Stephen Altman - The Blog
All about Life, John Keats and Blues for the Muse

  • Stephen Altman


Blues for the Muse is set in Rome, where I've visited six or eight times this past decade. (Keats made one trip there; it ended badly.) It's hard to imagine that Rome even exists. Even in Italy. Spend time in Rome and you will understand why the phrase"Eternal City" is so apt, yet somehow falls short.


On Fridays I'll be posting things I've run into over the years--not necessarily BFTM-related or even Keats-related, but useful or pleasurable bits of poetry or prose. So while we're thinking of Rome, here's a useful three-sentence summing-up that I saved some time ago. But remember, this is Rome: Don't read about it; visit it. Here's what the writer said:


Rome is the ultimate city, the defining metropolis, that same civis from which the fundamental concept of civilisation derives. The place enshrines extremes of human grandeur and baseness like no other, reminding us of the enduring paradox of our species - that transcendent resources of imagination, faith and creativity can exist alongside barbarism, arrogance and folly. Whether living in Rome or looking at it, we learn by degrees something about who we are.


I tried to make Blues for the Muse feel a bit like Rome. But that was folly; nothing feels like Rome but Rome.


[The writer is Jonathan Keates (doesn't that sound like an alias?) reviewing Robert Hughes's enthralling Rome a decade ago. The photo is from La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), starring the incomparable Italian older dude Tony Sevillo. It won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film in 2014. Covid may be keeping you out of Italy right now, but that doesn't mean you can't stream La Grande Bellezza.]


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  • Stephen Altman


If this were our first date and I offered you a novel consisting of 202 sonnets, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? If you've just come across this site, then this is a first date (of sorts) and that is what I'm offering. Hey, wait!


I have friends of 40 years who have personally thanked me for never making them read one of my sonnets. And I have other friends who have read them all, start to finish, and were just tickled. So whether this sort of thing is for you is like anything else--you offer what you've got and hope that at least somebody will go for it. It takes the writer and the reader, together, to strike a spark.


If it helps you make up your mind, know that it could have been a lot worse. The original plan was for 400-500 sonnets. A kind of insanity obviously took over once I got involved with iambic pentameter. But cooler voices prevailed (a writer's head is full of voices, some cool, some not so much) and I wrote a story in verse that said what I wanted it to say without making you read till you drop.


It's actually a good story, and it contains an assortment of things I'm guessing no one else would put in the same book. The delight for me lay in finding out how these things connected--noir movies and moviemaking and a love of John Keats and Rome and Stoli at the bar and nights spent in the company of Italians who changed me in that way Italians do. And music. And love. And loss. The consolations of art. The differences between the younger you and the older you, and also the things that will stay unchanged no matter what.


Anyway, that's probably plenty for anybody's first date.


[The photo is a still from Moulin Rouge, directed by John Huston in 1952. That's the artist Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, played by José Ferrer, dining for the first time with the model Myriamme Hayam, played by the French actress (and Huston's lover) Suzanne Flon.]


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  • Stephen Altman

I've often thought that laptops should come equipped with an app that generates a burst of applause when you get something right--kind of like the laugh track on a sitcom. Believe me, for a writer it can get kind of spooky, hearing nothing but the words in your head. So do this one a favor and tell him if his book appealed to you. And afterward, he hopes you'll start following this blog, which will get deeper into BFTM and other things, mostly literary.


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