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Thursday, 31 July 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #52: Sarah Waters

I write a synopsis for myself really, to get my ideas organised – but I might never refer to it again.  I usually start at the beginning of a book and just work my way slowly through it, several chapters at a time, annotate them, then rewrite them and print them out again – I might do that three or four times per section.  It's quite a laborious way to do it – going over and over sections that will probably change later on, when I come to rewrite the book as a whole.  I sometimes wish I could work in a different way – be a bit looser about it.

Interview from the Mslexia: For Women Who Write website [date unspecified]

Click HERE to read the full interview with SARAH WATERS at the MSLEXIA: FOR WOMEN WHO WRITE website.  Her own website can be visited by clicking HERE.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

JAZZ ICONS #10: Bernie McGann

BERNIE McGANN, 2012




Bernie McGann is one of the greatest of all jazz musicians, either here or anywhere...He represents the essence of the music; uncompromising and thoroughly schooled in the tradition, while creating his own response to it...He’s like a great painter who’s developed this style, and then refines it and refines it.  But everything that he does is unmistakable because of the style.
PAUL GRABOWSKY
Pianist/Composer & McGann collaborator


The death of alto saxophonist Bernie McGann (who preferred to be known as 'Bern') on 17 September 2013 robbed Australian jazz of one of its true pioneers, a brilliant self-effacing giant whose career spanned more than five decades and saw him create and perfect a unique, instantly identifiable sound that was, by turns, dark, dry, angular, chaotic and, when the occasion called for it, achingly romantic.  For many jazz fans he was the preeminent figure in Australian improvised music, a musician who never stopped stretching his own boundaries and those of everyone he played with despite being almost totally ignored by the mainstream media and achieving what can only be described as an 'extremely modest' degree of commercial if not critical success.

McGann was born Bernard Francis McGann in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah on 22 June 1937.  His father, who was a semi-professional drummer employed by day as a sheetmetal worker, moved the family west to Granville when he was two years old.  It was in Granville, in a house that faced the perpetually busy Parramatta Road, that he grew up, immersed in the music of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Mary Lou Williams and other prominent American jazz and swing artists of the time.  (He also attended Marist Brothers High School in Parramatta, where he was a classmate of my father's, before leaving in his early teens to start working as an apprentice fitter and turner.)  He took piano lessons as a child, then switched to drums before finally taking up the saxophone at the age of eighteen, influenced - as were aspiring musicians all over the world at the time - by the smooth, ultra-modern sound of Paul Desmond, then at the peak of his popularity as the alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.


 
The Breeze and I
Bernie McGann Quartet
Bernie McGann [alto sax]; Warwick Alder [trumpet];
Brendan Clarke [bass]; Andrew Dickeson [drums]
Recorded live, 28 June 2011 


McGann was playing well enough by the late 1950s to take his place alongside other emerging Australian jazz talents like drummer John Pochée and trumpeter Errol Buddle at a late night Sydney venue called 'El Rocco' - really a cellar with a neon sign proclaiming it a 'jazz club' - located in the Sydney 'red light' district better known as King's Cross.  El Rocco, which had opened in 1955 as a café serving instant coffee to the city's bohemian elite, soon became the city's premier jazz venue, home to virtually every great musician - Judy Bailey, Don Burrows, Bobby Gebert, George Golla, Mike Nock, the list is seriously impressive - who would go on to make his or her mark in the 1960s, the 1970s and beyond.  

McGann's professional relationship with many of these musicians would be strong, but none more so than that the partnership he developed with John Pochée, whose flawlessly in-the-groove drumming would become crucial to the sound of both the Bernie McGann Trio and the Bernie McGann Quartet.  It was with Pochée, as a member of a band called Heads, that he earned his first residency at a Melbourne club called the Fat Black Pussycat in 1964.  Their stay in Victoria was brief, however, and they were back in New South Wales the following year, gigging regularly in Sydney venues like Club Eleven, the Taxi Club and the Mocambo in what was then the highly unfashionable and still very working class suburb of Newtown.  In later years, McGann would feature prominently in Pochée's own mini orchestra Ten Part Invention, frequently performing and recording with the goup as well as in the smaller group, The Last Straw, they co-founded in 1974. 


Spirit Song
Ten Part Invention
Recorded live, 1993


McGann, who made his first jazz recordings in 1967 for a compilation LP titled Jazz Australia, supplemented his income during the late 1960s and early 1970s by working as a session musician and performing as a member of the rock/soul group Southern Comfort.  Around this time he also moved to the small bushland community of Bundeena south of the city, working by day as its postman and often taking his saxophone deep into the bush of the nearby Royal National Park to conduct his daily practice sessions.  At the Sydney benefit concert held for him in September 2013, immediately following the heart surgery which unbeknownst to everyone would shortly cost him his life, John Pochée remembered being sent off to find him one day, only to discover 'a solitary chiselled figure atop a large rock platform blowing out across the vast expanses of bush.'  This habit of honing his sound alone in the bush, far from where anyone but the occasional possum or wallaby could hear him, was crucial to its development and helped prepare him for what became his most productive decade, with his trio and quartet producing several internationally acclaimed recordings and backing top-notch visiting US musicians such as Freddie Hubbard, Lester Bowie, Dave Liebman, Sonny Stitt and Dewey Redman.  In addition to touring extensively both in Australia and overseas throughout the 1980s - including successful visits to the UK, the USA, Czechoslovakia, Poland, India and Malaysia - McGann also found time to play himself in the 1988 Kevin Lucas docu-drama Beyond El Rocco.  By 1990 he was arguably the most famous 'unknown' jazz musician in Australia, with another successful tour of the USSR helping to cement his international reputation as a player of astonishing depth, power and sometimes staggering individuality.  

Rufus Records, 1998 (reissue)

The ensuing decade saw McGann further consolidate his position as Australia's leading alto saxophonist with the 1991 release of Ugly Beauty, his first new trio album for many years and one which featured several of his own strikingly angular compositions in addition to a selection of sympathetic and thoughtfully chosen standards.  The album gained him an ARIA award and the 1992 Mo Award for 'Jazz Group of the Year,' awards he would win again in 1994, 1995 and 1997 for his albums McGann, McGann and Playground before becoming the first non-classical performer to win the prestigious Don Banks Award in 1998, an annual $60,000 prize given to 'a senior artist of high distinction who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to music in Australia.'  The same year saw the publication of a biography, written by poet, novelist and social historian Geoff Page, titled Bernie McGann: A Life in Jazz by the Armidale-based Kardoorair Press (a book which, sadly, no longer appears to be in print). 

 
Bernie McGann: Australian National Treasure
Short film about McGann 


Despite his originality and his often breathtaking technique - a technique I can vouch for, as I heard him in person at venues like the Strawberry Hills Hotel and Soup Plus many times throughout the 1990s - McGann was at heart an old school musician who believed in playing wherever and whenever he could, making as little fuss about himself as he seemed to make about his music.  He was quintessentially Australian in his personal attitudes and, by all accounts, in his personal likes and dislikes, which included a fondness for the game of pool and the lifelong habit of rolling his own cigarettes.  He was, according to his friends, laconic, modest and 'capably self-reliant,' a man who once quipped, after attending yet another award ceremony, 'Win an ARIA Award and you can't get a gig.'  He was, above all, a survivor, someone who obviously possessed the talent and ability required to transform him into an international superstar had he chosen to relocate to New York or Paris instead of continuing to ply his trade in a jazz backwater like Australia.  

McGann never lost the power to astound and dazzle audiences or, more significantly, his fellow musicians.  As John Pochée said of him when asked what it had been like to play with him for over forty years:  'Bernie can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck.'  That's the kind of praise that would have mattered to a man for whom the pursuit of the human and the personal was infinitely more important than any accolade he received from the critics or those responsible for handing out prizes and grant money.   The last word perhaps belongs to pianist Paul Grabowsky, with whom McGann recorded the stunning ballad album Always in October 2005.  It was an unusual project for both musicians, but one well worth the time and effort required to bring it to fruition, given the beautiful but still unmistakably McGannesque music they created together.
It was Dale Barlow who in about 1982 first made me think about Bernie.  How he was the true original, the swingin' postie, the Australian Bird, more kookaburra than nightingale, how he sang his own song.  You can hear echoes from across the pond:  Parker, of course, Ornette, especially Sonny Rollins, but I've heard him sound cooler as well, almost like Lee Konitz.  What really matters is that here is Australian jazz's Fred Williams, its Patrick White, a poet who evokes a dry, brittle and shimmering Australian landscape off the back of Tin Pan Alley and Vera Lynn...Something for always.


  
Salaam
Bernie McGann Quartet
Bernie McGann [alto sax]; Warwick Alder [trumpet];
Brendan Clarke [bass]; Andrew Dickeson [drums]
Recorded live, 28 June 2011



Click HERE to listen to more great music by BERNIE McGANN.  To read his full obituary (from which much of the biographical information required for this post was obtained), published in The Australian on 23 September 2013, please click HERE.  A short clip from the 1988 film Beyond El Rocco can be viewed by clicking HERE.  

Many fine recordings by BERNIE McGANN and his various bands can be purchased online by visiting the website of Sydney-based jazz label Rufus Records and its Bandcamp page berniemcgann.bandcamp.com.

Special thanks to those who took the time to upload these clips to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

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Thursday, 17 July 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #18: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI




CONSTANTLY RISKING 
ABSURDITY

  

Constantly risking absurdity
                                           and death
    whenever he performs
                                      above the heads
                                                             of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
                          climbs on rime
                                      to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                            above a sea of faces
    paces his way
                         to the other side of day
  performing entrechats
                                and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                                   and all without mistaking
        any thing
                        for what it may not be
    For he's the super realist
                                       who must perforce perceive
           taut truth
                       before the taking of each stance or step
    in his supposed advance
                       toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                                 with gravity
                                            to start her death-defying leap
And he
      a little charleychaplin man
                                 who may or may not catch
      her fair eternal form
                              spreadeagled in the empty air
        of existence

                                                                       

 A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)





The Poet:  Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York on 24 March 1919.  His French-born Jewish mother was committed to an insane asylum shortly after his birth, while his Italian father died when he was barely six months old.  Ferlinghetti spent his early childhood in the French city of Strasbourg, where he was raised by his maternal aunt Emily, who later brought him back to New York where he was placed in an orphanage until she found work as a governess, caring for the only daughter of the wealthy Bisland family.  Her nephew was left in the care of the Bislands after 1926 and attended local schools in Bronxville, New York before graduating with a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina in 1941.

Ferlinghetti enlisted in the US Navy following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and served in both the European and Pacific theaters of war.  (He also visited the Japanese city of Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped on it - an experience which turned him into a committed lifelong pacifist or, as he describes it, 'a philosophical anarchist.')  He enrolled at Columbia University after the war and lived in Paris between 1947 and 1951, where he earned his PhD at the Sorbonne.  Following his return to America, he married and moved to San Francisco, where he taught French and wrote art criticism while working on translations of poems by the French surrealist Jacques Prévert.  Many of these were later published in the magazine City Lights owned by Peter D Martin.  In 1953, he and Martin joined forces to open the City Lights Bookstore - the first all-paperback bookstore in the USA and a place that would loom large in the mythos of the emerging Beat movement which included (but did not necessarily define) writers like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.  

Ferlinghetti went on to found City Lights Publishing, which published the work of many of these 'new' poets and writers in its groundbreaking 'Pocket Poets' series.  Allen Ginsberg's Howl - the fourth book in the series - was seized by officers of the San Francisco Police Department in 1956 on the grounds that it was an obscene publication.  Ferlinghetti was arrested for selling an obscene book to a police officer and stood trial for this alleged offence in municipal court, only to be acquitted by the presiding judge in October 1957 in what became a landmark decision in the fight to uphold every American citizen's constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.  The poet remained highly active in the fight for social justice and the anti-war movement during the 1960s and remains, at ninety-five, an outspoken critic of US foreign policy.  The author of over thirty books, Ferlinghetti is also a well-respected painter who held a one-man exhibition, titled 60 Years of Painting, in the Italian cities of Rome and Reggio in 2010.

Click HERE to read more poetry by LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI at Poemhunter.com.  

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POET OF THE MONTH #16: WB Yeats
POET OF THE MONTH #12: Clementine von Radics
POET OF THE MONTH #5: François Villon       

Thursday, 10 July 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #51: Marianne Moore

I don't call anything I have ever written poetry.  In fact, the only reason I know for calling my work poetry at all is that there is no other category in which to put it.  I'm a happy hack as a writer. . . . I never knew anyone with a passion for words who had as much difficulty in saying things as I do.  I seldom say them in a manner I like.  Each poem I think will be the last.  But something always comes up and catches my fancy.

Interview in The New York Times [date unspecified]

Click HERE to read more poetry by MARIANNE MOORE at Poemhunter.com.

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POET OF THE MONTH #2: Marianne Moore
WRITERS ON WRITING #22: George Orwell
WRITERS ON WRITING #7: Glenda Adams

Thursday, 3 July 2014

JOHN WILLIAMS Stoner (1965)

New York Review Books, 2006


He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him.  He suspected that he was beginning, ten years too late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be.  He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.  It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.


The Book:  The plot of John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner appears, on the surface at least, to be simplicity itself.  William Stoner is born in 1891 and grows up poor on his father's farm in rural Missouri.  At the age of eighteen, despite his lack of anything more than the most basic education, he's given the opportunity to attend the State University for two years to study agriculture - a degree, his father believes, that will help him to run the farm in a more 'scientific' way when he eventually inherits it and will also, in time, make it a more successful and generally profitable enterprise.  Stoner leaves for Columbia, the city where the campus is located, and moves in with his mother's penny-pinching relatives for whom he's expected to chop wood and do other menial chores in exchange for receiving his room and board.

All goes well until the boy enters the second year of his degree and finds himself enrolled in a mandatory one semester English literature course taught by a curmudgeonly instructor named Archer Sloane.  The course introduces the shy agriculture student to the previously unknown world of Greek, Roman and Renaissance literature and, through it, to a new side of himself and what, under Sloane's occasionally obtuse guidance, proves to be his true vocation - teaching.  Stoner soon switches his major from agriculture to literature, informing his parents that he won't be returning to the farm because he intends to remain in school, where he hopes to gain his PhD.  'If you think you ought to stay here and study your books,' his father understandingly tells him after being informed of his decision, 'then that's what you ought to do.'

Stoner is still working towards earning his doctorate when America enters World War One.  Unlike his sharp-tongued, world-weary friend David Masters and his more genial, less ambitious friend Gordon Finch, he prefers not to enlist in the army, remaining at Columbia to study and teach while Masters leaves for France where he's soon killed in action at Château-Thierry.  Life, however, goes on.  Stoner gains his PhD in 1918 and becomes an instructor while Finch, who never got to Europe because he was still in Officers' Training School when the Armistice was signed, returns to school where they renew the friendship which, unbeknownst to both of them, will become the most enduring and most important of their lives.  In time, Finch becomes head of the English Department and then Dean of the University itself, while Stoner, who despises academic politics and everything connected with it, devotes himself to teaching and writing the books he must publish on a semi-regular basis in order to gain tenure and the job security that possessing it provides.

In 1919, at a faculty party, he meets the girl - Edith Elaine Bostwick - who will shortly become his wife.  Edith is a shy, strange creature - tall, pale and extremely spoiled by her rich banker father who is not, at first, eager to welcome a farmer's son into his family.  But Edith is determined to have her way and the marriage soon takes place in accordance with her wishes, followed by a honeymoon in Saint Louis which proves to be as traumatic for her as it does disappointing for her besotted but sexually inexperienced bridegroom.  They return to Columbia and move into a rundown apartment which Edith spends all her time 'improving,' becoming angry, morose and withdrawn if Stoner dares to interfere or offer an unrequested opinion on her latest decorating project.  'Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve...If he spoke to her or touched her in tenderness, she turned away from him within herself and became wordless, enduring, and for days afterward drove herself to new limits of exhaustion.'  This becomes their habit and remains so for the remainder of their mutually unsatisfying marriage, a habit broken only when Edith decides she needs to have a child and briefly becomes the lusty young bride her baffled but nevertheless cooperative husband had originally hoped to encounter on their honeymoon.  Their sexual relationship ends - as does their marriage in everything but name - when Edith becomes pregnant with their only child, a daughter named Grace who becomes her father's pride and joy and his one consolation for having married a neurotic, self-obsessed woman who lurches from one new 'artistic interest' to another in an effort to provide herself with the meaning and focus her life otherwise lacks.

Nor do things progress smoothly for Stoner on the career front.  Just as he's beginning to find his feet as a teacher, ten years after teaching his first undergraduate literature class, he runs afoul of a fellow instructor named Hollis Lomax - an embittered cripple who clashes with him over his refusal to give Lomax's favorite student, a fellow smooth-talking cripple named Walker, a passing grade in the graduate seminar Walker has wheedled his way into joining.  Lomax insists that Stoner pass the boy but Stoner's rigid sense of integrity won't allow him to comply.  'It's not the principle,' he tells his friend Finch after Finch breaks the news to him that he's being promoted and Lomax is likely to be appointed the new department head in his place, 'It's Walker.  It would be a disaster to let him loose in a classroom.'  Lomax proves to be an unforgiving boss, punishing Stoner for his refusal to cooperate by giving him the dullest, most uninspiring classes to teach at the widest spaced intervals, making it impossible for him to spend as much time with his daughter - who is gradually being driven away from him by the ever-manipulative Edith anyway - as he wants or, indeed, needs to.

By the time he reaches middle-age, Stoner's life seems absolutely bereft of any form of joy.  His marriage is a failure, his beloved daughter has become a stranger to him and his work, while time-consuming, is something he no longer finds satisfying on either a personal or an intellectual level.  He thinks of killing himself, ending a life which seems to be defined by what it lacks rather than what it encompasses, but is rescued by a graduate student named Katherine Driscoll who asks him to serve as her doctoral adviser.  Katherine is young, intense, and as devoted to the study of classical literature as Stoner himself was when he was first introduced to it back in the dim, half-forgotten world of 1910.  Katherine is also in love with him and has been since she, along with the troublesome Mr Walker, encountered him as a student in his graduate literature seminar.

Stoner and Katherine begin a relationship which proves to be as intellectually rewarding as it does emotionally and sexually gratifying, a refuge from disappointment and university politics which allows both participants to enjoy the kind of happiness neither has thus far experienced with any other person.  The period of Stoner's affair with Katherine is the happiest time of his life but he knows it can't last and, sadly, he's right.  What has been an open secret in Columbia, even to the not wholly ignorant Edith, soon becomes common knowledge and reaches the ear of Lomax, who threatens to dismiss him unless he gives the girl up.  'He didn't see Katherine Driscoll again.  After he left her, during the night, she got up, packed all her belongings, cartoned her books, and left word with the manager of the apartment house where to send them...She must have been planning her departure for some time, Stoner realized; and he was grateful that he had not known and that she had left him no final note to say what could not be said.'  He reacts to this loss by becoming ill for the first time in his life - an illness which, by the time he finally recovers from it, changes him from a middle-aged man into a prematurely aged one, the kind of crusty old professor Sloane used to be and he once vowed he would never allow himself to become.

The rest of his life, from roughly the end of World War Two until his death from cancer in 1956, sees Stoner become an authentic university 'character,' a kind of walking institution who's respected by his students but never really appreciated by them just as he's never truly been appreciated (or even remotely understood) by his wife, his friend Gordon Finch or his academic enemy Hollis Lomax.  Yet he can still look back on his life, as he lays dying in the bedroom/study in which so much of it has been spent, and recognize the value in everything he's done or ever tried to be.  'He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure - as if it mattered.  It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been...A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it.  He was himself, and he knew what he had been.'


Italian edition, date unknown
The back cover blurb of the New York Review Books edition of Stoner describes the title character as 'an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.'  While Stoner's world is an unforgiving one in many respects the point is that he remains undefeated by the setbacks it inflicts on him, remaining stubbornly himself even as life disappoints, mistreats, overlooks and marginalizes him.  Unlike the crippled Lomax and the depressed and genuinely isolated Hollis Sloane, he never becomes vengeful, remorseful or even noticeably embittered by his experiences, most of which fall far short of what he'd imagined his life becoming as an idealistic undergraduate fresh off his father's farm.  What makes him so memorable - and the story of what appears to be his completely unremarkable life so moving - is his ordinariness, the 'Everyman' quality which reveals itself most often in his quiet yet iron-willed refusal to pretend to be anyone other than who he is, a man able to find joy even in what flees from him (Katherine) and in what he despairs of ever gaining the power to successfully convey to others (his passionate love of literature).  Stoner is allegedly Tom Hanks' favorite novel and it's not hard to see why the material and the subject matter might appeal to him.  Like so many of the characters Hanks has chosen to portray on screen, Stoner seems to stand for everything that's decent, honest and noble in American life, questionable though that ideal has now become to many of us living in a perpetually spin-doctored post-9/11 world.  What cannot be questioned, however, is John Williams' extraordinary talent and his ability to capture the heart, soul, mind and, above all, the innate integrity of a man most of us would hardly pause to notice if we passed him in the street.



JOHN WILLIAMS, c. 1972
The Author:  Like every other fashion, literary fashions have their seasons and their favorites, making some writers rich and famous overnight while others - often their lesser known but infinitely more talented colleagues - find themselves unjustly consigned to the novelistic scrapheap for no better reason than their failure to top bestseller lists.  The experience of John Williams serves as a case in point.  Revered by his fellow novelists for the beauty, economy and staggering emotional power of his prose, Williams' work was largely ignored by the public during his own lifetime despite earning the praise of several generations of literary critics and a small but loyal band of devoted, proselytizing fans.  Even winning the 1973 National Book Award for his fourth novel Augustus (and even this he had to share with the more academically fashionable John Barth) didn't seem to help matters much.  Williams, it seemed, was doomed to be a critical rather than a financial success, a writer widely respected and admired by his peers who would remain an unread obscurity in the eyes of the masses.

All that changed in 2012 with the routine, completely unpublicized reissuing of his third novel Stoner by Random House's UK subsidiary Vintage Classics.  Suddenly, everyone was reading this remarkable 1965 novel and urging their friends, family and loved ones to do the same.  A low-key literary novel about a so-called 'ordinary' man - who happens to be a stuffy old Classics professor to boot - was suddenly riding high on the world's bestseller lists, ranked #2 behind splashier, trashier works like Dan Brown's Inferno and the ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey.  'It has,' to quote a recent review in The New York Times, 'been reprinted 12 times, with sales rising from 300 copies a month to 6000, with 110,000 sold in the Netherlands alone so far.'

The pity, of course, is that its author didn't live to see the book become the worldwide bestseller it's now so unpredictably become.  John Edward Williams - grandson of Texas farmers, stepson of a janitor and a college graduate only because the US Government's GI Bill allowed ex-American military personnel to study for university degrees at its expense after serving in World War Two - died on 3 March 1994 in Fayetteville, Arkansas from emphysema.  He was seventy-one years old and had been retired from the job he loved - teaching literature to college students at the universities of Denver and Missouri - for nine years.  He had not published a novel since 1972.  

Williams was not a prolific author, producing only four novels - Nothing But The Night (1948), Butcher's Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965) and his epistolary exploration of Ancient Rome Augustus (1972) - and two poetry collections prior to his death.  He also left behind an unfinished fifth novel which thus far remains unpublished.  His success, belated though it is, is heartening for the ever-dwindling minority who believe that the true test of literary merit should be the ability of the work in question to engage and stir the imagination and emotions of the reader, that the quality of the work is ultimately more important - and always should be more important - than the marketing potential of whoever The New York Times or The Times Literary Supplement has chosen to anoint as this week's over-praised literary superstar.  Stoner strikes a strong emotional chord in readers because - in a world where human success is measured more and more in terms of earning power, ego and media exposure - it tells a touchingly believable tale of a so-called 'failure' and in doing so speaks directly to every ordinary, non-famous person who's ever had cause to doubt their own value or question the purpose of their life.  An impressive feat for a novel which first appeared nearly half a century ago and sold only a modest 2000 copies during its initial print run.

Williams himself was, by all accounts, the most ordinary and charming of men.  Although he showed an early talent for writing, he originally set out to become an actor, flunking out of the small community college he'd been attending for less than a year to take a job writing promo copy for radio stations in various small towns and cities throughout the American southwest.  He was doing this when America entered World War Two and spent three years serving in the US Army Air Force, first in India and later in Burma.  It was during this period that he wrote the first draft of what would become his first novel, published in 1948 as Nothing But The Night.  Following his war service, he moved to Colorado and enrolled as an English student at the University of Denver, earning his BA there in 1949 and his Masters Degree one year later.  After receiving his PhD from the University of Missouri he returned to the University of Denver where he taught for the remainder of his academic career.

Vintage Classics UK, 2012
Dapper and slightly built, Williams was a teacher unafraid to ignore and contradict his own teaching methods if he believed that doing so might improve a student's chances of finding their own way as a writer.  'Ignore all of what you just heard and sat through,' he told graduate student and future novelist Michelle Latiolais in 1981 after she'd taken her first creative writing class with him.  'Read these authors.'  He laid a pile of books on her desk which included novels by Ford Madox Ford, Edith Wharton and Janet Lewis.  'They will be your teachers.  You're a writer who can't be taught, who has to figure it out on her own.'  He also passed on to Latiolais his love of and lifelong reverence for the work of Henry James.  Under his tutelage, Latiolais wrote in her 2007 introduction to his groundbreaking 1960 Western novel Butcher's Crossing, 'I would learn to write the consciousness of character by reading Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors.

Unlike Stoner, Williams was genuinely admired and even loved by his students.  He'd earned that love, and his reputation as one of America's finest unsung novelists, by constant hard work and an unwavering belief in the idea that the first duty of literature, all literature, should be to engage and entertain the reader.  He was firmly against the idea that 'a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced.'  'My God,' he once told an interviewer, 'to read without joy is stupid.'  He was and remains a true American original, a forgotten master whose work is finally receiving the attention it deserves after more than forty years of unmerited obscurity. 


Click HERE to read a June 2013 article by ARIFA AKBAR about the unexpected 'resurgence' of Stoner in The Independent.  You can also click HERE to read a similar article by ex-academic JOHN SUTHERLAND which originally appeared in the July 2013 edition of The Telegraph.

You might also enjoy: 
RICHARD YATES A Special Providence (1969)
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932) 
WRITERS ON WRITING #46: Richard Bausch

Thursday, 26 June 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #50: Ford Madox Ford

They [Stephen and Cora Crane] were very simple people really.  All great authors are.  If you are not simple you are not observant.  If you are not observant you cannot write.  But you must observe simply.  The first characteristic of great writing is a certain humility.

I suppose, after having studied the matter all my life, that what is most necessary for Literature – or for any art or any human pursuit! – is a standard.  That is something to kick off from or to kick.  If it is good you work according to its dictates.  If it is bad you gain inspiration from fighting it.

Return to Yesterday (1931)

Click HERE to visit the UK website of THE FORD MADOX FORD SOCIETY.  You can also click HERE to view clips from the soon-to-be released documentary It Was The Nightingale: The Unreliable Story of Ford Madox Ford, directed by PAUL LEWIS for Subterracon Films.

You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #40: Ford Madox Ford
WRITERS ON WRITING #20: Ford Madox Ford
POET OF THE MONTH #4: Ford Madox Ford

Thursday, 19 June 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #17: Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf

CAASHA LUL MOHAMUD YUSUF



DISORIENTATION


The boy that I love
was made handsome by God;
fine as a jewel.
My people, where is he?

I'm looking intently,
eyes fumbling -
confused -
conjuring him everywhere.
My people, where is he?

Whilst others sleep,
I'm sick with not-sleeping,
each faint, muddled voice
makes me strain to hear.

Nothing will nourish -
I don't eat or drink.
My throat's dry,
my lips crack,
a gag's in my mouth.

How many times has rain drenched me?
Drops pummel my skin,
then the storm's deep boom;
floods approach -
their ferocity sweeps me away like a stem.

How many times must I climb the mountain?
Wrestle through jungle,
trek endless paths
or tumble down their steep slopes.
My soul doesn't say stop,
it forces me on.
I heave myself onto the ledge for you.

How many times have the sticky trees,
the thorns, the acacia,
the bilcil's rough limbs
the shrubs, clingy weeds
the sog-sog dragged me away?

The venomous black snakes,
the pythons, coiled vipers,
the startled, slippery abeeso,
how many times have I stepped over them?
How many times must I outrun them?

I've wounded myself with love -
I've snapped bones, they leak marrow,
I'm flat on my back.
And this self-destruction, these difficulties
mean nothing, my dear.

Because of your love, Jamaal,
the male lion, maned,
creaking his fangs,
has caught a she-camel
and severed its artery.

With his jaw,
leaning forward,
he laps up the blood.
I keep near this creature.
It is my neighbour.
I'll stay here now, because of you.

The elephant with its tough hide
rears its trunk,
whips trees aside,
destroying the forest.
I don't mind this either.

I don't feel compassion.
I don't get gooseflesh.
Because of your love, Jamaal,
I stay with beasts now.
They are my neighbours.
I belong here, because of you.

All this hardship I endure,
all this wasteful pain,
it's because I love you.
My people, where is he?


date unspecified



Translated by MAXAMED XASAN 'ALTO' and CLARE POLLARD 





The Poet:  The following biographical statement appears on the website of THE POETRY TRANSLATION CENTER.  [It is re-posted here for recommendation purposes only and, like the poem re-posted above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]
 

Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf is a poet from Somalia/Somaliland who writes in Somali.  She is quickly emerging as one of the most exciting young poets living in the Somali diaspora.

Like all Somalis, Caasha grew up in a culture steeped in poetry and while she was young she started to compose her own poems. Her work began getting published on Somali websites in 2008 and, since then, she's rapidly garnered a great deal of praise for her ability to infuse her poetry with fresh imagery enlivened by telling details.

Caasha came to the UK in 1990 having fled the Somali Civil War. She now has three children and a steady job and a growing career as a poet. 

Click HERE to read more poems by CAASHA LUL MOHAMUD YUSUF published on THE POETRY TRANSLATION CENTRE website.


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POET OF THE MONTH #11: Fatma Ben Mahmoud 
POET OF THE MONTH #8: Mohammed Bennis
WRITERS ON WRITING #31: Jana El Hassan