Author Archives: Julie Larios

In the Basement

First, let me say clearly and unequivocally that I’m not a hoarder. My house doesn’t look anything like the houses of those people on the reality TV show. It would not require a family intervention/professional counseling to help me clear a pathway from the front door to the back door. On the other hand, I’m not a neat freak. I simply keep things clean-ish and organized-ish in a non-OCD way.

That said, I have a problem getting rid of papers. This pretty much applies to ANYTHING made of paper that has writing on it. 99.9 % has some writing. But sometimes there’s no writing. I save plain paper that’s handmade. I save gift wrap, maybe the last tiny square of that gift wrap I got at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing it reminds me of a wonderful trip to NYC that I took with my sister, my mom, and my aunt. Bottom line: it’s both paper and memory.

More examples? Well….

Example #1: A two-inch pile of notes and old exams from the Geology 101 class I took in the early 1990’s (having finally decided, as I approached middle age, to finish my B.A.) I found Geology fascinating, loved every lecture,  took copious notes, worked my head off and got a perfect score on every exam for that class. It was such a thrill to be back in college that the papers I produced for my classes became endowed objects, full of magic. So yes, I have a 2-and-1/2-inch stack of notes from Geology 101… and more inches from the History of Photography class I took (alongside my college-age son), and the Physics of Music class I sat in on unofficially, and all my English Lit and Creative Writing classes, and hand-scribbled notes on the backs of programs from lectures delivered by special University guests like architect Rem Koolhas and poet Seamus Heaney. All those papers are in a box in the basement. I don’t read them, not even from time to time, but I know they’re there, glowing in the dark, saying “Knowledge! Scholarly effort! Success!”

Example #2: I have many many boxes full of articles torn out of magazines and newspapers. Strange news items are my specialty. If someone sees the face of Jesus in a grease spot in an auto repair shop in Hoboken, N.J., that is tear-out-and-save-worthy. Ditto an article about a baby born singing Christmas carols. Ditto one about the legend of an Italian fresco-painter who fell off scaffolding while painting the Virgin – locals swore the Virgin he was working on swept down and caught him in her arms, breaking his fall. No bones broken! A miracle. Yes, something like that I tear out and save. Ditto an article about how the Koch Brothers are buying the American elections out from under the American people. I tear out lots of political stuff when I’m mad. So – political stuff, weird stuff, news of scientific import (What? Birds have wrists??? Who knew?!), reviews of upcoming books I want to read (that way, when they come in at the library three months later, I can remember why I wanted to read them), lists of the best places to a) get a good view of San Francisco b) find a Reuben sandwich in NYC or cheesecake in Chicago c) say “butterfly” in 147 languages….Well, you get the drift. When I tear these things out, I mean to file them in The Right Folder in a file cabinet in my office, but more often than not they pile up on one side of my desk or on the dining room table, and I end up throwing them into a grocery bag and storing it all in a closet when friends come over (mustn’t give people the impression I’m a hoarder!) By the time friends have left, I’ve forgotten all about that bag full of papers, and only weeks later do I find it and decide I’ll sort the papers out “later.” Somehow they end up –  guess where – in the basement.

Example #3: Newspapers with Big Important Headlines: JFK Shot in Dallas!  Eleanor Roosevelt Dies! Men Land on the Moon! Nixon Resigns! Clinton Elected! Clinton Disgraced! Shuttle Explodes! O.J. Not Guilty! Twin Towers Fall! War in Afghanistan! War in Iraq! Obama Wins! I’ve even saved campus newspapers from Berkeley in the late 60’s: Students Occupy Sproul Hall! Gov. Reagan Calls Out National Guard! Tear Gas on Campus! Curfew Imposed! Police Take People’s Park! Draft Enters Lottery Phase – Exemptions Cancelled!)What can I do? I’ve always loved history and I’m fascinated by The Art of the Headline. Important newspapers, though, do not get tossed around – those go straight into old vintage suitcases I buy at thrift shops around town. And then they go down to the basement.

Sometimes I go look at all the boxes and suitcases full of papers down there. It’s  a little exciting, the mess – stacked willy-nilly, kind of a metaphor for my brain. I tell myself creative people do this. Save papers.

Other times I look at the boxes and think “This is scary.” Not out-of-control-hoarder scary. But probably enough-to-make-your-grown-children-worry-about-your-mental-health scary. Or enough to make them angry at you if you should die suddenly and leave it all to them to clear out.

The logical side of my brain tells me to just go down and toss the unsorted papers out. Be brutal, Julie, don’t even look through it all. You haven’t needed anything in that box for a long time. Into the 50-gallon recycle bin, all of it, for pick-up next Tuesday! And the Tuesday after that, full bin again. And a few more Tuesdays. Better yet, a trip to the dump.

The illogical side tells me that the story about the fresco painter and the angel would make a great poem – better not throw that little fascinating tidbit away. Multiply that by  100,000 other fascinating tidbits, all on pieces of paper. Mustn’t lose out on the chance to write the Best Book Ever Written and include that little-known fact about birds having wrists …or the one about how scientists think whale sounds might rhyme. Unbelievable. I have that here somewhere, give me a minute….

My kids remind me that most of this stuff is findable now on the Internet, and it’s true. I don’t tear out as much as I used to. Once in awhile now, when I find a great bit of trivia/great article/great essay/great review of a great book/ great New Yorker cartoon online, I email it to myself. Pretty soon, Google Mail will tell me I’ve accomplished the impossible: running out of space on Gmail. By the time my grandson is my age, technology will have eliminated the need for paper. And then all our basements will be clean and orderly. Why don’t I find that comforting?

To make myself feel less guilty, I’ve assigned myself the task of writing a poem a day from facts found in the hundreds and hundreds of articles I save. The other day I wrote one from an article torn out of The Smithsonian about an iceberg that had flipped upside down. The photographer who took a photo of it (beautiful thing!) said that its “underside was breathtaking.” Oh, when I read that, I knew I would save it. He said its underside was glassy and aqua green. He could see water flowing inside the upside-down iceberg, and the water looked “almost like an ant colony.” The world is a strange, strange place.The articles I tear out remind of that fact.

There, I said to myself when the poem was finished, I knew I should save that.


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Considering the “M,” the “F” and the “A” of the M.F.A.

Teresa - Tamales

I’ve been thinking  about the individual letters of the M.F.A. and what they stand for – and yes, maybe I have too much time on my hands right now, but that’s the kind of thing that pops into my head at unpredictable moments. This particular thought – “What is mastery? What is an art, and what makes it a fine one?” – rose up as a result of some spontaneous cooking lessons I’ve been getting from Teresa, the woman who cleans the garden apartment where my husband and I are staying during our visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. There are lots of cooking schools here – Oaxaca is famous for its food – but I prefer hearing from Teresa, who cooks for her own family and who can earn a little extra money telling me about the family recipes and how to make them. [As I type, I can hear a parade outside – the school-children at the elementary school across the street are marching in celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day tomorrow – they’ve been practicing all week – how to carry the big flag, how to wave the little individual flags, how to march in step, how to look serious and represent their school and country with honor….I hear a tuba and a trumpet….sorry, I have to run and catch that!….]

Okay, back to thoughts about the M and the F and the A. Imagine the scene: Teresa and I are in the middle of a discussion about tamales – this morning she brought a bag full of chiles, fruits, nuts and seeds, along with banana leaves for the tamales de mole negro (specialty of Oaxaca) and corn husks for the more common tamales de raja (green chile strips.) After at least an hour of browning bananas, peanuts, pecans, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, raisins, three types of dried chiles, cloves, garlic, salt and peppercorns, and after walking up to the local miller to get all of it ground up into a paste, Teresa now has chicken boiling for the filling, and she has me mixing the masa (also ground up from fresh nixtamal earlier that morning.) I am putting some real muscle into the mixing. Preparing masa is not like making hot-cake batter. It takes some oomph – like bread-making, I guess, though I’m no bread-maker, either.

When everything is ready, Teresa takes a few water-soaked corn husks and spreads the masa onto them with the back of a spoon. How easy she makes it look!  “Asi como yo lo hago. Ves? Es facil” (There, like I do it – you see? It’s easy.) With the banana leaves, the mole goes on, the shredded chicken goes on, and Teresa wraps them up. Then the masa and the rajas go onto the corn husks. She does it quickly – this side folded over, these tips down, tucked in, rolled all the way over, there. Nothing to it. Nothing spills out at the edges. The uncooked tamales hold together and look quite pretty, little spicy delights ready to be steamed.

When I try, of course, the corn husks won’t cooperate – it’s as if they know I’m not the boss. They curl up on me and fight me all the way. I add the filling as best I can – then I fold here, I fold there, everything spills out. I open it up and start again, and I feel like a pre-schooler trying to master finger-painting and making quite a mess of it. “Master” – yes, that’s how the word springs to mind. Looking at Teresa, who is watching me patiently, I see a master of the fine art of cooking. In her school, which is just my little kitchen in a vacation rental, I learn by doing. A good way to learn.

“Esta bien, no te preocupes,” she assures me. It’s fine – don’t you worry – “Cada vez, te van a salir mejor.” Each time you do it, they’ll come out better. “Poco poquito” – little by little. I don’t have to learn it all the first time.

Am I stretching to say that the same goes for writing as for tamales? Sure, I’m stretching a little. But the skill – some call it mastery – comes little by little, just as with all skills. Writing a good story is not unlike driving a nail into a shingle or setting tile for a back-splash or playing the ukulele or drawing a nude in a studio class. Or making tamales. You keep trying, you get better, you watch a master, you learn by doing.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from tamale-making to writing novels (I love the sound of that – tamales to novels – as if they were foreign countries with a bridge from one to the other.) But what intrigues me is the way we assign the term “fine art” to certain things and not to others. That “F,” and that “A.” Dancing, drawing, sculpting, painting, film-making, design, creative writing, music composition – all programs at the graduate level, all granting “Master” degrees. The faculty says, “Here is what I’ve learned, try this.” They say, “Don’t worry, the skill comes. You learn by doing.” They even say “You have to put some muscle into it. It’s not easy.” Hopefully, they say, “The trick is to give it your own little flavor.”

“Fine” Arts. Does that mean “refined” arts? What about cooking – even cooking at the small kitchen level – is it not a “fine” art? And come to think of it, carpentry and plumbing and tile-setting and cleaning apartments? What makes those not so fine? If it’s about getting your hands dirty, think of a master ceramicist at the wheel.

I find myself wishing once again that the world were organized in a less vertical way, where some activities are at the top of the ladder, honored and respected, and others are dismissed. Those who have heard me rant about verticality vs. horizontality know this is a constant drum I beat. The art of the janitor seems equal to me to the art of the writer. Toolboxes, skills, learning by doing, mastery. Why do we honor activities that take leaps of imagination over those that take muscle? A poem can be musical, intellectual, filled with desire. Masa can be folded, pushed, pulled – a corn husk can be soaked just enough and not soaked too much. Flavor, artistry, desire, rhythm. Seems to me that a Picasso and a great apple pie share the “A” of art. And the “M” of mastery. To be fair, I suppose some CEO’s are masters of what they do – unfortunately, astronomical salaries usually make them look down that vertical ladder and believe themselves to be entitled to the privileges of being “at the top.” If our model changed, if we saw the world horizontally rather than vertically, the ladder could be put aside, and “status,” (that is, the level reached on that ladder) would need re-defining.

So. There I go again. As I age, it gets harder and harder not to end up at the political end of the parade, waving my own little flag – even when all I’m doing is looking at the alphabet and asking what a word means. “M” – mastery. We know it when we see it, whether it’s a tamal or a well-built arbor in the garden or a Matisse on the wall of a museum.  “Art” – I guess the same goes for art, since taste is personal – we know it and we feel it when we see it. Flavor, desire – it’s there somewhere. The greatest mystery, then, of an M.F.A. must be somewhere in that “F”  – the “F” of “Fine.” But I can’t figure it out. Am I’m being disingenuous? Maybe a little. And maybe the 10,000 hours people say it takes to become a master craftsman can’t be applied to the art of housekeeping and cooking. Only I’m betting it can. Next time you’re out and about, take a look around at the people passing by – there are a lot of Masters walking around out there. And there are a lot of Arts. Let’s just broaden what we call Fine.

[Okay, now there is the most horrible music coming from somewhere. I don’t think that musician has mastered his craft yet. He’s quite a few hours short of 10,000. Or, to put it another way, there’s filling coming out of that tamal.]


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Names on a Map


I spent some time last week with friends out in the Gulf Islands of Canada, and I was reminded again -as I usually am when I travel – how intriguing local place names are. I’m sure my fascination with place names was heightened recently by reading (for the first time, sad to admit) the opening novel of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust is a master of details, including the naming of imaginary towns, churches, houses, and roads in one direction (by way of Swann and the village of Combray) and the other (the Guermantes way.)  I think it’s in the naming of people and places that our imaginations first begin to engage with stories.

The lighthouse at Georgina Point...

The lighthouse at Georgina Point…

Out on Mayne Island, I studied a map and found the following place names, by category:


Village, Miner’s, Bennett, Piggott, Gallagher, Campbell, Oyster, Horton, Dinner, Kadonaga, Naylor, Reef, Maude


Edith, Helen, Laura, St. John’s, Crane, Georgina


Heck’s Hill, Mt. Parke

Road Names:

Minty, Latour, Felix Jack, Tinkley, Tinker, Cotton, Skana Gate, Isabella

I wonder about the women: Maude, Helen, Edith, Laura, Georgina, Isabella. Were they mothers? Sweethearts? Daughters? I wonder if Miner’s Bay was named for miners on the island or for a family named Miner. I’m delighted by the existence of Cotton, Minty, Tinker and Tinkley Roads, which sound like the names of mice in a Beatrix Potter adventure (Tinkley is the naughty one, right?) If you go from Heck’s Hill to St. John’s Point, will you have been walking in a heavenly direction (or if headed round trip the opposite direction while picking blackberries could you say you went to Heck and back for those berries?) The story behind a road called Felix Jack needs to be told, though the strangeness of “Kadonaga” Bay might be explained by the Japanese Memorial Garden,  planted in honor of the Japanese-Canadian families whose land was taken from them during World War II. I imagine the Kadonaga family, suitcases packed, waiting on the dock at Miner’s Bay for the steamship which would take them from their homes.

Members of the Japanese-American Community days before their forced evacuation from the island....

Members of the Japanese-Canadian community days before their forced evacuation from the island….

Next time you travel, make a list of the place names around you. They might surprise you – or make you wonder…and don’t stories begin with wonder?

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Right now, I’m wondering about Maude. Who might she have been? Though the timeframe is wrong, and the origin of the place names is off,  I begin to imagine someone like Maude walking up Heck’s Hill with her friends, one who might be named Georgina Campbell and another who might be named Hamako Kadonaga, looking for berries. It’s late summer, 1941…by the following April, Hamako and her sister, mother and grandmother will be sent inland to an internment camp; her father – I imagine someone who might have run the fish saltery near Emery’s Store – will be sent farther inland, as Japanese-Canadian men between 18-45 were – and forced into hard labor until the war was over.


Maybe the story is told through letters from one girl to the other. Maybe Hamako addresses her letters to Maude Miner, Cotton Road, Mayne Island, British Columbia….who knows? I’m playing a game – let’s call it an experiment –  “Names on a Map.”

Berry Picking circa 1910

Berry Picking circa 1910


by | April 28, 2014 · 2:11 am


There’s something about the new year coming that makes me want to tidy up. I hear a bell begin to toll on 2013, though the truth is, from one day to the next – December 31 to January 1 – no bell tolls, no brocade curtain comes down, no trumpets blare. I just go to bed in 2013 and wake up bleary-eyed and fairly happy in the next year of my life.

A calendar for daydreaming...

A calendar for daydreaming…

Calendar-Sense (or Nonsense) is strong within us, and tidying up is part and parcel of endings, so I tidy. Bits and pieces. This and that. A small linen closet…just a shelf, really – I don’t have enough linens to call it a linen closet (which is one reason I watch Downton Abbey – to imagine all the linens for a household like that – freshly pressed, smelling slightly of lavender…and, of course, maids to make the beds and start the fire in the morning…and a maid to dress me and do my hair…and then the chauffeur, waiting to declare his love and sweep me away to revolutionary Ireland…well, never mind all that.)

More daydreaming....

More daydreaming….

I tidy up the cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink. Two half-full bottles of Windex…time to combine them. A full bottle of Pledge. Pledge? Pledge? Where did we get this? How long has it been here? No one knows. Out it goes along with a few mystery cleaners no one can identify. Ah, the Comet. I take time out to scrub the sink and the enamel shines. Very satisfying.

Under the Sink
Under the Sink
Not Daydreaming
Not Daydreaming

I organize the tool box – screw drivers, screws, tape measure, picture hangers. Next time I have a bigger project, I will be able to find the right tools. I collect empty clothes-hangers and put them all in one closet. I organize all the half-burned candles I’m too stingy to toss out. A shelf of vases gets cleaned out. I actually put a few important papers in my file drawer and I’m pleased with myself. When tax time comes, I will know where to find that important whatever-it-is. I reflect on a hidden side of me, the secret bourgeois.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

I decide tidying up feels good, and I am near the file cabinet in my office.  I look at my desk. Oh-oh, that might take a little more effort than “tidying.” But I reflect on my latest writing projects. I’ve been doing some tidying up with my writing, too.

I’ve put the final touches on an essay about the poet Marie Ponsot that I promised to  Doug Glover for his wonderful Numero Cinq (“a warm place on a cruel web.”) I’ve been keeping up with my blog posts for The Drift Record, especially all the small Poetry Friday posts where fellow kit-lit-o’sphere writers share poems. This week I posted a poem by Walter de La Mare. I’ve been figuring out a new post for the blog my writers group co-creates, Books Around the Table. Last time, I wrote about Mock Caldecotts. Next Friday, when it’s time to post, I think I’ll write about the challenge making the rounds on Facebook recently to choose “Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me.” Impossible, but great fun.

I got out a poem written ages ago, showed it to friends who liked it and sent it in to the editor at Harcourt who worked on two of my books. Not new work, but I’m tidying up. Fingers crossed.

I’ve been writing a few Christmas cards to close friends, which sometimes take the creative effort of a good poem – a note on a Christmas card is all about compression, all about conveying the passage of time and the essence of my year by choosing just the right details. Bits and pieces.

This year's Christmas care, which says a lot about my year....

This year’s Christmas card, which says a lot about my year….[photo by Robert I. Snow for Palm Press]

What I’m saying by all this is that not all of our projects have to be grand scale, whether it’s around the house or in our writing lives. We don’t always have to be remodeling the kitchen or producing the Great American Novel. Sometimes life is lived on the scale of this-and-that, including our lives as writers. Try to be satisfied during this Bits-and-Pieces time. Toss the unused bottle of Pledge, put a lavender sachet in with the sheets and towels, daydream and contemplate, write to friends, finish a promised piece, review old work. Tidy up. If friends ask you what you’re working on, tell them “My half-burned candles.”

Bits and Pieces

Bits and Pieces


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Looking for Something That Lasts

Globe at the Vatican

Globe at the Vatican

When I was in Rome several years ago, I went to the Vatican Museum late one afternoon and had only an hour or so to see the Sistine Chapel. I’d seen it before, but wanted to see it again – it’s hard to get enough of that ceiling. But I passed the day of my planned visit busy with other things – friends and writing mostly – and time got away from me, so I was in a rush. Once inside the building (which way to the Chapel???), I moved as quickly as I thought I could in a building that was old and hushed and sacrosanct – it really isn’t kosher to run through the Vatican (well, nothing is exactly “kosher” in the Vatican, is it?) Outside they have guards in fancy outfits, guards who mean business and hold lance-like things that look painful. Who wants to be told to slow down by someone dressed like that?

Scary guards ready to make me behave.

Scary guards ready to make me behave.

Inside, I moved through the long hallway of rooms, one after another after another (were they temporarily re-routing the way for visitors to reach the chapel that day?)  I came to a room – a corridor, really – filled with magnificent globes. Globes! Oh, I love a good globe – round, simple, beautiful, never anything but elegant –  and, even better, these particular globes were  centuries old. Some up on their stands were taller than me, at least that’s the impression they made as I rushed by. I almost stopped, almost…but then…there was that ceiling waiting….

Detail - Vatican Globe

Detail – Vatican Globe

On my way out after a brief hour in the Chapel, the museum guards were politely moving everyone along, back the way we had come, reminding us in several languages that it was closing time, repeating over and over that it was time to go, please move along, please keep going, the building is closing, please move along.  I came again to the long hallway full of globes. Again, there was no time to linger and be amazed, but I vowed (yes, at the Vatican, people vow) to return the next day.

Detail - Vatican Globe

Detail – Vatican Globe

Only I didn’t return – not the next day, not any other day.  I had classes, coffee with friends, trips to the market, a walk along the Appian Way, the catacombs, Hadrian’s villa – the list of things to see and do in Rome is always long, and my days slipped away.  I didn’t get back to the museum before I headed home to Seattle.  And I haven’t gotten back since, despite a trip to Florence a few years later with my husband. That room – those globes – are still waiting. Those globes. So beautiful.

Big sigh.

At VCFA, we talk about a “desire line” for the main character. Desire lines can be superficial (that is, on the surface, like me wanting to see those globes) or they can be deep, deep down (like me wanting to believe that things last, that beauty lasts, that the world is full of beauty that lasts, and that I will have time to experience it.) My sister has been ill, and I’ve been worried about her, and for some reason when my head and heart drift over to thoughts of her, those globes keep pushing their way in. Why? I’m not sure what the connective tissue is, but it’s there, it’s part of my story.

Maybe it’s about trying to hang on, to find something that lasts; maybe it’s a nagging feeling that there is something that I am failing to do that would change how this part of the story unfolds, or a reluctance to admit that not everything fits into one lifetime. And, as I said, maybe it’s just because the clock is ticking and life is short, and I hope the people I love will live forever and I hope beauty is long. I hope some things last. Now there’s a deep desire line.

I caught a glimpse of something that day and I haven’t gotten back to look more closely, but I still hope I will.  Not to stretch too far to make this relevant to writing, but I do believe hope is something storytelling touches on.  Writers try to get back to that definitive moment, that lost thing, that moment in the story when something changes and time stops – taking the time to look carefully helps us find the connective tissue that holds it all together. Makes it last. Some things last, right?

The Farnese Atlas in Naples

The Farnese Atlas in Naples

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Literary Impressionism

The Iris Garden at Giverny / Claude Monet

The Iris Garden at Giverny / Claude Monet

I saw a video online at the New York Times site today that made me think about Impressionism in the visual arts, and about how much more comfortable people are about allowing art forms like film and painting to be impressionistic, while believing that literary art should be more more solidly linear and narrative (that is, more easily seen, grasped and understood.)  Watch the video, titled “Tunnel Vision” (by Jeff Scher, not to be confused with the Justin Timberlake music video of the same name, in which nudity leaves an impression of a different sort) and see what impressions you get.

Tunnel Vision

It’s obvious in some bits of Scher’s video that what you’re seeing is a subway: lights flash, stations pass,  tunnels and machinery catch the light.  You even see people waiting for trains and – later – sitting on a  train, so in that sense you have some narrative, or the impression of a narrative. But for much of the video/film, you are not quite sure of what you’re seeing. You immediately want to watch it again and let it pour over you again. The music (composed by Shay Lynch) helps form your idea of the “tonal register” of this narrative as it begins – not somber, but playful; in fact, it’s almost flirtatious. (I hear a music box, with layered counterpoints entering in.) Then the counterpoints disappear, and the music-box returns immediately.  Toward the ending, the layers are like sheets of vellum, each layer having a traced image and a musical tenor, each layer playing off another, then another.  So the narrative that this film proposes is like collage. It’s multi-layered, yet no one would call it “difficult” or “gimmicky.” Instead, it’s elegant, as is this painting by French Impressionist Paul Signac:

Paul Signac 1863-1935

Paul Signac 1863-1935

I’m curious about why other art forms can be figuratively and literally more blurred and impressionistic than their literary equivalents.  And I have a  guess or two:

  • Maybe it’s the fact that the viewer enjoys making sense out of random visual impressions, which can happen without much effort. Our brains can process images much more quickly than words.
  • Maybe it’s just the length of the piece – the film is less than five minutes long, and people can put up with fragments for awhile, but not for extended periods. That would explain why fiction has trouble being collage-like and holding all the pieces together — it’s just too long not to be more direct and less fragmentary.
  • Maybe writers haven’t tried, or publishers haven’t been brave enough, and readers have been restricted by their expectations….

But how to explain people’s desire for poetry to be easily understood in one reading, a one-layer phenomena? Poetry is short enough to allow for impressionism – it doesn’t often take more than five minutes to read through a poem. But if a poem does as this film does in the same amount of time – a five-minute read-aloud presenting layered impressions without a solid narrative – bursts of images, but no easy message/story – it’s called “difficult” and “opaque.”  Even fiction gets away with a mosaic-like structure more often than poetry does. In general, readers ask popular poetry (Mary Oliver, Billy Collins)  to have a clear, precise narrative line, announcing its meaning clearly.

Why is that? Why do so many people allow the visual arts to tell a story through impressions, quick brushstrokes and glances (as in the painting by Monet which opens this post?)

Is the same effect allowed in poetry  and fiction?  Usually with fuzzy, impressionistic narrative lines (collaged, multi-layered, fragmentary) a great moan goes up about how obscure it all is. Any theories for what’s behind that? Why do readers want clean edges from poetry yet allow visual art a more complicated line?

[I wonder about these things while I wash the dishes! What would I do without the New York Times to set me wondering each morning…?]

attack of the difficult poems


by | August 1, 2013 · 1:01 am

Trip Trap Trip Trap Trip Trap – Thoughts about Imagination

Three Billy Goats Gruff - Alison Edgson

Three Billy Goats Gruff – Alison Edgson

I have to admit that the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff provoked a lot of anxiety in me when I was little. Number one, a couple of those goats betrayed their siblings – “Don’t eat me; if you wait, you can eat my meatier brother,” they said, which smacked of murder and cowardice and tragedy to me. Number two, it was about goats, and goats are strange. Never completely domesticated, they are head-butters with horns, devil-like and beady-eyed.  I heard they ate tin cans. Tin cans? What eats tin cans? I heard Bill Grogan’s goat could cough up the shirts he ate and flag down a train. Strange and wonderful and terrible things, goats. Cute, yet not cute. If they didn’t really exist and you created them for a work of fiction, people would praise you for your crazy imagination.

Goats: Cute Yet Not Cute.

Goats: Cute Yet Not Cute.

In that story about the three goats, there was also something else that was strange –  the word “gruff” – which made my throat itch and eyes water when I heard it. I had no idea at the time what it meant, but I could imagine:  It was something akin to “rough,” but front-loaded with a hard “g” to make it even rougher.  Grrrrrr-uff. Wild. Undomesticated. Bearish. Goatish.

And there was another weird word /weird thing about that story: a troll. “Troll” was a word I associated with my dad and grandfather when they went fishing out on Elger Bay, in Puget Sound –  and I vaguely understood it to mean fishing while drifting along in a small boat with a sputtering motor, and hoping to catch something wonderful for dinner.  The word “troll” in the folktale worried me – it was a creature I imagined could (and would, I had no doubt) pull me over the side of a bridge one day, catch me and eat me for dinner.

Goat-Stalking Troll - Unknown Artist

A Goat-Stalking Troll – Unknown Artist

Troll, growl, gruff, grrrrr – all those r’s rolling around.  R’s like those in the word “terrible” and “horrible.” Is it possible that words themselves are powerful enough to be scary?

I don’t remember being a scaredy-cat, but now that I’m an adult I have a good long list of things that scared me when I was a kid. “Trip, trap, trip, trap, trip, trap” sent me down a long & winding road where I fell asleep imagining what might be under bridges other than water.  Having an active imagination sometimes serves us well as writers, but sometimes torments us as children. Sendak was tormented by his imagination, so maybe it’s not a completely bad thing, torment.

A real bridge with no goats trip-trapping over it (and no trolls – only water  – under it) fell into a river north of Seattle the other day. The superstructure buckled when an extra-wide load on a big truck clipped it, and somehow the roadway underneath it – all four lanes – simply pancaked into the river with several cars on it. It made local news first, then quickly state news and national news, and then friends of ours called from Australia to ask if everyone we knew was okay. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries, but this bridge constituted a section of the main north-south freeway which runs from the Canadian border to Mexico, with no stops other than during occasional traffic jams in L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. 71,000 cars and truck pass over that bridge every day. I travel across it whenever I visit my mother in Bellingham. I crossed it twice last week, the last time just two days before it collapsed.

Maybe you're looking at the tulip fields, and suddenly there's no road beneath you.

Maybe you’re looking at the tulip fields, and suddenly there’s no road beneath you.

Imagine at 70 mph – the roadway simply falls out from underneath you. You are maybe glancing at the frigid river just before it happens – the  Skagit River, running strong with a late-spring snow-melt from the Cascade Mountains to the east. Maybe you’re thinking the river looks high, you’re thinking it might flood soon…or maybe you’re looking out toward the tulip fields of the Skagit Valley and imagining the lovely fringe of color around the parrot tulips you bought last year…and suddenly, there is no road beneath you.

The imagination – so necessary for writers, so necessary for readers, such an instrument of delight and torture for both children and adults.  Sweet tulips, swift rivers, trolls, goats, devils – all trip-trapping through your brain. It’s a wonder you can drive with all that going on in your head. And then suddenly you can’t drive. There’s nothing under the tires.

I’ve been imagining that for days. What would that be like, the first instant you realize the road has disappeared. Right before you fall – the moment of suspension. It’s hard to imagine, but it sounds like a metaphor for some other things that happen in life.  I might try to capture it in a poem soon, or it might capture me in a nightmare.  Trip-trap-trip-trap. The imagination – can’t sleep peacefully with it, can’t write well without it.

Study of Troll - Justin Gerard

Study of Troll – Justin Gerard


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