Jan. 13, 2011

An Early Start in Midwinter

by Robyn Sarah

The freeze is on. At six a scattering
of sickly lights shine pale in kitchen windows.
Thermostats are adjusted. Furnaces
blast on with a whoosh. And day
rumbles up out of cellars to the tune
of bacon spitting in a greasy pan.

Scrape your nail along the window-pane,
shave off a curl of frost. Or press your thumb
against the film of white to melt an eye
onto the fire escape. All night
pipes ticked and grumbled like sore bones.
The tap runs rust over your chapped hands.

Sweep last night's toast-crumbs off the tablecloth.
Puncture your egg-yolk with a prong of fork
so gold runs over the white. And sip
your coffee scalding hot. The radio
says you are out ahead, with time to spare.
Your clothes are waiting folded on the chair.

This is your hour to dream. The radio
says that the freeze is on, and may go on
weeks without end. You barely hear the warning.
Dreaming of orange and red, the hot-tongued flowers
that winter sunrise mimics, you go out
in the dark. And zero floats you into morning.

"An Early Start in Midwinter" by Robyn Sarah, from The Touchstone. © House of Anansi Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Claudia Emerson, (books by this author) born in Chatham, Virginia (1957). After college, she got married, moved to rural Virginia, and got two part-time jobs — one as a letter carrier, and the other as the manager of a used-book store. One day, a customer traded in the book Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Another customer brought in Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton. Journal of a Solitude begins: "Begin here. It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my 'real' life again at last. That is what is strange — that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened." Those two books inspired Emerson so much that she started writing poetry, sometimes a poem a day, and she decided to go back to graduate school and get her M.F.A. in poetry. She has published four books of poems: Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), Pinion, An Elegy (2002), Late Wife (2005), and Figure Studies (2005).

She said, "'What happened' often pales when I can ponder how something happened — and to whom."

She said: "Turning to the long poem was a poetry- and life-saving undertaking. I was working as an adjunct teacher in two different schools at the time, and I thought that conceiving a sequence with a particular architecture would give me something to keep my imagination going during long days with two commutes. Living poem to poem made me nervous; I was afraid I'd be too distracted ever to write another poem."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Lorrie Moore, (books by this author) born in Glens Falls, New York (1957). She said of her childhood: "There was acting, and dressing up. We'd play music, and write crappy songs. We'd draw and paint, and fancy ourselves as artistic. It was part of being a girl in the '60s that you were creative."

She won a short-story prize from Seventeen magazine when she was 19 years old. She was hoping to win the art competition, but since she won the writing one instead, she decided that being a writer was easy and that it would be a good way to make a living. It ended up taking her 10 years to get anything more published, but she stuck with it anyway.

She went to college, then graduate school, and she wrote the stories that became her first book, Self-Help (1985). Looking back, she says that the book had "too many birds and moons, and space aliens, and struggling artists of every stripe, as well as much illness and divorce and other sad facts of family and romantic life." But Self-Help got great reviews, and she has written several more books of short stories and novels, including Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994) and Birds of America (1998), a New York Times best-seller. Her most recent book is a novel, A Gate at the Stairs (2009), also a best-seller.

She said: "I suppose most of my stories are prompted by something melancholy or tragic. The texture of the world I feel is very comedic, but the underlying story of the world is not, and I like that interplay."

She said, "The only really good piece of advice I have for my students is, 'Write something you'd never show your mother or father.'"

A Gate at the Stairs begins: "The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people's yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job. I was a student and needed babysitting work, and so I would walk from interview to interview in these attractive but wintry neighborhoods, the eerie multitudes of robins pecking at the frozen ground, dun-gray and stricken — though what bird in the best of circumstances does not look a little stricken — until at last, late in my search, at the end of a week, startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression — of politeness, a false promise of delicacy — for in fact I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps, in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes, for miles down along the Illinois state line."

It's the birthday of dime novelist Horatio Alger Jr., (books by this author) born in Chelsea, Massachusetts (1832). His father was an extremely strict Unitarian minister. He wouldn't let Horatio do anything other than study and pray, and always under his supervision. His father pressured his son to follow in his footsteps as a minister, so the boy went to Harvard Divinity. He wasn't passionate about it and after graduation he left for Paris, where he got to spend a year living in relative freedom, without his father's watchful presence. When he came home, the Civil War had broken out. He tried to join the Union Army but he had terrible eyesight and he was only 5 feet 2 inches, so he was rejected.

He went ahead and became a minister after all, but his career didn't last long. He was forced to resign after he was accused of having sexual relationships with several boys in his congregation. His influential father managed to cover things up just fine, but that was the end of his career in the ministry. So he turned to writing dime novels for boys, and hit on a huge success with his Ragged Dick series. Over the course of his life, Alger wrote more than 500 novels and short stories, most of them virtually interchangeable. They all featured young, virtuous street urchin boys who saved up their money while other boys gambled it away, and then did something impressive that attracted the attention of rich older men, who became their benefactors and taught them how to prosper in the world of business and the upper middle class. Horatio Alger is credited with popularizing the "rags-to-riches" theme of American literature. And even though he didn't get much literary respect for his books, and he himself couldn't even remember all the titles, he wrote so many books and they were all so successful that he is considered one of the best-selling writers of all time.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the novelist Jay McInerney, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut (1955). His father was an international sales executive with the Scott Paper Company, and he had to move around a lot, so young Jay grew up in a series of cities around the world, including London, Vancouver, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He attended 18 elementary schools before he finally started high school.

After college, he wound up in New York City, where he worked for Random House and got involved in the glamorous nightlife of fashion parties and dance clubs. One day, a co-worker introduced him to the writer Raymond Carver, and Carver told McInerney that if he ever wanted to be a writer he had to get out of the city and away from all the parties so that he would be able to think, and that's what he did. He moved to Syracuse, New York, and in six weeks he wrote his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City (1983). It has sold more than a million copies.

It begins: "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy."

He's written several other novels, including Brightness Falls (1992) and The Good Life (2006). His most recent book is a collection of short stories called How It Ended (2009).

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




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