10/27/2011 4:52:51 PM
Given Muammar Qaddafi’s recent death and the continued political uncertainty in Libya, tourism will likely not be the country’s boom industry any time soon. Some people, however, get paid to visit the hot, ruined, sand-blasted terrain of North Africa. Journalists, sure, and politicians, too. But also travel writers.
On account of the Arab Spring the third and most recent edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Libya was never published, according to one of its primary authors Kate Grace Thomas. In a vignette-style article about being a travel writer in a warzone published on Guernica, Thomas explains:
I was writing a guidebook to a country that no longer exists; a country where busloads of Italian tourists gathered around hotel buffets; where billboards advertised the Qaddafi brand—forty-one years, they sang, the leader’s face peering down at the cars on the highways like that of a god who thought he created them. The guidebook I researched was a guidebook to the past.
Thomas’ dispatch from the turbulent Libyan heartland is as riveting as any other you’ve read, even lacking the injuries and explosions you’d hear about from an embedded journalist. But what really made this essay memorable was how Thomas repeatedly blurred the distinction between travel writing and traditional reporting, between natural landscape and political landscape, between tourist amenities and cultural anxieties. For Thomas, they are one and the same. Following are a few of the best tips for savvy tourists.
On the massive geographical rift down the middle of Libya:
“Tripoli and Benghazi are very far apart,” he said. “Not only in terms of kilometers, you understand? Most Libyans must choose; either we are true to Tripoli or we are true to Benghazi.”
On the best way to hire a cab:
“It is safer that way,” the driver told me. “If you want to travel safely in Libya, always ask the driver to bring his wife.”
On luxury accommodations:
“Qaddafi,” said the hotel manager, “has slept in this bed.” . . .
I couldn’t afford to stay there, so I thanked the manager and left to write up my review. This was the private wing of one of Benghazi’s largest hotels, concealed from the public by fat palm trees, elephant grass, and a thousand-dollar price tag.
On scenic routes:
We took the road south from Tobruk, past the World War Two cemeteries with their neat rows of headstones and swept pathways, stippled with aloe vera plants, flowering cacti, and simple dedications. These burial grounds were tidy, orderly, nothing like the mass graves slowly filling in Tripoli.
Back in New York, Thomas reflects on her travels, her commissioned writing, and the rapid changes sweeping Libya. Specifically, she meditates on Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound:
The compound used to be sand. Qaddafi had concrete poured into its grounds, burying the ghosts of footprints, sowing grass seeds around its vast contours. He covered the compound with the concrete of his ideas, his doctrine. He covered Libya with them too. But when the rebels showed up, firing their rounds, chipping away at its surface, pockets of sand became visible.
Qaddafi had tried to turn Libya into rock, his rock, but underneath it was sand, shifting sand, all along.
10/24/2011 10:43:22 AM
As a creative writing student reading Minneapolis feminist Brenda Ueland’s bestselling 1938 book If You Want to Write several years ago, I was smitten. She was funny and fierce and wise and had an utterly engaging voice; there was nothing precious or false or pompous like so many writing guidebooks. It propelled me to read her autobiography, Me: A Memoir (1939), which turned out to be equally dreamy—full of heartbreak and energy and adventure. I was thrilled, then, to learn recently that Utne Reader founder Eric Utne is Ueland’s step-grandson—and that he was editing a book of love letters between Ueland and the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate, albeit largely epistolary, affair. Ueland and Nansen met in person only in one flaming-hot weekend in 1929, when she was 37 and he 67, and thereafter wrote letters overseas for a year until his death.
Titled Brenda, My Darling, the book is being published simultaneously in Norway by Orfeus Publishing as Nansens siste kjærlighet (Nansen’s Last Love) and launched this week. Here in the states, Fridtjof Nansen’s name may be known only to the most ardent Arctic explorer enthusiasts among us, but he’s a hero in Norway—a Nobel Prize winner whose humanitarian work famously saved the lives of millions of refugees and prisoners of war. The letters to Brenda reveal an entirely new side of the austere hero as a sensual and vulnerable lover: “O Brenda,” he wrote, “there is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into.”
The Norwegian edition of the book also reveals the full frontal: nude photos of Nansen that he mailed to his extramarital lover. These photos have erupted in controversy in Norway, where Eric Utne is currently launching the book (Views and News from Norway, Oct 19, 2011). The newspaper Aftenposten (the Oslo equivalent of the New York Times) reproduced the nude photos in an article—an act that has the public focused more on the sex sex sex than on the romance and humanity of the letters. According to Views and News from Norway:
Utne regrets how the naked photos were used in the media … explaining that he opted to crop them in the American version of his book “because I was uncomfortable” with running the full frontal photos as they’re displayed in the Norwegian version. [Orfeus Publishing director] Høisæther argued that “there’s a different view on nudity in Scandinavia” and he ran them unaltered, but complains the media blew them up and took material in the letters out of context.
It’s reassuring to know the urge to bare body and soul for a heart-thumping romance isn’t limited to the internet-scandal-ridden present but transcends time and place to include stately heroes and old-school feminists. The pictures, by the way, seem quite dignified by today’s standards, with Nansen assuming a series of statuesque poses. And Utne Reader will proudly be publishing an excerpt from Brenda, My Darling in our January–February 2012 issue—although we will primly be abstaining from the nudie pics; for that treat, you’ll have to special-order a copy of the Norwegian edition.
Source: Views and News from Norway
Image from the
Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
10/21/2011 11:11:40 AM
Growing up, my mom had serious cred with friends of mine for having palled around with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other Haight-Ashbury (less famous) standards—once, even kicking Jimi Hendrix out of her house when he’d shown up with a friend of hers extremely drunk (or extremely something). With this history running through my veins, I could never bring myself to take Jim Morrison seriously. He always seemed, in my view, to be trying too hard to force his way into the company of 60s greats. Nothing about him ever felt authentic. (Years later I’d feel similarly about a rock god of my own generation, Kurt Cobain. That’s a different story for a different time, but real quick, try to imagine starting high school in 1993 and not liking Nirvana all that much.) So, feeling like his whole persona was a put-on, I could never bring myself to take too seriously the music of The Doors. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond teenage memories in which The Doors provide the soundtrack. (Driving over a bridge, toward an oncoming thunderstorm, while “Riders on the Storm” played loudly on the radio.) But most of those were fueled by something other than the music, something that always seemed necessary in order for The Doors’ music to feel inspiring, to lose its self-consciousness.
So when I received an email yesterday from the good folks at The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, with the subject line, “Was Jim Morrison a poet?” I had my answer ready before the email even opened: “No. No way was Jim Morrison a poet.” Something, though—maybe some mystical force brought in by some desert wind—made me hesitate before hitting the delete button. (More likely it was simply that the question came from The Poetry Foundation and not some would-be author hawking a book on the great mystic poet, Jim Morrison.)
The email was referencing an essay by Daniel Nester on The Poetry Foundation’s website, where the author tackles that very question: “Should we consider Jim Morrison, rock’s Bozo Dionysus, a real poet?” Nester’s first sentence gets the discussion off on just the right foot: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think the Doors are a hokey caricature of male rock stardom and those who think they’re, you know, shamans.” That’s about it, isn’t it? From my story above, you know which camp I fall in. And I’ve known those people on the “shaman” side of the aisle and have no idea where they stand on the matter years later. Nester’s essay assumes most of them, in their elder, wiser years, are slightly embarrassed by their devotion to the man and the band. He’s probably right. But he comes across serious people who have thought about the matter seriously and have concluded that The Lizard King was a serious poet. But maybe it’s all beside the point. As Nester reasons, “I have stopped worrying whether James Douglas Morrison…can join the tenuous tribe of poets. He’s been showing up for the meetings for so long now, there’s no sense in throwing him out.”
I don’t know if Nester’s essay has changed my mind about Jim Morrison, but at one point, after David Lehman is quoted talking about “People Are Strange” (“Lehman types out the lyrics in his email to ‘show how rhetorically balanced the first stanza is, each line divided into two clauses conjoined by ‘when.’’”), I found myself on some lyrics website, rereading those first few lines a bit more seriously than I ever had before.
What’s your take on Jim Morrison as song writer and poet? And after reading Nester’s essay have your views changed? Leave your comments below.
Source: The Poetry Foundation
Image by murdelta, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/18/2011 3:34:48 PM
There are plenty of people who wear morbidity and fatalism as an aesthetic pose—hello, goths, zombies, Diamanda Galas, and black metal fanatics—but after reading Marc Katz’s essay in The Believer about the 1880s literary movement known as decadence, it becomes clear that most of them are mere dabblers in the dark arts.
Consider the protagonist of “the bible of decadence,” the 1884 novel Against Nature, by J.K. Huysmans. Duke des Esseintes is a wealthy, burned-out opium smoker who, tired of hosting funeral-themed dinner parties, holes up in a villa and “spends the novel in pursuit of a final thrill: creating an aesthetic domain so self-contained that it suggests a tomb”:
He starts by ordering specialty items, including a damask cope from a defunct guild of weavers in Cologne, several blue fox pelts, and an aventurine-studded box containing “Pearls of the Pyrénées”—candied lozenges made of orchids and “female essence,” used to enhance his sexual memory. He also covers a live tortoise with a pattern of occidental turquoise and cymophanes. He then lets it roam around in the semidarkness to throw off glints of color, until it asphyxiates in a corner under the weight of the jewels.
Katz’s essay traces the sociopolitical factors that led up to Against Nature—among them “satiety, colonial overreach, and an increasing inability to imagine the future convincingly”—as well as the book’s brief but intense influence on Europe’s creative classes, among them Oscar Wilde, who so loved the doomed elegance of Against Nature that he brought the book along on his honeymoon and used it as an inspirational backdrop for The Picture of Dorian Gray.
And no wonder: For a writer prone to flights of linguistic fancy, the elaborate descriptive language of decadence was a macabre wonderland. To many others, writes Katz,
Decadent taste takes some getting used to, though. Writers like Huysmans worked right at the edge of oblivion, with symbols that were ethereal and obscure: serpents twined with human hair; fields of hemlock; succubi; monstrous, purple-draped catafalques; syphilitic flesh; stagnant lakes engulfed by shadows. This wasn’t mere morbidity. The decadents found spoilage to be exhilarating, so long as it could be used to creative advantage.
After decadent art became something of a sensation, writes Katz, Huysmans found it hard to shed the baggage the novel brought him, and he went in the opposite direction, taming down his writing, undergoing a religious conversion and ending up in a cloistered abbey—an unexpected course, to be sure, but a kinder fate than what his acolytes wanted, which apparently was for him to share the fate of the jewel-encrusted tortoise.
Source: The Believer
(full article available to subscribers only)
10/17/2011 2:13:42 PM
For the past decade, a team of researchers led by Penn State English professor Sandra Spanier has been searching the world over for Ernest Hemingway’s personal letters. They’ve managed to bring together—and clear permission to reprint—6,000 previously unpublished letters that were scattered throughout 70 libraries, universities, and institutions as well as many more from the personal collections of Hemingway’s family, friends, and descendants. “For instance,” reports The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article about the Hemingway letters project, “a descendant of the pilot of the plane that crashed with Hemingway aboard during an African trip in 1954 got in touch to share some letters the editors hadn’t known about.”
It’s an enormously ambitious project that Spanier hopes will span 16 published volumes. The first volume, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1907-1922, has just been published and is now available in bookstores. According to The Chronicle:
Volume I covers not just the budding writer’s childhood in Oak Park, Ill., but also his time as a reporter for The Kansas City Star, his experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, the heartbreak of his romance with Agnes von Kurowsky—an episode that helped inspire A Farewell to Arms—his marriage to Hadley, and their plunge into artistic life in Paris.
The correspondence is published with the blessing of son Patrick Hemingway, who believes the letters will reveal a truer side of his father, labeled by many scholars as a tortured and tragic misogynist. “My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date,” says Patrick. “He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” Spanier agrees that the letters will have a revolutionary impact on Hemingway’s personal reputation. “It’s sort of a commonplace that Hemingway hated his mother, and it’s true that they had a very strained relationship later on,” she says. But “what’s striking about these early letters is the closeness of the family, the loving tone in which he speaks to both his parents.”
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
10/4/2011 1:26:42 PM
Although it evokes the senses through language, poetry typically doesn’t often stimulate the reader’s sensory organs—save some passive recognition by the eyes and, occasionally, ears. Poet Stephanie Barber, however, has found a way to craft verse that tickles your feet and delights the eyes, nose, and mind. Barber writes her poetry with grass.
Over at Urbanite, Cara Ober explains the poet’s methodology:
Barber cut stencils out of Kentucky Bluegrass sod—each letter is two feet long—and laid them into the yard at the Poor Farm, an artist residency and exhibition space in Wisconsin. The poem is too large to read from one vantage point, or even to photograph in its entirety. To read it, one has to walk on it.
“To know a poem one must live with it,” writes Barber in a breezy chapbook lecture about her lawn poetry. “One must dig their toes into its very L’s and O’s.” As an English major, I take issue with the notion that you can’t “know a poem” by simply reading it in a book. That aside, Barber’s approach to the production and dissemination of poetry rings unique. Her lawn poetry is broadcast to passersby, but delicately; instead of dying on the yellow pages of a trade paperback in Barnes & Noble, it grows and becomes a living part of the community.
For those of you further than a stone’s-throw from Eastern Wisconsin, thereby unable to dig your toes into its L’s, O’s, or for that matter, any of its other letters, here’s the text of “Lawn Poem”:
Its hooves were mouse and fire
And it was angry and into counting
Also it was starstruck
Like a complicated Mexican companion cat
Barber’s verse-turf idea reminds one—on the surface, at least—of Walt Whitman’s essential collection of American poetry, Leaves of Grass. I’ll leave you with a brief, appropriate excerpt from “Song of Myself” (lines 82-86), perhaps Whitman’s best-known poem:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
Images courtesy of Stephanie Barber.
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