Mar. 9, 2014


by Jack Ridl

Every day he disappears
rubbing the thick, white paint
deep into his web of wrinkles,
down his leathered neck, across
his forehead, watching the old
skin turn into Jocko, interlocutor
of laughs. He lives hidden
behind the diamond eyes,
red glob of a nose, mouth
petrified wide in a grin.
He's glad to lose his face
behind the permanence
of clown. Entering the center
ring, he pushes a piglet
in a wobbly, wicker pram,
stops under the spotlight,
stoops, and slowly steps into
a little red schoolhouse.
The audience quiets, waits,
and when the band strikes up
"Pomp and Circumstance,"
the pig, full-grown in cap and
gown, strolls out, Jocko trailing
on a silver leash. They promenade
once around the ring, then out
and back to the trailer where
Jocko hangs up the leash, sits,
feels the entrance of gratitude
for his red nose and graven smile.
As he scrubs away the whiteface,
red and yellow paint, the silver
stars above each eyebrow, a face
appears, one he doesn't recognize,
one that stares then turns away.

"Clown" by Jack Ridl from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron. © Wayne State University Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of a writer who called his books "the chewing gum of American literature." That's crime novelist Mickey Spillane (books by this author), born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn (1918). His Irish father was a bartender, and Spillane grew up in a tough neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He worked odd jobs, including as a lifeguard, circus performer, and salesman. He was selling ties at a department store when he met a coworker whose brother produced comic books, and he was convinced to try writing some himself. Spillane worked writing comic prose for a year, then left to join up with the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor. After the war, he returned to comics. He said, "I wanted to get away from the flying heroes and I had the prototype cop," so he invented a private eye hero named Mike Danger. Danger was a flop, so Spillane renamed him Mike Hammer and wrote a novel instead.

I, the Jury (1947) took him just three weeks to write, and it was an instant hit. He turned out more than 30 novels, most of them featuring Mike Hammer, including Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), The Girl Hunters (1962), Body Lovers (1967), and The Killing Man (1989). His novels were incredibly violent, usually ending with Hammer executing people. The critics panned Spillane, but he didn't care. He said, "Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar." He said he never had a character who drank cognac or had a mustache, because he didn't know how to spell those words. He said, "I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends." Spillane was incredibly popular — his books have sold more than 225 million copies.

It's the birthday of writer Vita Sackville-West (books by this author), born near Sevenoaks, England (1892). Her father was a baron, and she grew up at the family estate, Knole House, a Tudor mansion in Kent with a long history. The Archbishop of Canterbury had lived there until King Henry VIII took it away because he wanted it for himself. Knole House has 365 rooms, one for each day of the year.

She was educated at home by a governess, then went to an all-girls school. She started writing poetry at an early age, and by the time she was 18, she had written eight novels and several plays, some of them in French or Italian. She was beautiful, more than six feet tall, with dark, heavy-lidded eyes. She fell in love with several women, some of them her classmates. When she was 21, she married a diplomat, Harold Nicholson, even while she was in a passionate affair with another woman. She said of Nicholson: "Our relationship was so fresh, so intellectual, so unphysical, that I never thought of him in that aspect at all [...] Some men seem to be born to be lovers, others to be husbands; he belongs to the latter category." For his part, Nicholson had his own share of lovers. Despite their unconventional marriage, Sackville-West and Nicholson remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives, writing each other daily when they were apart, and raising a son together.

In December of 1922, when Sackville-West was 30 years old, she met Virginia Woolf at a dinner party. Eventually they became friends, and then lovers. Sackville-West was the inspiration for the main character in Woolf's novel Orlando (1928). In 1927, busily working on her novel and jealous of Sackville-West's affair with a woman named Mary Campbell, Woolf wrote her a letter: "Suppose Orlando turns out to be about Vita; and its all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind (heart you have none, who go gallivanting down the lanes with Campbell) — suppose there's the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people ... Shall you mind?"

Although she is best remembered as the inspiration for Orlando, Sackville-West was a successful writer in her own right. She wrote more than 15 novels and 10 books of poetry, including The Edwardians (1930) and All Passion Spent (1931). For the last 15 years of her life, she contributed a weekly gardening column called "In Your Garden" to the Observer. She wrote the columns just to make money, and even called them "beastly," but they are considered classics of garden writing, and still widely read today.

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