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The Lost Art of Correspondence.

(after reading the Selected Letters of Willa Cather)

We live in a funny little era. Translations and reprints are numerous, perhaps more so than ever which, to the casual mind, would suggest a renaissance in the world of reading and writing. However, this isn’t so. E-mails, texts, and Twitter are all formats that have done a lot to shorten our literary wind. Brevities and acronyms are supplanting our literary arts.

Scanning through the e-mails in my mailbox not only confirms this, but lets me know just how far we’ve fallen from the branch of good communication skills. I have about two dozen e-mails from this year alone (containing one to three sentences each) that are loaded with spelling errors, poor sentence structure and are very often unreadable or misleading. The reasons for this decline in our abilities are varied, but the bottom line isn’t; we’re losing the art of letter writing.

Why, though, would that be a bad thing?, you might ask. Well, it’s bad because writing letters has always honed our literary skills just as practice in anything leads to improvement. So, as we no longer write the long winding letter to home from faroff places, we also move further and further away from the ability to do so.

Reading a collection of letters from any non-literary persona prior to, let’s say, 1990, will confirm this to the minds of any who deign to do so. James K. Polk’s letters, for example, are rich in subject matter, vocabulary, and metaphoric ability. The letters of Delacroix are masterfully composed and rife with fruitful information for any artist (and his Diaries are among my favorite books to read and reread of all times). The correspondence of Civil War soldiers, too, are often well-composed pieces of literary interest.

So, what happens if we examine the letters of a literary superstar like Ezra Pound? We find a bit of heartbreaking beauty.

Willa Cather is no exception. Cather’s correspondence (or roughly 1/5th of it) have recently been published by Knopf and they are, to my mind, a reason to celebrate and to mourn. I say celebrate because they are interesting and excellently handled. I say mourn because they show us just how far from that bough we’ve fallen. Cather describes even the most banal events, days, and months with a spark and freshness that is at once enjoyable and brilliant. She talks about Santa Fe, Quebec, New York City, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bread Loaf (yes, the writers’ conference) and the literary habitat of her times in a measured, masterful cadence. These letters are all the more illuminating when we read that Cather never expected them to be published or, in other words, she didn’t write them with the care and attention she put into her novels and poems, despite the fact that it may seem like she did.

Though those of us here in Santa Fe, New Mexico have an especial taste for Cather’s life and works, these letters are of a mass appeal. She tackles so many subjects, from gender differences to the aspects of a good novel and good writing in general. Each letter sparkles, a quality for which we can undoubtedly thank the editors of this volume for.

Collected Works is happy to announce that one of the two editors of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather will be joining us in our storefront for a lecture and book signing . Janis Stout is co-editor of the volume and will be with us at 6 PM, Thursday the 27th. Please join us for this exciting event.

To read more about the book http://bit.ly/12fVJ97

 

-Christopher J. Johnson

Sophie Cabot Black

 

This Friday, Sophie Cabot Black will be joining us for a reading of her poetry. The Exchange (Graywolf Press) is her latest book and finest achievement to date. Readers familiar with her will find it no surprise that these poems are tightly controlled and contain an almost formalist appeal.

The Exchange ranges in subject matter from the visceral to the metaphysical (and here we will understand metaphysical to mean subject matter that enacts itself entirely in the mind) on a wide range of subjects from home renovation and ownership to pornography, the Internet, and the nuances of female and male relationships.

On the page, her poems may remind one of H.D., but these are far from simplistic imitative lyrics. Her work has more in common with the difficult metaphysical poets of the 17th century like Henry Vaughan and John Donne; love, life, and death inhabit her thoughts (compare this poem by Henry Vaughan http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/vaughan/anddothey.htm with this one by Black http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/181626).

In an age of vers libre (or free verse) Black’s sense of control and her refined line are refreshing aspects of her work. The reader is left feeling that the poet has poured a great deal of thought into every page. That being said, these poems are more for the initiated than the layman, and will benefit from rereading.

Those who have not heard Black read her poems aloud will be in for a treat. She has a level cadence that is musical and attractive to the auditory senses. She is not, as so many poets are these days, monotone.

Sophie Cabot Black will be reading for us at Collected Works on Friday the 21st at 6 PM alongside local poetess Michelle LaFlamme-Childs formaly of the Santa Fe Art Institute.  After the reading pick up The Exchange and get it signed by Black herself. 

                                  Christopher J. Johnson

 

                                          

 

The Exchange Cover Image
$15.00
ISBN: 9781555976415
Availability: Temporarily Unavailable with our Distributor (Disregard for Forrest Fenn books - always in stock)
Published: Graywolf Press - May 7th, 2013

The End Again and Again: The Many Apocalypses of J. G. Ballard

 

J. G. Ballard may not be a household name. Readers familiar with him might just shrug him off and say, “That’s the guy who wrote Crash.” Yes, Ballard wrote the cult classic Crash, but this is the least of Ballard‘s vision. The majority of Ballard’s short stories and novels focus on possible futures: futures of pollution, biological abnormalities, and political horrors.

Ballard was a prolific and prophetic writer.  Through the course of his career, he predicted many possible ends. Rising water levels, endless cityscapes, and drugged-up suburbanites are all the familiar territory of Ballard‘s books.

His 1962 novel The Drowned World describes an Earth in which pollution and solar flare have melted the polar icecaps and submerged the world as we know it. The Drowned World features bizarrely evolved animals and plants in a future London. A similar work, also strangely on cue, is his 1965 novel The Drought, which portrays a possible future in which trash dumped into the ocean has made water both toxic and a scarcity.

These themes, which sound like the wild ideas of a reactionary being interviewed on CNN, are so often near to the mark with the problems our globe faces today. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance, discovered by accident in 1997, is a oceanic reef of garbage and toxic sludge very similar to that described in The Drought and citing examples of rising water levels based on pollution would seem redundant for any follower of world news.

Many of Ballard’s shorter works follow scientists who take on godlike ambitions by toying with nature and genetics. His characters invent new life forms or accelerate evolutionary outcomes in existing species. Invasive species was a favorite theme of Ballard’s, and as we begin to discuss whether or not to engineer and reintroduce such bygone animals as the wooly mammoth into our world, we would do well to look at what such tinkering has done in Ballard’s imagined worlds.

In his shorter work War Fever we are introduced to a world engulfed in war that isn’t at all what it seems. This well written exposé on clinical world diagnosis through social statistics is perhaps his best short story. War Fever follows its central character, Ryan, through a Beirut that knows nothing of peace. Ryan dreams of a ceasefire that never happens. Ryan is surrounded by guns and the blue helmets of well meaning UN peacekeepers. The iconic blue helmet is a spectre at the end of every skirmish and the savior behind every bullet wound, but the UN peacekeepers aren’t what they seem. The ending of War Fever can not be guessed at and comes with a shock that is impossible to forget.

Ballard’s future worlds, unlike the worlds of Phillip K. Dick, for instance, are right now coming into view. The best science fiction seems to represent real world possibilities and Ballard’s books are no different. If something sets them aside it is the timely relevance of his many apocalypses. What is truly scary about them, besides the mutant animals and brutal environments, is their location. Each of Ballard’s dark visions is a vision of Earth. A surreal, terrifying Earth. His characters never manage to lift off into other worlds, but rather they create a world so overwrought with trash and experimentation that when disaster rears its head it is as if the sky were collapsing; nothing left to run from, no distance to run from it and nowhere safe to escape to.

Ballard’s success as an author is perhaps best judged in this way, we all know the words Socratic, Shakespearian, and Oedipal. Ballard has his own word too, Ballardian which means, “Of or pertaining to the characteristic fictional milieu of author J.G. Ballard, typified by dystopian modernity, bleak artificial landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, societal, and environmental developments.” Not many authors are unique enough nor leave a large enough cultural impact for scholars to coin them a word, but J. G. Ballard definitely did.

 

Books by Ballard that I recommend are:

  • The Drought
  • The Drowned World
  • The Unlimited Dream Company
  • The Day of Creation 
  • The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard

 

                            -Christopher J. Johnson

 

 

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard Cover Image
By J. G. Ballard, Martin Amis (Introduction by)
$29.95
ISBN: 9780393339291
Availability: Backordered
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - November 8th, 2010

The Drowned World Cover Image
By J. G. Ballard, Martin Amis (Introduction by)
$15.95
ISBN: 9780871403629
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation - May 20th, 2013

The Drought Cover Image
$14.95
ISBN: 9780871404015
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation - April 16th, 2012

The Day of Creation Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9780871404046
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation - May 21st, 2012

The Unlimited Dream Company Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9780871404190
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation - May 20th, 2013

Author Interview No. 1

Ancestral Voices
by: Padraic C O’Neill

“This story will come out. That’s what I tell myself. Won’t be till after we’re dead and gone but we won’t really be gone cause it don’t work like that.”  --Wash

It’s the early 19th century in Tennessee. One Sunday evening, a wagon returns to Richardson’s plantation in the late summer heat, carrying a young enslaved man named Wash who has been sent off to a distant place for the weekend to create a new source of income, which takes nine months to realize. Wash works as what was then called a “traveling negro.” Richardson is engaged in the process of breeding enslaved people.

MWrinkleMargaret Wrinkle’s debut novel, WASH, holds nothing back in its unsettling depiction of the harsh realities of American slavery. Personal narratives drive the story forward with honest accounting from both sides of the cultural divide. Tenderness arises from the depths of human brutality and the reader is left with the opportunity to call into question not only the history of slavery, but also its lingering effect on the integrity of present day American race relations.

Wrinkle was born in Birmingham, Alabama, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. She grew up in a community that struggled with race relations. Like many white children of that era, some of her earliest bonds were with the black people who were working either for her family or for the families around her. Two people in particular had a significant influence on the author’s life. Wrinkle referred to Mrs. Ida Mae Washington and Mr. Tot Goodwin as “the aristocrats of my childhood” and said, “They were incredibly psychologically sophisticated and lived with enormous integrity and grace in the face of challenging circumstances.” Reflecting on her childhood helped her realize that “the surreal thing is being in a segregated situation where you have those bonds across racial lines that aren’t supposed to be acknowledged by either side.”

While Wrinkle was enrolled in a PhD program at Yale University, Mrs. Washington died suddenly. “When she…passed away, I realized that I hadn’t really dealt with the racial landscape of my childhood, so I moved home and proceeded to cross every boundary I’d been schooled to respect.” Instead of returning to Yale, she started gathering oral histories of women who had done domestic work. “I also started spending lots of time with the Washington family in their neighborhood and came to know so many really smart children who were having trouble in school.”

Her place, she now knew, was Birmingham. “I realized that the kids I was trying to work with weren’t making it to college.” She earned a teaching certificate and began teaching middle-school students in Birmingham’s inner-city. Moving back and forth between the white and black communities in Birmingham gave Wrinkle more insight and she became interested in trying to integrate these two worlds.

“That’s where the film came in,” Wrinkle says, referring to her documentary film, broken\ground, which explores the tenor of contemporary race relations in Birmingham in the mid-1990’s. “Filmmaking allows you to edit people together into a conversation who may not normally find themselves in a conversation together…and this was a conversation that I wanted to see more of.”

The documentary features dozens of interviews with black and white men and women of all ages who speak openly and honestly about their perceptions of race relations. The film also references the history of Birmingham and the Civil Rights movement through archival footage of decades past. The editing process offered through film, Wrinkle says, “allows you to place people from very different realities on equal footing, and this can be a transformative process.”

As a seventh-generation southerner and a descendant of slaveholding ancestors, Wrinkle knew there was more to explore. Eventually a rumor cropped up suggesting that one of Wrinkle’s ancestors may have bred enslaved people. The possibility inspired her to renew her research into the history of slavery in the American South. “I think at first I needed to know whether this ancestor had participated in this practice” and, if so, “what that connection might mean to me.” Though she never found proof of this allegation, she learned that slave breeding was quite real and she “felt that it needed to be explored.”

“So many white southerners feel conflicted about their ancestors’ involvement in slavery. They tend to either demonize them, lionize them, or try to forget all about them.” Nevertheless, it’s a conversation that ought to take place. “I feel that it’s much more unnatural not to talk about it than to talk about it,” Wrinkle says, adding, “It’s just what happened.”

At its core, “WASH” is an attempt to reckon with a past that pitted two cultures against each other. The novel aims to express what existed then, but also drives towards what is still happening today. “Many of the dynamics that were operative in slavery are still operative,” Wrinkle says, adding, “Much of what’s happening now has its roots in what happened then.”

So, in a sense, the novel is about the history of slavery during a particular period, but also about the present day. It is an effort to understand the differences between the two cultures, which have perhaps blurred in the past 150 years, but still exist in the depths of tradition.

“Many of us tend to underestimate the fact of how different traditional African culture was from the modernizing West, when they came together in the crucible of slavery.” Wrinkle suspects that “these differences are still alive and contribute to our misunderstandings of each other today.”

Indeed, one of the most interesting insights the book offers is a candid look into West African spiritual traditions. Wrinkle describes this paradigm as “a non-linear way of being that tends to be more mystical” and contrasts it with the modern European viewpoint, which “tends to be more linear and secular, with an emphasis on chronological time.”

“In the traditional African view, as I understand it,” Wrinkle says, “the dead and the living are in a reciprocal relationship, the ancestors remain available to the living, and they want to be involved with the living.”  But the practice of calling upon one’s ancestors is an intentional one. “They have to be asked.”

In the novel, one moment of spirituality is portrayed with startling detail.  A West African metal smith named Rufus is described as putting his whole mind into his prayers.  “He calls up his spirits and they come to him. Swirling up through his feet and legs, running along his spine to spread across his shoulders like a mantle, shimmering warm at the crown of his head before pouring down his arms and out through his hands,” (WASH, 133). While in the midst of this potent ceremony, Rufus is captured by slave traders. The scene is an amalgamation of visceral and intellectual energies that leaves the reader wanting more insight into the spirituality of indigenous cultures.

Wrinkle learned about West African spirituality through anthropological research and through participation in ceremony. She realized in the process of writing the book that when one calls upon one’s ancestral spirits that “it’s not just the good things that the ancestors want to share. It’s their mistakes and their failings and their sins that they want give us as well.” The heart-wrenching honesty of the personal narratives throughout the novel takes sure aim at the mistakes and failings of the characters. The importance, Wrinkle says, is that “if we can’t learn from [our ancestors’ past failures] then their suffering is wasted…and so we need to really reckon with what they went through and what they did.”

Creating the voice of Richardson to present the complete picture of a man who owned slaves and who used Wash as his breeding sire was no easy task for Wrinkle. But “amputating parts of the story is not the answer,” she says. “It was challenging to write as Richardson because I felt like there had to be some of the harsh truth of that life and that viewpoint.” Accepting the bitter parts of life and then working to integrate one’s personal struggles is a step that precedes that same process on the larger societal scale. The poignant look into Richardson, for instance, lends the novel a powerful commentary on larger, contemporary cultural issues. “It’s important that we all deal with our capacity to abuse our power and I think a lot of people are not as up front as they could be about how easy that is for all of us to do.”

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