Tuesday

Aug. 21, 2012

Décor

by X. J. Kennedy

This funky pizza parlor decks its walls
       With family portraits some descendant junked,
Ornately framed, the scrap from dealers' hauls,
       Their names and all who cherished them defunct.

These pallid ladies in strict corsets locked,
       These gentlemen in yokes of celluloid—
What are they now? Poor human cuckoo clocks,
       Fixed faces doomed to hang and look annoyed

While down they stare in helpless resignation
       From painted backdrops—waterfalls and trees—
On blue-jeaned lovers making assignation
       Over a pepperoni double cheese.

"Décor" by X.J. Kennedy, from In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus. © The John Hopkins University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Stone (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1937). He was raised by his mother, who was schizophrenic, and when she was institutionalized, he spent several years in a Catholic orphanage. Sometimes he and his mother would drive across the country and end up in a Salvation Army somewhere, or a random hotel. He said: "My early life was very strange. I was a solitary; radio fashioned my imagination. Radio narrative always has to embody a full account of both action and scene. I began to do that myself. When I was seven or eight, I'd walk through Central Park like Sam Spade, describing aloud what I was doing, becoming both the actor and the writer setting him into the scene. That was where I developed an inner ear."

Stone dropped out of high school to join the Navy, then moved back to New York City. He worked as a copy boy at the Daily News, and during his brief stint at NYU, he met Janice Burr, the woman he eventually married. They moved to New Orleans, and Stone found work as a census-taker. He walked every neighborhood of New Orleans, asking questions. He wrote: "The closer to street level you live, the more you have lessons thrust upon you."

His time in New Orleans inspired his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967). It begins: "The day before, Rheinhardt had bought a pint of whiskey in Opelika and saved it all afternoon while the bus coursed down through red clay and pine hills to the Gulf. Then, after sundown, he had opened the bottle and shared it with the boy who sold bibles, the blond gangling country boy in the next seat. Most of the night, as the black cypress shot by outside, Rheinhardt had listened to the boy talk about money — commissions and good territories and profits — the boy had gone on for hours with an awed and innocent greed. Rheinhardt had sat silently, passing the bottle and listening."

Stone served as a correspondent in Vietnam for a British magazine, which quickly folded, but he got enough material to return home and write the novel Dog Soldiers (1974). Dog Soldiers is the story of a burnt-out playwright named John Converse who leaves the fading counterculture of California to work as a correspondent in Vietnam and ends up smuggling heroin out of the country. Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award.

Stone's other books include Children of Light (1986); Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (2007), a memoir; and Fun With Problems (2010), a book of short stories.

He said: "Writing is lonely. [...] But most of the time you are in a room by yourself, you know. Writers spend more time in rooms, staying awake in quiet rooms, than they do hunting lions in Africa. So, it's a bad life for a person because it's so lonely and because it consists of such highs and lows, and there's not always anywhere to take these emotional states. [...] It's a life that's tough to sustain without falling prey to some kind of beguiling diversion that's not good for you."

It's the birthday of poet X.J. Kennedy (books by this author), born Joseph Charles Kennedy in Dover, New Jersey (1929). He grew up in a working-class Irish-American family. His father, a timekeeper at the local boiler factory, recited poems to his son. Kennedy went to college, where he started reading and writing poetry, then served in the Navy for four years. He said, "I enlisted in the Navy to avoid serving in the infantry. I'd also been reading Moby Dick, and I had a rather glamorous view of the seas." Kennedy's first book of poetry was called Nude Descending a Staircase (1961). It was written for adults, but there were two poems in it that he intended for children. He went on to publish many books of children's poems, including Ghastlies, Goops, and Pinchushions (1989), and City Kids: Street and Skyscraper Rhymes (2010).

Kennedy has also written poetry textbooks and volumes of poetry for adults, including Dark Horses (1992) and The Lords of Misrule: Poems 1992-2002 (2002).

He said, "I like poems where you don't really know whether to laugh or cry when you read them."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »