Monday, May 31, 2010

Eavesdropping V. Word-Scavenging: "So Unexpected"

The blogger Bowl of Orangeshas a post about "the thin line between being a pervert and being a writer." In the post, Bowl of Oranges (BOO) confesses to being an eavesdropper. I'd equated eavesdropping with being impolite but not with perversion, but I take BOO's point: writers do like to stare, overhear, smell, touch, and taste things to see if these things might just fit in with some writing or even inspire words.

I tend to listen in when the people talking are talking loud enough for others to hear. I think of it as a free broadcast. I don't ever move closer to get in better listening range. (I think I do probably stare at people too much, absorbing details, but almost always when they're not looking, so that I'm not perceived as being rude; nonetheless, I probably migrate over the "polite" line, something I need to watch, so to speak>)

What I do more often is stay receptive to what's said by people walking past on the street or waiting in line, and in a big city like Istanbul, that happens all the time--but happens frequently on a small college campus, for instance, or in a store.

For example, a few days ago, to women were walking by slowly, and I heard a snippet of their conversation. I deduced that neither was British, Canadian, or American but were mostly likely also from two different countries so that English for them as a compromise language. In any event, one of them said, with her particular was of accenting English, "Life is so unexpected."

--It is indeed, as are such bits of language for which one may scavenge as they are spoken into the air and then lost unless one captures them. What to do with the language?--well, that's all about a writer's choices. At the very least: savor them. I mean, "Life if so unexpected": what a great sentence, so unexpected.

Politics Comes to Taksim Square

My wife and I have been visiting Turkey for over a week, staying mostly in Istanbul. Yesterday we visited Taksim square, at the heart of a modernized, upscale section of Istanbul, across the Bosphorous from Sultanhamet, the most famous part of the city where Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Sultanhamet ("Blue") Mosque, and numerous other sites are located.

This morning Taksim Square is at the heart of an international controversy. Last night, Israeli troops boarded one of the ships attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. That ship was Turkish, and 15 of those on board were killed. Protests erupted outside the Israeli embassy near Taksim Square, and some protesters surged over the fence.

Turkey and Israel have had good diplomatic relations, but these events, as well as Turkey's involvement in a nuclear-fuel deal with Iran and Brazil, have strained the relationship immeasurably.

Complicating the present crisis are the questions of whether Israel is, according to international law, an "occupying force" in Gaza, where international law permits delivery of humanitarian aid (some ships have been let through during past deliveries), and precisely happened on the ship after Israeli soldiers boarded it.

It's been enlightening to watch BBC-Europe, as the interviewer grills spokespersons from Israel and the humanitarian group with equal ferocity. He is polite but firm, well informed, and relentless--intolerant of canned answers.

Ironically, we strolled down Isticlal Street, which angles off Taksim Square, yesterday, a wide promenade lined with shops, apartments and embassies. (The Israeli Embassy is in a high-rise nearby). The promenade was the picture of serenity, as Turks and visitors from every part of the globe enjoyed the stroll. We counted 5 Starbucks cafes along the promenade--as well as the same number of Gloria Jean's Coffee storefronts: two franchises in peaceful conflict. In an instant, Taksim Square, the venerable Isticlal Street, and embassy row have been drawn into international political conflict.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Nature of Istanbul

I've been in Istanbul for a while, and it is, of course, a great city--addictive, in a way, like Venice.

We all have our coping-mechanisms when traveling, I assume; one of mine is to focus on the trees, plants, and birds of a place because one is bound to make familiar sightings, and one is reminded in general that this is, in fact, a small planet.

It is said the Prophet Muhammad strongly discouraged the destruction of trees, and what a sensible viewpoint. Perhaps the Prophet's views on this matter have affected the extent to which Istanbul is full of trees, and most especially in our hotel's neighborhood, which is old and working class--not that far from the seaside on the sharp slope down from Hagia Sophia.

In any case, I've seen in Istanbul so far sycamore, olive, fig, beech, oak, pine [a short species, not completely dissimilar to the scrub pine of the Sierra Nevada foothills], fir, maple, ash, locust, eucalyptus, and many species I don't recognize.

Some of the grasses and shrubs (boxwood) look familiar, and there seems to be a thistle that's similar to the star thistle. There is a low-lying flowering thing I mistook for red clover, but it's certainly not red clover. I'll have to look it up.

Grape vines grow everywhere in neighborhoods, as do fig trees: wonderful.

As for the birds, they are endlessly fascinating, especially in the morning and at dusk. There are swallows--which particular species, I dare not guess, but they dive and glide and feed on insects like the tree swallows I remember from the Sierra Nevada, and they have those great bladed wings.

The crows here are two-toned, with a gray chest and a gray cape: splendid. A wide variety of pigeons and doves and gulls. Starlings. There's a medium-sized, gray-black bird that chugs through the air; it looks like what I'd call a cowbird, but I'm sure it's not that. There are also sparrows that nest in buildings (including those of the Sultan's palace) and storks. The stork legend in Turkey is that if you see a stork flying, you will be traveling a lot. I saw a stork flying when we drove to Ephesus, so I guess I'll be traveling more.

In the small city near Ephesus, while we were having lunch, I looked outside and saw what seemed to be a crows nest--a massive construction of thick twigs. But a white head arose. It was a stork--a stork's nest. How cool is that?

Cats in Istanbul are ubiquitous and often heart-breaking: underfed, aged too quickly. The main reason for their presence, I think, is that Istanbul would be over-run with rats if the cats weren't around. There are more cats here than ever I saw in Rome.

Istanbul: The Imperial City

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Istanbul Evening

Istanbul Evening

A white, four-masted yacht slips between
dingy barges and trawlers, disappears into
a blue haze on the Sea of Marmara. The call
to prayer's an hour away. Swallows dive
and glide, pigeons prowl, and the sun's
about to settle down.

Below the terrace, lush maples and oaks
sigh and sway, leaning west. Sounds of traffic,
children, and work never cease. Near a mosque's
minaret on the hill, a faded Turkish flag
flutters in slow motion. Now a seagull appears.

It glides in a wide arc, which now becomes
a large invisible circle. The glide traces
ever smaller concentric circles against
the backdrop of the sea until the gull
lands precisely at the point of rooftop
below the terrace. The gull stands
authoritatively, facing a low sun, and
something in the scene says all is well.

Copyright 2010 Hans Ostrom

A Turkish Poet's Varied Background

Here's a link to a article about/interview with a contemporary Turkish poet named Lale Müldür:


Saturday, May 22, 2010

NATURAL HABITAT, by Michelle Reale

Natural Habitats, a collection of a dozen stories by Michelle Reale, has just been published by Burning River Press. Here is a link to an interview with the author:

Interview with Reale

Friday, May 21, 2010


In the last post, I mentioned a fine new novel I'd read, and now I'd like to mention one of the best memoirs I've read in a long time, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter's Last Goodbye, by Ann Putnam. It's the story of identical twins, Ann's father and his brother; of their journey through life; and of their journey toward death. They almost simultaneously in the same hospital, with Ann caring for them both (the uncle was a bachelor). While Ann was finishing the book, her husband died of cancer. There's enough tragedy in the circumstances for three books, but the memoir is full of hard-earned joy, hope, and humor that lift Ann's experiences and the reader's response to them out of despair and into understanding.

The book is published by Southern Methodist University Press. Superbly written; a great read.

Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter's Last Goodbye (MEDICAL HUMANITIES SERIES)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

SNAKETOWN, by Kathleen Wakefield

I just finished reading SNAKETOWN (2010) by Kathleen Wakefield, and it’s one of the best contemporary American novels I’ve read in a long time. As fresh as its language and structure is, the book has qualities of medieval literature inasmuch as it confronts questions of evil, character, fate, and redemption unabashedly.

Set in a Southwestern mining town, the novel re-imagines the region with language and images that are at once lyrical and primal, mythic and immediate. The mountains, the mine, the valley, the town, and the key family never become fantastical, but they take on an aura that’s just surreal enough to lift the regional to the universal, as happens in the work of Morrison, Marquez, and Faulkner. Indeed, the hard-scrabble, insulated Sibel family sometimes seems distantly related to Faulkner’s Snopes clan but is more wretched. The novel opens with a note of doom and builds toward a dark symphony.

SNAKETOWN is an ambitious but unpretentious meditation on evil—how it arises, is cultivated, and overwhelms. Wakefield renders the tale in brief, carefully sculpted chapters. The character Orin Sibel, among others, is unforgettable.

SNAKETOWN won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest and is published in paperback by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Wakefield is a lyricist as well as a fiction writer, working in television and film with Vangelis, Michel Colombier, and other composers.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Highly Qualified

Highly Qualified

The lambs are qualified to be young.
We believe we're qualified to choose them
as symbols, food, and future wool.
God is not at the top of the great chain
of being, command, or corporate
personhood. God is, to say the lamby least,
beyond all that. The pasture belongs to us,
in our view. Our view carries a lot of weight
around here. A continent of clouds

advances over mountains toward our
real estate. The storm is not personal or
apocalyptic, but it does not necessarily
agree with us, and it is highly qualified.

Copyright 2010 Hans Ostrom

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bill Murray Ruins a Dickinson Poem

Lord knows why someone asked Bill Murray to read an Emily Dickinson poem--"I dwell in possibility"--to workers building a Poet's House in Manhattan.  Occasionally his diffident, smart-ass persona lands like a cow-pie on a girder, and this was one of those times:

Murray "Reading" Dickinson

A lot of dynamics here: male Hollywood celebrity in front of male workers; actor not knowing what Dickinson's poetry is; bad idea to have him read; etc.; he thinks he's beneath the task.

So his decision was to read it like a 5th grader who's never seen poetry before, pushing a half-rhyme to be a full-rhyme as if he just discovered Dickinson uses half-rhymes.


And why not select a poem by Langston Hughes, Jim Daniels, or Philip Levine (among many others) that would have riveted, so to speak, the workers?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What I'm Reading

In case anyone asks, I'm reading lots of students' essays and short stories right now.  The end of the semester, and all that.

However, I'm also reading The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which I had not read before: shame on me.  I guess one good thing about waiting is that this relatively new translation is supposed to be miles better than earlier ones.  Another book I'm reading is The Vikings, by Robert Ferguson, which relies in part on recent archaeological discoveries--as late as 2001.

The Vikings: A History, by Robert Ferguson

The Idiot, , translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky (Vintage)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sam Waterston Reads Poetry

Sad news today: NBC is canceling the long-running and, for some of us, highly addictive Law and Order.  The tightly controlled form of the show, accompanied by those "beats," reminded of a sonnet, transposed to the one-hour [@40 minutes] TV-drama genre.  Great work, Dick Wolf.  (With a tip of the cap to the late Raymond Burr, I must mention that Perry Mason had a similar crime-first, trial-second form.)

Sam Waterston, who acted on the show for a long time, reads poetry on the CD accompanying John Lithgow's anthology, Poets' Corner.

The Poets' Corner (An Unabridged Production)[6-CD Set]; The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Larkin on May

I was poking around for a poem by Philip Larkin about spring, and I found this one a site called sundeepdougal:

The Trees

by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old ? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new

Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Copyright Estate of Philip Larkin

Wow, much to like in this poem, including the terrific fourth line, "Their green is a kind of grief," and the image, "the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness . . ."

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems

Monday, May 10, 2010

Poet Publishes Novel

Hey, I published a novel. It's called Honoring Juanita, and it's a contemporary novel set in the High Sierra, where I grew up, so to that extent I wrote about what I ostensibly know.  It does have an historical subplot based on the notorious lynching of a woman named Juanita during the Gold Rush.

Anyway, here's a link, but not a sales-pitch, mind you (you have more important things to spend $ on), although if you were to mention the book to your local librarian, I wouldn't mount a huge protest:

Honoring Juanita

The brief official  recap of the novel is . . ."The global scramble for energy has made a river in California's High Sierra ripe for damming. Mary Bluestone, woodcarver and longtime resident of a remote mountain town, impulsively puts herself between the river and the dam, becoming a protester in spite of herself. Mary's husband, the county sheriff, must arrest her. A flood of unintended consequences ensues as the 21st century invades a pristine canyon. Meanwhile, Mary Bluestone is haunted by the legend of Juanita, a woman lynched during the Gold Rush Era. Honoring Juanita is a tale of entangled histories and divided loyalties, of greed, power, memory, and love."

This is the second novel I've published and, if memory serves, the 6th I've written.

With all genres, writers learn to write in them by writing in them, but I think with poetry, short fiction, and occasional essays (or creative nonfiction), I think it's easier to find ways to learn things efficiently, through reading about the genre, taking classes, etc.  Of course, one may read a lot of novels, and one should do so, but for me, at least, it's harder to extract the structure and method of a novel from a novel than to extract same from a poem.

Probably this means what I already know: I'm a poet first, an essayist second, a short-fiction writer third, and a novelist  fourth. Writing novels doesn't come easily to me.  All the more reason why I've had fun making lots of mistakes writing them. I now know many things NOT to do when writing a novel.

I teach both the writing of (short) fiction and of poetry, and occasionally I'll run into a student is is more or less a "pure" poet, and she or he and I usually end up commiserating about just how many words it takes to finish a story, let alone a novel.  And with novels, you have to manage people, move them around, remember their birthdays, know something about their extended families.  I tell you, it's exhausting work! But pure novelists like Tolstoy, Dickens, Faulkner, and Morrison didn't/don't feel that way, I suspect.

Three of my favorite poets--Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, and Richard Hugo--published exactly one novel each.  I think I know why.  It's because they were, well, you know, poets. Read Faulkner's or Hemingway's poetry, and you'll see how this genre-preference thing works in the other direction.

The biggest thrill out of publishing this novel was that I got to dedicate it to my two brothers, Ike and Sven.

Anne Spencer, Poet and Gardener

Here's a link to a terrific recent article on Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, who was born in New Jersey but spent most of her life in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she tended a garden, which is the focus of the article.

Half My World, the Garden of Anne Spencer, a History and Guide

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Garden-Gadget Additions

I'm a happy gardener today because I got a rain-barrel installed and two compost-barrels delivered.

The rain-barrel has an automatic overflow, a faucet at the bottom, and a screen up top.  The compost barrels are great because you just bury the bottom of them in dirt and worms come in; also, they have lids with screw-down seals, so there's no trouble with raccoons, possums, or rodents.

So now I can water the garden using the rain-barrel--after it rains.  Today, of course, it is sunny.

Dan Borba, the fellow I got the materials from, has been in the harvesting-of-rain business since 1999 (in Tacoma).  Here's a link:

harvesting rain

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Seattle Signs

In Seattle yesterday I was amused and/or perplexed by several commercial signs.

 One read, "Organic To Go."  This one intrigued me because an adjective is offered as something one may take "to go," but where is the noun?  Organic what?  Maybe it's just the concept, "Organic."  "What size would you like on that concept, sir?"  "Uh, make that a medium."

Another sign read, "Coming Soon: Sullivan's Steakhouse."  I felt like responding, "Is this really necessary?"  I have nothing against steakhouses or Sullivan's Steakhouse (which I do not know), but there just seem to be so many steakhouses.   Also, I was wondering about the word, "steakhouse."  We don't really have fish-houses or salad-houses.  A chickenhouse would make us think of a coop, probably.  But steaks are served in a house.  "Coming soon: Ed's Steak-Garage."

Let's see--and then there was "Floral Masters," which sounds like an academic degree.  Or like a strange combination of flowers and martial arts.   Or maybe it brings to mind people who have mastery over flowers--bossing them around. "Yo, rose, a little brighter on the color, dude!"

Then in Starbucks there was a written-in-chalk sign for cups of coffee made individually, and one of them was "New Guinea Peaberry"--for $3.85 a cup.  Wow.  And is the beverage made from roasted coffee berries (beans) or from peaberries, in which case one would be drinking a cup of pea, which is not appealing.  But--$3.85?  For one cup?  I mean--really?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Housman: Politically Conservative

On another blog, I just posted something about A.E. Housman's being politically conservative, and I quote a humorous paragraph from an article on Housman:


And apparently Housman's Tories will be back in power soon in England, at least according to an article I read in the Economist this weekend.

Nikki Giovanni to Donate Copyrights to Virginia Tech

Thanks to fellow blogger and poet, Poefrika, I've learned that writer and professor Nikki Giovanni will bequeath copyrights to her work to Virginia Tech University, where she teaches.  Here's a link:


Bicycles: Love Poems, by Nikki Giovanni

A Fine Poem About Auden

Below is a link to a fine poem about W.H. Auden, one of my favorite poets; it was written by Australian poet Peter Nicholson, who also posts on the blog 3 Quarks Daily.

on Auden

Sunday, May 2, 2010

This Thin Mist

This Thin Mist

This thin mist, less than rain,
more than fog, enchants evening.
It turns trees into impressioned,
faded, murky shapes. It blesses
gardens, grasses, weeds, and trees.
Makes streets and metal glisten.
This thin mist is weather whispering
in between storms. It's just water,
sure, but it feels like reconciliation.

Copyright 2010 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, May 1, 2010

New Johnny Cash Video

A correspondent from California alerted me to the new Johnny Cash video (produced by Rick Rubin and John Carter Cash), based on one of Cash's last recordings, "Ain't No Grave Can Hold Me."

Cash Video

The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash