Sunday, April 30, 2006

TST ORIGINAL POEM: "Clerihew for Tom"

Clerihew for Tom

The inimitable Mr. Cruise
Has bought into ol' L. Ron's ruse.
You can too, if you're wealthy and willing!
Just don't think about taking top billing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 14

Septuagenarian on Campus

For the last couple of weeks I have been working, very slowly, on the Prologue to my story, in which Father Luke Brogan, son of Walter Brogan, wanders about the campus of the university he is retiring from, receives one more assignment from the university president, and enters into a dialogue with a former student. The setting is a fictional college in northeast Pennsylvania called JUNEP (Jesuit University of Northeast Pennsylvania), VAGUELY modeled after the University of Scranton, although I have only visited that university twice and very briefly at that. Father Brogan will be drawn into a lengthy reflection on his past, specifically his father's life and legacy, prompted by the insightful questions of the ambitious young journalism student (previously mentioned) who has been assigned to profile him for the campus newspaper.

So far, it's been a struggle to do this early writing, but that's not so bad. First of all, it is just very difficult to find time to commit to it, with my busy work schedule, two children, etc. If I actually do write an entire novel manuscript, it is going to take me a very long time. Especially since I am planning to rewrite sections of it as I go, instead of trying to rewrite and edit the entire thing once a draft is done. This is a method I have never used before, so it will be interesting. I am looking forward to having sections finished that have already been rewritten and worked on with some degree of seriousness and intensity. It will take much longer to progress through the story, but in theory, when a draft finally does emerge it will be that much closer to where I want the book to be ultimately in terms of quality.

Secondly, it is not easy for me, for obvious reasons, to write from the point of view of a retiring priest in his 70s who also happens to be a university professor. I don't know anything about what it's like to be a priest, don't have a clue of what a person in their 70s feels, thinks, and likes to do, and I certainly don't know anything about being a theologian on top of all of that. I'm a 35 year old Dad with an office job. What can I do to make Father Brogan even remotely believable? I can get a little assistance in this matter from watching/listening to/talking to my own father, who happens to be the same age as Father Brogan (75) and is somewhat similar in temperament. In a way, as I've said, Brogan is based on my father, but he's not the same. Yet, my own father has an interest in theology, if not actually being a theologian, and he's a septuagenarian himself of course, so I can take some of my character's actions and thoughts from my observations of my old man. This helps, but it doesn't get me there. I mean, there is also Brogan's whole identity as a Jesuit, and I am totally winging it there, as is pretty obvious when I review what I have written so far.

It is an interesting spiritual exercise, in a way, to attempt to create a character that is a member of the clergy and fill their brain with thoughts that the writer thinks a religious person would think. And have them say things I think a religious person would say. This part of it is frought with peril, because what one thinks a person in the clergy is apt to do and say may not be, of course, the reality. You don't know what it's like unless you've been there, I am sure. I alternate between giving Father Brogan words and thoughts that I think sound overly pious and cliche, to having him think and do things that any clergy member worth their salt wouldn't think or do. It's a fine line and I'm not at all qualified to negotiate it, really.

So how to deal with this problem? How do I write from the point of view of a 75-year-old priest? I think the answer is not to worry about it. Easier said than done in my case! But the same thing is going to apply when I switch gears and attempt to write about what a young man in the 1920s and 30s thinks and feels. If I worry too much about it, I will not get anywhere. Nothing is going to sound or feel authentic. And the operative word is 'feel' there. What i want to do is not so much create an historically detail-perfect character or setting, but get into what it FELT like to live and work in that time. If I can focus on that, I will be able to make either Brogan credible. It's a huge challenge, since after all I don't have any idea what it felt like to live then, but I think I will just have to continue to read things and work on it until I have something that sounds and feels authentic. Other novelists have done this before me, so I know it is possible.

The book is ultimately about Water Brogan, not Father Luke, but it is through Father Luke that we are going to be taken back in time. For now, my job is to attempt to write from his point of view, and to attempt to relate how a man like him would react to questions from a young and curious journalist that force him to think back on his past - to a time long gone, to a father long dead, whose long shadow nonetheless continues to cast itself over him no matter how much time goes by and no matter how old he gets. Young man, old man, you can't escape the influence and memory of your father. He is always going to be there for you to measure yourself against and attempt to understand. Perhaps somewhat reluctantly, Father Luke Brogran is going to be coerced into going down this road one more time, and the story he tells the journalist is the one I want to write for anyone who cares to read it.

It's great to be writing again, no matter how slow it goes.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #30

Here are two absolutely exquisite little snippets of poetry from one of America's foremost living poets, Galway Kinnell. The first is a complete poem... and the second is only the first stanza of a much longer poem, but is so beautiful in and of itself, and so meaningful to those of us who have small children, I had to include it here.

These poems are so well crafted, it seems to me any extra commentary from me could only mar them. Wondrous word-paintings such as these, that penetrate swiftly past the brain to the heart (where they belong), require no further elucidation. To the second little fragment here, I can only add my own weak but fervent "Amen."



On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfisheswere creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven.
All at once they stopped,
and, as if they had simply
increased their receptivity
to gravity, they sank down
into the mud, faded down
into it and lay still, and by the time
pink of sunset broke across them
they were as invisible
as the true stars at daybreak.

Stanza 1 from
Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight


You scream, waking from a nightmare.

When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me
as if clinging could save us. I think
you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Some Notes on the Work of One of my Literary Heroes

There will be nothing too scholarly or erudite about this post, but recently I have come across some hints about a new book from one of my favorite writers and a genuine literary hero of mine: the gifted novelist RON HANSEN.

Interestingly enough, there are a number of writers whose work I really admire who came from the same institution (the celebrated Iowa Writer's Workshop, who rejected my application in 1997 by the way) around the same time (mid-70s), some of whom I have posted about here. Stephen Wright, who I ended up studying under at The New School, and T. Coraghessan Boyle both attended Iowa in the 70s. Ron Hansen is another product of that school from that era, and his work more than stands up to the work of the others - and to that of anyone writing fiction today.

One major difference between Hansen and Wright and Boyle is that Ron Hansen is a practicing Catholic, and he writes from that perspective, which I relate to and admire. Hansen is a writer whose religious beliefs INFORM but do not OVERWHELM his fiction; they flavor it and give it depth and resonance without preaching or appearing to condescend. His identity as a writer is not distinct from his identity as a Catholic, they are one in the same, and I think this is as it should be. I admire this approach and I strive to achieve a similar, regonizable balance in my own writing. The way to do this is not to imitate Hansen's work but to be true and honest in pursuing my own, and if I stick to what I really have to say and don't try to write like someone else would write, my own beliefs and my own faith will also be evident in my work.

I would recommend any book by Ron Hansen to fiction readers, religious and non-religious alike. One of this novels, 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', will become known to people later this year because it is being made into a feature film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. But for this post I would like to recommend two books for readers who are interested in Ron Hansen's books.

First, what I consider to be the essential Ron Hansen novel, 1991's 'Mariette in Ecstasy'. This is a superb book that has had a major, major influence on me in my writing. This may not be seen directly in anything I've written, but I'd nonetheless describe this as an absolutely pivotal book in my life. Set in the early 20th century in upstate New York, 'Mariette' tells the story of a young woman who enters the cloistered, isolated environment of a convent as a postulant, preparing to become a nun, and soon thereafter begins to be marked with the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ's crucifixion. She also endures spiritual visions and begins to have a divisive but profound effect on the community around her. The tension and drama of the book centers around the response her fellow nuns have to her spiritual experiences. There is an investigation which further fractures the community, while the reader struggles with their own questions of whether or not these experiences could be genuine or imagined. His Catholic faith notwithstanding, Hansen steers clear of answering these questions for the reader, but presents an objective, fascinating and brilliantly written narrative story. This novel is very impressive for the boldness of its subject matter, the fascinating spiritual questions it introduces, and above all else, the beauty and economy of its poetry-like prose. This book is equally impressive to me for mechanical reasons as it is for spiritual reasons. It is a truly unforgettable novel. I wish I had written it.

If you are someone who would be interested in the way Hansen's faith relates to his writing, then his penetrating and insightful essay collection 'A Stay Against Confusion' is for you. This book showcases Hansen's abilities as an essayist and is most notable for its insights on the relationship between good art and Christian faith. But it also explores other subjects, such as films, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Eucharist, and a riveting, frightening essay on the murdering of Jesuit priests in El Savador that occurred back in the late 80s. Hansen has a clear, commanding prose style and a great deal of wisdom and insight in matters related to writing and literature. His faith also rings true in this volume, which is a great supplement to his novels.

Finally, a little bit of a prediction. I mentioned earlier that I came across a little information about Ron Hansen's next book. It is a forthcoming historical novel about the previously-mentioned poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly centering around the period when he wrote his most well-known poem called 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', in the late 19th century. I think this has the potential to be one of Hansen's signature works if not his masterpiece. Hansen has been work at this for some time and has all of the background and the motivation to write such a book. He serves as the Gerard Manley Hopkins professor of English at Santa Clara University, after all, a position that was created for him, and I think he is going to do this honor proud with this novel. I do not know much about Hopkins, but he is a deep and fascinating figure whose poetry is known to be difficult but is also renowned for it spiritual depth. I think Hansen will find a way to make this figure interesting and believable in the novel. He has proven he can do so before. This seems to be the ideal material for a novelist of this caliber to sink his teeth into. I predict this will be a superb novel, for I know that Hansen has the experience and the abilities to pull something like this off. I can't wait for it.

The novels, stories and essays of Ron Hansen are well worth the time of any serious reader of American literature.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #29

Best wishes to everyone for a blessed Holy Week... and to that end, here is a powerful poem that looks forward to the glorious resurrection of Christ, and with the eyes of faith wide open, hopes for our participation in that Great and Final Victory!

It's interesting to note that Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), a son of two slaves from Dayton, OH, was the first African-American poet to gain any kind of recognition for his gifts on a national stage. He was praised by the likes of Mark Twain, William Dean Howells and Frederic Douglas. His work appeared regularly in such prominent publications as The New York Times and Harper's Weekly, and he produced several collections of poems and short stories, as well as a novel, before his life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis at only 33 years of age. Dunbar is the originator of that oft-quoted, famous lament for the oppressed, "I know why the caged bird sings!"



An Easter Ode

To the cold, dark grave they go
Silently and sad and slow,
From the light of happy skies
And the glance of mortal eyes.
In their beds the violets spring,
And the brook flows murmuring;
But at eve the violets die,
And the brook in the sand runs dry.

In the rosy, blushing morn,
See, the smiling babe is born;
For a day it lives, and then
Breathes its short life out again.
And anon gaunt-visaged Death,
With his keen and icy breath,
Bloweth out the vital fire
In the hoary-headed sire.

Heeding not the children's wail,
Fathers droop and mothers fail;
Sinking sadly from each other,
Sister parts from loving brother.
All the land is filled with wailing,
Sounds of mourning garments trailing,
With their sad portent imbued,
Making melody subdued.

But in all this depth of woe
This consoling truth we know:
There will come a time of rain,
And the brook will flow again;
Where the violet fell, 'twill grow,
When the sun has chased the snow.
See in this the lesson plain,
Mortal man shall rise again.

Well the prophecy was kept;
Christ "first fruit of them that slept"
Rose with vic'try-circled brow;
So, believing one, shalt thou.
Ah! but there shall come a day
When, unhampered by this clay,
Souls shall rise to life newborn
On that resurrection morn.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 13

The Writing Begins

In this post, I will not go on at length as I have on the other recent posts. Fortunately for anyone who might be reading these entries. But I do think it is important to record for the sake of good "journaling" and posterity the following important milestone: which is that I have begun writing a first draft of the "novel" that I have undertaken to write, with the primary goal of removing the quotation marks and someday being able to say that I did write a novel, legitimately.

If my structure withstands the dual tests of time and revisionism, my novel will begin with a "short" - although the way I'm blabbering on early, it doesn't look that short yet - Prologue section, set in the present day of 2006. The time of year is early May. The setting is a small Catholic university in eastern Pennsylvania. And the first character we come across is a 75-year-old man nearing retirement, a resident of the campus, by the name of Luke Brogan, S.J.

In the Prologue, Luke Brogan will be given one final assignment before venturing off into the unknown of post-retirement life, and he will meet a youthful acquaintance one more time who will convince him to tell his story. But, as fate would have it, it's not his story that he will end up telling. Rather, Father Brogan will spend a week, in evening sessions with this young journalism student, talking at length not about himself, but of his father, Walter Brogan, of Bentonville, Indiana......

At which point, if all goes as planned, the novel will step back in time to the year 1922....