Monday, May 30, 2005


It can enlighten.
It can terrify.
It can make you see ordinary objects that you pass by daily in an entirely different way.
It can exalt.
It can remind you of everything you already know, but forget on a daily basis.
It can shake you.
It can transform you.
It can make you stop.
It can demand you begin.
It can make you say yes.
It can send a loud NO! screaming through the labyrinths of your soul.

For a poem that does all of the above, watch this film. Not coincidentally, it was written by my favorite poet.

Sunday, May 29, 2005


I read this article by Spengler in Asia Times quickly, which is clearly not how it is meant to be absorbed. For any writer, musician or artist who is concerned about the impact of his or her work on the species--if indeed we aspire to having an impact--it raises some salient, stimulating and provocative points.

I don't agree with everything in "Why the Beautiful is not the Good" but I am grateful to Spengler for rasing the discussion--and particularly for this insightful paragraph:

"Of all the Catholic writers, J R R Tolkien understood this point perhaps the best. His high-Elven master smith Feanor created the Silmarils, three jewels of astonishing beauty, and went to war when they were stolen. His defect was exceeding pride in the work of his hands. The tragedy of the Elves to some extent is the tragedy of the artists. Ultimately it is the virtues of the humble Hobbits rather than the magnificence of the Elves that will prevail. Music, like science, offers mere potential for good; the good is sui generis. For art to serve the good, the artist must first be good. Benedict XVI, as noted, stated that "reverence, receptivity and humility" characterize the musician whose art exalts rather than confuses the listener. Religion can engage art as its servant only after it has converted the artist."

Friday, May 27, 2005


Last night I fell in love with an old Jewish man by the name of Leo Gursky. I fell in love with his "apartment full of shit," and the poor ruined body he exposes before an art class just because he wants to be seen before he dies. I fell in love with his stained underwear, and his childhood friend, Bruno, who weeps easily, and has hair like dandelion fluff, and with his tenacious devotion to a girl who married someone else fifty years earlier.

Last night something happened that hasn't occurred in a while, but it's the thing that keeps readers cruising, searching, questing with the same battered hope that propels singles in and out of bars. I opened a book and fell in love. To anyone who's read it, you probably recognize the character I'm talking about, and have situated his novel home. It's 'The History of Love,' a novel I previously suspected of being overhyped and overpraised. Well, this morning, still slightly drunk on Leo Gursky, I'm here to say it's neither.

The author, Nicole Krauss is not only young, beautiful, and married to literary luminary, Jonathan Safran Foer, she's also freaking brilliant. Tell me; is life fair? Well, we won't get into that. But the thing is, I'm so in love with Leo that envious as I may be, I begrudge his creator nothing.

"This History of Love" is a wonderful story, narrated by a wonderful character in a strong, clear voice; it is also the best kind of book a writer can read. Only fifty pages into it, I wanted to leap out of my bed at 2 a.m. and go to my computer to work on my own neglected novel.

Fifty pages into it and already gushing? you say. And you're right, of course. I should wait until I finish the book before I start spouting opinions. But unfortunately, people in love are not known for their prudence.

Undoubtedly, there will be more on this subject later.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Over a lunch of peanut butter crackers and chocolate (the dark kind with lots of anti-oxidants in case you're worrying about my nutritional status) I read Jonathan Franzen's new story, "Two's Company" in the May 23rd edition of the New Yorker. A short piece, it was almost as tasty as my chocolate--and in its own cunning way just as dark.

The story focuses on Pam and Paul, the perfect couple. Not only are they madly in love and highly compatible, they're writing comedic scripts together in L.A. "at the combined age of 43." They sell their first pilot when they're only 27, and an eight figure deal soon follows. (Call me naive,but I didn't know there was such a thing. But then again, I exist in the world of lit mags that pay mostly in honorariums or free subscriptions.)

Soon, however, the perfection of their marriage becomes a tyranny, and Pam (the more talented or just more market-savvy partner) the chief tyrant. When she decides to make a show called "Two's Company" to celebrate (or cash in) on their putatively flawless partnership, she can't allow that the fictional husband might be even momentarily attracted to a busty bimbo named Kimba. (Nice alliteration, huh?)

As if to prove that the laws of testosterone are more powerful than his wife's script, Paul promptly begins to fantasize about the young star of the show. When Pam finds out he's met the girl for coffee, she summarily ends the marriage. Apparently for her, it's perfection or nothing.

Is it possible to thoroughly enjoy a story and be irritated by it at the same time?
Apparently so. I closed the magazine, filled with admiration for what Franzen was able to accomplish with a few deft strokes, but irritated as hell by the way he's backed his characters into a corner. Especially Pam. Can't a female character ever be strong and talented--and still be human, too?

Just asking.

P.S. While I was searching for a link to the story, which I didn't find, I came across a great blog called Earth Goat. For an entirely different take on this story, check it out.


I did not know the work of Israeli novelest, Batya Gur, who died earlier this week of cancer, but in this quote, spoken just before her diagnosis, she reminded me of what I'm always in danger of forgetting:

"I view life as a journey of initiation for death. A person lives, suffers, dies. All the rest is grace. And love is grace. Writing is grace."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Yesterday I found this quote from an interview with writer Ali Smith, which immediately demanded a place over my cluttered desk:

"Stories can change lives if we're not careful. They will come in and take the shirts off our backs. Tell the right stories and we live better lives."

What a wonderful way to describe the power of story: as something with the ability to strip you naked and leave you rattled inside your own skin. Whether you've been the victim of a robbery that leaves you more impoverished than you were before, or a gift with the power to transform your life--well, that depends on the book you chose to open.

Frequently, we shy away from discussing the impact that stories have on their readers, and perhaps for good reasons. Historically, such assessments have led to book bans and burnings. A book that fed the dark side (in someone's estimation) was not simply a book to be put aside, it was a book to be destroyed, forbidden, turned to ash. And the freedom, in which art thrives,was often destroyed with it. No, we don't want to go back to that. We never want to go back.

But our aversion to censorship doesn't mean that both readers and writers don't have a responsibility to create stories that exalt human consciousness, rather than debase it. When we open a book and read those critical first pages, deciding whether the narrative holds our interest, let us also consider if this is a story we want to enter our bloodstream, our heart, the thoughts and actions we carry forward after closing it.

If this is indeed a world of meaning, rather than an empty universe in which to do little more than act out shallow survival skills, then every conversation we participate in, every film we allow to wash over us in the dark, every book we open in the sanctuaries of our bedrooms, is an invitation: Come in. If we are choosey about who we allow in the front door of our house, shouldn't we be even more careful about who we invite into that hall of mirrors: our mind?

When my sons, Gabe and Josh were small boys, I undertook a project with them. Each night before bed, I would read a chapter from a classic novel. while they sprawled Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield.

But the novel that we all remember when we talk about that time was Hugo's masterpiece, Les Miserables.
The boys loved the hero's superhuman strength so much that I once caught them playing a game they called "Jean Valjean" in the back yard, pretending to save one another from beneath a fallen carriage.

But it was Jean's goodness and humility that made the three of us weep together through the closing pages of the novel. And it is those moments when we cried for the unheralded death of one good man, that subtly changed us, that whispered to our blood, and whisper to us still, inviting us into the better life that Ali Smith describes.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Great piece in today's Times about Henri Matisse's 'second life'. Of course, the man himself never fails to fascinate, but in some ways, the concept of the second life intrigues me even more. What exactly is a second life? For anyone who had ever survived a potentially fatal illness,little explanation is necessary. It's the gift years. The ones that were never promised to you, as we, in the stupor of ordinary days and familiar landscapes, seem to believe years are supposed to be. In other words, 'a second life' is a bright morning with the blinders off. It's existence deepened and enlivened by its very fragility.

Knowing the joyfulness and the exuberance of his work, it is not surprising that Matisse was a man who would take full opportunity of the gift years, producing the marvelously free work that consumed his final thirteen years.

The piece contains some terrific quotes from an artist who was not only a master with a paintbrush, but clearly had earned an honorary doctorate in the art of life as well:

"When I find something is not going well, I look in some satisfying corner and find I have no reason to complain."

"I am told that Chinese teachers taught their students that when you want to draw a tree, feel as if you were climbing it..."

And in response to a critic who said he was too old for erotic art: "If my feelings of freshness, of beauty, of youth remains the same as it was 30 years ago in front of flowers, a fine sky or an elegant tree, why should it be different with a young girl?"

Thursday, May 19, 2005


In this morning's Guardian, several prominent writers, thinkers, and scientists share their thoughts about faith. They range from unique testaments of belief to a rather poetic description of agnosticism. This, from Jeanette Winterson, about"living in the largeness" particularly spoke to me:

If the religions agree on anything, it's that God is not containable and finite, and that what we know is always very partial and biased. So I am looking for something outside of all that. Part of our challenge and our glory is to live in that largeness.

And speaking of living in the largeness, one of our greatest living poets will turn 100 this summer. Stanley Kunitz may need a walker to get around; his speaking voice may be too weakened to permit public readings. A personal assistant might even feel compelled to stop him in the middle of an interview with a reporter from the New York Times to ask if he's feeling afraid. But the poems go on: vigorous, mighty of voice, intrepid as ever. In honor of his impending birthday, I wanted to print my favorite one here.
But Kunitz has penned so many transcendent poems, choice was impossible. Thus, I made my pick based in part on brevity:


The word I spoke in anger
weighs less than a parsley seed,
but a road runs through it
that leads to my grave,
that bought-and-paid-for lot
on a salt-sprayed hill in Truro
where the scrub pines
overlook the bay.
Half-way I'm dead enough,
strayed from my own nature
and my fierce hold on life.
If I could cry, I'd cry,
but I'm too old to be
anybody's child.
with whom should I quarrel
except in the hiss of love,
that harsh, irregular flame?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Truly, good things happen through blogging. One example? Since I have tons of poetry floating around my house in various forms--some in loose sheaths, some in various computer files, others stored precarously in my head where it occasionally tumbles loose at odd moments, I decided I would organize it on a blog. Thus, Waitress Poems was born--the name chosen largely because it was the first phrase I typed in that wasn't already taken. For the most part, I was doing it as a way of organizing the poems, grouping them together and seeing how they looked on the screen. I never particularly expected anyone to take notice. But take notice someone did--specifically Sinead Gleeson, the editor of one of my favorite on-line journals. Thus, my poem, Smokers, snaked its way from the bottom of my drawer to the virtual pages of this month's edition of Sigla. Ah, life is good, and blogging makes it even more exhilarating.

Except when it doesn't...In a lot of ways, creating a weblog is a lot like going out on the playground in your new pair of red Keds and your flashiest smile on the first day of school. The more you reveal about yourself, the more likely you are to find kindred spirits. And also the more likely you are to attract a recruit from the burgeoning army of lonely misfits who mistake virtual intimacy for the real thing. In a cautionary tale, also from this month's, Sigla, Karina Westermann relates a particularly harrowing account of Cyberstalking.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

CHOOSE 3 with Ginger Strand

"Booklist" calls Ginger Strand's "Flight," "a finely wrought novel about the back-and-forthness of life." Set in Michigan, "Flight" centers on Will Gruen, an aging commericial pilot coping with his impending retirement and the aftermath of 9/11, even as his family spirals apart in unravelings of their own. Told in multiple points of view, "Flight" follows one family through an increasingly askew wedding weekend that looks back on four decades of sweeping cultural change.

Ginger Strand has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of places, including The Iowa Review, The Believer, The Gettysburg Review, and the New England Review. She has received residencies from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Sewanee Writers Conference, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. "Flight" is her first novel.

To learn more, visit her website.

P.F.: Will Gruen is such a wonderful, nuanced character. Though your novel is told in multiple points of view, he is clearly the heart of the novel. Was that your intention or did he simply emerge as the strongest character?

G.S.: It wasn't my intention, in fact, but those patriarchs do have a way of taking over, don't they? Seriously, I simply found as I wrote that having Will take a more central role worked for the story. I was interested in getting at how family stories are never one individual's story--the traditional novel viewpoint--but rather a combination of overlapping stories that echo and bounce off one another. As I shaped Will's character, I began to see him as someone whose life history, for better or worse, had shaped his family's trajectory, so it was easiest to tell all the stories using his as the center point.

Also, I felt that Will's career could be used to reflect macrocosmic changes in American culture--in the way Americans live and work and relate to each other. Books about young people can be wonderful, and can build a kind of affection for their characters, but frankly, I always find older people more interesting. They have more stories to tell, more experience to draw on, and you can begin to see how their lives have been defined by social and cultural forces. Leopold Bloom is far more interesting than Stephen Dedalus, no?

P.F.: 'Flight' deals with the Vietnam war's continuing impact on a veteran and his family a generation after it was fought. How does that perspective differ from the fiction that was written twenty years ago? What can it add to our understanding of what that war meant and how it altered lives?

G.S.: I am a huge fan of the work of writers like Jayne Anne Phillips and Tim O'Brien, who both write very powerfully about the effect of the Vietnam War on those who lived through that era. I was a small child when the war ended, but it hung over my very early years in a strange way. My father did not go to the war, but he knew many people who did, and many of them died. My parents began by believing the president and then slowly turned against the war. Sometimes I think the "cynical slacker" image of Generation X comes partly out of that formative experience of helplessness--we became aware of politics at a point when they were very divisive and fraught.

I wanted to consider how Vietnam influenced not just the generation who lived through it, but subsequent ones too. Not only that, but it affects everyone's relationship to current events. For Will, the experience of 9/11 can't help but bring back emotions and feelings about his Vietnam experience that he may not have dealt with then. And I think that happened in our culture as a whole: Vietnam tends to rear its head in times of national trauma, as evidenced by the brouhaha about Senator Kerry's war medals during the election. So in writing about it today, we must address a less immediate experience, but one that has additional historical resonances.

P.F.: 'Flight' like many recent "post 9/11" novels forces its characters to confront a world that is not nearly as solid as they believed it to be. Do you believe that fiction has a role in helping people to live with that reality?

G.S.: Solidity is always an illusion. Fiction helps us see that. And that's really what I was trying to write about in "Flight." We have this way of looking at our lives as narratives, progressing neatly through beginning, middle and end, neatly wrapping up with a moral and--preferably--a happy ending. But life doesn't work that way. We move forward, we're pulled back, we move forward again, never certain what's going to happen, or if we've chosen the right path. We just have to do the best we can. Books have always helped me to embrace that, whether fiction, poetry, epic, or good nonfiction.

I don't really like happy endings anyway. They're too pat. I'm the sort of person who finishes a Jane Austen novel and thinks, "That's cute, but what about next month, when she finds out he snores?" Happy endings, like solidity, are fine and dandy, but they're really just resting points, not endings at all. So enjoy them! But the only real ending in my opinion is an ending like that in Samuel Beckett's novel "The Unnameable": "In the silence you don't know, you must go on; I can't go on; I'll go on."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


The following is excerpted from a much more exhaustive consideration of Andre Dubus and his work, written by radio interviewer, Kacey Kowars. Being a devotee of Dubus and a huge fan of Kacey Kowars' insightful interviews with writers, I asked for permission to post an abridged version here. But if you cherish the work of Andre Dubus as much as I do, don't stop here. Return to the work. Dubus' life may have been cut short, but he left us so much. Then visit Kacey Kowars' website and listen to the interviews with Andre Dubus III. While you're there, you might want to catch Kacey's recent interview with Lee Martin. I've already exceeded my book budget for the month, but I couldn't help myself. After I listened to the interview, I went immediately to Amazon to order my copy of THE BRIGHT FOREVER.

Andre Dubus, the master short story writer, toiled in relative obscurity during much of his lifetime. Though known primarily for his stories, Mr. Dubus also wrote essays and novellas. His only novel, THE LIEUTENANT, was published in 1967. Though publishers clamored for novels, Mr. Dubus wrote what his stories asked of him. Sometimes the story wanted to be seven pages, sometimes twenty; ocassionaly the story turned into a novella.

I remember vividly the winter I discovered Andre's work. I bought a copy of THE TIMES ARE NEVER SO BAD at a small bookstore in Bexley, Ohio. I read the collection of stories with a growing sense of awe at what I was reading. I felt that Andre had been following me around, taking notes on my faults and shortcomings. I went back to the beginning and read all of his books, starting with SEPERATE FLIGHTS, the original book published by Godine that contained WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.

In the fall of 1984 I wrote Andre a letter, telling him how much his work meant to me, and how I had shared his books with my friends. I sent the letter to David Godine in Boston, not expecting a reply. On February 5, 1985 I returned home from work to find a solitary letter in my mailbox. I took the letter inside my house and saw it was sent by Andre Dubus from his home in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The letter was three pages long, and would be the first of many letters that Andre and I exchanged from 1985 until his death in 1999.

No one gets off easy in the world of Andre Dubus, for this is the essence of what life is; we must suffer the consequences of our behavior,for that is the only pathway to true joy. It is interesting to note that Andre Dubus was a man that loved life. He was a sensous man who took in all that life had to offer. He loved women, he loved his children, and he loved writing. Not necessarily in that order. He was a man who lived in a wheelchair the last thirteen years of his life. He had much to feel sorry for himself about, but he would not go there. He preferred to teach us how to live with his storytelling. He loved his characters. He was interested in their lives and what happened to them.

Andre Dubus deserves a wider reading audience. A good place to start is his COLLECTED STORIES published by Godine in 1988. Tune in to my website,, to hear an in-depth interview with Andre Dubus lll. In part one we discuss HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. In part two we discuss the work of his father, including WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.

Monday, May 09, 2005

CHOOOSE 3 with Martha O'Connor

Martha O'Connor delves into the dark side of human nature, the intensity of female friendship and the possibilities of redemption in her literary debut, The Bitch Posse. The novel, which sold in only four days, has been garnering the kind of praise and attention that most first novelists fantasize about, including comparisons to the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Sebold and Donna Tartt.

By turns a department store clerk, waitress, latte-maker and eighth-grade teacher, Martha O'Connor now lives and writes fiction and poetry full-time in Marin County, California, with her husband, award-winning novelist and short story writer Philip F. O'Connor, and their children.

To learn more about Martha and The Bitch Posse, visit her website:

P.F. There are few bonds as intense as those between teenage girls, and few girls seem to escape those years without being singed by their heat.You've done an amazing job of conveying the fierce closeness and the pain that so many of us block out or forget as we reach adulthood. How were you able to access those emotions so convincingly?

M.O: As you probably can guess, I had some very strong friendships in high school, friendships that often got me through each day. And we don't often form relationships that intense and free as adults. I remember, though, what it was like, and I've gotten emails from readers in their thirties saying, "I thought no one remembered but me." So I know I'm not the only one who's felt this way.

While I was writing this novel, Amy, Rennie, and Cherry became my closest friends. They let me into their world, their thoughts, their experiences, and I used their language to transcribe what happened to them. The story just flowed out of me. That's never happened to me with a book before; it was truly a magical experience.

P.F. Your erotic scenes are very fresh and gorgeously written--enough to earn a nomination for the Henry Miller award. Did you experience any trepidation in writing so frankly, or did the words flow as naturally as they seem to?

M.O.: I realized early on that if I was going to explore these characters' lives honestly (particularly Rennie's), I would have to turn off all the censors. I just let the words pour out of me, and didn't think much about what people would say. Actually, I was convinced that no US publisher would have the balls to touch this book, so once I got to a certain point I said to myself, Hey, I can do anything! No one's watching.

In the end, I'm not a huge fan of the "fade the sex scene to black" approach. Sex is an extraordinarily powerful part of the human condition, yet many writers turn away. I find that studying each moment of the sexual experience is tremendously interesting. Not titillating~INTERESTING. We can gain so much insight into characters by watching the emotions and thoughts brought up during sex.

P.F.: 'The Bitch Posse' has been called "a dark novel," and it certainly tackles dark themes and events. But in the end I find it very hopeful and illuminating. Can you speak a little about that?

M.O.: You absolutely hit the nail on the head. In the end the novel is about redemption. None of us is perfect, and some of us make major mistakes and hurt other people. But we're all redeemable. I really believe that. And those human connections, like Amy, Rennie and Cherry have as part of The Bitch Posse, are sometimes the only things making life bearable, a lot of the time. It can be a really lonely and frightening journey, this Life thing. You have to do it all by yourself. But if you have people you can be REAL with, it's not so bad.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


One of the first things my parents told me when I was a tot was that I was Irish, and anyone who wore orange on St. Paddy's day, or in any other way impugned our ancient tribe, was to be considered an enemy for life. Little did I know that after a lifetime of defending the Hibernian honor, on my first trip to Ireland, I would be promptly disabused of the notion of my Irishness. I might have "the head of an Irishman," I was informed, but I was, in fact, a yank.

"You mean I'm not Irish?" I asked the gentleman who was the bearer of this earth shattering revelation. I was utterly crestfallen. Might as well have been told that my ma was not my ma.

"With all due respect, miss, you're not," he said, kindly laying a reassuring hand on my arm. (The ancient tribe is nothing if not kind.)

So okay, I'm not Irish. I'm a yank with the head of an Irishman (I think that means I look the part.) In any case, I am, like much of the world, a huge fan of the literature. Obsessed is actually a more accurate word for it. But then I am not a person of tepid interests; for me, it's obsession or nothing--another quality I blame on the heart of an Irish woman that beats inside my yank clothing.

To promote my obsession, I'd like to pass on a couple of great links that I've discovered:

The first is a fairly exhaustive catalogue of Irish writers created by the author of 'The Fabulist', Philip Casey, with brief bios, list of works, and links to websites: Irish Writers On Line

And then there is Sigla, an eclectic webzine, filled with reviews, commentary on all manner of subjects, poetry, and an intriguing new genre of flash fiction for the A.D.D. generation: short stories told in twenty-five words or less.

It was through Sigla that I was introduced to the new word of the day: Shitegeist. Now is that a great word or what? First writer to use it in an original sentence wins a beer at the local pub on me.

Oh yeah, almost slid away without confessing to the truth about my name. Patry Francis. Now that's a name with a rather nice sound to it if I do say so myself. The only thing is it's not my real true name. It's a name I picked up through a precipitous marriage at 19. In fact, the name may have been part of the motivation for the marriage. I know it sounds dumb, but I was nineteen, okay? The name on my birth certificate is Doody. Fodder for creative teasing from my classmates since grade one. In high school, when I researched the name and found that Doody actually derived from the more taunt-resistant O'Dowd, I tried to persuade my father to change it back. But Dad was proud of his name, however--another Hibernian quality, I suspect; and he wouldn't hear of it.

Now, after years of successfully burying my name, I find myself oddly nostalgic for it, and almost as proud of it as Dad was. It is a moniker that is truly mine in a way that Francis never will be no matter how many things I publish under that by-line. And it's more than just a name, it's an identity. The identity of a dispossessed Irish woman, and a yank. We're a feisty lot, us Doodys...With a name like that, I guess we'd have to be.