Leonard in Hydra

The Guardian has a nice excerpt on how Cohen’s days in Hydra formed him. As with most artistic circles of the time, the good stuff is about who is boinking who.

On Hydra, Johnston took a pen to the fresh manuscripts that young Leonard brought him, and taught him the value of fierce editing. It was he who encouraged Cohen to play his first concert of his own material. Johnston’s former colleague from his war reporting days, photojournalist James Burke, was living in Athens and is responsible for recording the event with his Leica. Burke took 1,573 photographs of the colony that year, commissioned by LIFE magazine for a feature that never appeared.

From the body language in those pictures, it is hard to dismiss the idea that Charmian and Leonard might have become lovers. It’s something I discussed with Jason Johnston, who was born on the island and is the only survivor of the family. As his father was impotent from TB medication and his mother, still in her 30s, such a ravishing beauty, it was something he’d wondered himself.

On writers and rituals

Are you a writer with a ritual? I am. Once I get into a work, I do the same thing day after day with only minor deviations. Every now and then this gets screwed by some obligation, but largely it’s a very specific set of things. Down to which pens I use. When it’s working, I call it my “Obsessive Compulsive Order”. Sadly, my ritual has gone shitual. I can barely even get the posts for Bookninja done, much less work on the novel. Are you making it work? Adapting? If so, please, outline below?

According to literary legend, probably false, Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin for a while before she began her day’s work. This was supposed to serve as inspiration for her macabre writing. Maya Angelou could work only in hotel or motel rooms. Truman Capote couldn’t begin or end anything on a Friday. Igor Stravinsky performed headstands when he needed a break, and Saul Bellow did 30 push-ups. For the work to go on, John Cheever required erotic release.

These examples appear to us as oddities, but what needs to be stressed is the importance of ritual in the creation of work. I tell my students that they must “write every day and walk every day”. It is not essential that they write a lot; only 150 words each day is enough. All that matters is the routine.

Stay classy, Bezos

Instead of doing things like, you know, paying taxes, Amazon and Jeff like to splash out now and then with big donations. Word to the wise: it’s a marketing spend. Here, Whole Foods (now owned by Amazon) employees are “offered the option” of donating their unused sick and holiday time to help fellow employees who have used theirs up. Bezos has enough money to fix half the world’s problems in one swoop, but the folk on the floor are being asked to share a piss pot together.

If this virus is teaching us anything, it’s that people like workhorse employees make the world function, not the billionaires who hold the reins. When it comes down to it, if you are an Amazon employee, or an employee of nearly any major corporation, you should know that you have a dollar value attached to you. If it’s more profitable to help you, you will get the help you need and deserve. If helping you is detrimental to the bottom line set from the top, you will get bulldozed into the mass HR grave in a heartbeat and no one will remember you were ever there. We could change all this, you know. I mean, once we’re able to gather again with pitchforks and torches.

(Note that Amazon is trying to spin this with PRs and updates, but it still stinks of minimum wage sweat.)

When progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders say “now is the time for solidarity” amid the coronavirus outbreak, they likely do not mean that employees of Whole Foods—owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos—should be asked to give their own accrued paid sick days to their co-workers who have either contracted the deadly virus or been forced to take time out of work because of what is now a global pandemic.

But that is exactly what executives with the grocery chain are asking its employers to do, even though Bezos’ could effectively give them unlimited paid sick leave during the current national emergency without barely a scratch in his bank account.

April may be the cruellest month, but right now March feels pretty shitty too

Hey poetry nerds, Adam Kirsch has an essay on the poet-critic up at New Criterion. One day I’d like to come to the crullerest month, where we just eat donuts.

The poet-critic has been an institution in English literature because usually only an artist has the stubborn animus, the conviction that art should be one way rather than another, that makes for interesting criticism. To write something new is to imply that the writing which already exists is insufficient. Of course, this can never be demonstrably true: there is always already more than enough literature to occupy any reader for a lifetime. Only an artist’s egotism, his certainty that he has something new to offer that the world should not be without, gives him the fruitfully skewed perspective on literature required to see it as deficient. Harold Bloom’s theory of “the anxiety of influence” gave formal statement to this agonistic element in all artistic ambition. “To imagine is to misinterpret,” Bloom writes, which means, among other things, to misinterpret all existing poetry to its own detriment in order to make room for something new.

How’s that novel you’ve been working on coming along?

What are you doing with your free time? Finally writing that novel you’ve been thinking about? I have a big head start on you. When I left my steady employ in August, I decided to try to take a few months to write a novel and it’s been…. great. Genuinely fantastic. You know, until Christmas came along. Then snowmaggedon. And then this. Now every day is a slog. This guy says I should channel that anxiety into creative endeavours, but mostly I channel it into my ulcer development program. But I digress. If you’re just starting out on your journey of what-the-hell-I-might-as-well-write-a-novel-how-hard-can-it-be, the Guardian offers a few things to keep in mind.

“I bet we’ll see a surge in a few months and we reckon this trend will go up as the lockdown continues, and beyond that,” Coen said.

Literary agent John Jarrold is also receiving more messages from would-be authors. “I am seeing an upturn in email queries rather than actual submissions of finished manuscripts, and I expect that to continue. Like most agents, I take on a tiny percentage of the authors who submit novels to me, maybe three or four a year out of 35 or so submissions a week, so it will be interesting to see how this develops.”

This clip always gets me right in the feels. I laugh and cry.

On rereading

Kerry over at 49th Shelf looks at the comfort value of rereading beloved books — an endeavour I heartily support — with a listicle of titles you might consider going back to. I have mostly gotten to do this with kids’ books, because as the boys aged, I ended up reading each of them certain classics (the EB White trifecta of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Trumpet of the Swan; the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull; the Silverwing books by Ken Oppel; The Hobbit by Whatshisface McOxford; The Harry Potter books by noted TERF-supporter JK Rowling, etc.), but I seldom have the time or energy to reread anything but the more adult Tolkien works over and over (I have read the Silmarillion about 5 times, and the main trilogy probably 7 or 8 times) because it is my nerdly brain comfort food. That said, the times I have tried to reread beloved books from my past I have often been disappointed. Books I thought were mind-blowing as a teen turn out on reconsideration to be facile or poorly-written or even toxic in content — all considerations I was not worried about back then. Other times the book just leaves me cold, as though it were recommended by someone I had nothing in common with. So I am a little gun-shy about spending time rereading when there’s so much I haven’t read once. How’s this for a pessimist mantra: I’d rather be disappointed with something new than ruin the memory of something I enjoyed once-upon-a-time but won’t again. Now, poetry? That’s another matter entirely. I reread poetry books all the time. Sometimes because I didn’t get the first time through (Geoffrey Hill) and sometimes because the taste of the words in the mouth is like having a second cookie (Carl Phillips).