December 28, 2022

Words of the Month - Finding the Present Tense

         It’s all the rage these days to write novels in the present tense.  The idea is supposed to be that present tense somehow makes the narration more “immediate,” more “cinematic” as if you’re watching events unfold as they happen, and more “authentic,” as if there is no filter between the action and the narration.  For young adult writing in particular, present tense seems to be practically required these days, because “everyone knows” that the YA audience demands that immediate personal immersion.  I hate it.
        The “cinematic” claim makes no sense to me, because in any narrative you’re always watching events unfold as they happen.  You can read only one sentence at a time no matter what tense that sentence is written in.  The only difference with present tense is that you get less of a narrator overlaying their current knowledge or emotions onto events that took place in the past.  Still, I don’t think the “more cinematic” claim really has much substance.
        As for the claim of being “more authentic,” the thing is, present tense is actually artificial, contrived, and nonsensical, because people don’t naturally tell stories in the present tense.  Anecdotes, certainly… “So I’m standing in the check-out line and this bloke in front of me has a cart full of pickles.  Seriously, there are like 80 jars of pickles in there!  
And then he goes, 'You need to put each one in a separate bag so they don’t clink,’ and the bagger has this look on their face like WTF…”  Anecdotes can be told in the present tense because they exist in a single moment - everything occurs in a period of time brief enough that it can all be a single “present.”  But any story that takes place over days, weeks, months is never naturally told in the present tense because that wouldn’t make sense.  If someone were to tell the story about how they see the pickle man every week, and what they’ve learned about his background, and how the pickle drama unfolds over time, complete with thrilling climax and eventual resolution, they would tell that story in the past tense.  "The first time I saw the pickle bloke, he was in front of me in the checkout line, and he had about 80 jars of pickles in his cart..."  It can’t all be in the same present, so some of it must be in the past.  Therefore, use of the present tense in a story that wouldn’t naturally be told in present tense by any normal, rational person, is a constant, niggling, irritating reminder that the author thought they were being clever and modern.  And any time the writing is a constant reminder of the author, so far from being “more immediate,” it yanks the reader right out of the fictional narrative.
        Today’s younger readers may well not find the present tense distracting and off-putting.  After all, they’ve been trained to expect present tense narrative as the standard convention of fiction aimed at them.  They’re used to it as a literary device.  And when I say that I find it as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard, I speak as one who actually remembers chalkboards and fingernails thereon, so I am clearly not the YA target audience.  The fact remains, however, that present tense is at best a literary convention and not a natural “authentic” narrative structure.  If a book is sufficiently engaging I can sometimes go for pages at a time without being painfully aware of the author’s artificiality, but there have been many books in which the first few paragraphs of present tense narration were enough to convince me that this story was not worth reading.
        I recently read a Middle Grade novel in present tense, with which I was rather disappointed.  The use of present tense added absolutely nothing, and came across as the new cliché in writing for younger readers.  It also accentuated the constant, heavy-handed statement of what the narrator was thinking and feeling, rather than descriptions or actions that would have evoked those thoughts and feelings.  I also recently read The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, which intersperses third person sections with first person sections.  Present tense narration is almost always linked with first person, and yet Osman uses present tense for the third person sections, while the first person sections are in past tense, as any real first person would really naturally speak or write in relating the story of what they’ve been experiencing.  So I simultaneously appreciate that Osman gave Joyce an authentic past tense voice, and wonder why he had to go and put the third person parts in gimmicky, contrived, irritating present tense.
        As for my own writing, I have written a short story in present tense, partly as an exercise, and partly because it really did seem like the right voice for that particular story - which does indeed take place in a very immediate, short time frame, in which the narrator is very much focussed on only one moment at a time.  So, yes, of course there can be a place for present tense stories - we have this wonderfully rich and complex language because we have a wonderfully rich and complex array of things we want to communicate in wonderfully rich and complex ways!  But for myself, I think the current fashion for present tense narration is more often than not distancing where it claims to be immediate, artificial where it claims to be authentic, and altogether annoying!  What do you think?  Love it?  Hate it?  Couldn’t care less?

[Pictures: The Back of the Clock, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011;

Pickle Magic, woodblock print by Lisa Toth, 2012 (Image from LisaToth).]

December 23, 2022

More Merry Christmas!

         Each year as we approach Christmas I think about posting some Christmas-themed block prints and (unlike with the Hanukkah illustrations) there seems to be a nearly inexhaustible supply of them to share.  Sure, there are similarities among the many illustrations of mothers and infants, stables and stars, but there are also wonderful variations in the ways different artists have approached the two thousand year old motifs of Christmas.  To see those I’ve posted in the past, you can revisit these posts:

Nativity 1

Nativity 2

Nativity 3

Merry Christmas! (2021)

Merry Christmas! (2019)

Merry Christmas! (2018)

Los Pastores

        This year I have yet another selection of beautiful nativity scenes.  We start with my favorite of this batch, by Emma Schlangenhausen.  I like the haloes, and the glowing baby.  Interestingly, there are no people in the scene besides Mary and Jesus, but just a host of angels flocking to adore him.  There are, however, sheep and one shepherd visible out on the distant hills.  Perhaps the angels have already given them the good news and then zipped on ahead to visit Jesus while 
the shepherds have to make their way through the night.
        Today’s second piece, by Rufino Tamayo, also features angels beside Mary, but otherwise it’s very different.  Instead of solid blacks and whites, it’s all rough lines of texture.  Instead of a glowing baby Jesus, the baby isn’t even really visible, but is presumably nestled in his crescent-moon-shaped manger.  Between the manger like a moon and the straw morphing into cloud-like shapes, this almost seems to place Madonna and Child up in the sky.
        Mary is accompanied by lots of people in the third piece, by Fritz Eichenberg.  The triptych composition is quite traditional, and works well to focus on Mary and Jesus while still including the other elements of the story.  I’m not sure whether the men on the right are meant to be the three wise men.  If so, they’re certainly not dressed as kings, and their gifts are not the traditional caskets of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  I particularly like the tenderness on the face of the man standing to the left, who may be Joseph.
        And finally, a medieval Madonna.  In medieval art, Jesus never looks like a newborn, and Mary tends to look a little sour, but this still has some beautiful touches.  I like the haloes with crowns, and the folds of the robes.  Saint Ulrich on the left actually has a funny little smile (and holds a fish, in the odd way of saints).  But my favorite part is the framing at the top, where branches suggest an architectural arch over the people, with leaves and flowers suggesting the night sky and stars.
        The thing about the Christmas story is that we can keep repeating it year after year, and while different people find resonance (or not) in some of the various details, I think just about everyone can take joy in the reminder that love is born in even the smallest and most humble corners of the world.

[Pictures: Weihnacht, wood block print by Emma Schlangenhausen, 1933 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Virgin, woodcut by Rufino Tamayo, 1928-30 (Image from Davis Museum);

Nativity scene, woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg, 20th century (Image from Davis Museum);

The Madonna and Child between Saints Ulrich and Afra, hand colored woodcut, Augsburg school, c. 1490s (Image from Davis Museum).]

December 19, 2022

Illuminated Creatures

         Each year during Hanukkah I think about posting some Hanukkah-themed wood block prints from renaissance Jewish prayer books.  But the iconography of these illustrations doesn’t vary much, and I think I’ve exhausted them as a topic of interest.  While I was thinking about these beautiful old prayer books, though, I was reminded of the really wonderful illuminations in some of the pre-print versions.  So today, having nothing at all to do with Hanukkah after this magnificent opening menorah, I celebrate by sharing some of the marvelous magical marginalia I’ve discovered in illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.
        As with all kinds of marginalia in medieval manuscripts, the illustrations may have no connection with the subject and content of the text.  These creatures are, for the most part, akin to doodles: whatever the artist felt like at the time, although perhaps informed by larger themes associated with the work or the patron who commissioned it.  I certainly don’t know any particular background to these examples I’m 
sharing today, and take them at face value as magical monsters.
        My favorite is the green dragon, painted in the fifteenth century, which fits quite well with my modern ideas of how a dragon should look, despite being a little furry around the chin.  It’s got nice details, including a triple-forked tongue, sharp little fangs, and touches of gold to highlight the edge of the wing.  It looks like it might be suitable for a pet dragon, because although there’s really no indication of scale, I picture it being relatively manageable in size, and it’s got a grin like a dog.
        The next piece has four creatures (plus feline heads in the four corners), and although the one on the right is probably a pretty ordinary antelope, and the one on the left may be a panther or some such big cat, but the two on the top are definitely marvels.  The winged 
dragonoid has ears and eyes like a hound, and a wispy beard and tail.
        Next (topped by another panther/lion) is another selection of winged wyvern-like beasties.  They have botanical tails adding to the fantastical mix.  The monsters in the inset have an even wider variety of parts, including human arms on the antlered, plant-breathing thing to the right, while the thing on the left has two human heads, a crocodilian tail, and odd webby hands (or perhaps they’re feet).  The one in the center has gorgeous wings, great curly horns, feet worthy of a T. rex, and a beautiful pattern down its neck.  I’m hoping the one on the left doesn’t manage to hurt it with the enormous club!
        And I end with another illumination from the same thirteenth-century prayer book with which we began, and another detailed and complicated illustration fully inhabited by interesting critters.  I like the architectural framing of the whole things, like a castle full of magic.  There are lions, dogs, and a crane/egret, but also a variety of creatures with heads like lions or “serpents,” tails sprouting into leaves and flowers, and some with wings.  The one on the top right actually has more bat-like wings, unlike the bird-like wings more common for medieval dragons.
        Well, it may not be a traditional Hanukkah gift, but I hope you enjoyed today’s magical monsters.

[Pictures: Menorah, folio 226v from Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296 (Image from Getty Museum);

Dragon, folio 44v from Mahzor festival prayer book, 1450-1474 (Image from British Library);

Assorted creatures, folio  294 from Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, 1300-1325 (Image from British Library);

Marginalia, folio 5v from Northern French Pentateuch, 1277-1286 (Image from British Museum);

Illumination, folio 106r from Festival Prayer book, 1300-1329 (Image from British Museum);

Illumination, folio 130 from Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296 (Image from Getty Museum).]

December 14, 2022

Homar’s Block Prints

         Lorenzo Homar (Puerto Rico, 1913-2004) worked as a graphic artist, a jewelry designer, and a soldier (during World War II), but of course it’s his wood block prints I care about.  My absolute favorites are these two faces.   My quick research revealed that the subjects of these portraits were advocates for Puerto Rican independence, as well as being interested in abolition, equality, and literature.  I know practically nothing about this area of history, so I’m leaving aside the biographies and sticking to what Homar has put into these images.  In his portraits, these are wise men, thoughtful, kindly, a little sad, but with beautiful visions.  The way Homar has used light and shadow and the curves of lines to evoke these expressions is masterful.  I love the curl of hair and beards, the bridges of noses, the faraway eyes.  Seriously, these may have joined my list of top favorite portraits ever (which admittedly is a fairly long list, but still).
        For variety, though, I’ve included a few other pieces by Homar that have a slightly different style.  (I’ll note while I’m at it that this post is not even remotely representing the full range of Homar’s style, since his graphic work goes off in all sorts of other directions.  I am simply offering a sampling of my favorites of his block prints.)  So, next up is a very small portrait of an olive tree.  Like the men, it’s old and curly, and probably has great wisdom.  I think I might like it even better without the green background because it would have higher contrast against white, but I do like the touches of grey 
shading on the deeply ridged bark.
        We go from fairly small and simple to large and extremely detailed.  This picture of people crowding onto a city bus was one of a series of large pieces illustrating Puerto Rican folk songs.  There are all sorts of wonderful touches, from the details of architecture in the background to the clothes, expressions, and postures of the varied people.  It leaves no doubt that Homar was a master of his medium.
        And finally a piece presumably inspired by his work in typography, a Spanish alphabet.  I love the font, but just as interesting is the background.  Many renaissance decorative capitals had very detailed backgrounds featuring white botanical or arabesque designs against cross-hatched shading.  Homar has evoked this aesthetic with carving that, when you look at it closely, turns out to be rather rough carving and the natural wood grain.  It’s amazing to me when something can be 
simultaneously rough and refined, simple and detailed.
        I enjoyed discovering this artist whom I hadn’t encountered before.  

[Pictures: Betances, wood engraving by Lorenzo Homar, 1960;

De Hostos, wood engraving by Homar, 1961;

Olivo en Mallorca, wood block print by Homar, 1967;

La Guagua, linoleum block print by Homar, 1954;

Alfabeto Español, wood block print by Homar, 1969 (All images from Princeton University Library).]

December 9, 2022

The Erlking

         It’s time again for a fantasy poem, and today I’ve picked one that I think of as wintry, with its cold winds, dry leaves, and rising mists.  This is an English translation (by Edgar Alfred Bowring) of the very famous German poem written in 1782 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Germany, 1749-1832).  Goethe’s version was inspired by a traditional Danish ballad.  I’ve changed the punctuation and formatting slightly because there are three characters with speaking roles and it can be a little hard to tell who’s talking when.  I’ve put the father and son simply in quotation marks, while the Erlking is also in italics.

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp'd in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

“My son, wherefore seek'st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain.”

"Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
For many a game, I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold."

“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, 'tis thy fancy deceives;
'Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”

"Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They'll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep."

“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
'Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”

"I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou'rt unwilling, then force I'll employ."
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely, the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

        There are a couple of interesting elements in this poem.  For one thing, it wouldn’t have to be read as fantasy at all, since we’ve got an unreliable narrator.  Some people argue that the son is delirious with illness, the father’s interpretations of natural phenomena are the truth, and there is no supernatural element at work.  I, of course, prefer to read the son’s version as correct, while the father just can’t see it.  And if that’s the case, the next interesting question is who or what the Erlking is.  Many English translations use “Elfking,” and the original Danish ballad also features elves (specifically the Elven king’s daughter, rather than the king himself.)  But the German “Erl” should really be translated “alder tree.”  Some scholars theorize that the German was simply a mistranslation from the Danish, which is certainly always possible.  But it also doesn’t seem implausible to me that the Alder King would be a powerful magical figure in folklore, and if so the name could have been chosen deliberately for the German translation.  Alders are often associated with the faeries, as well as with secrecy and all manner of charms, both protective and dangerous.
        Because of the fame and popularity of Goethe’s poem (including an English translation by Sir Walter Scott), not to mention the darkly dramatic combination of mystery and pathos, there are lots of illustrations.  The ambiguity in the ballad gives artists plenty of creative leeway.  Does the Erlking look like a skeleton representing death, or more like a tree, or just a mysterious mist?  Is he hard and solid, or semi-transparent and ethereal, or perhaps there is no Erlking visible at all?  Do you emphasize the creepy nighttime landscape, or the characters and their expressions?  This isn’t a story I have any desire to illustrate, but I do appreciate the different ways these artists have approached the challenge.  How would you do it?
        Finally, if you wish to hear Goethe’s poem set to music by Franz Schubert and animated by Ben Zelkowicz, check out this short.

[Pictures: The Erl-King, etching and aquatint by Letterio Calapai, 1950 (Image from The Old Print Shop);

Fear, etching by Odilon Redon, 1866 (Image from The Met);

The Erlking, lithograph by Harry Brodsky, before 1982 (Image from Smithsonian);

Erlkönig, woodcut by Hans Knipert, first half 20th century (Image from Dallas Museum of Art);

The King of the Woods, painting by Juli von Klever, c. 1887 (Image from Heritage Images);

Król Olch, painting by Jan Kazimierz Olpinski, before 1936 (Image from Connaisseur Kraków).]

December 5, 2022

Making Snow Angels

      With all the recent shows, I’ve got one block ready to print and two blocks partly carved, and I also managed to finish one new piece last week.  Since that one involved an unusual process for me, today I’ll share how I made it.
        The first step was, as usual, to draw the entire design in pencil on paper.  I then transferred that design onto a block, again as usual.  After that, however, I cut up my paper design to isolate the parts that would be printed separately.  The star, the mittens, and the face were then transferred onto separate little scraps of rubber.
        The carving of the separate detail blocks was straightforward.  The main block, however, was a reduction, although a simple one in only two stages.  The first stage was to carve away everything that was to remain white.  When I then printed the main block in light blue ink, I got the state shown here in the upper left.  I’ll note for clarification that the “normal” way to print relief blocks is to lay the block on the table face up, roll the ink across it with the brayer, and then lay the paper face down onto the inked block.  The back of the paper is then pressed.  That’s how I printed the light blue, using a registration guide to keep a consistent placement of the paper on the block, for future reference.  As with any piece with multiple steps, however, I printed a number of extras, in case of flaws in later stages.
        The next step was to print the little blocks: the yellow star giving me the second state in the upper right, and the three separate red bits giving me the third state.  The star was big enough to ink and print “normally,” although I did have to start with the paper face up, and lay the star face down onto the paper in order to see where it needed to go.  I then flipped the block and paper over in order to press the back of the paper as usual.  The little red blocks were so small, however, that I treated them more like rubber stamps.  I rolled out ink on my plate, but then instead of trying to roll across such a tiny block, I pressed the block into the ink a few times to pick up ink.  I placed it onto the face-up paper in the right location, and then simply pressed it down onto the paper.  That meant I did have trouble getting the face clear, since it’s hard to be precise about the inking with this method.
        Having printed all those extras, I luckily still ended up with enough decent ones after messing up a bunch of faces, so I was ready to move on to the irrevocable stage: the reduction of the main block.  I carved away everything that was to remain light blue, leaving only the black parts.  That left me with the chopped-down block shown here.  You can see that I cut off the entire background around most of the kid, so as to avoid black lines in the snow.  I did have to leave the one corner, however, because that’s how I registered the paper for the second layer of printing, in order to make sure the black lined up with the light blue.
        This is the first time I’ve fooled around with using separate little blocks for details of color.  As regular readers of this blog know, my favorite thing will always be the clarity and drama of straight black and white.  But sometimes a little touch of color is just what you need, and it’s always fun to try new things.  As for the subject of the child making snow angels, I was brainstorming ideas for holiday cards, and trying to come up with something that connected the everyday joys of the season with a reminder of the holiday’s special spirit of sharing love.  I hope you can find some joys and share some love this month, even while things can sometimes get hectic and stressful.

[Pictures: We Can Be Angels, rubber block reduction print by AEGN, and preliminary states, 2022;

Carved blocks for We Can Be Angels, photo by AEGN, 2022.]