Sunday, February 26, 2006

Air Guitar

It was an NPR day here. All week it was beautiful and sunny, daffodils blooming, springtime in February--perfect weather for our visitors from Boston, John's sister (and my old high school chum) and her youngest daughter, a high school junior, here to check out the California colleges. As soon as they left, the weather turned cold and gray, rainy and blustery. We listened to NPR on the radio in the car while we caught up on our errands and at home while we made dinner.

We listened to the Adam Gopnik and Daniel Handler talk from the Hearst Auditorium here in SF, about the New Yorker, about writing, about children's books, and eventually and inevitably through the Q and A about Harry Potter. Gopnik said one aspect of the HP books bothered him, how Harry's heroism was because of the nobility of blood and breeding (if I got that wrong, forgive--I have not read the HP books). This bothers me too--it's also a theme in the Tolkien books. It's not so much my unalloyed democratic spirit that is offended as the fact that for me reading and writing is an escape from family and background and "inheritance." I hate the idea that what we are is somehow "in our blood." I'd rather think that we invent ourselves and our fate.

This segues into the second talk we heard, a very interesting talk on the art of bullshit, including a radio performance (!) by the defending champion of air guitar. Yeah, well I used to think I was a great actress because I felt I could take on any persona someone expected of me. Okay, that was when I was a teenager. Still, my master's thesis book of poems (my true first book) was very wrapped up in aspects of this idea. I'm very interested in BS and art, not lying, but faking it, and the 360 degrees between creation and reality. How much (now don't throw things, please) of John Ashbery or Jorie Graham is art and how much is air guitar?


Robert said...

I listened to part of that interview with Gopnik too! I missed the part about blood and breeding, though, Interestingly, one thing that stuck in my mind from the interview was about lying--what you said the other talk you listened to was about.

Apparently Gopnik's new (and first) children's book, The King in the Window, has a theme that one thing the young hero needs to learn is how to lie, and this started Gopnik and Handler talking about how important it is to learn how to lie in life--and especially in writing.

I have a theory that there are two kinds of writers: those who believe in honesty and those who believe in lying. I'd give them both the benefit of the doubt and say they both have truth as their goal, but different paths to reaching it. I also think there are great writers of each type, even though they may not be able to stand each other. Don't ask me to name names, but it's safe to say that Harry Potter and I are both in the liars' camp.

Speaking of Harry Potter ... I take the family thing differently. Harry's real parents are the Muggles he wants to escape from as much as you or I wants to get away from our own family. Finding his true parents is a symbol of figuring out who he wants to invent himself to be.

But there is a difference, I think, like you say, between the idea of "royal blood" and simply inventing oneself. That's why people need (and are so desperate) to find a tradition to identify with. I really don't think it's possible to invent yourself. You can find alternative "parents," but not do without any parents at all. Avant garde poets, for example, sure don't want Billy Collins and Mary Oliver as their father and mother (neither do I!), but they connect themselves to some tradition, maybe Pound's Cantos or Eliot's Waste Land or Sappho or aboriginal chant. Ultimately I think every poet needs to believe there's royal ink in their pen, if not blood in their veins.

Diane K. Martin said...

Robert, yes, I liked what Gopnik had to say about lying too, though I forgot it. I guess the only reason I remembered what they said about "breeding" was that it came last! The brain is a sieve, these days.

I'll have to think about that bit about us finding our true parents.

Beverly said...

I'm going in twenty directions with this, but, oh well. For one, Robert, can't you have a foot in both worlds? Be a liar and a truth-hugger, back and forth.

If you persist with truth-loving, that limits you. Billy Collins problem is that he's too glib and facile a liar, one trap with lying. Or maybe he's not good enough.

Another, if you don't keep a toe to the truth, you create clever puzzles, but who wants to write Sudoku?

Being good at lying brings you back to truth, which is your point, isn't it?

Then again maybe it's a horizontal split rather than a vertical one: writing predominantly from the conscious mind vs. the unconscious (where Ashberry at least comes from, if not Graham). Which is truer? The unconscious can viciously hew to the truth, however cryptic it may be. And it isn't always cryptic, though it certainly isn't factually true.

I fear my daughter has decided this thirteenth year that Linda and I are muggles. Her birth mother in Paraguay, whom she will almost certainly never be able to meet, may stand-in for fantasy at present.

Robert said...

I suspect if kids think their parents are muggles, the parents are probably doing something right.

Another way of looking at lying is as an escape, I think. Tony Hoagland has a wonderful essay, "Let’s Get Lost: The Image as Escape in the Poems of Larry Levis," where he contrasts--while praising both--the poetry of Robert Creeley, a poetry of "fidelity to being-in-the-moment," with the "escapist" poetry of Larry Levis. That's the sort of contrast I'm thinking of.

Robert said...

Hey, Beverly's poem "Once I Watched a Great Blue Heron" is featured in the new issue of New England Review!

Beverly said...

Thanks for noting that, Robert. I hadn't seen it myself. It needed a little correction so I emailed NER and they fixed it right away. I'm happy they posted it.