He is not angry anymore, no longer a rabble-rouser. There was no sitar accompaniment, no drums, no rubber masks, no embroidered vest. Robert Bly is old now, and a wee bit forgetful, but he still knows how to put on a show, and he still comes deeply alive for poetry. On Wednesday evening, he launched his latest book, "Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," at the University of Minnesota in front of about 250 people.
After a tender and lengthy introduction by writer Michael Dennis Browne (who recalled helping to jumpstart Bly's blue P lymouth after a night of poetry in Minneapolis in 1967, and who also recalled how Bly once damned-with-faint-praise a poem written by one of Browne's students, saying it was as exciting as the phrase "I almost went to Hawaii once"), Bly and his friend and fellow poet Thomas R. Smith took the stage.
With Smith holding the microphone and occasionally offering a gentle prompt, Bly read. Twenty-five poems, some of the lines and stanzas read more than once, in the way that Bly does, for emphasis. He was playful and sly, joking after a couple of poems that he had no idea what they meant. He beat out a rhythm with his hand, he sometimes lapsed into funny voices, taking on characters. ("One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest: / 'How do you sleep? I love curliness,' " and giving the mouse a squeaky voice.)
He turned serious with "When My Dead Father Called," and then deliberately broke the mood afterward by saying, "Did I really write this? My memory's so bad every time I read one of my own poems I think I've never read that before."
But he had of course proved that wrong just a few minutes before, reciting--not reading--"Poem in Three Parts," looking out at the crowd with those blue blue eyes of his, never glancing down at the page.
While it might be early poems such as that one that are imbedded in his brain, his newer poems, dealing poignantly with aging and dying, were deeply affecting. In "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," he says: "It's hard to grasp how much generosity / Is involved in letting us go on breathing, / When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief." And then he stopped, and looked up. "I didn't always believe that," he said; he used to believe we were valued for happiness and fun. And then he read the stanza again.
The poem ends, "Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for / Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat / When so many have gone down in the storm."
"When you get to be my age, you notice that," he said. "How many have gone down in the storm."
Such a poignant evening, watching this 86-year-old white-haired man read from fifty years' of poems, watching him grow animated at the sound of his own remarkable words. In the end, of course, thunderous applause, and an uncharacteristic modesty. "It's good of you to clap," he said. "It makes an old Norwegian happy."
Jhumpa Lahiri had requested no photographs, so you will just have to imagine the scene last night: Two lovely, intense women, both with long dark hair and wearing skirts and boots, seated side-by-side in comfortable armchairs in the front of the beautiful old sanctuary of St. Pau l's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, a wooden table between them, set with mugs of water. A table lamp cast a warm glow.
The two women were powers of American letters: Louise Erdrich, winner of the 2012 National Book Award (and many other significant awards), in conversation with visiting writer Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and currently in the running for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize for her new book, "The Lowland." (Strib review here.)
No photos, no video, the talk would be "old school," Erdrich said. "Hard-cover books. An event in present-time. You, us, and this wonderful book--graceful, full of heart."
Lahiri, who reportedly is not fond of book tours, has not only forbidden photographs but has canceled all interview requests for the rest of her tour. "Thank you, Louise, for talking to me and sitting with me tonight," she said. "I think it will be just what I need on this long road, this long march of mine."
She read an early passage of "The Lowland," a powerful section in which the two brothers in the book--Subhash and Udayan--are still young and are caught trespassing in the exclusive Tolly Club and are caught by a policeman, who steals from the boys, beats one of them, threatens both.
"Where did this place come from for you?" Erdrich asked. "It's so powerful."
The place is real, Lahiri said.The Lowland is "the area of Calcutta where my own father was raised, a neighborhood I have come to know quite well. Tolly Land was built by the British, a place for them to retreat and ride horses and play golf and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city."
In her research ("In spite of the fact that I know it well and can conjure it," she still needed to find out the history of the area), Lahiri learned that the area had once been a flood plain, later drained by the English. "That gave me some sort of working metaphor for the story," she said.
The story itself also sprang from memories of her childhood. Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, but her family traveled back to India every other year to visit relatives. And during those visits, she became aware of the Naxalite Movement, a sometimes-violent rebellion that one of the brothers in her novel becomes involved in.
"There was a family who lived very close to my grandparents," she said, "that had two boys who became involved in the movement." One evening when the police raided the neighborhood, the boys ran and took refuge in the lowland. But they were captured and were executed in front of their family.
"That was the most upsetting thing," she said. "It just shook me. I found it bewildering and confusing that something like that could happen in the neighborhood where I passed time reading books, visiting friends and family. That triggered something in me. I didn't know what to do with it, but when I began writing seriously, the idea would float in and out, and I became aware of the desire to shape this and do something with it."
It was years before she wrote down that scene, but even then it remained just a scene for a long time. "I coudln't do anything more with it. I set it aside for a decade," and finally went back to it in 2008.
Erdrich asked her about the origin on the main characters, and Lahiri replied that she was interested in understanding what leads people to violence. In the case of political movements, "It's often what they see as the greater good," she said. "They did believe in violence as a way to achieve these means.
"I really wanted to examine violence in many forms--not just physical, but emotional. So much of writing begins with these questions, with wanting to understand." And Erdrich, whose latest novel, "The Round House," also involved an examination of violence, nodded in agreement.
Lahiri took no questions from the audience, but at the end of the hour agreed to sign books for the sell-out crowd of 350 people. As Erdrich noted in her opening remarks, the book is on the long list for the National Book Award (the short list will be announced next week) and on the short list for the "extremely prestigious" Man Booker Prize. She hoped, she said, that Lahiri wins both, and that "you can use the same acceptance speech for both of them."
Alice McDermott's new novel, "Someone," long-listed for a National Book Award, is a quiet, rich book, the story of an Irish-American woman named Marie who lives in Brooklyn. Last night at Macalester College, in an event sponsored by Common Good Books, she read passages from the novel to a rapt crowd of about 100 people.
She chose three passages that traced Marie's romantic life--from the first time her heart was broken, to the first time she met her future husband, to a frightening but ultimately reassuring and loving incident in middle age. These same passages are the ones she suggested to her jazz musician son, Will Armstrong, when he told her he was interested in setting parts of her book to music.
(The result is a soundtrack for "Someone," issued by McDermott's publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can listen to, or buy, the haunting, Irish-tinged tunes at www.willarmstrongjazz.com)
But back to Will's mom.
After her reading, McDermott took questions--no, she said; her books are not terribly autobiographical. "I couldn't write autobiography to save my life," she said. "I'm a fiction writer to the bone. The impulse to lie is strong."
That said, she added, her own experiences of the world are reflected in her books--that world of Irish-Americans in New York, their traditions and faith, the soda bread, the language and diction.
She wrote "Someone" partly to preserve some of that. "I wanted to get some of the language of the time, the phrases," she said. Not history--the history is easily knowable--but the attitude and vocabulary.
She also wrote it because "I wanted to go against the trend and give an entire novel over to a female character who didn't have much voice in her own life," she said. Her protagonist, Mary, is a nearsighted quiet woman who came of age in the 1930s and married after World War II. Her older brother, Gabe, was the golden boy who her parents were sure was going to become a priest; Mary's role as a child was to sit quietly and listen while he recited poetry at the dinner table.
"She came of age at a time when people said, 'Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses,' " McDermott said. "That was not a joke. Yes, hers is an ordinary life. But what life is ordinary? I wanted to undermine the idea of an ordinary life. None of us is ordinary.
"Detail. That's how we distinguish. The specficity by which we define lives."
And "Someone" is rich, rich in sensory detail--not just sounds and sights, but textures and, especially, smells: the cold smell of winter and the mothball smell of fur coats and the homey smell of soda bread baking. (Which, by the way, McDermott does not bake. She said she doesn't cook; she writes stories about people who do, and that's just as good.)
Literary fiction, McDermott said, is more about language than it is about plot. "The duty of literary fition is to take language to the point where we only intuit the meaning, to the point we have no words for."
The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul was packed Tuesday evening with moms and little girls (and also some dads and some boys)--out on a school night! But surely this was an occasion their teachers would approve of: the book launch of Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo's latest YA book, "Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures," and the author herself in bright and hilarous conversation with Minnesota Public Radio host Cathy Wurzer.
DiCamillo's book, longlisted for a National Book Award, is the story of a little girl named Flora, a neighbor with a vacuum cleaner, a squirrel that develops superpowers (after being sucked into the machine), and the adventures that ensue. She wrote the book shortly after the death of her mother, and, like all good books--and all DiCamillo books--"Flora & Ulysses" has, Wurzer noted, "themes of loss, abandonment, and death." Is this appropriate for a children's book?, she asked.
"I didn't mention themes. You did," DiCamillo said. "It kind of surprises me that they're in there. But they're in everything that I do. Children are human beings and they're going to experience all of those things, and it's nice to have a book that admits those things are out there."
At this, the little girls--or maybe it was their moms--burst into applause.
The idea for the book came from two things: The vacuum cleaner that DiCamillo inherited from her mother, and a dying squirrel that she noticed on the front steps of her Minneapolis home a few years back. "This is a book a lot about a mother-daughter relationship," she said. "That's because every time I pulled into the garage, I'd see that vacuum cleaner and be reminded of my mom."
Though a friend suggested whacking the dying squirrel with a shovel, DiCamillo left it on the steps and, instead, went into the house and re-read E.B. White's essay, "Death of a Pig."
"And I started to think of ways to save a squirrel's life."
The squirrel on her front steps disappeared--crawled off to die somewhere else, she surmises--and she began work on her new book.
DiCamillo read aloud from the first few chapters of the book, and when she got to the part where Flora performs CPR on the squirrel she barely made it through, she was trying so hard not to laugh. "It tasted funny. Fuzzy, damp, slightly nutty."
Wurzer roared with laughter. And, in unison, they read it again.
"That line kept me going through rewrites," DiCamillo said. "It always made me laugh."
There was more--oh, so much more. Discussion of the writing process, and the importance of editors, and then questions from the young crowd. (One of the last questions was from a serious little girl with dark hair who began by saying, "My name is Flora," and the crowd, and DiCamillo, were delighted.)
The evening was taped for broadcast later on Minnesota Public Radio. Watch for it.
Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection, "The Light Around the Body." His latest book contains new and selected poems spanning 50 years and includes selections from his 2011 collection, "Talking into the Ear of a Donkey."
Earlier this year, Bly received the Poetry Society of America's highest honor, the Frost Medal.
The Oct. 16 event begins at 7 p.m. at Willey Hall and is sponsored by the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, which holds Bly's papers. The event is free but reservations are requested. (Follow this link.)
A reception will follow the reading, and books will be available for sale.
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