Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cyberflanerie: Literal, Shoshana Zuboff, Marc Demarest, Andrea Jones, Neil Postman, Colette Fu, Ollie

My review of Claudio Saunt's splendid West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, originally posted here, is now live on Literal.

Global Warming Ate My Life by Shoshana Zuboff
The pivot as antidote to the error of predictability.

Andrea Jones' poetic, charming and informative Between Urban and Wild blog covers bluejays

Marc Demarest on how to know when the computer is coming for you: "The biolectric union between man and silicon"-- as seen in 1997.
> And see the Chasing Emma blog. (I was intrigued to find this since Emma was the editor of Art Magic, a book I found in Francisco I. Madero's personal library. You can view a first edition of Art Magic on High octane stuff in there.) Be sure to click the tab to view the blog in "magazine" format, not "classic." In an earlier post he writes, "Why bother with another thesis on George Eliot, or another humdrum book on Aleister Crowley, when virtually the whole of Victorian occultism lies fallow in the noonday sun?" I say, here, here.
> And his page on Richard Dadd.

Ye Prophet of Yore Neil Postman on "The Surrender of Culture to Technology":

The Sociological Eye on Shutting Down the Internet in Time of War
"The core problem is communication overload; the presence of information technology everywhere results in a situation that one general described as 'we’ve gone from network-enabled, to network-enamoured, to network-encumbered.'"

Soothingly beautiful popups by artist Colette Fu:


> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Sunday, July 08, 2018


As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing. 

Jaron Lanier's 
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
If you know who Jaron Lanier is you will understand why he, and probably only he, can get away with such a title for a commercially published book, a title that most people today, and that would include writers with books to promote, would consider hoot-out-loud humbug.

But perhaps they would not if they more fully understood the perverse and toxic nature of the machine Lanier terms BUMMER.

BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent

Writes Lanier:
"BUMMER is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds. To review, phenomena that are statistical and fuzzy are nevertheless real."
And more:
"The more specifically we can draw a line around a problem, the more solvable that problem becomes. Here I have put forward a hypothesis that our problem is not the Internet, smartphones, smart speakers, or the art of algorithms. Instead, the problem that has made the world so dark and crazy lately is the BUMMER machine, and the core of the BUMMER machine is not a technology, exactly, but a style of business plan that spews out perverse incentives and corrupts people."

BUMMER sounds like science fiction. But alas, as Lanier explains, the business plan behind social media, and the use of proprietary algorithms to hook users into addiction and subtly distort and shape interactions among users, is both real and seriously icky. You've probably read or heard something about FaceBook's shenanigans, but in Lanier's Ten Arguments you're getting a far broader, more detailed analysis and argument, in a wierdly charming package, and not from some random TED pundit, but from one of the fathers of the industrial-cultural complex now known as Silicon Valley.

As Jaron Lanier states in his acknowledgements, the title Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is inspired by Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. I, too, consider Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television a personal inspiration and a masterpiece. Call me a pessimist: I doubt that Lanier's book will have any more influence on the general public's social media habits than did Mander's on television watching, which came out in the late 1970s. But perhaps such works may assist you in marshaling your attentional power for your creative endeavors, as they did for me, and for this reason I enthusiastically recommend them to you, dear writerly readers.

Carpe diem.


I have deactivated some social media (FB back in 2015) and essentially abandoned others (Twitter, LinkedIn,, but have not (yet) deleted my few social media accounts.

While I agree with Lanier's argument that social media is BUMMER, perverse and and toxic, and I sincerely wish that I had never signed up for FB and Twitter in the first place, the fact is, I did, and because of that existing online record, I am not ready to hit the delete button. Moreover, I am still digesting some parts of his argument (in particular, I do not accept his hypothesis that the problem is merely what he terms BUMMER).

And by the way, yes, I know, this blog, on the Google platform, blogger, belongs to BUMMER. A better and paid platform is on my to-do list.

As for using Google search-- definitively BUMMER-- I switched to Duckduckgo as my go-to search engine a good while ago.

What's the specific strategy that would be right for you? I would not presume to say.

But what is clear-- and we don't need Mr Lanier to inform us on this simple point-- is that if you want to write anything substantive, and you don't have the abracadabradocity to summon up more than 24 hours in each day, social media can be a lethal time-suck. The years will scroll by, as it were... and funny how that is, though you Tweet #amwriting often enough, you never wrote what you planned to write... What's more, the visibility you can achieve with social media, and the sense of "community," albeit intermediated by proprietary algorithms of a corportation, are Faustian bargains: you will pay in the end, and on many levels.

I always welcome your comments by email. You can write to me here.

P.S. For those who have the inclination and/or sufficient cootie-proofing to handle esoterica, I can also recommend philosopher Jeremy Naydler's splendidly researched and elegantly argued In the Shadow of the Machine: The Prehistory of the Computer and the Evolution of Consciousness-- also just published. You might find it worthwhile to keep in mind, if you read In the Shadow of the Machine, that in his Ten Arguments Jaron Lanier mentions (oh so briefly, blink and you'll miss it) Waldorf schools. (More about that connection here.)

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980): Some Notes by Way of a List of Books, Videos, and More

As I mosey along with my book about borderlands Far West Texas I have become increasingly fascinated by the interweavings of the imaginal realm and the real, that is, how novels, television shows and movies are inspired by and in turn shape our ideas about this place, its people, and its history. (See my previous post, "Thirteen Trailers for Movies with Extra-Astral Texiness.") I have also been pondering the ways in which the digital revolution has transformed the experience of travel itself, conflating, multilayering, and pretzeling time and space. (See my post on "Literary Travel Writing: Notes on Process and the Digital Revolution.") And I've been noodling on technology (see "Notes on Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey.")

So no surprise, I have ended up, willy by nilly, crunching through the ouevre of Marshall McLuhan.

For anything to do with media, Marshall McLuhan is your superstar go-to guy. He's wild, brilliant, cryptic until you realize just how very brilliantly inside-out brilliant, and spookily prophetic. His famous saying was, "the medium is the message." His arguably most famous book, however, is titled The Medium is the Massage.

An excellent introduction to his work is this video on the Marshall McLuhan Speaks website. It opens with his cameo in the Woody Allen film, "Annie Hall," then goes to an approximately 20 minute introduction by Tom Wolf.

> Listen in to Terrance McKenna on Marshall McLuhan for another richly interesting, yea verily, psychedelic introduction.

> For an official biography see the  Marshall McLuhan official website. This official webpage includes the head-shaking "McLuhanisms."

Selected works by Marshall McLuhan:

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

The Gutenberg Galaxy

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (with an introduction by Tom Wolf)

by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers
The Global Village: Transformations in World Media in the 21st Century

by Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan
Laws of Media and the New Science
Media and Formal Cause

by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects


Lectures and Panels


On the Global Village and the Tetrad
Lecture at Johns Hopkins University, 1977

This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Message


On the last lecture by Marshall McLuhan's son and collaborator, Eric McLuhan: Media Ecology and the 21st Century

@mmreadsbooks is of notes by McLuhan found by grandson
Andrew as he took inventory of McLuhan's working library
(Hmmm this note reminds me of reading Thundersticks...)

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Notes on Tom Lea and his Epic Western, THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY

This year I've been posting a Q & A with a fellow writer on the fourth Monday of the month, and while I have every intention of continuing to do so, this Monday instead herewith some notes on the epic novel by the artist who, back in 2001, passed over to the Great Beyond: Tom Lea.

> Tom Lea biography
> Tom Lea's artworks in El Paso

"It is part and parcel of your culture and I think you should cherish it," says Italian art historian Luciano Cheles of the surprisingly little-known works of El Paso, Texas painter and writer Tom Lea. And encouraging that is precisely what Adair Margo has been doing with great verve for the past many years with the website and educational programs of the Tom Lea Institute. I had the immense privilege of attending Margo's talk about Tom Lea at the Bullock Museum in Austin back on October 15, 2015. (And by felicitous happenstance, I sat next to Luciano Cheles.) More about that anon.

Here is the must-see 5 minute video with what Cheles has to say about Lea's artwork:

For more on Lea's and The Wonderful Country's place in the canon, see Marcia Hatfield Daudistel's majestic anthology, Literary El Paso (TCU Press, 2009). 

Get the TCU Press paperback edition
from Seminary Coop
et al


This post is prompted by my work-in-progress about Far West Texas (...stay tuned for more podcasts...)  At long, belated last I have tackled Tom Lea's epic historical novel of El Paso

I am happy to report that The Wonderful Country is wonderful indeed, a masterpiece not only of works set in El Paso, but in the genre of the Western, and indeed in all of American fiction.

These days most literary readers, and especially those out on the coasts, tend to turn their noses up at Westerns. Dear curious and adventurous reader, if that describes you, be assured that to overlook reading The Wonderful Country is to miss out on something very fine in U.S. literary heritage. The Wonderful Country was popular in its day, back in the 1950s, but it is not a typical commercial novel; it has a high order of literary quality; morever, its treatment of Mexicans and Mexico is unusually knowing and sensitive. (What would I know about that? Start here and here; my books are all here).

Set in post-Civil War El Paso, that is, the latter part of the nineteenth century, the first days of the railroad and the last of the free-roaming Apache, and published in the pre-Civil Rights era, Lea's The Wonderful Country forthrightly portrays many of the still painful tensions in the border region. While he writes with an unusually open heart and mind, Lea is scrupulous in rendering accurate period detail. The "N" word appears! (In the mouth of a character.) There is no lack of roastin' 'n stabbin' n' shootin' n' scalpin' and our hero is the son of a Confederate from Missouri. Vegetarians and those with flea-trigger hot-buttons, be forewarned.

From the catalog copy, TCU Press, 2002:

"Tom Lea's The Wonderful Country opens as mejicano pistolero Martín Bredi is returning to El Puerto [El Paso] after a fourteen-year absence. Bredi carries a gun for the Chihuahuan war lord Cipriano Castro and is on Castro's business in Texas. Bredi fears he will be arrested for murder once he is back across the Rio Grande. Fourteen years earlier-- shortly after the end of the Civil War--when he was the boy Martin Brady, he killed the man who murdered his father and fled to Mexico where he became Martín Bredi.
"Back in Texas, other misfortunes occur to Brady. First he breaks a leg; then he falls in love with a married woman while recuperating; and, finally, to right another wrong, he kills a man.
"When Brady / Bredi returns to Mexico, the Castros distrust him as an American, and Martin is in the intolerable position of being not a man of two countries but a man without a country. 
"The Wonderful Country is marvelous in its depiction of life along the Texas/Mexico border of a century-and-a-half ago. Lea brings to life a time that was wild, a time when Texas and Mexico were being settled and tamed. Lea knows the desert region of his birth as well as anyone who has ever written about El Paso and the great nation that borders it to the south."


You should be able to scare up a first edition over on, and power to you if you want to shell out the clams for a fine first with intact dustjacket and an autograph. The copy I read is the paperback reprint of 2002 available from TCU Press (and most online booksellers) which includes afterword by John O. West, a noted US-Mexico border scholar. For West's afterword I would recommend the TCU Press paperback as your best buy (unless your main goal, buck for buck, is to beat the stock market).

As far as I know, all editions include the elegant and evocative drawings Lea made to head each chapter.

John O. West argues, and I concur:
"The story of Martin Brady is that of Thomas Wolf's You Can't Go Home Again, of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; the setting in the desert Southwest gives it particular realism, but the theme makes it speak beyond the region where it grew."

West also provides some illuminating background on the inspirations for the novel. My additional notes below.


Tom Lea's "El Puerto" is based on El Paso; Fort Jefflin, clearly inspired by Fort Bliss.
The 1962 edition of WW Mill's
Forty Years at El Paso illustrated
by Tom Lea is now a collector's item

El Paso pioneer W.W. Mill's memoir Forty Years at El Paso, 1858-1898 was Tom Lea's major inspiration. A first edition is pricey! But it is out-of-copyright now so you can read a  digitalized edition for free online.

In 1962 the El Paso-based fine art printer Carl Herzog brought out an edition of W.W. Mill's Forty Years at El Paso illustrated by Tom Lea. Last I checked, autographed copies in good condition run upwards from about USD 125.


> Check out the excellent El Paso Museum of History. If you ever visit El Paso, don't miss it.

W. H. Timmons' El Paso: A Borderlands History (Texas Western Press, 1990). Back in the 1960s, Timmons served as Chairman of the History Department at the University of Texas El Paso.

> Fort Bliss official website
Fort Bliss actually moved around the El Paso region quite a bit in the 19th century, but you can visit the current Fort Bliss, which has an adobe museum and a modern museum-- the latter perhaps of most interest for WWII aficionados. The historic parade grounds, surrounded by stately houses for senior officers, are well worth a visit.

Some of the characters in The Wonderful Country are inspired by (or mighty similar to) some real people, among them:

Joe Wakefield, mail carrier
> See the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) Handbook on The Butterfield Overland Mail
> TSHA on William "Bigfoot" Wallace
> See Greg Sample Ely's The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail

Ludwig Sterne, merchant
> See TSHA Handbook on Ernst Kohlberg

Cirpriano Castro, Chihuahuan cattle king
> Luis Terrazas

The pioneer trader MacBee
> See the Magoffin Home History
> See my post on Susan Magoffin et al, "The Harrowingly Romantic Adventure of US Trade with Mexico"
> A biography I can warmly recommend is W. H. Timmons' James Wiley Magoffin: Don Santiago El Paso Pioneer (Texas Western Press, 1999).


Recent biography of Victorio
by Kathleen P. Chamberlin
Fuego, the Apache chief
> See TSHA on Victorio and the Chiricahua Apache Nation official webage

Both the U.S. Army and the Mexican Army went after the Apaches, and in some instances, U.S. forces chased Apaches into Mexico. In general such US Army forays seem to have been welcomed by the Mexicans, but communications in these remote areas were dicey and resentments still very raw after the US-Mexican War. Many historians writing in English about border history have not had the wherewithall to research Spanish language sources, and vice versa, so there is some low-hanging fruit here for those historians with cross-border cultural and language skills. The Apaches also have something to say about it. One recent biography of note is Kathleen P. Chamberlain's Victorio: Apache Warrior and Chief (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).

Another, more contemporary, take on this period is Gary Clayton Anderson's The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), a book that, back in 1950s, when Lea was writing The Wonderful Country, might have been unimaginable to Lea. Or so it would seem to me. I don't know; Lea is no longer here to ask.

See also Dan L. Thrapp's Conquest of Apachería and Eve Ball's In the Days of Victorio: Recollections of a Warms Springs Apache.


Post-Civil War El Paso politics were brutal and bloody; Lea's novel does not exaggerate. In addition to W.W. Mill's Forty Years in El Paso, see Paul Cool's recent and excellent book about the El Paso Salt Wars, Salt Warriors.


Paperback reprint
available from
The Seminary Coop
et al
The hero of The Wonderful Country becomes a Texas Ranger. A crucial source for Lea, writing back in the 1950s, was James B. Gillett's 1921 memoir, Six Years with the Texas Rangers: 1875-1881, from which Lea takes the epigraph and his title:

"Oh, how I wish I had the power to describe the wonderful country as I saw it then."

> Check out Gilett's page at the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas. Gillett ranched south of Alpine and upon moving to Marfa helped found the West Texas Historical Association. He died in 1937 and is buried in Marfa.

For those interested in the history of the Texas Rangers, a recent work of note, and that provides a better sense of why the Texas Rangers are so controversial-- heroes to many, yet feared and even loathed by others-- is The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution: The Bloodiest Decade, 1910-1920 by Charles H. Harris III and Louis R. Sadler (University of New Mexico Press, 2004). 

(The Texas Rangers made up a more heterogeneous group than some too easily conclude. See also the 2014 book by historian Cynthia Leal Massey, Death of a Texas Ranger. An interview with Massey is here.)


Marcos Kinevan's biography
of Lt. John Bigelow, Jr.
of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry
The Wonderful Country has a number of characters who serve in the Tenth U.S. Cavalry. The Tenth was famed for its African American "Buffalo" soldiers, and its exploits in fighting Indians, especially in Texas and then Arizona.

> See TSHA on Col. Benjamin H. Grierson

Less famous, but undeservedly so, is Lt. John Bigelow, Jr., who is the subject of a forthcoming paper I presented at last year's Center for Big Bend Studies Conference. His younger brother, Poultney Bigelow, who published his series of articles on trailing the Apaches, was a great friend of artist Frederic Remington who illustrated many of the articles. Their father, John Bigelow, was an accomplished editor (at one point editing the New York Times), he served as President Lincoln's ambassador to France, and had much to do with the founding of the Republican Party, the New York Public Library, the Panama Canal, and promoting Swedenborgianism. Bigelow, Sr also entertained literary celebrities including Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde. My paper explores some of the family's rich and varied social and political connections, John Bigelow Jr's reports for Poultney's magazine, his role as a nexus between the Eastern establishment and the West, and his importance as a military intellectual who anticipated the profound changes to come in 20th century warfare.
> See my Notes on John Bigelow, Jr. and
> Further Notes on John Bigelow, Jr.

... Reminds me of that old joke about the goats out browsing on a hill in Hollywood. They find the can with the reel of film, they kick it open, and they start munching... The one goat says to other, well, whaddya think? The other goat chews some more. "Eh," the goat says, "I liked the novel better."

One of the African American "Buffalo soldiers" is played by baseball star Satchel Paige. Tom Lea himself has a cameo as the barber, Peebles.


The go-to resource is the webpage for the Tom Lea Institute.

Tom Lea: An Oral History

Lea could be very self-depreciating. From Tom Lea: An Oral History:

"Writing is a kind of burden to me, which painting is not. I sweat and stew and fight painting, but I am not overwhelmed... by problems like I was with writing. I taught myself to write and never had any kind of a mentor or formal course... I taught myself to write by reading, reading good stuff."

On The Wonderful Country:

"...I wanted to do something that ad been on my mind since I was a kid: Write about this borderland and the people on both sides of the river."

"When traveling down in Mexico I never carried anything more than a little notebook because I was trying to train myself to hear rather than to see. I was trying so hard to be a good writer, you know... The hardest chapter in that book was where Martin goes with Joe Wakefield across the river in the springtime. I was trying to tell how much this fellow felt about both sides of the river. I remember I struggled and struggled for some way to express springtime and I settled it by saying, 'A mockingbird sang on a budded cottonwood' or something like that. I had to watch myself about using the big word. I always chose the shortest way if it could say exactly what I wanted."


In my workshops I often discuss what it means to see as an artist and the importance of using specific details that appeal to the senses. Lea does this so beautifully. A few examples:

"A gust of wind sished sand against the one small windowpane." (p.16)
"They ate in the light of tallow dips, a dozen men in soggy leather, laughing and chewing, with the rain sounding on the roof, and cold drops leaking through." (p.250)
"Slowly, under the winking high stars, they came to where they saw beyond the paleness of the sand the darkness of the brush that lined the river, and they rode toward it. They worked across a dry flat of alkali white in the starlight, with the hooves scuffling the crust in the windless silence. " (p.306)


From Tom Lea Month 2012, Nick Houser on Lea's Cabeza de Vaca picture

In my opinion, Lea's masterwork is his 1938 mural "The Pass of the North" which is in El Paso Historic Federal Courthouse Building.


Lea's father was Tom Lea (1877-1945), who served as mayor of El Paso during the Mexican Revolution. (Alas, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans do not remember Mayor Lea fondly;  this is one reason why.)

A cousin was Homer Lea, an advisor to Sun Yat Sen.
> See Lawrence M. Kaplan's biography, Homer Lea: American Soldier of Fortune

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, June 18, 2018


Get this book from
Seminary Co-op
et al
Of late American readers have been well served by a veritable cottage industry of works about the Roman Republic and Empire, and their respective falls, and various aspects thereof, and what lessons we, with our republic (or empire, as some would have it), purportedly at the precipice of analogous fiscal, ecological, military, social and/or  political Seneca Cliffs, might learn from them. History may not repeat itself any more than we can wade into the same river twice, but, of course, we can step into rivers that look more than a sight familiar. Sometimes a nicely behaved river—let’s dub it the Goth Swan—turns of a sudden into a drowning horror. Indeed, a close reading of Roman history does suggest, in blurriest outlines, some analogies with contemporary trends and conundrums. But there are perhaps more valuable insights to be parsed from our own little-known and, relatively speaking, recent history. CONTINUE READING AT LITERAL MAGAZINE

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, June 11, 2018


Get this book from
Seminary Coop
Graphics Press
As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.

While I increasingly rely on the Internet for reference—I’ll more likely type a word into my on-line dictionary or thesaurus than pull a wrist-breaker of an old tome off its shelf—there is still no substitute for a writer’s reference library—real books on a real shelf, at-hand. And among the most useful works in my own reference library is Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. 
From the catalog copy:
“... Tufte presents—and comments on—more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language. 
“The book displays the sentences in fourteen chapters, each one organized around a syntactic concept—short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, appositives, parallelism, for example. It thus provides a systematic, comprehensive range of models for aspiring writers.”
But Artful Sentences is not only for aspiring writers. Having written more books than I’ll bother to count, I still find that an occasional review consistently yields inspirations.
Where, and for what effect, can I limber up my writing? Perhaps I need to work in shorter sentences. (p. 9) Bright little ones! 
Or perhaps, I could play a bit with what Tufte terms “Catalogs of modifiers” (p.100)-- basically, a bunch, a spew, an avalanche of adjectives. 
Or perhaps, I might try an adjective as an opener.” (p.160) Open doors, don’t they seem more inviting?

Artful Sentences elucidiates the immense range of possibilities we have in the English language to arrange our sentences, and within them, the sounds and rhythms of words, the better to sharpen and strengthen what we mean to say. And that, my dear writerly reader, is power.

P.S. You will find more recommended reading on my workshop page. 
> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Q & A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub on PRODIGAL CHILDREN IN THE HOUSE OF G-D

Starting this year, every fourth Monday I run a Q & A with a fellow writer. This fourth Monday features Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, the author of Prodigal Children in the House of G-d: Stories (2018) and six books of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Gorczyński, was released in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. With Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016). His short stories have appeared in such publications as Hamilton Stone Review, Jewish Fiction .net, The Jewish Literary Journal, Jewrotica, Penshaft: New Yiddish Writing, and Second Hand Stories Podcast. 

Check out the Q & A  from 2017 with
Yermihayu Ahron Taub and his o-transator Ellen Cassedy
about Blume Lempel and Oedipus in Brooklyn
C.M. MAYO: You are co-translator (with Ellen Cassedy) from the Yiddish of Blume Lempel's extraordinary short stories, Oedipus in Brooklyn. Would you say that Lempel's work has been an influence on your own fiction? Can you talk a bit about some of your influences, and your favorite writers?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: Blume Lempel is certainly a source of personal inspiration, and working with Ellen Cassedy on that project was and continues to be a great joy. Despite suffering enormous familial loss in the Holocaust and years of creative block, Lempel built a career as a Yiddish writer with single-minded focus and commitment. She created an authorial voice that was uniquely her own and a prose rich in poetry, experimentation in time and voice, and empathy. She looked at characters at the margins of society and at themes still considered taboo, including abortion, prostitution, and incest. I was drawn to Lempel's work for all of these reasons and in researching her autobiography, came to be inspired also by the example of her courage in life and art. Our work overlaps somewhat in our interest in life at the margins and blurring the line between poetry and prose, although I think much of Lempel's work is more firmly anchored than mine in the realm of the experimental and avant-garde. I do see Lempel as a kindred literary spirit.  

I have been reading voraciously and widely since childhood. It's difficult to pinpoint specific literary influences. I prefer to think of texts whose effects remain with me. Even if I don't recall particular plots, the authors' themes and concerns, and overall sensibilities remain. I am interested in writers who take risks, who go against the grain, who can create a marriage of emotional impact and beauty of language, who write with psychological acuity and care. 

A partial list of favorite English-language fictional texts, in alphabetical order of author's last name, include:  

Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents  Michelle Cliff, Abeng Marian Engel, Bear  Janet Hobhouse, The Furies F.M. Mayor, The Rector's Daughter  Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant's House: a Romance  Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place  Joyce Carol Oates, Where is Here?  James Purdy, 69: Dream Palace and Other Stories  Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea  Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Home, and Lila  Sinclair Ross, As For Me and My House  Elizabeth Taylor, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont  Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth  

If we include non-fiction, poetry, and Yiddish literature and world literature in translation, there would be many more titles to add.  

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive writer and poet for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share? 

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: The digital revolution has helped bring about a dynamic international literary culture. Poems and stories can now be read by anyone with computer access. Blogs such as yours also support the work of writers and connect writers and readers. Before appearing in book form, much of my work has appeared in online publications. In the digital age, it is more affordable to publish literary 'zines, although maintaining the availability of defunct journals remains an issue of concern for literary publishers, writers, and readers. Facebook is useful for sending out announcements of new work and seeing what colleagues and friends have been doing. I also enjoy the travel, food, and family photos that people post! I started on Facebook fairly recently. I thought it would take more of my time that it actually has. I am not on Twitter or other social media. 

There's only a limited amount of time in the day. I like to set aside time for daily translation, reading, and/or writing or writing-related business, as well.  The proliferation of media in the digital age offers tempting distractions from writing. There are now so many offerings in television and film, many of them quite literary and demanding extensive viewing time. 

Still, I always return to the written word. And I prefer to read in hard copy. Nothing has replaced words on a paper—the joy that comes from concentration on those words, turning the page, the touch of paper, the heft of a book in one's hand or one's lap. The poems "Eavesdropping" and "Luddite's Exhortation" in my fourth collection Prayers of a Heretic explore the pleasures—cerebral, sensual, and otherwise—of books and reading from books. The key to productivity is tuning out all of the distractions to draw on the creativity that emerges from focus and quiet, or perhaps more aptly put, quietude. One can be sitting in a noisy cafe and still be in a place of internal quiet. 

But, of course, there are many ways to live and work as a writer. Find what works for you and honor that process.  

C.M. MAYO: Are you in a writing group? If so, can you talk about the members, the process, and the value for you?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: When I lived in New York, I was in the Yugntruf Yiddish writers' circle for many years. Attendees brought in a poem or a story and shared it with the group. It was a great way for me to get feedback on my Yiddish writing and to encounter new Yiddish creativity. That group continues to meet.  I have attended two sessions of a poetry group here in Washington, D.C. I'm not sure if that qualifies as being "in a writing group." Here too, folks distribute the poems, read it aloud, and then provide comments. The feedback was quite rigorous and helpful, and I enjoyed the gatherings. However, I've only attended two sessions since my recent focus has been on writing prose and on translating from the Yiddish.  

C.M. MAYO: Did you experience any blocks while writing these stories, and if so, how did you break through them?

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: Fortunately, I did not experience writer's block while writing these stories. As I note in the book, I wrote Prodigal Children in the House of G-d while on an artist's residency at The Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow (Eureka Springs, Arkansas). Having three weeks to concentrate solely on writing enabled my turn from poetry to fiction. TWCDH was a magical experience — a great studio, friendly staff and writers in residence, and the ideal setting that combined natural beauty and a charming, historical small town. During the afternoons, I took walks and worked through ideas for the writing I was doing in the studio. Sometimes, I took walks with other writers in residence. 

C.M. MAYO: Back to a digital question At what point, if any, were you working on paper for these stories? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: My writing life as an adult has largely been conducted on the computer. Of course, the digital revolution has made it easier to submit work to literary magazines. Instead of having to print out hard copies, write and include a self-addressed stamped envelope, and go to the mailbox or post office, one can now submit work electronically. Writing on the computer also allows for extensive revision.  In my childhood and youth, I wrote by hand. In college, I sometimes submitted papers typed on a typewriter. So I remember well the challenges in the revision process back then. 

C.M. MAYO: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, some combination, or snail mail?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: I welcome feedback from readers. I prefer e-mail over other forms of communication. I sometimes go for long periods of time without checking Facebook. I rarely use snail mail. I try to answer all letters. Giving readings, particularly ones that include a Q & A, is another great way to connect with readers. 

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> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

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M.L. recommends checking out Yermihayu Ahron Taub's page on Beltway Quarterly.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Cyberflanerie: Noteworthy Blogs of Late & More

Holding the Light: Pat Dubrava's luminous essay, Not Even the Trees.

Rose Mary Salum, Mexican poet, novelist, essayist and editor of Literal ponders #MeToo.

Mr. Money Mustache reveals his breakfast, among other things.

Low Tech Magazine:  Ditch the Batteries and History and Future of the Compressed Air Economy.

Granola Shotgun on Thousand Oaks. I was struck by the comment by host Johnny (in reply to Here in Van Nuys):
"I’ve come to the conclusion that fretting over aesthetics (like the abundant use of synthetic grass lawns and Lee Press-On faux facades) isn’t a productive use of my energies. Neither is kvetching about regulations or other people’s attitudes about… anything. Let it go.
"Focus on the underlying structural dynamics. Some places are well suited to change and will ride out future dynamics better than most. Others are destined to decline rapidly under the best of circumstances. Thousand Oaks will endure for quite some time because the people who live there have political authority and money to buffer themselves fro quite a lot. It’s a good place. It’s just not my place."
Here in Van Nuys on The Parking Police. This is a blog I've been following regularly. I am seeing some of these very same issues in northern California, where I have family, and as a novelist-sociologist (all novelists are sociologists) and ex-economist (yes, I used to be an economist) I find them fascinating. It's a grim portrait of place at times. But such is our societal and fiscal trajectory. And I want to get my mind around it.

Black Liszt: David Black talks about Innovation Stories in his new book.

Typewriter Revolution: I am honored that Richard Polt dedicates the poem "Vanilla" to Yours Truly. (I am back to typing on a typewriter again, now that I have another Hermes, an Hermes Baby, circa 1960s.) I got the dedication because I supplied the word as a prompt. Funny, I thought of "vanilla" as exotic and spicy-- I forgot, having lived in Mexico so many years, where vanilla is a sharply delicious flavor, and vanilla icecream packs some zing, its connotations of blah north of the border. (P.S. With his typewriter advocacy, Polt, a noted professor of philosophy and expert on Heidegger, is doing something far more interesting than it might appear at first glance.)

Cal Newport shares his morning routine with Business Insider. His blog is here.

The Archdruid has suggested that his readers try a secret experiment.



David J. Silverman gives an interview to Ben Franklin's World podcast about Thundersticks. This is a brilliant, important book.


A signal of a cultural tide turning: Rebecca Solnit's essay in this month's issue of Harper's, Driven to Distraction.

Fodder for another blog post: I recently took out a batch of print magazine subscriptions, so as to spend less time on the iPad. So far so good-- and if not for my Harper's subscription, I would have missed Solnit's essay. But I treasure the blogosphere. As a writer I love the freedom and speed; as a reader, I relish the adventures with unique, unfiltered voices and their sometimes fabulous, sometimes squirrely, othertimes, whoa, too-way-out-for-prime-time ideas and information.

>>Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.