Sunday Oct. 8, 2017

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Just Now

In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever believe
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been here neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

“Just Now” by W. S. Merwin from Collected Poems. © The Library of America, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Writing poems is not a career but a lifetime of looking into, and listening to, how words see.” That’s Philip Booth (books by this author), born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1925. His father taught at Dartmouth with Robert Frost, and Frost took young Philip under his wing. When Booth joined the Army during WWII, Robert Frost sent him his poetry.

Philip Booth was a private man, a man who seldom did readings or went on book tours. But he liked to tell stories about the coast of Maine, where he lived for much of his life and where all his ancestors came from. At dinner parties with friends, he was always asked to tell a Maine story, which he delivered in his Maine accent. He published 10 books of poetry, including Letters from a Distant Land (1957) and his selected poems, Lifelines (1999). He died in 2007.

He said: “I think survival is at stake for all of us all the time. … Every poem, every work of art, everything that is well done, well made, well said, generously given, adds to our chances of survival.”

It’s the birthday of R.L. Stine (books by this author), born Robert Lawrence Stine in Columbus, Ohio (1943). He loved horror stories as a kid, and when he discovered that the local barbershop carried copies of two horror comic strips, he started getting a haircut every Saturday. He wrote lots of jokes and stories, kept writing through college, then moved to New York City to work as a writer. The first job he found was with a fan magazine, and he said that it was good training because it taught him to write fast and make stuff up.

He edited a humor magazine for a few years, but when it folded he decided to try horror, and his series for teenagers, Fear Street, became a huge success. So he wrote a series for younger kids, Goosebumps, and his sales went through the roof. When someone asked him how he first knew that Goosebumps was going to be a big success, he said: “I was in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, driving to a bookstore for a book signing. I remember I was stuck in a huge traffic jam and I was really worried I would be late and was growing more and more annoyed at all the traffic. When we finally approached the bookstore, I realized that the traffic jam was caused by all the people who were coming to see me.” For several years in a row in the 1990s, he was voted not just the best-selling children’s author in the country, but also the best-selling author. He has written more than 100 books and sold more than 400 million copies. He said that his favorite fan letter ever was: “Dear R.L. Stine. I have read 40 of your books and I think they are really boring.”

He said: “I’m really a writing machine. I have no rituals. I don’t need a special desk or special background music. As long as I have a keyboard in front of me, I can write. I work from an office room in my apartment, which I share with my dog. And I do have some creepy atmosphere — a life-sized skeleton, some plastic rats, and a cup full of eyeballs. But that’s just in case kids come by.”

Before the total eclipse in August this year, Stine announced on Twitter that he would be selling glow-in-the-dark books for fans to enjoy.

On this day in 1971, John Lennon released his second solo album, Imagine. The title track was the best-selling song of his solo career and was included on BMI’s list of the top 100 most-performed songs of the 20th century. Lennon said that he and Yoko Ono received a prayer book, which inspired him to write the song. He said: “The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion — not without religion but without this my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing — then it can be true.”

The song’s call for peace and tolerance continues to resonate with people all over the world. Jimmy Carter said, “[I]n many countries … you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.”

On this day in 2015, the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Belarusian journalist and author Svetlana Alexievich. She was the 14th woman to be awarded the prize.

During Alexievich’s career, she has covered the Chernobyl disaster and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. She’s best known for compiling oral histories of people who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union firsthand. The judges awarded Alexievich the prize “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, expanded on the committee’s decision, saying, “These historical events she’s covering in her various books … are, in a way, just pretexts for exploring the Soviet individual and the post-Soviet individual. […] She’s … offering us a history of emotions, a history of the soul.” Alexievich received the call at her home, while she was doing the ironing. She says her reaction to the news was complicated, since the prize evoked memories of other Nobel Prize-winning Russian writers like Boris Pasternak.

“I don’t ask people about socialism; I ask about love, jealousy, childhood, old age,” Alexievich writes in her book Second-hand Time (2016). “Music, dances, hairstyles. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. This is the only way to chase the catastrophe into the framework of the mundane and attempt to tell a story.”

It’s the birthday of comic book writer Harvey Pekar (books by this author), born in Cleveland, Ohio (1939). He liked comic books as a kid, but stopped reading them when he was a teenager, thinking they were kids’ stuff. He went to college, dropped out, tried to join the Army and failed, and ended up as a file clerk for the VA hospital in Cleveland, a job he held for almost 40 years. He got some work writing about jazz, but never enough to live on. Then his friend and neighbor Robert Crumb, a comic book artist, suggested that Pekar write about the ins and outs of his daily life. He did, and Crumb illustrated it along with some other artists. Beginning in 1976, these comics about Pekar’s life with his wife, at the office, going to the grocery store, and complaining about his existence were published as American Splendor. The comic had a small cult following, and then in 2003 it was made into a popular movie starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, but also featuring Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, as well as their cartoon versions.

He said, “People should have their own voice and should contribute to the vocabulary of the art form they’re working in rather than copying other people.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®