Monday, December 14, 2015


I'm about a third of the way through indexing the book—that is, entering all my highlighted elements into an alphabetized document—and I figure I'm working at the rate of about ten pages a hour, twelve when I'm doing well. That's not bad at all, but I'm sure not going to get rich doing this.

My drummer-colleague in the history department as a 900-page manuscript he needs indexed; he tells me he's contacted an indexer who'd do it for $1.50 a page; which seems rather low—this page recommends expecting between $4 and $6 per page for an academic book. Even if we take that top number ($6) and my fastest rate (12 pp. an hour), we need to figure in probably at least as much time spent going over the proofs in a preliminary fashion. So 6 pages an hour, all told, at $6 a page = $36 an hour.

That seems like an impressive number, or at least it would have when I was eighteen. These days, in white-collar land, I feel like I might be working beneath my normal rates. On the other hand, I'm going to come up with an index that I can truly call my own.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


So I read and returned the proofs of Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain. By my count, 15 corrections total, and only two of them were the press's mistake. The rest were bits I'd overlooked. Like I said in my last post, a very clean set of proofs.

Now I'm deep into indexing the book. This is I believe the fifth book I've indexed, and I've gotten into a rhythm with the thing. I read the proofs with three different colors of highlighters at hand; I mark (1) proper names, (2) titles, and (3) concepts/ideas/miscellaneous, each in a different color. Some pages end up looking like Monet paintings; others are relatively white. Then I go back thru, a page at at time, and transfer each marked item to a Word document.

That sounds pretty slow and painstaking, and, well, it is. I like it that way. By the time I'm done, I know my book inside and out. I know what needs indexing, and what really doesn't. Yes, I've tried it with a PDF of the proofs, doing the word-search thing, and I can easily imagine how that procedure might make the whole business much easier and more palatable for someone who's in a hurry. But there's something about moving from one medium to another—from the printed-out proofs to the Word document—that makes me a bit more careful.

My antiquated indexing habits (hey, at least I don't use index cards!) make for a better book—at least for me.

For one thing, I end up reading proofs at least twice. That is, I read once, with pen in hand, for proofing, looking specifically for errors. But I don't send corrections in until I've done the highlighter-armed pre-indexing markup. That means that I've read the entire script, closely, at least twice. It works for me—so far as I can tell, there are fewer than a dozen typos in The Poem of a Life, and less than 10 in Intricate Thicket.

And I feel that it makes for a better, more comprehensive index. And yes, as one colleague tells me, everyone uses Google Books for their words searches anymore—but they'll be better off using my index for Michael Moorcock, because I can do concepts, which Google Books can't.

My new life motto: I am an anorak, and proud of it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015


I've been feeling not great about my writing lately, so it was a mixed blessing to get page proofs for my forthcoming Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain, which should be out (hopefully early) in the new year. But reading the proofs, in the interstices of grading papers and preparing exams, has actually been kind of fun. For one thing, they're really, really clean—very few corrections necessary. (I pat myself on the head for that, frankly—I gave them a clean ms to work with.)

And I've been having a ball reading the reference notes, and am reminded of one of the things that I love about doing criticism/scholarship. I try really hard to project a kind of sprezzatura in my text, to just "toss out" whatever insights I have come to as if they're perfectly obvious. But it's in the notes that I record my real labors, all the various texts I've collated, the stuff I've brought together and thought about and disentangled.

When I re-read my own notes—and this is true of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, especially—I can't help thinking, damn, this guy knows some stuff, he's read a bunch of books. The notes are a kind of gesture towards the clich√©d 9-10ths of the iceberg that's out of view; the text is the visible portion.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


I often wonder what I might have accomplished—as poet, as scholar, as writer in general—if my attention were more disciplined. As it is, the string of things I've published over the years seem to me to represent a trail of half-accomplishments, of projects half-done and half-thought-through.

I taught Milton this semester—indeed, since we haven't had finals yet, I suppose I'm still technically teaching Milton, or at least at the moment avoiding grading a stack of Milton papers. As an adjunct to re-reading Paradise Lost for the umpteenth time, I read a couple of translations of the Aeneid I'd been meaning to get to. (And thus the Susanna Braund podcasts I mentioned in the last post...) Along the way, and because of a stray FB comment by my friend Alex Davis, I decided I needed to read Lucan.

So I hauled out the only translation of Lucan's Civil War I own and set to work. The poem is fascinating, entirely different from the classical epics I know (Virgil, Homer, Apollonius). It's clearly one of the great missing elements in my background knowledge of Milton, certainly. And now I have in hand Braund's own Oxford World's Classics translation of the poem, and have begun reading it again.
But the death of Christopher Middleton (1926-2015) the other day has sent me back to his work, which I've been reading, off and on, in no systematic fashion, for some twenty years. I have a stack of Middleton books I haven't read; I'm looking at them now.

What should I be doing? I should be grading essays, of course, and making up final exams. Or I should be reading or re-reading the books that I've assigned on my syllabi for the coming spring semester. Or I should be working on the conference papers I've committed to delivering in a couple months' time. Or even working on my own poems, or thinking about the vast, rangy book on Ruskin and modernism that I hope to write before I go gaga. Instead, I continue to litter my mind with distantly related facts and impressions, continue to scatter a few words on pages that I'll probably never go back to re-read.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

my iTunes U

I've been walking a great deal, in part for my health, over the past 6 months. I like to look around, pay attention to my surroundings. But I'm of a bent that I feel occasionally guilty for not spending the time reading, or writing, or doing something (alas) productive.

Over the course of the semester I've taken to listening to podcasts on my phone, mostly by way of the iTunes U application. I can without reservation, indeed enthusiastically, recommend John Rogers's series of 20-odd Milton lectures from Yale. They are wonderful. He's talking to an undergraduate Milton course, twice a week (the third meeting is apparently discussion sections) for about 50 minutes a shot. The lectures are beautifully paced, well-written, and delivered with a delightful sense of off-the-cuffness.

More recently I've begun listening thro Susanna Braund's Stanford series on Virgil's Aeneid. Not so happy an experience. This is not an undergraduate course but an "adult learning" class of some 30 students, meeting four times for 2 hours a session. Braund's got a wonderful English accent which I could listen to all day—but she's clearly much less prepared than Rogers: she's working from outlines rather than composed lectures, and sometimes fumbles her way thru things she knows well. She does a decent job of fielding questions from the class—sometimes off the wall, often very sharp indeed—but she's all too likely to get diverted from her main point by answering an ancillary query.

Most irritating of all is her round-up of available translations. Day Lewis she dislikes—too "monumental." Mandelbaum is okay. Fagles she's not so keen on. Lombardo she owns but hasn't yet assessed. She is of course teaching from Fitzgerald (and one gets the sense that she's doing so more out of inertia than anything else). But her primary criterion for picking a translation, in the end, seems to be that it stay close to the Latin in line-count, so that students reading criticism that cites the Latin line numbers don't have too much trouble finding passages in the English.

I know it's more complicated than that—but that's the impression she gives to her adult learners. In the end, alas, I feel all too often than Braund's talking down to her not-quite-up-to-Stanford-standards students. Which isn't the way I'd go about doing an adult learning course.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

24 ix 2015

[essay in the quotidian]

Last night Daphne left her phone at the froyo place in the mall; it had been our last stop of the evening, a kind of compensation to the girls for tagging along as we badgered an old friend into trying on and ordering some spectacle frames rather more flattering to his features than the standard-issue Wayfarers he affected. When she found her phone—her lifeline to Instagram, to her various virtual pets, to her constantly-phoning and -texting friends—was missing, she was in tears. So we phoned the phone, & a few minutes later the young woman at the froyo place (it was late, but they were still cleaning up) phoned us back.

I walked over to collect it earlier today, rejoicing in a slightly cooler than lately (only in the upper seventies) and overcast day. I've been walking a lot lately—more on that later—and welcome any opportunity to pursue a pedestrian errand within a mile or two. And on the way to the mall and back, maybe a two-mile walk, I saw:

•At the pond in our neighborhood, the Muscovy duck and her brood of ducklings, grown out of the incredibly-cute-and-fuzzy stage, but still charming as all get out: not yet developing the red wattles that distinguish their parents.

•Also at the pond, what must have been a foot-and-a-half to two-foot turtle, scooting about just under the surface. Never got a decent look at him.

•Loads of the usual tiny lizards, and one or two foot-long, bright green iguanas. The population has bounced back after the killing winter a few years back; on my usual walk from the parking garage to my office at Our Fair University, I regularly come eye to eye with three-foot specimens.

•Sprawled on the sidewalk, and most definitely dead, a six-inch lizard of unidentified variety. His skin, on his limbs, tail, and head, was bright green; his body, a periwinkle blue.

•And finally, on the walk home from the mall (starting to sweat a bit, which always reminds me of Frank O'Hara), a four-foot Great Blue Heron wading in the canal, who cast an imperious and uninterested eye my way, then resumed scanning the murky water for lunch.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Flashing Swords!

These two gems are from my adolescent collection, fished out of my mother's house last summer. Edited by Lin Carter, the Oscar Williams of fantasy literature, they were published by Dell in 1973 and 1974. I've just re-read them as part of the project of "locating" Moorcock within the evolving subgenre of sword & sorcery (Fritz Leiber's term—MM prefers "epic fantasy"). S&S doesn't get much respect in most reputable literary circles, probably rightly; if science fiction is the prog rock of literature, then fantasy is the heavy metal; and sword & sorcery fiction is the Kiss.

The two anthologies are made up of new work by the 8 members of SAGA—"The Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America"—an informal group started by Carter & others sometime I'd guess around the turn of the '60s/'70s. The stories range pretty widely in quality (more on that later), but what I'm really interested is how they represent the field, and how various that field is in contrast to the stereotypical impression we usually have of S&S—you know, hard-thewed barbarians smiting giant snakes while semi-nude women crouch at their feet, etc.: an impression largely formed by Frank Frazetta's cover paintings, first for the '60s reissues of Edgar Rice Burroughs and then for the Lancer/Ace 12-volume edition of the Conan books.

Moorcock is probably best known for his character Elric of Melniboné, the doomed last emperor of his dying race, an albino dependent on his soul-sucking sword Stormbringer for strength and sustenance, etc. etc. Elric is often seen as a kind of exception to the general run of S&S protagonists, a kind of dark horse proto-Goth figure; he is the anti-Conan. Where Conan is the product of nature, Elric is the overrefined end-result of elaborate civilization. Conan is wholesome and strong; Elric morbid and weak; Conan straightforward to the point of thickness, Elric too subtle for his own good.

But it's worth noting a few things, many of them discoverable from Carter's introductions to these Flashing Swords! anthologies, which aim to introduce new readers to the field. Conan was of course introduced in the 1930s in 18 or so stories by Robert E. Howard in Weird Tales. While the character was quite popular and the overall "frame" of the S&S tale caught the imagination of a number of emulators, those who wrote S&S stories in Howard's immediate wake did so in a variety of registers, from CL Moore's swordswoman Jirel of Joiry, to Leiber's seriocomic pair Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, to Jack Vance's phantasmagoric Dying World. In other words, S&S was by no means a wasteland of Conan-clones in the 1940s and 1950s.

Moorcock invents Elric around 1961, in response to a specific editorial request for something in the Conan vein—something swordly and sorcerous, that is. But he does so well before the field becomes thick with heavy-thewed barbarians. That only happens a few years later, when Lancer's Conan reissues (and pastiches) take the world by storm, and people like Lin Carter and John Jakes start cranking out carbon copy barbarian stories (Carter's Thongor, Jakes's Brak the Barbarian). My sense is that things get even more barbarian-heavy after Conan hits the big time with the really quite excellent Marvel comic, and then the even bigger time with the Arnold Schwartzenegger film (1982). After that it gets pretty easy to dismiss S&S on the basis of things like Beastmaster and so forth. 

But in the early 1960s, when Moorcock introduces Elric, it's not as tho he's thrown a Byronic anti-hero into a arena full of barbarian Dudley Do-Rights; rather, he's thrown a Byronic anti-hero into a fairly limited, but already quite diverse field.
So how do the Flashing Swords! anthologies hold up 40 years later? Actually, surprisingly well. Fritz Leiber contributes a kind of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser meta-squib, but written with his usual wit and economy. Jack Vance's "Morreion" is as with so much of his work weird and lovely, his prose inimitably mannered. Poul Anderson's "The Merman's Children" is beautiful, really affecting; I've decided Anderson is possibly as close to a great writer as 1st & 2nd generation S&S gets. 

L. Sprague de Camp contributes a highly readable story relying more on sorcery than swordsmanship (thankfully)—the guy is clearly a pro, doing his job a bit better than he needs to. Andre Norton's "Witch World" story is on a level close to the Anderson piece, while including a good deal of rather familiar Conan-ish physical violence. Her willingness to convincingly enter her characters' consciousness, however, is far greater than that of most of her fellow SAGA-nauts.

The John Jakes story, yet another "Brak" piece, is nugatory, and quite badly written; the Carter story is pretty badly written as well, and is only readable (once) because LC's clearly edging his way towards an ironic or satirical stance towards the whole subgenre—the kind of thing that Terry Pratchett will do so well a decade later.

And the Moorcock story? "The Jade Man's Eyes" is an Elric piece; it isn't particularly well written on a prose level, but it has a kind of conceptual ambition that goes beyond anything else in the two collections. Don't get me wrong—both the Anderson and the Norton stories are very, very good of their kind; but here Moorcock as so often shows himself grappling with "big" conceptual issues (fate, free will, chaos & law, etc.). I like that kind of ambition, even if it shows up awkwardly all too often in Moorcock's books, and coexists uneasily with his oft-stated desire always to entertain.