Sunday Dec. 11, 2016

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The Poet’s Occasional Alternative

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead      it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft      a poem would have had some
distance to go      days and weeks and
much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor

everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it      many friends
will say      why in the world did you
make only one

this does not happen with poems

because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership      I do not
want to wait a week      a year      a
generation for the right
consumer to come along

“The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” by Grace Paley from Begin Again. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of a writer who once wrote, “Birthdays are ghost bounty hunters that track you down to ask, ‘Qué pasa, baby?’” That’s the poet, novelist, and essayist Jim Harrison (books by this author), born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). He discovered William Faulkner with a little help from his father, and he was determined to become a writer when he was still in his teens. His dad bought him his first typewriter. But when Harrison was in his early 20s, a drunk driver killed his father and younger sister while they were on the road for a hunting trip. Harrison had been indecisive about whether to go on the trip or not, and finally decided not to. He always felt that his indecision cost them their lives, because it delayed the start of the trip and put them on the road at the wrong time.

Though he loved Faulkner’s fiction, Harrison was a poet first. He published his first collection, Plain Song, in 1965; in 1969, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry. Then, in 1970, he hurt his back so badly while he was hunting that he had to stay in bed for months. His friend Thomas McGuane told him he should try writing a novel, so he did, and it was Wolf: A False Memoir (1971). Two more novels followed over the next few years, but even though they received positive reviews, they didn’t sell well, and he found himself trying to support a wife and family on $10,000 a year. He considered killing himself, which he later wrote about in his book Letters to Yesenin: “Beauty takes my courage / away this cold autumn evening. My year-old daughter’s red / robe hangs from the doorknob shouting Stop.”

Then Jack Nicholson offered to pay him $30,000 to write three novellas that would make good movies. He managed to achieve two out of three. He had a draft of the first novella written in 10 days, and that was Legends of the Fall, which was made into a movie in 1994. He finished the second novella two weeks later, and that became the movie Revenge (1990). He completed the third novella, The Man Who Gave Up His Name, but it never ended up on the screen.

Harrison wrote a lot about the outdoors and booze and sex, and was often compared to Hemingway. His favorite place to write was a one-room ranch cabin in Patagonia, Arizona. He bought it with money he made writing screenplays in Hollywood, and he would spend the winter there. During the summers, he went up to Montana, where he would hunt and fish all day. He was a man of large appetites, and loved to plan and eat long, lavish meals. He had a series of lunches with the famously portly Orson Welles, and described it in The Raw and the Cooked (2001), a collection of Harrison’s essays on food: “We ate a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports. I stumbled to the toilet for a bit of nose powder, a vice I’ve abandoned, and rested my head in a greasy faint against the tiled walls.”

Harrison died this past March. His friend Thomas McGuane reported that he passed away sitting at his desk in Patagonia, writing out his next book longhand. His last book of poems, Dead Man’s Float, was published in 2015. His collection of novellas, The Ancient Minstrel, hit the shelves on March 1, 2016.

Jim Harrison, who once said: “I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony. As we know from the Russians, a lot of good fiction is sentimental. ... The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. ... I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.”

It’s the birthday of American writer, teacher, and political activist Grace Paley (1922) (books by this author), best known for collections of short stories that plumbed the complexities of female life, like Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985). Paley once said, “I’m not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life.”

Grace Paley was born in the Bronx and grew up in household where Russian, Yiddish, and English were all spoken. She liked reading, especially T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust, but managed to get through high school without once raising her hand. When she did finally raise it, it was during a poetry class with W.H. Auden at The New School for Social Research, when he asked, “Are there any poets who would like to speak to me?” They met at a cafeteria and she asked if she should keep writing. Auden answered, “If you’re a writer, you’ll write no matter what.”

Paley married, had children, and became active in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, joining the War Resisters League and refusing to pay taxes as part of the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest.” She started writing stories about the women she met at the playground and at rallies. She typed her stories while working in the office of the PTA at P.S. 41 on Eleventh Street. Her first book, Little Disturbances of Man, was published in 1959.

It took Paley a long time to write and in her lifetime, she published just three collections of fiction and three chapbooks of poetry. She had no apologies. She said, “Art is too long, and life is too short.”

On writing, Grace Paley said: “The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or a roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”

It’s the birthday of the man called the Father of Modern Arabic Literature — writer Naguib Mahfouz (books by this author), born in Cairo (1911).  Among his most famous works is Between the Two Palaces (1956). It’s the first book in the 1,500-page Cairo Trilogy, and it’s considered the most famous novel in the Arabic language. His work Children of the Alley (1959) is also well known, partly for the amount of controversy that it caused. In it, Mahfouz portrays God in an allegorical manner, and also writes of the coexistence and feuding of brothers whose lives resemble that of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. In the book, he wrote: “Whenever someone is depressed, suffering or humiliated, he points to the mansion at the top of the alley at the end opening out to the desert, and says sadly, ‘That is our ancestor’s house, we are all his children, and we have a right to his property. Why are we starving? What have we done?’” The book was deemed blasphemy and was officially banned in all of the Arab world except Lebanon.

The book also led to a fatwa, or death sentence, from a fundamentalist Islamic theologian. He was given police protection, but in 1994, two men attacked him as he walked near his home one night, and stabbed him in the neck. Mahfouz, then 83 years old, survived the assassination attempt, but was left with serious nerve damage that impaired his ability to use his writing hand. He was able to work for only a small amount of time each day, and he published few works after that. In his later years, he was also deaf in one ear and mostly blind.

He said, “At my age it is unseemly to be pessimistic.”

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