Aug. 2, 2005

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Reunion" by Amber Coverdale Sumrall, from Litany of Wings. © Many Names Press. Reprinted with permission.


In your old pickup we drive the length of the island looking for
blackberries and trails that lead to the lighthouse, tell stories
about our six cats, the ones we divided when I left. I took your
favorites, the ones that were mine before we met. Your fifth
marriage is faltering. I am falling in love for the third time since
we separated. All you want to do is fish in your father's rowboat,
build a small cabin on five acres of land. Beyond right now,
I don't know what I want. Somewhere on Orcas another woman
dreams of you, waits for you to enter her life.

We smoke from your well-seasoned pipe, nervous as new
lovers. Those last months I refused to get high with you; we
always fought afterward. I remember why I loved you and why,
after ten years, I left. The reasons blend together, rise with the
smoke and dissipate. You ask me to tell you why, once again.
Each time the story is different, a work in progress. Days pass
in one afternoon. Is there still a chance, you ask.

We smile at one another, our defenses down. No one knows
us better. At the trailhead you pick purple flowers, hand
them to me, suddenly shy. I trip over exposed roots as we walk,
instinctively take your outstretched hand then let it go. In the
lagoon a pair of herons dance for one another, lowering their
long necks in courtship. Hidden behind boulders, we watch in
silence until the birds lift and disappear beyond the lighthouse.
There is always a chance, I say.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of James Baldwin, born in Harlem in New York City (1924), the oldest in the family of nine children. He was often put in charge of his younger siblings. He spent much of his childhood with a baby in one hand and a book in the other. He never knew his biological father. When he was three, his mother met a preacher from New Orleans. And when he was 14, young James Baldwin followed in his stepfather's footsteps. He became a Holy Roller preacher in the Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. He enjoyed the power that he had as a teenage preacher. He was accepted into a prestigious, mostly white high school, and there he fell more in love with books and also learned something about racism.

He decided that he had to get away from his family and become a writer. He said, "I would turn into a writer before my mother died and before the children were all put in jail—or became junkies or whores. I had to leave Harlem. I had to leave because I understood very well ... that I would never be able to fit in anywhere unless I jumped. I knew I had to jump then."

So he moved to Greenwich Village. He was a dishwasher. He was a waiter. He had a little bit of success, and used what money he had to buy a ticket to Paris. He arrived with $50 in his pocket, sold his clothes and his typewriter to survive. He was thrown into a French prison. And then a friend set him up in a cottage in the countryside. He started writing in isolation, and he finished his novel in a few months. Go Tell It on the Mountain came out in 1953. It was about a young preacher, based on Baldwin's stepfather. It was a big success, and it was the beginning of his career.

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
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show