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Interview with Will Thomas

In Writers on March 22, 2009 at 10:13 pm

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One of the problems with having both a devotion to serial fiction and an inability to read poorly written books, regardless of how high concept, is a paucity of choices. Recently, however, I came across a series set in a time period I had, prior to this, very little interest in, Victorian England. With the exception of Sherlock Holmes and Elizabeth Peters (whose series is set largely in Egypt), it just wasn’t a world that captured my attention. I don’t care about Queen Victoria, don’t like tea and hope to live my whole life without having my chest hair ruffled by Romantic breezes while astride a white charger. Like most situations where a whole new world swims into my ken, however, it turns out Victorian England, London in particular, and the seedy side of that city in still more particular, had far more of interest than I expected.

Will Thomas‘s Barker and Llewelyn series stars an English detective and his Welsh partner. Comparisons with Holmes are inevitable, perhaps, but I’ll let you make them, with one exception. If I were a criminal, I’d be terrified that Holmes would catch up with me. Without Watson, however, I’d feel reasonably certain I could hand him his own ass. Barker, who grew up as an orphan on the streets in Foochow, where he learned Chinese martial arts, well, not so much.

The books are full of streetlife and nightlife, the Chinese, Jewish and Italian minorities opening up like flowers behind clear and compelling prose, the thieves’ cant and cops argot and prostitutes’ calls all blooming in the odd corners.

Of course, I’d like to tell you the fact that the main voice in the books is Welsh does not alone justify its existence. But we both know that’s not true. Cymru am byth!

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How did you start writing?

I worked for five years on my first book, SOME DANGER INVOLVED. I had been a fan of the Victorian Era and Sherlock Holmes and wanted to incorporate the history I had been studying into a novel of my own.

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In a Book, Pt. II

In Social media, Writers on September 21, 2007 at 6:33 pm

Update: The coverage of the plan is here, on page 28 of the Wikinomics Playbook for 2008.

After my stunning debut in “Naked Conversations,” it looks like I’ll be in another book. This one is called “Wikinomics” and they quoted my idea for an Open-Source Israel Palestine Peace Process.

Interesting looking project. One of the authors, Michael Pilling, said, “this wiki is an online (CC-BY-NC-SA) collaborative book project – the final version is being printed.” So, not sure if it’ll be in the 3-D version or just on the site.

Interview with Rebecca Pawel

In Writers on January 8, 2007 at 2:39 am

Death of a Nationalist

Rebecca Pawel is an American writer, known for her series of mystery novels set in fascist Spain. The series’ central figure is Carlos Tejada Alonso y León, a lieutenant in the Guardia Civil and an unrepentant falangista. Pawel has made a series of very compelling books using a rarely sympathetic protagonist.

Although Tejada is not without a conscience, it has yet to be exercised freely. His wife complicates his life as she was an active Republican sympathizer during Spain’s Civil War. He loves her but feels guilty for doing so. There is a Huck Finn aspect to Tejada’s character. He might not have turned Jim in either and he would have felt just as guilty. Of course he might just as easily have shot him in the head instead.

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How did you start writing?

I’ve always told stories. I dictated stories to my parents before I knew how to write them down. When I was in third grade my dad taught me to touch type on a Brother Electronic Typewriter. My parents had a lot of old dot-matrix spread sheet paper, the kind with green and white stripes running the width of the paper, and I typed my first story on those green and white stripes. (It was an unfinished science fiction novel in the form of a diary of a girl who grows up in a space station and returns to recolonize an abandoned earth in the year 2620.) My parents got me a typewriter for my next birthday, so that they could use the one in the living room for themselves again.

What inspired you to write mysteries?

I never planned to write mysteries, although I’ve always enjoyed reading them. But the summer I wrote Death of a Nationalist I had a friend who was reading Hammett, and another one who was teaching a course called Detective Fiction and the City, and we were having various email conversations about those two topics. The emails bled into an idea for a story to keep myself amused.

What led you to set your mysteries in Fascist Spain?

Really, Death of a Nationalist was inspired by the idea of a mystery about a city at the end of a siege. I’d majored in Spanish literature, with a concentration in Iberian stuff, so the idea of a city under siege naturally came together with Madrid in ’39.

More generally, I think that I’m a child of my times. I don’t think I’d be able to set a mystery in Madrid in ’36, or still less in ’31, at the beginning of the Republic, because I simply can’t make the empathic leap to a time of such tremendous optimism and hope. I understand fighting losing battles against the dark. But I look at people who thought that goodness was going to win out, and all I feel is this terrible sadness, and sometimes a little anger at their naiveté. Call it post-Holocaust despair, or post-Vietnam cynicism, or whatever you like. But I think don’t think anyone of my generation can ever really experience that kind of giddy joy first-hand.

Describe the genesis of Lt. Carlos Tejada Alonso y León, your “hero.” What inspired you first to make him an unrepentant fascist and then to marry him to a Republican?

Remember that Death of a Nationalist was originally conceived as a standalone mystery, with two protagonists of equal weight; a republican (Gonzalo) and a fascist (Tejada). At the end of the novel, I realized that I’d told the republican’s story, but that the fascist still had some room to evolve. So he evolved, over the course of four books.

Tejada gets shaken out of his certainties in the first book, and the rest of the series is about him trying to regain that certainty. He reaches a balance of sorts at the end of the fourth book, I think.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from rightists, in Spain especially, to your books? From leftists? How difficult is it for people outside that culture to understand the conflicts and history. As of several years ago, my last trip to Spain, these rifts are still very much a part of the present. It has been said that Spain is the only country never to really examine its fascist past.

My favorite reaction came from a friend who grew up in Potes (where The Watcher in the Pine is set), during the post-war period. He is the son of an officer in the Republican army who had to report to the guardia civil post in Potes every week for ten years, for what he wryly referred to as “dental work” (i.e. getting his teeth knocked out). I sent this man an outline of the first three books and received the following response (in Spanish): “My dear Rebecca, your good heart and feminine kindness has deceived you. There is no guardia civil anywhere who has ever felt the slightest remorse for the atrocities that they have committed and are still committing.”

I haven’t gotten much reaction from the right in Spain, because only the first book has been translated, and it didn’t make much of a splash there. But I have gotten mail from Franco supporters in other countries, who generally congratulate me on humanizing Tejada. (“Face it, the Right has found their hero,” commented a leftist friend in Barcelona, after reading the translation.) This troubles me a little.

One thing I find fascinating is that people of all political complexions have stated that the emotional truth of the books depends on the murder Tejada commits at the beginning of Death of a Nationalist. This was precisely the murder that my editor at Soho wanted to change, because she said that it would make Tejada “too unsympathetic.” It turns out that the right don’t find him unsympathetic just because he blows someone away in the street, and the left think that’s the one thing that anchors the books in realism. In light of subsequent police shootings in New York (never mind in other parts of the world), it seems that they’re right.

As to whether people from outside of Spain really understand the conflicts there, I’m an outsider too, so how would I really know? One thing I do think is ironic is that Spain spends a lot of time worrying about having an unexamined past, when in fact it’s tremendously examined. There are at least as many (if not more) books (both fiction and non-fiction) and films and TV series, etc., dealing with Spanish fascism as there are dealing with German or Italian fascism. The difference (that nobody likes to admit) is that in Spain the fascists won. Period. They then adapted with the times, and became respectable, but no matter how you “examine” the past, you can’t examine that away.

[I disagree with Rebecca here about the level of examination. As has been reported, one Spanish survey indicated that half of all Spaniards had never talked about the period at home and 35 percent had never had it taught to them in school. She is right about the fascists having won, and hung on for 40 years. You don’t often “examine” a national shame in the midst of living it. —ed.]

You do an excellent job of creating believable male characters. What makes one writer capable of convincingly writing a character of a different gender while another cannot? Or is too much made of the differences?

Thanks for the compliment! I tend to go with Ursula K. Le Guin’s great line in Tehanu about gender differences, “it seems to me we make up most of the differences and then complain about ’em.”

That said, I think it’s important for a writer to understand how much gender roles are just that—roles—that people play. I’m fortunate that Tejada lives in a time and place where gender roles are super-defined, and there isn’t much tolerance for improvising on the script. So men (and women) have to act a certain way, and like all good method actors, they try to find psychological justification for their role. So in most of the books, I know how Tejada is going to act. The only challenge is figuring out why he is acting this way. Then I just have to imagine how I would rationalize the kind of weird behavior he displays.

For example: Tejada’s extreme jealousy and possessiveness about his wife in The Watcher in the Pine are the only culturally appropriate way he has of expressing his concern about her political beliefs. He doesn’t really think that she’s cheating on him. But sexual infidelity is the only mental vocabulary he as for his real worry: that she is having independent thoughts, and shutting him out of them.

Finally, I try to be vague about specific physical experience that I have no first hand knowledge of. I can write what it feels like to be tired, or sweaty or stiff in the morning, because those experiences are common to men and women. But I can’t really describe how a man feels when he’s shaving or sexually aroused, so I don’t. I find if I describe the situation, readers will fill in the details themselves. (Incidentally, I think that holds true for all kinds of description. For instance, I’ve never smoked, so mention of cigarettes and descriptions of smoking are extremely limited in the books, although of course Tejada is a smoker, because given his time and place and position, he’d be a freak if he weren’t. You can always ask a trustworthy friend if a specific detail is right. Then leave that detail in, and leave everything else to the reader’s imagination.)

Which women writers do you think write excellent male characters and which men write convincing female ones?

I’d say generally good writers write convincing characters. My gold standard for writing is Terry Pratchett, who has written several novels with convincing female leads. More impressively, he’s written about women of all ages, from nine year olds (Tiffany Aching in Wee Free Men) to old crones (Granny Weatherwax and her companion Nanny Ogg, in various wonderful novels). Of course, both the nine year old and the old women are witches, and his most attractive young women are a werewolf and a dwarf, but the principle still holds.

Which writers do you esteem, of both your progenitors and your contemporaries?

Well, Terry Pratchett, as mentioned above. Also Jasper Fforde and Robert Barnard. All of these gentlemen share the distinction of writing excellent funny books. I think we undervalue humor, generally. It is not the same thing as being cutesy.

In terms of progenitors, I read through all of Dorothy Sayers in high school, and while the anti-Semitism in some of her stuff is disturbing, she’s still the gold standard for a lot mystery writing, for me. The end of The Summer Snow owes a lot to the end of Sayers’ fourth and final novel about Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Busman’s Honeymoon.

What are the challenges in writing a book set in a culture and time not your own? How do you empathize with a man who is clearly on the wrong side of history?

Who said the winning side was the wrong side? [That would be me.—ed.] Tejada does quite well for himself and dies honored and in his bed, just like Franco.

As for the challenges, I find writing about a far away time and place liberating because it allows you to know exactly what to describe. I call this the “bus window” phenomenon. Ask any New Yorker in Rome about the size of the windows in Roman buses, and they will say “the buses have large windows.” Ask a New Yorker about the size of bus windows in New York and they’ll say “I’ve never measured them.” We all have an internal standard for what’s “normal,” and we find it very hard to describe. It’s much easier to describe variations from the norm. (Most people will have an idea what a “narrow” alleyway looks like in their own city, and also about the width of a “broad” avenue. But the width of an “average” city street is wildly different in New York, Madrid, and Chicago. And anyone from any one of those places will drive right through the so-called “normal” streets in LA wondering when they’re going to get off the highway.)

That said, obviously the challenges are doing enough research to avoid subtle anachronisms. When the characters think, do they think in miles or kilometers? What music do they hum in the shower, and are they taking a shower or a bath or avoiding the freezing cold pump out in the yard altogether? The key with music, clothing, and food, is that fifty years before the story takes place is perfectly plausible, but six weeks after the story takes place is an anachronism. People are quite capable of wearing clothes that are ten or fifteen years old, but they certainly aren’t wearing next year’s styles, unless they’re models for Vogue. Likewise, just because technology exists doesn’t mean that everyone has access to it. E-mail has existed since the 1980s, but if a novel written fifty years from now describes someone who is not an obvious tech geek somewhere in the basement of a university science lab communicating via email, that’s an anachronism.

I’ve also become increasingly aware that it’s important to situate the time of the novel in relation to other times. A 60-year-old in 2006 probably grew up watching “Gunsmoke” and has vivid memories of the Vietnam war. That 60-year-old’s 30-year-old child in 2006 knows what these things are, but grew up watching “The Electric Company” and vividly remembers the first Iraq war. And the 60-year-old’s five-year-old grandchild has no clue about “The Electric Company” because she’s watching “Dora the Explorer.” This kind of layering takes place in the past too. (For example, in Law of Return a character asks Tejada is he is old enough to remember the Spanish-American war of 1898, even though Tejada was born in 1910. This scene grew directly out of several experiences of mine with people who assumed that I remembered the Vietnam war, which concluded two years before I was born.)

How much research do you do for one of your books? Do you do extensive research before and then write, or is the research process with you all the way through the composition stage?

All of the above, really. With Death of a Nationalist I had a running start on the research because I was coming fresh from a degree in Spanish language and literature, that of necessity involved a lot of reading about the Spanish Civil War. As the series evolved, I kept researching specific details that I needed, and also kept an eye out for interesting tidbits. I had no clue who the murderer was in The Summer Snow until about a third of the way through the book, when I found a specific bit of information in a book that I had bought to research general background. (I won’t say the information, since it’s a spoiler. The book is cited at the end of The Summer Snow.)

For my current novel, which is set in Renaissance Flanders, I’ve done research constantly while writing. It’s a very exhausting process, but it’s fun. First you lay out the broad historical outlines, which are easy, and then you start coloring in all the little bits about daily life: clothing, prices, food, forms of address, etc.

What books would you recommend for a fan who would like to learn more about the Spain of Franco and beyond? What about resources that are not books?

I liked the novel Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas. (It was made into a movie, which I did not like so much because it made a couple of changes that I thought were unnecessary.) I generally find Gabriel Jackson fun and readable, and there is an excellent memoir (now sadly out of print) called Death Row: Spain 1936 by one Patricio P. Escobal, a civil engineer who (as the title implies) was arrested and put on death row by rebel insurgents in 1936. He was saved due to his wife’s connections with the Falange, and also (although he downplays this) because of his own celebrity status: he was a former member of Real Madrid, and had played for the Spanish Olympic soccer team. He ended up in New York in exile.

Are there any active plans afoot to make a movie from your Tejada series?

No.

[Paging Mel Gibson. Paging Mel Gibson.—ed.]

Tell me as much or as little about your life as you’d care to. For instance, where do you live? Where did you grow up? What did you do prior to writing professionally? What is your family like?

I live in New York city, about two miles from where I grew up (also in New York city). I teach in a public high school there, and have since I finished my Masters. The repeated concerns about schools and teaching in the novels have something to do with my so-called real life.

How do you write? That is, do you write on vellum with a quill? On a legal pad with a pencil? On the computer? Do you have a regular writing place, a study or café? What do you see when you look up from writing? And how do you compose? Do you outline the story or make it up as you go along? Do you know, when beginning a book, how it will end? What starts a book? A line, a situation, a crime?

I write on a computer, preferably either my desktop at home or my laptop, but I can write pretty much anywhere. If I have to (i.e. I’m bored and stuck in a meeting or some place I can’t get away from) I’ll write with pen and paper, and transfer my writing to the computer when I get the chance. I prefer the computer because I type faster than I write, and my hand doesn’t get tired.

I tend to write in bursts, during school vacations, unless I have a deadline, or I’m at the end of a story and it’s calling out to be finished.

Usually my books start with a setting (the “large window phenomenon” at work). I’ll say, “gee this would be an interesting place for a story,” and then I’ll try to come up with a story that fits the geography.

What’s next on your writing agenda? Can you tell us anything about what’s in store for Tejada, Elena and the rest?

I’m letting the characters in Death of a Nationalist rest for a little while. I’m working on a novel about Renaissance Flanders, set in 1577 during the Eighty Years War. Flanders was part of the Hapsburg Empire, until the northern provinces (Holland, Zeeland, and the rest of what is now the Netherlands) rebelled against the imposition of federal taxes and the Inquisition. (Mostly the taxes actually, but mostly the Inquisition in terms of propaganda.) The southern provinces (Flanders, Brabant, Artois and what is now Belgium and northern France) eventually stayed loyal and stuck with the Spanish crown, but there was considerable rebellion there too, and a fair amount of Spanish soldiers and foreign mercenaries floating around. So actually it’s not as much of a leap from the Tejada books as it seems.

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Jeffersonian Chitter-Chatter

In America, Writers on July 17, 2006 at 5:46 pm


Jeffersonian Chitter-Chatter
Originally uploaded by Blogswana.

“I tremble for my nation when I reflect that God is just.”

To see the Jefferson memorial is to see the promise. The injustice of slavery compromised the message of the country’s promise. You have to see the Lincoln memorial to see that wrong rectified, though Abe was, let’s face facts, really truly not in the same league as Jefferson as a thinker or especially a writer. But I guess he didn’t need to be. He had a pretty fat mark to swing at.

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Anthem for Doomed Youth

In Bob Folder, Poetry, Writers on January 2, 2006 at 3:04 am

I just read a review of another biography of Siegfried Sassoon, the World War I poet, in the New York Times. (I won’t link to it since it requires registration.) I’ve never read Sassoon but the reviewer, Daniel Swift, quotes a few lines of his long poem, “The Old Huntsman.” It’s excellent and I may have to read him.

I never broke
Out of my blundering self into the world.
But let it all go past me, like a man
Half asleep in a land that’s full of wars.

He has that “legato” often ascribed to Sassoon’s friend, the poet Wilfred Owen, who is, I think, the best war poet who ever lived and one of my favorite poets of any kind. I read him initially around the time of the first Gulf War, and have since read all his poetry. Here is one of my favorites by him. (The other is “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”)

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

The summer before last, when S. and I went to Europe the last time, I saw a draft of that poem in the British Library, with Sasoon’s hand-written notes to Owen! Here’s what I wrote in my European Journal about it.

Just visited the Ritblat Gallery where we saw a first draft of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen with Siegfried Sasson’s remarks penciled in. Thought I was going to bawl or faint.

Of course, no homage could be better than the version of the poem, “translated” by the “poet” Bob Folder.

Sampan for Spooned Moose

What nasty smells for these who fly as squirrels?
Only the monstrous tang of the gum.
Only the muttering ribald splatter
Can pitter-patter out the tasty onion buns.
No rocketry now for them; no crazy as hell.
Nor tiny vase for whoring enslaves the choirs—
The real demonic sauce of the willing snails;
And bagels mauling them like tiny tires.

What candies may be smelled to feed their balls?
Not in a randy Troy, their butts tell lies.
Small spices, the lowly grammas of my eyes,
The squalor of squirrels shall see them crawl;
The showers on bended knees of venetian blinds,
A leech slam dunks the chaw plug of the mind.


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Gary Mitchell Attacked by Loyalist Militia

In Free speech, Writers on December 24, 2005 at 8:42 pm

The Protestant Northern Irish playwright Gary Mitchell, author of “Trust,” “The Force of Change” and others, and his family, have been attacked by members of Loyalist militias, according to the BBC.

Mitchell’s plays deal with the Northern Irish situation from a Protestant perspective. Mitchell is no a hero-maker in his plays. He’s as grimly honest about Unionists as he is about Republicans or the British. For that reason, he’s seen his car bombed in his driveway and members of his family threatened. The police have refused to protect him.

S. and I had the good fortune to see “Trust” at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco. It was an awful production, but the play itself was so good and the actors so dedicated that it was among the best playgoing experiences of my life.

I encourage everyone to send a message of encouragement to him in this holiday season via his agent, Natasha Galloway, at ngalloway(at)pfd(dot)co(dot)uk.

Treasury of Chinese Love Poems

In Poetry, Writers on October 19, 2005 at 6:06 pm

Update: Here’s a curious fact. This post is by far the most popular on a blog I’ve been keeping for over four years. It has been viewed over three times more than the next most popular post. I wonder why. Is it because there are quite a lot of Chinese web users? But if so, why read a post in English about a translation into that language of classical Chinese poetry? Is it English-speaking members of the Chinese diaspora researching poems to add to their wedding ceremonies? Or is it the publication of my own incredibly wonderful poem? (That’s the most likely, wouldn’t you agree?) I would be curious to find out. So, if you wouldn’t mind leaving a comment when you visit telling me why you were interested in this post, I would be grateful.

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I just read Qiu Xiaolong’s “Treasury of Chinese Love Poems.” It exceeded my hopes. It was really quite excellent. My previous relationship with Chinese poems was primarily through Rexroth’s “One Hundred Poems from the Chinese” (especially the excellent Wu Tsao) and an occasional Pound hilarity.

Then I started reading Qiu’s Shanghai political police procedurals*, in which he is constantly interpolating classical, as well as modern, Chinese verse. (The “hero” of the books, is a poet as well as a police inspector.) A “refugee” of sorts, he remained in the US where he was studying after the events of Tiananment. His biography is interesting reading.

When we read poems, Asian poems anyway, we expect them to be “emblems.” Any more English readers have accepted that poems in their language are going to be diary entries, language experiments or something equally non-magical. Picking up this book I expected both that incantatory experience and yet expected to be disappointed. Neither happened really. These are actually poems. You can hold them in your hand. They are things, which poems rarely are anymore. It’s considered something of a failure these days if you’re poem is not a “process.” The problem with “processes” of course is that they’re not sharable. For that you need an unashamed artifact.

I’ll just give one example from the 70 or so poems. There isn’t a clunker among them, but I found about 15 to hold particular resonance for me. By the way, the great majority of these poems are from the Tang dynasty, are in two primary forms, and all by men (except one), mostly writing with a woman’s persona, “which,” to quote Abe Simpson, “was the fashion at the time” for love poems.

An Imperial Concubine Waiting at Night
by Li Bai (701-762)
Waiting, she finds her silk stockings
soaked with the dew drops
glistening on the marble steps.
Finally, she is moving
to let the crystal-woven curtain fall
when she casts one more glance
at the glamorous autumn moon.

Chinese poetry is filled with sleeves.

Qiu Xiaolong is an excellent poet himself, something I can say without having read yet his original poetry. It’s not possible to do creditable translations if you cannot write poetry yourself. One example will due, from “Deep Courtyard,” “Tearfully, I ask the flowers,/who do not answer,/in a riot of red falling over the swing.”

These poems have great lines, or extraordinary moments, or mournful atmospheres. There’s something in each poem to recommend it.

Here’s a poem I wrote, in part a reaction to these poems.

The Tang Period
By Curt Hopkins

The poem is a magic object,
A white-silver pearl, in which
A memory or moment is caught,
Captured and preserved.

Not for the sake of time itself,
But for the way our souls light up
Touching the suspension
Of an irrevocable instant.

Above the road the sky softens,
Glowing like purple vellum,
And from the cloud the moon breaks,
Seeking its truer self, her face.

GUILLÉN ON SALINAS

In Writers on June 4, 2005 at 10:20 pm

I was just reading a lecture by Jorge Guillén on Pedro Salinas (both poets were members of the Generation of ’27). He quotes T.S. Eliot as saying, “If we have no living literature, we shall become more and more alienated from the literature of the past.”

Well, Eliot was right, as the subsequent years have proven. The decay in the quality of contemporary poetry over the past 40 years can hardly be unrelated to the devaluation and ignorace of the poetry of the past. And vice versa.

Guillén then quotes Salinas as saying, “Tradition is the fullest degree of freedom that the writer can have…The artist who manages to master his tradition is freer because he knows more lines along which to explore.”

This is exactly the benefit of poets learning to master the primary forms of the tradition they are writing in, and against. I’m no poetic hermeticist. One of the most exciting things to do in writing poetry is to find new ways. But of all the artistic disciplines, poetry has been the most ill-served by the excessive theorizing and bland egalitarianism of the academy.

Guillén was right, quoting Giambattista Vico, verum ipsum factum. The truth is the thing made. No amount of theory will ever be equal to learning to master the forms. Even, or especially, if your goal is to break them.

HUNTER S. THOMPSON HAS DIED

In Writers on February 21, 2005 at 6:58 am

This evening Hunter S. Thompson killed himself. He was my kind of journalist. But he was also a drunk and he stuck a gun in his mouth. God have mercy on his soul.

“We’re your friends,” said my attorney. “We’re not like the others.”

Sunday Driver at the Friday Mosque, The Road to Oxiana Revisited: A Book Proposal

In Afghanistan, Book proposal, Writers, Writing on January 29, 2005 at 9:39 pm

“Five men left a West-end hotel last night on a secret expedition. It may prove to be the most romantic expedition ever undertaken.” — Daily Express, London, 1934

Sunday Driver at the Friday Mosque is an article that will document my travels from Jerusalem to Mazar-i-Sherif, Afghanistan, passing through Syria, Iraq and Iran. This journey is the re-tracing of a journey originally undertaken in 1934 by Robert Byron and Christopher Sykes. That journey resulted in the travel classic, “The Road To Oxiana.”

This trip will providing an exciting travel narrative through countries that have become extraordinarily important in the last years, including information on how the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s religious revolution, Iraq’s invasion by the U.S., Afghanistan’s fight to expel the Soviets and its subsequent internecine struggles and invasion by the U.S. have effected the people involved, the United States, and some of the most important historical remains in the Middle East.

The original journey was supposed to have been taken in an experimental charcoal-burning motor car. Unfortunately, the car did not show up in time due to mechanical problems. The present-day travelers will attempt to approximate the spirit of the intended journey by traveling in the 21st century equivalent of the charcoal-burner, a DaimlerChrysler Necar 5 hydrogen fuel cell car.

Although the account of the new journey will comment on the historical and literary ground covered in “The Road To Oxiana”, it will, in fact, be a totally different journey, in a different time, undertaken by different people. Current issues and concerns will be the core of the article. It will provide an opportunity for a big picture of the Middle East. What precisely is happening in each of the areas? How do the people involved deal with their circumstances? What is the human story? The military and strategic story? The cultural one?

This is a journey in which the hardships and potential for discovery equal, perhaps surpass, the original. The current journey will pass through still-uneasy Lebanon, with its Syrian, Druze, native Christian and Muslim combatants still in occasional conflict, into Iraq, where the war and occupation are keeping the citizens of this ancient place on edge, into a newly reawakening and newly threatened Iran and into the still active theatre of Afghanistan. Each place ancient and modern, fascinating in its ruins and its ruination, its history and its history-in-the-making.

In addition to a modern geopolitical survey, the scientific and cultural value of the mission will be a painstaking cataloguing — both written and photographic — of the ruins originally commented on by Byron. What is still standing? What condition are they in? Where, exactly, are they located? The last question will be answered more exactly than previously possible using a global positioning system (GPS).

Enclosed is a detailed itinerary that indicates the scope and vision of Sunday Driver at the Friday Mosque.

Itinerary

This itinerary describes the intended journey. It may not be possible or desirable to stop at each location. The conditions of conflict and the political situation may occasion changes of route. At other times circumstances my require us to stop at places not on the itinerary for food, supplies or rest. However, this document is as faithful a guide as possible to our intended route.

ISRAEL

Jerusalem

LEBANON

Beirut (Beyrouth)

Baalbek – Six Columns, etc. [Heliopolis]

SYRIA

Damascus (Dimashq) – Ummayad Mosque

IRAQ

Baghdad – Ur, Arch of Ctesiphon

Khanikin (Hanaqin)

IRAN

Kasr-I-Shirin (Qasr-e Sirin)

Karind (Karend)

Kirmanshah (Bakhtaran)

Tak-I-Bostan (Taq-e Bostan) – grottoes

Bisitun (Bisotun) – cuneiform inscription

Kangovar (Kangavar) – Gumbad-I-Alaviyan Seljuk mausoleum [tombs of Esther and Avicenna]

Hamadan

Tehran — Gulistan

Ray (Reyy) – grave tower

Veramin (Varamin) – grave tower, mosque

Gulhek (Galanduk?)

[Karag]

[Calus]

[Bandar-e Anzali]

[Rasht]

Kazvin (Qazvin)

Sultaniya (Soltaniye) – mosque

Zinjan (Zanjan)

Miana (Miyane)

Tabriz – bazaars, Blue Mosque, the Ark / the Citadel

Maragha (Marage) – grave of the Mother of Hulagu

Tasr Kand (?, a few miles from Maragha) – Rasatkhana, 12th century tower

Saoma (?, on towards Miana)

Kala Julk (?, further on)

Saraskand (?, further)

Dash Bulagh (?, further)

Ak Bulagh or (?, near Miana)

Miana (Miyane)

Zinjan (Zanjan)

Tehran

Ayn Varzan (Sarbandan?)

Firuzkuh / Amiriya

Samnan (Semnan)

Damghan (Damgan) – grave towers, Tarikgh Khana mosque

Shahrud (Sahrud)

Gumbad-I-Kabus (Gondbad-e Qabus) – tower of Kabus, “Alexander’s Wall”

Abbasabad

Sabzevar – minaret of Khosrugird

Nishapur (Nesapur) – [home of Omar Khayam]

Kadam Gah (Qadamgah) – shrine of the Imam Riza

Meshed (Mashad) – tombs of Harun Al Rashid and Imam Riza

Sengbest (Sangbast) – mausoleum and minaret

Tus – mausoleum

Turbat-I-Sheikh Jam (Turbat-e Gam)

Yusufabad

Kariz

Tayabad (Tayebad)

AFGHANISTAN

Islamkillah (Eslam Qale)

Herat – Musalla minarets and mausoleum, Citadel of Ikhtiar-ad-Din, Gazar Gah resort, Takht-I-Safar gardens, Friday mosque

Karokh (Karuh)

Pala Piri – tomb of Seikh-al-Islam

Laman (?, A76 north between Karohk and “Morgab”)

Kala Nao (Morgab?)

Moghor

Bala Murghab (Morgab)

Maimena (Maimana)

Faizabad (?, on the road to Andkhoi)

Andkhoi (Andhoy)

Khoja Duka (?, on road to Akcha) – Shibargan castle

Akcha (Aqce)

Balkh (Balh) – ruins

Mazar-I-Sherif (Mazar-e Sarif)- shrine of Ali

Tashkurgan (Hulm / Tasqorgan)

Khanabad (?, on road to Kunduz, Hanabad?)

Kunduz

[Sir Han – Oxus River / Amu Darya / Jihun – Hazrat Imam, hot springs at Chayab, Chitral road through the Durah pass]

Baglan

Bamian (Bamyan) – Buddhas in cliff gallery

Shibar (Sibar)

Charikar (Carikar)

Kabul – Dar-al-Aman & Paghman

Ghazni (Gazni) – Towers of Victory, tomb of Sultan Mahmud

Kabul [from here Byron & Sykes are out via the Khyber and Peshwar]

[Qandahar]

[Herat]

IRAN

[Meshed to Tehran on highway #6]

Kum (Qom) – shrine

Delijan (Deligan)

Isfahan (Esfahan) – Chihil Sutun, Maidan, Friday mosque

Julfa (across river from Isfahan) – Armenian cathedral

Abadeh (Abade)

Yezd (Yazd) – Friday mosque

{Kirman (Kerman), Jabal-I-Sang, Friday mosque, College of Ganj-I-Ali Khan, Kuba-I-Sabz}

{Mahun (Mahan) – Shrine of Niamatullah}

Abadeh (Abade)

Pasargadae (Pasargad) – Cyrus’ palace

Tahr-e Garnsid – Persepolis

Shiraz (Siraaz) -Friday mosque, College, Khatum, Hafiz & Saadi gardens with poets tomb

Kavar

Firuzabad – Kala-I-Dukhtar & Kala-I-Pisa, Ardeshir’s palace, Sassanian tower

Ismailabad

Ibrahimabad

Shiraz (Siraaz)

Kazerun – Shapur

Bahramabad (?, on road)

[Return route through – Cenar-e Sahigan; Masiri; Ahvaz; Dezful; Pol-e Dahtar; Eslamabad-e Garb; Sar-e Pol-e Zahab; Qasr-e Sirin]

IRAQ

[Return route through Baquba; Bagdad; Ramadi / Dulaim; Rutba]

SYRIA

[Return route through Dumayr; Damascus (Dimashq); Dimas]

LEBANON

[Return route through Chtaura; Beirut (Beyrouth)]

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