Saturday, December 31, 2022

R.I.P. 2022


I first knew of Barbara Ehrenreich from a mutual acquaintance as another freelance writer struggling to get published and especially to get paid.  This puts additional light on her most cited work, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which she documented her own experiences working at minimum wage jobs. 

 But she was also well-educated and well-connected, and was published in the best newspapers and periodicals.  Besides her single subject books, like the aforementioned 2001 volume, her periodical pieces were collected. For instance a volume covering the 1980s, which was for her (and many others) a grim and disenchanting decade, as reflected in her title: The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed.  Her 1995 collection is titled The Snarling Citizen. All of these essays exhibit her wit as well as insight. She spotted important destructive trends which unfortunately still pertain. Throughout the decades, she wrote with great acuity about the conditions and injustices women face (and she faced some painful ones herself), and for that and her lively if uncomfortable reporting on both gender and class, she deserves to be read and remembered, learned from and imitated. 

 Greg Bear was a productive and insightful science fiction writer who I met at a Star Trek convention in Seattle, where he was based.  I especially admire his visionary novel Darwin’s Radio

Hazel Henderson

I once saw Hazel Henderson essentially take over a World Future Society convention.  As a futurist, environmental activist and economist, she was most dynamic in person, but she reached wider audiences with her books, including Creating Alternative Futures and Building a Win-Win World.

 Suzi Gablik was an artist who wrote about art.  In 1970 she published the first in- depth book on Rene Magritte (and helped make him the highly visible artist he is today), after living with the artist and his wife. In the 1990s she broadened her conception of art to include Indigenous and other worldviews, publishing The Reenchanment of Art. As she became more concerned about self-destructive civilization, she published Conversations before the end of time, a collection of amazing interviews. Both I consider to be landmark books.

 Ted Mooney’s day job was editing Art in America (so he may have edited Suzi Gablik.)  But his contribution to literature is his individual vision in four novels, the first being the best known: Easy Travel To Other Planets in 1981, which an American literary critic placed on his list of the best 100 novels of the twentieth century. 

Roger Angell was best known for his writing on baseball in the quintessential New Yorker style, but he also wrote fiction and other non-fiction (plus the witty annual New Yorker Christmas rhymes), as well as serving as the New Yorker’s fiction editor for many years.  In that capacity he wrote me the most flattering and most heart-breaking (literary) rejection letter of my life, in which he said the New Yorker “could hardly bear not to publish” my story.  History shows they all managed pretty well. Angell was 101.

  Doris Grumbach wrote novels and was known for literary criticism in the New Republic and other periodicals.  Among those she reviewed (approvingly) was novelist Maureen Howard, a writer I also enjoyed.

I admired Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. Hilary Mantel wrote various kinds of novels and stories but is most famous for her historical fiction. Nicholas Evans was a British broadcaster and writer whose best-known book is The Horse Whisperer.

 Larry Woiwode published much-praised fiction, essays, biography and poetry from 1969 to 2022. Besides writing some 18 books, he taught writing and ran university writing programs, so his students got the benefit of somebody who walked the walk.  

Before he was a familiar narrator for historical and nature documentaries, David McCullough was a prize-winning author on mostly historical subjects.  Educated at Yale and a model of aristocratic culture, he was born and raised in Pittsburgh, which may have given him particular perspective on the subject of his first book, the Johnstown Flood.

Mike Davis wrote penetrating books about cities and their future, especially Los Angeles. From 1971 to 2012, Todd Gitlin wrote about mass media and politics. Peace activist Staunton Lynd wrote and edited books on political action and nonviolence. William Rivers Pitt is best known for his reporting and political analysis of the American war in Iraq.  P.J. O’Rourke wrote from the other end of the political spectrum, though he started out as just a funny guy. 

Then there are those who are prominent for reasons other than writing, but also published useful books. The latest name added to this year’s rolls is Barbara Walters, whose death was announced on December 30.  She was 93.  She was a television news pioneer and an expert interviewer, and she was famous.  Though I never met her, I once interviewed her on the phone for a piece on Hugh Downs.  Because of her schedule she had to call me, and I didn’t know when she would.  When she called—evidently in the makeup chair for some television appearance—I was in the shower.  So I in fact interviewed Barbara Walters while naked.

 Others who authored books in addition to their day jobs were former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (whose penultimate book was titled Fascism: A Warning), Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union; and for all I know, Pope Benedict and Queen Elizabeth

Scientist James Lovelock saw Earth as a living system, developing (with others) the Gaia Theory, and warned of the dire consequences to the planet of the climate crisis in a series of popular books.  He had 102 years of a remarkable life. Environmentalist and writer David Foreman founded Earth First!

 Revered Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh reached millions with his lectures, audio meditations and his many books. Stage director Peter Brook wrote several important books about theatre.  Before he made films, Jean-Luc Godard wrote about them, and continued to talk about filmmaking at book length.

 Print and television journalists who published books (and some who didn’t) but passed in 2022 include: film critic Sheila Benson, Mark Shields, Bernard Shaw, Bill Plante, Jim Angle, Michael Gerson, John DiStasio, Francis X. Clines, John Hughes, Ann Garrels, Richard Lopez, Shelby Scott (who I remember from WBZ in Boston), and Robert Herman.


Chronicled in books and other media, the legendary work of World War II and fashion photography Tony Vaccaro, and of the photos of Tim Page in Vietnam and afterwards.

 Some subjects of journalistic and other writing that should be mentioned but haven’t fit into previous categories include General Charles McGee, last of the Tuskegee airmen of World War II, and Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg; American Indian activist Clyde Bellecourt, artists Claus Oldenberg and Margaret Keane (those big-eyed figures popular in the 60s); sportscaster Vin Scully, men’s basketball great Bill Russell and women’s basketball great Lusia Harris; legal scholar Lani Guinier, co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund Art Cooley.

 In general, writers don’t get a lot of respect in America, though they may be celebrated locally or within a profession.  So whatever degree of success or failure, fame or obscurity these following writers had in their lifetimes, as long as they have a book or a periodical piece in a library somewhere, or something buried in the depths of cyberspace, there’s a chance some stranger may read it, and their words will live again.

 Also passing away in 2022 were: Andre Leon Talley, Anne Harris, Barbara Love, Geoffrey Asche, Terry Garrity (The Sensuous Woman), Carleton Carpenter, Bruce Duffy, Valerie Boyd, Leonard Kessler, Paul Cantor, Shirley Hughes, Sally Watson, Bethany Campbell, Thomas F. Staley, Sydney Shoemaker, Francois Bott, Tom Maddox, Julia Powell, Sharon Presley, JFK conspiracy theorist David Lifton, Stuart Woods, Joanna Clark, Raymond Briggs, Andrew Hubner, Helen Potrebenko, Terrance Green, Mark Girouard, Michael Malone, Antonin Bajaja, Sue Hardesty, Luis Agular, Jean Franco.

 Poets Gerald Stern, Peter Landborn Wilson, Simon Perchik, Dennis Wilson, Noah Eli Gordon. Editor and publisher Jason Epstein, and literary agent Sterling Lord (I was once represented by his esteemed agency.) Let this list also honor the writers whose deaths were unnoticed.  May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Books That Matter 2022

 Lots of books are published each year, and many of them contribute in some way: they inform, remember, correct the record, advance a new idea, edify, inspire and/or entertain.  But there are a smaller number of books that matter.

Though what matters can mean different things.  Some books matter because of their consequences over time.  Novels (like plays, movies and songs) can become beloved, or in the overused term, "iconic" or even "classic." Typically they speak to different people in different ways, saying different things to each.  Yet they remain memorable for many, and eventually become cultural touchstones that nearly everyone knows at least a little.  

However, identifying such books is best accomplished years afterwards.  Less time needs to pass perhaps to see a novel's influence in the world.  For example, Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry of the Future, published almost two years ago,  has clearly become a book that matters.  Not only is it the author's best-selling novel but it has entered into, and in some ways focused, discussions on how to address the climate crisis future, not only in the U.S. but perhaps even more strongly in Europe and internationally.  Richard Powers' two most recent novels, The Overstory and Bewilderment, have also exerted strong responses and focused emotions, inquiry and discussion on a range of related topics: not just forest issues, but questions of what constitutes life and intelligence, and the relationships of humans to the rest of life--what is increasingly called the "more than human world."   

Nonfiction books can perhaps be more easily identified more quickly as books that matter.  Published nearly a decade ago now, Thomas Picketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is clearly a book that matters.  Applying contemporary economic and historical analysis to very basic questions, Picketty both inspired and coalesced important thinking about basic changes in economic structures needed to make a stable and better future.  Its analysis of the failures of today's economic order and prevailing conservative philosophy, particularly showing the dangers of the huge gaps between the few at the top and everyone else, has become influential even to approaches less radical than Picketty might favor, such as a simple return to the Keynesian economics that prevailed in the U.S. from FDR until Reagan.  That analysis which shows that prosperity is attained by supporting the middle class and public sector investment is becoming U.S. policy again under the Biden administration, in what journalist Michael Tomasky is calling Middle-Out Economics, the title of his new book: perhaps a candidate for a book that matters. (In the meantime, this Politico piece and interview is a good summary.)

But books can matter before their influence is measured simply by being crucial contributions on crucial topics. They are groundbreaking in important ways, though not necessarily unique.  Their importance depends as well on how riveting they are to read.  I have several candidates for books that matter on this basis, published in the past year or so.  It's not an exhaustive list; perhaps the minimum.  The order in which I present them does not imply rank.  What links them is that they present in a generous if not full way a dramatically new synthesis that tells us something startling about our world that upends conventional wisdom and offers a new framework for perceiving and acting in the world.  In that sense, they bring the news.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Published towards the end of last year, this book is already influencing newer work.  Its scope is enormous: nothing less than the human story.  The linear story of development (or evolution of society) is a comfortable one for many reasons.  It simplifies textbook categories, and it leads logically and inevitably to contemporary "advanced" societies, the apex of it all: from caveman to capitalism.  Who loves this story?  The same type folks who extracted "Social Darwinism" from the complexities of Darwinian evolution.  Robber barons like John D. Rockerfeller and Andrew Carnegie saw that it was good, and gave it their monied blessings.

According to the two Davids, both archaeologists, the story is wrong, right from the beginning. Modern humans weren't the sole apex of evolution--other humanoids had real societies, too, with all the elements of intelligence and expression.  We carry some of their genes. 

Society did not develop or even change from hunter-gatherer to agricultural to urban.  All these forms coexisted and intermingled, and there were many hybrids.  There were urban societies without kings or rulers, and tyrannical hunter-gatherers.  The Davids may be a little judgey in their descriptions of the varieties of Native (North and South) American societies, but they make their point--they were not simple or primitive or identical; they were often sophisticated, complex, various and sometimes large.  

This book emphasized an historical point that has since been taken up by others: that the form of democracy that governed the Six Nations Confederacy (the Haudenosaunee) that lasted longer than our democracy has so far, was patiently explained to Benjamin Franklin and others by some of its leaders, and informed the formation of the non-Native American democracy.  Too bad it didn't also adopt the Prime Directive of the  Haudenosaunee: in all decisions take into account the seventh generation to come.

This book of 692 pages is replete with examples, written with verve and wit, so it can read like a wonder book.  We don't really need Marvel or the other purveyors of outsized fantasies:  it's there in the histories that have either only recently discovered or studied, or conveniently ignored because they complicate or contradict the main story--the one that has gone a long way towards the fix we're in, on the brink of destroying it all.

An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

by Ed Yong 

In Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, the character that most readers noted and remembered is a woman scientist who discovers that trees in a forest communicate with each other, and help each other chemically to ward off disease.  She is ridiculed by scandalized scientists and forced out of academia until her research is vindicated, and she becomes a kind of folk hero.

 This character is based on a real life researcher, Suzanne Simard, whose book Finding the Mother Tree subsequently became popular.  But even more popular was a book on the same theme published a few years earlier by forester Peter Wohlleben, with the more arresting title The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.

 That book’s success, expanding on revelations about the complex life of the forest, led to a series of similar books by Wohlleben and many others, with titles often beginning with “The Hidden Life of” or “The Secret Life of” various animals, plants and other natural phenomena, including ice.  These books reflected new research but also observations that had gone unnoticed or derided because they contradicted established views on the natural world as comprised of simple if sometimes mysterious living objects, of interest mostly as exploitable for human ends.

 All of this helped prepare readers for the June 2022 publication of An Immense World by the much praised science journalist Ed Yong. It turns out that everything has a life hidden to humans, partly because our current preconceptions block awareness, but also because other lifeforms experience the world in vastly different ways.

 The key concept here is umwelt, named by early 20th century zoologist Jakob von Uexkull.  It refers to the sensory world of animals, determined by what senses they have and what they can do.  As Yong demonstrates through scientists he visits, these vary considerably.  Some creatures taste with their feet, others hear ultrasound or see into the ultraviolet. They may sense electromagnetic waves.

   Senses that we share with other animals are used in different ways, and the balance among them can be radically different.  Dogs smell and hear better than they see—so their world is one of aroma trails.  Even their color vision is different, and one of the more startling illustrations in this book compares the colors in a typical room that we see, and how dogs see them.

Though sometimes based on dismissed and forgotten insights, most of the research is new, as scientists use new technologies to dispel old assumptions.  That birds can’t smell is one of them, but there are many more.  Some of these discoveries are astonishing:  for instance, the vocalizations and communication that goes on out of human hearing range.  We can detect only a fraction of whales’ songs, and it turns out that mice sing to each other.  At some points this book starts to sound like Douglas Adams’ humorous takes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (that mice actually run experiments on humans, that dolphins can escape human catastrophe) may have more substance than expected.

 Apart from the wondrous details, there are larger points here.  Humans assumed a lot about other life based on their own sensorium, but we’ve missed quite a lot.  “Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way.  To us, it feels all-encompassing.  It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know.  This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.”

 But science and other forms of observation at the service of human imagination can help us see not only some of the ways other lifeforms live and communicate, but how our own activities disrupt their lives.  Light pollution wreaks havoc on various birds and other animals; noise pollution in the oceans endangers whales and other sea creatures.  

Despite the book's length, Yong's precise but informal voice and his flourishes of wit make it eminently readable, yet the science reporting itself is admirable. Even the footnotes are interesting reading. It helps that what the science is reporting remains continuously fascinating. 

 This research has greatly complicated human conceptions of what other lifeforms are, and expands the notions, extent and range of sentience and intelligence. It is this theme that James Bridle takes up in his book.

 Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for Planetary Intelligence

By James Bridle 

Bridle writes and thinks chiefly about technologies, and his disquiet about the direction and limitations of artificial intelligence sent him to explore other kinds of intelligences in the natural world.

 Again, the concept of Umwelt is evoked. Bridle also refers to both Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future as starting points for his own explorations.  He ranges far and wide, from our humanoid ancestors to the intelligence of slime mold, and applies his observations to the new machines.  “The idea of forming new relationships with non-human intelligence is the central theme of this book,” he writes.  “It emanates from a wider and deeper dawning: the increasingly evident and pressing reality of our utter entanglement with the more-than-human world.”

 Bridle’s cogent and provocative musings apply not only to the possible futures of machine intelligence but, as Yong’s book does, to the endangered life of this planet and the necessity to actively preserve it.  As we discover and admit the extent of intelligent life and its beautiful complexity, we are close to destroying it.

 The singular and expressive organization of information and the inspired insights more than compensate for some slackness and an editorial lapse or two. Bridle's ideas and their expression in this book merit serious attention.

This recent run of books on non-human life, culminating so far in Yong and Bridle, should end any credibility given to the traditional notion of animals as natural automatons, important only as they are useful to humans, with no feelings to consider or intelligence to respect and learn from.  Gaia expanded the definition of life, and now we grapple with kinds of intelligence not only in familiar animals but plants, microbes and other life. We'd better start learning.

 One of the ideas that Bridle interrogates is the notion promoted by digital industries and other enthusiasts that intelligence is primarily based on calculation.  That is a theme in the latest novel by Dave Eggers.

 The Every: Or At Last A Sense of Order, Or The Final Days of Free Will, or Limitless Choice is Killing The World

A novel by Dave Eggers 

The Hollywood pitch for this novel might be Alice in Wonderland meets Nineteen Eighty-Four, or perhaps Brave New World would be a closer match to its onrushing dystopia.

 In this stand-alone sequel to Eggers’ The Circle, the Facebook-like corporation has merged with Amazon (referred to here as the Jungle) to form a monopolistic continuum, not only of business, not only of culture, but of shared reality.  Welcome to The Every.

 Delaney is a young woman intent on destroying The Every from the inside.  She is intelligent, intuitive, creative and acutely observant, but the plot hinges on her also being repeatedly naïve about the outcome of her efforts, as she proposes a series of outrageous changes that turn out to be big hits with The Every users, which seems to include Everyone.

 Eggers is not shy about stating his theme early in the novel: “the war on subjectivity.”  Everything is objectified to decision by calculation. (This includes the maximum number of allowable pages in a readable novel, which is 577—as it happens, the exact length of this book.) Ironically this also results in the disappearance of actual objects and authentic life, in favor of digital imagery and ideological judgments.  The result is a society caught in self-referential stasis, that punishes difference. 

 The novel does not fall easily into political categories. It exposes corporate conformism, but also its effect of cancel culture. The reasons (or excuses) given for much of the social pressure to conform are to save the environment and promote social justice.

 Delaney is a former forest ranger, so it may have seemed natural to her to organize an outing of The Every employees to visit Pacific Coast seals, but it was a disaster from start to finish, especially when they were confronted with the realities of these animals and their lives.  This incident is outrageously exaggerated and yet totally believable, and ultimately dystopic, especially given what these previous books tell us.

 It’s also funny, as is the novel generally, in a Dr. Strangelove sort of way. It has some characteristics of a satire of a monomanical corporate culture becoming a monoculture at large. Delaney’s best friend and fellow skeptic is the first to succumb to The Every’s embrace, supplying a horror movie vibe (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)  Delaney’s own fate involves a confrontation with the head of The Every, who was the naïve young woman protagonist of The Circle.

 There are many other related issues raised in the novel, in an entertaining narrative context that feels real right now.  The story is in development for a TV series, but right now this is a book that matters.

These four books matter because they give us crucial new information that creates a new context of how we see the world, our society and ourselves.  Right now there is no more important context that the relationship of humanity to the rest of life, and secondarily to the digital life humans are creating (for if we don't solve the survival problems associated with the first, the second won't much matter.)  They are robust enough to generate further discussion, and they cry out for action. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

History of My Reading: To Boulder Go 1969 (Part 1)

Fort Collins, Colorado 1969

In June 1969 Joni and I left Galesburg and headed west.  She had her Knox College degree, though I believe we left before graduation ceremonies. Our immediate destination was Colorado, where Joni would visit with her parents and her older sister, who was also visiting from Connecticut.  I had a bed in the basement of a house in Fort Collins, and then a space on the floor in a Boulder apartment. 

 Partly this was because I was not a popular person with her parents, or at least, they did not approve of their daughter being involved with this feckless hippie with impractical dreams and dubious prospects.  And long hair.

 But I also had a reason to be in Boulder: I had applied and been accepted at a summer writing workshop, officially the annual Writers Conference at the University of Colorado.  For even with the beginning of my disillusion at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I had no other direction or vocation. 

 Even after Iowa, I kept writing and sending things out to magazines, literary and otherwise.  I still have appointment calendars from 1968 and 1969 that record nothing but notes of poems or stories sent out on that date and to which publication, and notes on the dates when they came back with a rejection slip, and notes on the date I sent them somewhere else.

 In those days there was varied advice on how to manage manuscripts.  The accepted rule then was you could submit a poem or story to only one publication at a time.  Some counseled sending a story to “top markets” first, and work down to the little magazines.  Or (with poems in particular) start with publications that favor the style or subject of your work.

 I tried them both.  I wasn’t very skilled at either, and wound up trusting to luck and serendipity, especially when desperate, which was frequently. I was also easily discouraged, so after a few rejections the stories never made it far down the supposed literary food chain. 

 This was when you actually received rejection slips and letters, instead of an unwholesome silence, a judgmental void.  There was a kind of code to rejections as well.  A form rejection slip, usual polite but impersonal, was the bottom rung.  A note or a few handwritten words indicating your work had some merit was better.  A request for more, signed by an actual editor, was near the top.

 The best rejection slips came from a small literary magazine in the Bay Area called Kayak, edited by George Hitchcock.  Hitchcock, Kayak and especially the rejection slips have become legendary. 

The slips themselves used an arcane clip art.  Apparently the art itself made pretty clear when the submission was horrible. (Fortunately I never got one of those, but I’ve seen them now online.)  The others were funny—or as funny as rejection slips could be.  The one I prized did include a handwritten request for more poems, signed by Hitchcock.  (I came across it recently and put it in a safe place.  As soon as I figure out where that is, I'll scan and post it.  This example is off the Internet.)

Kayak published mostly poetry by the likes of Robert Bly and James Wright.  Hitchcock liked the slightly surreal—right up my alley. Though I gave up before getting a poem published there, in the fullness of years I was grateful to be among the near misses. And I was able to return the compliment by favorably reviewing Hitchcock’s collection of his own work in the San Francisco Chronicle, where I mentioned the rejection slips.  His editor let me know that Hitchcock, then in his 90s, had gotten a kick out of it. 

 But during that 1968-69 year I only got a couple of poems published in a really obscure magazine called the Riverside Quarterly, besides a fiction in the first issue of Knox’s new literary magazine Catch.  My first noted literary magazine acceptance was forwarded to Colorado from the Carleton Miscellany, for, prophetically, a kind of book review or appreciation of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  Check included.

 So a writing workshop in Colorado was another opportunity for what’s now called networking, and maybe learning something useful, if not about writing, then about the writing biz.  Besides, going to school was about all I knew how to do.

  There were several name writers who taught separate workshops over two weeks in June.  I was in the class run by Harlan Ellison.  He came from a different tradition than the writers in Iowa City, or the ones we read in literature classes.  He wrote for pulp magazines and now glossy and prestige magazines, primarily science fiction but also horror and erotica, sometimes under pseudonyms, as well as nonfiction of various kinds.  He went to Hollywood and wrote all kinds of movies and television.  He won lots of awards, mostly for genre fiction.  He wrote a lot.  He’d published hundreds of stories by this time, when he was in the early prime of a long career.  His formal education consisted of 18 months of college.

 Ellison was known as a rebel, a gadfly, and an aggressive adherent and promoter of New Wave science fiction, the latest revolution in the field.  He backed up his Civil Rights and anti-war credentials with a hip look and attitude.  He came into the classroom in bright colorful shirts of a unique style—maybe Carnaby Street meets Sunset Strip.  I remember especially the huge floppy collars with a kind of exaggerated Peter Pan collar shape. Or maybe the memory is metaphorical, for that was a major impression I had—that with his boyish face, his enthusiasm and combative energy, and his small stature, he was a kind of a countercultural Peter Pan.  Although at the time I met him he was 38.

 Ellison’s brash energy and entertaining patter in the classroom perhaps obscured as much as expressed his actual intelligence. You can see something of what he was like in his interviews with Tom Snyder on the Tomorrow Show a few years later, some still on YouTube.  (He was one of Snyder’s favorite guests.) 

 At the end of our first class he gave us an assignment to write a few hundred words on the old Reader’s Digest canard: the most unforgettable character we’d ever met.  I wrote about a fictitious person based on someone I’d just met in Fort Collins, although it ended with a surreal fantasy.

  I was still sleeping in the basement of a house in Fort Collins rented by, among others, the boyfriend of Joni’s cousin Mary.  One night Mary took me to a mountain encampment of some of her freaky friends, and I set my story there.  It was centered on another young woman who was there and who Mary had talked about, but it was only vaguely based on her. The 1968 Roman Polanski film of “Rosemary’s Baby” must have been a hot topic (though I’m not sure I’d seen it) because the piece was also a kind of parody of the idea of an unusual birth.  It was called “Geraldine’s Baby.”

 I obviously had been to the University of Colorado Norlin Library by then, or at least walked up to it, because I used the motto engraved in stone above its entrance as a quote before the story: “Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always A Child.”  But I took from it something other than the intended message. In just about everything I wrote, I was trying to express the realities and the points of view of my generation, and why we rejected the past; why we fought so hard to protect our innocence.

 Still, I wanted to live a life as a writer, and so I was of at least two minds—and about three hearts—about the writing biz.  I was repelled by the pretensions and fake preciousness I’d seen in the academy (and feared I saw in the mirror) but I had not given up the large ambitions. Still, I’d grown up on science fiction, and now Vonnegut and the New Wave writers were bringing contemporary ideas and approaches to it.  Besides, what fun it would be to be published in a pulp magazine!  So I was more than willing to listen to Harlan Ellison.

 These workshops were also useful as a way to evaluate where you were in relation to your peers, and to professionals.  I was pleasantly surprised that Ellison singled out my story for praise at the next class. But it also made me greedy.  Ellison had edited the New Wave anthology Dangerous Visions, and he was editing its sequel.  The next day he also praised the story of another participant in our workshop, and word went around that he bought that story for the new anthology.  I was determined to make that sale with my next story.

 At some point I moved to a more convenient distance, to a small but fairly swanky apartment on Cascade Avenue in Boulder, and a sleeping bag spot on a shag carpet in the living room.  My host was a tall man with a big beard and long hair named Bill Stage.  He had known Joni’s Knox friend Kathy, also from Denver, and he grudgingly agreed to let me stay one night.  But when he saw me he had the opposite reaction that Joni’s parents had—which was typical of those days.  Once he saw that I wasn’t a frat boy but another long-hair, he relaxed and told me I could crash there as long as I wanted.

 My longer story for the workshop was titled “Escape From Cloud Village.”  It was about a young woman fresh from college who tries to leave her planned suburb but it won’t let her—lawn sprinklers and hoses, faux antique lampposts, even her own car, conspire against her.  Looking at it now I see wisps of Vonnegut and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.  But it does anticipate in a way some of the suburban creepiness of my contemporary, Steven Speilberg.  As well as perhaps one way of looking at future events in my own life.

 The story earned me a one-on-one conference with Harlan Ellison.  I got a typed note from him on the same kind of yellow second sheet paper I used: “Bring this in to talk to me.  It is extraordinarily good.  And in some silly ways you can avoid, very bad.  We should rap about this one.  You might be able to sell it.”

 I don’t think my conference was his first of the day, for when I arrived Ellison was restless and a bit distracted.  As I entered the room he put a record on a tiny record player and began dancing with a young woman companion in her flower power mini-dress.  I didn’t know how to react to that, except that I recall I had the feeling that maybe he was trying too hard.

 I remember a sentence he complimented (“do you know how good this is?”), the word he said didn’t mean what I thought it meant (not entirely true, but he was right that it was the wrong word.)  He may have told me that the mother’s speech was too much like a speech—anyway, he should have.  And I waited for more but...that was pretty much it.  I don’t remember a clear direction or advice on publishing it, and above all, no offer to buy it for the second Dangerous Visions anthology. He was ready for another dance.

 So I left, dissatisfied. I didn’t know what to do next. I was pretty much where I’d been before the workshop.  More generally, lost in the big world, I was feeling the pressures of reality, though I fought them off.  Even as I knew my work wasn’t quite there, I didn’t yet have the experience nor the temperament to know how to make it better.  I rejected the uncomprehending, doubting or dismissive voices from outside, but their echoes were inside, and deep.  I mostly had the wild delight of creating, as I fought off the fear of a budding self or soul being obliterated. 

 As for my haughty hopes about the anthology, it would be several years before Again, Dangerous Visions was published. Scanning the contents, I don’t think that story from someone in my workshop is in it—at least I didn’t recognize the name.  I did, however, recognize many names, like Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe and other established science fiction writers.  And a novella called “The Word For The World Is Forest” by Ursula K. LeGuin, which won that year’s Hugo Award and is now one of the immortals, as well as one of my personal classics.  It makes my greed especially laughable. 

 The workshops concluded with an outdoor evening of readings by participants.  It was an open reading, so I signed up to read two poems.  I didn’t get on for awhile, which turned out to be to my benefit. 

 The poems I selected were fairly long, and they were meant to be read aloud—in a way the culmination of my experiments at Knox and Iowa.  One was a sound poem titled “Notable American Fascists.”  Each section ended with a name that was well-known then, though mostly forgotten now, except possibly for J.Edgar Hoover.  The audience loved it, and excited the performer in me.  So I took the microphone off the stand and held it close to make the sounds into it.

 The other was called “Litany”: a form I knew well.  I especially remember the mornings in 6th and 7th grade we spent in the dark, cavernous Cathedral, drowsily listening on aching knees to one or another of the Catholic litanies intoned on appropriate days of the liturgical calendar.  I recall writing the first draft of it in Galesburg, possibly alone one night in Robin Metz’s house the previous summer, on folded gray-white paper that had been the wrapping of a book.

 My litany was full of word play and extravagant language, occasionally undercut by a joke (a series of tremulous long lines beginning with the vocative “O,” then undercut by “O Christmas tree.”)  The point of view also resonated with the 1969 audience: “Alkaseltzer of the middle class, you O most mascara-ed of mistreated infants, of wandering and wounded species, instincts gone weird beyond recall”/ O blossom of the tentative, frightened flower!”

 I don't think it holds up now, but it worked for that moment.  It benefited by being preceded by the hushed lines of short poems grounded in moments of personal experiences.  My lines released that quiet audience tension in recognition and laughter. 

 But that was turnabout—for these poems on a page would likely have been met with embarrassed silence in a workshop classroom.  They were meant for this, for performance.  So it surprises me now to realize that this was the first time I read my verses in public away from Knox College.  And it would turn out to also be the last time.

 Towards the end of the evening, Harlan Ellison swept in with his entourage, and read a poem he’d evidently just written about ungrateful students who only wanted a piece of him.  And then he swept out.

Another memory of this writers conference is distinct and separate from these other memories. It involves a party.

 There were always parties connected with these events involving writers, and in those days they were drunken parties. This one was at a private residence. I remember two older writers.  One was the novelist Vance Bourjaily, a writer I’d read and respected (and still respect.)

  The other was a man I’d not heard of, and whose name I can no longer remember.  (I should say at this point that in searching for a photo for yet another writer at this conference, I came upon a newspaper story about the conference itself that provided his name, which led me to more information about him. But I’m going to stick to my original plan of keeping him anonymous. However, I thought I remembered his first name—and I did.)

 He was in his late 40s but seemed older to me. I remember him in a dark suit.  He was slightly built, though perhaps a bit paunchy, with a bristly beard. When I first met him, he was an easy, nervy raconteur with a wealth of stories and gossip about other writers, artists and actors—his acquaintances ranged from Robert Frost and Joseph Heller to Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis-- and especially about editors, publishers and Hollywood producers.  He’d lived mostly in New York in the 1950s and early 60s.  I was among a small group listening to him. The theme mostly was how corrupt the whole writing game was.  Good writing wasn’t valued, it wasn’t even wanted. 

He had done a lot of writing for print—mostly magazines but also books, and some work for film and television, often using pseudonyms. He claimed he had ghost-written popular novels, including a giant best-seller by a woman novelist, perhaps Jacqueline Susann. The manuscript was so bad when he got it, he said, it nearly drove him crazy.  It cost him more than he was paid to do it. He was funny, acerbic, and seemed to know a lot.  He was smoking and drinking all the while.  We probably all were.

 After the party I caught a ride back to campus.  I was in the front seat and he was in the back with his current girlfriend. I gathered that he’d been divorced several times. He was still talking.  Now the undercurrent of bitterness in his stories became prominent. He was drunk. We probably all were.

 There was a funny conversation in the front seat, so I wasn’t paying direct attention to him.  But I could hear him getting angrier, less coherent.  His girlfriend was trying to calm him, but then he turned on her. He was nasty to her. That’s what got my attention.  That’s what made me resolve I wasn’t going to end up like him, even if it meant giving up this whole idea of being a writer.  I’m not sure all of this was entirely conscious at the time, but looking back, that’s the substance of that moment.

 It was only after I came upon his name while looking for a photo of someone else at the conference that I learned that he died just a few years after that night.  I don’t condemn his life.  He left children and now grandchildren, he had interesting and accomplished friends, he wrote for high profile publications and was by most measures successful.  But he remained for me a cautionary tale. 


When we got back to campus, he was not among those of us who joined a few others in the dorm where some of the guest writers were staying. We were in some sort of lounge, and I wound up at the piano, thumping out the blues progressions that were very close to the sum total of my repertoire.  At that point Vance Bourjaily got excited, disappeared for a moment and suddenly returned with a trombone in hand. 

 I’ll never forget the expectant look in his eyes as he anticipated a mellow jazz jam.  He assumed I was an actual pianist. I wish to this day that I had come up with at least a chord progression to carry him.  I think I tried, but others intervened with their musical demands, the scene dissolved into chaos again, and in short order I left.  I was a few days shy of my 23rd birthday. My sojourn in Boulder and Colorado was just beginning. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

History of My Reading: Billy Pilgrim in Galesburg

Standish Park in Galesburg 1903
Standish Park Galesburg 1903

  After my last draft adventure, and my disillusion and early sorrow in Iowa City, I was back in Galesburg. Joni was completing her Knox College degree requirements the second half of that 1968-69 school year. We lived together in an apartment just off campus, not far from Post Hall, a quiet duplex (476 S. West?) with Skip Peterson’s parents (his father taught art at Knox) on the other side.

 I have a few memories of reading linked to a physical location during this time. In that apartment, in the first floor study, I recall reading Euripides’ play The Trojan Women in some collection, and wanting to adapt it for a contemporary audience of the Vietnam era. It was a great idea but too ambitious for me to actually get very far. However, in just a few years (1971) its anti-war relevance led to a feature film starring Vanessa Redgrave, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Pappas and Geneveive Bujold. 

Another physical memory is of reading a fiction paperback called Jesus Christs in a booth at Higgins Diary, which was across South Street from the main campus official entrance.  It was a quieter, lower intensity place, not as social as the Gizmo but still within the hum and buzz. I also read Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn at about the same time. I don’t recall anything about the Beagle, except it was probably the first fantasy novel I’d read since Alice in Wonderland, and that I sometimes felt like the last unicorn (and I was hardly alone in that.)

 I still have that copy of Jesus Christs by A. J. Langguth. The premise was that Jesus returned to earth many times, surrounded by different versions of his disciples and other characters from the Biblical account, often with different outcomes, and a different kind of Jesus. Some of the stories are no longer than a paragraph, others are dramatic dialogues and stories of several pages (one reimagines Jesus as a Vietnamese fighter.)

 The idea appealed to me, still only five years out of Catholic schools, and not quite a year after my own variation in my play What’s Happening, Baby Jesus? Reading the Langguth book again after a half century, some stories seem insipid but others—especially the dialogues—are absorbing. 

  I was moving farther away from straight naturalistic fiction, although I also recall we had a paperback copy of John Updike’s best seller Couples. This trend in my reading seems related to Kurt Vonnegut’s best seller of that spring, Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m pretty sure it was after I read it that I tracked down his earlier novels (apart from Mother Night, which I’d already read.)

 I probably enjoyed Sirens of Titan the most, the novel in which Vonnegut had come closest to pure science fiction (the planet Tralfamadore, which starred in Slaughterhouse Five, appeared in it.) I remember beginning Cat’s Cradle on either a bus or a train. Then Player Piano, his first novel. His novel just previous to Slaughterhouse, Good Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, had been his most popular up to then, but it was, at least initially, my least favorite. I probably didn't read all of those in Galesburg, but elsewhere in 1969, though I'm pretty sure  I read the stories in a new collection there: Welcome to the Monkey House (which included many in the previous collection I'd read.) 

 Vonnegut’s reputation exploded with Slaughterhouse-Five. Fortunately for me, I didn’t know that Vonnegut wrote most of it in the Iowa City I'd just fled, or the irony might have done me in. The evocation of the largely unknown firebombing of Dresden within the story of Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time, was a stunning tour de force, written in an unmistakable voice that resonated with the times. It was one of those books that unites people who love it. It was if we could almost inhabit it together. It wasn’t quite Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but almost. It cast a spell.

 This isn’t to say the admiration was universal or complete. It’s easy to forget sometimes that students could be at least as cynical as professors and administrators, though usually on different subjects. I still claim however, that even in those years I was not cynical. I could be sardonic, satiric, less often sarcastic, too often thoughtless of others, and at times despairing. But not really cynical. That’s also how how I understood Vonnegut to be. 

While we were in Galesburg, Joni and I both worked part time at the Knox Bookstore. That for me was pretty much the equivalent of an alcoholic working in a bar. I remember for example lusting after J. P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Bathazar B as it came in, before discovering his earlier books other than The Ginger Man.

 Otherwise, a notebook from this period indicates I was reading R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and The Subversive Science, the ecology reader edited by Paul Shepard containing probably his most famous essay, “Ecology and Man: A Viewpoint.” This evidently sent me back to re-reading sections of Shepard’s first book, Man in the Landscape, because I also quote that in my notebook. I also seemed to be attempting—not for the first or last time— Joyce’s finnegans wake

 I must have also been reading John Cage again, because when we invited Robin and Lynn Metz over for dinner, and we played a game of Monopoly afterwards, I insisted on making all my moves with chance operations, by flipping coins. Robin took advantage of any resulting weak moves with a relish that I think scared him a little.

 Meanwhile I was participating in Knox life to the extent that some people might have concluded that I was either enrolled as a student or teaching classes. I went to movies, plays and public lectures, either with Joni or alone. This was probably the year I participated in guitar improvisations with Steve Meyers and Dick Wissler, that Wissler recorded. 

 Over those months I wrote reviews and articles for the Knox Student, participated in a poetry reading (noted in that year's Gale), had a jagged short story published in the first issue of the renamed literary magazine Catch, and acted in Sherwood Kiraly’s latest play in the Studio Theatre, “Smokers Cough III,” a comedy in which Norse gods intervene in an Old West poker game, or something like that. The Knox Student theatre critic told me that I was his choice for best Studio Theatre performance of the spring, but fortunately for us both, the final issue of the Student wasn’t published that year for some reason, so his article saying so didn’t appear. 

He probably did not see the show on the final night, however, because we mercilessly embroidered our performances, literally upstaging each other for laughs. An example: downstage, closest to the audience, was the poker table where much of the action took place. At one point, I (as Old Slim) wander back to the bar (upstage), and silently drink while the poker table action continues. Only this time instead of just pouring myself a drink, I spilled the bottle, sending liquid down on the town drunk, dozing at the foot of the bar under a sombrero.

 I got a big laugh, but the actors at the poker table couldn’t see me, and so they didn’t know why the audience was laughing. Then the audience laughed again, and even I didn’t know why. It was because Jim Reynolds as the drunk had upstaged me, by putting a tentative hand out as the water dripped down on him, as if testing for rain.

 If the audience thought that was a planned bit, they gave us more credit than we were due. But basically they caught on to the fact we were improvising and trying to break each other up. They laughed a lot, so it was the most fun I’ve had in a theatre, at least on stage.

 And that wasn’t all. The director was also one of the actors, so with the connivance of the author and the lighting director at the cast party the night before, we changed the ending without telling the director, just to see the look on his face when it was his turn to speak and he had no next line.

 But all this also had its weirdness. From my notebook: “Sitting in the Commons Room after everyone has gone/my life/lived here. Now I am even/quoted here./I sit here/like a vulture/ circling my own life.”

 Since I was still theoretically writing my college novel, this extra residence provided more opportunities to test and refine impressions, which is a writerly kind of vulture behavior I suppose. I noted for example (in my notebook), the feeling of fall: “Fresh warm wind blowing, bright sunshine, the cool air, the love for the people, their faces anticipated. Can’t hurry fast enough to do the next thing, to get to the Giz, see people, mind racing ahead, plotting possibilities in the thrilling wind.”

 I had become interested in writers who had attended Knox. I’d heard stories about Eugene Field, the journalist and children’s poet (Wynken, Blinken and Nod) whose checkered academic career included a boisterous year at Knox. In the 1960s he was a rarely mentioned black sheep. So I read more about him. I had already made that poem a motif in my college fiction, with my characters Lincoln, Blakely and Nod.

I’m not sure how I learned about Jack Finney (Knox class of 1934), but at the time he certainly wasn’t an honored alum either, nor very well known. That would begin to change a year or so after I dredged up a book of his short stories in the Knox library, not in general circulation (I had to sit in a silent room alone to read it), called I Love Galesburg in the Springtime

 The title story lovingly described the texture and architecture of Galesburg’s surviving 19th century character, while relating several incidents of the past invading the Galesburg present: like a disconnected old wall phone ringing, and a dead boyhood friend’s voice on the other end.

 Finney had written a couple of novels that had been turned into successful movies, including one of the great science fiction movies of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He also wrote the episode of the 1950s series Science Fiction Theatre that I remembered best from seeing it at about age 9.  It also had an eerie time travel theme, this time from the future to the present. Fittingly, it was called “Time Is Just A Place.” It was directed by Jack Arnold, who made many of the other great 50s s/f movies.

 But Finney didn’t achieve fame until the success of his 1970 novel, Time and Again, in which the protagonist travels back through time to New York City in 1882. By then Finney had lived in New York for years, and employed the same loving detail about its historic architecture—including buildings no longer existing—as he did in the Galesburg story, though with much more mesmerizing effect. The novel is illustrated with period photos, a technique that later writers (notably W. G. Sebold) also employed. (Oddly, it was never filmed, though science fiction writer Richard Matheson later based his own similar story on it--with appropriate credit to Finney--which did result in an unjustly forgotten 1980 film titled Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and a luminous Jane Seymour.)

 I was immediately taken with that Galesburg story because I recognized some of the romance of the place that Finney did. Those old Victorian Gothic houses, like Anderson House where I lived my first two years at Knox, did have a feeling about them, and a mystery. In my years there I walked all over Galesburg, especially at night, often with a companion... Under the persimmon trees of Standish Park. Down the brick walks, the wide streets that might lead directly into dark fields, through the cemetery with a thrilling wind high in the trees....Following trails winding next to long sets of solitary railroad tracks...Late night blueberry pancakes at the Q, or in a hidden restaurant seemingly known only to railroad men... Standing at the kitchen door of a house hosting games of chance, to buy one of their tremendous chicken sandwiches... Or eating my first taco from a Mexican place. Sandburg and Lincoln walked these streets, as did the young Ronnie Reagan. I hadn’t yet discovered the great Dorothea Tanning, a fellow editor of the Siwasher. Finney only scratched the surface of ghostly history superimposed on the present.

 Time and Again sold very well and was highly praised by Stephen King, Carl Sagan and many others. In 1986 Finney repackaged stories from his I Love Galesburg in the Springtime collection,  together with stories from his 1957 collection The Third Level in a new book titled  About Time.  It includes "Such Interesting Neighbors," which he'd adapted for that Science Fiction Theatre episode. 

Now Knox honors him as one of their own, or at least students did, by naming a science fiction and fantasy magazine Third Level, after that first collection and its title story in which the protagonist stumbles upon an enchanted level of Grand Central Station stuck in the 1880s, and he tries to buy a ticket to the Galesburg of that era. But in 1969, it was just me reading him in the Seymour Library. 

With Finney as with Vonnegut, the characters are unstuck in time.  It strike me that this describes the situation of college students, and a fundamental quality of academia--one's mind and heart roam the centuries, temporarily inhabiting aspects of another time (including the future), through literature and art, history and other studies, as well as through films and exchanges with others in the community. And these overlap and overlay, often simultaneously.  For me this defines one of the more attractive elements of academia, though it requires a great deal of deliberate innocence to feel it and focus on it.

Unstuck in time might also describe readers in a library, including their own.

My residency in Galesburg that year had itself begun with a strange event. I was at a student party in a large and largely empty house, very dark. Very late in the evening a male student I knew approached me, and said there had been a misunderstanding with some men from town, and his girlfriend had to get out of there quickly. Could I walk her to his apartment several blocks away? I knew and liked his girlfriend (who happened to be a talented writer, and has since published novels) so without needing to know any more, I agreed.

 On our way I could see we were being followed by several men in a car driving slowly behind us in the darkness. I kept walking, my arm around my weeping companion. When I glanced back again the car was gone.

 I did get a little more of the story later, but still, there were a number of mysterious aspects to this event that I’ve thought about many times since. I guess I prefer to believe I was given this task because I could be trusted to see it through. In this, I was perhaps following an element of my own nature that I learned to value, as expressed by John Updike in a short story I first read just before my freshman year at Knox. “The Happiest I’ve Been” ends with the young narrator saying, “And there was knowing that twice since midnight a person had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me.”

P.S. The phrase I use in the first sentence of this post ("disillusion and early sorrow") reflects my misremembering of the title of a Thomas Mann novella, Disorder and Early Sorrow.  When I was corresponding with Mary Jacobson during the summer after my first year at Knox, she mentioned that she was reading this, so of course I tried to read it, too.  And failed.  I still haven't read it.  But I liked the title.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Project Hail Mary

 Project Hail Mary

by Andy Weir

Ballantine Books

Andy Weir has published another marvelously geeky novel like The Martian, but on larger scales of plot, action and character.  Over 478 pages, he tells an interstellar tale with exciting and emotional plot twists, while still sciencing the hell out of the situation.  The not unfamiliar voice is perfect for the story, and it doesn't hurt for this reader that the cultural references of the jokes are also familiar.  (Bonus points for a perfectly placed line from Rocky and Bullwinkle.)  I opened this book knowing nothing in advance about the story, and the narrative itself was so enchanting when experienced that way that I'm not even going to hint at the contents, in case you still have that opportunity of innocence.

The science details and the unlikely hero, who is not a teenager himself but relates to them, reminds me not only of Robert Heinlein's hard science fiction but most specifically of his science fiction for young readers (often with an a young protagonist), a genre he pioneered long before the marketing category of YA.  Beginning in the late 1940s, Heinlein wrote a series of what were then called "juvenile" or "juvie" sf novels.  Their stories existed pretty much in the same story universe that Heinlein created for his adult fictions, but they tended to emphasize the science aspects more, because (Heinlein commented), "younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew and don't mind big words."

I will say this much about the story: when I came to the jeopardy that threatened Earth I was disappointed that he invented a new one instead of dealing with the one that is already here, namely climate distortion, and I got queasy when he seemed to downplay its threat.  But then I got caught up in the otherwise satisfying story.

However I saw him do an interview in which he seemed to not only downplay but disdain the assertions that climate distortion and a mass extinction event are real threats to human civilization and life on Earth as we know it.  His views on responses to the pandemic seemed likewise skewed.  (He predicts it will be the last pandemic, or if there is another one in forty years we were so good at handling this one that we'll know how to handle that one. Really?  All this makes me wonder about other aspects of this novel, like a figure with global dictatorial powers.)  He may be a heck of a writer (and he's a hero to me for correcting a network reporter who said "less" when he should have said "fewer"), but I have to wonder what planet he's living on.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

History of My Reading: Iowa City Blues

Illustration made in the 1960s depicting the Beatles as old men.
I cut it out of a magazine and tacked it to my inside apartment
door on Brown Street in Iowa City.  It scared me.
By the end of my senior year at Knox College, I was accepted into both the fiction and poetry writing programs at the Iowa Writers Workshop--one of only a handful to be in both, I was told. So I visited Iowa City several times in the spring and summer of 1968.  The first time I met George Starbuck, the Workshop's director.  I believe I had dinner at his house.  He wanted me as a graduate student, and was looking for ways to make it happen.

On one of my trips I found a way.  I talked to a university official who boasted that the Workshop used to get away with giving scholarships to whoever they wanted, but no longer.  You had to qualify by university standards.  At the moment I didn't because I was without a B.A. degree.  Probably on that same trip however I read through the rules and regulations in the administration office, and found a favorable loophole in the fine print: I could be admitted as a graduate student without a B.A. if I could take the courses necessary to obtain one by the end of my first year.  Technically that was possible.

George Starbuck with Paul Engle, who'd started
the Workshop. Photo taken some time in the 60s.
It took several more trips to gather the financing.  George Starbuck kindly arranged for a fellowship through the Workshop office, and I eventually obtained a government education loan to cover housing and so on.  So by early fall I was back, looking for a place to live.

 Knox classmate Barbara Cottral was at Iowa that summer and fall.  She was starting to spend a lot of time with an older student named John Bean (and eventually married him), who was either in the Workshop or knew people who were.  It was probably through them that I was told of a place that rented to a lot of Workshop and other grad students.

  I believe they referred to it as Brown's, but in any case my address was 414 Brown Street.  There was a large complex of inexpensive housing, and a major part of it, as I recall it, was comprised of old World War II era Quonset huts.  I remember walking down an unpaved avenue on a wet evening, with these high-arching metal huts one after the other on both sides.  I was taken inside one, and it looked pretty much like a metal-covered tent, housing several scruffy students.  It was indistinguishable from an army camp, without guns or uniforms but probably as much pot and booze.

I was looking for a cheap single room, and was shown one in a large, once noble but now ramshackle house.  The space was actually a porch added to the house and walled up to make a long narrow room.  One wall was of exposed brick--so envied and fashionable in more recent years, but the bed was against it and the wall was cold.  It was in fact the brick wall of the outside of the house.  But there was an extra mattress in the room which I propped up against the wall for some protection against cold and damp.

 There was just one other tenant in a nearby room, and otherwise it offered complete privacy. The bathroom with its pathetic shower splashing reluctantly onto dark concrete was at the foot of the indoor stairs.  Besides the bed, the room was furnished with a threadbare but comfortable old red chair at the long window, with a decent lamp.  A desk and chair were near the door.  I moved in, with my guitar, my portable typewriter, a Sears stereo record player, a reel to reel tape recorder made mostly of plastic, and at least a few books and records.  Classes began in late September.

As I've noted elsewhere, during these months I was preoccupied with my upcoming pre-induction draft physical, and then my induction/appeal physical. This involved anxious ruminations and inescapable decisions about my beliefs and my future.  Country Joe and the Fish set the stage:

Come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books, pick up a gun--
Gonna have a whole lot of fun... 

Also as noted before, I somewhat helplessly split my time this fall and winter among Iowa City, Galesburg and Chicago, including a trip there when Joni--on a teaching semester in a Chicago public school-- was recovering from illness and (relatively minor) surgery.  As a result of these and other factors, some to be explored here, I was in a kind of perpetual fog.  That must be part of the reason that I have a few sharp memories but little more, of my time in Iowa City.

So I remember specifically very few books I read, or even had with me, in this Brown Street room.  Surviving letters home reveal I requested two books that I'd left behind: my Portable Thoreau and the first collection of poems by John Ashbery I bought, The Tennis Court Oath.  

Apart from periodicals (joined by now by Rolling Stone), I can conjure up some reading of this general period that were influencing my own poetic and fictional aspirations. The previous March, during my senior year at Knox College, I spotted a book in the Knox Bookstore titled The Liverpool Scene, which I bought (and entered the date.)  In the 1960s possibly the only reason a student in the American Midwest would know about Liverpool was as the original home of the Beatles.  Their success brought international attention to the Liverpool music scene, where working class bands were both a rebellion and an expression of the local culture.  I came from a working class culture in a provincial town in western Pennsylvania, not much like Liverpool but more like it than, say, London or Manhattan.

But I had no idea that the Liverpool scene included poets, and that's what this book revealed.  Along with an introductory essay, photographs and snippets of interviews, it presented the work of a half dozen Liverpool poets, most prominently Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten.  What especially interested me was that these poems were performed, sometimes in the same clubs as the rock bands, and often with band accompaniment.  There was also an LP which I acquired later.

The poems were lyrical--sometimes close to actual song lyrics--and grounded in Liverpool, but also populated with pop culture figures (like Batman) along with quick literary references and an incisive humor applied to underlying desperation.  They often dealt with concerns of the times, like the Bomb and Vietnam.  The book's photos included one of a dark-haired girl with haunting eyes.  I cut that page out and added it to the wall display.

The poems included a short one by Roger McGough that became my favorite lines of 1968:

My Johnny joined the army
Deserted me without a care
He got shot to ribbons
Now I wear him in my hair

The Liverpool Scene paid homage to the Beatles but also to Allen Ginsberg, who had visited with the poets in Liverpool, and provided them with an extravagant back cover quote: "Liverpool is at the present moment the center of the consciousness of the human universe."

Alerted by this book, I noticed Roger McGough's name on the cover of a Ballatine paperback, which contained his novella and a cycle of his poems.  McGough was a member of the Scaffold, a satirical theatre group, and a contributor to the British satire TV series, That Was The Week That Was.  In the many years since then, he became a media and literary eminence in England, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

But the Liverpool poet who spoke to me most directly was Brian Patten, the youngest, in his early 20s.  I ordered his collection, Little Johnny's Confession from the Knox Bookstore, probably with my last library prize credit.  Patten has also had a long poetic career since.

By 1968 as well, this trio of Henri, McGough and Patten had their own Penguin Modern Poets volume, and in 1969, Penguin included them in larger collection of around 50 poets entitled Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain. That book features a long Afterwords by Adrian Henri, one of the older Liverpool poets, who provided a comprehensive history.  As the endorsement by Ginsberg implied, these poets were inspired by the American Beat poets and later West Coast poets like Kenneth Patchen, and more generally by poets who read accompanied by jazz players, and by other poets Adrian named who emphasized public readings, as well as by the Liverpool scene.

 I had been greatly impressed at Knox by how differently Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder and Robert Bly read aloud, and yet all expressed the essence of their particular poetic approach.  I was attracted as well to the relationship with rock music, performance and the general milieu of the Beatles.  There was a certain McLuhan quality as well, the participatory nature of the oral and including contemporary cultural forms and references, popular and otherwise.  I was, after all, a fan of T.S. Eliot and the Bee Gees, the French New Wave and the Smothers Brothers.

By the fall of 1968, the new fiction I saw was in an experimental phase.  I was reading Donald Barthelme's stories in the New Yorker, and Robert Coover and John Barth in a fantastic new periodical, the New American Review, which was published as a paperback book.  They were all experimenting in different ways with myth and tales, popular culture and fractured narratives.

Another writer oddly influential at the time was the San Francisco author Richard Brautigan.  He applied a unique, deadpan yet lyrical style to the reportage of the unimportant.  Like the Liverpool poets, he impressed with unexpected similes and metaphors.  Mostly forgotten now, his book Trout Fishing in America was a late 1960s sensation.

What Barthelme, Brautigan, the Liverpool poets and even Ashbery had in common, at least superficially, was a kind of literary charm--a sly ebullience, a youthful mix of innocence and irony. Part of it came from successfully responding to Pound's dictim of "make it new" resonant with the times, and from that came energy and delight.  Now this work is no longer new and its connection to its times less accessible, but there is still some charm in the use of language, and its evocations of human experience and emotion.

 But to me in Iowa City, it all seemed so distant, so elusive. One of the first conversations I had with another student in the poetry workshop was with a young woman who had been there for at least a year.  It was before the school year started.  She told me that most Workshop students played the game of influence. The point was to get the most influential faculty writers to pave the way to publication, to write stellar recommendations and otherwise advance your career. That's what the Workshop was about, she said, the name of the game was Career.  She said it without bitterness, as a kind of wry report.  I guess she could see this would be news to me.

I don't recall having any choice in my workshop instructors.  The big noise in poetry that year was Ted Berrigan (in his only year teaching at Iowa.)  Anselm Hollo was another.  I drew Jon Silkin, a somewhat older British poet not very well known in the US.  In terms of the kind of poetry I was interested in writing, Berrigan or Hollo seemed a better fit, or at least so I thought at the time.

Robert Coover (far left) with Workshop students in 1967
As I recall, the big noise in the fiction workshop was Robert Coover, then being published regularly in the New American Review.  I'd met Richard Yates at Knox and admired his work, but I think he'd just left the Workshop.  In any case, I was assigned to a workshop run by a writer whose name I have forgotten--that's how unsuccessful that experience was for me.

Given the uncertainty of my tenure due to the draft, and the fragility of my psyche due to ditto, I decided to postpone any qualifying math, science or language course until the second semester, and took a film studies course instead.  I enjoyed it very much, when I attended.

There wasn't anything about the Workshop itself I enjoyed.  I didn't make a friend or even an acquaintance in either of my classes.  I don't even remember how many students there were or anything about any of them in my fiction workshop, and I recall only one student in my poetry workshop, mostly because he symbolized why I felt so out of place.  He was heavy, bearded, with short hair, wore tweed suits, smoked a pipe and never said a word or betrayed any emotion.  Likely in his 20s, he looked much older.

I don't recall a single moment of that fiction class.  All I remember is my first one-on-one meeting with its teacher.  I was supposed to bring 20 pages of fresh writing to it, which I did.  All I recall being said was that I should return next time with 20 more.  This is not a bad approach for instructing a young writer, but given my psychological state, that 20 pages had cost just about all I had.  Absent anything else to go on, I didn't see how to proceed.

In my poetry workshop I liked the teacher Jon Silkin, but I couldn't stand my basically comatose fellow students.  They seemed a staid and self-satisfied, wary, small-minded and highly traditional bunch.  If I had mentioned the Liverpool poets, I was sure, they would have only stared.  But then, that's all I ever saw them do anyway.

Silkin might actually have felt the same way about them. The only moment in class I recall was Silkin asking for a volunteer to read a particular poem aloud.  No one did.  Clearly annoyed, he slid the book across the table to me.  It felt like a challenge, like the coach throwing me the ball, daring me to sink the shot.

I don't remember the poet or the poem, though I do recall it had some French in it. Though it was by an established author,  I'd never read the poem before.  But I surprised no one more than myself by reading it perfectly, including the French.  "You read that with real feeling," Silkin said, with some wonder.  I was embarrassed because the feelings I may have expressed had little to do with the content of the poem.

But the moment that summarizes my Workshop experience came later, on the day when a group of my poems were going to be discussed by the class.  I had deliberately submitted my most daring verses, the craziest ones, including one that ran all over the page, rather than the ones I felt might be the best.  I arrived for that day's class a bit early, and stopped in the nearest men's room to gather myself for the battle.  That one particular fellow student, the bearded pipe-smoker, was also in the men's room.  I smiled at him reflexively.  He looked at me, said nothing, and left.

I proceeded to our assigned classroom, which I saw was empty.  I had somehow confused the start time.  In fact, the class was just over.  I had missed the discussion of my own poems.

Immediately I thought of the pipe-smoker, and how he must have thought I had been too scared to attend this class and had been hiding out in the men's room.  Yet, the worst of it was that he didn't say a word to me.  And all of that said everything to me about my experience at the Workshop.  I don't think I ever went back.

Kenney's bar, the historic Workshop hangout
When I first arrived in Iowa City, I was told the name and location of the bar favored by Workshop students. For decades it had been a place called Kenney's.  I don't think it was the bar I was directed to, though it could have been.  In any case, on my visits to this bar I did see people from the Workshop, including Ted Berrigan, looking like a member of Hell's Angels.  People typically drank beer, ordered in pitchers.  It was pretty lousy, watery beer.  "Born To Be Wild" played on the jukebox repeatedly.  It seemed to be the bar's theme song, expressing the hippie biker ambiance.

Most of the faculty and most of the students were male.  I am not given to a generalized condemnation of the gender I belong to, but it felt oppressive. In any case, for whatever reasons, I was steadily unhappy there.  My notebooks of this period contain almost nothing about my experiences with the Workshop or even in Iowa City--just endless notes for the fiction I wasn't writing.  But there is one scribbled note on a scrap of paper that has somehow survived.  I don't know when I wrote it, but it recorded a moment in that bar, with my glass of  tasteless beer sitting on the pinball machine, fighting off the feeling that I didn't like pinball, or the taste of this beer, or this bar.  "I stood there, with that layer of heat on my skin, trying to like it all."  I failed.

U of Iowa campus 1968
I remember the cold days--even though I was also there in a sunny fall, I remember Iowa City as cold and snow-covered-- going to campus, negotiating the winding pedestrian bridge, sitting with my coffee in the student union that connected buildings, and occasionally seeing one of the few people I knew.  I remember the coffee shop where I sat at the counter and had my pork tenderloin sandwich and coffee before a class, listening to the Moody Blues "Tuesday Afternoon" on the jukebox.  The only social occasion I recall was at Valjean McClenighan's apartment (after graduating Knox a year before me, she entered Iowa's theatre program), where she made me dinner, but which regrettably found me in my characteristic distracted graceless fog.

Otherwise, when I was in Iowa City, I was in my room.  I only remember two of the books I read there.  At the University bookstore I bought a just-published hardback, the first legitimate book about the Beatles, Hunter Davies' The Beatles: A Biography.

And when that wasn't enough to keep me in their world, I found cheap paperback novelizations of the Beatles' films, and sat in my chair by the window correcting the dialogue--penciling in the lines I memorized from the movies when they were different from those in the book.

Other than that, I recall listening endlessly to the new Bee Gees album, Idea.  The Bee Gees were an even more private obsession. Though they would eventually sell more records than any group in history, at the time and for years afterwards, they were dismissed and derided--at this time, as watered-down Beatles.  (Even in the 1970s, my fellow rock critics smiled indulgently at my aberrational appreciation of the Bee Gees.)  I bathed in their pure harmonies, playful melodies, strange arrangements, and ambiguous lyrics with private applications. At least until the Beatles finally released their double White Album just before Christmas.

On the inside of my door I posted a selection of nice things people had said about my writing in official letters and reviews, as encouragement.  But I also taped up that illustration of the Beatles as old men, my version of the skull on the desk I guess, a kind of memento mori, and expression of suspected futility.

University of Iowa Bookstore 1967
Looking back, I made some big mistakes.  I should have confided in George Starbuck, the head of the Workshop who had taken a personal interest in me.  I should have sought out Jon Silkin for private conversation (for I would have learned, as I did later, that he knew the Liverpool poets personally, and they respected him.)  I certainly should have spent more time with Valjean.  Once she brought me to meet some grad students and faculty in the theatre department, and they were friendlier, more interested and more welcoming to me than anyone at the Workshop.  One of the faculty even asked me to try out for a part in a Pinter play. That doing any of this never even occurred to me suggests the weight of my distractions.

Occasionally I would escape to Galesburg.  The first time I hitchhiked there I remember walking up a city street from the highway with my duffel bag, wondering what I was doing there, when I saw the first person I knew.  I'm pretty sure it was Harry Contompasis.  Anyway, somebody who seemed happy to see me.  That kind of welcome declined on subsequent visits, as I became a perhaps too frequent visitor with no real business being there.  But still, I had people to talk with and laugh with.  And I think I actually did some research in connection with my college novel.  My notebooks reveal, by the way, my one good idea: to start it with the JFK assassination in 1963 and end it with the RFK assassination in 1968.  But that idea somehow got lost in the growing complexity of its conception.

Galesburg was often a stop before Chicago, where I visited Joni at the Del Prado Hotel in Hyde Park, not far from the Lake.  At that time the Del Prado was mostly a residential hotel for students, and she and other Knox student teachers lived there.  My visits there were also an opportunity to explore downtown Chicago and the lakefront, even in the cold, sooty wind off the Lake in winter.  Once on the L, I daydreamed my way past my Hyde Park stop and woke up at Stony Avenue, which I had been warned was dangerous territory.  But for some reason I decided to hitchhike back, and got a ride from two young Black men in a sporty car, who were discussing Zeffirelli's new film version of Romeo and Juliet.

This is what the Beatles really looked like in 1968, in portraits
included in the White Album package
I remember listening to the White Album with Joni and her very patient roommates, and I remember on an earlier visit, watching election returns in the hotel bar, smoking a cigar, my cavalier pretense fading when Humphrey came up short and Nixon was elected.  The assassination of Robert Kennedy remained a bitter thing, and for the only time in my life I made the mistake of not accepting that one of the two party candidates was going to be president, either the lesser of two evils or the more evil, and that I needed to choose. Now it was over and I knew enough of Nixon to know the war would go on.  I've been disconsolate on many election nights since, but on this one I was trying to hide a broken heart, even from myself.

What inflected all of this with a patina of the surreal--from Iowa City to Galesburg and Chicago--was its irrelevance to the upcoming life-altering moments of draft induction, and the decisions they would force. Sometimes I felt that to others, having this confrontation in mind was like having a cold--people might recognize it and sympathize once, but then they'd forget it: it wasn't their cold, they weren't saddled with it every minute.

My pre-induction draft physical had been in October, and my induction/appeal physical had been scheduled for early December.  I got a postponement to finish my Iowa semester. Eventually I had my three day physical at Fort Des Moines, and I was finally found unfit for military service.  But I may have already packed up and left Iowa City, without a word to anyone except my near neighbor, who was the only friend I remember making.  Earlier my mother had observed in a letter that she'd heard about a lot of things I didn't want to do, but I didn't seem to know what I wanted to do.  She was right.