Excerpts from "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" by Wallace Stevens

[Note to "Notes": Find the complete poem here, but preferably if you consider yourself a poet or a creature of culture, you must purchase a copy of the whole harmonium.]

Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man,
Close to me, hidden in day and night?
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being....

It Must Be Abstract


Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea
Of this invention, this invented world,
The inconceivable idea of the sun.

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it....


But the priest desires. The philosopher desires.

And not to have is the beginning of desire.
To have what is not is its ancient cycle....


The poem refreshes so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea... It satisfies
Belief in an immaculate beginning

And sends us, winged by an unconscious will,
To an immaculate end....

Beating in the heart, as if blood newly came,

An elixir, an excitation, a pure power.
The power, through candor, brings back a power again....

Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation....


We are the mimics....

Abysmal instruments make sounds like pips
Of the sweeping meanings that we add to them.


These are the heroic children whom time breeds
Against the first idea--to lash the lion,
Caparison elephants, teach bears to juggle.


Not to be realized because not to
Be seen...

Without a name and nothing to be desired
If only imagined but imagined well....

It must be visible or invisible
Invisible or visible or both:
A seeing and unseeing in the eye....

An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought.


not balances
That we achieve but balances that happen....

Perhaps there are moments of awakening,
Extreme, fortuitous, personal, in which

We more than awaken....


reading in the sound,
About the thinker of the first idea,
He might take habit...

moving in on him,
Of greater aptitude and apprehension...

As if the language suddenly, with ease,
Said things it had laboriously spoken.


The major abstraction is the idea of man....

What chieftain, walking by himself, crying
Most miserable, most victorious,

Does not see these separate figures, one by one,
And yet see only one...

Looking for what was, where it used to be?
...It is he.

It Must Change


It Must Give Pleasure

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MHS Elsewhere

The following are, at the moment, the most interesting commentary about Stefaniak.

Review/Interviews from Local Art Newspapers:

On Milwaukee

The Reader

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Reviews for The Turk and My Mother:

Kathy Schmidt, a reviewer at a Wisconsin library rates it a 4 (out of 5, presumably--I only excerpted this one because the others were all easy to find the reference to Stefaniak while this page took some combing):

This book was like reading someone's family history only extremely more interesting and funny! There are many characters from different generations and each has their own story about their greatest love. The interesting part is that their beloved is not necessarily who they are married to. Action takes place in the "Old Country", in Russia, and in Milwaukee.
Curled up with a Good Book

NY Times

Powells (brief takes)

Brent Spencer for the Midwest Book Review

Travel to Eastern Europe

Washington Post

* * *

Reviews for her collection, Self Storage:


Iowa Source

Storage Reviews

Travel to Eastern Europe

University of Indianapolis's Dr. Bruce Gentry

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Discussion Questions for "Believing Marina" by Mary Helen Stefaniak

Banta Award for her collection, Self Storage (this Wisconsin book award is for a work that won the Minnesota Voices award)

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One Map of Storytelling

From The Turk and My Mother:

"My grandmother had her own style of storytelling, a style that avoided accommodating her listeners in any way. She never started right in with what happened, which was, of course, what you wanted to hear. First, she had to make you see where the story took place, especially if it took place in her village, which was where most of the stories she considered worth telling took place. You had to hear about the fence cleverly woven of branches, the dirt yard full of chickens, the four fat pigs that her son sold off when our mother was pregnant with Madeline and couldn't stand the smell of them. 'What's the matter with her nose, huh?' Staramajka asked us. 'Everybody else can stand to smell a pig, no matter what special condition they are in, but my Marko, to make his brother's wife happy, he sells all the pigs. 'I can buy them back later,' Marko said, but then the army came and took him, so we ended up with no men and no pigs either. That's why the mayor asked us to take the Turk in the first place-- no pigs on the premises.'

My ears perked up at this early mention of the Turk, but it was a false alarm. We had yet to hear (not for the first time) about..."

[Continued here...]

Was the above quote intended as an inside joke to be shared with the reader since the narrator [Mary Helen's father] is storytelling exactly as his mother?
The author (and, I think, Mary Helen the listener) is fully aware of the irony of George's complaint about Staramajka's storytelling. George probably is not. But the whole passage--like the whole book--is meant to be a sort of comment on storytelling, especially family storytelling and what it's for. Every story in the book is told in an effort to change the listener--usually to unharden a heart, to win forgiveness or at least understanding for poor Agnes or Josef or Marko or Kata or Anica or Staramajka or George.

My favorite blurb on the back is from Lan Samantha Chang (whose book "Hunger" is really terrific--I haven't read "Inheritance" yet): she's the one who says the book reinvents the family saga ("and the art of storytelling as we know it"!). The Turk and My Mother is a deliberate"reinvention" or inversion of a book like Dr Zhivago, you might say, which may be where that NY Times reviewer's "not quite confident translation"comment was coming from. My editor said it was not to be taken to heart, so I'm not taking it to heart. At least I can feel as though some glimmer of what I was up to came through to the guy.

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Naming Names

Mary Helen Stefaniak had her first novel, The Turk and My Mother, published this summer from W.W. Norton. She is one of the best creative writing instructors I've had--among many excellent--proving a good teacher can also be a good writer (see excerpt below with more astounding stupendous superlative excerpts to come). Locally, her most popular story appeared in Iowa Review and as the lead story in New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 2000, "A Note to Biographers Regarding Famous Author Flannery O’Connor", although my personal favorite does not seem to be listed anywhere since her bibliography is presently incomplete as are the back issues of two major literary magazines I checked (it is curious to note the different attitudes toward the history of one's own magazine between science fiction and other literary genres).

Despite an insuperable distance of being maybe fifteen blocks apart, the interview was and is being conducted online. Maybe one day I'll sneak into her house to give a full description of its most nefarious contents, revealing the dark secrets buried there.

* * *

How do you come up with names of characters? Are they all from "real life" or did you have to come up with them, pulling them like confetti out of a fez? For example, Staramajka. How do you pronounce her name? Did you guess that the average English reader might struggle not to read it as "Star-magic-a?" Does the name have similar or another significance in its native tongue?
I like the "star" and "magic" in Starmajka--both associations suit her in the book. It means "grandmother" in Croatian--didn't you read the "Author's Note"?

That real long seven-word sentence at the front of the book? Uh, yeah. But I wanted to see if you had.

Literally, stara = old (same as in Russian: remember the "starry" blokes in A Clockwork Orange) and majka = mother (pronounced "my-kuh" like "mica").

Many are family names: Josef and Marko Iljasic (my grandfather and great-uncle in real life), Madeline, George, Agnes. Frankie Solapek was a childhood friend of my father, and the Tomasics owned the tavern on the corner. I flipped those and made Frankie a Tomasic and the tavern owners the Solapeks. Marie Sinyakovich is a real person, although she is not Uncle Marko's daughter. (She's the one who gave me a name for the rooster.) The Kaszubes are a real ethnic group with a website and everything--sometimes called Kashubian. Gunter Grass is a Kashubian by birth, I believe.

I don't have a sister named Aggie, nor do I have a son named Rob. Just thought I'd put that in. And my mother's name was not Sarah.

Tas Akbulut--an entirely fictional creation--is named after a teacher at my kids' high school (Tas) and a Turkish doctor who publiished in a medical journal I used to work for. I liked to save the Turkish and Thai names from the contributors: They are so wonderful, each one a poem or a curse. Akbulut! (Or a sneeze.) Heinrich and Nadya and Fyodor Pitkin--all made up,don't know from where. Ditto for Kata and Anica, although their last name is a common one in Milwaukee, as are Konkel and Struck and other Kaszubenames used in the book. There really was a fishing village on Jones Island. An orchestra really did get shot by a Cossack/White Russian army officernamed Kalmykov, at least according to two different sources I found (both memoirs of former prisoners of war who spent some time in Khabarovsk orthereabouts).

"Staramajka" means grandmother, as you now, and "Jabotevrag" means what the book says it means. I got that name for the rooster from an elder relative of mine, a native of the village in the novel as a matter of fact. I told I wanted a curse for its name. At first she said she didn't know any cusswords in Croatian. A few days later, she called me up and said, "Mary Helen, I think I got a name for your rooster."

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Excellent Excerpt

Most men of the village have gone off to war, except Agnes' husband who had gone off to America to make his fortune and return home. Tas Akbulut is a "Turk" and presumably a prisoner of war although he is left unguarded, there being no one to guard him. So while Agnes and the other women of her family keep the tall and dark Tas housed and fed in the barn, Agnes struggles to remain faithful.

From Mary Helen Stefaniak's The Turk and My Mother:

[Agnes] went back to the field behind the barn where she and Rosa had spread their hemp stalks to dry and found her little daughter strutting back and forth between the rows. Madeline was wearing a wig of long white fibers tied together at the top of her head reaching to her elbows.

"Monda!" Agnes said. "What are you doing? Where did you get that on your head?"

Little Madeline pointed to the haystack, where Tas Akbulut sat on a stool in the shade, his foot holding down the hinged end of a wooden stupa while one hand drew a bundle of stalks through it. His other hand lifted and dropped the top rail onto the stalks, chopping away the casing and softening the fibers into long white hair of the kind draped over Madeline's head.

"I am the queen of heaven," Madeline announced as she marched past her mother, keeping time to the Turk's chop-chop-chop. Agnes stroked the wig and found it slightly damp.

"The hemp is still too wet," she told him.

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Local Boy Done Good

Ted Kooser is the new poet laureate of the U.S--reared in Iowa, lives in Nebraska (like yours truly but who were born in 'bama with a banjo on his knee), territory he forever revisits, making new the small and worn of the Midwest against the large in the juxtapositions of, for instance, broad night skies filled with stars.

Works online:
According to one site, "Dana Gioia has written the most sustained piece of criticism on Kooser's career in his collection of essays, Can Poetry Matter?."

Occasionally, Kooser can fall into sentimentality, but he's almost always evocative. "Abandoned Farmhouse" (which some enterprising secondary education teacher has apparently used as a lesson plan albeit one that should probably be expanded) is a wonder, and poets and fictionists should take note (from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems from University of Pittsburgh Press):

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in the upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches aafter a storm--a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

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As the blind see (some of) us

The half-cocked on the attack! (from Toby Buckell)

Why do people have to 1) lump everyone by the worst stereotypes of a few, 2) berate the harmless?

But there are more open-minded views. In the country of the blind...

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Jazz in the Midwest

Today's the last day of the free summer jazz concerts in Omaha (I'm told you need to arrive fairly early to get a seat):

For 20 years, concert-goers have enjoyed performances by top local, regional, and national jazz musicians at Joslyn's Jazz on the Green. The free summer jazz series is held on six consecutive Thursdays - this year, July 8 through August 12.

All concerts begins at 7 pm on Joslyn's east lawn and grand staircase (the lawn opens to concert-goers at 3 pm and closes at 9:30 pm). Beverages and picnic foods are available for purchase.

The Museum galleries, including the Duane Hanson exhibition galleries, close at 4 pm, re-opening at 5 pm through intermission (approx. 8 pm) with free admission. Parking is available in Joslyn and surrounding lots. The concerts are free, however donations to support the series are greatly appreciated and may be given at all entrances to the green.

Chicago also has a free, huge jazz shindig September 2-5 at the 26th annual Chicago Jazz Festival.

If you're looking for jazz in Kansas City, this seems to be the place to find it.

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Advice to New Writers

Something must be in the aether. A trio of talented writers, who have scraped their way to something shy of prominence, have had interesting advice:

Gary A. Braunbeck, horror writer who rants very nicely

Kij Johnson, fantasy novelist of note (I reviewed her impressive first novel here)

Sherwood Smith, fantasy novelist who has gobs of advice on reading and writing and for young writers and who may have published my first story (or so I belatedly, perhaps erroneously, deduced from a site listing her various pseudonyms).

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George Sauders has the story "Adams" at the New Yorker.

Nicholson Baker talks about politics and Checkpoint, his as-yet-unreleased controversial novel about assassinating George W. Bush.

Speaking of politics, Jeff Vandermeer speaks out on Sudan (links to recent news) which has 30 days to stop killing.

Borges again: "Book of Imaginary Beings" and (a repeat) "Book of Sand"

Christoper Rowe agrees with Barry Lopez that maps are bunk but let's hope for Gwenda Bond's sake, if not literature's, he finds his way back home.

Tobias Buckell discusses the end of postmodernism, using science only when it suits postmodern purposes.

Space enthusiast

Dealing a blow to the more pie-in-the-sky SF, Stephen Hawking "says he was wrong"--oh, the blasphemy of science (from the NY Times):

Famed astrophysicist StephenHawking said... that black holes... do not destroy everything they consume but instead eventually fire out matter and energy "in a mangled form...."

How can black holes destroy all traces of consumed matter and energy... when subatomic theory says such elements must survive in some form? ...black holes hold their contents for eons but themselves eventually deteriorate and die. As the black hole disintegrates, they send theirtransformed contents back into the infinite universal horizons from whence they came.

Previously, Hawking... held out the possibility thatdisappearing matter travels through the black hole to a new parallel universe. "There is no baby universe branching off... The information remains firmly in our universe.... there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes," he said. "If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form, which contains the information about what you were like, but in an unrecognizable state.''

Anna Feruglio Dal Dan wrote about depression post-Clarion. Nathalie Chicha keeps a regular blog on depression and literature. I got depression post-Clarion, too, but not due to Clarion. Having attended medical school for a time, I discovered doctors do not understand depression (one doc, for instance, taught an entire class that depression is the same as bi-polar disorder; another described it in terms of a terminal case of metasized cancer). If you want to understand it, read widely and read deeply. Don't rely on any one source.

Stephen King seems to be a topic for conversation (strangely, I'd been reading his short work to respond to Morris on the state of the horror ghetto within the speculative ghetto):

Matt Peckham is blogging out his critical view of the Dark Tower series: Preface, Salem's Lot.

Matt Cheney and Dan Green weigh in, and Cheney points to a review by Elizabeth Hand.

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