Friday, April 7, 2017

Poet Rita Sims Quillen - The Foreword to Poetry Collection THE MAD FARMER'S WIFE . . .

Christal Cooper

*FOREWORD from the poetry collection THE MAD FARMER’S WIFE

       In the early 1980’s my husband and I were living on a rocky hillside farm in southwestern Virginia with some cattle, goats, chickens, and two babies while I finished my M.A. at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. That time in my life is a blur of stress and exhaustion.

One thing I remember vividly is discovering the poetry of Kentucky author Wendell Berry.  We had studied Berry’s essays on farming, the environment, and the economy in my graduate classes, but I was delighted to discover a whole new side of him revealed in his poetry.  He had created a brilliant, funny, clear-eyed critic of the modern world called “The Mad Farmer,” and the voice in those poems from that persona’s perspective was immediately familiar and beloved. 

Within days of first reading them, I found myself writing a poem from the perspective of the Mad Farmer’s Wife—a companion, partner, sounding board, a counterpoint. 

                     Painting "Granny In Heaven" by Angelyn DeBord 

       As I wrote more poems from her perspective, I realized she was now a permanent character who had taken up residence in my head.

Unsure how Mr. Berry would feel about another poet drawing so heavily from his own poetic efforts, I wrote  a letter of introduction and enclosed a couple of the poems, asking how he felt about what I was doing and would it be okay if I published some of the poems. 

He wrote back a very kind and gracious reply, assuring me that he, too, loved the Mad Farmer and was “very glad to finally meet his wife.”

Author Ed McClanahan, Berry’s long-time friend and neighbor, explains in his introduction to The Mad Farmer Poems that we would be mistaken if we misinterpret the character of The Mad Farmer as Berry himself, or even as a spokesperson for him.  He is simply one of many characters Berry has assembled over the years for his novels and short stories.

Whatever he is, it is clear that The Mad Farmer functions effectively as Everyman Farmer of his generation.

       The Mad Farmer’s Wife and I have a similar relationship.  Of course, she speaks out of my head, heart, and experiences. However, in my mind, she is about twelve to fifteen years older than I, has lived a much harder life, has done way more hard labor and farm work, and has seen more change and loss. In short, she’s been both luckier and unluckier. She is me and definitely not me.

       The Mad Farmer speaks often of his wife, his partner, his love.  She is, in fact, central to his life there on the farm, fitting in a most traditional role.

Some modern readers may find the Mad Farmer a bit out-of-touch, and he himself says as much in Berry’s poem “Some Further Words” when he tells us that he’s an “old-fashioned man.”

As The Mad Farmer goes on to explain in the same poem, modern readers may have no frame of reference for the type of marriage that two people shared on the land in those earlier times, which was both a business partnership and a deep bond of love, trust, and cooperation that is uncommon today. They both fell into very traditional roles on the farm and thought nothing of it.  Berry writes:

       And just as tenderly to be known
       are the affections that make a woman and a man
       their household and the homeland one.
       These too, though known, cannot be told
       to those who do not know them and fewer
       of us learn them, year by year
       loves that are leaving the world
       like the colors of extinct birds
       like the songs of a dead language. (34)


        The traditional roles and division of labor do not bother the Mad Farmer or his wife. They would be somewhat puzzled to be questioned about gender roles or stereotypes. They go with the flow of nature and time, having no agenda or making no political statement at all beyond a good harvest and doing right by the land, their animals, their neighbors, themselves, their work and their life, doing whatever work there is and, as Berry writes in “The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer,” seeing that it is “…done with more than enough knowledge/ and more than enough love/ by those who do not have to be told. (16)”

The Quillen Farmstead in Southwestern Virginia

       The Mad Farmer’s Wife has a story to tell, some small wisdom she wants to offer the world before she goes, as someone who has lived life at its most elemental level. In these poems she wants us to think about the price of that life, but even more about the price of not living that life.

Rita, far left, Rita's mother far right, Rita's Grandmother holding Rita's daughter Kelsey 

Young women today certainly could teach her a great deal about many things, the practical and the ideological, but they could also learn from her. If nothing else, maybe she can help everyone understand there’s only one thing that really matters when it’s all said and done and over: love, especially the love between a man and a woman raising a family and working the land together.

Rita's Husband's grandfather Warren Quillen with his 2nd Wife Alice and their 1st of 10 children. 

As the poem “The Mad Farmer Dances” tries to explain, everyone should consider: “The grandest of mysteries—love and its stubbornness---/that wide velvet ribbon holding a marriage/Made of things so tiny you could breathe them.”

                                   The Quillen's Home today 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Guest Blogger JONATHAN TAYLOR on MUSIC and FICTION . . .

Christal Ann Rice Cooper

Excerpt from KONTAKTE and Other Stories
By Jonathan Taylor
Preface: On Musical Fictions

All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.  (Walter Pater, The Renaissance)

Over the last 250 years, thousands of short stories, novellas and novels have explored musical themes, or revolved around musical characters. The late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly, are full of such stories and characters. Wackenroder’s ‘Joseph Berlinger,’ Hoffmann’s tales, Poe’s fiction, Balzac’s musician ‘Gambara,’ Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hardy’s stories, Du Maurier’s Trilby, Leo Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, all include musical images, themes and characters. No doubt this literary fascination with music and the figure of the musician originates in their Romantic elevation to the highest spiritual realms by philosophers like Schopenhauer and Pater, and real-life musicians like Richard Wagner. 

As Friedrich Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morals:                                          
With this extraordinary inflation in the value of music, which seemed to follow from Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the musician too suddenly rose in value: from that moment on he became an oracle, a priest, even more than a priest, a sort of spokesman of the ‘in itself’ of things … from that time on he ceased to talk just music, this ventriloquist of God – he talked metaphysics.

Some things have changed since Nietzsche wrote this in 1887, but the fascination in fiction with music and musicians remains. There are numerous twentieth- and twenty-first-century authors who write about music and musicians, from Thomas Mann and Anthony Burgess, to Roddy Doyle, Rose Tremain, and Nick Hornby; there are whole anthologies of stories about music, such as those edited by Peter Wild, and inspired by The Smiths and The Fall; there is even a publisher in New York, Coral Press, which specialises in publishing ‘musical fiction’.

There is arguably a difference, though, between earlier and later portrayals of musicians in fiction: Thomas Mann’s composer in Doctor Faustus cuts a very different figure to some of the more idealised portrayals of musicians in the high-Romantic era.

Wagner’s posthumous association with Hitler and Nazism, coupled with his own egotism and avowed anti-Semitism, have inevitably had their effects on later fictional musicians. Arguably, one such effect is a disillusioned, and partly self-conscious, turning away from perceived Romantic ‘high’ cultural models of music and the musician – so that many writers of the later twentieth-century preferred to focus on ‘popular’ music and musicians of one kind or another.

Of course, this survey is all rather generalised, and history never quite works in such a linear way. The emphasis on popular culture, and the corresponding suspicion of musicians and musical power, was actually with us long before – in the nineteenth-century fiction of Poe, Balzac, Du Maurier, and Hardy.

Conversely, the later twentieth- and twenty-first centuries have not entirely turned away from earlier idealisations of music; Vikram Seth’s beautiful writing on music, for example, owes a great deal to Romantic conceptions of music, translating Schubert’s or Bach’s music into the rather blunter medium of the English language.

Many fiction writers have attempted this – to write musical fiction which is not merely about music, but which somehow echoes that music within the constraints of written prose. This is the kind of musical fiction which interests me – fiction which is not just musically themed, but which, in its style, its punctuation, its cadences and its imagery, attempts to capture the strange and elusive narratives of music; and not just any music, or music in general, but the particular music with which the fiction is concerned – whether that music is Stockhausen or The Smiths, Puccini or Piaf.

Short stories, I think, are particularly good at this, partly because the time taken to read a short story is often similar to the time taken to listen to a piece of music; one can mirror the narrative structure of the other quite closely. The very compression and intensity of short fiction means that it lends itself more readily to the portrayal and simulation of the compressed intensity of musical works.

In stylistically simulating musical techniques, fiction often comes very close to poetry, which, after all, self-consciously uses musical elements of language as part of its repertoire. Like poetry, musical fiction will often use alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm, allusion, refrains, even rhyme, to simulate the music it is describing. And the more like poetry it becomes, the more musical fiction inevitably starts to bend and then break some of the basic ‘rules’ of prose, such as conventional uses of grammar, punctuation, lineation and paragraphing. To attempt to describe music, to encapsulate its fluid structures and timbres, it would often seem necessary to write in a more fluid, flexible, poetic way; and examples of this kind of poetic prose abound in musical fiction.

However weak we may feel that words are in comparison to music, many composers have struggled in the opposite direction to that of writers, attempting to connect their art form with written language. Schubert’s songs, Wagner’s Gesamtskunstwerk, Berlioz’s, Liszt’s and Strauss’s tone poems and other programmatic works – all appropriate written narratives and texts, and, in their very different ways, attempt to shape these narratives and texts into music. 

This act of shaping material from words into music had – and maybe still has – the same kind of distorting effects on musical language as the reverse has on written language. The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century composers most credited with writing music informed by written texts are the same composers who are usually credited with stretching, bending and sometimes even breaking conventional musical language. It would seem that the very attempt to cross between different art forms necessarily distorts, bends, breaks and transforms the languages of those art forms. But then, I believe that this is precisely what artists of all kinds – whether musicians, short-story writers, novelists or poets – should be attempting to do: challenging, subverting and reinventing the conventional languages of their chosen art forms.

(A version of this Preface was originally published on Thresholds: International Short Story Forum, 2013.

The quotation from Nietzsche is in The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Douglas Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p.83)