Archive for September, 2016

The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

I was very interested in Matthew Carr’s first novel published this year, because I relied heavily on his non-fiction book Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain,  in the research for my 2015 book of narrative poetry Al-AndalusWith the wealth of material and personalities in the period of time from 1492 to the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1611, I wondered what Carr would choose as the focus of his fictional rendering. When I delved into study of this period, the rich potential for a historical novel staggered my imagination. Initially, I contemplated a novel and was particularly drawn to Granada for the setting and the War of the Alpujarras as the chief event for my story. I wanted to blend a mix of fictional and historical characters to portray how Christians and Muslims interacted in sixteenth century Spain. The more I researched, the more the task of focusing on one region, one event, or restricted time frame overwhelmed me. The purging of Muslim Spain spanned over a century after the conquest of Granada, presenting a mind-boggling mine of material. Finally, I decided that I was best able to execute a series of dramatic monologues in a thematic poetry book.

Matthew Carr selected Aragon, one of the last regions to be purged of its Morisco population and set his suspense tale in 1584. He executes well what is a detective story in which a judge is sent to Cardona to investigate the murder of a priest against the backdrop of the complex relations among the landed aristocracy, the Inquisition officials, the old Christians, and the Moriscos or new Christians, who may or may not be secretly practicing Muslims. Judge Mendoza discovers more than one devil in the region that straddles the Pyrenees border with France. Murder and intrigue abound; the writing is crisp and vivid; the characters historically credible. Matthew Carr has done an excellent job with the raw materials. There is still much more grist for a historical novelist’s mill in this time period. The prospect of fictionalizing this material continues to daunt me. I doubt I will ever take up the challenge, as I think my particular talent was used in Al-Andalus. I recommend the book to historical fiction aficionados.

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The Moral Imagination

The use of an adjective like moral to modify imagination, suggests that the opposite construct, an immoral imagination, exists. Plenty authors, of course, have written about immoral behavior; yet even in depiction of horrific acts, an author is reflecting on man as the moral animal. Implicit is the assumption that a moral standard exists to which fictional characters conform to or deviate from to a lesser or greater extent. The very exercise of the imagination is a moral act; for what does it entail to imagine–to imagine anything at all?

The noun from which the verb derives is image–a picture in the creator’s mind, a vision of something or someone other than himself. The effort to enter into the consciousness of another individual, to try to walk in his shoes, and to inhabit his body involves a psychic and spiritual union with a fictional character that is a moral act–the very essence of morality.  Imagination of the other–the not-self–has a spiritual dimension.  Differences dissolve when we imagine another human being as prone to the same vices and virtues as we are. We start to see men and women of other races, nationalities, or circumstances as sharing the same interests. In this regard writing fiction, indeed the pursuit of any art form, is a moral act. Art is vivifying and ennobling, both for the artist and the audience, because vision broadens beyond the myopic self.

Art, then, is close to, or borders on, the religious experience, which artists have been known to regard as a religious calling, such as that of a priest, putting imagination in the service of revealing moral truths. Justly, then, the words moral and imagination inextricably are a bound pair, practically the two words in conjunction are a redundancy; similarly the term immoral imagination is an oxymoron.  A moral vision entails a search for values. In the process particular types of human conduct are either viewed as desirable or undesirable, producing either peace or conflict. Without the ability to imagine, the task cannot be attempted. The individual remains in a circumscribed shell, a prisoner of his own ego, and fearful of anyone who does not look like or behave like him.

This quote from A Course in Miracles describes how exercise of the moral imagination defines the spiritual path: “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him, you will see yourself. As you treat him you treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself.” It sounds a lot like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In every encounter with his characters, a writer is seeing himself, treating that character as he would himself, and thinking of that character as himself. Otherwise the character does not come alive on the page, nor can that character come alive to the reader who partakes of that moral imagination. With good reason a voracious reader expands his moral imagination too.

In this poem, I see Flannery O’Connor as a writer who exemplifies the moral imagination at work:       

           Intelligently Holy

Flannery O’Connor in her journal writes

            I want to be intelligently holy

As if intelligence and holiness comprise

            an oxymoron in her mind.

The mindlessness of holiness does exist,

            for the mystic adept in practice

Of emptying makes room for entry in

            of the Holy of Holies who bathes in

Light—enlightens, sanctifies, and delights.

To offer one’s work, one’s art, one’s pain

            in God’s praise is very Catholic,

Which she is before ever she writes a line,

            praying to create catholic stories—

Catholic in the Latin sense that they’ll hold

            universal truths of the human soul,

Being at its core, religious fiction—the kind

            that redeems, the kind that makes holy

Even the Misfit gunning down a grandmother.

Evolution of a Novel

I like to think of novel-writing as a long day’s journey into night. Sometimes the driver knows where he is going because he has carefully mapped every leg of the journey. Others proceed with the headlights on bright, letting the road unfold as they travel. Travelers are like that. Some have to have every hotel on the way booked in advance and every site they are going to stop at scheduled on an itinerary. Other travelers, perhaps with a knapsack on their back, just go, stopping at whatever place attracts their attention. Some like to travel in groups; others like to explore on their own. Novelists explore alone. The product of that solitary exploration is the novel.

The process in writing my current novel is different from the others I have attempted in the past. Usually, I have written long character sketches and plot summaries with a good idea of where the final destination lay. I write long speculative paragraphs, weighing alternative directions and analyzing theme and motivation for each chapter or section of the story. Because I do not have a clear denouement in mind or fixed end point in this particular novel, to my surprise, I am discovering that this method of operation does have its advantages as much as the carefully choreographed, fully planned novel. It’s rather like what a reader picking up the book and reading it for the first time may experience. The reader keeps reading because he does not know what will happen to the main character, but his curiosity is stirred sufficiently to continue turning the pages until the end. Similarly, I don’t know how, when, or where my main character will end up; yet I keep writing to find out what will happen to her, what impact she will finally have on the other characters, and how will she have grown. These are all questions that determine eventually what I want the reader to take away from following my character’s life.

Similar to my other attempts at novel-writing, I do have a main theme, purpose, or idea in mind at the core of all the choices I make about character, action, and setting. Theme is the guiding light of the writing process. The method of simultaneously learning, discovering, and experiencing moment to moment as my character does, is very liberating–maybe because it is such a dynamic process. Ultimately, it generates greater vitality in the creative process. I have a greater sense of writing as an adventure. I am a traveling writer inhabiting my fictional world. I am a fellow-traveler with the character; I am subject to the same thrill, expectancy, or trepidation about what she may encounter around the next bend. What lurks in the shadows? What comes into view when she makes the left turn or the right turn? I am making decisions at the same time the character does.

Writers develop a process that suits them. Some write slowly and meticulously, honing each sentence and paragraph until it is pitch-perfect before proceeding.  They write a few pages per day, and review the previous day’s writing before writing new material the next day. Doing it well the first time, they claim, makes their first draft essentially their only draft or nearly so, or at least reduces the need for major revision later. Others compulsively revise, discard, and rewrite, constantly adjusting and tuning, uncertain when the job is really done, doing multiple drafts.  Fledgling writers get conflicting advice in writing workshops. There is no lack of creative writing teachers who ascribe to one method or another and who offer lists of do’s and don’ts.  I have one of each variety: Don’t believe one successful writer’s way is your path to success. Do write your fool head off until you find a process that makes you happy and happy with the writing you have produced. I believe in the end we write for our own happiness. A byproduct of that process is being made happier when even one person finds the reading of your book a worthwhile, enjoyable experience.

Do I Hate Poetry?

The other day I read a review of Ben Lerner’s new book The Hatred of Poetry, which elicited my own examination of conscience on the matter as a person who has spent much of her life reading, critiquing, and writing poetry. Do I hate poetry? The truthful answer is that I dislike, or do not much care for, most of the contemporary poems I’ve read in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, the prestigious Poetry magazine, and numerous literary journals. Although dislike is a milder term than hate, a more accurate description of my attitude toward most of the poetry being published today is that the poems leave me unmoved or uncomprehending; therefore, I cannot really dislike poems that I don’t understand. To like or dislike a poem, I would first have to know what the intent of the poem is and then decide if I like the way the ideas of the poem are crafted in prosody.  I do not ascribe to the postmodernist notion that a poem should be a brain teaser puzzle nor to the Hallmark school of versification. Nor do I think poetry is an exercise in the purely autobiographical. Some would accuse me of being a lazy poetry reader and argue that poetry is not for mental lightweights. I will take the criticism like a woman.

But I do like poetry. I like the poetry of Derek Walcott, Dana Gioia, May Sarton, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wisława Szymborska–to name only a few. I never tire of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman–my pantheon of poets. All poets present their own complexities, but what I find eminently likable about the poetry I do like are these traits, which conversely, I find lacking in much of the poetry being published today: cadence or musicality, linguistic virtuosity, a spiritual dimension, universality. There are many ways to achieve sound effects in poetry, but when I don’t hear them when the poem is read aloud, the language is prosaic, and meaning is banal or obscure; then the poem is a car with a flat tire going nowhere in my mental and emotional landscape. Too much of the contemporary poetry I read is too lackluster linguistically and unmelodic for me to get excited about.

So do I hate poetry? I am an indifferent lover of much of the poetry being published today, but hatred of poetry is not one of my sins. I plead not guilty. Poetry stands at the pinnacle of the literary arts, and this art attracts novices, hacks, mediocre practitioners, and artisans. Everyone loved poetry as a young child, and everyone can love it again. It is just more difficult to find poems to love in the morass of uninspiring, pedestrian, incomprehensible, and unmusical poems in the limelight today.