Mar. 28, 2008

Up in the sky the lovers lay in bed...

by Gary Johnson

Up in the sky the lovers lay in bed
Naked, face to face and hip to thigh,
Her leg between his, his arm beneath her head,
Their hands roaming freely, up in the sky.
In the dark, Manhattan lay at their feet,
A blanket of glittering stars thrown down.
Beyond her bare shoulder, 59th Street,
And from her lovely foot the buses headed uptown.
They came to the city for romance, as people do,
And with each other they scaled the heights
And now, at rest, almost one and not quite two,
They lie almost forever in the sea of lights.
   Where will they go? What happens next? I don't know.
   I am that man waiting at the bus stop far below.

"Up in the sky the lovers lay in bed..." by Gary Johnson. Used with permission of the poet

It's the birthday of writer Nelson Algren, (books by this author) born in Detroit (1909). He settled in Chicago, which he called "The City on the Make," or sometimes, "the lovely lady with the broken nose."

He wrote two novels: A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), about a disillusioned, card-dealing World War II veteran named Frankie Machine. It's Algren who's responsible for the famous advice, "Never eat at a place called Mom's, never play cards with a guy named Doc, and never go to bed with anyone who has more troubles than you."

It's also the birthday a man who counts Algren among his heroes: poet, novelist, and short-story writer Russell Banks, (books by this author) born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). He wrote, "At a university, you study books that can be deconstructed, not books that can change your life. Algren's books can change your life, and this kind of book you always have to discover on your own."

Russell Banks' family moved to New Hampshire, where his father was a plumber and an abusive alcoholic who hit his toddler son in the eye, leaving it so that Russell has had to squint for the rest of his life. His father finally abandoned the family when Russell was 12, and the boy was forced to help out his mother with family finances. He later said, "I can really see my life as a kind of obsessive return to the wound. Going back again and again trying to get it right, trying to figure out how it happened and who's to blame and who's to forgive."

He was an exceptionally bright student and won a scholarship to Colgate, the first in his family to go to college. But he dropped out after only eight weeks, feeling that he, a poor boy, didn't fit in among the privileged preppies, "the sons of the captains of American industry," as he called them. He left the North for Mexico and Florida and intended to join Castro's rebellious army, but he ended up in Florida fishing, writing, and working as a gas station attendant. By his early 20s, he was married and had a daughter, but the relationship ended in divorce when he was 22. He later called this period "the terrible years."

When he was 24, he went back to college, entering the University of North Carolina, and this time around he felt well adjusted was a good student.

He wrote a novel, Hamilton Stark(1978), in which he experimented with narration techniques and perspective, using shifting points of view to frame the novel. His novel Continental Drift (1985) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and called by Atlantic reviewer James Atlas "the most convincing portrait I know of contemporary America: its greed, its uprootedness, its indifference to the past. This is a novel about the way we live now."

Since then, Banks has written several more novels, including Affliction (1989), The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Cloudsplitter (1998), and most recently, The Reserve (2008).

It's the birthday of writer Mario Vargas Llosa, (books by this author) born in Arequipa, in southern Peru (1936). He's the author of Conversation in a Cathedral (1969), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1978), and The Feast of the Goat (2002). He lived abroad for several decades, but he returned to Peru in the '80s, ran for president against Alberto Fujimori, and lost. "Never again," he said, about his decision to enter politics. "Literature and politics are mutually exclusive. A writer is someone who works alone, who needs total independence. A politician is someone who is totally dependent, who has to make all kinds of concessions, the very thing a writer can't do."

It was on this day in 1941 that the novelist Virginia Woolf drowned herself in a river near her house (books by this author). She had long suffered from periods of depression, and modern scholars believe these depressions may have been symptoms of manic-depressive illness, also known as bipolar disorder.

In early March of 1941, she wrote in her diary that she had fallen into "a trough of despair." She wasn't satisfied with her most recent book, and she felt as though World War II was making writing insignificant. She wrote three letters in the weeks before she committed suicide, explaining her reasons for wanting to end her life. In the longest of the three, she wrote to her husband, "I feel certain that I am going mad again. ... I shant recover this time. ... I cant fight it any longer. ... What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. ... I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."

Woolf left the letters where her husband would find them, and then on this day in 1938, she walked a half mile to a nearby river and put a heavy rock in the pocket of her fur coat before jumping into the water.

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