Sincerely, Langston

MY REVIEW of Selected Letters of Langston Hughes for the Los Angeles Times is now live.You can find it here.

The book comes in at nearly 500 pages and is a vivid sampling of an archive of letters that could fill perhaps 20 volumes, according to the editors. Hughes was a prodigious letter writer. How he found time to do so (and with such detail), amid his other writing — short stories, poems, plays, librettos, children’s stories and poetry — is mind spinning.

From the piece:

Mail arrived from many corners of the black experience — from the first bloom of Harlem Renaissance stretching well into the trenches of civil rights era. The specific details and texture found within them granted him entree — and lent him gravitas as an informed eyewitness who helped to shape a deeper understanding of blackness in a global sphere. Through letters Hughes cultivated a circle of literary cohorts, business associates and patrons (Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Carl Van Vechten, Arna Bontemps, Blanche and Alfred Knopf among them), some of whom remained close nearly the entire arc of his professional life.

There is a Los Angeles tie in this. Not in terms of his letter-writing life, but about his relationship to the city.  Hughes didn’t very much care for the city. langstson He’d swing through town for meetings or work and at one point took a brief stay downtown at  Hotel Clark on Hill Street. However, much of his distaste for the place had to do with his frustrations with work in Hollywood and an on-going battle that had been waged against him by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson founder of the Foursquare Church. Hughes had made mention of McPherson in a poem “Goodbye Christ,” in which he charges that she is both “materialistic” and an “exploited.” Although he would  later retract the poem from publication, it wasn’t over, for McPherson whose publicity arm organized a group from her Angelus Temple congregation in Echo Park to protest the poet’s appearance at Pasadena’s elegant Vista del Arroyo Hotel in November of 1940, on the occasion of the publication of his memoir, The Big Sea. It was a poem, as the letters suggest, that would tail Hughes throughout the rest of his career. Click here to read more. Also, here’s black-owned newspaper, the California Eagle’s take on the imbroglio.

Measuring Time

“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease. didion There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness. Conventional information is missing. context clues are missing. In Culver City as in Echo Park as in East Los Angeles, there are the same pastel bungalows. There are the same leggy poinsettia and the same trees of pink and yellow hibiscus. There are the same laundromats, body shops, strip shopping malls, the same travel agencies offering bargain fares….the signs of promise, on Beverly Boulevard as on Pico as on Alvarado and Soto. ¡No más baratá! …There is the sound that of the car radio, tuned in my case to KRLA, an AM station that identifies itself as ‘the heart and soul of rock and roll’ and is given to dislocating programing concepts, for example doing the tops hits of … 1962. Another day, another KRLA concept: “The day the Music Died”, an exact radio recreation of the day that in 1959 when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed … such tranced hours are, for many people who live in Los Angeles, the dead center of being there . . . . ”

Joan Didion
from “Pacific Distances”

— Happy Birthday 80th Birthday, Joan Didion

Blackwings and Black Warriors

ANYONE WHO knows me even glancingly is aware of how much I’m fixated on “writing instruments” — fountain pens, gel pens, razor point felt, fine ballpont, mechanical pencils, “woodcase” pencils perma-ink markers, but there are some writing tools that are so singular that they belong in another category.

Years ago, in our newsroom, support-staff stocked the supply closet with pencils called the Mirado Black Warrior, known for its smooth, bold lines. I stockpiled them in my desk. For years. I used them to make notes just before I began writing, for outlining the structure and flow of a piece. After we stopped recieving them, I’d draw, sparingly from my stash — until there were none.

About a year or so ago, I noted that Paper Mate was now making the Black Warrior; it’s slightly different. The casing’s finish is matte and the pencil comes pre-sharpened, not sure why. The shape feels a bit unfamiliar in my hand, the weight different, but I’m happy enough to have them back and I use them again to do organizing and some editing.

Then, I ran across this today:

I love this video and the reverence the reporter has for this pencil. I’ve known it too about certain objects. I haven’t used the Blackwing 602, but now of course I’m fascinated and will probably order a box just to feel this smooth soft line. I find it interesting (and admittedly a relief) that other people are so particular about the instrument they use to create. With writing nowadays everyone assumes I just use a computer. It is of course much more efficient and I don’t have to struggle with a messy page of cross-outs or erasures on onion skin. However, I’ve always had a sort of tactile relationship to the pen/pencil and the paper upon which the ideas un-scrolled. There was something about watching the letters form in my own handwriting, the link from my brain to the page, that somehow seemed to make me think deeper. Most likely it had to do with slowing the thoughts down and climbing inside of them, and I think that that does have to do with the idea of making shapes on a page — it is its own art, design. Looking at the words pull out across the page works in a sense like footprints. Here to there, mistakes and all, set down on the page.

(top image via postboutique.com)

“I promise, I swear, I won’t ever turn 10.”

THIS INTERVIEW has been on my mind since I heard it a week-and-a-half ago, driving home through thick, sludgy, rush hour traffic. Writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak talks to “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross about his latest, Bumble-ardy, about an orphaned pig who has reached nine-years old and had never had a birthday party.

I fell deep into Sendak’s serrated personal narrative — about his own childhood, identity, loss, grief and the beauty of big trees and love. Reporters often despise phone interviews, they can create uncomfortable or unresolvable remove, but Terry Gross was able dissolve the distance between them. It reminded of why I love radio so much.

A pullquote from his interview:

On his life

“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

The full interview is here:

(image of Maurice Sendak via NPR.org)

Voice (10)

“That night as I lay in bed, a June storm rolled in over town and it thundered loudly, sharp cracks like a series of detonations mingled with resonant booms above me, echoing again and again and again. Soon after came the rushing noise of thick, fast rain outside. I remembered the great winds of my childhood, remembered waking up in the morning to see that branches had fallen all over the street. I remembered the enchanted stillness that came before the twister or the tempest, as if the whole earth were holding its breath, and the eerie green color that tinged the sky. I remembered the immensity of the world.”

Siri Hustvedt
from — The Summer Without Men

photo via the guardian uk

“The Comet’s Tail of Memory”

A FRIEND of mine just posted this morning that Tobias Wolff was in town over last weekend and did a reading at Antioch University here in L.A. and my heart just sank. I missed it. Wolff, for me, is one of those writer’s that I can’t break the rhythm once I’ve started reading. There are a few like that. I finish one story and then I want another, and then another — like a salt fix. I want to stay in those cadences; I want to continue peering through his lens. In other words, I don’t want to be interrupted.

Below is a section from one of my favorite short stories of his, “Bullet in the Brain,” in which a critic who can’t stop mouthing off, expressing his scathing opinions, makes himself a vivid target.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is…

What is remarkable about this story is the shifts in emotion, tone and voice. The first section is almost slapstick, but the moment that the violence pierces the narrative, everything changes. Becomes science and then poetry. It’s a short, short story. Slim but resonates deeply. It’s best heard out loud.

Here is an NPR interview and longer excerpt from the story. And, if I can find it, Woolf did a reading of the entire story over NPR some years back right around the time the collection, The Night in Question was published. This short story also appears in his most recent collection, Our Story Begins. It’s worth it just to hear him speak that very last line:

they is, they is, they is.

And here he is talking about reading writing and his novel, Old School, for the Big Read Project: