Post-Father's Day Poems

First of all, congrats to all the dads who contrived to spend Father's Day with their kids instead of celebrating their mistresses' "magnificent parts"--you have demonstrated that you understand symbolic gesture better than the average polithario. (Couldn't Governor Sanford, a father of four, have picked one of the other 51 weekends in the year to go missing for action?)

I meant to do a Father's Day post to honor the steadfast dads I know (including my favorite soccer dad), and maybe even write a mawkish Father's Day sonnet or two, but my daughter's mid-June surgery and recovery (she's fine now) left no time or energy for such frivolities (and here's a shout-out to my dad for coming back east on short notice to help). Besides, when I turned to recent podcasts on fatherhood, I was not moved. All I could find was a memoirist recounting har-har anecdotes of swim diaper apprenticeship while lamenting the bygone days of hands-off dapper daddying. Fathers should know better.

Poets Raised by Stepfathers and Foster Fathers
Trying to find something more meaningful, I kept thinking of a favorite poem by Ben Jonson, a epitaph titled "On My First Son," first published in 1616. The poem is too sad for Father's Day, but since we are almost in July, I feel I can post it, along with a link to a Poetry Off the Shelf podcast about Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" (1962), a poem that appreciates some of the traditional--even menial--duties that devoted fathers perform without complaint, or mincing after media medals of commendation (scroll down for Hayden audio link).

17th Century Dad Who Loved Too Much
Playwright and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) never knew his biological father, but that didn't handicap him from being full of father-feeling toward his own children. His first son, also named Benjamin (which in Hebrew means "child of my right hand"), died of the plague on his seventh birthday. In "On My First Son" Jonson celebrates the boy's life and tries to find faith-based solace in the thought that Benjamin, by dying young, has been spared the harsher aspects of life and longevity. The conceit in the poem is that Jonson's abundant love for his son was the "sin" that provoked God into reclaiming the boy as payback after exactly seven years.

On My First Son

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy
Seven years thou'wert lent to me, and I thee pay.
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day,
O could I lose all father now! for why
Will man lament the state he should envy,
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson declares his son "his best piece of poetry," in a nice conflation of love and inspiration, the success of which is proven by the enduring appeal of the poem. He also wrote an epitaph "On My First Daughter" for Mary, who died aged six months.

"Love's austere and lonely offices"
The Poetry Foundation's Poetry Off the Shelf podcasts (also on iTunes) are a reliable delight--producer Curtis Fox usually packs a theme, an interview with a poet, and the reading of a poem or two into no more than 20 minutes (average podcast lasts 10 minutes). Poetry Off the Shelf's "Honor Thy Father's Day" podcast (iTunes link) includes a Library of Congress recording of the late Robert Hayden reading his 1976 poem, "Those Winter Sundays," an eloquent poem of complex emotion expressed in accessible language, and which ends with the beautiful lines, "What did I know, what did I know/of love's austere and lonely offices?" Fox discusses the poem with contemporary poet Terrance Hayes, who reads his own poem "For Robert Hayden" afterward. The Poetry Foundation's site has the text of "Those Winter Sundays" online, and offers bio pages on Hayden and Hayes, with links to more poems. There is also a clickable list of 60 Father's Day poems.


Sarah Waters on Post-War Posh and Poltergeists

Novelist Sarah Waters is remarkably substantive and consistent in interviews about her fifth book, The Little Stranger, which means she talks a lot about how shifts in the post-WWII British economy reduced the pool of servants available to the upper-middle class, which put both their grand edifices and their Polo-advert way of life in peril. Peril, in the hands of Waters, can tend toward the Gothic, and since she was already interested in haunted house novels, she included a poltergeist presence at Hundreds Hall, the Warwickshire pile that serves as the setting for class and supernatural clashes in The Little Stranger. (Waters lists her top ten ghost novels on her Virago site.)

Sticky Lit Labels
At the outset of her career Waters's self-deprecatory impulse led her to categorize her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998), as a "lesbo-historical romp," a label that stuck to her subsequent Victorian London novels Affinity (1999) and Fingersmith (2002) almost too well, because it now demands that interviewers and reviewers note the lack of both lesbians and romp in The Little Stranger, even though her fourth book, The Night Watch (2006), which takes place during WWII, was already less of a romp. (Ron Hogan's non-audio interview with Waters, posted at indiebound.com, covers Waters's early Victorian period quite nicely.)

Facts Lead to Fiction
Research seems to inspire Waters. The idea and the title for Tipping the Velvet came to her while she was completing her thesis on lesbian and gay writing from the late 19th century for her PhD in English Literature. The wartime research she did for The Night Watch set up the idea for The Little Stranger. You can read several interesting essays about her research methods and discoveries on the "Library" page of her Virago website (scroll down to the links underneath the images of her book covers).

Sarah Waters Podcast Links
Waters is easy to listen to, since she enunciates clearly without overemphasis (no rewinding needed), and even when she's talking about research, her genuine engagement comes across more as cool-prof than swotty-toff. She's also more prone to laugh than take offense at the inevitable lesbo-romp questions, and is generally genial with her interviewers. These episodes will provide context for The Little Stranger, particularly if you're not an expert in the British class system, where in the 1940s no uppercrust mother would wish for a doctor as a son-in-law.

Succinct Waters
Pre-Hay: This 6 1/2 minute Sara Waters video interview was recorded with The Guardian's Rebecca Lovell before the 2009 Hay Festival of Books in Wales. It's been edited into a sort of monologue. Waters is charming as she covers the lesbian label issue, the historical context of The Little Stranger, the paranormal, her writing discipline, and the experience of re-reading Mary McCarthy's The Group. This clip doesn't seem to be available for downloading from iTunes, but you can view it online here.

Mid-Hay: This podcasted interview with The Guardian Book Club's Claire Armitstead was recorded during the Hay Festival and covers similar ground to the video above, but it is transportable on your iPod. The Waters segment begins at Minute 3 and ends around Minute 7. It's currently available from the Guardian's Book Club podcast on iTunes, and there's an online link on the Guardian Haycast website.

Tenebrous Waters
This 30-minute podcast, from The Bat Segundo Show Sarah Waters II (#287), is an in-depth, quick-striding conversation. Host Edward Champion's idiosyncratic interviewing style brings out more of Water's Gothic sensibility, and he's well-informed on the influences in her work. The audio is currently available for downloading on The Bat Segundo Show's iTunes page, and it's also accessible, with a helpful text summary and transcribed excerpt, on the The Bat Segundo website. The website page also includes a clickable link to Champion's 2006 interview with Waters (BSS #37) in which they discussed The Night Watch, and other things.

Profiled in Print
Malcom McCrum's text profile of Waters, notable for it comprehensiveness, is available online at The Observer site.


Mavis Gallant: Ageless, Acute & Aloud

Mavis Gallant, Maître of the short story, Canadian citizen and long-time Parisienne, might be 86, but she is also long on mental agility and wit and her work is not fading away. Gallant's artistry is best absorbed in the original--to read her stories on the printed page is to acquire the DNA of another life--but there are times when we can't sit down and read, and yet the mind is still hungry. Luckily there is plenty of Gallant-appreciation available on audio, most of it downloadable. I recommend tucking a good dose into your iPod--Gallant will reconnect you to the thick taproot of life. Here's a selection of what's currently available:

"Madame, je vous aime."
Just a week ago, Gallant was interviewed from a Paris radio studio by Jian Ghomeshi of CBC's Q on the occasion of the Canadian publication of Going Ashore, a collection of her "lost or missing" stories. Gallant trades repartee with an admiring Ghomeshi, who admits he has trouble keeping up with her "great mind." (Ghomeshi is the cool-headed interviewer who handled Billy Bobs' April 2009 fugue-up and mashed-potato diss with Northern aplomb.) Ghomeshi's Gallant interview features little awkwardness and much merriment, and it provides substantial insight into the author's career and scope in about 17 minutes. It's available on CBC's Q iTunes podcast (Gallant interview begins at Minute 17:30) and also from the CBC Q past episodes web page (search for "Mavis Gallant" in the archive). She talks about the process of revisiting her early stories and she relates the dramatic true-life story of her recent accident: 16 months ago she collapsed on the floor of her Paris apartment and lay there for three days until she was rescued by her concierge (Minute 25). At Minute 32, when Ghomeshi mentions the "master of the short story" honoria, Gallant deflects the title and says she is "grateful to have lasted." Though her mind "now goes faster than her hands," Gallant is still at work, editing her journals and working on a story. Praise the concierge for that.

Details Like Burrs
A Gallant Writer Celebrated, the current offering from the PRI: Selected Shorts podcast, begins with a worshipful introduction by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, who says of Gallant, "I have re-read her more often than any other writer I know" (Minute 3:45). She salutes Gallant's intelligent, idiosyncratic vision, and lauds Gallant's use of unexpected details to go "elbow-deep" into the hearts of her characters. Lahiri hits on what makes Gallant's stories so memorable: "Once encountered, these details, however subtle, stick like burrs" (Minute 4:27). Then, most wonderfully, Selected Shorts deviates from their usual surrogate reader policy to allow Gallant to read her own "Grippes and Poche," a not-so-short story which was first published in 1982. Gallant's audio begins at Minute 9:20 and lasts about 50 minutes--pausing not recommended.

UPDATE: Granta's site has videos of a joint Jhumpa Lahiri and Mavis Gallant reading and Q & A at the Village Voice Bookshop in Paris, recorded in February 2009. (Online only; takes a while to load.) Lahiri's print interview with Mavis Gallant is in the current issue of Granta (#106); purchase required.

Taxman or Muse?
Don't be intimidated by the French names in the title--"Grippes and Poche" may be set in Paris, but it is written in English and read on this podcast in Gallant's vivacious and consonant-crisp voice. The story is rich with the perspicacity of a mature talent. It depicts its startling thesis--tax auditing as literary collaboration and inspiration--with ready poignance and well-timed humor. Early on, the live audience laughs at this example of a Gallant sticky-burr sentence: "Grippes's unwise and furtive moves with trifling sums, his somewhat paranoid disagreements with California over exchange, had finally caught the eye of the Bank of France, as a glistening minnow attracts a dozing whale."

(PRI: Selected Shorts offers their podcasts for free for a limited time period, so if you're tempted, download A Gallant Writer Celebrated now from iTunes, or from PRI's Selected Shorts site--scroll down to the "Online" link.)

Madrid on Nothing A Day
If you're new to Gallant, I recommend starting with this 33-minute New Yorker: Fiction podcast from 2007 titled Waiting. (Unusually and delightfully, these podcasts do not seem to expire from the iTunes listing or from the magazine's online audio archive, so it should be available regardless of when you come across this post.) Antonya Nelson, another élévatrice of the short story métier, selected Gallant's "When We Were Nearly Young" from the New Yorker's 1962 archive to read aloud and discuss with fiction editor Deborah Treisman (story begins near Minute 4, but the whole podcast is worth the listen ). "When We Were Nearly Young" is narrated in the first person by an underfunded expat who hangs around Madrid with an intriguing and equally peseta-less group of Spaniards. Gallant recounts their laid-back days with lyrical phrasing but resists romanticizing the characters' existential plight. The story is permeated with questions of fate and occupation and passivity. I won't spoil the (subtle) dénouement by telling more, but I highly recommend listening to Nelson's evocative reading, and to her bracketing conversations with Treisman. Treisman enacts un petit dénouement of her own in the post-story discussion by recounting the pre-internet dastardliness that prolonged Gallant's impoverishment abroad, in spite of her success at The New Yorker (Minute 30).

85 Years in 52 Minutes
In 2008 Eleanor Wachtel of the CBC conducted an especially chummy and chronological 52-minute audio interview with Gallant for her Writers & Company radio show. This episode is not currently available on iTunes, but you can listen to it online here and read a related profile here. Gallant seems to remember everything. The audio interview covers Gallant's eventful childhood, her start in journalism, her brief yet heightened encounter with Jean-Paul Sartre in Montreal (Minute 22), her move to Paris, the story of her impoverishment, and her writing inspirations and methods.

In the non-audio category:
Interviews from April and May 2009 with The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.
Back in 1997 Gallant kept an online diary for Slate.com describing her life in an August-abandoned Paris. I recommend all five sweet-and-savory entries, as each one offers at least one sticky-burr detail. If you don't own any books by Gallant, I recommend The Collected Stories (1996), with its handsome rouge-et-noir dustjacket and thick-cut pages and multiple decades of stories, IF you can find a copy: in the U.S. it is dégueulassely out-of-print.