Under the Influence #13

written by Kurt Baumeister August 12, 2019

Intro

Wherein Robert Burke Warren praises the magical minimalism of Alice Munro; Gregory Spatz reflects on the wild life–and still wilder work–of James Agee; Matthew Specktor muses on the wacky, baffling genius of Wallace Stevens; Nina Buckless discusses what she learned from Tolkien about gaining the reader’s trust; and Kurt Baumeister returns to the topic of literary courage, this time focussing on the iconic Vladimir Nabokov…


J.R.R. Tolkien

by Nina Buckless



I was searching for the keys and tools with which to build a fictional world, a world that, no matter how alien, gains the reader’s trust, actualizes her desires. In Tolkien’s collected essays, The Monsters and the Critics, I found the perspective I was seeking.

Tolkien reminded me that the fantastic can create treasure boxes, forming a bond of trust between reader and writer, that can later be opened; that language, whether real or invented, can invite the reader into trusted foreign spaces and open new worlds that welcome the human heart, for as Tolkien says, “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” and, to go further, “Fantasy is a human right.”

Nina Buckless is a fiction writer and poet. Poetry or prose have appeared in Santa Monica Review, Tin House, Unsaid, Georgetown Review, Absent, Burrow Press Review, Midwestern Gothic, Big Muddy Review, Turkish Literature and Art, Pangolin Review and Fiction Writers Review. Her short story “Deer” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers Program and the recipient of a Zell Fellowship. Nina was granted a Civitas Fellowship and taught poetry with InsideOut Detroit in Detroit Public Schools. She received two scholarships to attend The Community of Writers Workshop in California. Nina is a veteran of Jim Krusoe’s creative writing workshop in Los Angeles, California. Currently, she is working on a novel.


Wallace Stevens

by Matthew Specktor

I first read Wallace Stevens when I was an undergraduate. The titles alone (“Someone Puts a Pineapple Together;” “Palace of the Babies”) summoned me, with their daffy undercurrents and disharmonious suggestions. The poems themselves, for a moment, baffled me, until I understood their fragrant invocations and tendency to freestyle on the edge of nonsense (“Cheiftain of Iffucan of Azcan in caftan…”) to be renderings of perception, rather than of reality. He was the writer who taught me–even ahead of Henry James–that writing is a stage for consciousness, rather than a place to represent the drab actual.

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Believer, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is a founding editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books.


James Agee

By Gregory Spatz

Poet, journalist, film-critic, novelist, script-writer James Agee died in the back of a taxi cab in 1955, age 46. I first encountered his final novel, A Death in the Family, in ninth grade. I’ve re-read it countless times since. My hunch is it took Agee his entire life to learn to restrain his notoriously “poetic” style so he could write straight into the most devastating event of his life—the death of his father when he was six years old.

Most of his life, Agee drank heavily, wasted time on work that didn’t matter to him, and sabotaged his writing in every way. He didn’t live to see ADITF published (final edits were done by a lifelong friend). But there’s a quality to ADITF that could only come from Agee’s having stored it so long, working and not working on it. It is raw, unfinished. But perfectly so—perfectly imperfect.

Gregory Spatz is the author of What Could Be Saved, Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, No One but Us, Half as Happy, Wonderful Tricks. His stories have appeared The New Yorker, Glimmer Train Stories, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. Recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Spatz teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Spatz plays the fiddle in the twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds.


Alice Munro

by Robert Burke Warren

Alice Munro’s prose reminds me of certain humbly constructed, yet oddly incantatory folk and country songs, and quite a few Leonard Cohen songs, gems that deliver a wallop with short lines, unfussy words, rudimentary melodies. Minus the melodic aspect (although her prose is indeed musical), Munro does that, too. You step back and say, “How did she conjure that image? That feeling? That intensity? And reveal the exquisite beauty of that supposedly mundane bit of life? With just those words?” It’s inspiring to know it can be done, albeit also maddening in the best way.

Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, and musician. His work appears in Salon, AARP, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, Woodstock Times, Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is in paperback. His songwriting appears on albums by Rosanne Cash, RuPaul, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. In the mid 90s, he portrayed Buddy Holly in the West End musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story. Prior to that he traveled the world as a rock & roll bass player.


Vladimir Nabokov

by Kurt Baumeister

The fact that a writer could be so audacious as to write Lolita’s prose in his third language–the opening paragraph of which still stands as my model for the poetic in English fiction–is chastening enough. But to follow that with the literary gymnastics of something like Pale Fire, a “centaur-work” as Updike called it, is almost incomprehensible. Taken as a piece, these books reveal a literary intellect with few modern equals and a literary fearlessness that is, in some ways, more admirable because of his success. Nabokov wrote what he wanted, whether that meant a book he knew would be banned based on subject matter (Lolita) or one far enough outside the mainstream that his literary reputation (and perhaps that of his sanity) might be damaged, the poetry and imagined literary criticism hybrid, Pale Fire.

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