Howard Cunnell

Resources

Here is where I'll be posting links to useful interviews, videos, essays and other material relating to the practice of writing. Stuff that interests, instructs and entertains me.

 

Jim Harrison, 1937-2016

It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone's
story, but the shape
of the voyage, how it pushed
outward in every direction
until it stopped:
roots of plants and trees,
certain coral heads,
photos of splintered lightning,
blood vessels,
the shapes of creeks and rivers.

from The Theory & Practice of Rivers and New Poems (Livingston, Montana. Clark City Press, 1989)

 

If my house ever caught fire, and I only had a few moments to rescue a handful of books from a lifetime's reading, Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall (1979) would be an easy choice. Harrison, who has died aged 78, wrote rich and inimitable works of fiction and poetry over 40 years, and was the acknowledged contemporary master of the novella - the three collected in Legends of the Fall are arguably the finest examples, though the competition is stiff. I say inimitable because Harrison's work is simultaneously expansive and intimate. He is endlessly curious both about the exterior world - the landscapes of Northern Michigan and Arizona that he wrote about with wonder and anger at their desecration - and the interior life of the mind. The cadences of his sentences are especially striking and unmistakeable, their content fizzing with activity and associations. To read Harrison is to experience a relentlessly enquiring mind operating at full power - a searchlight illuminating what it means to be human. He concerned himself with how to live well - the men and women he wrote about push at the limits of what is possible in life, often with violent consequences. An ecologist and advocate of Native American rights, Harrison's work is sometimes angry, but it's also always funny and frequently absurd. Revelations gained by being fully in the world are a recurring theme. These sartoris illuminate our understanding of Harrison's life long engagement with Zen Buddhism. His writing is also learned, passionate, righteous, bawdy, completely original and utterly fearless, both in how he writes and what he writes about, in a way that makes other, more metropolitan writers, seem timid and simple minded in comparison. Not that I imagine Harrison would care about such comparisons. As much as he could he stayed away from the New York publishing world. He had no time for what he called in Warlock (1981) 'chichi riffraff' and frequently satirised what he saw as the self importance of that world.

Since being introduced to his work by Jonathan Main (booksellercrow.co.uk) almost 30 years ago, I have looked forward to each new book with real anticipation and excitement - always the beautiful imported American editions each with cover paintings by Harrison's friend Russell Chatham. There's one new, last collection of novellas to ask Jon to get for me - The Ancient Minstrel.
When it comes I'll read it slowly.


I can still remember the thrill of reading the opening sentence of Revenge, from Legends of the Fall, standing in Jon's book-lined house in London, where I had just arrived as a 22 year old kid who wanted to be a writer:


'You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive.'


Or how about this opening, from The Man Who Gave Up His Name, the second novella in the collection and my favourite, along with the novel Dalva (1989), of Harrison's many works:

 

'Nordstrom had taken to dancing alone. He considered his sanity to be unblemished and his nightly dances an alternative to the torpor of calisthenics. He had chided himself of late for so perfectly living out all of his mediocre assumptions about life.'

 

This is the real stuff, I thought. I still think so.

 

Here’s a linkto a lovely piece in the New Yorker by Harrison’s close friend, the writer Thomas McGuane. Harrison’s death, McGuane writes, has left an ‘extraordinary vacancy.’

 

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John Healy

The Grass Arena, John Healy's memoir first published in 1988, remains one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. This might be a strange thing to say about the story of a vagrant alcoholic living in a brutal world of addiction, beggars, thieves, prostitutes and killers. Beyond the harshness of the life Healy describes, however, what has always impressed me about the book is not just that it was written at all, but the almost transparent beauty of Healy's prose. The Grass Arena is an essential modern classic. Healy's disgraceful treatment at the hands of a hostile and uncomprehending publishing industry is brilliantly told in Paul Duane's 2011 documentary Barbaric Genius. Here's a link to what is maybe the half forgotten dramatisation of The Grass Arena made in 1992, featuring an incandescent performance by a young Mark Rylance.

 

 

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Thom deVita

Thom deVita has been tattooing and making art for over 50 years. A truly original outsider artist even in outsider art forms, deVita is a hugely influential and groundbreaking figure in the contemporary history of tattooing, and an immensely gifted and original fine artist. This superb documentary tells deVita's story and showcases his daily commitment to artistic practice in the face of old age and Parkinson's disease. This is a great film about an inspiring and heroic artist.

 

 

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James Baldwin

The Price of the Ticket profiles the life and work of the great American writer and political activist James Baldwin. The film is a key document of African-American culture and American writing in the 20th century, featuring contributions from Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Ishmael Reed, William Styron and many others. Ultimately this is a documentary about a man beloved for the quality of his writing and the fearlessness with which he spoke out against all forms of injustice. 'It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive': 

 

 

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Allen Ginsberg

This interview, given by Allen Ginsberg to the BBC in 1995, is a great favourite of mine. Ginsberg effortlessly deflates Jeremy Isaacs ill-informed, establishment hostility, and offers a demonstration of what I believe the Buddhist Ginsberg would call 'skilful means'. That is, in talking openly against violence - with love and wise compassion - he offers an example of what he and friends like Jack Kerouac were attempting to write into American cultural and political life. There's some especially enlightening stuff here about the use of 'ordinary speech' in verse and the use of breath as a poetic measurement, as Ginsberg explains that he's consciously working to fulfil the wish of Walt Whitman - who in Leaves of Grass said that he hoped American poets would 'develop in the direction of candour.'

 

 

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Robert Stone

First up is this interview with the novelist Robert Stone. Stone, who died last month, was one of the most significant writers to come out of post-Beat America.

 

He was that rare writer whose work is instantly recognisable by a sentence. Realism isn't tenable, he once said, 'you have to write a poem about what you're describing.'
Outerbridge Reach (1992), his novel about a single-handed around-the-world yacht race, was a significant influence on my book The Sea on Fire.


In this interview Stone talks about his influences, the 1960s, addiction and the practice and loneliness of writing: