Today’s Gag

July 14, 2015
SWEAT-BlogCopyright © 2015 Jim Sizemore.

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Today’s Gag

December 31, 2012
NewYrsEveRedoCopyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

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Joyce Carol Oates On Playwriting

June 29, 2011

Adapted from: A Novelist Finds the Bare Bones of a Play

The New York Times, November 18, 1990

As soon as you begin the task of adaptation, you discover that it isn’t “adapting” but “transposing” you must do. The essential difference between prose fiction and drama, is that in prose fiction it is the narrative voice, the writerly voice, that tells the story; in drama, of course, characters’ voices are usually unmediated, direct. The prose writer’s sheltering cocoon of language dissolves and what is exposed is the bare skeleton of dialogue, action, subterranean-subtextual movement. Suddenly, everything must be dramatized for the eye and the ear; nothing can be summarized.

Drama, unlike prose fiction, is not an interior esthetic experience. It is communal; its meeting ground is the point at which the sheerly (sic) imaginary (the playwright’s creation) is brought into being by the incontestably real (the living stage). Unlike prose fiction, with its many strategies of advance and retreat, flashback, flash-forwards, digressions and analyses, drama depends upon immediately establishing and sustaining visceral tension; in powerful plays, force-fields of emotion are almost visible on stage. When tension is resolved, it is in purely emotional terms.

Drama is our highest communal celebration of the mystery of being, and of the mystery of our being together, in relationships we struggle to define, and which define us. It makes the point, ceaselessly, that our lives are now; there is no history that is not now.

When I write for the theater, I write reaching out in the hope of striking an imaginative chord in a director whose sensibility is as quirky as my own. Which is not at all to say that I am without a deep, abiding, and even stubborn sense of what a play of mine is, or an interior vision with which it is inextricably bound.

When I saw “The Triumph of the Spider Monkey,” it was no longer my play; “my” play consisted of words, a text. This was something else. And it may have been that my fascination with it was in proportion to how much I was surprised by it.

Except for “In Darkest America,” most of my plays have been adaptations of short stories. The linked monologues of “I Stand Before You Naked” . . . began as a form I call miniature narratives, in which character is reduced to an essence, and dramatized in the smallest possible period of time. I wanted to dissolve the distance between speaker and audience — between object (the other) and subject (this phenomenon of personality we call “I”).

In my writing for the theater I always have in mind, as an undercurrent shaping and guiding surface action, the ancient structure of drama as sacrificial rite. Stories are told not by us bu by way of us — “drama” is our realization of this paradox, which underscores our common humanity. Obviously this involves not only performers on a stage but an audience as well, for there is no ritual without community, and, perhaps, no community without ritual. To experience the play, the playwright must become a part of the audience, and this can only happen when there is an actual stage, living actors, voices other than one’s own.

In terms of prose fiction and poetry, one writes, and rewrites, until there seems quite literally nothing more to say; the mysterious inner integrity of the work has been expressed, and that phase of the writer’s life is over . . . Theater is the same, yet different: for the living work is communal, and there is no final, fully realized performance.

I sense that my work is done when I feel, as I sit in the audience, that I am not the playwright, nor even a quivering net of nerves invisibly linked to what is happening on the stage, but a member of the audience. In the theater, such distance, and such expulsion, is the point.

Someone recently asked me, “Doesn’t it upset you to see your characters taken over by other people, out of your control?” My answer was a mildly puzzled, “But isn’t that the point of writing for the theater?”

I am the most agreeable of playwrights. To be any more agreeable, I would have to be posthumous.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Today’s Gag

December 27, 2010
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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Today’s Haiku

April 6, 2009

22fishing2

Summer, and young boys persuade

old men to teach them the art of

waiting.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


What Is Haiku?

January 26, 2009

A comment I received in response to my post of 1/19/09 (to read it, scroll down a bit to “Today’s Haiku,” the one with the fly) essentially asks the question that I’ve used as the title of this post. Here’s the reader’s comment: “I thought a haiku was . . . a major form of Japanese verse, written in 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, and employing highly evocative allusions and comparisons, often on the subject of nature or one of the seasons. I like the poem though.”

My reply was: “I think you’re right . . . the 5-7-5, 17 syllable style is classic Japanese haiku. But I also seem to remember that the American version(s) is (or can be) more lax when it comes to structure. (It took a lot of effort for me to just get the 17 syllable part.) I’d be interested to know what others have to say.”

I am interested in the thoughts of others about haiku form, Japanese or English, which is why I decided to cobble together an expanded version of my comment. My hope is that this post will provoke even more discussion of the ancient, profound—and often humorous—Japanese art form. My knowledge of haiku, haikubk16such as it is, comes from these two books: “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa,” Edited by Robert Hass; and “Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku,” Edited by Bruce Ross. I quote from both in this post. By reproducing some of my under-linings from the books, I attempt to share my understanding of what, in its various forms, haiku is. First up, from the introduction to “The Essential Haiku,” a book that has as its focus the classic Japanese haiku of three masters, Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa, which begins:

“It is a truism of Japanese literary criticism that the three men represent three types of the poet—Basho the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist—and their differences are clear at a glance when you read them. “Here is a fall poem that has Basho’s poignant calm and spiritual restlessness:

Deep autumn—
my neighbor,
how does he live, I wonder?

“And this winter poem was Buson’s painterly mix of precision and strangeness:

Tethered horse;
snow
in both stirrups.

“And here is a summer poem of Issa’s, with its pathos and humor:

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
Casually.”

Note that in translation not one of these poems retain the suggested five-seven-five, seventeen syllable form. Even so, all still manage to express their observations of life and nature beautifully. Also note the use of humor, as in the Issa haiku where he speaks to his resident house spiders. As a cartoonist, I find the use of humor especially appealing. I’m also impressed by the skillful economy of expression inherent in haiku generally. Here’s an edited quote from the book about haiku form:

“The hokku, as it was called in Basho’s time, emerged almost accidentally, from the practice of linked verse. It was, from the beginning, very attentive to time and place. It tended to begin with a theme from classical poetry . . . that was associated with a season of the year. It then added an image that seemed to penetrate to the essence of the classical theme. The spirit of haiku required that the language be kept plain. . . . It also demanded accurate and original images, drawn mostly from common life.”

Classic haiku also has as a crucial element the insistence of a specific time, place—and, especially—a season, without which a haiku was thought to be incomplete: “In Basho’s poem . . . the phrase . . . ‘deep autumn’ or ‘autumn deepens’ is traditional and had accumulated resonance’s and associations from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about time and change. So does the reference to snow . . . which can also mean ‘snowfall’ in Buson’s poems . . . The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem.”

The Robert Hass introduction also offers insight into the ways Japanese and English poetry spring from their respective cultures, especially from the very different religious points of view:

“If the first level of haiku is its location in nature, its second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature. One of the striking differences between Christian and Buddhist thought is that in the Christian sense of things, nature is fallen, and in the Buddhist sense it isn’t. Another is that, because there is no creator-being in Buddhist cosmology, there is no higher plan of meaning to which nature refers. At the core of Buddhist metaphysics are three ideas about natural things: that they are transient; that they are contingent; and that they suffer. Though the melancholy of autumn is as traditional an experience in European poetry as it is Japanese, it is not fundamentally assimilated into the European system of thought. English poets had a word for these feelings, they called them ‘moods.’ When Wordsworth or Keats writes about being ‘in pensive or in wayward mood,’ you know that they’re doing one of the jobs of the artist, trying to assimilate psychological states for which the official culture didn’t have a language. Basho’s Japan did. The old Japanese phrase that sums up the transience of things, ‘swirling petals, falling leaves,’ was a religious thought . . . the silence of haiku, its wordlessness, also has its roots in Buddhist culture, especially in Zen. . . . Zen provided people training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices.”

His purpose in editing the book, Robert Hass says, was to give a fuller sense of the haiku form to readers in English, as well as some sense of the variety and intensity of the experience this art can deliver. He ends his introduction with these words: “Perhaps the best way to get into (haiku), after one has familiarized oneself with the symbolism of the seasons and the Japanese habit of mind, is to read them as plainly and literally as possible.”

I’ve selected the following quotations from Bruce Ross’ introduction to “Haiku Moment” to contrast classic Japanese haiku and the adaptations of the form we English speakers have attempted. haikubk21I’ll begin and end with structural differences:

“A haiku in Japanese is extremely short so that it is recited in one breath. Since an average syllable in English is much shorter . . . modern haiku in English generally range from twelve to fourteen syllables, although many haiku poets try to maintain a five-seven-five syllable count. Some Modern English haiku use the three-liner vertical column arrangement, but horizontal one-liners, two-liners, and four-liners occur, with the horizontal three-liner short-long-short construction the most common one. English haiku tends also to lack some of the sound color of their Japanese counterparts because the prevalence of vowels in Japanese words and the frequent use of assonance, alliteration, and other sound values in Japanese haiku have not been sufficiently recognized by the non-Japanese world as indigenous to the haiku form.

“Japanese haiku also uses kireji (‘cutting words’), particles of language that indicated a pause or a stop. Kireji usually separate discrete image clusters and often coincide with the short-long-short line breaks in haiku. English haiku normally uses punctuation marks in much the same way. Traditional Japanese haiku also includes either a kigo (‘season word’) or a kidai (‘seasonal topic’). These words as one, two, or even three images provide the emotional focus in a haiku . . . . Modern English haiku is . . . not formally dependent upon a standardized season word . . . . The Japanese nature image conveys real experience . . . The Japanese image also occurs in the present tense, highlighting haiku’s emphasis upon real lived experience.”

In my own attempts to write haiku I like to adhere, as much as possible, to the use of nature images and the structural devices of the Japanese tradition, but without being locked into them, or blocked by the formal rigidity. Based on the English haiku I’ve read, as well as many comments in “Haiku Moment,” it seems that when it comes to composing haiku, almost anything goes.

This essay has been a very limited examination of the haiku form. If you’d like a more detailed answer to the question “What Is Haiku?” please read the suggested books. In the meantime, you may also want to type “haiku” into the little search window at the top right of this page.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Job Description

October 6, 2008

A Dialogue Doodle

Scene: The seafood counter of my local supermarket. I’ve just ordered a fresh trout for dinner and the clerk, a young man, is removing the head and tail.

Characters: Male Seafood Clerk; Female Produce Clerk. The Produce Clerk enters from stage left and speaks first.

Produce Clerk (to Seafood Clerk): Where’s Tishea at?

Seafood Clerk: Oh, she went and got another job—administrative assistant to some bigwig over at the YMCA.

Produce Clerk: Frosty! The girl can proper that.

Seafood Clerk: That’s right.

Produce Clerk: That Tishea—she can proper her act real fast.

The above text is a recreation of a snippet of conversation overheard by Your Faithful Blogger. What intrigued me about the exchange were two words I had not heard used in this way before. It took me a while to figure out that in this case “frosty” was meant as an intensifier, becoming “cool”-squared. And “proper,” an adjective, becomes a verb indicating Tishea’s ability to act out any role she’s given—and doing so in ways my dictionary defines as, “Displaying exaggerated propriety or gentility.” This small slice of grammatical time has been slightly edited and/or expanded, and rendered in script form for your reading pleasure.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.