Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WORDCATCHER—A Few Evening Class Questions for Phil Cousineau

As mentioned in my previous entry, Phil Cousineau read from his latest book Wordcatcher: An Odyssey Into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words (Viva Editions, 2010) at San Francisco's Green Arcade Bookstore on Thursday, May 27, 2010. I had the chance to pose a few questions to him at that time.

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Michael Guillén: As you were selecting these words for Wordcatcher—which was undoubtedly a difficult task!—did you find yourself leaning towards adjectives over nouns? How did you go about choosing your words?

Phil Cousineau: I didn't break them down into grammatical selections, although in my own writing I tend to emphasize verbs more and more as I get older. Ernest Hemingway once said, "You have to learn how to kill your darlings." In other words, if you're feeling a bit roosterish about how clever you are with a certain turn of phrase, you'd better be careful because that's more about you being a cool writer than about actually communicating with somebody. In selecting the words for Wordcatcher the first standard was beauty, something sonic, something wonderfully fun to pronounce and to hear, but which also had to have a good story. Not all great words have memorable stories. They all, obviously, have etymologies or derivations; but, I was looking for the ones with stories.

Scrutinize, for example. It's always been a favorite word. I love that hard "z" in there. Well, it comes from the old ragpickers in Europe, often the gypsies whose only way of making money was by finding rags they could sell to the pulp mills who would pulp the rags and turn them into paper. The act of looking through the rags that had been tossed out by well-to-do people to find just the right rag that could be turned into paper was called scrutinizing. When you scrutinize, you're looking really closely at something. Scrutinizing a manuscript: do we publish this or don't we? The word goes back to this tradition that was clear across Europe probably for 500, 600, 700 years. That's fascinating to me.

[My wife] Jo and I got to stay in Ansel Adams' cabin in Yosemite for a few weeks over the Summer when I was finishing up Wordcatcher and one of the ways I chose words was through what they used to call bibliomancy—divination through words—where some of it is conscious ("I better read so-and-so's dictionary") but often it was walking into great bookstores and trusting serendipity and pulling a book off the shelf. That's called bibliomancy and it's an ancient tradition. I did this in Ansel's house. I pulled a first edition volume of John Muir's journals that Ansel had read in 1917 and that had Ansel's notes in the margins. I thought, "This is cool." So while I'm reading this, I came across a passage about the word
scooch, as in "scooch on over." Where does this word come from? By chance, John Muir mentioned a game he grew up playing in the north of Scotland called scoochers. According to Muir, it was a game in which kids challenged each other to scooch closer and closer to the point of danger—to the edge of a roof, or to the edge of a cliff—as if on a dare. So I was writing this down with a big smile on my face, realizing that from hereon in whenever I heard the word scooch I would think of John Muir and his friends scooching closer and closer to the edge of a roof on a house in Edinburgh.

But the story gets better. While I was writing these notes down from the Muir journal, my son Jack was watching an episode of The Simpsons on television; an episode called "The Insane Cloud Puppy." It features a hilarious Christopher Walken reading menacingly to a group of cowering school kids: "Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Cow jumping over the Moon. Please children, scooch closer. Don't make me tell you again about the scooching. You in the red, chop chop." What an amazing synchroncity! Here I had the word and added something from John Muir's journals and right there (as I'm writing!) I hear Christopher Walken say, "Scooch a little closer."

In a sense, that becomes my measure for the book. It adds something. You felt a little bit of delight there because I felt it while conjuring up the word. So it's not just about the word going back to Scotland in the 12th century and Robert Burns being one of the first to use it in 1571—I have a few of those dates and facts in Wordcatcher—but mostly I'm going for the deliciousness.

Guillén: If beauty of the language is your first standard, I wonder if those people you reference who "hate" words might not be those who—coming from a Puritanical tradition—likewise hate beauty?

Cousineau: Sometimes poetry has that double-edged sword to it. I read a little bit of poetry every day. I remember something Huston Smith, that great historian of religion, mentioned to me when I was working on my book about pilgrimage. I had asked him for a bit of advice to put into the book. He said, "Yes, Phil. I can offer you advice. Resist the temptation to turn CNN on the first thing in the morning when you're in Egypt or Ireland or wherever you might be." What Huston meant by that was that—if you take the news seriously, as I do, as he does (he and his wife have read The New York Times together every morning over breakfast for 62 years)—you can take that news in and it will completely adumbrate (i.e., foreshadow) your day if you take world events seriously. News reports can overshadow the rest of your day. You can be in a beautiful place like Ferrari, Italy, but if you're following the day-by-day blows of what's happening in Afghanistan, it could—I won't say ruin—but it can make it difficult to appreciate the beauty of the day.

So what's the answer? Huston says, "Begin every morning with five minutes of sacred reading." Whatever that means to you. It could be The Bible in Jerusalem or—as when I was making a film in Chile—I began every morning by reading some Pablo Neruda. Just five minutes can put a completely different sheen on the day. Yet what I'm feeling towards this beautiful writing is absolutely annoying to many other people. That's why poetry is, again, combustible for so many. Why? Because it's an invitation to deep emotion.

Guillén: And what I'm sensing is a frequent aversion to deep emotion.

Cousineau: Beautiful words actually make you feel something. There are a whole lot of words that I call weasel words, which comes from the fact that weasels love eggs. They puncture a hole in the egg with their teeth and suck all the life out of the egg. Somebody somewhere saw that as a beautiful metaphor for certain people—such as those in the recent administration—who have been weasels around some of the language justifying how we got into Iraq and Afghanistan. If you're taking noble, venerable language and sucking the truth out of it, those are called weasel words

These words come up when the culture demands a whole other level of language. When you argue, "You're taking too long to explain weasel word", you narrow the language down. We do the same with names. Robert becomes Bob. Cynthia becomes Cyn. The reduction is almost unconscious.

Cross-published on


PortlyDyke said...

I loved reading this interview, and can't wait to read the book.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Carol. As a consummate wordsmith yourself, I'm sure it will be a rewarding experience. Phil has many books that would tickle your fancy. I love his early book of poems Deadlines, wherein he riffs on the famous last words of many many people. That's another one you should consider.