Oct. 12, 2004
Poem: "Aunt Bobby" by June Beisch, from Fatherless Woman © Cape Cod Literary Press. Reprinted with permission.
My favorite aunt was unmarried, half deaf
and lived alone in a smoke-filled room
at the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis.
Once beautiful, she still had her vanity.
Her hip, mangled in surgery,
gave her a spasmodic gait, she flapped
down Oakland Avenue to visit us
like a tall crane who'd had a few.
I loved the sight of her, ran to
the frazzled, overpermed head, the
too-bright ruby lips, the strong perfume.
For all the appearances of inutile femininity,
she was to me, a half divinity.
The auntness of aunts, their
bemused, hat-askance objectivity.
They belong to no one and to everyone
and can offer a child another reality.
How many times she took me home
to her apartment hoping to give
my busy mother a small reprieve
handed me a pencil and drawing pad
then made me feel like Michaelangelo.
Now thinking back, I wish I had
given back just half of what she gave to me.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of actress, playwright, and novelist Alice Childress, born in Charleston, South Carolina (1916). She moved with her family to Harlem as a child, and she said she decided to be a writer at her Wednesday night testimonials at her grandmother's church. She said, "I remember how people, mostly women, used to get up and tell their troubles to everybody.... I couldn't wait for person after person to tell their story." She decided she wanted to grow up and tell those women's stories to the world.
It was also her grandmother who kept encouraging her to write. Childress said, "My grandmother had no formal education, but [if I told her a story] she'd say, 'That's interesting, write it down.' I'd say, 'No, I don't want to,' but she'd say, 'Just a little bit.' And I got used to it."
Childress was primarily a playwright, and her plays included Trouble in Mind (1955), Wedding Band (1966), and Wine in the Wilderness (1969). But she's best known for her novels A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) and A Short Walk (1979).
It's the birthday of the author and occultist Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley in Leamington, England (1875). As a young man he spent his time traveling around, writing poetry, and dabbling in the occult. At the turn of the century, alternative religions were all the rage, and Crowley studied yoga, Buddhism, reincarnation, Tarot card reading, and Jewish Qabalah, among other things. He was a member, along with W.B. Yeats, of a mystical society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
He spent his honeymoon with his first wife in Egypt, where they slept in the king's chamber of the Great Pyramid. Crowley performed a magical ritual that was supposed to illuminate the chamber with astral light. His wife wasn't impressed, but soon after, she fell into a trance, saying that she had been possessed by an ancient spirit. He wrote down everything she said under her trance, and published it as The Book of the Law (1938) which became a kind of Bible for occultists and libertines. It contains Crowley's most famous statement, "There is no law beyond do what thou wilt."
He went on to found a commune in Sicily during the 1920's that became notorious for alleged black magic rituals, drug use, and free love. A tabloid journalist called Crowley, "The wickedest man in the world." But he was actually on the decline at the time, and by 1947, he died in obscurity.
Crowley didn't become famous again until twenty years after his death, when John Lennon chose to include his image on the cover of the Beatles' album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Suddenly, he became a prophet to rock stars and hippies. Most of his books, including his autobiography The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1969) have been in print ever since.
It's the birthday of the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, born in Geneva, New York (1910). He's regarded as having produced the most beautiful English translations of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey in the last century. He began translating for a living because he failed at trying to be a journalist. He said, "I worked hard and learned much from the big-city savvy of [the] city editor, but I never learned to write at high speed."
One of his former teachers from prep school asked him if he wanted to try translating a Greek tragedy. He did, and it was broadcast on the BBC to great acclaim. He went on to translate several more Greek plays for the radio, including Oedipus at Colonus (1941) and Oedipus Rex (1949).
Ever since he had first read Homer as a college student, he'd wanted to try translating his work, but it wasn't until he won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1953 that he began work on The Odyssey (1961). It took him ten years to finish it, and he spent part of that time traveling to the various places mentioned by Homer, so that he could capture them correctly in English. His translation of The Odyssey was such a success that he took another twelve years to translate The Iliad (1974).
Fitzgerald was also an influential classics professor at Harvard, and he always emphasized that Homer's work should be read aloud. One of his students said, "Every Tuesday afternoon he'd start [class] by saying to us, 'Listen to this, now...it was meant to be listened to.' [Then he would read and] the 12 of us would listen, very quiet around the blond wood table, our jittery freshman muscles gradually unclenching."
Robert Fitzgerald described Homer as, "A living voice in firelight or in the open air, a living presence bringing into life his great company of imagined persons, a master performer at his ease, touching the strings, disposing of many voices, many tones and tempos, tragedy, comedy, and glory, holding his [listeners] in the palm of his hand."
It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Price, born in New York City (1949). He grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, a tough neighborhood full of street gangs. Price witnessed a lot of street fights growing up, but he didn't participate in them because he suffered from a mild form of cerebral palsy. He also said, "I was a member of the Goldberg gang—we walked down the street doing algebra."
He became the first member of his family to go to college, and he planned to go to law school. But throughout college, he found himself telling romanticized stories about his childhood to all his friends, guys who came from the suburbs or the Midwest. And when he wrote down one of those stories and read it aloud for an audience, he got a standing ovation.
Price applied to law school anyway, but he didn't get in, so he decided to try writing a novel about the Bronx. He said, "Every night for the better part of a year, I would sit down with a record player, an old stack of 45's, some vodka, and work myself into a sensory memory trance that eventually became [my first novel]."
That first novel was The Wanderers (1974), about a group of teenagers struggling to make it out of the Bronx, and it was a big success. Price went on to write a series of autobiographical novels, but eventually he was out of ideas.
He moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, where people would tell him what to write about. He said, "It was like going from being a clothes designer to a tailor... It's the craft of pandering. And no matter what you write, it always gets changed around to look like everything else that everybody else has ever seen."
While Price was doing research for one of his screenplays, he began to spend time with cops in Jersey City. And what he saw was neighborhoods very much like the neighborhood he'd grown up in, but instead of joining street gangs, most of the kids there had become drug dealers. He decided that someone needed to write a novel about what those neighborhoods had become. He spent three years following cops around those neighborhoods, and he got to know some of the drug dealers as well. He carried around a notebook and wrote down everything he saw, everything he heard. He paid his sources money, or gave them books, or helped them find jobs so that they would give him information.
Price discussed plot lines for his novel in progress with everyone he met on the street, and they told him whether or not it was realistic. He said, "I had half of Jersey City looking over my shoulder...Everybody was in on the act: cops, drug dealers, families. It was an equal-opportunity book."
The result was Price's novel Clockers (1992) about a young drug dealer named Strike who's trying to make enough money to get out of the business without getting killed or arrested. It was one of the first works of fiction that attempted to describe the crack cocaine trade from the point of view of the dealers as well as the police. It was Price's first novel in almost ten years, and it became a huge success.
Price has continued writing about race, crime and the police in novels such as Freedomland (1998) and Samaritan (2003).
When asked what his goal is as a writer, Richard Price said, "I want to create an awareness that certain people exist...Let me just put them on paper so the reader can see who they are."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®