about my novel and poetry writing as a a teenage and young adult YA



Lost and Found Generations

The Story Is Just Getting Started.

First Anecdote: 27duet When I wrote On Saint Ronan Street back in that 1930s-era barracks now used as a U.S. Army headquarters in Germany (FRG), I had only the present in mind. I was having a great time traveling around Europe in my old orange VW bus during my off hours, but I had no idea what a unique moment in time this was for all of us in the post-Vietnam years. In some small way, maybe, it was the 1920s relived. During the Lost Generation, the world was exhausted from a horrific war, giving pause in places like Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore in Paris and all of its many lights (Hemingway, Eliot, Joyce…). For the U.S. in the late 1970s, after Nixon and Vietnam and Watergate, that brief respite might be called the Found Generation. In the odd way that Nature sometimes has of playing orchestra to our song, the weather was unusually warm during the mid-1970s summers in Europe, leading to world-class wine crops and excellent traveling.

I was young, and sad, and homesick like all GIs of all times and places. My new world as a junior enlisted Army soldier in Cold War Germany was so different from the worlds I had left behind (lost; New Haven and later San Diego) that I sought to recapture a ghost or a shadow of a feeling or a memory while typing away evenings in that dark Kaserne by light strains of Mozart while traffic whooshed past nearby on the Mannheimerstrasse. Out came a story cryptically titled Jon+Merile, about a dangerous romance in a New England college town, with a bit of John Updike sprinkled in. A struggling young poet (Jon Harney) and a lonely, beautiful young faculty wife (Merile Dougherty) have a mad, passionate fling that ends as most such affairs will.

At the same time, I knew from college studies long ago that lyric poets (like myself) typically flare out about age 27 (the same notorious age doomed rock stars die). It's a natural, evolutioanry process coming at the height of our fundamental drives in life. For poets, it means changing gears and writing novels, more than ever before, with a lot of that youthful jazz and artistry embedded in their prose. The commercial world usually does not take kindly, but you can't tell that to a young, impassioned author on a mission. So it all went into a box and gathered dust after some futile trips and close calls in the City of Cash. Remember I said that John Harney was a struggling young man of about 23. In my novel, this fictitious guy creates a fictitious poetry pseudonym (Charles Egeny) based on how such characters might sound in a Vladimir Nabokov novel, and this Charles Egeny is part of a subplot (in On Saint Ronan Street) involving trips to New York City and correspondence with investor-driven editors. Say no more… and the love affair of Jon Harney like the poetic ambitions of Charles Egeny ends on a rather Gallic note (to be explained in a moment).

Many years later (mid-2010s), dusting all this old work off and seeing that it really worked quite well, I published it through my San Diego-based small press imprint Clocktower Books. I realized in 1976 that Jon Harney the struggling youth and Charles Egeny the struggling poet were John T. Cullen. I realized forty years later that I needed to publish multiple books in tandem. I thought of them as twins separated at birth, and finally united years later and far away. The novel became On Saint Ronan Street, named for one of New Haven's more romantic, mythic streets in my bittersweet memories of the place. The poetry volume became Cymbalist Poems, a nod to the Symbolist Movement I had much admired as a rebellious young UConn student, along with the Beat Movement nobody wanted to discuss. Finally, Clocktower Books also released the two in one volume titled 27duet in honor of that special year in our artistic lives.

Second Anecdote: Paris Affaire, a Young Poet and His Angel in the City of Light (2017). Years later (2016-2017), rather bemused at the powerful, melancholy savor permeating On Saint Ronan Street, it dawned on me—that young poet and novelist had written a very Gallic, oddly French novel with a shrug for a twist at the end, like the passionate love affair in the strange 1964 French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. On a whim, I spent a few hours doing global search and replace operations on the file, plus a quick editorial read-through. I changed all the details (names, places, history) from a modest New England college town to the City of Light (Paris). Voilà, the result was an entirely new novel in 2017 based on the old, and titled Paris Affaire: a Young Poet and His Angel in the City of Light. Like the aging author polishing his long-lost manuscript of his 19 year old novel (Summer Planets), I left the story alone and just tightened a few points of grammar and chapter linkages. Well, not quite. I could not resist lifting Paris Affaire out of the Gallic trench and onto a brighter agger (to use a Roman history metaphor). It went from darkness into light. I added a 2017 conclusion in Paris, involving the Cathedral of Notre Dame in its roaring climax-finale, that the young author and his Mozart could not have foreseen nearly half a century earlier.

Summing Up So Far: So I wrote a novel and collected all my poems in 1976, which begat a quartet of books in 2017 as mentioned: On Saint Ronan Street and Cymbalist Poems and 27duet. From that novel, I spun off an entirely new(ish) 2017 novel Paris Affaire: a Young Poet and His Angel in the City of Light. Thing to note: the climax (entirely new, not in the 1976 novel) takes place on the parvis right outside the 850-year-old Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral; who knew? But wait, there's more!

Third Anecdote: Paris/Notre Dame Cathedral Fire April 2019 Paris has been in my family's heart for at least a century. Around 1922, my Luxembourg grandparents Jean Didier and Anna Didier-Grethen (he 30, she 20) ascended the Eiffel Tower during their Paris honeymoon. She held a bird in a little cage that he had bought her, and they often joked about it in later years. My father (U.S. Army) was stationed in Paris for a while during the 1950s, when my parents were separated, and my mother took me to Paris once or twice during my childhood. I have memories of standing in the restaurant on the second etage marveling at the drunks inside and the magnificent views sprawling under my sagging chin outside (mouth: "o"). Long after, while stationed in FRG for five years, my favorite weekend getaway was Paris. I tooled all over Europe in my old orange VW bus, but I learned to just take the French troop train through K-Town on Friday evenings that ran from Koblenz to Paris (from what was after both World Wars the French Zone of occupation). In Berlin we had Sectors, while in West Germany we had Zones of Occupation. All of that is to say, while I never lived in Paris, the City of Light (including both the light and the très gritty) has been in my heart all my life. So it came as a terrible shock to see on the news, as my wife and I were making coffee and breakfast on the morning of 19 April 2019, that the venerable Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral was engulfed in a destruction of flames.

The Bells of Notre Dame (2019) That very day, I went to my computer network and re-released my 2017 Paris Affaire under a new title: The Bells of Notre Dame. Remember I said: the new 2017 climax takes place under the bells of that wondeful cathedral, so this is all quite appropriate. As I say: who knew in 2017?

For the retitled 2017 novel (otherwise not a word changed) in 2019 I even created a special website to go along: Bells of Notre Dame, just like the 2019 new title (without 'the'). I never did choose to create a companion volume of poetry for Marc (Jon Harney) and his Emma (Merile) in 2017 or in 2019. Their stories turn out differently in 2017 than in 1976; and 2019 is identical to 2017 in all but the title. And there, most likely, things will rest.

Fourth Anecdote: My Teenage (19) Novel. When I was fifteen years old, while staying for a week one summer at my aunt's house in Meridan, CT, I began writing my first full novel. Interestingly, her house bordered on a sprawling cemetery, and I sat at a little desk before a window overlooking the moonlit tombstones. That may have helped inspire the Edgar Allan Poe in me (one of my favorites already) but I was really in love with science fiction and had read everything available in novels and anthologies. Writing with a ballpoint on ruled school notebook paper (like many young writers, I have always been in love with fine stationery), I began writing a grand epic and love story set in a tragic (what else?) human space empire of 5,000 A.D. I think I've said enough about that in the pages dedicated to Summer Planets, but it's worth mentioning in these anecdotes. I rewrote it by hand, several times, and switched to a newly acquired Remington Upright Standard (I think it was called) typewriter. I had a broken record player and only one 33 1/3 LP of Dave Brubeck (Time Out, I think). The record player was stuck so that, as it finished softly playing the last rollicking notes of Blue Rondeau à la Turk, the arm would return to its cradle (as it was supposed to) but instead of shutting off, it would return to the first bar or two of BRALT and start over. So I spent hours typing, lost in the galactic empire of 5000 A.D. and the sounds of Brubeck's adaptation of a medieval European peasant music form. That is very similar to the manner in which, a decade later, I sat at Panzerkaserne listening to Mozart's Symphonies 41 and 42 while typing poetry and prose. My teenage novel was originally titled Cosmopolis: City of the Universe. I tried a few titles when I olished and released it in 2016/17, but finally settled on a phrase I wrote in the first chapters during the 1960s as a teenager: Summer Planets. As an older, more experienced writer, I have added certain polish to tighten things up. The romantic samba-world of Mala Alamala, my young hero Jared Fallon's great love, a beautiful golden-tanned surfer girl who works in a bookshop by the sea on a peaceful planet orbiting a distant reddish star, is more vivid now. The only major innovation are the wondrous djia (diaphanes, or see-through people) like Jared's girl Stella, and her alternate Lelli spawned by the scheming Princess Lyxa. The rest is all exactly as I finished typing one day in Room 310 at McMahon Hall on the Storrs campus of UConn when I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore.

All these musics were great in their moment, and will resonate forever. They didn't get their moment in the sun until long after, but they will resonate for just the right reader, who I hope will be you. Thank you for your interest, and Happy Reading! (JTC San Diego 2019).


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