Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Last Days of Summer

“August, die she must.”  Paul Simon

It is night and quiet. Stone and I walk the streets of my neighborhood. Frequently, he pauses to sniff the air and stare off down the darkened streets while I contemplate the stars and think about the end of summer. It all went so fast.

This has been an unpleasant summer for Stone. We have had nothing but trouble from Stone’s stomach. Evidently, he has irritable bowel syndrome, and has suffered through several bouts of extremely painful digestive problems. At one point, he was on antibiotics and other drugs, as well as a bland diet of boiled chicken and rice. When he recovered enough to return to regular dog food, we had to change to a brand free from grain and other additives.

In the months we have had him, the dog has been nothing but polite and loveable, a true gentleman. I hate to see him in pain. He stares at his stomach like he cannot figure out why it hurts so much. Walking seems to ease the discomfort, so we are walking. Other than a distant drone of a police helicopter, the night is calm. Tomorrow, it all begins again, the real new year. My stomach leaps with anxiety. Stone is not alone in his discomfort.

9:00 AM. All the department chairs, counselors and administrators gather in the lecture room. We call this group the Academic Council. We are supposed to decide the academic direction of the school and solve any problems that occur in the area of curriculum and study.

This year, the focus is on goals and objectives, and as we break these down and discuss them, the thrust becomes clear. We must raise the academic level of our school. We lost a large number of students due to the bad economy and competition from other private schools. So we must raise our standards, demand more of our students, and offer more programs and enrichment to remain competitive.

After the meeting, I try to set up my room. Interruptions are numerous: there are problems with class lists, new students who want to be in honors and Advanced Placement courses, and teachers who have needs and questions. Finally, I am able to sort and arrange the books on my shelves. I have brought in a crate of new books and magazines to share with students.

By the end of the day, my classroom is set up. Only a few more posters need hanging, and then I will be ready. My hands hurt from pushing thumbtacks into walls and handling files with razor sharp edges—who ever thought paper cuts could be so painful. Tomorrow is another day of meetings and work without students, although the kids are all over campus. They stop in to say hello while picking out their lockers, buying books, and taking care of business in the office.

Once back at home, I turn on my computer and continue revising my syllabi and course outlines. Before I know it, the clock strikes 1:00 AM. I am not tired and continue working. I finally go to bed at 3:30. My mind races and I cannot sleep.

Stone scratches the edge of the bed at 5:45 AM. One of the side effects of his IBS is that he is sometimes ravenously hungry. The food goes right through him. I take him out into the warm humidity and walk up and down the street. I can actually read the look on his face: this urination is a formality. He wants to eat. I feed him and take him back inside. He goes back to sleep while I make coffee and read the newspapers.

9:00 AM again. The English teachers gather in my classroom. I had worked out everything I would say in the shower last night and again this morning, but when I open my mouth, the words come out mushy and disorganized. My colleagues stare at me as if I’ve had a stroke. About forty minutes into the meeting, I find my sea legs and things begin to pick up. We talk about the changes, we talk about goals.

The principal and I had an intense discussion at the end of last year. He wanted the English and math departments to team teach an SAT preparation elective. We have been down this road before and it did not work. I argued with him that SAT material is included in all our textbooks. He wants us to use one of the test preparation workbooks and drill on the test skills only. I respond by telling him we should not be teaching to a test; the skills required for the SAT are not the only abilities our students need to succeed in college and the workplace.

We compromise. I have two periods each day with eleventh grade students in English. During the second English period each day, we will drill skills for the SAT, the ACT (another entrance test), and the English AP exam. The math department will run the elective separately. So during the my department meeting, I set this up with the eleventh grade teachers. We discuss the book and a scope and sequence for the course.

In addition, I encourage all teachers to keep in mind that we are trying to raise the bar of academic excellence in the school, and that each teacher must do his or her part. I try to end on an upbeat note, and then we are off to the full faculty meeting where teachers hear some of the same things all over again. It is rather mind-numbing.

By the time I arrive home, I am exhausted. And tomorrow, the students arrive. Where will I find the energy? I still have more work to do on my courses, summer reading tests to write, the list goes on and on. I also know that I will be too nervous to sleep tonight.

Even with the anxiety, this is my favorite time of year. I love going to the office supply store and buying school supplies. New pencils, pens, notebooks, folders—I love it all. I feel a rush of excitement when I smell new books.

I remember riding my bicycle to school, the fall air, the sharp smell of wood smoke from brush fires that always seemed to strike southern California in the fall.

I remember my Catholic school’s carnival that always came around in October. We got out early on Friday and had Monday off. We went every day, and my parents worked the booths. We rode the rides and ate cotton candy.

I remember the Friday night football games, playing in the marching band, feeling the first crisp breeze of autumn drifting over the field. We began the season in September, sweating and facing dehydration in our heavy uniforms. By November, we were cold in the stands, blowing on our hands to stay warm.

I remember my grandmother’s house after school. My mother would take us there and we would play football on the lawn and eat oatmeal cookies.

The daylight would fade early, slanting off to the west, filling the streets with gold-orange light. We would come home, change out of our uniforms, and run outside to play in the dying day. We would throw the football, race through the streets on our bikes, feel the season change. I can hear my mother’s voice, calling us home for dinner.

As a teacher, I always try to remember what it was like to be a child.

In my darker hours I remember the difficulties, the cruelties, the disappointments, the sudden realization that things are not always what they seem. And then in a hint from the night air, I will remember riding the Ferris wheel at the school carnival, and the time when I first held a girl’s hand. The fall of the year reminds me of these things.

The moon is bright as Stone and I walk the empty streets again. The air is hot and humid, more like summer than fall. Knowing California, we will probably have a heat wave in the middle of September, and records will shatter.

We walk the block listening to the traffic on the boulevard. I run through my list of things to do. My mind is racing, and I feel my chest tighten. I am still nervous about returning to the classroom, even after twenty-one years. I still have nightmares where the students will not listen, or my teeth have fallen out and I cannot speak, or that I have forgotten all my notes and plans at home.

Suddenly, the air changes. A breeze begins down the street. I can hear it coming through the trees, whispers of wind. A few leaves on the ground swirl and dance. I smell a hint of smoke. Autumn is coming, underneath the heat.

I tug on Stone’s collar and we head for home. It is time to get ready for tomorrow. Summer, like childhood, has slipped away, leaving us to anticipate what will come in the new school year.

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Reading: The Photography of Andre Kertesz

On Reading
By Andre Kertesz
W.W. Norton, $29.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0-393-0665602

Published 34 years ago and now reissued in a new edition of sparkling clarity and richness, Andre Kertesz’s photographs of people doing the simple private act of reading is by turns clever, playful, deep, profound, and most of all, artful.

Here in America we have always been a little suspicious of the reader. In a country founded by a group of religious zealots who believed idle hands could be corrupted by the devil, we would much rather see someone mowing a lawn than lounging in a hammock reading Harry Potter. I clearly remember my mother coming into my bedroom and seeing me immersed in a book, sighing in exasperation: “Why don’t you get off your butt and do something!”

“I am. I’m reading.”

I knew what she meant. She wanted to see real work, with tangible results that could be measured and appreciated. When one is reading, the action is all mental. Only the fluttering pages whipping by reveal the progress of the reader. And when the book is closed at the end of the last page, where is the measured result? How does the act of reading impact the reader, change his life, result in an outcome?

Kertesz revels in the privacy of the act. His pictures give us scenes of the life of the mind; it is left to us to figure out the impact, the tangible result. All we can glean from these incredible snaps is that the contract between book and reader is private, intense, and transportive. These readers are elsewhere, that is what becomes most obvious. But on repeated viewings, and we are drawn into repeated viewings, we are left to wonder, how is it that crude symbols on a page, needing to be deciphered and comprehended both on a literal and figurative level, can convey a complete and total other world. To the reader immersed in the book, the characters in that land are real people, involved in real situations that make the heart race and blood pressure rise.

Andre Kertesz was born in Hungary in 1894 and began taking pictures in 1912 at the tender age of 18. For much of his early development, he labored in obscurity. Henri Cartier-Bresson was better known, but today, both photographers are equally valued for their photojournalism and insights into the everyday life of the common man and woman.

Kertesz also dabbled in Dadaism and Surrealism in his work. He is known for his unusual angles, point of view, focus and composition. His most profound work involved taking pictures of soldiers in World War I in the midst of quiet moments. He was also a contract photographer for Conde Nast Publications where his career took off.

The photographs in On Reading were taken between 1915 and 1970. In his Preface, curator Robert Gurbo says that the book celebrates the engagement between reader and page, something he recognizes as rare in a digital age when the act of reading has been supplanted by surfing the Internet. Yet it is ironic, Gurbo notes, that it is the digital age that makes republishing Kertesz’s work in such a clear and beautiful edition possible.

The collection begins with the first photograph of the private act of reading ever taken by Kertesz, a group shot of three boys, two of them barefoot, poring over a book. The early-twentieth century setting is clear, and the boys are obviously poor. Kertesz took the photo in Esztergom, Hungary with a camera he scrimped and saved to purchase. The picture is a perfect illustration of the poverty of the boys and richness of the book they study.

The collection features people from a number of countries where Kertesz lived—Hungary, France, the United States—and focuses on different kinds of reading—books, letters, and newspapers.

Kertesz’s hallmarks are present. Many of the shots are taken from a distance, through objects like windows, fire escapes, and crowds. Even in the busiest scenes, the sacred privacy of the reader and the page is preserved.

Taken in Manila on June 15, 1968, one photograph features a bustling marketplace. The dirt sidewalk is a conglomeration of shoppers, mostly women, moving among the stalls and booths. In the lower right of the scene, nestled in some empty crates, a young girl intensely reads a book. Rubbish surrounds her, but she is oblivious, chin resting between knees, completely absorbed.

In another shot, a man leans into a book, examining the typeface with a magnifying glass. It is a tome plucked from a bin in front of a book shop on Fourth Avenue in New York. A cardboard sign marks the bin: “Special. 25¢. 5 for $1.00.” In the reader’s posture, one can see the intensity, the need to swallow the book and consume it whole, right there on the street.

All through the pages of photographs we see books as furnishings, inhabiting, and sometimes taking over, a room. In one shot, Kertesz plants his camera outside the building and shoots the window as seen from the street. Inside, we see the rows of books, but from the pages, not the spines; the bookcase is in front, and wholly blocking the window. On the facing page, books are stacked next to a desk with journals, papers, the detritus of the life of the mind. The clutter to a neat freak and a book lover would inspire the same reaction: a racing pulse. The neatnik would want to clean out the mess; the book lover would want to explore the piles.

The more affecting photographs are the ones where the reader is dwarfed by buildings. Many of Kertesz’s shots are taken of readers on the roofs and fire escapes of tenement apartments. We see them from a distance, completely absorbed in their reading, unaware of the camera or the artist, or anything else.

The disorder and chaos of a working library is a reader’s idea of heaven. Kertesz photographs these work areas, and in the piles of books and journals, we see our own rooms, the still space of the active imagination. The nonreader may not respond to such images, but in his photographs, we, the readers recognize ourselves and our books. The romance is still palpable, even in the digital age.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

He Flies Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease

He Flies through the Air with the Greatest of Ease: A William Saroyan Reader
Edited by William E. Justice
Heyday Books, $24.95 paper
ISBN 978-1-59714-090-4

Forgotten Bread: First-Generation Armenian American Writers
Edited by David Kherdian
Heyday Books, $29.95 cloth
ISBN 978-1-59714-069-0

Berkeley’s Heyday Books and Heyday Institute are known for their beautifully crafted books by California writers and about California history, culture, natural history, literature, poetry, art, photography and Indian life. This year saw the publication of two more quality projects, a William Saroyan reader and Forgotten Bread, a literary anthology of Armenian American writing by first generation writers.

Outside of the American Armenian community, and central California, William Saroyan is a tough sell. In his writing life, he was outdone by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, and he ended his life as an eccentric figure known more for his quirks than his literature. But this is a writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, The Time of Your Life (1939). He is also considered the grandfather of Armenian American letters, a man who can be connected to a number of writers today in influence and often direct contact. Stories are numerous about encounters with Saroyan at his house in Fresno, how he collected labels from cans of food that he consumed, writing the date and time on each, how he collected almost every scrap of minutiae from his 72 years on earth. He also gave advice to young writers like Mark Arax. “Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might,” he wrote. “When you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Time has not been kind to Saroyan’s legacy. His work is somewhat out of fashion now. His eccentric lifestyle, his alcohol and gambling problems, all seem to overshadow his writing. Yet, there is a yearning for Saroyan’s small town life as described in The Human Comedy, or his simple values as expressed in his short fiction.

It is on the occasion of the great man’s one hundredth birthday that Heyday has published a new Saroyan reader. William E. Justice, editor of Essential Saroyan, has put together a competent selection of Saroyan’s work that includes previously published and unpublished material.

The book contains selections from The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, Inhale and Exhale, The Trouble With Tigers, and The Whole Voyald. The play The Time of Your Life is included here, but not The Human Comedy. We are also treated to some of Saroyan’s unpublished autobiographical writing.

Saroyan’s prose is richer than Hemingway’s, and tilts a bit toward the sentimental, but his stories ring with truth and tragedy, simmering with character. In this collection we also see his experimentation with form and function. Saroyan’s work often straddles the line between the classic fiction of early twentieth century American prose and more modern, fragmented writing common to the Beat writers and middle to late century work.

Yet, the question remains: does this 100 year old writer and his body of work merit a new reader? Justice defends his collection in his Editor’s Preface: “It is true that William Saroyan is not as widely read as he once was. The Critics are blamed for this so that they might be entreated, through the implied flattery, to aid in his rehabilitation.” He goes on to say that it is up to teachers, reviewers and of course, readers to continue promoting Saroyan’s literary legacy. Justice believes a writer like Saroyan will always be passed, hand to hand, among dedicated readers.

I would agree that there is great value to Saroyan’s work. I love the poignancy of his characters, the richness of setting, even if his work is anachronistic today. In many ways, we are all still searching for that America, Saroyan’s America, one that has been lost to a dangerous society filled with strangers living next door, and people afraid to come out and mingle with the neighbors on their block.

Like Sherwood Anderson, William Saroyan chronicles small town life. Even though he is a California writer, and sometimes categorized erroneously as just an ethnic writer, he should still be read, if only to find what we have lost here in America.

David Kherdian literally recovers and brings together what his culture has lost—the voice of the Diaspora, the sacred stories of a people displaced after genocide. His writers are the survivors, and he brings us their words in a beautiful book that contains some of the best writing of those first generation Armenian Americans, introduced in thoughtful essays by second generation writers like Mark Arax and Aram Saroyan.

The best of the work here contains tendrils of sadness mixed with the warmth and humanity of family and cultural ritual. There is a healthy helping of poetry, story, essay, and selections from longer works, and the authors run the gamut from the well-known like William Saroyan, to writers unfamiliar to most Americans.

Kherdian also includes the fruits of his deep and voluminous research. There is a glossary of Armenian phrases, several appendices including a checklist of authors’ works, biographies, and even a listing of some of the periodicals where the works first appeared. The book is the complete package, a self-contained world that conveys the richness and tragedy of the Armenian Diaspora.

Both books are beautiful to behold, with rich, artistic cover art and fine paper. They are necessary books for Californians, and especially Armenians, but in this melting pot of a country, celebrating the conglomeration of cultures has become a common cause. Maybe it is time to take another look at William Saroyan, reading him in the light of his Armenian and American background. Forgotten Bread gives us a primer for one of America’s fastest growing ethnic groups. The stories, values and traditions of a culture should never be subsumed in the greater milieu of American society. Thanks to Heyday, we have two books that bring us closer to an understanding of American Armenians. Now it is incumbent on us to read them.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Another Song I Know

Another Song I Know: Short Poems
By William Michaelian
Cosmopsis Books, $13.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-9796599-1-1

Winter Poems
By William Michaelian
Cosmopsis Books, $11.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-9796599-0-4

“It might seem odd or come as a surprise,” William Michaelian writes in his Author’s Note to Another Song I Know, “but I never set out to write a short poem. I only set out to write the poem—the poem of the moment, the poem that shines light on the idea, situation, event, or lifetime from which that moment springs.”

In those two sentences, Michaelian gives us the bedrock truth of his collections of poems. Although he is speaking about his shorter poems, his other volume, Winter Poems, is equally pure and razor sharp, if employing a few more words than his shorter pieces.

By way of introduction, William Michaelian is a publishing phenomenon. In addition to his printed work, he is the author and president of what should be its own country in cyberspace, ( a 1064 page depository of his fiction, essays, poetry, journals, discussions, interviews, and on-going dialogues with the literary world. And if that is not enough, he recently launched a new website, Recently Banned Literature, found at

In his author photograph, Michaelian looks like a reincarnated Walt Whitman, which is fitting, since Whitman, too, self-published much of his own work in a number of editions of Leaves of Grass. But that is where the similarity ends. Michaelian’s work is less rambling than Whitman’s, more focused and sharp, cutting to the truth of emotion and human existence. His words are steeped in wisdom, a writer’s poet who seems to have lived a thousand years in his time. Many of the poems in Another Song I Know are distillation of moments, like scenes behind glass, word pictures that illuminate a range of responses in the reader. That is what makes them powerful: a moment in Michaelian’s life leads to a poem which cuts to the bone for the reader, almost like that familiar voice on the telephone in the middle of a dark night. These are poems to take comfort from, a source of resilience for the soul.

In the title poem, Michaelian writes: “August is another song I know / that reminds me of the burning bridge / I’m on. It says there’s no way home / but the places I’ve yet to go. / It says I am alone in a way that shows / how good life is, like sunlight on a table / when hope is somewhere near.”

August, burning its way to autumn, is part of what some would characterize as the season of youth—summer. But in the seeds of summer lie something deeper, growing older, realizing that life is about forward motion, and that we cannot let ourselves be pulled backward. The simplicity of Michaelian’s images make them more profound. The “burning bridge” reminds us to keep moving forward. Like Odysseus journeying home to Ithaca, the only way home is to keep going, keep searching.

What is startling is the line about being alone. Michaelian equates being alone with how good life is, “like sunlight on a table,” a clear, crystallized image, photographic in a way. And then there is hope nearby. Progressing alone on the journey means that there is more to explore, more to discover.

There are echoes of poetic heritage in Michaelian’s work. His style is not like Whitman’s, but his writing contains many elements of Transcendentalism, of Emerson and Thoreau.

The poem, “I Remember Other Things” discusses Emerson’s idea, influenced by a number of religious views and philosophies, of how things in nature never truly die. “When flowers / and leaves / adorn our / compost heap, / I remember / other things / we’ve left behind. / They’re buried deep, / but they never seem to die.” Although things physically die, they remain in our imaginations. We remember them as they were. They also remain literally, in that each dead and decaying thing fertilizes the next generation. Whitman wrote of this recycling, too. He famously saw himself in a blade of grass, and wrote that should we ever need him after he is gone, we should look under the soles of our feet.

The strength of this kind of poetry is in its ability to transcend the author’s life and go on to give us insight into our own lives. Michaelian excels at this. In his poem, “After The Storm,” he manages to address the resilience and power of human life through a lightning-scarred tree. “You see my blackened bough, / and wonder how the lightning failed to reach my roots. I tell you now, / it did not fail, the fire lives there still.” The majesty of survival, the trial by fire—this is what it means to be alive, to carry the scars of living proudly, as if to say, “we were here, and we endured.”

I cannot help thinking of Michaelian’s Armenian heritage, his ancestors who endured the fire of genocide and unspeakable atrocities. Although Michaelian does not identify himself as a uniquely Armenian writer, (he has published work in Armenian publications and been translated into the language), his work does contain the vein of melancholy so prevalent in the Armenian culture, its literature, art and music.

His second book, Winter Poems, is a lyrical cycling through of the winter months—November through January—and contains longer pieces, although still displaying the kind of concentrated imagery and wording of Another Song I Know.

The book begins with a wintry epigraph: “So much like now, it was cold the day I died: / cold but not unforgiven, / cold with beauty unrelenting, / cold with magic all around.” In winter, a season of death and silence, Michaelian still finds hope, magic, all around.

The poems take on a mystical quality as befits the season. In the poem, “So Begins December,” Michaelian writes: “There’s a conversation / in the next room. / I tiptoe in, find two cups / beside a window / I know was closed. / So begins December, / when even ghosts have bones. / I tiptoe out, the quiet talk resumes.”

Here, too, is the advice to the living, the life lesson for humanity, masquerading in the personification of December speaking to January. “My advice to you? / Take pride in what you do / and never follow suit; / your days are numbered; / be true to them.” From one month to another, from wise poet to a student, it is all beautiful in Michaelian’s dreams of winter.

And one justifies beauty and the gift of days by being true. As Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Michaelian’s work is the very breath of truth, and we can feel this truth in every line.

Poets these days face extinction. Many turn to teaching, technical writing, sorting letters at the post office, anything to make ends meet. Shelley wrote that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Not enough people read poetry outside of the Academy to make this true today. But Shelley also argued, in the same “Defence of Poetry,” that “Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought.” Such is the necessity of the poet and the poem.

In the distances we travel, William Michaelian’s poems can act as signposts, pauses in the struggle of daily living, a way of close reading the moments of our lives. His work shares with us his wisdom and insights, the poetic music of one soul speaking to another in a clear and ever-present language, teaching us the way forward across the burning bridge of the past, on the long journey home.