The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.
Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher.
I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use.
In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”
But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.”
In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures.
The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home:
. . . one nightfall when the last
weak string gave way that had held whatever
she was, that mystery, together, the bier
that waited—there were no planes coming in,
not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard
had been so bad, the graveyard drifted
so deep, so many severed limbs of trees
thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow
an opening for the hearse, or shovel
the cold white counterpane from that cell
in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after.
This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.”
She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon.
As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space.
I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.”
In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like.
It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.”
Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author
Because summer in Beirut was so brutally hot and because the grandparents missed their granddaughter and because the dream was still alive and I had signed up this winter for a low-residency creative writing MFA program in Tampa, which required me to travel from Lebanon to the Florida campus for 10 days in June, I began to sketch out an entire summer in America, anchored by that MFA residency and then two weeks at a writing conference four hours north of New York City.
Key to the plan was leaving my daughter in Illinois, where — with my dad’s recent death — my mom had recently bought a house on six acres, near my wife’s parents, Steve and Claudia, who lived in the same small town. All three were retired, and could do pretty much anything they wanted. But the world was a big place, and sometimes you stayed where you felt most at home.
Children can be an anchor. During the two weeks I was at the writing conference, where was my wife? Mostly in Yemen, where she met a boy who said he cowered in the rocks one night after what was an apparent American airstrike, waiting for daylight to try to find his father and brother. When the sun came out, he found them, scattered in pieces, a red sludge.
Once upon a time, she and I lived in Turkey and Iraq. And before that, it was Saudi Arabia, where our little girl was born. Before all that, it was a big job in New York, which I left to walk along the ocean. Why did I do that? I’m still trying to figure it out.
I can be a private person. Shy. It was a strange experience to hear the long-time director of the writing conference, Bob Boyers, stand in front of a room and talk about having lunch with the same guy four times a week, for 26 years. I’m not sure I’ve had lunch with the same guy four times, like, ever.
Ever since it was up to me, I suppose, I’ve been on the move. Early on, it was hitchhiking across the West, fishing in Alaska, a summer doing construction in Hawaii. I made it to all 50 states, thinking that mattered. Then I took a newspaper internship in Cambodia, where I met my wife. Eventually, we made it in New York, but then I decided to take that walk. Then Kelly said, OK, it’s my turn. So we moved to the Middle East.
So now it’s a life in Lebanon, and the decision to leave, and then the decision to attend this conference, where everyone hopes someday to succeed, whatever that might mean, but for now we sleep in the dorms. There’s the green poster on the door, about sexual assault, the number to call, how you shouldn’t wash your privates. The handicapped bathroom, with its flickering light and half-empty bottle of male body-wash. The thin carpet and the poster about studying abroad and the faded photo of an RA, whose favorite color is blue. Favorite hobby: watching movies.
In the dining hall, it was all you can eat — and I couldn’t stop, could you? We were all getting older, larger, with sophisticated appetites, as if we were almost a different species than the highschoolers on campus for their own summer improvement programs — dancers, jazz trumpeters, math nerds — all of the kids chirping at some higher register, like a dog whistle or a swarm of swallows, this mad rush at lunch for the french fries, a silver tray of meat, no idea of the complications that lay ahead. I’d owned leather jackets heavier than some of them, yet that gave no obvious advantage. Some day, some of them might be 33 years old, sitting at a desk, trying to write.
It wasn’t easy. I wanted to finish a book. Be a good dad. Get an MFA. Be a good husband. I’d lined up a teaching job at a university in Beirut. Got an essay in a publication that might impress you. Called my mom as much as I could. I couldn’t call my dad, he was dead. When do you know if it’s actually starting to add up, when you can say, OK, yes, this is real, it’s actually happening.
Among members of the Skidmore faculty, the answers seemed different. For novelist Allan Gurganus, there was a hotel room in Iowa City, and John Cheever was pouring scotch. For Elizabeth Benedict, there was a sublet in Washington DC, and she left the oven door open, trying the keep the place warm, and when the editor visited he was appalled. Poet Campbell McGrath and his wife moved to Miami Beach, and yet the Genius Grant people managed to find them anyway.
There’s only so much time, and it’s a big world. Wherever we are, we work at it, making decisions, and then one day — and we may not even know when it comes — the scales begin to tip and the waiting turns into the having done it already.
Photo Credit: Flickr/geishaboy500
When I met last week with Julia Collins, who recently completed the second-longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history, we spent the first 10 minutes of the interview trying to figure out if we’d met before. She and I were in the same class at Wellesley College (2005! Go green class!) and went through the you-seem-vaguely-familiar ropes for a while (“Do you know Lizy?” “Yeah I know Joy and Lizy, I was Melissa’s roommate.” “Ohhhhh.”)
After her first win, on April 21, a mutual friend of ours from Wellesley posted the video on Facebook, which means that, yeah, I was rooting for Julia before it was cool. She won 20 games in all, second only to Ken Jennings’s 74-game-streak, and by the time her elimination in her 21st game aired on June 2, she was a Jeopardy! celebrity. The media had taken to her — or to the chance to use the term “winningest woman” as often as they could — and fans of the show loved her.
“I’m such a Julia fan!” my mom texted me after her 17th win. Earlier in the year Arthur Chu, who studied game theory before appearing on the show, drew ire for an 11-game winning streak that some considered aggressive or “unsportsmanlike,” and Julia was something of a palette cleanser for his detractors. Poised and congenial, Julia nonetheless dominated her 20 games, going into Final Jeopardy with more than double the closest contestant’s score most of the time.
As Alex Trebek said during the introduction to her 21st game, “We have a wonderfully delightful, friendly champion in Julia Collins. Until she gets into a game, then she becomes relentless.”
Julia told me that her success is due to a wide knowledge base, a good memory, the ability to not get rattled, and a knack with the buzzer, but that “I don’t have anything new strategically to bring to the conversation. You don’t need to know everything to win, you just need to know enough.”
Julia took Jeopardy!’s annual online qualifying test last January, and went to live auditions in Detroit last July. In December, the show called and told her they were flying her to California in mid-January to tape episodes that would air in April, giving her a little more than a month to prepare. As a long-time fan of the show, she knew to bulk up her knowledge of space, opera, and seasonal topics — in this case Easter, Baseball Hall of Fame inductions, the anniversary of Lexington & Concord, etc. She also checked The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare out of the library to review each play’s plot, characters, and most famous quotes.
“A high school level knowledge of most things is what you need,” she told me, extolling breadth over depth of knowledge for success in Jeopardy!. I asked her what difference she thought her preparation made in her wins, and she estimated only about 5 or 10 percent of the questions she answered correctly were from her studying. “It made a difference but not a huge difference, but it might have been enough.”
Besides preparing for the questions, Julia had to fill out a contestant questionnaire — used to determine what Trebek will talk to you about in the mini-interview after the first commercial break — including questions like “What’s the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to you?” and “Tell us about a travel adventure that you’ve had.” Julia noted how hard it is to come up with things that will be pithy and interesting that you can summarize in one or two sentences. “As someone noted online,” she said, “it seemed like I hit the bottom of the barrel pretty quickly.”
“I quickly learned,” she continued, “that when Alex asks you something you say yes and you move the conversation forward. Disagreeing with him will just make you look stupid, which is something I made the mistake of doing. He was like, ‘Well why didn’t you try out for the college and high school tournaments?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think they were happening,’ and he was like, ‘I think they were.’ As awkward as it was on TV it was much more awkward in person.”
Upcoming contestants are also told to bring three outfits with them to the tapings, and Julia really shone in this department with what Jezebel called “an A+ monochromatic sweater game.” It was revealed to this reporter that Julia’s sweater of choice is the J.Crew Tippi, which she owns in at least 5 colors and a few matching cardigans. She amassed this collection during her time traveling as a business consultant, and found them to be perfect for the Jeopardy studio. “They don’t wrinkle,” she enthused, “They’re warm but not too warm.” She also rotated in one or two pieces from Banana Republic, which is what she was wearing when she was eliminated. Draw your own conclusions.
Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, two days a week. On each taping day a group of 12 or 13 contestants arrive at 8 in the morning for rehearsal, make-up, pictures with Trebek, and to go over their interview topics with the producers before taping a week’s worth of shows. The two new contestants for each game are chosen randomly right before it’s taped, and the remaining contestants watch from the audience until they’re chosen for a game. This means that the contestants in a Friday show have, in this case, seen Julia steamroll through eight other contestants before it’s their turn, which Julia admits adds an “intimidation factor.” Because Julia’s first appearance was on a Monday show, it also means that she won her first $100,000 in one day.
Julia traveled to California three separate times in January and February to tape her 21 appearances against 42 other contestants. I asked Julia at what point during the pre-show these poor souls typically found out they’d be facing a juggernaut of a returning champion. “Right at the beginning,” she said, almost apologetically, “it was really awkward.” Most Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune contestants stay in a hotel near the studio, and a shuttle comes in the morning to collect them. On the day that Julia would tape her 6th-10th shows, she remembers listening to the other contestants on the ride over talk about how excited and nervous they were and wondering what the day would be like. “I didn’t want to ruin the moment,” she said, keeping mum until they got to the studio and the producers introduced her to the other contestants as the returning champion. “Julia!” they said, “tell them how much you’ve won!”
Julia lives in Wilmette, just north of Chicago, and when she was home in between tapings she would continue her prep work, although she was confident she was on the right track. “After five games I came home and was reading about Jeopardy! strategy and I was like, ‘This is stupid, why change what I’m already doing?’ I studied some more, but why mess with what’s working?”
Her 21st game, she said, “just kind of didn’t go my way. It was a close game but I’d won other games that were close. It’s not like I saw the categories and thought, ‘This spells my doom.’”
The game started as most of them did, with Julia taking an early lead and then leaping ahead in Double Jeopardy, even betting all her money on a Daily Double, which she almost never did. At one point about halfway through the second round she was about $1,000 ahead of both contestants. Then she missed her second Daily Double, and Brian, the contestant on the far right, went on a streak. They traded the lead a few times and Brian retook it on the final question, putting him $1600 ahead going into Final Jeopardy.
“The big difference was that I’d never gone into Final Jeopardy in second place before,” Julia said, “and I knew he would bet to win.” Brian is an investment manager from Massachusetts, and Julia remembers learning that during the pre-show and thinking “this is not somebody who’s gonna be nervous about risk-taking. I knew he would bet to win.”
The category was “Oscar-winning writers.” Recognizing her position, Julia bet all her money, something she’d never done before, and Brian bet to beat her if she did. The clue was: “Winning for 1999, this New England writer is the last person to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel.” The answer was John Irving with Cider House Rules.
“I just didn’t know it. I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve read other John Irving books but not that one. I didn’t know it and nothing was going to make me come up with it.” Julia guessed Michael Chabon and lost her $11,000, Brian wrote down John Irving for the win. When Trebek reads Brian’s correct answer, you can hear Julia sigh, a sigh echoed in front of television screens across the nation.
[If you’d like to have your heart broken by that sigh, you can watch it and all of Julia’s Jeopardy appearance on the Julia Collins YouTube channel, which she does not operate herself.]
There are a few questions that haunt her — a Daily Double about Beethoven came to mind — but not the ones that she just didn’t know, so in a way it’s better that she went out on a question that stumped her rather than one she should have remembered, or one she knew but didn’t have the money to win. After taping her 21st game she came back to Wilmette and had about 2 months to wait until she was on the air.
She went on a five-week trip to Paris and London, which couldn’t avoid raising a few eyebrows. “All my friends were like, ‘Does this mean you won Jeopardy!?’ and I was like ‘Shhhhh.’” When her episodes starting airing in April she set up the Twitter account @JeopardyJulia and live-tweeted most games with insider info like “Alex mentioned afterward that he suggested the writers add “Southern state” to the #FinalJeopardy clue” or “The name changed from Siam to Thailand in July, 1939… I guess after the encyclopedia came out. #DailyDouble #OverthoughtIt.”
She left her consulting job before competing on Jeopardy!, and due to her success on the show isn’t in a rush to find something new. She mentions that she’s open to a career change and I wondered if she, like Ken Jennings and Arthur Chu before her, would consider using her Jeopardy status in new projects (Chu is now a Daily Beast contributor and Jennings is basically a professional Jeopardy champion).
“I’m kind of exploring some possibilities, seeing what’s out there,” she said. “People say find what you love and do it for the rest of your life. Well, I found it and now I’m done. I’d like to see if there are new opportunities that come out of this.”
I asked her if she’d had any idea, or hope, that she’d go so far in Jeopardy!. “Before I went out I had three trains of thought about it,” she said. The first was just that she’d do well, enjoy herself, and leave with dignity. The second was that she’d really love to win one game, and be able to call herself a Jeopardy! champion. But “when you let your imagination run free,” she said, “everyone wonders if they’ll be the next Ken Jennings. It’s like if you’re an 11-year-old kid and you’re like ‘I’m going to get a letter form Hogwarts because I’m a wizard like Harry Potter.’”
In the darkened Anglican church, separated from a looming early-Victorian tower by an idyllic garden, we summoned the spirits and welcomed the macabre into our tell-tale hearts.Nestled at the bottom of Grange Park, the city’s bustle was a two-minute walk away, but it could have been two-hundred years away as the Luminato arts festival presented “Gothic Toronto: Writing The City Macabre”, an evening of six local authors – among them Ann-Marie MacDonald and Andrew Pyper – reading freshly-commissioned works which shone a black light on Toronto’s neighborhoods.The spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is everywhere in this year’s Luminato festival – this year marking the 200th anniversary of his birth. Earlier in the week, there was another reading of gothic fiction by assorted writers, and an evening with Coraline author Neil Gaiman, reading from his latest – The Graveyard Book. There was also a Poe-inspired cabaret, and “Nevermore” – a Poe-inspired theatre piece.But tonight, as the lights dimmed in St. George the Martyr church, it was all about Toronto-the-sinister. For me, Andrew Pyper’s “When You Were Beautiful” dug deepest. Set on a dodgy stretch of Queen Street West, this short tale of memory and loss was spun with equal parts eeriness and sadness.When the evening ended and I was back walking among the mortals, I could swear there was a disembodied voice whispering in my ear, trying to lure me back into the desperate depths where Toronto’s darkest souls cry for release.