Friday, January 06, 2012

Literary Persona

Irene Koronas, poetry editor for Wilderness House Literary Review, posed the question: what mythology do you create for yourself as a writer? your habits: the way you dress, write, where you take vacations, who you associate with, etc.?

My parents and grandparents had a thing about writers and being a writer. My grandfather wrote several dozen books and my mother was a freelance journalist. I don’t think either was particularly good at it but for me their major impact was their absolute reverence for the profession or avocation of writer. They held the title of author in total awe. As part of our religion of the author my mother dragged me to readings and lectures for years. I met Carl Sandburg, Saul Bello, Robert Frost, and a few other luminaries whose names escape me now. They didn’t mean much to me then. 

On Sunday afternoons, after church, my grandfather would sit us down, my cousins, my brother and I, and read stories and poems before a formal dinner that lasted well past my bed time. He would reverently read Keets, Kipling and e e cummings as if they were the latest books of the bible. The word of God. Alleluia. 


Saturdays were far less formal and not universally observed. In the summer my grandfather would hold court on his expansive porch. There were three or four wicker couches and another four or five chairs scattered casually around three glass top tables. Forty feet of fragrant unkempt roses marked the edge of the overhang. People came and went while my grandfather drank martinis from a cut crystal glass in his overstuffed chair just outside the door to his study. They would congregate in small groups, two or three at a time. The police chief and the head of the union negotiating at one table while the three selectmen played cards with my grandfather at another and the president of the garden club gossiped with my grandmother on the last. Bessie MacDermott, the aging and very scotch ‘member of the household,’ served hors d' oeuvres. 

My mother would prepare for these Saturday gatherings by typing up “talking points” and carefully packaging her creations both literary and culinary before heading over to “the big house.” We lived in the coachman’s cottage at the back of the property. Once town business was over and the local luminaries had left my mother would charge over to my grandfather, sit down and start reading something she had written. He would nod thoughtfully, perhaps make a comment or two before pulling a sheaf of papers from under a table next to his chair and proceed to read his own scribbling. I mostly fell asleep on one of the sofas to the drone of someone’s voice reading a newly minted story or poem. It wasn’t hard to decide that I too wanted to be a writer. 

Later, after my grandparents had died, after my father had died, after the town placed a tax lien on the property and after the water main to our cottage broke we were finally forced to sell and move. I went up to the attic in the big house the day before the estate auctioneer emptied it. There were 23 crates full of books, three feet by three feet by eight feet, my great grandfather’s library, to be sold by the linear foot. I broke into one crate and removed from the top layer, a first edition of Shelly’s collected works signed by Mary Shelly, a first edition of the Lewis and Clark expedition and a few other books. I took all that I could carry on the back of my Yamaha 250 motorcycle as I headed to Cambridge in the fall of 1970. 


I knew I wanted to be a writer when I walked into the Grolier Poetry Book Shop that fall (Gordon Carnie remind me of my grandfather) but I was not a writer. I had not written a single published word. That was, strictly speaking, not true. I had written a story in Junior High School about the formation of social cliques at puberty that won an Honorable Mention in some national writing contest that all 8th graders in my school were forced to enter and it was printed in the Hartford Currant. But just because I could write better than most 7th graders who entered the competition didn’t signify my arrival at the sacred alter as a published writer. I felt humbled walking into the great libraries of Harvard and MIT as well as the Coop and Harvard Book store, I still do. I felt the same way walking into the Grolier. There were live writers there. When Alan Ginsburg walked in I unescorted was dumbstruck, when Robert Creeley, Charles Olsen and others casually wandered in I studied them: how did they become writers, how were they different? 


There were a lot of “writers” hanging around the Grolier in those days. Some went on to actually write things of note but many, if not most, preferred the acclaim accorded a “writer” more than the labor and passion of actually writing. I learned that most of the people who called themselves writers were not. The same was true when, years later, after I had written four or five books and deemed myself ready to be called a journeyman writer, I joined the National Writers Union. We would meet once or twice a month for beer and schmoozing and I was surprised to discover that only three or four members, out of twenty or so who regularly attended, had actually published anything. I became a seasoned professional (in some eyes) overnight. It was embarrassing. 


However in the grand order of things a technical writer (which is what I had become) sat only above advertising copywriters in the world of literary distain. My works were not creative. (Says who?) I quit the union, stopped going to poetry readings and ceased calling myself a “writer” and only fessed up, if pressed, to being an occasional scribbler and poet of no great regard. This change in outward persona did two things for me. I didn’t have to live up to be a “writer”, whatever that meant (and I wasn’t sure) and I stopped trying to write anything of significance. This was quite a relief. It freed me to actually enjoy what I wrote. I wrote a column in a technical journal about an over caffeinated, sleep deprived computer geek who worked for the mob. I wrote a column on local politics, covered school committee and planning board meetings and acquired a taste for Scotch which I drank in copious quantities hours before my deadlines. I had fantasies of becoming a beat journalist. It didn’t pay. Eventually I stopped writing altogether. No one would pay for it and even the freebees were being rejected. For years I was a consumer of literature not a creator


I returned to the world of the scribbler when I first met when I first met Irene Koronas she looked at me and said, “You don’t look like a poet.” And so it goes.