In the pre-spring lull, bright again now in New York, the snow piles have melted from the curbs and the park across the street seems right out of the books of Narnia, I think about contradictions, and about detail. OLP’s February/March interviewee Salvatore Scibona in his award-winning novel The End transports us back to a Cleveland summer in August 1953 when the sticky heat hangs about the shoulders of the crowd and music wraps the Feast of the Assumption parade-goers in late summer’s enveloping mirth.
“Behind the clergy came the Virgin, smirking, her porcelain skin dark like an Arab’s, the nose upturned, English, her stature dwarflike, her clothes and hands stuck with specks of diamond donated over many years by women who had had them pried from their engagement rings. She stood on a stone platform, four spiral wooden columns supporting the gilt roof over her head. The rails undergirding the platform were borne on the shoulders of sixteen men in white albs. Ribbons hung from the columns and the people pinned money to the ribbons as they dragged by. And white-robed men with hoods hanging down their backs guarded the platform, holding bull-rib torches, singing plainsong.” (The End, by Salvatore Scibona (Graywolf, 2008) ~ Pg. 39)
The first thing we notice is precision: precision of observation, of detail, of vocabulary. It is as if Scibona absorbed by osmosis the whole town, out for the parade, and gave it back to us through the lens of transfixing language. In this way it becomes possible to see through the image — to hone in on the child pinning a dollar on the dragging ribbons, to observe the light catch in diamonds embedded in the Virgin Mary’s plaster robes. The writer holds these talismans out to us, the often-missed moments that make the day unique. He is a documentarian, a keeper of specimens, a scientist at his obsessive alchemy.
Lately I’ve been tagging postcards with language fragments: here is a swirling dance hall in post-war Paris, here a general store where one can find that special soap. Every few weeks I index them and add my notes to Freemind, an open source mind-mapping software that allows the user to organize thoughts by creating variously linked nodes. Thus the plot of a new project grows through a series of discoveries — from phrases culled from morning freewrites, scraps of dialog overheard on the train, pieces of old poems broken down to their component parts. I type memos on my BlackBerry, refine poems-in-progress on the subway, press “send” so these drafts arrive in my inbox as email, tagged “Writing,” ready to be pasted periodically into Freemind.
But this organizing and archiving acts only as an outline; it’s impossible to write in the absence of writing. So shall we agree, together, to write somehow, every day? Shall we search our notebooks for forgotten texts, unrealized beginnings, and if, zipping our laptops into their cases, we observe an interesting detail, shall we agree to write it down? Because the empty laundry basket at the top of the stairs could belong to a character we’ve yet to meet; the folded Tiffany’s bag in the recycle bin could be a poem’s opening image; the boy in the blue jacket leading a bouquet of balloons across the street could be the protagonist of our next story. Poet Marie Ponsot says, “Your world of language is inside somewhere. You need to get access to it. Write ten minutes every day.”
If I do, will you?