Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.

In “These United States” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 10), contributor Joe Woodward reports on the recent publication of two literary anthologies about America. Brian Turner, a contributor to the politically inspired poetry anthology State of the Union, is quoted as saying: “Artists must raise their voices when there is wrong in the world. If writers remain silent to the questions of their time, they leave the framing and the investigations of the moment to journalists and politicians.” Do you agree that writers, as artists, have this responsibility? If so, what is the nature of that responsibility? What perspective do writers offer that journalists and politicians don’t?

In “These United States” Turner also says, “Poetry, when shared, often creates opportunities for the person experiencing the poem to be moved or changed by the experience. I believe one would be hard-pressed to discover a poem that doesn’t have a political aspect to it.” Similarly, in “The Spirit and the Strength” (page 46), a profile of novelist Toni Morrison by Kevin Nance, Morrison says, “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t.” Do you agree that art is inherently political in some way? Why or why not? Can you think of a poem or novel that’s not political?

Read “Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin” (page 12). What are your favorite and least favorite first lines? Explain your choices.

In “The Art of Reading Aharon Appelfeld” (page 31), William Giraldi writes about the life and books of Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld. He describes Appelfeld as an author “for whom language is dangerous, a man who measures every word because every word is sacred.” Similarly, in “The Guest List” (page 56), a profile of poet and memoirist Paul Guest by Amy Pence, Guest says that all writing, despite its genre, is a lie. He says, “With every word you’ve chosen, you’ve made a decision to say one word and not the other.” Think about this as it pertains to your own writing, especially in this age of e-mailing and instant messaging. Do you think carefully about which words you use when? How important is this when communicating in speech? How important is this in writing? Is there a difference?

In his essay, Giraldi goes on to describe how, early in Appelfeld’s career, editors encouraged him to flesh out his writing with more words, but he refused. “Silence is central to [Appelfeld’s] fiction,” writes Giraldi. How can silence be central to any writer’s work considering his or her medium is language?

Giraldi also describes how Appelfeld believes that a novelist’s most worthy subject is his childhood. ‘Childhood,’ [Appelfeld] said, ‘gives us the first.’” What do you think Appelfeld means by “the first” and why would it be so worthy of the writer’s attention? Think of your favorite novels. Are any of them informed by the author’s childhood experience?

In “The Spirit and the Strength,” Kevin Nance describes how Toni Morrison has been criticized for a failure to engage with contemporary African American life by continuing to write about slavery in her novels. Should writers be obligated to write about or, conversely, to avoid certain subject matter? Should they be entitled to write about any subject matter they choose? Are there any particular subjects they shouldn’t be allowed to write about? Why or why not?

Morrison argues in “The Spirit and the Strength” that writing cannot be taught. She says, “you can take something and make it a little bit better by editing it—or you can throw it in the trash, or whatever—but you cannot teach vision. Talent you can hone, but the essential thing, the compulsion to create—where you know that if you don’t do it, something dies in you—that’s there or it’s not.” Do you agree with this?

In Pence’s profile of Paul Guest, Guest discusses the impulse we have to read poems biographically. Why do you think this is so? What is it about poetry that causes readers to assume that it’s true or drawn from the author’s experience? Do we make the same assumptions about fiction?

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