JOHN to the audience.


     QUESTION: Are writers visible in mirrors?


     This goes back to the Christian notion that any creature lacking a soul would not produce a reflection in a mirror. But, actually, with a few exceptions (and I think we all know who they are), writers are visible in mirrors, although interestingly enough, they are often quite discomforted by their own reflection.


He changes to sign on the easel to read: THE WRITER AS DEVIL.


John returns to the laptop again…almost trance-like.


     In his 1966 movie, Persona, Ingmar Bergman explored the symbiotic relationship that evolves between an actress suffering a breakdown and the nurse in charge of her as the actress recuperates at an isolated, island cottage.      


     As I watch it now, its reflections begin to haunt my life.


     An actress—played by Liv Ullman—freezes up in the middle of a theatrical performance of Electra, thereafter refusing to speak. We aren’t told why. She watches as the nurse, Bibi Anderson, chatters away about her troubled sex life. Then comes the weird moment on the screen in which the two women physically merge into one.


     Bergman said that making the movie saved his life. Most of its significance, I believe, centers around the photographic combinations of their faces while at the same time in a way transferring personalities between the mental patient and her lonely nurse.


     For a while the two women really seem to become intermingled. Suddenly, through the silence of the other woman, the nurse is able to put herself in that actress’s place and understand the world with its senseless violence through the other woman’s eyes. 


      That sounds much like something a writer would do, doesn’t it?


     I now live in the country with my second wife who one day meets a younger woman, Liviana, who resembles Liv Ullman a little. She is walking to town, a mile and a half away. At first she seems mildly retarded to Talia, my wife, but in reality she has a severe hearing problem. Liviana’s speech is garbled and she consequently says very little. For some reason my wife thinks this is profound.


     What I don’t understand is that when my wife spends time with tLiviana, she comes to believe that the silent young woman may have a spirituality she has been searching for in herself. 


     All of her life, ever since my wife was a little girl, she has had a deep and profound love for God. She sees this as about changing consciousness in our lives and unhinging and unlimiting ourselves so that we can be all we can. She believes that ultimately that is the reality of God awakening in human form.”


John shrugs his shoulders.


He is oblivious to where Talia is going with her words.


In any case…what I really want is something about Bergman and Persona or, even better, some kind of insight into the creative process.


     Bibi Andersson had been Bergman’s mistress, now Liv Ullman was assuming that role. The plot of the movie makes no sense in itself. Movie critics have been arguing over its meaning for nearly 50 years. But as a symbolic representation of Bergman’s evolving relationship with the two women, it is as sharp and clear as a writer’s image in a mirror. What we in the audience are seeing is not the characters played by Bibi and Liv but the artist’s projection of his own feelings onto them.


Somewhat pointedly.


…Is this just another case of a male projecting his feelings onto females?


     Maybe, but maybe it’s more, and even goes beyond this film. What if a soul must navigate this world of suffering before reaching its ultimate destination? What if a person must embrace pain as intimately as someone would a lover? Meet pain and be annihilated by it? Make pain, illness, sickness and the diseases of humanity their own?

     …To recognize this passage is necessary to the divine process by which all things are born, all things die, and all things are once more made new.


      So for me, Liv, or should I say Liviana, came to represent…


     …One who steps forward, not to console, but to complete the devastation—to destroy all vestiges of false hope. I’m not talking about Liv or Liviana now, I am talking about something beyond them. What I have in mind is a female with fiery eyes, pointed teeth and a sharp, lolling red tongue.


     She carries a sword in one hand which she wields with abandon. She lops off the heads of both angels and demons. She drinks the blood of the vanquished. All things are transformed in her and returned to the earth. They are rendered harmless in her…in time. She is time. She is Kali, destroyer of false hope.


     She is the Hindu figure named for kala, which means “time”?


     She was first born from the forehead of the goddess Durga during a battle in which this, the Great Mother, was called upon by the male gods— Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva—to protect the earth and all its inhabitants from the forces of evil.


    Kali steps forward, not to console, but to complete the devastation that has already started.


      Follow her into the mouth of the wolf. Through its enormous jaw. Past its razor teeth is a tunnel that leads down into darkness.


     She is naked because she is ultimately pure and unashamed. And, she has three eyes in order to see past, present and future in one glance…to pierce through illusions. She is dark because she is not separate from the ultimate void out of which all things are born and into which all things die. Her tongue is extended because she desires blood and the life force of sex


With animation.


     She wears a skirt of severed arms because they are instruments of power. And her hair is untamed, because each hair represents one of her followers, all of whom will run wildly in different directions trying to find their way back to her. We must chop off the head of illusion.  Through art we must know that life and death are one.


John as if he is reading an historic account.


     In that original battle, Kali had not stopped with slaughtering demons. She continued her rampage, threatening to devour everything on earth. That’s when the gods sent down Shiva himself—the lover to the Divine Mother in her many forms. Shiva laid himself down on the battlefield in Kali’s path. She stepped on him. She felt his power under her feet. She stopped, looked down, smiled. The balance of the primordial Feminine with the primordial Masculine had been restored.



updike0As many of you know the writer John Updike just died at the age of 76. By a freak accident (he was the keynote speaker at a writing conference in Princeton, New Jersey, where I put on a workshop) I once spent part of an evening with him and we also had breakfast the next day. This poem from my book Dogs Dream of Running was the result. It pretty much encapsulates the history of American letters and is absolutely true.

– John Lehman





John Updike Spills the Beans

Riding through New Jersey


It was about this same time of year. We

were driving through a rural New Jersey

night, the wife of a Princeton Italian pro-

fessor, Tom Kennedy and me. She had

organized a day for us to conduct writing

workshops and now after the culminating

event, a lecture by the legendary John

Updike, we were headed to a reception

at the house of a dean. “Wasn’t Updike

something?” we all asked, remembering

the eloquence of his extemporaneous

words as they blended seamlessly with

excerpts which he read, like some vast

swelling on a literary sea, to raise us, not

to truth or beauty, but to a new, profound

level of sleep. Tom admitted to nodding

off several times and I to once awakening

with a start. Even our hostess could not

deny, “with the warmth, the lights, the `oh

so busy’ day…” But now how deliciously

refreshed we were, ready over cocktails

and hors d’oeuvres to impress each other,

all over again, with cleverness and wit.


Later, in the Cadillac en route to the motel,

we three were joined by the man himself.

He proved humble in a way the successful

are humble, dismissing their genius, though

mindful the rest of us be sure to disagree.

A lanky man slightly bending an enormous

head, he said, “I couldn’t help but notice

there was one person who…fell asleep.”

Was that the engine or his rising voice that

roared? He continued, “All I could think of

was how I might rouse this poor soul in the

third row from her stuporous dreams.” At this

pronoun Tom and I exhaled, and our driver

let us know, from where she was sitting

in the wings she didn’t see anything. “Well,”

he sighed, “that reminds me of when T.S.

Elliot came to Yale. We had waited hours

in line to hear him speak. Student seats

were high in the balcony and amidst the

rising radiator heat…” And here the courtly

Updike chortled to himself, like a spent

wave tickling the sand on a distant beach.

“Can you imagine,” he said, “I fell asleep.”







John changes the sign on the easel (to WRITER AS ESCAPE ARTIST) and over his shoulder asks the audience a question which he then goes ahead and answers.




     QUESTION: Do writers (who are known to stay up all night and sleep all day) burst into flames in sunlight?


     Sunlight renders writers with their hyper-dilated irises, blind. It also causes neural pathways to fire randomly in the writer’s brain, creating an extreme epileptic reaction. As dramatic as this reaction may appear, it will not be enough to start a fire, though some writers do sunburn easily.


Back to his own saga.


     So I decide to dump the title “Unearthing the Writer as Vampire.” No big deal. But what should I change it to? I don’t know.


     Six months after the Centennial I’m able to get a national distributor for the Niedecker book.  But the book doesn’t prove particularly successful. Her work isn’t uplifting in the same way that a popular song or a decorative painting might be. These are not poems to be recited at graduations or anniversaries. That’s because there are troublesome things deeply ingrained in them; though even here she’s selective.


     She writes about her working-class husband, but very little about her philandering father who “kept” another family (a mistress and her daughter). He bought silence from his mistress’s husband with gifts of land. Can you imagine? Their land. Lorine’s land.


     She criticizes her deaf long-suffering mother, but not Louis Zukofsky or Cid Corman whose friendships she courts over her lifetime.


     They both eventually dump her.


     She writes about Paul—Zukofsky’s young son—not about her aborted twins.


Looking directly at the audience.


Or is this true? That she did not write about them?


     Someone who lives a life of metaphors can easily substitute one person for another when, for her own mental health, she needs the kind of distancing art provides. Her father and her husband do meld together, as do her mother and her, and the live child and her dead twins.


     It’s complicated. But her writing is full of clues.





                                    You are the man

                                    You are my other country

                                    and I find it hard going


                                    You are the prickly pear

                                    You are the sudden violent storm


                                    the torrent to raise the river

                                    to float the wounded doe



     What is clear is that she not only chose subjects that are difficult, but ones that have multiple layers of meaning offering some kind of personal resolution.


     I think there are different, identifiable stages to the creative process—from the first in which we absorb the world and its experiences through our senses and intuition, to a second in which our unconscious dreams and fantasies put these in a form we can handle,… through to an audience-testing phase and eventual publication or performance. 


     And what is the purpose of the journey?


     To dig deeper and deeper? To write poems no one reads?



     No, you are infatuated by Louis Zukofsky for some reason and fantasize about a life with him. You make that dream a reality or try to. But he doesn’t want the pregnancy…


… so through poetryyou create an alternative—projecting your feelings onto Paul.


     But that is not acceptable so you eventually turn to another subject—the man who becomes your husband late in life who is less able to object to your treatment of him in your work.


     Albert O. Millen was a hard drinker, 60, divorced. He’d lost his right hand in a printing press accident in Oshkosh in his 20s, and when I met him he was a maintenance painter nearing retirement.


     Millen bought a grey cottage a few lots east of your cabin as a place to live and fish.


     Lorine’s father was a hard drinker and he had been a carp seiner.


     Lorine, were you trying to regain Zukofsky through his son, Paul, or get back your father through a poem about Al?


Or were you, yourself, the child you wanted to save?


Something in the water

like a flower

will devour







Undercurrent of the foreboding as John explains.



     It may be dangerous to do this with someone else’s work, but as writers it is key to our uncovering greater depths in our own. In time, anyone can become a good writer; but to become a great writer, you must learn to become a great reader of your own work.


     My making Orson Welles central to a poem about my marriage shows me that I want to “direct” my relationship with women. Not that this is a conscious process. As one writer says: “I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it. But I must not know or I will kill the story by controlling it. I work to surrender” 


Something in the water


like a flower

will devour







The stage goes dark.





Lighter in spirit than the first part.





     QUESTION: Will religious symbols ward off writers?


     Holy water does not affect writers other than it gets them wet, and getting them wet might really aggravate them. The same is true of religious symbols.  Simply holding them up in front of a writer will do nothing.


     Beating or hitting the writer with these religious symbols is a different story.



John grabs the THE WRITER AS VAMPIRE sign from the easel. Below it is one that reads WRITER AS ILLUSIONIST.


     I’ve learned, from years in advertising, to do a little test-marketing before jumping into projects with both feet, so when a publisher I’ve known for a long time asks me what I’m up to these days, I tell her I’m putting together a presentation called…


John delivers this title directly to the audience with over-the-top enthusiasm.

     “Unearthing the Writer as Vampire.”


Now more reflective.


     When she doesn’t even slightly acknowledge this, I realize with a start that what I have is a “guy idea” that women (who are a high percentage of the writers I come in contact with) will not be intrigued by. But is this a subject restricted to males? I remember Lorine Niedecker and my first experience with publishing.


John now very much in reminiscent mode.


     A little over 20 minutes down the road from where I live—and 60 years ago—there was a woman who scrubbed floors in the Fort Atkinson hospital and spent much of her life beside a flooding river in a barren cottage without electricity or running water. Unknown to those who came in contact with her, she also wrote relentless poetry which today is included in the Norton Anthology alongside such literary giants as Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams.


For example:


My Niedecker Book
My Niedecker Book






Fog thick morning–

I see only

where I now walk. I carry

my clarity

with me.



     Now there are various small collections of her poems and two books of correspondence she had over a 20-year period of time, but nothing that correlates her life with her work. I figure this is something I can handle and since we are coming up on the 100th anniversary of her birth, there may be a marketing opportunity for a short, inexpensive paperback that I publish myself. I call the book America’s Greatest Unknown Poet.


John holds up a copy of the book.


     Lorine tells us, “I had set myr sights beyond Blackhawk Island…and my connection to that other world was Louis Zukofsky—a young New York intellectual making waves.”


     Here’s how Zukofsky’s friend, Jerry Reisman, described my first meeting with Louis:


John dons an old fashioned cap.


     “In the early 1930s I lived in the South Bronx with my parents and was a physics major at CCNY. Louis Zukofsky and I were close friends. Frequently, on weekends, I rode the subway to his Manhattan apartment and did my homework there.


     “I had read most, if not all, of his letters to and from Lorine Niedecker. Neither Louis nor I had ever met her and we both looked forward to her impending visit. I believe Louis expected her to stay, at most, two weeks. The year was 1933.


John looks at an imagined Lorine Niedecker.


     “When Lorine arrived, she and Louis exchanged shy greetings and Louis introduced her to me. Of course she already knew about me from Louis’s letters. Later, when she began to unpack her things and Louis saw what she had brought—an ironing board and an iron, for example—he concluded that she was prepared to stay a long time. And…


John holds up an iron.


…he looked a bit worried. He had not planned to have a long-term live-in relationship with Lorine.”


John paces around a bit. Then nervously comes back to the audience.


     Well Louis Zukofsky and her hit it off OK. In fact, she became pregnant.


     Lorine wanted to keep the child, but Louis insisted that she terminate the pregnancy.


     She pleaded, “I’ll have the child in Wisconsin, raise it on Blackhawk Island and never bother Louis for support money or anything else!”


     But, Louis was adamant.


     Nothing remained but to find a reliable abortionist and the money to pay for the operation.


     One of Reisman’s cousins recommended a female doctor. Her fee was $150—a lot of money in those days.


     Lorine got the money from her father.


     After the operation, the doctor revealed that the patient had been carrying twins.


     Lorine named them ‘Lost’ and ‘Found.’


     Physically, she recovered quickly, but…


     …In her poem about Mary Shelly, she wrote:



Who was Mary Shelley?

What was her name

before she married?


Who was Mary Shelley?

She read Greek, Italian

She bore a child


Who died

and yet another child

who died.



John removes his cap, he is now back to the present thinking about Niedecker in the past.



     Do we men realize what women go through?


     Mary Shelly gave birth to four children, and only one of them survived to adulthood. Her first died eleven days after its birth. The next, born a year after, died of malaria, and a third perished from dysentery the following year. During her fifth pregnancy, Mary miscarried and nearly lost her life.


     And then there were Lorine’s twins. She ached for them all the years of my life


      As I am researching my America’s Greatest Unknown Poet book I discover that Lorine went back to Wisconsin.

      And Zukofsky? He eventually got married and had a son, Paul, by his new wife. During the period of his son’s childhood, Zukofsky’s letters are full of accounts of Paul’s antics. Lorine used these anecdotes to write poems about Paul, which also suggest an embedded homage to Zukofsky.


     Louis feared she wanted  to lay claim to Paul with her words. Perhaps she did.



John plodding ahead.


     She continued to exchange letters with him over the next ten years, often more than one a week—a correspondence that is for each of them, their greatest output.


John becomes deeply distracted.


     No wonder her novel Frankenstein showed Mary Shelley ‘s real-life preoccupation with pregnancy, labor, paternity, and death. In 1815, shortly after the death of her first baby, Mary Shelley recorded this entry in her journal: “Dreamed that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived.”


     And your work, Lorine, showed a preoccupation with Louis’s son, Paul.


     You sent Paul a book and said you hoped he would read it each summer. Did you want to connect with him, in some way, on an ongoing basis? You wrote:






now six years old:

this book of birds I loved

I give to you.

I thought now maybe Paul

growing taller than cattails

around Duck Pond

between the river and the Sound

will keep this book intact,

fly back to it each summer


maybe Paul



     Niedecker’s For Paul poems created a ‘family’ composed of the Zukofskys and herself. At first, Celia and Louis welcomed her attachment to Paul, and the child apparently enjoyed her attentions too.


Sadly shaking his head.


     But her choice of Paul as a focus for my poems went…awry. His wife claimed her poems for Paul pressed into the Zukofskys’ privacy. And in 1961, when two of the poems were to be published in my volume, My Friend Tree, Louis asked that she remove the overt biographical content from the titles and dedications.  And she did.



John, now lost in his own conclusions.


     Ah ha! I think as I discover the story behind Lorine’s poems about Paul. What if our writing is more than a means for us to delude ourselves by transforming one thing into something else? In fact, what if it is the opposite. What if writing allows us to confront indirectly what we cannot head-on? I recall a mystery novel I wrote whose hero was my rather non-communicative son. Though it is fictional I had to flesh out many of the emotions from my own experiences and in some strange way, I came to know myself through this use of him. …Even better than I could have through poetry, which I’ve always considered more personal and more revealing than fiction.


     And my novel?





     My novel? Oh well…it is never published, but looking back at it now the remarkable thing is that at its conclusion, the young narrator goes to live at the house where his father recently died. Digging through that man’s possessions the son begins to appreciate his dad.


To himself,more than to the audience.


     So I wanted your son to appreciate me, big deal. I didn’t see that it’s also my job to appreciate him?


The Writer’s Cave

I thought it might be interesting to follow up the last six months’ posts on writing with this little presentation. It is different from a traditional play—there’s only one person, me, for starters. But also the material focuses on inner discoveries of people who share some common stories. However for each, the truth is a little different.



The Writer’s Cave Part I

True Stories of Why We Write What We Do


John sits, lost in typing on a laptop. Suddenly he sits up, looks at the audience and points to the easel with the placard: THE WRITER AS VAMPIRE




     Question: Do writers sleep in coffins?


     In the old days, victims of writers, e.g. readers, were occasionally interred while still in an author-induced deep sleep.  This may have given rise to the myth from gravediggers and others who observed them emerging from coffins and crypts that literary people do sleep in coffins. So the answer is “no,” though a writer may choose to sleep in a coffin for other reasons. I understand coffins are quite dark and very quiet.


John jumps up, excitedly.


     I get this idea for a one-person presentation. A DVD commentary on an Ingmar Bergman film, Persona, suggests that a director/writer is like a vampire. Wow, I think, the writer as vampire.  So I write something up. It begins this way:


     It’s 35 years ago in one of the Slavic countries that gave rise to the legend of vampires in the 11th century. My first wife and I are wandering the streets of Split, Yugoslavia—an ancient Venetian city on the blue Mediterranean with white buildings stacked up its hills.


He turns to the audience.


     Come along with me.orson


John continues conversationally.


     I’d just left the Army and we are on the first leg of a year’s journey that will take us to Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal and back to Germany.


     Anyway, it’s a warm early fall afternoon and a crowd is gathering several blocks away. With our one-year-old in a carrier on my back, we hurry down the seaside street to see what possibly could be going on.


     There’s the snapshot in my memory that remains. A movie is being shot in front of an old hotel. This is intriguing in itself. But then we look past the actors and cameras and see that the man directing it is none other than…the legendary…


…Orson Welles.


John looks off to their left. His initial enthusiasm is replaced by disillusionment.


     He looks terrible. As wide as he is tall, he’s dressed in a black shirt, black trousers, and a black suit coat that he must have slept in. His hair is greasy and hanging straight over his forehead and his corpulent face is a sweaty, beet red. He seems to be tilting slightly backwards to balance his colossal weight.


     But it is the Orson Welles. Orson Welles directing!


John looks back as if they are seeing the action of the movie shoot.


     A taxi pulls in front of the hotel entrance and as the woman gets out the camera on the other side zooms in, shooting into the interior of the automobile she’s leaving.


     All this is done without any verbal direction. In fact this seems to be more a rehearsal for a scene that will be shot.


     Orson Welles is turning to the cameraman.


     My God, I am going to hear the greatest cinematic genius of all time actually tell his cameraman what to do.


     He says, with that still-sonorous Orson Welles voice coming from deep in his diaphragm as if from the bottom of a huge, empty barrel,


     “Mario, keep your eyes on the camera, these people will steal anything.” 


     That’s it?


     That’s it. Probably no one in the crowd but Pat and I understand English, but we laugh all afternoon repeating the words:


     “Mario, keep your eyes on the camera.”


     And the baby laughs too…so hard and so beautifully…


     … that during the whole rest of the trip if we want him to roll with laughter, we say…


“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera!”




John  returns to his own thoughts. The joy starts to dissolve.


     What an anticlimax, but looking back what could he have said that would be more memorable? For Orson Welles—known as the boy genius because of his early masterpiece, Citizen Kanemaking movies for TV in Yugoslavia was probably the low point of his career.  And here was my son beginning his life…with wonderful giggles. My little boy’s laughter was his masterpiece. To his parents, he was “our baby genius.”


 When John begins again his voice is weary, more confessional.


He sighs.


     A nice story, but now, almost 35 years later, here’s why I think it fits the topic, “The Writer as Vampire.”


     As writers, we’re consumed with finding significant “meaning.” We are elated when we think we have that. But then times change. Life moves on. And what is significant changes for us.


     When I sit down to write a poem about the Orson Welles encounter 20 years later, my son is a teenager in the Air Force—neither a “teenage genius” nor an “Air Force genius,” and my wife has left me. So the cheery ending of the little memory doesn’t seem quite appropriate anymore.


      Here are the last two stanzas I come up with:


His shot seemed a curious choice.

When the woman stepped out from

the cab a camera entered through

a door that opened on the other

side. Did it make sense, to film

the empty  space  where  once she

had  been, leaving us to watch her

parting shape from the dark inside?

In twenty years, my wife, herself,

would go, never once looking back

on unedited footage decomposing

in the can.


His face was crimson with broken

veins and greased with sweat; his

voice—that voice—no longer Harry

Lime’s, but the mumbled growl of

Hank Quinlan toward his seedy end. 

What I wanted most that day, was

a shimmering globe to hold forever

dear, instead, in his voice I heard

only shards of broken glass. “Mario,”

he said, “you keep your eyes on the

people or they will steal everything.” 

And she did.


     I like the Citizen Kane snow-scene-in-a-glass-globe allusion, but now, my emphasis switches from watching the camera to “keep your eyes on the people.” Now I had “truth” that fit my current situation.


John is suddenly exasperated.


     Did I forget that we had a prenuptial agreement, and at the time of our divorce—our kids were gone and the two of us were barely talking to one another.


     She didn’t steal anything from me.


     If anything, I was misrepresenting the situation for my own purposes. I was stealing from her.


John, now more detached.


     In his essay on the Orson Welles movie masterpiece, film critic Roger Ebert says of “rosebud,” “it explains everything…and nothing.” Who heard the dying Kane say the word before his death? The butler says, late in the film, that he did. But Kane seems to be alone when he dies; and the reflection in the broken paperweight shows the nurse entering an otherwise empty room.


Directly to the audience again.


      Do writers, use events to mirror things that have different meaning for them later on? Like vampires, take the blood out of the actual situation and transform it into something that gives them…what? Immortality?