Sunday, July 25, 2010

Spotlight series: Greywolf Press

This month, the Spotlight Series is featuring Greywolf Press, a small non-profit focusing on poetry, Native American writings, essays, and short stories: an eclectic mixture of everything elegant in American literature.  I chose a small volume of letters because that is one of my favorite forms of reading.  I find that people often will put emotions and deep feelings into letters that are not as easily shared in oral conversations.  In this case,

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace explores the literary friendship of two writers who were new to me: Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo Indian and author of Laguna Woman (1974), Ceremony (1977), and Storyteller (1981);  and James Wright, a poet known for his translations of Vallejo, Trakl and Neruda, and whose Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The book is edited by Wright's wife Annie.

They met at a writers conference in 1975, and began a short-lived correspondence in 1978 which started out as Dear Mrs. Silko....signed Sincerely, James Wright, and Dear Mr. Wright....signed sincerely, Leslie Silko.

In January 1980, Jim Wright was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue.  His last letter was  a postcard written with the help of his wife:
Dear Leslie:

I can't write much of a message.  Please write to me.
Love, Jim

We loved seeing you last month.  James is moving to a fine new hospital on Friday.
We miss hearing from you.  How is the roadrunner?
Love, Annie.

The final letter was written in 1980:  Dear Jim, ....signed My love to you always, Leslie.  This was written on March 24, 1980 the day Jim Wright died of cancer.  It arrived after his death.

In between was an incredible correspondence in which two writers shared their hopes, their works in progress, little stories from their pasts, reports of Leslie's rooster, and after rooster's demise, the roadrunner who came to take his place in her heart. There were disclosures of failed marriages, relations with children, the difficulty of getting just the perfect word to convey a feeling or thought in a poem. Early in the correspondence, Leslie sends him a copy of Laguna Woman explaining that she hasn't written much poetry since, because she is currently working on screen adaptions of old Laguna tales and that work is sapping her creative energy.

One of the pieces from Laguna Woman resonated with me.  It's from a poem titled Incantation:

The Simple equation you found
in my notebook
frightened you.
But I could have explained it:
       After all bright colors of sunset and leaf
       are added together
       lovers are subtracted
       children multiplied, divided, taken away.
The remainder is small enough
to stay in this room forever
gray-shadowing restless
trapped on a gray grassy plain.  (pg. 16).

She tells him about her rooster--the story of how she inherited this strutting arrogant fellow, and how he came to become an important part of her life.  He replied that he found the story of the rooster refreshing and her storytelling "abundant."
...I may be sounding "literary" and that would be a pity, because I am trying to find words here for something that is very real for me. I am extremely glad, and in a way, relieved, that you exist.
Her stories of Laguna life, Laguna storytelling had me off to find other books by Leslie Silko.  I can't wait to delve into this small volume of narrations.  She writes of the customs of her people, and compares them to other cultures. He and his wife Annie go off to Europe for the summer months while Hunter College (where he teaches) is on break. They try to maintain the correspondence as the Wrights move from one address to another, and Leslie struggles to get letters to the correct spot ahead of their arrivals.

It was compelling to be reminded of a world before emails and blackberries, and even computers.  These letters were either hand or type written, on aerogram paper and sent through the postal systems of many countries.  They reflect a life of less urgency, a life of sweet anticipation waiting for the post to arrive.

As Leslie and James became more comfortable with each other's thoughts and dreams, they shared even deeper thoughts.  They were able to offer encouragement and literary criticism not only as literary peers but as friends.  She tells of rooster's ending, and he writes of the vagaries of European life. They critique each other's writings.

While in Belgium, he discovers a lace making shop.
 Sometimes I wonder about things like lace, things that human beings make with their own hands, things that aren't much help as shelter from the elements or against war and other kinds of brutality.  Lace was obviously no help to the Belgians during two horrifying invasions in this century.  Nevertheless, the art continues to survive, the craftsmen weaving away with the finest precision over their woofs and spools.(pg.45)
 He encloses a sample of the lace with the note "Happy birthday from Annie and me."

The letters continue with discussions of Spinoza, stories of the Laguna view of death- how people don't really leave, they stay with us even after physical death.  I made me wonder if she had some presentiment of what was to come.

They discuss how long it takes to really write a good poem--how it must gestate.  In June 1979, he writes;

 A poem is a very odd duck.  It goes through changes --in form and color--when you leave it alone patiently, just as surely as a plant does, or an animal, or any other creature.....Well, this new work of mine will change in time.  Some of it is naturally ripening already.  Before long I will send you three new prose pieces, and see what you think. (pg.58)
Their plans to meet in Arizona during a winter visit from the Wrights were abruptly changed due to Wright's illness.  The letters continued, and Leslie was able to visit with him for a short time in February.  By then he was hospitalized and unable to speak.  He communicated by writing on a yellow legal pad.  While sad, it seemed so appropriate for these two friends whose communication had been almost entirely by writing.

Annie Wright did a splendid job of editing these missives.  She gives us a one page introduction explaining the orgin of the friendship; she offers us a beautiful poem "The Lace" by Rainer Maria Rilke to set the tone, and then gives us a few closing paragraphs to bring closure. In between, she allows the letters to speak for themselves.

I am so grateful that Graywolf Press has chosen to re-issue this gem. It is a short (only 106 pages) volume that has more depth and beauty than many 400-600 page works I've endured these past few years.  I originally got my copy to review from the library at the University of Maine, Farmington, but I have ordered my own to have, to hold, and to linger over and over.

You can read some excerpts here.

Finally, a personal aside:  My husband spent almost 30 years in the US Navy, and much of the first 25 years of our marriage was spent writing letters.  We could not afford overseas phone calls, we didn't have email.  We wrote letters.  I ashamed to say he wrote more prolifically than I.  Those letters though, allowed us to reveal ourselves and our dreams, without the hurry of a face-to-face encounter.  We courted via the mail. Those red and blue striped envelopes full of memories are still, after these many years, to be re-read and savored, laughed and cried over.  I think this is why I really enjoy this form of writing.  Eavesdropping on other people's letters has always been a pleasure.

Many thanks to Aarti, Amy and Chris, the Spotlight Series blog administrators for hosting this event.


  1. I don't know why it surprises me sometimes how many books out there contain correspondence between writers. It makes sense that they'd be in contact with each other, but it always catches me off-guard. Have you read Possession? That's a good one about letters :-)

  2. Tina,

    Your commentary flows like gentle winds that whisper words which float through the air while hopeful ears eagerly await their arrival...

    Touching tribute, beautifully written...

  3. what a wonderful set of letters and way to pay tribute to some wonderful writers.


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