A Poem: Exodus


March: these three

song sparrows

head in a line–

wing to wing

and keeping their counsel–

toward the leafless hills,

which themselves follow

one another

into the distance.

Trailing this delicate

gray exodus,

I hear the wind

for an instant

unburdened by

trucks or voices.

Only the mist

from my own lungs

offers the necessary

whisper in the silence.

Sparrows far off now,

I watch for others,

praying they’ll sing

me a route I can

thoughtlessly recall.


When you take off, please sing to me. (Credit: Patryk Osmola / National Geographic My Shot / National Geographic Society / Corbis)

Note: This poem originally appeared in slightly different form in Southern Poetry Review (Fall 1991).


Micro-Post: The Gentle Death of Anton Chekhov

(Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of short pieces–micro-posts–on stories/information of interest to nappers. I hope to offer a quick, entertaining read.)


Anton Chekhov (Credit: Wikipedia)

Listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac this morning, I learned a few things about playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. If I’d have paid better attention in college, I’d have already known that . . .

  • Chekhov was a doctor, treating patients and writing on the side for eight years until he bought an estate forty miles outside of Moscow. There he wrote full-time while also giving free medical care to peasants in the area.
  • Chekhov wrote his most famous play, The Cherry Orchard, as a comedy, but Stanislavski intended to present it as a tragedy, with the actors “sobbing openly and dramatically.” “Chekhov was livid, and although he was seriously ill with tuberculosis by this time, he took an active part in the production to try to salvage the play. He traveled to Moscow against his doctor’s orders and worked furiously to revise and edit the play and supervise rehearsals.” The Cherry Orchard was a hit and placed Chekhov on the same pedestal with Tolstoy.

Chekhov and Tolstoy at Yalta in 1900 (Credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose it’s hard to argue with success—to be celebrated for a work that you didn’t mean . . . that way . . . exactly. Shortly after the play’s premier in January of 1904 Chekhov listened to his doctor and went to a spa in Germany. I’ll let Garrison Keillor deliver the punchline:

“While in Badenweiler, [Chekhov] suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctor offered him sips of champagne, which was supposed to be beneficial to people with heart conditions. Chekhov remarked that he hadn’t had champagne for ages. He then turned on his side, closed his eyes as if to take a nap, and died.”


In Your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest and champagne at the last. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Anton Chekhov was only forty-four, but what a way to go: champagne on his tongue, a nap in his heart, and a gentle exit.

P.S. My book, Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is nearly ready for release. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for details.

So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.


The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.


Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.


In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?


Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.


The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”


Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.


“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.

Intense Turkish Coffee and Our Primary Nervous Flux

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I obviously love my daily siesta, but there are people who never even consider resting at midday. My brother Ed is one of them. He’s a CPA, relaxed, well-adjusted, and says he never remembers taking a nap. Another might have been Honore de Balzac, a French novelist and playwright who, according the The Writer’s Almanac, drank twenty to forty cups of “intense Turkish coffee every day” and smoked lots of pipe tobacco. He claimed to have once worked forty-eight straight hours interspersed with only three hours rest, but in the end all the caffeine probably killed him.

Balzac’s essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” parses his obsession with and dependence on coffee: “Coffee affects the diaphragm and the plexus of the stomach, from which it reaches the brain by barely perceptible radiations that escape complete analysis; that aside, we may surmise that our primary nervous flux conducts an electricity emitted by coffee when we drink it.”


Portrait of Honore de Balzac (Credit: Steve Hammond)

And Balzac was all about his “nervous flux” sparking. He favored drinking coffee before eating to maximize its effect. As the acid eats away at the “stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae,” “everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

If coffee had this effect on me, writing would be the last thing I’d want to do. I have plenty of agitation of my own. Other than an appreciation for wine and beer, I’m a chicken about stimulants or depressants. About twenty-five years ago, just before daughter Elena was born, I smoked hash with some friends and had the mother of all panic attacks. Ever since, I’ve been phobic about any drug that might make me lose control and freak out. During a bout with bronchitis a few years ago, I took cough syrup with codeine but couldn’t bring myself to use the prescribed inhaler, which might have messed with my temperamental heart rate. In short, my “primary nervous flux” generates too much electricity as it is. I need to power down, not ramp up.


A Powering-Down Aid

Whether my powering-down siestas contribute anything to humanity is doubtful, but nobody can say that coffee didn’t work for Balzac and world literature. He wrote almost one hundred novels, short stories, and plays, and according to Wikipedia, his work influenced Proust, Zola, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Faulkner, and Kerouac.

en: Portrait of Ewelina Hańska by Holz von Sow...

Portrait of Ewelina Hańska by Holz von Sowgen, 1825, miniature on ivory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the final year of his life, Balzac married Ewelina Hanski, whom he loved for many years, though she was married. Her husband Waclaw died in 1841, but it wasn’t until 1850 that Balzac was able to marry her. “On 14 March 1850, with Balzac’s health in serious decline, they drove from [Ewelina’s] estate in Wierzchownia (village of Verkhivnia) to a church in Berdyczow (city of Berdychiv, today in Ukraine) and were married. The ten-hour journey to and from the ceremony took a toll on both husband and wife: her feet were too swollen to walk, and he endured severe heart trouble” (Wikipedia). Five months later, Balzac died at fifty-one. “His wife had gone to bed and his mother was the only one with him” (The Writer’s Almanac).

Would a daily hour of oblivion have tempered the great author’s lust for caffeine? Maybe, but his work flashed out of his “nervous flux”; Balzac wouldn’t have been Balzac without coffee. Sumus quod sumus (we are what we are).


Balzac’s Tomb (Photo Credit: Joop van Meer)