photo and illustrations via Warren Lehrer
Warren Lehrer’s guest essay stems directly from a question I posed to him when I invited him to write about A Life in Books, a question that tackles the way it addresses the life of a fictional writer not just through that writer’s words, but his book jackets. “What drew you to telling a story through a mosaic of imaginary books?” I wanted to know. This was Lehrer’s response.
(By the way, all the artwork you’ll see below—and much more besides—is also part of a traveling exhibition that has often included a performance/lecture by Lehrer. Something to keep an eye out for…)
My previous five books were all non-fiction: four portrait books about eccentric Americans who each straddle the wobbly line between brilliance and madness, and Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America, written with Judith Sloan, which documents 79 new immigrants and refugees from all over the world who live in Queens.
After representing all these real people and their stories, I felt a need to work on something that gave me more room for invention, and allowed me to get at the interior world of characters. I started looking at all these book ideas I had scratched into notebooks, and drawers full of short stories and interior narratives I had written. And somehow, this peculiar, well-meaning if ethically challenged writer character emerged—Bleu Mobley—who was presently in prison looking back on his life and career.
Instead of just writing his story, I decided to combine his reluctant memoir with a retrospective monograph of all 101 of his books including their cover designs and ‘first edition’ catalogue copy. But the covers and catalogue descriptions didn’t satisfy my curiosity about my protagonist’s creative output, so I began writing book excerpts (that read like short stories). The excerpts started cluing me into aspects of Mobley’s life (people, scenarios, motivations) that I hadn’t anticipated. Some book titles that I thought came early or late in his career turned out to be middle period works, and vice versa. My Bleu Mobley life events/bibliographic timeline chart kept changing. As the puzzle of Bleu Mobley’s life revealed itself to me piece by piece, the relationship between an artist’s life and his or her work emerged as a major theme.
In the memoir part of A Life In Books, Mobley claims to have never written about himself, yet we discover him and the people he loves sleucing through all his books, however obliquely.
9 June 2014 | guest authors |
photos: Charles Ramsburg (Zackheim); Nancy Carrick Holbert (Kinnell)
It’s National Poetry Month, and the novelist Michele Zackheim (most recently the author of Last Train to Paris examines her love of Galway Kinnell’s “Under the Maud Moon” (first published in 1971’s The Book of Nightmares, a few years after the photo above was taken). Anita Felicelli is also a fan, calling it “the last poem I loved.” As we’ll see, for Zackheim, it’s a personally significant poem on multiple levels…
In 2003, during one of the worst blizzards in New York City history, I met the poet Galway Kinnell at the stage door at Lincoln Center. It was my job to meet the poets invited to participate in “Poems Not Fit for the White House,” an evening of poetry organized by Not in Our Name, a movement against the war in Iraq. The event was created because Laura Bush had invited the poet Sam Hamill to attend a poetry symposium on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes at the White House. Rather than enter enemy territory, he put out a call for antiwar poems to be sent to Laura Bush in his place. Thousands of poems arrived; the White House was furious and pointedly cancelled his invitation, although Hamill had already said no. Thus the poets’ movement against the war was created—and I met Galway Kinnell.
He was 76 at the time, three years older than I am now. I was so impressed that he had trekked into the city from the snowbound wilds of Vermont. (Now, of course, I would look upon it as a minor accomplishment, because I would do the same.)
After I had introduced myself and showed him to where he would be sitting, we talked. “What poem have you chosen to read?” I asked.
“The one about my son Fergus, my second child, and getting him milk in the middle of the night.”
I remember taking hold of his tweedy arm. “Oh, please change your mind and read ‘Under the Maud Moon’!”
“My dear,” he said. “If I had known, I would have brought it with me. So sorry. Why is it that poem that you like?”
And I froze, unable to articulate my feelings. I stumbled and faltered and was saved by the bell. It was Kinnell’s turn to read.
6 April 2014 | guest authors |