By the Book: ‘A Moveable Famine’ Explores the Life Poetic

"A Moveable Famine" by John Skoyles.
"A Moveable Famine" by John Skoyles. Background credit: Getty Images News/Thinkstock

A Moveable Famine (The Permanent Press) by John Skoyles is a finely observed and sometimes uproarious “autobiographical novel” about writers that captures, without moral judgment or sentimentality, the manic force behind many ambitious writers and wannabes in the latter half of 20th-century America.

If the story in part pays homage to Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—a memoir of the wild, expat Lost Generation artists and writers Hemingway hung out with in Paris in the ’20s—Skoyles provides a cool look at a generation that was not “lost” but driven, fueled by a passion for poetry (and also alcohol and serial fornication). Skoyles’ subject is writers he met half a century after Hemingway’s novel was published, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; and Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs.

Thanks to Skoyles’ sharp eye and ear, as well as his ability to see himself on occasion as a poseur or an “idiot,” A Moveable Famine makes for an authentic, entertaining and telling account of the pursuit of the creative life—the camaraderie and the competition. The subject matter could not be more timely or relevant for the East End, where writing groups, literary conferences, essay contests and MFA programs are constantly expanding.

Skoyles, who teaches at Emerson College in Boston and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares, the college’s literary magazine, takes on both mentors and students.

Many stars from the heady days are invoked with their own names—Raymond Carver, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, John Cheever (64, ruddy, grim, frail, thin, “who exuded a strong fragrance” as though he had been “slapped with cologne”). Most prominent is Stanley Kunitz (d. 2006), a two-time Poetry Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress and a respected, straight-taking professional. Other figures are composites or real characters given made-up names, such as Iowa Workshop guru “Mitch Lawson.” Critical and feared, Lawson appears as a man “who loved so little that I hated to see him lose the one thing [an ugly dog] that seemed to fill his trim, well-metered world with a cockeyed delight.”

Skoyles, 65, a working-class parochial-school kid from Queens, was as committed to poetry as his student peers, but (to judge from A Moveable Famine) more sober-minded, in more senses than one. The book’s opening line is also its theme: “We were hell-bent to become poets, and all poets stood in our way.” Skoyles remembers a lot—lines, conversations, situations—from workshop days to barroom and bedroom encounters. One participant offers a poem with the note that it’s “a tiny thing of six lines,” each describing the leg of a spider. But “spiders have eight legs,” it’s pointed out, to which the author replies, “Then I’ll add a couple of lines.”

Students strain to dress and sound like personalities, such as Elliot Darmody, “wearing a duster coat that reached the floor,” who recently had his name changed to “Post-Elliot.” Through it all, Skoyles offers his own trenchant prose: “We drank and smoked and f—ed as much as we could while bemoaning our middle-class upbringing and the wasted lives of everyone who did not see the world through the lens of poetry, a lens cloudy…which we called suffering.”

An oddity—each chapter begins with prose summary phrases, as though, like Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, A Moveable Famine needs a clarifying argument. A Moveable Famine may prove a bit much for those who skirted writing workshops or English departments, but as a cultural document, the memoir presents a reliable and engaging account of a time when poetry mattered.

On the day I write this last sentence, the Style section of The New York Times has a front-page headline on popular apps and career choices: “Statisticians 10, Poets 0.”

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