Apr. 17, 2011

God Says Yes To Me

by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

"God Says Yes To Me" by Kaylin Haught, from The Palm of Your Hand. © Tilbury House Publishers, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Isak Dinesen (books by this author), the pen name of Karen Blixen, born Karen Dinesen in Rungsted, Denmark (1885). She said: "When I was a young girl, it was very far from my thoughts to go to Africa, nor did I dream then that an African farm should be the place in which I should be perfectly happy. That goes to prove that God has a greater and finer power of imagination than we have."

She started publishing stories in Danish magazines when she was 22 years old. Two years later, she had an affair with her second cousin, Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke. Soon after that relationship fell apart, she was engaged to his twin brother, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. During the year of their engagement, a relative went on a hunting expedition in Africa and came back full of stories about how wonderful it was. Bror and Karen became enamored with the idea of life in a faraway place. So a year after she got engaged, Dinesen got on a ship in Naples and sailed to Kenya to join her fiancée there. They were married in Kenya, in January of 1914, and together established a coffee plantation, which their families had bought for them.

She divorced her husband a few years later — he was unfaithful and she contracted syphilis from him, the same disease that had driven her father to commit suicide. She kept the coffee plantation. She fell in love with another man, a big-game hunter who took tourists out on safaris. But in 1931, the whole world was suffering from an economic depression, and her farm was so unprofitable she had to sell it. Two months later, her lover died in a plane crash. She went back to Denmark, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Six year later, she published her memoir Out of Africa (1937). It was a best-seller, and it was made into a film starring Meryl Streep, which opens with the same line as the novel: "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Dinesen was a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature several times, but she never did — the committee members were afraid of awarding too many prizes to Scandinavians. When Hemingway won the prize in 1954, he said, "I would have been happy — happier — today if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen."

In Out of Africa she wrote: "Coffee-growing is a long job. It does not all come out as you imagine, when, yourself young and hopeful, in the streaming rain, you carry the boxes of your shining young coffee-plants from the nurseries, and, with the whole number of farm-hands in the field, watch the plants set in the regular rows of holes in the wet ground where they are to grow, and then have them thickly shaded against the sun, with branches broken from the bush, since obscurity is the privilege of young things. It is four or five years till the trees come into bearing, and in the meantime you will get drought on the land, or diseases, and the bold native weeds will grow up thick in the fields — the black-jack, which has long scabrous seed-vessels that hang on to your clothes and stocking. Some of the trees have been badly planted with their tap-roots bent; they will die just as they begin to flower. You plan a little over 600 trees to the acre, and I had 600 acres of land with coffee; my oxen dragged the cultivators up and down the fields, between the rows of trees, many thousand miles, patiently, awaiting coming bounties."

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder (books by this author), born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). He won his first Pulitzer Prize when he was 30 years old for his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927). In 1934, he went to a lecture by Gertrude Stein in Chicago, and he was fascinated by her. She was 60 years old and he was in his 30s, but they were both dealing with sudden success — he from Bridge of San Luis Rey and his Pulitzer, she from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. He invited her to stay in his Chicago apartment during speaking tours, and despite their difference in age and writing styles, they became good friends and corresponded for the rest of Stein's life.

It was The Making of Americans (1925) — Stein's difficult, experimental, 900-page novel — that inspired Wilder's most famous play, Our Town (1938). Like The Making of Americans, it traces the intertwining lives of two families, and Wilder used his own version of modernism — the set was minimal, and the play's narrator was in direct conversation with the audience. But where The Making of Americans was a commercial failure and didn't go over well with frustrated critics, Our Town was immediately popular — it was a big Broadway success, and Wilder won another Pulitzer Prize. Our Town has become one of the most-produced American plays.

In September of 1937, he wrote to Stein: "I can no longer conceal from you that I'm writing the most beautiful little play you can imagine. Every morning brings an hour's increment to it and that's all, but I've finished two acts already. It's a little play with all the big subjects in it; and it's a big play with all the little things of life lovingly impressed into it. And when I finish it next Friday, there's another coming around the corner. Lope de Vega wrote three plays a week in his thirties and four plays a week in his forties and so I let these come as they like. This play is an immersion, immersion into a New Hampshire town. It's called Our Town and its third act is based on your ideas, as on great pillars, and whether you know it or not, until further notice, you're in a deep-knit collaboration already."

It's the birthday of fiction writer Cynthia Ozick (books by this author), born in New York City (1928). For years, she wrote full time, supported by her husband, but didn't publish anything. She was working on a huge novel called Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, which she called "MPPL" or "Mippel," and which she never finished. She said: "I had a youthful arrogance about my 'powers,' and at the same time a terrible feeling of humiliation, of total shame and defeat. When I think about that time — and I've spent each decade as it comes regretting the decade before, it seems — I wish I had done what I see the current generation doing: I wish I had scurried around for reviews to do, for articles to write. I wish I had written short stories. I wish I had not been sunk in an immense dream of immense achievement. For most of this time, I was living at home in my parents' house, already married. But my outer life was unchanged from childhood. And my inner life was also unchanged. I was fixed, transfixed. It was Literature every breathing moment. I had no 'ordinary' life. I despised ordinary life; I had contempt for it. What a meshuggener!"

She did publish a few poems, and an agent saw her short biography statement in the back of a poetry magazine and read that she was working on a novel. So he contacted her and ended up finding a publisher for it. When she was 37 years old, she published her first novel, Trust (1966). Recently, she said about Trust: "Nobody has ever read it. If someone will give me some real proof that he has made it from the first page to the last I will have a gold medal struck." But it started her literary career, and from there she turned to short stories. Her story collections include The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Envy; or, Yiddish in America (1989), and Collected Stories (2007). Her sixth novel, Foreign Bodies (2010), was published last year, a loose retelling of The Ambassadors by her literary hero, Henry James.

She said, "I do believe in this now-quite-archaic idea of belle lettres — that a writer ought to be competent in all genres. That's one reason I went into theater. And there's a difference between a writer and an artist. Writers who are artists either write poetry or have written poetry, but I don't think poets can be fiction writers. The novels written by poets are often not true novels; they are long, long poems."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Nick Hornby (books by this author), born in Maidenhead, England (1957). His parents got divorced when he was a kid, and he moved in with his mother in the suburbs outside of London, where he said he had an extraordinarily boring childhood. He and his friends would often hang out at gas stations, because gas stations were the only places open at night. He'd see his father occasionally, and they'd go out to restaurants, but they had nothing to talk about.

One day, his father suggested that they go to a football (soccer) match. Hornby wasn't interested. He'd never been a sports fan. But even though he didn't go with his father to the match, he found himself watching the match on TV, and it was strangely exciting. Three weeks later, when his father invited him to another match, he said yes.

Hornby loved it. He later wrote: "I remember the overwhelming maleness of it all — cigar and pipe smoke, foul language (words I had heard before, but not from adults, not at that volume). ... My father told me that there were nearly as many people in the stadium as lived in my town, and I was suitably awed ... [But] what impressed me most was just how much most of the men around me hated, really hated, being there. As far as I could tell, nobody seemed to enjoy, in the way that I understood the word, anything that happened during the entire afternoon." He and his father began going to matches regularly after that, and it saved their relationship.

After college, Hornby bummed around London, watching football, collecting records, and reading a lot. It wasn't until he was in his early 30s that he began writing book reviews and music reviews for various London newspapers. He produced several television scripts, but he couldn't sell any of them. He published a book about American writers, but it didn't get much notice. Then he got the idea to write a memoir about his life, except that it would be about his life through the lens of his obsession with football, full of his memories of specific football matches and how they made him feel at specific moments in his life. His publishers thought the idea for the book was odd, but they decided that only a small number of football fans needed to buy the book in order for it to make a small profit, so they went with it.

The book was called Fever Pitch (1992), and it came out at a time when football fans were generally looked down upon by the British upper class. And so critics in London were shocked when the book became phenomenon in Great Britain, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, making it one of the best-selling books about sport ever published in the English language. Hornby wrote, "The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score."

Hornby's next book, the novel High Fidelity (1995), was even more successful. It's the story of an obsessive record collector and record store owner who copes with the failures of his life by creating numerous lists: his top five favorite albums, top five TV shows, top five ex-girlfriends, and so on. The book was made into a movie in 2000.

His most recent novel is Juliet, Naked (2009).

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