W.D. Snodgrass 1926 – 2009

I had lunch with Snodgrass & some other students in 1980 after he gave a reading at Iowa, and though I was operating in a haze of self-involvement at the time, I recognized in Dee Snodgrass a kindrid spirit, if that’s not claiming too much. My own earliest poems were influenced by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, James Wright, John Berryman, and (the somewhat younger) Bill Knott (who, I’m happy to say, is still out there making trouble) — Snodgrass coming a little later, along with Robert Lowell — so my work begins right in the heart of the confessional movement. Oddly, perhaps, I came to appreciate WCW only in my later undergraduate years & in particular through one class I took with Ronald Johnson (surely the odd man out in this collection of influences), who showed me the later poems of WCW, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “For Daphne and Virginia,” etc. & how they objectified the personal material they contained & it would be that combination of the confessional & the objective that would carry my work right through to the present, though my poems have become increasingly impersonal in recent years. In any case, that lunch with Snodgrass gave me heart at a difficult time in my life & I’m sorry to hear that he is gone.

On Taking Up Fiction

The novelist Stewart O’Nan came to Clarkson last fall to give the Convocation address & while he was here I had a couple of chances to talk to him, once at dinner, once the next day. He amazed me by reading my book, which I gave him at dinner, by the time we talked the following afternoon. He took notes. And since I’d read some of his fiction, we were able to have one of those good nuts & bolts kind of conversations writers like to enjoy when there is nobody else around to bore. Over the course of that conversation, Stewart suggested I try writing fiction. I really hadn’t written a story since I was an undergraduate & even then I tended to write poetic prose rather than stories. But after Stewart left I began reading his stories, then Chekhov, then everything I could get my hands on, trying to absorb the genre into my creative genome.

A month or so into this reading, I began toying with an idea for a story, taking notes and turning it over in my mind, and was on the verge of sitting down to write when another idea struck me — an image, really, & then an event. Over the next couple of weeks I wrote that story straight through and then did a quick revision. It ran to 5000 words, much longer than I had expected when I began. I sent that story, called “Bye Bye Blackbird” (after the Mel Tormé song that figures in the plot) to my mentor & to another fiction writer I know, neither of whom dismissed it as worthless. In fact, both were encouraging & very kind to my initial effort.I made some revisions & sent the piece off to a magazine that has previously published my poetry & as of this writing I await their response.

That first story concerns a boy, age 9, told in the third person; I began another story about the same boy about a dozen years later, also in third person point of view, but got hung up about half-way through the arc of the plot. (In both stories, I knew in general what was going to happen, but I didn’t know until I was actually writing how it was going to happen.) I set the half-finished story aside & focused on reading as many stories as I could.

In the meantime, I saw an ad in one of the writer’s magazines for a “short-short” story competition: under 1000 words. I had been taking notes for stories and characters in my notebook for several weeks & thought it would be a good exercise to try something very short. Most of the story ideas I had jotted down had something to do with the later life of the boy in the first story & this short-short turned out to be in the voice of his friend, a few years older, when they are both in their twenties. The friend is a bartender and speaks in the first person about a seemingly trivial  incident that occurred in the bar where he was working, but that has stuck with him — he is looking back on the experience several years later. What I didn’t expect is that this same character had another, longer story to tell, in which the boy from the first story is a college student.

On autobiography: I would be lying if I claimed that the central character of the first story was not “me” in some sense, but the events in the story did not happen to the actual me when I was a child. Actually, I took more of the setting than the action from my own experience. The same goes for the later stories — the boy is certainly some version of myself, but combined with aspects of people I knew or know, but the actual events did not happen to me & are in that sense entirely fictional. The very short story, titled “Faith,” doesn’t not feature the boy at all, the speaker being a combination of three different people I knew when I was young; the second bartender story, titled “Charity,” is told from the point of view of the boy’s friend and thus gives an external view of his character.

I have now returned to the story I’d gotten stuck on, moving it slowly forward — in all these pieces I have written straight through, not composing in pieces the way I do with poetry, & only making a few notes about pieces of specific language that I think will be needed later in the piece. This working straight through keeps me in suspense & keeps the action open. As I said, I know in general where the story is headed, but I don’t know how it is going to arrive there, which path will rise from the details to create a structure.

In both of the longer third person stories about the boy, first as a child then as a young man, I am including bits and pieces of actual times & places — in the first, some details about pop music and JFK, in the second, news reports of the fall of Saigon occur at intervals throughout the story. I am attracted to this sort of nailing down the narrative to historical facts & cultural details, which I guess makes me some kind of later day realist. In any case, that’s where I am now, feeling excited & happy about this new direction my work has taken. I was feeling as if my poetry had become narrower & narrower in its concerns & techniques & for whatever reason was no longer an appropriate place to deal with certain psychological states; but I feel free in fiction to play with a whole new set of ideas & techniques. I haven’t felt this engaged in my own creative work for several years — I only hope the results, the stories themselves, are as worthwhile as the experience of producing them.

Short Fiction Notes: Recent Reading

“Shelter” (Charles Baxter) — This is the first Baxter story I’ve read, but when I began writing fiction a couple of months ago I was greatly influenced by his how-to book, Subtext, which I am reading straight through for a second time. “Shelter” is in Baxter’s collection A Relative Stranger & it’s an effective story, though it feels just a tad too polished, perhaps only in contrast to the more inelegant Andre Dubus stories I’ve been gulping down recently.

“A Day in the Open” (Jane Bowles) — Reads like Chekhov transported to north Africa. Everything is dramatized. Nothing happens but everything happens; or, things happen but they are presented so neutrally that every event — the important & the unimportant, the dramatic & the prosaic, the significant & the insignificant — all have equal weight. Absolutely no moral judgments are made.

“The Man Who Knew Belle Star” (Richard Bausch) — This is a story about the absence of human feeling. The outlaw’s language is perfectly flat, implacable. The tough guy who picks her up hitchhiking has been in trouble, been in prison, but has not left the human world, which Belle has done, completely. Technically, a slow build, the final violent act taking place beyond the narrated time of the story.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carol Oates) — Like “The Man Who Knew Belle Star,” this story builds relentlessly through repetition. In both stories, the dangerous character is presented as having a flat affect, a profound disconnect from ordinary assumptions about good & evil. Again, the final violent act occurs after the narrative time of the story concludes.

“In the Zoo” (Jean Stafford) — I vaguely knew that Jean Stafford had been married to Robert Lowell, but hadn’t read any of her stories until this one, which I found in The Granta Book of the American Short Story. This is a bitter but still comic story of two orphan sisters sent to live with a guardian, Mrs. Placer, in a small town in Colorado. The most audacious thing about the story is that they are not clever girls and they do not succeed, really, until their guardian removes the weight of her presence by dying. There is beautiful and harrowing writing about animals in this story. [Good brief  discussion of the story here.]

“Chan Tha” (Tran Thuy Mai) — I read an interview with Mai several weeks ago in the Vietnam News and asked my friend Ly Lan about her. Turns out Lan & Mai know each other, though they haven’t met for years. Lan sent me a couple of stories, “Chan Tha” being much the stronger of the two, I thought. The problem was that it was badly translated. It is common among Vietnamese intellectuals to deny the well-known bit of translation theory that says the final translation of a story or poem ought to be done by a native speaker of the target language. So I retranslated the story over the last couple of days, brining it into idiomatic English. The story takes place during the Cambodian-Vietnamese war (1975-1989) and involves a love story between a Vietnamese soldier and a Cambodian girl. What makes the story work is the detailed and specific use of incident — a braiding of four meetings between the two characters — that is echoed in a braiding of images throughout the story.

“A Poetics for Bullies” (Stanley Elkin) — Elkin sets himself the task of portraying a bully from the inside & except that the first person narrator seems more literate than he ought to be, succeeds in excruciating detail. And the foil, the good boy, the hero, John Williams, is perhaps too good.