Ragdale Residency 2017: Day Six

Time: Thursday, post-rain promenade with an eager sun. Warm again, nice. But I am unusually tired, having risen at 6 am with early sunlight just dropping down through the loft skylight just a few feet above my bed. Space: Since I'd agreed to read with two other residents John and Felice on Friday, I've been pushing hard on the clock to get as much writing done. Spent time on the porch, but had to get back inside Friends Studio as the groundskeepers brought out their yard machines. Heart: Ragdale delivers a copious philology of the creative human spirit. Conversations, revelations, and confessions abound. There is laughter and silence, but more than this we have the engagement of creative voices traveling through layers of time, space, and energy. Our post dinner conversations are especially wonderful and enlightening. I want to get to know the other residents better, and dinnertime at 6:30pm M-F is the only assured schedule when I know that getting together at the dinner table will make that happen. Chef Linda's cooking is definitely something to look forward to. Each night is different, but always delicious. ~Ignatius

Ragdale Residency 2017: Day Five

Bronze plaque in the prairie for architect Howard Van Doren Shaw.

Bronze plaque in the prairie for architect Howard Van Doren Shaw.

                    Time: Wednesday, way too cloudy and a bit cooler than the day before, a presage of the day's final outcome, resulting in the heaviest downpour at night that I've experienced at Ragdale, with a few leaks here and there. How the hours have folded into each other without notice. Bring out the umbrellas and raincoats. Walk through water. The sound of rain is music to my ears. Space: But I've stayed busy, reading a lot and doing some writing, while I continue to work out the novel sequel in my head in the Friends' Studio; Cynthia worked on her installation. We have a nice arrangement of space, although I don't need much. Ragdale is quiet today mostly; the writers and artists are busy in their chosen enclaves everywhere, and there have been admin meetings in the conference room. Chef Linda appeared more focused in the evening than usual in preparation for our group's dinner, which was delicious. Ahi tuna, pozole, goat cheese, tortillas, and celery salad, yum! Perhaps I should be talking about the food more often, and presenting pictures, too. The visual whets the appetite. Heart: But yesterday morning brought a welcome voice to the mix in Ragdale's Tea and Talk presentation of visual artist Hu'o'ng Ngô. An SAIC graduate and upcoming Ragdale resident, she discussed her Fulbright work in Vietnam and Paris on identity and the "other," and showed related work from her current show at the DePaul Art Museum, which has a large glass window and neon sign ("Who Owns the Light?") that can be seen while facing east on the CTA Fullerton Avenue platform. Hu'o'ng spoke of her own Chinese and Vietnamese lineage from the point of view of oppressed women, and women who dare to go against the ruling majority. I became curious about how her research and creative effort changed her personally, and posed this question to her. Later, I engaged with Hu'o'ng briefly and invited her to the Friends' Studio afterwards, where Cynthia was working on her installation and agreed to talk about her own work and show some of it to her unexpected but pleased and inspired audience. I still think of the prairie at the edges of this place. The Shaw family took great care of the prairie and welcomed others to inhabit it. There's a marker set in stone to honor the famed Chicago architect who built Ragdale and made it his family's summer home. There's a similar marker elsewhere in honor of Alice Hayes who turned Ragdale into an artists' residence and worked hard with the town of Lake Forest to preserve this place. The prairie is what it is in all its stark beauty and primitive expanse, but lately there have been tick sightings and cautions. I found one on me. So should I use Deet? This is the question on everyone's mind. ~Ignatius  

Ragdale Residency 2017: Day Four

Time: Tuesday, a day that seems to have just slipped from under me and through several cups of espresso. Warm and sunny, as I spent all of four-plus hours around lunchtime driving into the city and back in a broadside of traffic. Personal matters. Stuff to do. Give my car a ride, y'know, that sort of thing. Stress myself out. I was raised Catholic. But it's hard leaving Ragdale, even momentarily.
Friends' Studio-Dorothy's Room-long view

Friends' Studio: Sylvia's Room-long view

                                Space: Hanging in the Friends' Studio and watching my partner's installation work come alive gradually and wonderfully, while I take the couch in this big room and pour over research for the sequel to my novel on Fishhead. The epic 5th C. poet Valmiki will play a role, I know this for sure, I'm just not sure how for the moment. Hence, time and space at Ragdale. The openness of the large installation room in the Friends' Studio is helping to release my self-made restrictions, whatever that means. Heart: Can you read several books at once? Can you? I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm focusing...and I keep reminding myself that I can still do such a reprehensible thing that surely isn't good for the welfare of my brain. What's key here is that I absorb as much research information as I can that will, I hope, feed the writing of my sequel. I've been raiding bookshelves (is rifling a better word?), and have come across a couple more interesting works: Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, and I, Claudius by Robert Graves, the latter perhaps more difficult to read, I'm presuming from the title alone, and also b/c I'm liking the prose poem framework of Virgil (Northpoint Press/Pantheon, 1945, trans. by Jean Starr Untermeyer), a book that's been blurbed by George Steiner to be "the only genuine technical advance that fiction has made since Ulysses." And from the corner of my eye, on the overstuffed yellow chair in front of me, I catch Hundred-Year House, Rebecca Makkai's novel that has a few intimate ties to Ragdale. Hey, Rebecca, I'm certain there are a few copies floating about here. 🙂 I don't want to countdown the days, but time is irrepressible, the obstinate one, always there to remind me of its constancy and use. What's in your wallet? ~Ignatius

Ragdale Residency 2017: Day Three

Arcadio, a novel by Wiliam Goyen IMG_9704Time: Monday, a somewhat mixed day of moving clouds and bright sunlight. That cool, pressing air. June has its surprises; it is an erratic and playful month. When I move a metal chair on the lawn, it's because I want to experience the best of both worlds: to feel the lawn under my feet and to take in a full sun. In the end, I left the chair sitting on the grass all day in anticipation of constant sunlight, which wasn't about to happen. Space: Spent most of the morning inside Friends' Studio engaged in my experimentation on Valmiki and Fishhead and the notion of naga, the serpent. The contained mind wants to explore its given space, take in as much of the unknowable and the unknown as it can. And time ticks away without reprobation. The studio is big, so big that a body moves within it as if searching for walls to touch and lean against. We keep the framed glass doors open all day and shut the swinging screen doors to keep away the wasps and other bugs. The chipmunks are always present and curious. Heart: I found Arcadio, a short novel by William Goyen on a shelf in Sarah's room at Ragdale House, and began reading it immediately. He is a fabulist writer I'm very interested in. Sadly, Goyen passed away in 1983, but left behind an impressive body of work (and he was married to Doris Roberts, who plays the mother on Everybody Loves Raymond). The connection here, which impresses me is that poet and novelist Reginald Gibbons (director and founder of the MFA program at Northwestern U) first introduced me to William Goyen while I studied there. And after some conversation about novel writing, Gibbons suggested I read William Goyen's novel, Half a Look of Cain, which he let me have. My finding Arcadio now brings this full circle for me. I contacted Reg Gibbons and emailed him some iPhone pics of Arcadio, hoping to jog his memory a bit, and was pleased to hear back from him this morning. Turns out that Reg Gibbons worked more closely on Goyen's writing than I first thought. Says Reg Gibbons of Arcadio and Goyen's writings: "It's a wild book.  I edited it--I was the literary executor of his estate, and also got several other works into print for the first time--his unpublished second novel from the 1950s, HALF A LOOK OF CAIN, and also a 50th-anniversary edition of his first novel, THE HOUSE OF BREATH, and also a collection of interviews, journals, etc. that I edited..." Ragdale brings connections like these. Here are books and creative minds and conversations to make their own universe. What contribution do I make? I wonder. ~Ignatius

Ragdale Residency 2017: Day Two

Friends-Studio high ceiling image.

Friends' Studio with high ceiling.

Time: Sunday, June 25. A beautiful day this time of year, with the occasional clouds moving in and out to give us a mostly sunny day. Clear blue skies and loads of drive to start the day. There are ideas and thoughts brewing in my head. What am I responding to? What do I respond to? Space: My partner Cynthia is also here to do her artist residency. She occupies a large live/work space in a separate structure (about 300 feet to the west?) called the Friends' Studio that's created for installation artists, dancers, musicians, and architectural designers, etc. We've both decided to share this installation space and make it our work studio, which is nice b/c I can also bring my electric guitar and do some writing on the porch if I want. The Friends' Studio faces a large lawn and is surrounded by trees and a sculpted Ragdale garden. Nice! Heart: Thoughts of Borges and the epic Indian poet Valmiki emerge first thing, and so I respond. My dreams, my dreams prompt me to do something. I am aware of them and thread those voices along, wanting assistance and anchoring to create new work here, whatever is meaningful and possible that could lead to a bigger project. I am thinking of my novel sequel to Fishhead. Republic of Want. I slip away to the Friends' Studio in the morning to start writing with no particular framework in mind, no direction, just loads of ideas swarming in my head. I am drawn to these things. My heart says go. Later in the day, we take a walk through the prairie out west and pause until we arrive at the edge of the woods and an T-bone path leading elsewhere. The Botanical Gardens and Chicago to the south, with Milwaukee to the north. We are near Gurnee Mills. I resist all distractions; it's the only way to commit myself to writing and creating. So I spend most of the day doing just that. Along the way, my thin E string pops out of the floating bridge locking mechanism on my B.C. Rich Mockingbird electric guitar and I cant' get it to stay put as I tune it up with the rest. Oh well! Time to move on. I practice my harmonic minor scales anyway. Grocery shopping for dinner in downtown Lake Forest results in sesame ginger veges and portabello mushrooms with a lame prepared Caesar Salad. Enjoyed diner though. Quiet. And then we went to see Rufus, a pet Guinea Pig belonging to another resident. He's cute. Rain afterwards. ~Ignatius

Ragdale Residency 2017: Day One

Archway leading to garden

Archway leading to garden.

Time: Saturday 8 am. A day in mid-June. I wake up rested. A body that's fresh and drowsy at the same time, here in this place of inspiration. A complete inspiration, that feeling of being free from distractions. The hour is quiet. Birds begin; they make their promises, they gossip, speculate on the mimesis of need, bred to stay alive another worldly day, do what demands to be done. I listen. Space: Sarah's room on the corner of the 2nd floor at the restored Ragdale House, an impressive place reminiscent of the Old World and yet so modern, a space I am not willing to give away yet, to you or anyone else. Let me absorb it first, describe it later, make it mine for the brief time it possesses me and holds me within. Heart: I return to Ragdale, anticipating nothing, expecting nothing in return except life and the unburdening of it so I may enter an innerworld of creativity, which the external threatens to snatch from me at any given moment, caused, of course, by my busy-ness. What may happen here? I am willing to let go and find out. This is the nature of my residency. I see sunlight beat against the green lawn, the trees, my window. That is more than sufficient. ~Ignatius

Of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo: Italo Calvino unveils the internal and external, the seen, imagined, and unseen.

As active reading discussions of Calvino's Invisible Cities continue with my graduate IDS students at Northwestern University, our attentions move centrally time and again to the relaxed and hospitable conversations taking place between the great Mongolian emperor of China we know as Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) and Marco Polo, his intrepid visitor from Italy.
Calvino's Invisible Cities, Zenobia art

Invisible Cities, Zenobia art

As one student (AB) pointed out, both characters "anchor the novel," to which I add that there is also that third voice present on every page in the story, and that is the narrator’s voice taking the role of guide and agent in the story; the narrator gives us the scope and participants within this story. While the dialog between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo takes place on one level, the narrator reveals the temperament and poetic shell of each city on another level. But the foundation of the novel itself, the one "real" and trusting aspect of Invisible Cities is the dialog between the Great Khan and Marco Polo.  The emperor wishes always to adhere to the advice of his counsellors and sages, even as he grows tired of them; he watches for predictions and trusts them to assure him that his luck will never run out. He does after all also ask Polo to “predict” where life’s currents are drawing him, them, the future, his kingdom. More than anything, the Great Khan wants to understand the direction of “favoring winds” and his place in the world, as if he anticipates his luck will run out. As if he suffers privately. The emperor does this asking more than once in the novel. Here we observe Calvino’s patience and genius for leaving no stone unturned in his invention of the novel and his writing of it, leaving us with some intractable “facts” about human nature and behavior. My students made reference to suffering and the inferno (any link to Dante’s Inferno, you think?) that takes place at the end, but it’s Marco Polo’s response that conveys our own acceptance and denial of human nature, and our trust in it enough that will leave us unified, removed from each other, or divided as fire and water.

Their chess game, their chess board, their interchange and words expressed with such care and diplomatic scrupulousness. What does one stand to gain or lose? The chess game becomes symbolic of their official and repeated rituals. How did each man push power over the other? Or did they not? A purchase of pepper for one is likewise the revelation of a lost city or an un-found city for another. Emperor and visitor know their own limitations, and yet they find a deeper connection, a dependency in each other that the reader wants to believe is true. And perhaps it was. How, and without reading Polo’s actual travel texts, might we believe or imagine the extent of Marco Polo’s influence on the great ruler, just as we might also imagine Khan’s influence over the Venetian traveler? Calvino has managed to push open that door for the reader just a bit more, as if to reveal, through his imaginations and fabulations, what we can say now is true and possible—because both men did meet in person and spend time together, however brief.

In Ch 9, the city of Kambalu, China’s capital city in the novel is perhaps the only mention of a Chinese city, unless I overlooked some detail elsewhere in the book. There is Kin-sai, the “capital of deposed dynasties, the latest pearl set in the Great Khan’s crown” (85). Kambalu though is less a Chinese name to me, and more Mongolian or Tibetan, even Bhutanese. But places such at this on the great Khan’s atlas will remain unspoken by the Venetian traveler, because “[Kublai] realizes that from Marco Polo’s tales it is pointless to expect news of those places” (135). In the same breath, Calvino attempts to put the puzzle of the world together through this circumspect discourse between both men when he mentions other recognizable names and phrases like Malabar and Java and Genoese pirates.

Calvino confesses that he's actually describing Venice in every city he imagines for the great Kublai Khan, a Venice that was, is, and could have been—the possibilities, actualities, and impossibilities of this remarkable place. To his credit, the Great Khan wonders why his visitor has kept any talk of Venice from him thus far; he wants to know all about this world city. All markers point to Venice. Calvino gives us the internal and external, but the external does not define a true city in China that the great Khan can articulate. In the end of the novel, there is great talk about the emperor’s atlas, which he examines in front of Marco Polo “to put his knowledge to the test” (136). There are cities never visited or imagined, real places on the map. Connections and associations, I believe, that Calvino makes for the reader. And all Khan can say is, “I think you recognize cities better on the atlas than when you visit them in person” (137). He closes, no, he snaps “the atlas shut.” And Polo gives us a closing summary in the novel to suggest that on the atlas, all cities stand out individually, but that is not the case when one visits them, because these cities behave invisibly, merging into each other into one formless experience for the traveler. If the traveler does not remember the details of each place and its particular experiences, what then is worth remembering? ~Ignatius

A graduate writing course discussion on Italo Calvino and his fabulist novel Invisible Cities

My IDS graduate course in advanced writing at Northwestern U is well underway and we (my students and I) are at the end of our first week. Such fun times! Working out a few kinks though with Canvas and time zone differences for assignment submissions, as I have students attending from other parts of the US. We're reading Calvino and engaging in some healthy discussions about fabulism and prose poetry, the author's format for the work. He recently passed away this year, leaving a good legacy of writing behind that instructs and inspires us, as I know it has for me. May his soul rest in peace and find great and endless pleasure in those fantastical boundaries and cities, which he has penned.
Book Cover

Book Cover "Invisible Cities" by Calvino (Wiki)

Some of my initial thoughts on our discussions for the first 5 chapters of Invisible Cities for this week: I said that we see the interchange taking place between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as a certain kind of inter-dependency between them. By this I mean that the Venetian traveler does not wish to displease or upset the emperor, and at the same time Khan himself leans on Marco Polo in a way as to learn and interpret the nature of his vast empire through Marco's eyes (Isn't the emperor bored by his other advisers?). I align with a student's view of Kublai Khan's vision and how he sets out to "instruct Polo to find his dreams for him" (JB). And hence, Calvino's brilliant and fantastical essence of the novel. JB offered another interesting view: "Polo wanted to open Khan's mind to the possibilities for his city, but to not look at the surface of the structure, but the means in which it is built." I agree with her view here and added that Marco Polo can offer Kublai Khan no empirical consolation except to make the ruler see a good measure of the effects of his own power, which is the one absolute thing, while everything else—the cities and their forms, their inhabitants—are just memories shimmering and moving in our imagination which their symbolism engenders. I did wonder though if Calvino was actually performing a kind of self-examination of his present-day Italy, of Venice. 

Calvino provokes an incredible aura of mystery. JB, my student, said that the author wants us to "complete the journeys and spaces" in his novel. We do, and cannot help doing so as readers, even if the descriptions of his countless cities read as sentimental artifacts of an imagined and invented past, a past that exceeds our own imaginations but now becoming more real to us through the conversations taking place between the emperor and Marco Polo. Calvino's brevity of poetic prose is like a restless Solar Flare, fit to burst out into the boundless spaces of our minds with its creative energy and intensity. JB mentioned in particular her liking for the city of Armilla, which happens to also be a favorite city of mine, among many others in the book. Surely Calvino must have dug deeper into the Romans' pragmatic methods for capturing and controlling water, and their empire has left us an incredible legacy of plumbing and water management, which we depend on and improve today. And yet I want to insist that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BCE) invented plumbing a few thousand years before the creativity and practicality evident in ancient Rome (509 BC).


Northwestern University SPS Lecture Series on current American and world culture

Mark your calendars for next week and please share this invaluable lecture series—
"After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East" Presented by: Professor Brian Edwards
Date: Thursday, April 7, 2016
Refreshments - 6 p.m.
Program - 7 p.m.
Location: John Evans Alumni Center, 1800 Sheridan Road
Evanston, Illinois 60208
LectureSeries_Flyer_4.7Event Description: When Henry Luce announced in 1941 that we were living in the “American century,” he believed that the international popularity of American culture made the world favorable to U.S. interests. Now, in the digital twenty-first century, American movies, television, music, video games, graphic novels, and social networking sites move across the Middle East and North Africa with a speed that was previously unimaginable. In this lecture, Professor Brian Edwards (Ph.D. Yale University) will draw upon a decade of fieldwork to argue that the ways that young Arabs and Iranians engage with American culture reflects a new set of global conditions. Edwards is crown professor in Middle East Studies, professor of English, Comparative Literary Studies, and American Studies.
Hope you can make it. ~Ignatius

Metafictions and fabulism in a graduate course on hybrid writing at Northwestern University SPS

Here I am. First day, first week in the graduate course on advanced writing in the new IDS (Information Design and Strategy) program at Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies. Wow, this is an amazing step forward, one which I'm sure any aspiring master's student would look forward to and would dream of doing at the first opportunity. Well, opportunity came knocking on my front door right after I earned my MFA in Creative Writing almost a year ago in June. And how could I not answer it? I'm having a ball, although syllabus preparations for this online course have kept me really busy since late August, 2015. That's a really long time to get a new course off the ground, isn't it? Yea, that's exactly what I thought at first when I began discussions with my learning design team back then. And because it's a new course, a never-before-one-of-a-kind-hybrid- course, I really had to dig deep to draw out the most comprehensive and cohesive reading and writing lessons at a graduate level. Not easy. No, not an easy thing to do, I'll confess, and even as I approached February this year, I had a feeling that things would come down to the wire...and so it was, because I finished just a few days ago and got my approvals from the department, including checking off all the Quality Matters requirements and assuring that my rubrics were in line with my teaching and course expectations. Feels as though I'm driving a Koenigsegg Agera R at 273 Mph without my titanium 9400i helmet on and unbuckled in my seat. But many thanks go to my learning designer who helped me put the entire course together. We made a good team, I thought. And I got a lot from my Canvas training with Lynda.com, which made a huge difference (check them out if there's anything you want to learn well). Now for true engagement with my graduate students. See how it goes. This is solid gold, the Oscars of academia, the Hollywood star of stars. Hm... Here's my course description: In this graduate advanced writing workshop, students of information design and strategy will explore the use of hybrid and technical craft in writing to communicate their sensory, emotional, and practical knowhow through the use of experimental creative writing assignments and information design writing projects that will prepare them for the marketplace. Students will also study comprehensive texts in hybrid writing and storytelling, and engage in collective discussions of weekly reading topics while producing assignments that evolve from visual and informational experiences which are related to the field. At its heart, this course requires readings, instructions, and practice that give graduate students insight into storytelling and technical writing methods to help awaken present-day content creation and management processes. Available at the below link in a new tab: http://sps.northwestern.edu/program-areas/graduate/information-design/index.php More this week. I have so much to share with you. ~Ignatius