Seminar in Reading and Writing

Before my memory begins to get too smudged I wanted to write down some impressions of the Reading and Writing Seminar.

It was very different from the Creativity course.  For one thing the professor was intimidating – intentionally so.  In the first class she not only made us introduce ourselves to the class by singing (her rationale being that we would never feel more foolish than that when it came to work-shopping our writing during the semester!) she also said that she hoped to be intimidating enough to make some of us drop out of the class because she thought it was too big.  There was a time when she reduced a classmate to tears because of her brutal criticism during a workshop too.  But…having said all that, I learned a tremendous amount from her.

The objective of the course was to read a variety of writers and writing styles and then write a series of pieces inspired by a particular genre.  This was the course description:

This course focuses on reading as a writer, and combines a series of literary seminars and workshops in various genres. The theme I’ve chosen for this semester is Place and Landscape. Behind this choice lies my belief that writers, when reaching back in their memory, never find a tabula rasa, but return to their personal primary landscape whether it’s a room, a street, a garden, or an island. This landscape, which has shaped the world of our childhood, forms the source of all our imagery, becomes the foundation of all other landscapes populated by a variety of characters.

Amongst other things, we read two short nonfiction pieces by Andrew Holleran, which we discussed in class but didn’t write on.  In the second class we watched the film by the Russian film-maker, Andrei Tarkovsky, called “The Mirror”.  I’m not a film buff and I had not heard of this.  I found it baffling, obscure and disjointed (it’s an autobiographical memory piece) but tried to put a good face on it for the online posting we had to do about it.

The first book we read was “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin. 

Of course, I knew of Baldwin, but I had never read his work and discover that it is personal, probing, emotional and compelling.  This novella is autobiographical in the sense that it explores homosexuality and is set in Paris, which Baldwin chose for his self-exile.  What makes it a remarkable writerly feat is that he inhabits so completely the skin of a white protagonist.  There are no Black characters in the book and so the moral dilemmas that he explores have nothing to do the racial consciousness that we have come to anticipate, rightly or wrongly, from Black writers.

The next book was the complete collection of poems by the Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide in his early forties just a few weeks after winning Italy’s most prestigious literary prize. 

This was my response to his poetry in the on-line post we were required to submit:

Because I am not a poet I tend to approach poetry with some wariness having found, in some poets, that the imagery and metaphors are so dense and obscure that I come to the end of a poem feeling as if I haven’t caught the punch line of a joke. Cesare Pavese, though, writes with a frank lucidness that drew me in and yielded up his narratives and ideas generously. This is not to suggest that his poetry isn’t dense – it is. Each reading offers up more and more layering to undergird the premise of the poem. And some of his poems remain elusive and require many more readings to unlock their meaning.

It’s a little daunting to read the entire body of Pavese’s poetry in a short space of time. Each poem is such a jewel, with each stanza, sentence, phrase and word so well crafted, that you don’t want to diminish it by blurring them all together. It’s like going to an Impressionist exhibition and wanting to concentrate on each painting to give it its individual due, but coming away with – well, an “impression” of the whole rather than each individual gem. In that way, though, it’s also interesting to read all Pavese’s poetry in a concentrated time frame because, in a sense, most of his poetry is like a musical variation on a theme. (He himself said that “every authentic writer is splendidly monotonous”.) His themes revolve around solitude and relationships, looking back at childhood, the country versus the city, nature and the sea as metaphors, depression and incarceration, both real and metaphorical.

Knowing something of his biography helps to inform Pavese’s poetry. The fact that he was actually imprisoned for anti-Fascist beliefs and activities, and that he was born in the country and spent his summer vacations there as a boy, are threads that run through his poems. Most importantly, the fact of his suicide in 1950 at the age of 41 looms over his poetry.

Another point about Pavese’s biography is that his graduating thesis at the University of Turin was on Walt Whitman. Whitman is of another time and place, but I think it’s fair to say that Pavese, consciously or not, absorbed elements of Whitman’s writing. Whitman is sometimes referred to as the “father of free verse” and in his magnum opus, “Leaves of Grass”, he wrote about the senses and nature, and the individual’s place in nature, in a way that resonates in Pavese’s work as well. It seems to me that Pavese’s idea of a poem is that the writer takes a concept (depression, frustration, creation, death, aging, separateness) and, using himself, his memories and his childhood as a touchstone, explores that concept as both participator and observer, while not overtly adhering to rhyme or formal structure. Interestingly, Pavese’s poems are largely of a similar length and tone, until the poems that were written in the last years of his life.

Our project relating to this was to write a poem about place.  It was utterly daunting for me because I absolutely do not think of myself as a poet.  I must have been one of the very few teenagers who didn’t dabble in it at some point.  Anyway, I came up with a poem I called “Cecilia Forest”, and it wasn’t torn utterly to shreds in the workshop.

The third book was Peter Handke’s nonfiction memoir called “Sorrow Beyond Dreams” (although a better, more literal translation is “More Sorrow Than You Could Wish For”).  He wrote it as a response to his mother’s suicide.  She had lived through the uprising of Nazism, World War II and its aftermath.  It’s a bleak, cruelly honest book (about himself as well as her) but exquisite for all that.  My only brush with Handke before this had been performing in his play “Offending the Audience” when I was a 2nd year Drama student, and that was unsettling too.  Our writing project for this was to write a letter from our mother’s place.  With my mother being in her 90’s this was an exquisitely poignant piece to write – although also strangely affirming.  This we workshopped in small groups rather than in the whole class, which made sense because all our pieces were nonfiction and obviously intensely personal.  In fact, our professor made the point that, because these were still unpublished pieces, what went on in the class had to stay in the class.

We took a bit of a break from the intense reading after this and had a class on translation, which was fascinating.  Of course, one knows that reading something in translation is compromised, and yet we read so much that way – Chekhov, Molière, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Cervantes, even the Bible – and translation is an art form in and of itself.  Amongst other things in the class we read Ezra Pound’s translation of “The River Merchant’s Wife”, which I had serendipitously studied for my Licentiate so it was wonderfully familiar.

We had three more writing projects after this.  There was a really fun project based on a piece by Leonard Michaels called “In the Fifties” with a staccato, throwaway style, which was thoroughly enjoyable to emulate.  Instead of writing about period, we had to write about place, and I wrote a piece called “On Loader Street”.  It begins, “No. 17 Loader Street was a pink house with steep front steps and an orange bougainvillea growing up the wall…” and goes on to describe the idiosyncracies of the place and then, at the end, how the police bludgeoned students in the sanctuary of the Cathedral.

The last book we read was “Miguel Street” by V.S. Naipaul. 

Again, as with Baldwin, I had obviously heard of Naipaul but never read him, so it was a wonderful introduction.  This is my online post:

From the point of view of writing about place, what is interesting about both V.S. Naipaul and James Baldwin is how they wrote about their places of origin from somewhere else.

There’s the image of Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, finishing his semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, in a small Swiss village – of all pristine places! And as he was writing he was listening to the music of Bessie Smith so that he could recreate the speech cadences in his head.

Naipaul had been living in England for nine years when he published his own semi-autobiographical Miguel Street in 1959. When he said in his Nobel speech, “To give you this idea of my background, I have had to call on knowledge and ideas that came to me much later, principally from my writing” it is clear that he could only conjure up his childhood and his native country by objectifying them through writing and, it seems, from a geographical distance.

I have found this to be true of my own writing. I have a different perspective of my native country living now in America, and I never thought of myself as a writer until I had this degree of objectivity. And writing about my American experience has a particular patina, I believe, because of my having grown up in a different place.

The danger of this is that one could become too objective and lose the immediacy that draws the reader in. There is no such danger with Naipaul. The vividness with which he recreates Trinidad comes through his myriad characters in Miguel Street, and in the way their interlocking stories add to the texture of the book layer by layer, chapter by chapter. And he does this with surprising twists and turns. For instance, Hat, along with the narrator, is the life blood of the book. We meet him on the first page and, through him and his Trinidadian patois, the whole flavor and life of the place are conjured up. Yet, when we finally get to his story in the second to last chapter in the book, it turns out to be incredibly sad, and we are brought face to face with the poignancy that has been lurking under the surface book, behind the humor and the ironic insights of the young narrator. I wonder if Naipaul would have been able to achieve this sleight of hand if he had still been embroiled in the day to day living of Trinidad.

Our final project was wide open. It could be creative writing or scholarly/academic, it could be prose or poetry or multi-genre.  The only thing was it had to be about place and memory.  Such a wide canvas was a bit daunting and I had a false start or two.  I was taken by the idea of a multi-genre approach and eventually came up with a piece about Hanover in the Karoo in South Africa, and the little, made-for-television film called “Dear Kosie”, which we shot there.  I wrote about Hanover and the surrounding Karoo, its history, its most famous resident, Olive Schreiner, and the process of a film shoot.  Interwoven through that I had the storyline of the film and the characters to conjure up a feeling for the place.  We had two weeks to work on that, and then we presented selections at a formal reading during the final class of the semester.

I look back on it now and can see the proverbial leaps and bounds I have taken through the course.  I think differently about writing, and read differently too.  It’s really fascinating.  One wouldn’t think that writing was something that could be so concretely taught but I feel like a different person in some ways from both of these courses I’ve taken so far.

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