiritual comes out of the mind:

            Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
            And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.

            His choice of the words—“ointment,” “hymns”—is far from the nonsense in his title; these are words from the vernacular of religion placed now in the speaker’s consciousness. Harold Bloom explains the poem this way: “[The poem] is directed against what is absent in the reader, which is the imagination or a felt potential of the reader’s own power of representation.”[7] Moreover, Bloom calls the title “Sublime” (his capital letter ‘S’ in mid-sentence).[8] Bloom seems to imply in these comments that Stevens is confronting the absence of the Absolute, but how then can the title with its nod to the absurd be also Sublime with a capital ‘S’? I am not saying that Bloom is wrong; I am saying that Stevens has in the confluence and paradoxes of his title and his text (his choice of religious words) placed the absurd in the context of the spiritual. Am I to read the poem’s stanzas ironically? Perhaps so.

            In 1936, before the publication dates of the next two poems I focus on, Stevens addresses spiritual belief and poetry. He says that “while it can lie in the temperament of very few of us to write poetry in order to find God, it is probably the purpose of each of us to write poetry to find the good which, in the Platonic sense, is synonymous with God.”[9] And certainly Stevens affirms the spirituality that I see placed in “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon” when he says, in this same essay, that poets “purge themselves before reality … in what they intend to be saintly exercises.”[10]

           These assertions, tentative as they are (and, in my view, to his credit that he is tentative on this score) are not the assertions of Gass—Stevens goes further than Gass here. He, in fact, approaches Ozick’s view in this same essay; as if with the same breath that he asserted the saintly work the poet does, he seems to place in perspective with his use of the word “seductions” the discovery of the unknown through the irrational: “We accept the unknown even when we are most skeptical. We may resent the consideration of it by any except the most lucid minds [and I assume that he is not referring here to himself]; but when so considered, it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known… . The poet cannot profess the irrational as the priest professes the unknown.”[11] I must admit that I do not find Stevens clear here. I find his words in the essay somewhat obscure, elliptical, if you will.

            I do, however, find him quite clear in the poem “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon” when he says in the first stanza that the speaker’s words are discovered in “The loneliest air” and that the speaker found himself there, in the mind or, as Stevens puts it, “what I saw/ Or heard or felt came not but from myself ... more truly and more strange.” The speaker in loneliness and not entirely from himself, but from his mind, has found something of the spiritual. It is a gorgeous poem from its nonsense title to its beautiful and, I think, quite regal opening line: “Not less because in purple I descended.” But I also think that this poem and others come perilously close to literature as idol.

            Moving on to Stevens’ middle years, I choose the poem “On the Road Home”[12] (1938) because I believe it indicates that Stevens is aware of the idolatry possible in the search for “truth.” The poem begins, “It was when I said,/ ‘There is no such thing as the truth,’” and continues, “You . . . You said,/ “There are many truths,/ But they are not parts of a truth.’” Vendler says this poem represents “Stevens’ unresolved wish that the sum of the parts should be more than the parts.”[13] This is, in my view, a brilliant synthesis, in one brief sentence, of all of Stevens’ work, of the nature of his search through poetry and prose. It contrasts with Frank Doggett’s more specific reading of this poem in the context of William James’ comment, “The Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind.” Doggett asserts that “Stevens, too, finds the truth falsely enshrined.”[14] Doggett is referring to the last stanzas of the poem:

            It was when you said,
            “The idols have seen lots of poverty,
            Snakes and gold and lice,
            But not the truth”;

            It was at that time, that the silence was largest
            And longest, the night was roundest,
            The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
            Closest and strongest.

           Much later, the post-modern critic Ihab Hassan also discusses Stevens in the context of James’ book Pragmatism, but his gloss is different from Doggett’s, as I see it; Hassan says James’ pragmatism “or rather she,  as he often calls pragmatism, ‘widens the field of search for God... . She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.’ ”[15]

          Hassan goes on to stress the differences between Stevens and James: “However widely Stevens cast the net of imagination, it remains a collection of intricate holes stitched together with verbal twine. It simply lacks the feel of belief as we experience it in marrow or mind.”[16] I not only agree, but also go further in asserting that Stevens in “On the Road Home” is acknowledging the potential, as Ozick might see it, for his own words to become “idols.” I say this because, in the penultimate stanza of the poem, the line, “It was when you said,/ ‘The idols have seen lots of poverty ... but not the truth’ ” is an answer to the speaker’s words that precede: “It was when I said,/ ‘Words are not forms of a single word ... .’ ” My point is that Stevens is not only, as Doggett wisely points out, expressing the danger of the Truth, he is also here speaking of the power of his, the poet’s, words, and acknowledging what Ozick might call the seductive nature of those words as idol. And I am saying that he has not yet in his work confronted the implications of this discovery.

Coming: Part Three, next week

[1] Frank Kermode, Harmonium  and The Ideas of Order, Wallace Stevens (New York: CHIP’S BOOKSHOP, Inc., 1979), p. 25.
[2] Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p.9.
[3]Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 65.
[4] Dana Gioia, “Business and Poetry,” Can Poetry Matter (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992), pp. 129-30.
[5] William Gass, “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” The World Within the Word, p. 304.
[6] Gass, The World Within the Word, p. 300.
[7] Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 64.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Stevens, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” Opus Posthumous, p. 222.
[10] Ibid., p. 227.
[11] Ibid., pp. 228-9.
[12] Stevens, Collected Poems, p. 203-4.
[13] Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984), p. 22.
[14] Frank Doggett, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), p. 211; Doggett’s footnote here is unclear on which essay of James he is using, but earlier he refers to James’s book Pragmatism and later to the essay “Pragmatism and Humanism.”
[15] Ihab Hassan, “Imagination and Belief: Wallace Stevens and William James,” Rumors of Change (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995), p. 122.
[16] Ibid., p. 124.

December 15, 2011

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, part one

Today I begin a conversation about Wallace Stevens’ body of work, his poetry and prose. My discussion will appear in six parts over the next five weeks with part one today.

I am interested in the poet and writer as creator—and how far we as writers take that word creator—what that means to us. In this case, my subject is what I think the word meant to Wallace Stevens.

I explored Stevens work in depth to discover my own thinking on the subject of writer as creator, a concern I have struggled with. So, of course, a subjective aspect colors my thinking here. I hope you will be in conversation with me as I pursue this, footnotes and all, the whole shebang, as in a research paper.

To introduce him, here is my favorite poem, one I quote, with the expensive permission required to do so, in my memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story.
Wallace Stevens

The Planet on the Table

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were remembered time
Or something seen that he liked.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

                                    Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, p. 532-3

Stevens and the Absolute

“I wonder if anyone in my generation is able to make the movements of faith?”
—Søren Kierkegaard[1]
As one who tries herself to put words on paper, in story, in an attempt to make sense of existence, I am interested in Wallace Stevens’ conclusions about the role of the poet as creator and how he views the poem, the creation, in its relationship to the Absolute. In 1951, four years before his death in 1955, he said, “In an age of disbelief, or, what is the same thing, in a time that is largely humanistic, in one sense or another, it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief, in his measure and in his style. . . . I think it is a role of the utmost seriousness. It is, for one thing, a spiritual role.”[2] 

Does he believe, when he says this, not only that one’s consciousness and expression through language are spiritual acts but also that poetry replaces belief in the absolute, or perhaps better stated, that poetry, or in Stevens’ parlance “the imagination,” is what we have in the absence of God? Is the poet, in some sense, then, a stand-in for God when there is nothing else? I do not mean to imply by posing the question this way that Stevens saw himself as stand-in, or that he ever arrogantly asserted such, though his statement that I have quoted comes close. I assert that Stevens struggled with the question of poet as creator, as stand-in for the Absolute, in both his poetry and his essays. I hope to examine here both his stance on this issue and the implications for me as his reader and as one who tries to write fiction and memoir.
To help with this difficult issue—writer as creator—I turn to two fiction writers who also write critical essays and who, in my view, span a continuum of thought on the role of literature in the struggle for belief: William Gass and Cynthia Ozick. In their essays both have grappled with this question head-on, much the way Stevens has in his essays. But it is clearer to me, than with Stevens, where each of them comes out.
Gass says “Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both in a way create worlds. . . . They are divine games.”[3] It strikes me that he sounds a bit like Stevens with the notable exception that Stevens asserts the “utmost seriousness” of this spiritual role, while Gass makes clear his absurdist stance in the phrase “divine games.” Gass is also clear that this “game,” one’s consciousness through language, is all there is for him: “A word is a concept made flesh, if you like—the eternal presented as voice.”[4] And if one hasn’t gotten his point yet, he adds, “. . . [T]o create a character is to give meaning to an unknown X; it is absolutely to define; and since nothing in life corresponds to these Xs, their reality is borne by their name. They are, where it is.”[5]
Cynthia Ozick seems to me to lie at the other end of the continuum, if you will; though she is an admirer of Gass[6] (I believe because of the clarity of his stance). Ozick says, “When art is put in competition, like a god, with the Creator, it too is turned into an idol.”[7] She has no countenance with idols, and it is the seductiveness of literature as idol that concerns her: “An idol can have above all, a psychological realism that is especially persuasive and seductive.”[8] She invokes the Second Commandment (against idols) to make both her belief in the Creator and her stance on literature as idol clear: “The Second commandment is more explicit than the Sixth, which tells us simply that we must not kill; the Second Commandment tells us we must resist especially that killing which serves our belief. In this sense there are no innocent idols.”[9] And she concludes, “Literature, one should have the courage to reflect, is an idol.”[10]
My aim here is to attempt to place Stevens on the continuum between the stance of Gass—consciousness through language is all we have, “where it is,” as he says— and Ozick—literature as idol is “seductive” and her assertion that “the recovery of Covenant can be attained only in the living-out of the living Covenant; never among the shamanistic toys of literature.”[11] 

The issue here is not who is right or wrong. Ozick would, I believe, defend Gass’s stance because it is clear. Gass says, “Perhaps all we have now is a hand—my pure palm and your dirty bones—but perhaps it is better to end with a hand than a whole world. How much applause has God got for all His trouble over the years?”[12] The issue is whether the writer knows where he stands on this continuum. Does he know what he thinks and has he confronted the implications in terms of the Absolute, the ultimate “Other”?
It seems to me that the writer who has concluded, as I believe Gass has, that the word, out of his own consciousness, is all must come to that place through a profound questioning and rejection of the Absolute. It is my contention that Stevens lies on this continuum very close to Gass, but that he has not confronted the absurdist implications of that stance. One cannot have it both ways: If the writer who creates in words and whose subject is the nature and meaning of existence—and I believe this is Stevens’ subject—if this writer concludes there is nothing but human consciousness, then he must also, at the very least, confront faith as an insurmountable abyss. 

It is clear to me that Stevens holds language as paramount, that he recognizes the limitations of language and, although he does so with a measure of humility, he does not confront the abyss that, by implication, must result. I do not criticize him for not being able to make what Kierkegaard calls the “movements of faith,” but for not seeing that that is the problem—the ultimate question of existence.

Coming: Part Two next week.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 34.
[2] Wallace Stevens, “Two or Three Ideas,” Opus Posthumous, ed. Samuel French Morse (New York: Vintage Books, 1982) p. 206.
[3] William Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), p. 4.
[4] Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, p. 29.
[5] Gass, “The concept of Character in Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, p. p. 50.
[6] Cynthia Ozick, “Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom,” Art and Ardor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) p. 179. Ozick refers to Gass here in a relevant passage on the role of poetry, and thus I view this passage worth quoting: “The ideal of ‘the poem itself’ has been with us for so long now, and is so bracing, that it is difficult to dislodge. Nevertheless it is true that biography and psychology have begun to seep back into academic readings of texts, and some belletrists—one thinks immediately of William Gass—have even dared to revive the subjective style of impressionism, wherein the criticism of the text vies as a literary display with the text itself, and on a competitive of virtuosity, even of ‘beauty.’”
[7] Ibid., p.191. I should note here that Ozick’s essay is, in part, an attack on Harold Bloom’s style of criticism and on what she views as his inability to separate art from idol: “Bloom invents subversion after subversion, until he comes at last to the job of idol-making” (p. 187). I shall not deal with this aspect of Ozick’s essay because I believe what she has done here is considerably larger. I should note also that I will use Bloom, a noted Stevens’ scholar, to help explicate Stevens’ poems.
[8] Ibid., pp. 188-9.
[9] Ibid., p.190.
[10] Ibid., p. 196.
[11] Ibid., p. 199.
[12] William Gass, “The Ontology of the Sentence,” The World Within the Word (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p.338. (Note: These are Gass’s last words in this volume.)

December 08, 2011

Are women writers getting a fair shake? Karol Nielsen, author, comments

Karol Nielsen is my guest writer today and it is my pleasure to introduce her to you.
Karol Nielsen is the author of Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011), a Gulf War love story. Poets & Writers selected the memoir as a New and Noteworthy Book. The Jewish Book Council invited her to guest blog about her book. The blogs also appeared in the Forward. Excerpts from her memoir were honored as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her poetry collection, coming out as a chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2012), was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. She has contributed nonfiction and poetry to Smith Magazine’s The Moment anthology (Harper Perennial, 2012) and many literary magazines, including Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and Epiphany before she became an editor of the magazine. A journalist for 15 years, she covered Latin America, the Middle East, New York City, and international finance, contributing to The New York Times, New York Newsday, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Stamford Advocate, the Buenos Aires Herald, and others. She has an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. And she says,
"I'm hopeful."

Here is her guest essay. She and I welcome your comments:

“Call Me Person”
by Karol Nielsen

I came to my feminist sensibilities slowly, first awakening in college during a summer internship at a think tank where I only remember one woman on staff who was not a secretary. And this woman had been an ambassador to the United Nations. Halfway through the summer, I stopped going to the office and went to the Georgetown University library to finish my research paper on the 1973 oil embargo. It was a long and lonely summer, and for the first time, I realized that my father was an unusual man.

He was my running partner and a natural ally whenever either of us got into trouble with my mother. He was a combat veteran of Vietnam, but at home he so disliked the role of disciplinarian that he fully delegated this dirty job to my mother. She had just as much faith in me as my father, but she worried that I would be judged, and judged hard, so she’d reprimand me for my ripped jeans or my split-ends or a foot that wouldn’t point at a diving meet. That was girl stuff. I couldn’t be bothered.

During college, I used to have long philosophical discussions with a friend who was tall and beautiful and strong. We met in Shakespeare class the first week of school, and she became captain of the women’s crew team at the University of Pennsylvania by our senior year. (I quit as a freshman because I wasn’t a morning person.) Over a cup of coffee, she once said, I see myself as a woman, you see yourself as a person. It was true. I wanted to be a person, because a person isn’t bound by gender. I wanted to travel and write and live freely and bravely and adventurously, an equal to all others.

Maybe I was wrong to look at myself as a person, because the think tank wasn’t the first place I’d noticed this two-tiered system for men and women. I had rejected the idea of applying to Columbia University, since my year was going to be the first to admit women. This seemed absurdly backwards, and besides when we visited the school it smelled of urine. I looked at the urban campus and thought, There’s no place to go for a run around here, and it stinks!  When I finally fell in love with cosmopolitan New York, I moved to the city the summer of the garbage strike and learned to hold my nose.

A few years after college, I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where my favorite professors—a winner and a future finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, both of them men—were among the most inspiring and encouraging professors I’d ever had. I cannot say this about the man I had for introductory reporting and writing, a white-haired preppy who used to be the dean of the school. (Nora Ephron had delivered his mail at Newsweek at a time when all the editorial positions were held by men.) During the first week of class, he spoke these unforgettable words: The newsroom is mostly white and male; women and minorities, it’s not too late for a tuition refund. I thought, Well, that’s going to have to change!

As a journalist, most of the support I’d had from women came before graduate school. Afterwards, I worked almost exclusively for men with the exception of my editor at New York Newsday. More women have promoted my literary work, including the editors who chose my memoir and upcoming chapbook, but when I counted heads, more than half of the literary magazine editors who chose my creative nonfiction and poetry were men. Did men like my work better, or were there simply more of them working as editors?

Some discovered my work in the slush pile, and others have solicited work directly, like an editor who asked me to contribute to his magazine after reading a thread on Facebook about my last story as a stringer for The New York Times.  A divorced woman had driven to Manhattan from Maine to shoot herself in Penn Station. I interviewed the police officer who talked her down, but at that time the newspaper did not credit stringers for contributing to stories. It happened before Easter weekend, and it hung over me as if it had had a tragic and irreversible ending. I knew I no longer had the stomach for stories like this.

It had been a plumb job for a recent journalism school graduate, and the policy for stringers wasn’t personal. My male classmate who had recommended me for the job didn’t get credit, either. Still, the editor liked the tone of my comments. There’s no bitterness, he said. I thought of bitterness as deadweight, something you had to toss off so you could get on with breaking barriers, and for me that meant pretending there were none.


Mostly, I lived in a bubble of hope as a writer, until I read the devastating statistics complied by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, showing the gaping gender gap in book reviews last year. The New Republic book review editor Ruth Franklin suspected that the problem began in publishing, so she tallied numbers from the 2010 catalogues for a range of large and independent presses. After eliminating categories of books such as cookbooks that were unlikely to receive reviews, she found that the VIDA numbers roughly reflected the proportions of books by women that came out last year.

Women made up the majority of “avid” readers, based on a 2010 book-buying survey, so why weren’t there more books by women? More discussion followed. Were men more prolific? Were they more aggressive at submitting work? Were they writing worthier books? Or were editors and critics and judges favoring men? Only a dozen women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Only one book written by a woman made Esquire’s list of 75 books every man should read. V. S. Naipaul claimed that no woman writer is his equal: too sentimental, too parochial.

It’s ironic that I earned an A-plus in development economics from a progressive professor at Penn who assigned Naipaul’s post-colonial novel, A Bend in The River. I had a habit of overlooking sexist scenes in books, not to mention the lives of authors, because I was drawn to stories of travel and adventure and ideas, and with Naipaul’s work I was taken by the sense of isolation in a remote jungle, the sort I’d imagined my father had experienced in Vietnam. It was the first time I’d read a book that captured a feeling that had been part of me for as long as I could remember.

VIDA released another study this spring, finding a historical gender gap in The Best American Series, including notable works as well as those anthologized in the books. Two excerpts from my memoir have been honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays, but suddenly I felt overcome by the odds as a woman with her first book released this fall.

My publisher, Bison Books, the paperback imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz were Bison authors, too. The Millions took note of the press’s winning streak in the Nobel Prize for Literature. It had published the winners for three years in a row, including Herta Mueller, one of the few women to win the prize.

I was profoundly honored when the press chose my memoir, Black Elephants, as a giveaway at BookExpo America 2011, passing out 150 advance review copies at the convention. Another 25 went directly to book reviewers at top newspapers and magazines. So far, I’ve had praise from men and women and quality press for the book, including thoughtful interviews in the Daily Brink and Women’s Voices for Change, a reader recommendation in the Christian Science Monitor, a strong review in Kirkus, and honors from Poets & Writers as a New and Noteworthy Book and the Jewish Book Council as a guest blogger. The Forward published the blogs, too.

I can go on these sorts of honors for long years, like a camel stumbling into an oasis. Black Elephants also topped my publisher’s bestseller list the month it began to ship. I had been promoting the memoir on social media since I got a book deal two years ago, but it was startling to me, because my Amazon Author Central sales graph looked like a volatile stock during the pre-order stage. I decided then that I would no longer look at the sales rank because it began to seem meaningless, to me. I didn’t write the book to become an instant bestseller. I didn’t write it with any expectation other than telling the story as well as I could. And because I kept having trouble getting it published I kept making it better. And better.

I’m aware, of course, that a Big Book Review might help my book sales, but I also know that books are sold word of mouth. So I hang in there. And I talk. On social media. In taxi cabs. At bars, like I did when I heard a man speak with an Israeli accent. I told him that I wrote a Gulf War memoir, a love story between an American writer looking for adventure and an Israeli traveler dreaming about peace. Turns out he was a teenager during the Gulf War. He remembered running to the roof of his building to watch incoming Scud missiles. We laughed. War is absurd. He said he was going to Israel, would buy the book for his mom.

Some of my friends are impatient for my success, hoping for an appearance on national television or The New York Times bestseller list. One friend suggested that I send the book to President Obama. It’s an idea. But, frankly, it’s been consuming enough to follow up on dozens of galleys already out there and send more as leads come along. Call me cheap, but I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a publicist when the in-house team has championed my book. It’s not easy for independent and university presses to get the attention of big prestigious newspapers and magazines, but I’m still doing legwork because I believe in my book and its core message about war and peace.


While waiting for the response to my galleys, I comforted myself with the notion that if you’re ignored you can’t have a bad review! And no doubt the odds for women were worse in George Eliot’s time, when she chose to publish under a man’s name, and most likely worse when my professor felt compelled to tell us that the newsroom was still mostly white and male. I was never blind to this reality. It’s just that as a matter of survival I chose to ignore the odds, so that I could do whatever it was that I’d wanted to do. And that was write.

But I, too, had become part of the system as an editor of the literary magazine, Epiphany. It hadn’t been included in the VIDA survey, which focused on book reviews in the most influential publications, but I had to see how the magazine had performed. I spent an entire day from returning with my morning cup of coffee well into the evening tallying numbers for print editions, going back to the premiere book in 2004, which included an excerpt from my memoir solicited by the former nonfiction editor, a longtime mentor.

The excerpt was honored as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2005, and after my mentor left the magazine, I was hired as the new nonfiction editor in 2007. I was promoted to senior editor of the magazine in 2009, managing the staff of readers and recommending nonfiction, fiction, and the occasional poem, though I was never the sole voice in deciding what went in and what stayed out. I lobbied intensely for the works I believed in, winning some, losing many during the editorial review process that involved three evaluations and final approval from the other editors. It was rare that all of us routed passionately for the same work, and while this was a source of intense frustration, it consistently yielded quality.

But I worried about the numbers. Had we favored men like the others? It was a relief to discover that Epiphany had almost perfect gender parity since its premiere issue. And how had I done? As nonfiction editor, three out of five essays published in the magazine were by women, and as senior editor more than half of all works appearing in Epiphany were by women. During that time, three of the four essays honored as notable works in The Best American Essays and the only distinguished story honored in The Best American Short Stories were by women. The results delighted me. Maybe the true victory is more than equality in publishing. It’s equality in our thinking. Maybe I was right, after all, that I am a person, like you.

Visit Karol's website for news. Buy her book and read my review of it on Amazon.    

December 04, 2011

Guest Essayist: Charles van Heck

I introduce to you today to Charles van Heck, a generous soul and elegant essayist. We “met” via Google+, of all places, and a meeting of the minds magically emerged. That merging of thought strikes me always as the gift of connection that I suspect has to with the reading that has infused each of our quite separate lives with narrative, that has placed meaning and form on the chaos of existence. 

William Gass describes this sense of oneness in The Test of Time: “And we, who read and write and bear witness and wail with grief, who make music and massacres, who paint in oils and swim in blood—we are one: everywhere as awful, as possibly noble, as our natures push us or permit us to be.”

Some Background on Charles:

Charles van Heck is a native of Oakland, New Jersey. He has a degree in history from Ramapo College of New Jersey as well as degrees from the University of Dayton and the University of Michigan. A theological librarian, he has taught both theology and American literature, and been the invited speaker at churches of various denominations. He’s worked with the terminally ill, underprivileged, and served as a volunteer during the hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Charles has completed two novels. Mister Lincoln's Elephant Boy is historical fiction based on the documented record Second Volunteer Michigan Infantry and tells the story of Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds Seelye who served for three years during the Civil War as Franklin Thompson. He’s also written a mystery set in the 1950s titled Her Future Past. His poetry and articles have appeared in various journals. Charles lives with his wife in Michigan where he enjoys gardening, cooking, painting, and getting away—he loves to travel.

Wanderings in Woodhull County
by Charles van Heck

There are mornings at Whitman Pond when I want to wander the fields, to forget about writing and simply blend into the landscape. Yesterday morning, though, there were errands to run. A walk would have to wait until the afternoon.

I had driven over to Handy’s Hardware store in Bolivar to pick-up a bottle of fuel stabilizer for the lawn mower and some burlap to wrap around the shrubs. Then there was an errand to run for Irene Longworthy at the Sublet Pharmacy. Both stores were decorated for Christmas. Jack Handy, a Baptist in good standing, had a Menorah Tree. That was something new for me. Phyllis Amacher, over at the Sublet Pharmacy, though I think, gets the prize. She had a good sale on her leftover inventory of Halloween candy and cards. The display was beneath a navy blue tree decorated with the “Nightmare Before Christmas” ornaments, orange lights, and black garland.

The holidays don’t mean very much to me. I’m tired of the news about retails sales; Black Friday stampeding hoards pepper spraying one another for midnight sales, and Cyber Monday. Perhaps I’m becoming a bit of a Scrooge, but it seems to me the magic, mystery, and wonder of the holidays, be it Chanukah or Christmas has been lost. Most importantly, the meaning of the holidays has been replaced by mindless consumerism.

My mother, Alice May Bunt, grew up on a farm in Allentown, New York. She seldom spoke about her childhood. She did speak about the Christmas that her grandmother gave her a handkerchief embroidered with her initials. Her father would cut a tree. It would be placed in the parlor and decorated with candles. On Christmas Eve the candles would be lit, eggnog or hot cider would be served. A few songs would be sung. Then the candles would be extinguished.

My father, Charles van Heck, Jr., would talk about coming home from church on Christmas morning to find the tree decorated in the living room of his parent’s apartment in Brooklyn. He remembered his father cooking dinner, and the family gatherings around the table. I don’t recall him mentioning one gift that he received.

Simplicity? Perhaps. Those were different times. The economic reality from 1914 to the eve of the Second World War was harsh in the agricultural and immigrant communities; particularly during the Great Depression. My mother’s father would lose his farm to the bank. He found employment in the oil fields of Allegany County, New York.  My other grandfather shuttered his corner grocery store because his customers could no longer pay their bills. He went to work as a chef at The Browns, a Borscht Belt resort.

Driving into Evoraburg, I stopped at the Red & White Market for a few groceries and the mail. The floorboards are worn; a few creak as I moved along the narrow well stocked aisles. There is a large fan in the back where Volney Poort stands behind the meat counter. I ordered a fresh chicken for Christmas. “You’ll have to pick it up two days before,” he said. “We’re going to be closed Christmas Eve.” Claribel Poort rang me up at the cash register. “Is Terri going to make a fruit cake?” she asked.

It was obvious from the containers of candied fruit, but the folks of Evoraburg tend to either question or state the obvious, then gossip about it until the obvious becomes unrecognizable. Before the week is out it will be around the village that Terri is baking sweet potato pie for Christmas and I was seen driving off with Ursula Lovecraft, the high school nurse, who happened to be leaving the store the same time. Small towns are like that.  “You forgot your mail, Charlie,” Claribel called. Yes, I was seen leaving the Red & White with Ursula Lovecraft and was in such a rush I forgot my mail.

Outside the air was crisp. The sky was overcast. In the village square, known as Peace Park, the volunteer fire department was putting up an ice skating rink. Doug Seiters, Harvey Cooney, and Ernie Lange of the village Department of Public Works were hanging lights and other decorations on the gazebo and the trees. Watching the workers, I found myself recalling special winter nights in my hometown of Oakland, New Jersey.

Every December there was a Christmas Carol Sing-along outside the Ponds Church. The street was closed off. Hot Chocolate, coffee, warm cider, doughnuts, and cookies were served. There was always a good size crowd. Afterwards, my parents and their friends from the Oakland Volunteer First Aid Squad, some of the police officers, and volunteer firemen would gather at the home of Arnold and Connie Monks. They lived next door to the church. Their home was warm, and nicely decorated. While our parents conversed, we kids got to play. I recall those evenings with fondness and affection for the Monks.

Those days seemed less hurried, less materialistic, and definitely more innocent. At times I feel as if I am playing at being an adult. This is especially true at the house. It seems odd to have accumulated the furniture, paintings, and necessities. Occasionally, I expect someone to tell me I have to clean up the mess. I know that won’t happen.

At this point in my life, I have less interest in things and more in simply being, enjoying, and sharing. I have an extensive library; a carryover from my days in academics both as a student, a theological librarian, and a teacher. John Adams once remarked that he had spent an estate on books. I too have such a passion for books.

I miss teaching undergraduates, meeting with scholars, giving talks at various churches. To some measure that is why I created the Whitman Pond website at the urging of others. Whitman Pond is a place for stories, poetry, art, humor, and commentary on current affairs in a quiet voice. There is enough anger and rancor in our media outlets. I wanted to create an environment that mirrored the living room of Arnold and Connie Monks, and my grandparents’ front porch where people conversed. What was most important to me was to create a place that honored the code of respect for others regardless of their race, creed, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation that my father instilled in me.

Some will say that I am attempting to create an idyllic place based on the past. Perhaps. The historian Joseph J. Ellis has observed, “…all attempts at making the past relevant to the present inevitably require some measure of distortion.” I prefer living the present moment to dwelling in the past. However, I believe the past should inform the present. But a warning, I ascribe to the notion that simplicity is seldom what it appears.

With the groceries and mail in the car, I started across the street to Chaim’s Kosher Bakery and Deli for lunch and to visit with Chaim and his wife Yocheved. Woodhull County Sheriff Patty Hoppack drove past and waved.  After lunch, I returned to the house, then, after changing, went for a walk in the hills around Whitman Pond as a light snow began to fall, stirring me to catch snowflakes on my tongue, and reminding me of the approach of the holidays.

You may visit Charles' website Click here: On Whitman Pond and read more of his elegiac musings.