George Ella Lyon: She Sings

She sings but she sings the wrong song.
She sings but she sings the song wrong.
She sings but it’s not a real song.
She sings but she should be ashamed.
She sings but you don’t want to hear it.
She’s not really singing.
Someone else is working her mouth.

She sings but it’s too soft to hear.
She sings but it’s too loud to listen.
She sings but she swallows the words.
She sings but she belts it out.
She sings but look where she does it.

She sings but o my God that accent.
She sings but did you see her teeth.
She sings but look at those clothes.
She sings but where are her children.
She sings but you know about her mother.
She sings but she stole that song.
It’s not just her mouth she opens.

She sings but she has no rhythm.
She sings but her playing is terrible
her house is a wreck
she doesn’t have a man.
She sings but her man is a woman.
She sings when it’s not time for singing.
She sings when we told her not to.
We told her we want quiet.

We told her to shut up.
We showed her the gag.
She keeps singing.

Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon’s collections of poems include Many-Storied House, She Let Herself Go, and (with J. Patrick Lewis) Voices from the March on Washington. She is also a novelist and author of children’s books.

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Michael Herr, 1940-2016

Michael Herr was in New York writing the Khesanh section of Dispatches, his book on Vietnam, and hearing, now, voices, real voices in his head, the voices that became the voices of the book, saying the things he had heard soldiers say and sometimes, though not often, saying things he had not heard anyone say. The book would be full of voices – the language of Americans in Vietnam (“Mayhew, crazy fucker, he sleep bare-ass. He so tough, man, li’l fucker, the hawk is out, an’ he’s in here bare-ass.” “What’s that? About the hawk?” “That means it’s a co-o-old Mother Fucker.”

Herr had always been able to re-create the conversation of other people utterly different from himself, and he did that now: re-creating the voices he had heard in Vietnam – all wound together in the long monologue the book became. “Were the voices real?” interviewers would ask him. “They were real,” he said. But he wasn’t writing dialogue from notes. He didn’t remember, later, even taking notes on what people said – just on what he saw, the country, the people, and less and less of that as he went along. And the characters were not always exactly who he said they were. Day Tripper was a composite, Mayhew was mostly Mayhew but in real life he wasn’t called Mayhew. Sometimes Herr thought of the book as a novel, sometimes the best description for it was a “distillation” of an extreme experience “in the honest and truthful way which did not happen to always be the most factual way.”

The narrator’s voice held it all together – the scattered pieces of war: a voice deliberate, tense, holding hysteria back to give an account the narrator knows, knows without any question or doubt, must be given. It was urgently necessary that these things be told, said, understood. The Khesanh pieces were full of dread – death and dread and more death, that “laughing death-face” that hid behind the newsprint and lingered on the television screens after the news reports that denied its presence in the war. Death lingered on Herr’s every page: bodies, stacked, shoved into body bags, torn apart – the object of jokes and anguish and casual disregard. Death and love. Herr had loved the Marines, who were pathetic and fucked up and forlorn and abandoned and lost, but who had real heart. They were an embarrassment to any historical sense of masculinity, but there was something going on there, something that was very moving….

Esquire announced the imminent publication of Dispatches in “Backstage,” October 1969, when the second Khesanh installment ran, but Dispatches did not appear. Herr was living with Valerie Elliott, who worked for Herr’s agent, Candida Donadio. Elliott would say to Donadio, “He doesn’t write, he doesn’t write anything.” And Donadio would say, “You must understand, writers spend years thinking. They just spend years thinking and thinking.”

In fact, Herr was writing, but slowly. Elliott would come home and he would have the television on, and he would be lying on the sofa, and writing on a yellow pad: a few lines, dot-dot-dot, then a blank line, and a few more lines. He was trying to give the Esquire material a frame that would make Dispatches a book – a real book with a narrative that he that he could tell was there, even if no one else could. But the high that had carried him almost all the way had come to an end: he had come home from his adventure in Vietnam, virtually the only one of his New York set who had gone to Vietnam, and he had come home unhurt, full of energy and ego and vanity.

Then two colleagues from Vietnam, photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, went off to Cambodia and never returned, and Life photographer Larry Burrows died in a helicopter accident over Cambodia. A breakdown that Herr would come to feel had been lurking for many years, at least ten, a breakdown he had avoided by moving fast through the sixties, descended on him. He had felt it coming during the summer of 1969, then a year later it hit him hard. He had seen things in Vietnam he really shouldn’t have seen – things he had not prepared to see. He had had pretensions, ambition, and he had gotten in over his head, gone to an extreme place where he was not prepared to go. He had begun to sense what was in store for him when someone in Vietnam asked him, “Are you a reporter?”

“And I said, ‘No, I’m a writer.’ And he said, ‘ Well, be careful, ’cause where you’re going you can’t use an eraser.’

 “And I knew I was being told something of extreme profundity. It really made my blood run cold.

 “You know, I was looking at bodies – but I didn’t believe – I saw this guy shot across the aisle from me in a helicopter, and that didn’t do it. Nothing that I was seeing did it, and then this guy said that to me and it was like –

 “I’ve often wondered where that guy is and wished I could speak to him. Thank him.”

 

Michael Herr talked with me about writing Dispatches when I visited him and his wife Valerie Elliott at his home near Syracuse in late September, 1993. This passage is an excerpt from my book,  It Wasn’t Pretty, But Didn’t We Have Fun: Esquire in the Sixties (W.W. Norton, 1995).

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Michael Herr, 1940-2016

Michael Herr was in New York writing the Khesanh section of Dispatches, his book on Vietnam, and hearing, now, voices, real voices in his head, the voices that became the voices of the book, saying the things he had heard soldiers say and sometimes, though not often, saying things he had not heard anyone say. The book would be full of voices – the language of Americans in Vietnam (“Mayhew, crazy fucker, he sleep bare-ass. He so tough, man, li’l fucker, the hawk is out, an’ he’s in here bare-ass.” “What’s that? About the hawk?” “That means it’s a co-o-old Mother Fucker.”

Herr had always been able to re-create the conversation of other people utterly different from himself, and he did that now: re-creating the voices he had heard in Vietnam – all wound together in the long monologue the book became. “Were the voices real?” interviewers would ask him. “They were real,” he said. But he wasn’t writing dialogue from notes. He didn’t remember, later, even taking notes on what people said – just on what he saw, the country, the people, and less and less of that as he went along. And the characters were not always exactly who he said they were. Day Tripper was a composite, Mayhew was mostly Mayhew but in real life he wasn’t called Mayhew. Sometimes Herr thought of the book as a novel, sometimes the best description for it was a “distillation” of an extreme experience “in the honest and truthful way which did not happen to always be the most factual way.”

The narrator’s voice held it all together – the scattered pieces of war: a voice deliberate, tense, holding hysteria back to give an account the narrator knows, knows without any question or doubt, must be given. It was urgently necessary that these things be told, said, understood. The Khesanh pieces were full of dread – death and dread and more death, that “laughing death-face” that hid behind the newsprint and lingered on the television screens after the news reports that denied its presence in the war. Death lingered on Herr’s every page: bodies, stacked, shoved into body bags, torn apart – the object of jokes and anguish and casual disregard. Death and love. Herr had loved the Marines, who were pathetic and fucked up and forlorn and abandoned and lost, but who had real heart. They were an embarrassment to any historical sense of masculinity, but there was something going on there, something that was very moving….

Esquire announced the imminent publication of Dispatches in “Backstage,” October 1969, when the second Khesanh installment ran, but Dispatches did not appear. Herr was living with Valerie Elliott, who worked for Herr’s agent, Candida Donadio. Elliott would say to Donadio, “He doesn’t write, he doesn’t write anything.” And Donadio would say, “You must understand, writers spend years thinking. They just spend years thinking and thinking.”

In fact, Herr was writing, but slowly. Elliott would come home and he would have the television on, and he would be lying on the sofa, and writing on a yellow pad: a few lines, dot-dot-dot, then a blank line, and a few more lines. He was trying to give the Esquire material a frame that would make Dispatches a book – a real book with a narrative that he that he could tell was there, even if no one else could. But the high that had carried him almost all the way had come to an end: he had come home from his adventure in Vietnam, virtually the only one of his New York set who had gone to Vietnam, and he had come home unhurt, full of energy and ego and vanity.

Then two colleagues from Vietnam, photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, went off to Cambodia and never returned, and Life photographer Larry Burrows died in a helicopter accident over Cambodia. A breakdown that Herr would come to feel had been lurking for many years, at least ten, a breakdown he had avoided by moving fast through the sixties, descended on him. He had felt it coming during the summer of 1969, then a year later it hit him hard. He had seen things in Vietnam he really shouldn’t have seen – things he had not prepared to see. He had had pretensions, ambition, and he had gotten in over his head, gone to an extreme place where he was not prepared to go. He had begun to sense what was in store for him when someone in Vietnam asked him, “Are you a reporter?”

“And I said, ‘No, I’m a writer.’ And he said, ‘ Well, be careful, ’cause where you’re going you can’t use an eraser.’

 “And I knew I was being told something of extreme profundity. It really made my blood run cold.

 “You know, I was looking at bodies – but I didn’t believe – I saw this guy shot across the aisle from me in a helicopter, and that didn’t do it. Nothing that I was seeing did it, and then this guy said that to me and it was like –

 “I’ve often wondered where that guy is and wished I could speak to him. Thank him.”

 

Michael Herr talked with me about writing Dispatches when I visited him and his wife Valerie Elliott at his home near Syracuse in late September, 1993. This passage is an excerpt from my book,  It Wasn’t Pretty, But Didn’t We Have Fun: Esquire in the Sixties (W.W. Norton, 1995).

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Coming soon from Culicidae Press

51EFUTcskYL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Growing up as a missionary child in West Africa, Carol Claxon Polsgrove was raised to be American, but Yoruba voices filled her days and talking drums her nights. Lifting the veil of stereotypes about missionary life, When We Were Young in Africa offers an intimate account of coming of age at a crossroads of cultures.

Publication date: December 11, 2015

“Part of the legacy of Carol Polsgrove’s childhood is a sense of being between worlds, clearly not African but not fitting in the United States either. Nor is she at home in the evangelizing Christianity of her parents. But in this memoir, brimming with the sounds and smells, the voices and spirits of over sixty years ago, Polsgrove comes to see the unity that links the two continents of her life and, in doing so, to embrace her becoming as it shapes her ongoing.

When We Were Young in Africa is not just recollection but examination, always thoughtful, often funny, wrestling with issues of racism and social justice, the larger history of which her childhood is a part. Don t miss it!”–George Ella Lyon, Kentucky Poet Laureate (2015-2016), author of Many-Storied House and co-author of Voices from the March on Washington

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Oliver Sacks’ Village

When Oliver Sacks starts writing, he may not stop writing for hours, days, weeks, and when he does, he may need an editor to wrestle a manuscript from unwieldy to publishable length.

He once fired off nine drafts of an article to the editor of The Listener, each so different that the editor could not combine them but finally just settled on one and went with it.

Writing about himself in his new autobiography, On the Move, Sacks says he gets “intoxicated, sometimes, by the rush of thoughts,” and they come out in a tangle that requires “extensive pruning and editing.”

He wrote so many versions of A Leg to Stand On – “each longer, more intricate, more labyrinthine than the last – that after nine years he had produced a manuscript of over 300,000 words, ultimately trimmed to one-fifth that length.

One could nearly conclude that it takes a village to make a writer – not only editors but people who love you, like Sacks’ Aunt Lennie, who, reading his account of his trips in the early 60s wrote to him, “I found the whole thing breathtaking. I was suddenly conscious that I was gasping physically.”

If Sacks, like many writers, has not been flying solo, his prodigious passion for storytelling has kept the plane in the air. Stories zing through his autobiography – long manic motorcycle rides, tender moments, and – of most interest to writers – lightbulb moments when he sees a story he wants to tell.

It is hard to imagine how he managed to tell the story of his own unruly life in a mere 384 pages, but we owe some gratitude for that to Kate Edgar who, he says in his Acknowledgments, “has played a unique role in my life – as personal assistant, editor, collaborator, and friend – for more than thirty years.” – Carol Polsgrove, August 25, 2015

 

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On the long trail of a big story

I have known for years that Betty Medsger, a former colleague and friend when we both lived in the Bay area, was working on the book that became The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.

And now, it is here, and I see that one reason it took a long time arriving is that it is a very big book: not only the story of a group of eight anti-war activists who stole FBI files from an office in Media, Pennsylvania, but also the story of the world they unlocked the door to: J. Edgar Hoover’s secret FBI.

For more on Medsger’s long journey into the past – and why it matters to us, see my piece in the Berkeley Daily Planet:

Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: They Broke the Law to Preserve It.

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