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The Company We Keep

One of the things virtually every American author does, it seems, is check the sales ranking on his Amazon page.  The part of the page I find most interesting, though, is the section just above the editorial reviews where other books bought by those who’ve bought my book are listed.  If, as people say, we’re known by the company we keep, this is where the true value of a book is revealed.  I have to say I’ve felt humbled and quite pleased by the books that appear there.

Among the authors represented are: Pope Francis, James Joyce, Meister Eckhart, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Vincent Van Gogh, Thich Nhat Hanh, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Louis Bouyer, Daniel Berrigan, Jane Hirshfield, Richard Rohr, James Martin, Matthew Fox, Ilia Delio, Rowan Williams, Jim Forest, John Dear, Christopher Pramuk, Michael W. Higgins and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Impressive as that list is, it’s the book titles I enjoy most.  Taken together, they become a poem:

The Springs of Contemplation/Making All Things New/In the School of the Prophets/At Play in Creation/We Are Already One

What the Mystics Know/Waking, Dreaming, Being/The Divine Within/The Ground of Love and Truth/All Is Grace

Between the Dark and the Daylight/A Sunlit Absence/Striving Towards Being/Praying the Psalms/Eager to Love

The Taste of Silence/The Submerged Reality/This Present Moment/Crowded by Beauty/Fully Alive

Creating Beauty with Words: An Interview for the University of Portland

Here’s an interview with some of my thoughts on writing, reading and Pure Act, conducted by Jackie Ott, a young writer at the University of Portland.  It was originally posted on the UP English department’s blog.  At the end you’ll find some advice for aspiring writers.

An Interview with Michael McGregor

by Jackie Ott

On October 6, the University Book Store will be flooded with the wisdom of Robert Lax and the beauty of Michael McGregor’s words. McGregor’s reading is sponsored by our very own English department and the Garaventa Center, and he will read from his new book Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, a biography about the inspirational, spiritual poet who influenced many, including McGregor himself. I had a chance to interview McGregor about his passion for the work of Lax and his own career as a writer. Here’s what he had to say:

For someone who may not have heard of Robert Lax, what would you say is the draw of Lax as a poet? What made you want to write a book on his life?

Lax was an incredibly inventive poet whose work makes you more aware of life’s moments and their transcendent possibilities.  My fascination with him goes far beyond his poetry, however.  When Lax was young, he had a deep influence on the spiritual development of his close friend Thomas Merton. When he was older—after working for the New Yorker, reviewing films for Time, writing scripts in Hollywood and even traveling with a circus—he settled among poor fishermen and sponge divers in Greece because he wanted to learn their wisdom.

I wrote about him because I knew him for 15 years and he was the most remarkable and loving man I ever met.

What is your writing process? 

When writing nonfiction, I like to gather as much information as I can and then live with it for a while before starting to write, to know it as intimately as possible, to digest it fully, so the writing feels as if it’s coming from a place of true understanding.  I like to write in the morning, before the day’s events crowd my thoughts.  I’m a slow, multi-draft writer.  I read things over many times, often out loud to hear the rhythms of the words and sentences.

What kind of research did you do in the writing of your new book?

I did extensive research over many years for this book.  I spent hours upon hours in Lax’s archives at Columbia University and St. Bonaventure University, reading through journals and letters, watching films, going through pictures, and even checking postmarks on cancelled stamps to see where he was on what date.  In addition, I interviewed his family and friends, visited the many places he lived (Marseilles, the French Alps, the Greek islands of Kalymnos and Patmos, etc.), and read countless books on the times in which he lived, the subjects that influenced him (poetry, jazz, meditative writers), and his friends (Merton, Jack Kerouac, William Maxwell, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Van Doren and more).

What works of literature have been formative for you as a writer? What are you reading right now?

Instead of individual works, let me give you authors.  There are too many to count, but here are a few: Tolstoy taught me how to evoke a feeling of lived life, Hemingway taught me how to be clear and give flow to my sentences, Kundera taught me how to write ideas into stories, Homer taught me how to write with action, Conrad taught me how to think about narration and multiple viewpoints rendered from a single perspective, A. J. A. Symons taught me how to turn a biography into a quest for identity, Baldwin taught me to prioritize humanity in everything I write, Borges taught me how to use repetition and invention, Hugo taught me how to reach for deeper emotions, the great Hebrew and early Christian writers taught me how to address spiritual matters in a variety of ways, Camus taught me how to focus on the beauty of existence, and Lax himself taught me how to write with economy and clarity.  Of them all, Baldwin, especially in his nonfiction, has been my best teacher.

Right now I’m reading a book about the relationship between Baldwin’s prose and the various musical styles that have come out of the African American experience: blues, jazz, gospel, spirituals, etc.

Although Pure Act is your first book, you have an impressive number of works published in various styles from poetry to journalism. Out of all the types of writing you do, do you have a favorite and if so why?

I can’t say I favor one over another, but I love storytelling, working with ideas, and creating beauty with words.  So fiction, I suppose…or maybe literary nonfiction…or possibly poetry….

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? 

Write as much as you can, every day, and don’t quit.  Study those who’ve done it well.  Slow down enough to really see life and hear language.  Be thankful for each moment and always, in every moment, be fully human–alive, compassionate and filled with joy.

Two Pacific Northwest Talks Coming Up: Seattle and Portland

I’ll be giving talks on Pure Act at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle at 3 p.m. on Sunday, October 4, and at the University of Portland bookstore at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, October 6.  (See my Talks page for location details.)

These talks are significant to me for different reasons:

Seattle: Having grown up in Seattle, I’ve long dreamed of giving a book talk at Elliott Bay, the top bookstore in the city.  And the talk is being co-sponsored by Image literary journal, which published my essay A Gyroscope On the Island of Love and named me its Artist of the Month in March of 2012.  The other co-sponsor is Wave Books, which put out a great collection of Lax’s later poetry in 2013: poems (1962-1997), edited by my Portland State University colleague John Beer.

Portland: The University of Portland reading was arranged by my dear friend and former thesis student Fr. Pat Hannon, who teaches there.  Pat’s thesis was published last year by Ave Maria Press as a book called Sacrament: Personal Encounters with Memories, Wounds, Dreams, and Unruly Hearts.  Pat will be introducing me.  This will also be my first reading in Portland since my book came out.

I hope you’ll come to one of these talks if you’re in the area, and spread the word to your friends!

In Memoriam: C. K. Williams (1936-2015), Robert Lax’s Good Friend

I’m writing this on Monday, September 21, the official publication date for Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I was going to write a celebratory post and remind everyone that we’ll be honoring Lax the Poet at 7 p.m. at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo this evening.  But C. K. Williams, the wonderful poet and friend of Lax, was supposed to be part of tonight’s event and he died yesterday.  The show will go on, as they say, but it will be a bit less joyous.

I didn’t know C. K. Williams–or Charlie, as he was known to Lax and his other friends–but I’m proud to say he blurbed my book.  To honor him, I thought I’d tell the story of how that blurb came about.

I knew from my research that Lax had met Williams and his wife Catherine Mauger on the island of Patmos in the summer of 1973 and visited them in Paris in later years.  When I shifted from research to writing on my book in 2007, I wrote to Williams and asked if he’d be willing to blurb it. He wrote back: “I don’t usually write blurbs anymore, but I will for a book about Lax.”  I know those were his exact words because I wrote them down on a Post-It note I kept in my desk drawer for seven years.

When I finally had a publisher for the book, I wrote to Williams again, afraid he might have changed his mind. This time his return message said: “Good to hear you’ve finished the book. I’d like very much to write a comment for it.”

Although he received my book late and had to deliver his blurb sooner than he had been told, Williams was generous and accommodating.  More than anything else, I was looking forward to meeting him tonight and thanking him in person.  I will have to meet him in his poetry now and thank him by telling others about it.

Let me close by showing you what he wrote for my book, which you’ll find on the front inside flap of the dust jacket.  Although it’s ostensibly a blurb, it’s really a loving commentary on the life and spirit of his dear friend and a testament to their friendship:

“Robert Lax was a poet who devised his own poetic forms, much admired by some readers, unfortunately unknown to most. He was an intellectual and was often called a mystic, but he was neither, just as he was called a hermit but really wasn’t. When he was younger, he lived in New York, where he worked for a period at The New Yorker and knew many figures in the arts, from Jack Kerouac, to Ad Reinhardt, E. B. White, William Maxwell . . . the list goes on. Most crucially he was a close friend of Thomas Merton’s and was made known, a little, by Merton’s autobiography, in which he appears. He also for a time traveled with a circus and wrote a lovely little book about it, The Circus of the Sun”–hard to find, but worth the search. For the larger parts of his life he lived alone, on islands in Greece, and spent much, perhaps most, of his time in solitude and meditation, trying to find some kind of ultimate peace (though he never put it that way). Even then he knew and was admired by many; and many others who’d only heard of him sought him out. He was invariably hospitable and welcoming, his presence gentle, humorous, and utterly patient. In short, there’s never been anyone like him, and Pure Act, in its offering of a detailed recounting of his life and an acute presentation and analysis of his too-neglected poetry, gives him to us: the gift of a human being unlike any other.”  

–C. K. Williams

 

Before Its Official Pub Date, PURE ACT Headed for a 2nd Printing

About 70 people attended the wonderful launch for Pure Act, hosted by Fordham University Press at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on Wednesday.  The first thing my editor, Fordham U. Press Director Fred Nachbaur, said to me when I arrived was that sales have been strong enough to warrant a second printing!  This was five days before the book’s official publication date: September 21.

To mark the official publication of the book this coming Monday, I’ll be the featured speaker at a celebration of Robert Lax’s life at McNally Jackson Books in NYC’s SoHo district.  The event begins at 7 p.m.  (See my Talks page for full details.)  The other participants, all reading from Lax’s poetry, will be Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner C.K. Williams, experimental writer and critic Richard Kostelanetz, former poet laureate of Queens Paolo Javier, former Lax literary assistant John Beer (my colleague at Portland State University), and Lax’s niece Marcia Kelly.  If you’re in or near NYC, I hope you’ll come!

 

 

Lincoln Center Book Launch and Other New York Events

The Official New York Launch of Pure Act is coming up on the Fordham University Lincoln Center campus 6 p.m. this coming Wednesday, Sept. 16!  It’s just one of several appearances I’ll be making in the New York City area in the next ten days.  I’ll also be speaking at:

Sept. 17: The Fairfield University Bookstore in Fairfield, CT

Sept. 18: The Catholic Worker’s Mary House in the Bowery

Sept. 19: Corpus Christi Church (where Thomas Merton was baptized) near Columbia University

Sept. 20: The Brooklyn Book Festival (11 a.m.-12 p.m. book signing only)

Sept. 21: McNally Jackson Books in SoHo

I’ll also be in Baltimore and Arlington, VA, before New York and Minneapolis after–for a full listing of events, times and details, go to my Talks page.

 

 

First Review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

The first review of my book, from Publishers Weekly, was just posted:

Drawing on his friendship with poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) and his close readings of Lax’s writings, McGregor eloquently offers the definitive biography of a too often forgotten figure who influenced a number of writers and crafted spirituality out of his deep commitment to love, poverty, and justice. McGregor deftly and briefly chronicles Lax’s childhood in Olean, Penn. His family eventually moved to New York City, but not before the circus came to Olean and mesmerized the young Lax—with its performers who are “portals to the land of dusk”—so deeply that he traveled with a circus through western Canada in 1949 and wrote a cycle of poems that grew out of his experience and love. By the fall of 1943, Lax had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, inspired by his readings of Thomas Aquinas’s writings and by his ongoing discussions with Thomas Merton, whom Lax had met at Columbia University. Following his conversion, Lax embraced a life of poverty, combining his lack of desire for things with a passion for nurturing a love for those on the fringes of society. This detailed biography from a friend of subject is best for those already interested in Lax’s mission. The book effectively brings to life Lax’s “pure act”—naturally living out his God-given abilities without becoming mired in judging others. (Sept.)

First Look at the Actual Book!

 

I heard footsteps on the cabin deck yesterday and looked up to see the UPS deliveryman holding out a package.  Inside were two copies of Pure Act: my first look at the actual book.  It’s beautiful–and that’s not just this author’s humble opinion.  When my editor saw it, he called it “stunning–breathtaking, really.”  I hope others like it as much as those of us who have worked on it.  If you’ve pre-ordered it, your copies should be arriving soon.

My first reading is up here at the library on Lopez Island at 1 p.m., next Saturday, August 29.  Another good reason to visit the San Juans!  Next up will be a reading at the Edmonds Bookshop in Edmonds, WA, at 6:30 on Friday, September 4, and then our Seattle launch at the University Bookstore on the Ave at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 5.  Please see my “Talks” page for other upcoming readings.  I hope to see you at one of them!

Judases, Jackals or Just Curious Souls?

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” I came across this barb in a book by biographer Michael Holroyd while researching attitudes and approaches to writing about people. Wilde, of course, knew he was destined to become the subject (or, as he might have said, the target) of someone’s research someday. Not only was he an important literary figure but he challenged his society’s norms and had enough skeletons in his closet to cast the fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts (if you haven’t seen it, look it up: it gave me nightmares as a child in 1963).

Other writers have been equally brutal in their depictions of biographers, even those like Henry James who believed we need to know about an author’s life to fully appreciate his writings. James’s bête noire was the snoop who seeks to go where the work doesn’t go, prying into hidden letters and private moments that have little to do with art. The salacious scribblings of these pretenders, he wrote, are “the trivial playing at the serious.” Before he died, he burned as many of his papers as he could. Even so, Leon Edel managed to find enough material to write a five-volume version of James’s life. Edel took his work seriously enough to win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, but he enjoyed the game of it as well: the scavenger hunt, the hide-and-seek.

Two things have particularly surprised me in my research: How vituperative some writers are at the mere mention of biography, and how defensive biographers are about what they do. I’ve looked at hundreds of books and essays by biographers about biography. A disturbing number begin with a defensive stance or, more alarming still, an admission that what biographers do is indefensible. These guilty souls pour their sins out on the page. Then, like Catholics coming from confession, they go out and sin again. As if researching biographies is like crack addiction. Or maybe serial killing.

And perhaps it is. It’s certainly obsessive and some people are more susceptible to it than others. It is often done in dingy and bad-smelling places. And there is definitely a high each time you find that vein, that mother lode, that deed or line or tryst that seems to explain the previously inexplicable or opens up new areas of inquiry.

I tend to think, however (maybe because my first biography will soon be published) that most biographers are less interested in finding dirt or getting thrills than simply learning about people. Especially people similar to them who have been more successful or better known or more intriguing in some other way. They want to know what makes these people tick, at least in part because they want to know what motivates and shapes themselves.

Yes, there are those who want only to pin Gulliver to the ground or, like the jackal, eviscerate the mighty lion. And yes, even the best-intentioned biographers love to open long-sealed letters or listen to what no one can pretend is anything but gossip. But we live our lives surrounded by strange, mysterious beings. We observe them and we listen to them. We wonder why they said or did that. And even the best of us, including those self-righteous writers who dismiss biographers as scum, evaluate and sometimes judge others—to learn from them and be inspired, to see life differently and maybe change, to be amused and entertained by them, and yes, to shake our heads at cautionary tales…or just to feel superior.

 

Fragile, Ephemeral and Precious

The publication of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, on September 1 this year, marks the culmination of 14 years of research and writing about the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known.  I met Lax on the Greek island of Patmos in 1985, when I was 27 and he was 69, and exactly how we met was extraordinary too.  (You’ll find that story in my book. )  We became friends immediately and he impressed me from the first, but I didn’t consider writing about him until ten years later.

Even then, I wrote only a single article.  It ended up in Poets & Writers, though, as my first national publication, and the response made me think his story might interest others too.  I wrote only two other pieces on him before he died in 2000, but in 2001, having become a professor of nonfiction writing, I thought I should probably write a nonfiction book.  (I’d pinned my publication hopes on a novel before that.)  Pure Act was the result.

Never having written a biography, I gave myself three years.  But Lax was not a man who moved swiftly and it seemed a book about him was destined to develop slowly too.  My first research trip to his hometown of Olean, NY, where one of his archives is located, was interrupted by 9/11.  The next time I went there, the TV was filled with news of Abu Ghraib.  My first visit to his other archives, at Columbia University in New York City, was tragedy-free, but when I returned the following year, having secured a friend’s apartment for a full month, I ruptured my Achilles playing basketball my first day there.  I had to return home and wait the long months for it to heal.

During the years I worked on Pure Act, the U.S. entered and ended two wars and I suffered not only an Achilles rupture but a torn meniscus, a shattered kneecap and more cuts and aches requiring stitches or physical therapy than I want to admit.  I took comfort only in hearing other biographers say their projects had taken as long or longer.

I want to warn anyone thinking of starting a biography to do something–anything–else.  Something you can finish in a year…or five.  But then I think of the exciting discoveries I made in letters and journals no one but Lax had read.  And the ways being steeped in his ideas and decisions influenced my own thinking, even the course of my life.  And the people I met who told me intimate and heartfelt things they’d never said to anyone.

Writing about a person’s life means lifting and holding things fragile, ephemeral and precious.  You probably shouldn’t hurry with actions like that.  You shouldn’t be anxious to have them end either.  Even if your reward is a book, solid and heavy in your hands.