Feb 192011

This summer, thanks to another blog, I discovered Wordle. This online program allows us to create “word clouds” from a list pasted into the generator’s window: once the cloud is generated one can apply different fonts, layouts, color scheme, and tweak it until satisfaction, and then the image can be saved as a pdf, printed, etc.. I did it with a list of words I created when starting to work on one of the projects that occupies my time right now. Why this list? Because I wanted to have an idea of the vocabulary used in a series of poems I was studying, envisioning that I could add as a constrain on my own creation the sole use of those words. I dropped that idea, keeping only the form as a working tool, but I kept the list, as it drew a world in which I had to try to imagine living. Hence my enthusiasm when I discovered Wordle, a way to visualize the words, to play with chance (we do not have any control on the way the words are arranged, nor on the size of the font for each one), and to have in front of me (literally propped up on my desk) the roots of my work. Because, if I am not going to use these words specifically, the world they point to is the one I want to decipher, and bring to verse, the visual is here a strong support to focus and think. I have to admit that I have always be fascinated by the visual representation of ideas, and always dreamed of using programs such as Mindmanager to map out my work. Unfortunately, I was never able to make it work for the kind of writing I do, and kept jotting down notes on pieces of papers strategically placed around my computer… Today I found another word cloud generator, Tagxedo, a bit more complex than Wordle but with more options to compose the cloud, and maybe more importantly more options to save it (from Wordle you can only create a pdf or print) : the image you see here was created with Tagxedo and saved as a JPG. Go ahead, try it, and create your own mental maps…

Feb 122011

Reading a post on the Guardian’s Book Blog on the centenary of Elisabeth Bishop reminded me about my own discovery of her work, and the circuitous routes that drives us  to certain books, to some works. I was listening to the radio in my car, going somewhere or coming back from some place (remember, I live in Los Angeles). As often though, the radio was more of a background noise: my mind was wandering away from the streets, the car, the city… and suddenly my attention was called to the voice coming from the speakers :

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

Most readers have recognized here the first three stanza of “One Art”, perhaps the best known poem of Bishop. But I had never heard or read her poetry, she was just a name, and I had missed the introduction to the reading, which meant that I had no idea who wrote those verses. Home, I was saved by Google of course, and was quickly able to locate a copy of the Complete Poems: back in the car, for a short drive, eager, hungry to read more.

And it was to discover that just like “One Art” catered to some of my personal interests, many other poems evoked familiar feelings and impressions. Questions that will appear on this blog (I’m not sure about answers), readings that I’ll discuss, will have at heart Bishop’s interrogations such as the one she asks in “Question of travel” :

“Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?”

Buying the Complete Poems I could not resist its companion volume, The Collected Prose. And was deeply struck by Edwin Boomer’s house:

“As house, it was more like an idea of a house than a real one. It could have stood at either end of a scale of ideas of houses. It could have been a child’s perfect playhouse, or an adult’s ideal house – since everything that makes most houses nuisances had been done away with.”

Feb 062011

“I’m an addicted reader, a hedonist. I’m led by my passions. It’s a kind of greed, in a way. I like to be surrounded by things that speak to me and uplift me.”

The “things” that Susan Sontag liked to feel around her are books. Thousands of them… And after reveling to the journalist her feelings about books, the writer lead her in a dizzying tour of her lower Manhattan apartment. Five rooms filled with books. How are they arranged, asked the journalist? By subject, or for literature and philosophy, by language and according to the chronology. Sontag refused the alphabetical order: “I couldn’t put Pynchon next to Plato!” From floor to ceiling, the world of literature was unfolding, from Chaucer, to Marlowe, Middleton, Wordsworth, to Woolf and Naipaul… and next came French authors, followed by Italian ones, and so forth. The life of a mind was reflected in the meanders of the shelves, where history flowed alongside of art history, psychiatry, history of medicine, and where poetry and prose mixed together to form a unique product of languages and creativity. And finally half-hidden were Sontag’s own books, which in her preceding apartment she said she used to keep in a closet: “I don’t want to look at my own books. A library is something to dream over, a sort of dream machine.”
Dazed, the journalist asked the question people visiting a place with lots of books often ask: “have you read everything here?” Gracefully, Sontag showed her visitor the slips of paper stuck in between pages and covered with notes, or scribbles in the margins, all obvious signs of close and passionate reading. A resource, the library as a whole was also source of inspiration for the critic: “What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what’s in the books. Because they remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger than what people remember.”
To conclude this part of the interview, the journalist had a wonderful expression to describe Sontag’s attitude toward the world of books : according to her she was “intemperately in love with reading”
This article reminded me of many, so many articles, stories written by authors themselves on their relationship to books, to their libraries. One of the most famous of the twentieth century is no doubt “Unpacking my Library” by Walter Benjamin, and I still long for the hours spent in Valery Larbaud’s library as it is reconstituted/ rebuilt in his hometown. But it also reminded me how much I loved writers who loved books, and how their love of reading fed and still feeds mine.