Cherry, Kelly 1940-
CHERRY, Kelly 1940-
PERSONAL: Born 1940, in Baton Rouge, LA; daughter of J. Milton (a violinist and professor of music theory) and Mary (a violinist and writer; maiden name, Spooner) Cherry; married Jonathan Silver, December 23, 1966 (divorced, 1969); married Burke Davis III (a fiction writer), September 17, 2000. Education: Mary Washington College, B.A., 1961; attended University of Virginia; University of North Carolina at Greensboro, M.F.A., 1967.
CAREER: University of Wisconsin—Madison, visiting lecturer, 1977-78, assistant professor, 1978-79, associate professor, 1979-82, professor of English and writerin-residence, beginning 1982, Romnes Professor of English, 1983-88, Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities, 1993-1999, Eudora Welty Professor of English, 1997-1999, Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities, 1999—. Southwest Minnesota State College, Marshall, writer-in-residence, 1974-75; Western Washington University, Bellingham, distinguished writer-in-residence, 1981; Rhodes College, Memphis, TN, distinguished visiting professor, 1985; University of Alabama—Huntsville, Eminent Scholar at the Humanities Center, 1999-2002; Hollins University, Wyndham Robertson Writer-in-Residence, 2000. Has taught at writers' conference workshops and presented numerous readings of her works at colleges and universities in both the United States and abroad, including Duke University, Bennington Writing Workshops, and Mount Holyoke Writers Conference.
MEMBER: Associated Writing Programs (member of board of directors, 1990-93), Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: University of Virginia Dupont Fellow in philosophy, 1962-63; Canaras Award for fiction, St. Lawrence University Writers Conference, 1974; Bread Loaf fellow, 1975; Pushcart Prize, 1977; Yaddo fellow, 1979 and 1989; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; first prize for book-length fiction, Wisconsin Council of Writers, 1980, for
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Augusta Played, and 1991, for My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers; PEN/Syndicated Fiction Award, 1983, for "Life at the Equator," 1987, for "Acts of Unfathomable Compassion," and 1990, for "About Grace"; Romnes fellowship, University of Wisconsin, 1983; fellowship, Wisconsin Arts Board, 1984, 1989, and 1994; Chancellor's Award, 1984; James G. Hanes Poetry Prize, Fellowship of Southern Writers, 1989, for distinguished body of work; Arts America Speaker Award (Republic of the Philippines), U.S. Information Agency, 1992; Hawthornden fellowship, 1994; Leidig lectureship in poetry, 1999; Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for distinguished volume of short stories, 2000; Bradley Major Achievement Award, 2000; Distinguished Alumnus award, Mary Washington College, 2000.
Sick and Full of Burning, Viking (New York, NY), 1974.
Augusta Played, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1979, reprinted, Louisiana State Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1998.
Conversion (chapbook), Treacle Press (New Paltz, NY), 1979.
In the Wink of an Eye, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1983.
The Lost Traveller's Dream, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1984.
My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers: A Novel in Stories, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1990, reissued, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2002.
The Society of Friends: Stories, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1999.
We Can Still Be Friends, Soho Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Lovers and Agnostics, Red Clay Books (Charlotte, NC), 1975, revised edition, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.
Relativity: A Point of View, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1977, reprinted, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2000.
Songs for a Soviet Composer (chapbook), Singing Wind Press (St. Louis, MO), 1980.
Natural Theology, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1988.
God's Loud Hand, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1993.
Benjamin John (chapbook), March Street Press (Greensboro, NC), 1993.
Time out of Mind (chapbook), March Street Press (Greensboro, NC), 1994.
Death and Transfiguration, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1997.
An Other Woman (chapbook), Somers Rocks Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2000.
Rising Venus, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2002.
(Co-author and associate editor) Lessons from Our Living Past (textbook), Behrman House (New York, NY), 1972.
Teacher's Guide for Lessons from Our Living Past (textbook), Behrman House (New York, NY), 1972.
The Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1991.
Writing the World (essays), University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1995.
The Poem: An Essay (chapbook), Sandhills Press (Grand Island, NE) 1999.
Where the Winged Horses Take off into the Wild Blue Yonder (recording), American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1981.
Also author of text ("A Lyric Cycle") for Symphony No. 4 ("Rock Symphony") by Imants Kalnins (world premiere by Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi, 1997), recording by Latvian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Imants Resnis, 1999, and Singapore Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Lan Shui, BIS, 2000. Contributor of translation to Seneca: The Tragedies, Volume 2, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1994 and Sophocles, 2, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1999. Contributor to more than one hundred anthologies, including The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1966; Best American Short Stories, 1972; Pushcart Prize II, edited by Bill Henderson, Avon, 1977; Strong Measures: Recent American Poems in Traditional Forms, edited by Philip Dacey and David Jauss, Harper, 1985; Prize Stories 1994: The O. Henry Awards, Doubleday, 1994; The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 2001; and The Norton Introduction to Literature, 2001.
Contributor of stories, poems, essays, and book reviews to periodicals, including American Scholar, Anglican Theological Review, Atlantic Monthly, Commentary, Esquire, Fiction, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Independent, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Ms., Mademoiselle, New Literary History, New York Times Book Review, North American Review, Parnassus, Poetry, Red Clay Reader, Southern Poetry Review, Southern Review, Story Quarterly, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Book Forum, contributing editor, 1984-88; Anglican Theological Review, consultant to poetry editor, 1986—; Shenandoah, advising editor, 1988-92; The Hollins Critic, contributing editor.
Cherry's works have been translated into numerous foreign languages, including Chinese, Czech, Dutch, German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, and Ukrainian.
SIDELIGHTS: Award-winning poet and novelist Kelly Cherry is concerned with philosophy; with, as she explains it, "the becoming-aware of abstraction in real life—since, in order to abstract, you must have something to abstract from." Within her novels, the abstract notions of morality become her focus: "My novels deal with moral dilemmas and the shapes they create as they reveal themselves in time," she once told CA. "My poems seek out the most suitable temporal or kinetic structure for a given emotion." Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983 on Cherry's fiction, Mark Harris concluded that "she manages to capture, in very readable stories, the indecisiveness and mute desperation of life in the twentieth century."
From the beginning of her career, Cherry has written both formal verse and free verse. Cherry's collections of poetry, including Lovers and Agnostics, Relativity: A Point of View, God's Loud Hand, and Death and Transfiguration, have been widely praised by critics. According to the citation preceding her receipt of the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize in 1989, "Her poetry is marked by a firm intellectual passion, a reverent desire to possess the genuine thought of our century, historical, philosophical, and scientific, and a species of powerful ironic wit which is allied to rare good humor." Reviewing Relativity, Patricia Goedicke noted in Three Rivers Poetry Journal that "her familiarity with the demands and pressures of traditional patterns has resulted . . . in an expansion and deepening of her poetic resources, a carefully textured over- and underlay of image, meaning and diction." Harris felt that Cherry's "ability to sustain a narrative by clustering and repeating images [lends] itself to longer forms, and 'A Bird's Eye View of Einstein,' the longest poem in [Relativity], is an example of Cherry at her poetic best." Reviewing Cherry's collection, Death and Transfiguration, Patricia Gabilondo wrote in The Anglican Theological Review that "'Requiem,' the abstract prose poem that closes this book . . . translates personal loss into the historical and universal, providing an occasion for philosophical meditation on the mystery of suffering and the need for transcendence in a post-Holocaust world that seems to offer none. Moving through the terrors of nihilism and doubt, Cherry, in a poem that deftly alternates between the philosophically abstract and the image's graphic force, gives us an intellectually honest and deeply moving vision of our relation to each other's suffering and of God's relation to humanity's 'memory of pain.'"
In her novels, Cherry has sometimes centered on female protagonists who cope with personal crises while searching for love, sexual fulfillment, and self-knowledge. Her first novel, Sick and Full of Burning, depicts the life and relationships of Mary "Tennessee" Settleworth, a newly divorced medical student facing her thirtieth birthday. "Like many of Cherry's other heroines, Tennessee Settleworth is unable to enjoy more than a casual friendship with the men she meets," Harris wrote. Tennessee's best male friend wants to live with her but refuses to make love to her; another male friend is eager to make love, but he has been impotent since his divorce. "The essential pessimism of the novel," said Harris, "finds a certain anodyne in the protagonist's humorous attempts to relieve her sexual frustrations." At another level, the novel attempts to "settle" the "worth" of Tennessee's own life as measured against her ethical obligation to others, especially other women. A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews described Sick and Full of Burning as "a just about perfect first novel"; a critic in the Chicago Tribune Book World called it "flawless."
Augusta Played, Cherry's second novel, published five years after Sick and Full of Burning, explores the dynamics of marriage and money through the tempestuous relationship between a young flutist and her musicologist husband, giving equal weight to both male and female points of view. Harris noted that Augusta Played "relies on improbable events and a series of misapprehensions much as the eighteenth-century comedy of manners did....The mixture of realistic detail and improbable coincidence allows Cherry to explore a commonplace in our time—the breakdown of a marriage—in a refreshing and interesting manner." "Cherry's characters begin, as in high comedy, with stock types who gradually grow more and more complex," wrote Robert Taylor in a review for the Boston Globe. "Behind them is the sad music of mortality . . . proclaiming that even our vanities possess absurd dignity and the absurd lies on the borderline of heartbreak."
In the Wink of an Eye fused satire and fantasy to draw a political cartoon. Treating absurdities from the far right to the far left—and using "God's eye," or the aspect of eternity, as both a metaphor and a device for transitioning from place to place and point of view to point of view—the book deals with whether and how a just society can be established. The Lost Traveller's Dream, intended as a book of interlinked stories but published as a novel, likewise questions the nature of love and justice but where In the Wink of an Eye is gentle comedy, The Lost Traveller's Dream is lamentation. Cherry once told CA that she hopes someday to have the opportunity to restore The Lost Traveller's Dream to her original vision of it as a book of short stories, stripping away material she added to "make it a novel."
The unique structure of Cherry's My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers was also favorably received by critics. Subtitled "A Novel in Stories," the book relates, in the words of Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Judith Freeman, "the plight of a middle-aged, unmarried woman named Nina who understands how the numbing jargon of self-help, so prevalent in our culture and epitomized by the philosophy of Dr. Joyce Brothers, can do nothing to alleviate a sense of deep-rooted alienation and loneliness." Freeman observed that the novel is "far too witty, too savvy, too lyrical and compassionate to resort to bitterness." She praised Cherry for performing "the admirable feat of taking hackneyed fates and infusing them with tremendous freshness." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews called the book "richly satisfying," saying it "begins as light as Ephron's Heartburn and makes a quantum leap along the way into a kind of prayer." A writer for the New York Times Book Review called attention to the book's "prose of outstanding lyrical strength."
Cherry's book of stories, The Society of Friends, is a sequel to My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers. There are thirteen stories here, six of which feature Nina Bryant, a writer and professor at the University of Wisconsin. Nina struggles with a number of troubles and challenges in her life, including her relationship with her adopted daughter and the emotional stress of her parents' deaths and memories of the time she was abused as a child. Other stories feature the lives of her neighbors. In the New York Times Book Review, a writer praised the stories' "emotional complexity and perceptive humor," concluding, "Cherry traces the shifts in her characters' emotional lives with an observant, elegiac precision, as if she were detailing the visceral effects of the changing seasons." A Publishers Weekly critic commented, "Cherry speaks to the heart of a particular privileged and yet angst-ridden contemporary subspecies, settled in university towns across the country." Joann Verica, writing in Bloomsbury Review, described the stories as "humorous, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking" and commended Cherry's "skillful, smart, and beautiful writing," calling the book "a must read for both writers and readers who are in love with the art of the word." Society of Friends was awarded the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for a Distinguished Volume of Short Stories published in 1999; in his comments about the award in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1999, George Garrett noted that "With this work Kelly Cherry takes her place among our finest living story writers." Cherry told CA that she expects to write a third book in this series to complete what she thinks of as "a single extended story cycle."
The concerns Cherry addresses in her fiction are also reflected in The Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography. Having met and fallen in love with a Latvian musician named Imant Kalnin during the cold war, Cherry was separated from him, and the couple was prevented from marrying by the Soviet government. She contemplated the nature and meaning of both love and justice while living in England and waiting for a visa to visit Kalnin. The Exiled Heart was the result: "One of the richest and most thoughtful books I have ever read," noted Fred Chappell in a review in Louisiana Literature. "The integrity of thought and courage of vision it portrays are qualities that abide in the memory, steadfast as fixed stars. One day this book will come into its own and will be recognized, along with some other works by Kelly Cherry, for the masterwork that it is."
"I'm concerned with the shape of ideas in time," Cherry told CA in a discussion of her writing, "the dynamic configuration a moral dilemma makes, cutting through a novel like a river through rock; the way a philosophical statement bounces against the walls of a poem, like an echo in a canyon. A writer, poet or novelist, wants to create a contained, complete landscape in which time flows freely and naturally. The poems are where I live. It's in poetry that thought and time most musically counterpoint each other, and I like a world in which the elements sing."
"I think that the crucial unit of the poem is the line; in the story, it's sentence, or voice; and in the novel, it's scene," the novelist explained to CA, going on to add some thoughts on the inspiration for her works of fiction. "The hidden model for Augusta Played is The Tempest; the hidden model for In the Wink of an Eye is A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare and Beethoven, they're the main ones; the idea of an extended developmental passage—that's the root impetus for everything I write. I grew up on those two."
In an article for Poets and Writers, Nancy Bunge gave an overview of Cherry's work, explaining that for Cherry, "enriching her philosophic perspective always remains her primary goal. This fascination with exploring and exposing meaning gives her work depth as well as range.... [S]he creates work at once down-to-earth and transcendent, personal and universal, realistic and hopeful in multiple genres."
Kelly Cherry contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
When I start to talk about my parents and their lives as string quartet violinists—which I do whenever I'm asked about my own life, because music and my parents' devotion to it were there from the beginning for me, were what I was born into—listeners are apt to say, "Now we understand why you are so driven." They will sometimes offer up the thought that I see my work as a way to earn my parents' approval, that I hope, by meeting the standards for art set by my parents, to earn their love. This is why I am a perfectionist, they will—they have—told me. I don't argue with them, in part because people rarely want to know more about you than they already do; and in part because the truth involves feelings I have wanted to protect, out of guilt or a fear of embarrassing myself or maybe simply a fear of being wrong. I could be wrong, but I do not believe that I am driven. I do not believe I write hoping to win my (now-deceased) parents' love, attention, praise, approval. I believe that if I had wanted to win my late parents' love, attention, praise, approval, I would have said yes to the boy who asked me to the senior prom (and I wish I had). I would have gone through sorority rush (and I wish I had). I would have learned to dance (and I wish, wish, wish I had). I would have learned to cook and garden and play poker. I would have done those things and others like them, because although my parents would not tolerate the almost, the cheap, the untested, the unnecessary in their art, they were not ogres, and when they said that all they wanted from us, the children, was for us to be happy, they meant it. But, you see, I had already given my heart to that music I heard while I was still in the womb. I would have heard it anyway—it was what their days were made of—but my mother had read that babies in the womb are influenced by what they hear, and, as if rehearsals and practice sessions and concerts were not enough, she played recordings all through the Louisiana spring and summer and autumn to make damn sure that I heard it, the most beautiful music there is, a music made equally of logic and feeling. Thus, long before Siegfried Othmer stopped me just as I was getting on the school bus to go home and asked me if I would be his date for the prom, and I said no, but only because—I was too stupid, and too groggy, to tell him this—I had been up all night the night before reading or studying or writing or doing something, drawing a time line that showed the different geological eras or working on my history of the world, something like that, I had promised myself to another life. I had come into the world pinned, pledged, and preoccupied. Preoccupied by a revelation I felt had been vouchsafed me and by a corollary recognition that my task was to help others see what had been revealed to me. I was born a lover and evangelist. Like all disciples, I did not feel driven; I felt called.*
I used to think I was special, even weird, in this regard, but now I suspect many, if not most, writers feel the same way. Writers' art is by the nature of its medium an art that both shows and tells, creates and seeks to understand. When I was young, I thought of myself as having been given a "mission"—that is the word I used, but only silently, to myself, because it would have been presumptuous, if not just plain foolhardy, to say it aloud.
Some kids believe they must have been stolen from their real parents and will someday be restored to their rightful inheritance, acknowledged at last as special. Maybe my mission was nothing more than a fantasy. There wasn't a lot of evidence that I would ever fulfill it. I wasn't, at least not often, one of those children who write stories at the age of eight or publish sonnets at twelve, and for years I simply listened to music, read, daydreamed, and tried to copy Kim Novak's haircut.
We'd left Baton Rouge when I was four, spending the summer on a lake outside Toronto, where my younger sister and I took turns rolling sideways in the washtub and we heard loons and had leeches pulled off of us and our big brother shot up and turned golden brown and dived off a cliff. In the fall we joined our father in Ithaca, New York, moving into the tenement apartment that would be our home for five years. Our parents were desperately busy, but my mother still found time to sew sequins onto my sister's and my cardboard cut-out crowns for our Halloween costumes. One year my mother dressed me as a "medieval lady," but the judges—she said—were looking the other way when I walked by. She made a stubborn point about not forgiving those judges in the grandstand, though the point quickly became a joke. She was not interested in what we now call "parenting"—I don't believe it ever occurred to her that children might require "raising"; she simply assumed that we were smart enough to figure things out on our own and, besides, needed us to do that, because she was profoundly dedicated to music and wanted to play the violin as well as possible and side by side with our father—but she was young and lively and full of fun, at least until wartime poverty in a cold, gray town populated by humorless Yankees wore her down. Finally my parents were able to escape what to them had proved a depressing, exhausting, bare-bones existence. They escaped to Richmond, Virginia.
All that time, nobody bothered me much. A little: there were a couple of brouhahas involving conflicts with parents about vocational goals. First, I announced I was quitting the piano in order to become a writer. I was twelve. My mother said that she would rather kill me than have me turn out like my big brother, a beatnik. She ran to the kitchen to get the butcher knife. My father grabbed her by the arms and made her drop the knife.
Next I wrote a long poem in rhyming quatrains. (It was Shakespeare who had caused me to do this; I was in love with the singing line, the felt idea, a rampaging world controlled by structure, the fantastic as a mirror of reality.) The teacher gave my poem a C. When she handed it back to me, I cried in spite of trying hard not to, but my grade stayed a C. She said she was grading "in relation to what you are capable of." But I had done the best I could do—pages and pages of quatrains titled "The Winter's Tale." I knew I couldn't write any better than that.
The following year I submitted a story to my high-school literary magazine; it was a story about a man, a failed writer, who was thinking of killing himself, quite likely with a butcher knife. As he walked along the street, deep in despair, he passed a conservatory. From one of the windows came the sounds of a pianist practicing the "Waldstein" Sonata. Hearing this music, beautiful beyond words, the man resolved to live. The editors of the literary magazine declined to publish my story, on the grounds that it was too depressing.
I told my guidance counselor, who asked me what my vocational goals were, that I was interested in writing, science, and drama. "Well," she said, "why don't you write science-fiction shows for television?"
When I was writing, late at night, my attic room cool at last briefly before dawn, I was possibly the happiest person on earth. I copied the final paragraph of Moby-Dick into a spiral notebook, feeling the long line of the words play itself out under my hands like the line attached to a harpoon. I pored over the battle scenes in War and Peace, reckoning them essential to the music of the whole.
This was the first room I had to myself, and it was magical. There was a wooden seat under the dormer window. My brother did some complicated wiring that allowed me to turn the downstairs dining-room radio on and off from upstairs, so I could listen to the all-night classical station; I could also stack records on the downstairs player and listen to them on speakers he'd put in my room. I had a closet with a small dresser and mirror at one end and no door, so I could primp in my babydoll (that meant short and filmy, very Tennessee Williams) pajamas while working on that Kim Novak hair style. My parents' room was in the attic at the other end, and they'd built in some privacy for themselves by putting in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that formed a hallway from the stairs to my room. They did much of the carpentry and painting, thrilled to own a house at last. It was a tiny white stucco house, but when I was at my end of the attic, I might as well have been alone on an island.
My mother tried to make peace with me. She asked to see some of my poetry. I showed my mother a poem in which I used the word "nipple." She had a mock heart attack. None of us knew it was "mock," of course—not even she did—and when the doctor came to our house, black bag in hand, I thought I had killed my mother with my shameless poem.
"You must be careful," she said to me, on another occasion, "not to have more success than your big brother. He decided to be a writer first. And he's a boy."
My father took some of my work to one of his colleagues at Richmond Professional Institute. The colleague wrote me a letter in which he said I had a "flare" [sic] for words but that girls grew out of this kind of thing.
Even though I hadn't yet grown out of my wish to write, I had to quit writing at least for the foreseeable future in order to study science and mathematics. This was another of the many schemes that were launched on behalf of my future: I would be a pianist, a housewife, an actress, a secretary, a scientist. An Indian chief, a candle maker. Science was now in the ascendence, and at seventeen I was transferring to the New Mexico Institute of Science and Technology for my sophomore year. (I was never allowed to apply to any of the undergraduate schools I wanted to attend; I suspect my mother was unconsciously reenacting her mother's refusal to let her go to her college of choice—where, they worried, she might follow in her sister's flapper footsteps. Around we go.) I made a note to myself about my academic obligation. "For the next several years," I wrote, "I must not write." But when I was kicked out of college for the second time and no college anywhere would enroll me, I wrote a novella, to show everyone I was serious about writing. It was called "The Silver Crow."
Luckily, a dean whose own daughter had been kicked out of school was fond of me because I reminded him of her, and he took me under his wing and got me reinstated. Back in school, thanks to the good offices of this compassionate man, I continued to write. The next youthful effort was an allegory about a man named Dev (short for Devil).
In my last summer of college—I was making up missed courses—I took on a non-credit course that a sociology professor and I had devised. We just sat down together and made it up, and didn't even ask whether it could be for credit. We called this course "Creative Symbolism," and we read Freud, Durkheim, Benjamin Whorf, Cassirer, and on and on. Every day we'd meet in the campus soda shop for three, four, five hours at a time; reading for the course kept me up until three, four, or five in the morning. One day near the end of summer I worked up the courage to show him my allegory. For four hours, he told me how I had no talent for writing and should stick with analytic studies. He was diligent and kindly and concerned about me and had, after all, given his entire summer to me, and he tried to couch his criticism in gentle terms. When he was finished, I said thank you and left the table. At the top of the high staircase, I fainted. When I came to, the sociology professor and the school nurse were bending over me. "Is it that time of month, dear?" asked the nurse, in a whisper that the sociology professor was not supposed to hear.
And this was how it went, for quite a long time. It would be nice to be able to say that I persevered, but sometimes I think the opposite is truer: I quit. I quit again and again, the way a thoroughly addicted smoker will keep quitting. Of course, like the smoker I returned each time to my addiction. I think perhaps I renounced all ability to choose whether I would write or not the first time I tried it. No, I think I renounced my right to choose before I was born, when I first heard a late Beethoven quartet.
I quit writing when I got married. I quit again when I got divorced. Every day I would tell myself that I had no business writing, it was not what I deserved to be doing; this was indeed a little lecture I honed and delivered to myself in the morning before going to work—out loud. Writing was never anything I could just say no to. I had better luck quitting smoking—I haven't smoked since the second draft of my first novel.
When I write, I am still in my attic room. I am not worried about whether I will have too much success or too little. It does not matter if no one approves of what I am doing. It does not even matter if my mother, reading it, would want to kill herself. I was shameless then, and I am shameless now—the way addicts are. My mother never stood a chance (and eventually, she gave in and even supported my habit).
Writing is a state of being in which the hope of beauty and the quest for truth combine, like a mirage, like a dream of natural power, but the place you are trying to get to can never quite be gotten to because it is a place that, like great music, is beyond words. Shakespeare, Melville, and Tolstoy are like directions on a map, but not even they are the place itself, which, as Socrates suggested, is where your soul first resided and where you have so inarticulately longed to return ever since you unwittingly left it. Call it the city of all-consciousness, the New Jerusalem (which, interestingly, is where Angel Cake, also known as Pieface, was headed, in a story you did write when you were a child). It is a place of pure harmony. The thought of reaching it will keep you alive, though also in thrall. It will fill you with a desire to write and write and write—stories like sonatas, novels like symphonies, poems like string quartets, the words spilling out of the window into the street for any despairing passerby to hear and be saved by. If your work does not do this, if no one is rescued, the impulse is still there. This is the intention: to create art that is irresistible, art that possesses the power to make us human beings—we paradoxical beings who are born haunted by our own skepticism—want to live. (And so it did matter about my mother, whether she wanted to kill herself or live—but I had to write, whether she resisted my work or not. Whether she had a real heart attack or only a mock one.)
Nonetheless, at my mother's suggestion I took typing in summer school and on my own elected to spend the savings from my first summer job, at sixteen, on private tutelage in algebra. So maybe she wasn't trying to rule my future; maybe, as she said, she was only trying to keep up with my exuberantly inclusive interests. "One day you want to be a chemist," she said. "The next day you want to be a drummer." Everybody knew that if I was going to write I had to be trained to do something else, because writers don't earn any money. I can't imagine how I got it into my head that drummers did.*
I was twenty when I entered the University of Virginia as a graduate student in philosophy. There I met my cherished friends Henry Taylor, a sophomore, and R. H. W. (Richard) Dillard, a graduate student, both in the English department and both determined to be writers. Henry invited me to a small "bootleg" seminar, run by Fred Bornhauser, a professor of literature, which was, in effect, a non-credit poetry workshop. We met at night in a classroom in Cabell Hall. The next fall, George Garrett, young, acclaimed, energetic—and prolific, various, and published—and generous, empathetic, and prankish—arrived to teach an official writing class, the first such class at the University of Virginia—and quickly became the charismatic center of our literary activities. Nor did his example mislead: he would disappear from public view now and again, and we knew well that it was because he was writing, and we all deduced that the practical jokes and shaggy dog stories were supported by a writer's willingness to withdraw from the world to isolation and hard work.
Although I grew up in the South and at a time when women were not generally granted credibility as artists—or as doctors or scientists or scholars or corporate executives—I was incredibly lucky in my literary friendships. George, Henry, and Richard took my ambition seriously; if any one of them ever questioned it, he didn't let me know. At the time I took for granted that they were my good friends and writing buddies; now I look back and think how amazingly fortunate I was to find them. The women's movement hadn't even started, yet here and there were men who never thought to delimit a young woman's world but, on the contrary, helped to open the world to her. In her essay for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Rita Dove wrote that when she arrived in Charlottesville in 1989 to teach at the University of Virginia she found it "[h]ard to imagine that a mere twenty-five to thirty years ago this university was a fortress of racism and male chauvinism!" It had been, but there were those within who were working, deliberately or not, self-consciously or not, to open the gates, let down the drawbridge. Every revolution is heralded quietly, by individuals who choose to think or act in a new way.
I needed to cross over that bridge, walk into the world. Toward that end, I returned to Richmond to look for work. I worked three jobs at once, a day job, a night job, and a weekend job, to save money for a trip to Europe (I guess it took that many jobs because women earned so little; typing addresses on envelopes, we were paid by the envelope). Then I boarded a freighter to Amsterdam.
People frequently say that when they look back over their lives they can hardly recognize their earlier selves. Who was the young woman who, excessively shy though she was, nevertheless found herself in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, in January, 1965, communicating in makeshift sign language with the young Latvian composer Imants Kalnins, already well known in the Soviet Union both for his music and independence? (The KGB, I would learn, was busily asking this same question. They asked it while they sat in their white Volvo, watching us from their parking place behind the trees at the edge of the cemetery outside Riga, at midnight, when we said good-bye.) I have no trouble recognizing her as myself. Someone else might—I no longer look like that young woman. But something in her eyes, the mere fact that she is in Moscow and is having a conversation with a composer whose language she doesn't know, seems, feels, true to form. I was always shy; I was always cautious; and I was always too curious about the world to stay home.*
There were not many creative writing programs at that time. I sent for information from the University of Iowa, Stanford University, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Catalogues in hand, I realized that Stanford was too far away—I could visualize the other side of the moon, but not California. Iowa required transcripts from every school I had attended, and I assumed they would not be overjoyed to learn that I had transferred six times to five schools, two of which had expelled me. A friend had lent me a copy of a book of poems by Robert Watson, who was on the faculty at UNC—G. Here was poetry that dared to rhyme, that dared the dramatic monologue, that, in short, ignored what seemed to have become the conventions of then-current verse and went its own, quite jaunty, way. I enrolled at UNC—G.
It was the perfect place. It was sleepy, out of the mainstream; the teachers were not in the celebrity game, and Fred Chappell, Robert Watson, Allen Tate, Guy Owen, and Peter Taylor conveyed their love of the highest standards. (Randall Jarrell was also on the faculty—I audited his class in Modern American Poetry for three months before his sudden death.) Visiting writers included Eudora Welty and Carolyn Kizer.
At University of Virginia I had been too scared to submit my work to the usual competitions—the Academy of American Poets contests, for example (how could I survive the shame of an Honorable Mention?); and now, when our work was to be discussed by a festival of visiting writers, I hid out in an empty classroom. I wanted very much to listen to Stanley Kunitz and X. J. Kennedy, but, again, what if what they had to say was defeating? And earlier, as soon as Stanley Kunitz arrived on campus and was introduced to a few of us students, in somebody's living room, he had begun to exclaim about his protegée, Louise Glück. I didn't know how he was going to find room in his attention span for another young poet.
All this exquisite agony was no doubt silliness, a waste of time and energy, not to mention the waste of good contacts (I knew my teachers were trying to help me meet writers—they tried to help all the students meet writers), but perhaps it had its uses, too. It allowed me the solitude to read as unstoppingly as I always had, but having previously focused on philosophers, playwrights, and classical literature in translation, I felt especially eager to shore up the gaps created by not having taken literature classes in college. I bought survey texts for American and British literature and read them through; I collected syllabi and worked my way through them; and of course, I wandered the aisles of UNC—G's Jackson Library, sitting on the floor whenever I found a book that called to me to open it.
My lack of social skills gave me leeway to follow my own literary instincts, which I did, writing a long sequential poem, "Benjamin John," that told the story of a man's life—Mr. John was an imagined economics professor—through lyrical or dramatic moments.
A few weeks ago, my old classmate William Pitt (Bill) Root reminded me that he and I met with Allen Tate at a Greensboro diner to discuss our work. Mr. Tate decided to begin with me. "Tell me," he began, "why a woman who looks like you would want to write from a male point of view?" Bill said we were both stunned; he assured me that I recovered from my surprise immediately and answered Mr. Tate clearly and "firmly." I hope so. But the women's movement still hadn't started, and a girl's responses to male chauvinism could be hit or miss.
Besides, the girl I was wanted to be loved as much as she wanted to be published. Having been told by Soviet authorities that I would not be permitted to marry Imants, and having mourned the loss of him for nearly two years, I fell in love with and married Jonathan Silver, a sculptor, who had arrived at UNC—G in the capacity of visiting art historian.
That fall marked the publication of The Girl in the Black Raincoat, an anthology of fiction and poetry edited by George Garrett and inspired by my black raincoat. After I'd moved from Charlottesville back to Richmond, Henry wrote a story for George's class about "the girl in the black raincoat." When he read it to the class, many of the students were disturbed, thinking it was patently immoral of him to have written about someone they knew, someone who was not completely made up. To help them understand the complex relationship between reality and fiction, George directed the whole class to write stories about a girl in a black raincoat. But—why stop there? he wondered, and conceived the anthology. Contributors included Annie Dillard, Henry Taylor (with the story that started the whole thing), Leslie Fiedler, Mary Lee Settle, Carolyn Kizer, others. Donald Justice and Mark Strand produced a co-authored poem. They'd all had described to them—or some of them knew—a girl who used to wear a black raincoat even on sunny days. (I meant merely to use it as a sweater; my mother had bought it for me in downtown Richmond.)
It was the publication parties thrown for The Girl in the Black Raincoat, at Hollins College and in Charlottesville, that persuaded me I ought to be married: Everyone else—it seemed to me—was; everyone else had a real life as a real person and not just as a fantasy; everyone else knew enough not to go to a publication party without a poem stuck in her coat pocket. It hadn't even occurred to me that we would be giving readings! I knew Jonathan would ask me to marry him if I let him know I was available for marriage; he did, and I said yes.
(If I'd been smarter I might have known that I had also met the man I should have—and now have—married, but I wouldn't find this out for another three decades.)
My mother liked Jonathan. She and my father picked us up at the bus station the weekend we went to Richmond for a blood test. Jonathan and I got in the back seat. "Would you like a Life Saver?" my mother asked him, turning around to offer him the opened roll. "Too late," he said, and she was his.
Or would have been, if he had not been so determined to go at everything as if it were an obstacle. My mother gave me a handful of recipes, taught me how to make a white sauce, cautioned me that men's egos need bolstering. She and my father did their best to help us out, but Jonathan was suspicious of every gesture, every offer. It's no wonder: his own father asked him what it would cost to convince me I should break off the engagement ("go away" was how he put it, or "get lost"), told him he was disowned, and forbade Jonathan's mother to see her son, a commandment she broke once or twice but not comfortably. They did not come to the wedding in Richmond.
In the end, Jonathan decided he did not want children. (Before I accepted his proposal I had asked him if he did, and he said yes.) He now wanted a divorce, and though I had been the one less in love, that had changed while we were together; and it took me years, after the divorce, to recover a sense of self. I stayed in New York to do this, working in children's books, teaching at a private school for emotionally disturbed kids, and tutoring a teenager who had cerebral palsy. One day Con Edison turned off my electricity because a previous, extremely previous, tenant had not paid his bill. The representative on the telephone refused to believe that I was not that tenant. I said I had a sick child. Whether she believed me or not, the representative was required by law to turn the electricity back on after that. I was ashamed of myself, but pleased, too, and I figured that if I could holler at Con Ed and get them to do what I wanted, I had learned to be a New Yorker and my sense of self was back in working order.*
Even so, it was a difficult time. Young women writers were not usually taken seriously, and there was not the same career ladder for writers, male or female, then that there is now. I wasn't close friends with established writers or magazine editors; I earned a pittance (and soon I had a day job, a night job, a weekend job); every morning I delivered my you-are-not-awriter lecture to myself with my first cup of coffee, hoping I could teach myself to want less, to settle for what I had.
I was starting a new job on Monday. I had been asked, on the basis of some freelance copy editing I had done, to write a teacher's guide to Jewish morality tales. I spent the weekend smoking hash with a male friend. On Monday morning, I called my new boss to tell him I would not be coming in after all because I was thinking of killing myself and would therefore probably not be available for employment. "Let's have lunch first," he said. At lunch, he suggested that I write down what had happened. I no longer believed I could write a story and so I wrote him a long letter, even though I had only just met him. He showed the letter to the writer Abraham Rothberg, who nudged, coaxed, challenged, and persuaded me to make a story of it, by plastering the margins with X's, each indicating a scene in want of development, and by paying no attention at all to my reluctance. Commentary published the story, and my dry cleaner and his wife read it and recognized my name, as they told me when I handed him the ticket for the clothes I had dropped off, and I started writing again. Abe became a dear friend, one who has never pulled any punches, always telling me frankly what he liked and didn't like about my work. He is a distinguished journalist and novelist, with particular expertise in the history of WWII, and anyone who has not read his books has something to look forward to. We have kept up a correspondence for years now; I save his letters.*
I started work on my first novel, Sick and Full of Burning, and by the time I left New York City, passing up a raise and promotion and leave time to move back, broke, to Richmond, because I didn't think I could maintain the faith in New York, I had a rough draft.*
Sick and Full of Burning recounts the adventures of a medical student, Mary (Tennessee) Settleworth, living in New York City, who earns her tuition by working as a live-in tutor to a handicapped teenager. The book poses this question: Am I my sister's keeper, even if that entails martyrdom? My protagonist answers the question with a no and yet, contrarily, acts out the answer yes, risking her life for her student's. This is how I put it to a newspaper interviewer: "The fire is the apocalpyse. It is that extreme event at the point of which one comes to terms with whether or not one wants to live. Tennessee is unclear about her affection for life and she takes this question right down to the wire, which in this instance is the fire." It is in the consideration of questions that seem to permit, or even require, absolute and contradictory answers that I find the real subjects of my novels. I am not interested in writing novels that either supply easy solutions to philosophical questions or ignore the existence of such questions. Invited by Library Journal to say something about my first novel, I explained, "I took as my starting point Deuteronomy 30:19,' . . . I have set before you life and death . . . therefore choose life . . . ,' surely the wildest non sequitur in Western civilization, and set out to see what steps might be supplied which would establish a logical progression from the possibility of suicide, real or moral, to the injunction to reject it as an alternative. That's why the structure of the book is a spiral, like one of those slinky coils which walk down stairs to the delight of children, and why the book circles its own center on successive levels before it reaches the bottom" (October, 1974). I wanted what appeared to be a comedy about three women to turn itself inside out, like a Moebius strip, halfway through, revealing its tragic dimension.
While I was working on Sick and Full of Burning in Richmond, my mother decided to write a book about moving to England—as she and my father planned to do in retirement—and as it happened, my brother joined us to work on a nonfiction manuscript that would become On High Steel, about life as an ironworker. All three books were published in 1974—probably the first time three first books in one family appeared in one year. My mother was awarded a medal from the English-speaking Union. Kirkus Reviews called Sick and Full of Burning "a just about perfect first novel—bright, sassy, sad and with talent, well, to burn" (starred review, March 15, 1974). The Chicago Tribune Book World exclaimed, "A flawless first novel? You gotta be kidding! No kidding" (June 30, 1974). People magazine singled me out for a "Lookout" article in July of 1974. Mass paperback rights sold to Ballantine Books. In short, the successes of my mother's and my books were satisfying, no matter how modest. My brother's success was greater: NBC featured his book in five five-minute segments on the national Evening News one week. We were happy campers. My father took to saying he was going to write a book called The Old Man and the C Scale. None of us had an inkling about how rough things were going to turn. Nor did I yet care—I thought I would write my books, get them published, and someday—this was how the fantasy went—deliver an acceptance speech in Sweden. (The speech was going to be a barn-burner; hey, it would put Faulkner's in the shade!) I didn't expect money, but I did expect serious and smart reviewers.*
I had always thought of myself as a poet first and foremost, but I had not been able to publish much poetry after leaving UNC—G (even though I had published a fair amount of it while I was a student, including "Benjamin John" in Carolina Quarterly, and three of my poems had been set by my father and performed in concert). It wasn't until later that I realized that my interest in form, meter, and rhyme was out of sync with the poetry of that period. When a small press in North Carolina called to ask me about my manuscript—Fred Chappell had referred the press to me; as I said, I would have been lost without my friends—I gladly seized the opportunity. Lovers and Agnostics, my first collection, of poems, which included "Benjamin John" appeared in 1975.
At that point I figured I had forfeited five years to being married and then to being divorced, and I didn't want to lose more time. I tried to sort out what books I wanted to write. (Perhaps I should have thought instead about the business of becoming a writer—sales, agents, networking for free-lance pieces—but I concentrated on the books themselves—my subjects, characters, imagery, the forms and structures.) I visualized a bookshelf holding the books I wished to write. This time I say "visualized" because I guess it was something like a vision, although making out the titles on the spines, or even just knowing which volume was poetry and which fiction, occupied my evenings for some weeks. I have never been rigid about what I would write, but a number of my books derive from that period of thinking about how I would fill the shelf. I also revised the lecture I delivered to myself daily from "You are not a writer" to "If you don't write your books, no one else will."
It was a gratification to see Lovers and Agnostics published. After all, in my mind I was a poet first, even if the first book I'd published was a novel. I turned to my poems-in-progress, which were already adding up. The publication of my second collection, Relativity: A Point of View, in 1977 marked the beginning of my very happy relationship with Louisiana State University Press, a relationship that has been, for me, both sustaining and guiding.
The final poem in Relativity, "A Bird's-eye View of Einstein," is an examination of the idea of the Trinity from a woman's point of view. In blank verse, the poem's three sections pursue various trinities: Son, Ghost, Father; husband, brother, father; Freud's three universal taboos of cannibalism, incest, murder; the three major prophets of the Old Testament (each presented in a "sermon"), Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah; the ideas of covenant, honesty, judgment; the tree of good and evil, the tree of community, the tree of faith in Revelation; future, past, present; sex, politics, creative knowledge; city, ocean, desert; Richmond, Ithaca, Baton Rouge; taste, light, sound. But because the poem is using the idea of relativity to look at the idea of trinity, it is not a simple scheme of threes: After a prologue introduces "the point of view," a bird's-eye point of view, which seems to be outside the trinities, the body of the poem rings changes on the point of view, finally returning to a bird's point of view, only now it is a different bird, or the bird itself seen from a different point of view; the bird is time that flies: "Time / Sings in the tree." Thus the Trinity, which is three-in-one, is one and one and one—and one.
Some reviewers have found the imagery overwhelming—overwrought, they sometimes say—not recognizing that much of it comes from the Book of Revelation and the three major prophets of the Old Testament, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, nor that the tripartite structure of the poem is built on a number of levels, all of them sliced through by a point-of-view that shifts. I might wonder if what I thought I'd put into the poem had really got into the poem were it not that Fred Chappell, having already sent me a short, nice note about the book upon publication, wrote me back three months later, single-spaced, front and back, several pages, explaining with some excitement how my poem was put together. His analysis reflected precisely what I had thought I was doing. (A couple of years ago, Fred asked me who I think of as my audience. "You," I said. He seemed surprised. "I would have thought it was your parents," he said. My parents are sometimes my subjects—with their permission, I might add—but not my audience, even emotionally. The audience I think of myself as writing for is made up of readers I admire, whose serious regard and respect I want to earn. Some are writers, some not.)
In a credo on the jacket flap of Relativity, I gave my view of what I was up to: "I'm concerned with the shape of ideas in time: the dynamic configuration a moral dilemma makes, cutting through a novel like a river through rock; the way a philosophical statement bounces against the walls of a poem, like an echo in a canyon. A writer, poet or novelist, wants to create a contained, complete landscape in which time flows freely and naturally. The poems are where I live. It's in poetry that thought and time most musically counterpoint each other, and I like a world in which the elements sing."*
Imants Kalnins would sometimes call me up from Moscow or Riga. In the summer of 1975, right after the Helsinki Accords were signed, I went back to Riga, and we tried again to get married. This time the KGB threatened us, made anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night, took photographs. After I left—my visa had expired—they frequently intercepted our mail, and we had to smuggle letters back and forth.
I no longer had a home base in the States. My parents had moved to England for their retirement—they wanted to listen to music, and they wanted to be near my sister, a solo flutist specializing in contemporary music and a professor at London School of Music and Trinity School of Music—so I joined them there, thinking I'd soon be allowed back in to the Soviet Union. I didn't know that I would not see Imants again until 1988, when he was invited to the States to attend the premiere of his fifth symphony. . . . I was to spend the next two years in England, studying Latvian with a BBC translator, and writing, among other things, my second novel, a modern-day restoration comedy about marriage and music. (I made the heroine a flutist.)
In a paperback of George Crabbe's poetry I'd found an epigraph that seemed to fit the young married couple I was writing about. I happened to mail the epigraph to my brother, who wrote back suggesting that two words in it, "Augusta played," would make a great title. Suddenly the book took off. I had a great time writing this book—my "golden" book, as I thought of it, for Augusta was herself a golden beauty, and her flute with its gold mouthpiece was a metaphor for how I wanted my prose to sing.
Augusta Played addresses the question I saw as being the logical next stop among the fiction entries on my bookshelf: Assuming that one has chosen to live, are one's other choices determined or free? Again, it seemed that this was a question to which both answers, contradictory though they are, could be supported. This time I supplied the contradictory answers by opposing two main characters, a husband and wife, the one representing a deterministic world view, the other free will. The wife, Augusta, is a flutist studying at Juilliard; her husband, Norman, is the first known "cultural musicologist," a field he has invented for himself, and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. The two characters are presented with equal sympathy, as are a large cast of minor characters encompassing, among others, a stripper, a judge, an orchestra conductor, a blackmailer, two little boys (one of whom talked like Aldo Ray), and a synthesizer. How could I not have had a great time?
But in the real, unfictional world, I was a citizen of one country, living in a second country, seeking permission to live in a third country, and I was by now completely broke. When one day I got a call from the University of Wisconsin at Madison asking me if I'd like to come be a visiting lecturer for a year, I said yes.
At UW I had a killing load. Many, many professors do, in contrast to the popular notion of the professorial life. At least I had a novel in hand: Augusta Played was published in my second year of teaching at UW. It would be a while before I came out with another. Sans tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, sans pipe, sans evenings before the fire in the fireplace, glass of cognac in hand, with, in fact, approximately four thousand five hundred pages of student manuscript to read and mark up each semester, not counting work submitted by tutorial students, I wrote a long unpublished novel—but only by dint of giving up any hope of a personal life. Unfortunately, the novel, "Paula," an examination of rage and frustration, bore the marks of depression and exhaustion and is unpublishable as it stands. I like to think that somewhere in what became an incohesive, rambling mutter ("I will write no matter what," "I will write no matter what") a short, tight novel waits to be found, but I am reluctant to look for it, for fear it might not, after all, be there.
I put "Paula" away and began work on In the Wink of an Eye, which remains one of my favorite books. The question posed here was, Is revolution ever a just way of creating a just state? The novel is a political cartoon. The contradiction suggested by the question (yes and no) is sustained via a reductio ad absurdum in which a small revolution that begins in the infamous Green Hell of the Santa Cruz State in Bolivia succeeds beyond its most extravagant dreams—succeeds, that is to say, as its most extravagant dreams, spreading first to other parts of the world and then beyond the world, into outer space and the realm of the imagination, for it is a part of my political program, as I say in the book, that "it is the inalienable right of the imagination to rejoice in itself."
To cover the ground I needed to cover—several continents and then no ground at all!—I converted the idea of an omniscient "I" into "God's eye." The action could take place wherever God's eye happened to glance in a given chapter. A further motive behind this novel was Northrop Frye's caveat against conjoining romance and satire; had I not already intended to write the book, that alone would probably have caused me to think of it. From the beginning I have enjoyed taking as challenges any advice about or analysis of writing that has seemed to me to limit, politically or aesthetically, the domain of the creative spirit.
I wish that Wink might have found more readers or at least had a chance to look for them, but it was an orphan book. Sick and Full of Burning had also been an orphan book, meaning the editor who had accepted it was gone from the publishing house before the book was published. Augusta Played wound up with a different house—Houghton Mifflin. In a two-book contract, Wink and my fourth book of fiction, The Lost Traveller's Dream, would also be orphan books, so that I had no continuity with a house or editor and none of the books received much in the way of promotion. Wink and Traveller were given a sandwich and an apple and abandoned by the side of the road.
The Lost Traveller's Dream was intended as a story collection, not a novel; I added material to make it such at the publisher's direction. I don't like the added material, and for years I thought I would like to restore the book to its original composition. Now, though, I am no longer interested in restoration so much as revision, and I hope that someday I may have a chance to publish a revision, a pretty drastic one at that.
Whether novel or story collection, The Lost Traveller's Dream continued the exploration of the theme of the imagination that I had begun in In the Wink of an Eye,but in a non-comic mode. With an epigraph taken from the poem by William Blake in which he says (speaking to Satan), "Every Harlot was a Virgin once, / Nor can'st thou ever change Kate into Nan," the book proceeds to change Kate into Nan. Kate, who is the narrator of the three stories of the first part, is the editor and writer who has created Lindy, the photographer and poet of the second part. Only in the third and final section do we learn that Kate was herself a created character, devised by Nan who reveals her working method in a series of stories in which Kate is one among many characters. In other words, Lindy has represented a dead-end of self-involvement that leads only to a loss of faith—embodied as a friend named Faith—while Nan turns the creative attention outward to embrace the world in which she lives. This is, ultimately, a work that argues process is product, and imagination, reality. "We were ourselves only part of a larger story," the book concludes, having brought the three narrators together in an editorial we, "whose ending we could not know, a dénouement that would find us whether or not we could find it....The conclusion, lost to us in mystery, reveals itself in the act of self-knowledge, God's mind learning its own power."*
At about this time I came across an article by David R. Slavitt and wrote to him about it. I had met David years before, at the Girl in the Black Raincoat party at Charlottesville, but we didn't know each other. He answered my letter, and out of that grew a fine friendship with another tremendously smart and learned man. He's an e-mailer, and that's primarily how we communicate these days. There have been times when e-mails from David were what kept me going.
I knew I was going to have trouble finding a publisher for another novel, and one Saturday night, as I worked on a story titled "War and Peace," I realized that by excerpting a few pages from a novella I had thrown aside a few years earlier, and two pages from an unpublished piece of ten years earlier, and adding stories about this, this, and that, I would have a group of stories that I would be able to publish individually, in magazines and journals, and that could also be put together to form a book-length narrative.
The Monday morning after my Saturday night epiphany I knocked on my friend and colleague Ronald Wallace's office door to tell him about it. From my first days at UW, Ron and I had always been mutually supportive, cheering each other on, interested in each other's ideas. He was encouraging and enthusiastic that day, and four years later offered helpful feedback as I worked toward the right ending to My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers.
My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers was billed by the publisher as a novel in stories. The overarching narrative does justify, I believe, the term "novel in stories"—a description I would have been happy to apply to The Lost Traveller's Dream—but eventually this book is to be seen as Book One of a story cycle; my next published book, The Society of Friends (1999), is Book Two; and there will be a third book. I don't think uncommercial writers are often able to publish long works of fiction, especially when they've been previously published by different houses, but that is my dream: to see the three in one volume, so that the shape of the whole will be clear.
My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers was my first published fiction to refer to Madison, Wisconsin. In these stories about a woman, Nina Bryant, moving away from her own family and creating for herself a nontraditional family of friends, Madison becomes the nexus of comment about contemporary American society. The Society of Friends expands the fictional territory to the lives of some of Nina's neighbors. Among them are a high-school Latin teacher, a nurse, a commodities broker, a gallery owner, a medical librarian, a performance artist. They are decent people trying to live decent lives.*
Eleven years elapsed between my second and third poetry collections. This was not because I was not writing poems or not submitting a poetry manuscript to publishers. Natural Theology was rescued by Henry Taylor, who looked at the manuscript when he was in Madison to give a reading and advised me to shorten it and switch the opening poems to later in the book. I asked him why they shouldn't stay at the beginning. "Because they are too peculiar," Henry said. "Nobody will know how to read them." He was right, and I did what he said and the manuscript was accepted for publication, though I wouldn't be surprised if Henry also wrote a letter of support.
For writers who believe in the language must also believe in one another. I doubt that I would ever have succeeded in publishing anything, and I know I would not have published everything I have published, without the help and encouragement of such good friends. From them, I have learned to extend a similar hand wherever I can.
Natural Theology provided the occasion for the Fellowship of Southern Writers Poetry Award, the Hanes Poetry Prize, though the prize is awarded for a body of work rather than a single book. The presentation, in Chattanooga, was one of the most exciting events of my professional life. I, and the winners of other prizes, stood on a stage in front of an audience of fifteen hundred, many of whom were members of the literary establishment. I thought I would be speechless with stage fright, but as soon as I gripped the podium and looked out into the auditorium, I felt right at home up there. Perhaps a writer should not be moved by appeals to her vanity, but I was, I admit I was, and in the photographs taken after the ceremony, I couldn't stop smiling.
The title of my fourth book of poems, God's Loud Hand, comes from one of the poems, "Song for the Second Creation," in which "love" is "the sung word flung into the world by God's loud hand." The "sung word" referred to is Christ; the "loud hand" refers to the sound of one hand clapping, as in the well-known zen koan. After the book appeared, some readers assumed that I am a devout Christian. But—I tell them, when I have an opportunity—although I believe in the idea of Christ, I don't believe in God.
Death and Transfiguration, which arose out of a time of loss—the illnesses and deaths of my parents, my ex-husband, and others—closes with a long poem titled "Requiem," wherein I endeavor to deal directly and systematically with the question posed by Theodor Adorno: Can art be made, in good conscience, after the horror of the Holocaust? The poem is an argument and adheres to its line(s) of thought, deriving in conclusion a crucial distinction between experience, which is personal and subjective, and memory, which can be articulated and shared. At the same time, it sweeps up and holds together the losses tallied in the book's first, and only other, section.
I agree with W. H. Auden that the minor artist is the one who adheres to a competency instead of risking failure; a necessary condition, whether sufficient or not, for the artist aspiring to major achievement is that she avoid self-parody or a mannerist version of herself, and that means she has to keep pushing in unfamiliar directions, tackling the new. Perhaps, therefore, it is better not to be noticed, since notice tends to make writers hunger for more of it, which they are apt to go after by repeating whatever has brought them notice.
Rising Venus, which came out in 2002, looks at the experience of being female. I am at work on two poetry manuscripts, one a "new and selected," the other a book-length sonnet sequence, but I can't say when they will be ready to present to my publisher.*
When it became clear that I was going to be a writer whether or no, my mother became as supportive and helpful as any daughter could hope. She read reams of works-in-progress; responded to my compulsively anxious queries about whether to use this word or that, this punctuation or that; told me to keep going when I imagined I should quit; and typed the entire handwritten draft of The Exiled Heart.
She typed it on her old manual, with the keys that had to be hammered half a mile down. I left the draft pages on the dining room table when I went to bed, and when I got up, I found them side by side with the typed pages.
I first wrote The Exiled Heart while I was still living in England, still trying to get a visa to return to Latvia in order to marry Imants. The book details that quest: the struggle of a man and a woman against arbitrary obstacles placed in their path by politicos and bureaucrats. It is a love story with a sad ending. It is also an autobiographical inquiry into meaning, making essayistic excursions into the kinds of things one thinks about in a situation like that: What is justice? Is forgiveness possible? What does the artist owe to art? And of course, What is love? As I explained in the opening chapter, "I didn't know, in 1965, where [the] train was taking me: to Moscow, I thought, but equally to my heart and my conscience. This book is a kind of log, a moral travelogue if you will, of a course that was set then and there, deep into heartland." The central question of the book is, What can love mean in a corrupt world? As has often been the case for me, there was a long lapse between the first writing and publication—fifteen or sixteen years, a revised draft every year or year and a half—and the Soviet Union fell six months after the book came out. A brief uncollected essay, "What Is Poetry? What Is Music?" published in Agni, functions as a coda to the book, telling the story of my meeting with Imants in 1997, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with Maestro Neeme Järvi, offered the world premiere of the original version of Imants's Fourth Symphony, whose last movement is set to poems I had written for Imants. The Soviet authorities had insisted that the English text be omitted; now, post-Soviet tyranny, it had been returned to the music, and changes made in the score to accommodate the revision were also returned to the original. I included the poems in my first collection; the symphony has been made available on a BIS compact disc, played by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
My book of essays, Writing the World, includes other pieces about my time behind the Iron Curtain, along with essays on writing and the writer's life. The writer's life . . . ah, well, it is what I wanted and what I love, for better or worse.
I love when, writing, I lose track of myself, my self works free of the constraint of time. It's time that allows us to recognize ourselves as selves, and when we forget ourselves, we live, however briefly, outside time. We know eternity, if only for a moment.*
In 1999 I retired from UW—Madison. Burke Davis III, a fiction writer, and I were married September 17, 2000, in the small farmhouse we bought in southside Virginia. As I mentioned earlier in this essay, we had first met in Greensboro, in the sixties. We occasionally try to imagine how our lives might have gone had we dated and married back then, but mostly we are just very glad to be married now.
I sometimes teach as a visitor: a semester at Hollins University, in Roanoke, was a wonderful reunion with my old pal Richard Dillard, and several terms at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where I have served as the Humanities Center's Visiting Eminent Scholar, have brought me new friendships and new experiences, both of which I treasure. In fact, teaching at UA—H has been one of the very special pleasures of my life.
Marriage and our small farm are, of course, others. It is my husband who deserves all the credit here—he makes our country life possible, by being good at all the things I haven't a clue how to do. We have forty-four acres, including an orchard, woods, a pond, and a vegetable patch. It's because of Burke that I can look out my window (the glass is from 1874) at the small rain falling on loblolly pines. Intermittently the pianissimo mizzle strengthens to a hard shower loud on the tin roof.
Intermittently, Burke gets the tractor stuck in mud, and Junior comes over from next door to tow him out.
I wish my parents could have known Burke, and that I am married to him. "You're so pretty," my mother said, after my father had died (I was forty-six, but she was my mother); "I wish you'd get a job somewhere else, find a good man, and get married." By then, we both knew I wasn't going to be a literary celebrity, that no grandstand judge was ever going to look my way, and although she didn't want me to quit writing, she did want me to have a happier life. And I do.
Part of what makes my life now happy is my knowledge that I've written at least some of the books I planned to write (I hope to write all the books on my "mental bookshelf"). If Burke and I had rediscovered each other earlier, maybe I could have been married and had kids and written my books—especially if I hadn't had to hold certain jobs—but if a choice was necessary, I think I made the right choice. I have had an enduring relationship with writing, with the dream of creating something lasting, something memorable, some poem or novel or story that would do what I think art should do—bring beauty and truth together in a way that will help others to know what the late Beethoven string quartets taught me; namely, that artists make meaning, and meaning is celebration, triumph, the most miraculous of miracles. Meaning is logos, and without it there never was a beginning, not to anything, not to us, not to the greatest story ever told and not even to the least.
In an unpublished memoir, my mother wrote about the sleeping porch that was the first apartment she and my father rented after they were married. They used to sleep in until the heat of the day caught up with them, and lying in bed, they'd hear the milkman setting his bottles on the front steps. My mother was twenty, a grad-school drop-out; my father was twenty-four. My mother was probably already pregnant, but she wouldn't have known it yet. I just love them to death, thinking of them like this: young and sexy and full of energy and laughter, and wildly smitten with each other. I'm glad my mother had that in her life. But me, I was always going to be in thrall to my work, and it's never not been, for me, a matter of love.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Cherry, Kelly, The Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984, . . . 1999, 2000.
Finding the Words: Conversations with Writers Who Teach, Swallow Press, 1985.
Anglican Theological Review, Volume 82, 2000, Patricia Gabilondo, review of Death and Transfiguration, pp. 242-245.
Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 2000, Joann Verica, review of The Society of Friends, p. 23.
Booklist, March 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Rising Venus, p. 1086.
Boston Globe, March 17, 1979, Robert Taylor, review of Augusta Played.
Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1979; May 20, 1984; April 17, 1990.
Chicago Tribune Book World, June 30, 1974, review of Sick and Full of Burning.
Choice, November, 1995, p. 461.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1974, review of Sick and Full of Burning; February 1, 1990, review of My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers: A Novel in Stories, p. 119.
Library Journal, October 1, 1974.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 24, 1990, Judith Freeman, review of My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers; August 20, 1995, p. 3.
Louisiana Literature, April, 1991, Fred Chappell, review of The Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography.
New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984; May 27, 1990; October 6, 1991; October 24, 1999, Megan Harlan, "Cozy but Not Comfy," p. 37.
Poets and Writers, November-December, 1999, pp. 28-37.
Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1993, p. 232; April 24, 1995, p. 57; August 9, 1999, review of The Society of Friends, p. 345.
Three Rivers Poetry Journal, March, 1977, Patricia Goedicke, review of Relativity: A Point of View.
Washington Post, April 9, 1991.
Washington Post Book World, April 7, 1991.
Writer's Digest, July, 1996, p. 12.