Oct. 5, 2004
Poem: "Guilty" by Ginger Andrews from Hurricane Sisters. Reprinted with permission of the author.
to be a beautiful morning,
the orange sun huge,
slanting through the valley fog
all the way to the county courthouse
where my brother pleads guilty
to driving under the influence,
sentenced to ten days in jail,
thirty months probation,
a fifteen hundred dollar fine,
to be paid in fifty dollar per month
installments all as we expected.
No slack for repeat offenders,
even a kind fifty-seven year-old
clean-cut handsome man
whose last arrest was six long years ago,
after our father, and then our sister died.
A man with children in another county
who are used to their dad serving them
hot oatmeal and buttered toast
every morning before school. My brother
nods his head toward me in thanks, I guess,
for the ride here, as he follows
fellow jail mates, single file
down the long hall.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of one of the few writers ever to become the leader of a country, Czech dramatist and president Vaclav Havel, born in Prague (1936). He was born into an affluent family, and as a teenager he watched as his family's property was seized by the government when Communists took control of the country.
He was prevented from attending college, so he took a job in a chemical company and joined a literary underground society, passing around books that had been banned by the government. In the 1960's, he wrote a series of absurdist plays, including The Garden Party (1964) and The Memorandum (1965) that attacked the Communist Party, describing the way in which the Communists were ruining the language by introducing all kinds of euphemisms and clichés.
After a brief period of greater freedom in Czechoslovakia during the late 1960's, Soviet troops invaded and imposed hard-line Communist Party control over the government. Havel's plays were banned. He was arrested twice, thrown in jail, and then forced to earn a living stacking barrels in a brewery.
He continued writing plays, though, including The Mountain Hotel (1976), about a windowless resort in which vacationers spend all their time remembering and forgetting the same things. He also continued to receive money from the production of his plays abroad. He used the money to buy a Mercedes-Benz which he drove to his job at the brewery every day.
Havel kept protesting the government, refusing to go into exile the way so many other writers and artists in the country did. He said, "The solution to the situation does not lie in leaving it. Fourteen million people can't just go and leave Czechoslovakia." He spent the 1980's in and out of prison, writing plays that he couldn't see performed in his own country.
In 1989, after another arrest and imprisonment, he was released early because thousands of artists protested to the prime minister. He'd become a national hero. After the collapse of the Communist regime, he helped negotiate the transition to democracy, and in December of 1989, he was elected President, the first non-communist leader of his country since 1948.
Vaclav Havel said, "If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President."
He also said, "The revolution that ended up by me becoming a President is very strange theater. And perhaps I am an actor in a play that isn't mine."
He finished his second term and stepped down from power last year.
The playwright Arthur Miller said, "[Vaclav Havel is] the world's first avant-garde president."
It's the birthday of the avant-garde novelist who wrote under the name Flann O'Brien, born Brian O'Nolan in Strabane, Ireland (1911). He supported himself as a civil servant. He was always impeccably dressed and was a very productive worker, and no one guessed that he was working on one of the strangest strange novels of the 20th Century.
That novel was At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). It has three beginnings and three endings and the three different strands run alongside each other for the length of the book. It's about a man writing a novel about a novelist, and it borrows many elements from other works of fiction, including cowboys, Greeks, and characters from the novels of Charles Dickens. The first printing of At Swim-Two-Birds sold a little more than two hundred copies. The Germans bombed the warehouse where the remaining copies were stored and so they were destroyed. O'Brien was terribly depressed, and didn't publish any more fiction for twenty years. But some of the most prestigious writers in Europe got their hands on those first two hundred copies, and it's believed that At Swim-Two-Birds was the last novel that James Joyce ever read. The book has since come to be regarded as a masterpiece of experimental fiction.
It begins, "Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression."
It's the birthday of short story writer and novelist Edward P. Jones born in Arlington, Virginia (1950). He's best known for his novel The Known World, which came out last year, about a black slave owner in the pre-Civil War South.
Jones grew up in Washington, D.C., raised by his mother, who couldn't read or write. He had to sign her name on his own report cards. She washed dishes and worked as a maid to support the family, and they moved about eighteen times throughout Jones's childhood. He had trouble making friends, because they moved so frequently, so he started reading books instead.
Jones got a scholarship to college, and started writing fiction. His work was promising, but just as he was graduating, his mother got sick, and he moved back to be with her as she died. He supported himself writing for a tax law publication called Tax Notes. He lived extremely frugally, sleeping on an inflatable mattress, with few possessions other than his books and a TV. He published a few short stories here and there, and in 1992 he came out with a collection called Lost in the City, about ordinary African Americans living in Washington, D.C.
That book won awards and it got Jones a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, but he kept his day job at Tax Notes because he was terrified of losing his regular paycheck. Then, ten years after his first book had been published, his job at Tax Notes was eliminated. It took getting laid off to finally sit down and write full time.
He'd been working on a novel for years, but he'd only written twelve pages. Six months after he lost his job, he'd finished the first draft. He said, "It was all sitting up in my head. All the characters, every scene. Even phrases my characters wanted to say were sitting there waiting...It felt good to finally write it down. I wrote five pages a day."
That novel, Jones's first, became The Known World, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jones was fifty-three years old. He didn't own a car, a cell phone or a fax machine, and he still doesn't.
It's the birthday of the architect Maya Lin, born in Athens, Ohio (1959). As a young woman, she became interested in the art and architecture of cemeteries, and she spent a lot of time wandering around the local cemetery in her town. While studying architecture at Yale, she took a class on funerary architecture. One of the assignments was to enter the national competition for the design of a Vietnam Memorial, which would be constructed on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
Lin submitted a design with two long, low black granite walls, built into the earth, with the names of all those killed in the war engraved on the stone. She specified that the granite should be highly polished, so that the mourners reading the names would see themselves reflected on the surface of the rock. She made a model of the design in mashed potatoes and sent in her proposal just before the deadline. Hers was one of 1,420 entries, including an entry by her own professor, who gave her a B- in the class. She learned during graduation week that her design had won the competition.
Many veterans of the war protested her design for the monument, calling it too dark and depressing. Some even claimed that Maya Lin wasn't American enough to design the monument, even though she'd been born in Ohio. But construction went ahead, and the memorial was unveiled on November 13, 1982. It is now one of the most celebrated war memorials in the world. Today, more than a million people travel from across the country to see it each year.
It's the birthday of horror novelist Clive Barker, born in Liverpool, England (1952). He started out as an aspiring playwright with his plays The History of the Devil (1981) and Frankenstein in Love (1982). But they weren't very successful, so he began writing a multi-volume collection of horror stories called The Books of Blood (Volume 1 published in 1984), which were among the most graphically violent horror stories ever published at that time, but which also drew upon mythology and classic literature. He went on to write many novels that mix elements of both horror and fantasy, including Weaveworld (1987) and The Great and Secret Show (1989).
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®