Jun 112011
 


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Numéro Cinq is fighting a guerrilla war against a culture that is determined to forget the beauty, grace and precision of well-written words. In this essay, Anna Maria Johnson goes to the barricades with a lovely meditation on a tiny point—James Agee’s unconventional use of colons in his great book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A small, small point, but the inspiration is prodigious for beauty of prose (and poetry) begins with attention to small details of correct (or eccentrically creative) technique.

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James Agee’s Unconventional Colons in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

By Anna Maria Johnson

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Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Horace Liveright dated May 22, 1925, advised,  “My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible . . . You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”   James Agee, unlike Ernest Hemingway, apparently had no compunction against experimenting with punctuation.  Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men makes both conventional and experimental use of the colon, which appears a grand total of 1,530 times in 424 pages, for an average of ~3.608 colons per page.

Agee’s text is most heavily colon-saturated throughout the more experimental portions of the book (those passages most descriptive, lyrical, and expressive), while his more reportage-styled passages (those with direct quotations, facts and figures, literal information, and directly conveyed scenes) use few colons.

Agee’s Use of Colons

In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the colon draws attention to itself most when it appears at the end of paragraphs, and when it is used rhetorical purposes rather than according to syntactical sense. Agee was surely aware of his significant reliance on the colon, even titling one section of the book, “Colon,” as if the whole section were a thoughtful pause or breath, like the Bible’s use of “Selah” in the Psalms.   Agee consistently controls the colon use, using it to different effect in different passages of his book, according to the tone and sense he wishes to convey.

Why did Agee choose to employ the colon so prodigiously in this book, and toward what ends? Let’s explore some of the ways, both conventional and experimental, in which he used the colon, and examine why he may have chosen to do so.

Agee often uses the colon in conventionally acceptable ways.  For example, shortly after the Preface, Agee uses the colon conventionally when he lists the “Persons and Places” of the book as if they are a cast of characters for a play (“FRED GARVRIN RICKETTS: a two-mule tenant farmer, aged fifty-four”).  In the Table of Contents, colons separate section titles from their subtitles, as in “Part One: A Country Letter” (Agee 2).  He also, in the expected way, places a colon before a list, as when he writes in his Preface of the project’s components, “The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word” (Agee x). Of course, it is allowable to place a colon before a direct quotation, as Agee does on page 13, “By my memory, he [Beethoven] said: ‘He who understands my music can never know unhappiness again.’ I believe it.”  These are inarguably appropriate and conventional instances of colon usage.

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Jun 092011
 
Abby Frucht and her son, Alex, in Peru

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Laurie Alberts

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Here’s another first for Numéro Cinq, a novel written by two people at once. Not an unheard-of proposition, but unusual and intriguing. Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts are old friends and colleagues at Vermont College of Fine Arts, both eminent and prolific authors. I met Laurie when we were at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980; Abby I’ve known since 1994 when we started teaching together at VCFA.  In summer 2010, tired of writing in solitude and looking for a way jazz up their friendship even at a thousand miles apart, Abby and Laurie decided to write a novel together.  A year of emails, phone calls, debates, flat out arguments, jibes, jokes, frustrations, confessions, and absolutely no-regrets later, they have three hundred pages.  On top of having fun, they love the characters they’ve created – Noor and Jaycee’s funny, twisted story, their impromptu adventures, their awkward, fateful friendship. The two chapters presented here are consecutive. The first was written by Abby with Laurie’s advice and editorial input, the second by Laurie with Abby’s advice and editorial input. Laurie and Abby will give a lecture about collaboration and the writing process at this summer’s Vermont College of Fine Arts residency.

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Chapters from a Collaborative Novel

By Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts


JAYCEE, 2010

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“You are deceiving, yes, that you were born in New York City?” Frieda insisted.

Jaycee’s seatmate on LAN flight # 2513 Miami to Lima was a doe-eyed paralegal who, although she lived in Lima with her husband and their six year old son, travelled to and from Miami once a month to touch base with her boss’s overseas clients. Mainly she advised migrants, immigrants,  students with expired visas, and naturalization applicants who found themselves detained.  She was perfect for the job.  Despite the flight being a red eye – it had left Miami at seven p.m. and was due to arrive in Lima after four in the morning – the wide-awake Frieda seemed determined to take Jaycee under the wing of her gregarious generosity.  But even though Frieda’s insistence that Jaycee couldn’t possibly have been born in New York City was meant to be a compliment, it only hurt Jaycee’s feelings

“I don’t know,” said Frieda, pressed for ideas about where Jaycee appeared to be from if she’d been mistaken all her life about being born in New York City and moving to Vermont when her dad got famous enough to quit his day job.  “Hungary?  Bulgaria!” Frieda guessed, laughing with mischief and delight.  Jaycee was mortified.  She’d always known she looked like a girl in a kerchief with child-bearing hips thriving on a diet of hard, green potatoes from burlap sacks, but no one had ever said as much.  Still she only played along, saying, “Me?  Bosnia-Herzegovina?” not wanting to turn her seatmate away.  Not many people took to Jaycee like Frieda did.  It was as if Frieda thought she recognized Jaycee from a previous flight on a different airplane, or, better yet, as if they knew each other by sharing a whole other plane of existence, like in addition to being airline passengers on their way to Lima, they were dolls side by side in a toy chest somewhere, their mouths pin-tucked in red embroidery thread, silenced until the here and now.  Besides, Frieda was pretty.  Jaycee had always longed for a pretty friend, especially because, being home-schooled, she hadn’t known many girls her age at all.  The pretty ones had tended either to ignore her, or worse, to be extra kind.  Even the plain girls viewed her with uncertainty, perhaps seeing their worst fears manifest in her coarse, pebbly, hand-knitted sweaters, and that tic she was trying to get rid of of scrunching her eyebrows.  This had to do with her glasses, she thought; the little wire-rimmed spectacles chosen by her father, which criss-crossed all things seen and unseen.

“You fly many times too?” Frieda asked, blinking doll-like in wonderment.  In addition to her wedding band she wore a large, pronged opal, both rings on one finger.  Otherwise she was unadorned except by nature and classic taste in simple clothing: a brushed linen blazer, slacks, and trim boots.

“I’ve only flown three times,” Jaycee answered.  Once to an uncle’s funeral, once with her dad to a book fair in Cleveland, and much more recently a half hour flight to that saintly two day conference at which Hil had been a guest in creepy Chautauqua.  She had never seen her uncle before she faced him in his coffin, and in Cleveland she’d sat at a cafeteria table selling stacks of Hil’s chapter books to kids her age who looked desperate to escape their well-meaning parents and hang out at the mall.

“You and your families have a hobbies?” Frieda asked. In general her English was easy on the ears, the only notable flaw her confusion of the plural for the singular, like when she said of her marriage, “My husbands I trust him maybe too much.  But the only other choice is kick him out of the houses.”

“Trab-a-hey at park histo-ri-ca,” Jaycee plodded, ashamed of herself for having failed to bone up on her miserable Spanish.  It seemed rude to speak English just because Frieda spoke it so well, so Jaycee hoped to appear as if she were trying to meet her half way.  Only what could be worse than to mix and match her misbegotten syllables with pidgin English and sidestep Frieda’s question along the way?  Did she have hobbies?  She wasn’t sure.  It was hard to tell hobbies from normal activities when you worked as the events planner/docent/craftsperson/story-teller/role-player not to mention babysitter at your dad’s Park Historica for a supposed living.  Was picking wool a hobby?  Was kiln firing a hobby or was it part of her job?   How about running the lambs amid the drifts of fallen maple leaves with the kindergarten visitors?  Was that a recreational activity or was it only her so-called life at Hill Winds?

But did she even have a life?  The idea she had a family gave her the willies.  She never thought of them as being a family, she and her parents and the sixteen-going-on-fifty-one farm cats and the scores of dead mice.  “Do you have hobbies?” she asked Frieda.

Frieda arched her velvet brow.

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Jun 072011
 

Gary Moore is an amiable friend, a poet and playwright, a man with a yen for the stars and stardom, at least the artistic kind of stardom. These are poems about the stars, about that yearning for distant points of light, the type, yes, of all yearning, the hopeful, melancholy ember of lust and desire that fires us through a lifetime of attempts and regret. Gary is the author of the full-length dramas The Tongue of Their Gladness, Long Lankin’s Curse, and Beaver Falls.  As a young man teaching in Shanghai, he wrote and produced a bi-lingual rap opera, The Great Emancipator Meets the Monkey King, that  introduced rap music to the People’s Republic of China.  Burning in China, his one-man show about writing and performing the rap opera and then being swept with his Chinese friends into the Tiananmen democracy movement, sold out at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival. He is Academic Dean at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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Star Suite

Poems by Gary Moore

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I wanted the prize but the prize looked the other way

I wanted the prize but the prize looked the other way
It was the other prize
I wanted the beach but I got the mountains
Not everyone gets the mountains
I wanted the beautiful woman and I got her
But I didn’t live happily ever after
After that I tried to be careful about wanting
No, not in the moments when my dick rose up
And I couldn’t think until I quelled it
But the big wants:
I kept art alive
I lived out my mother and father’s hope that I’d be clean and successful in some way
……………they’d understand and pay my bills
I wanted to be equal to humanity
I fed my baby daughter at 3 a.m. while Van Morrison sang ‘Into the Mystic’
I held my dying mother’s hand
I was cruel and apologized
I lost love and said so and wept
I screamed and pounded the steering wheel
Like you
And there was more
I wanted to be one with the stars
Maybe you know this too
Yes, we all know the song about the guy who built the railroad—was it to the sun?—and
…………..now he’s begging for a dime?
I wanted the stars
They drove me crazy when they put on their silver dresses those flirtatious nights
Then disappeared when they took them off
That’s the nature of want I heard them sing
And because I so longed for light in darkness
The stars could tell me just about anything
With those rays slipping off their shimmery shoulders
No matter how much I wanted a different song

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