Monday, December 27, 2010

Be It Resolved

Here we go again--New Year's Resolutions. And the ones I thought of on my own were stale and boring, having to do with girth and guilt. Then I read my friend Margaret's Facebook page and stole her idea: do something new every week, or maybe it was month. I'll say month, because that's easier, less guilt over failure. And I know what my first few months will involve--libraries! I am a big fan of the public library. They trust me to take their books home and keep them for weeks. I wouldn't lend my books like that, except to a few really good friends. I'm a pretty good patron. I rarely miss a due date for returns, don't spill tea on the pages, don't leave books where Duncan the Dog can chew them. (He's often referred to as Destructo Dog, so keeping things out of his reach is important.) I try not to take more home than I can reasonably read at one time. And I often discipline my buying habits--borrow first, then buy if I really need my own copy to write in or refer to in the middle of the night, or the middle of a blizzard like the one my friends and family in Maine are coping with this morning. (Careful on that steep, snowy driveway, Son.)

Here's my resolution: I will visit as many libraries this year as I can. I know my own wonderful Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library in Broomfield, and the College Hill Library in nearby Westminster. I've been in the New York Public Library with its famous and fabulous reading room. I think that years ago I walked into the Library of Congress and right out again, overwhelmed. When I was in New Orleans last spring I visited the city library, a sad place, clearly never fully funded after Katrina, but still, a lively and important part of city life.

When I was a student at Potter Academy, a tiny high school in East Sebago, Maine, I was often sent to the library to listen to tapes of Chaucer. I was the only college prep student in my senior class and the teacher could not find any other way for me to study what the rest of the students would have found impossibly boring. I can still see that "library" aka the principal's office. George Cobb in his gray tweed jacket sat behind me, back to back like bookends, while I listened to poetry that I never quite understood. But the library idea was etched into me, a place of privilege and quiet, a place where I could find the exotic and unusual. Today I'm off to my local to talk to my friends at the reference desk about my tour of libraries. And to pick up Muriel Rukeyser's collected poems. And to sit and marvel at the other riches all within my reach.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pick Me, Pick Me!

Whew! The last scene in the novel is drafted and today--confined as I am for the week by a knee brace and crutch--I begin the major revisions. I think that by the end of the year I will be ready to offer this story to the world. Will the world want it? No way of knowing that in advance. One huge hurdle remains, the agent search. I've had two unsatisfying encounters with agents over the previous novel (still sulking in its ms box), so I'm wary of this process. I've read and talked about the search, but it's making me shake. I feel like a third-grader waving her hand at the teacher, "Pick me, oh, please, pick me! I know the answer." So tired I have to hold the waving arm up with my free hand.

My third grade teacher, Miss Glascow, rarely picked me, except to stay in at recess and finish my arithmetic. (We didn't call it math in those dark days.) Even then I was a word-nerd, giving the numerals personalities, but rarely understanding their sterile, hard-wired interactions. A division sign was a little house with one number hiding inside and another knocking at the door. I never understood those numbers that ended up dancing on the roof. What did they mean? Well, I couldn't tell Miss G. what they meant and she thought that sitting at my desk while the rest of the class played tag outside would enlighten me.

A literary agent might be like her--asking me to explain the inexplicable, holding me back a grade, never picking me or my characters. The book business is about numbers--bottom lines and sales quotas, etc. (That etc. is a weasel word; it means I don't know any other specifics.) I just want to cut loose of the business part of writing. I want to go out and play with my imaginary friends, like Number Nine. She's lively and friendly, a great gal, that Nine. Okay, okay, I'll write the dang query letter: "Dear Miss Glascow, Please, please, pick me."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Eating a Novel

The turkey is reduced to leftovers, the pies will be finished by noon today, and we will immediately pull Christmas decorations from the dark hole under the stairs. One major holiday down, one to go. And this week it seems to me that holiday meals and manuscript critiques have much in common. Certain stock ingredients are called for, but the side dishes and the seasoning vary from one cook/author to another. The novel needs characters, setting and plot, the way a holiday table needs a turkey and stuffing and green-bean casserole. But is the setting as speculative as apple stuffing--an unimaginable reality for some--or as familiar as contemporary white-bread-and-sage America? What tastes like Heavenly Hash to some tastes like tripe to others, and they each take a seat at the table during the dreaded but necessary manuscript critique, where Fred picks the onions out of every chapter, Marla demands more sweetness in the plot, and Aunt Sally sniffs the setting like a hound in search of contraband.

The kitchen counter and the writing desk are awash in revisions and dripped gravy, exhaustion looms, and the dog throws up in the dining room just as pie is served. There sits the cook, hoping each guest gets something tasty and no one gets salmonella, hoping that as they close the book and sigh, they are full and waiting for the next feast from the same table.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Joy, Party Girl

Joy, Party Girl
Karen Douglass

Joy comes to anyone's party,
drinks anyone's Bud Lite.
Her little dress is ready, pressed,
slingbacks waiting by the door.

Joy has no taste. She laughs out loud
in church at whatever inner light or sight
giggles her while the poor preacher
frowns and pounds home the point.

Joy is a tramp, climbing stairs
belonging to strangers, eating
another one's bread, spicing up
a leftover plate of grief.

Uninvited, Joy appears, not always
on time or with her hair combed.
At the table, Joy sits opposite Despair,
tickles his shins with her bare toes.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who ME?

Well, now, here's news I never expected. Seems that Scott Owens, Editor of Wild Goose Review has nominated moi, well, my poem "No-News Day," for a Pushcart Prize. Thanks Scott. You can read the poem at the web site, Spring 2010 issue. (There is an index, one that works!)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Up and Down Days

Yesterday was a ride on the sick side. I was up and out early for an upscale breakfast meeting--valet parking, white linen, waiters circulating with breakfast smoothies, and smoked salmon for breakfast. Not my usual morning. Not my usual response to salmon, which is guarded at best. But that's what was available, so I ate it. Do not, REPEAT, do not go against your instincts about edibles. Somehow that salmon swam upstream to my already wonky sinuses and threatened to spawn in my skull. I stopped at a favorite bookstore, had cranberry juice--tasted good, but was no match for the fish. And engaged in my annual fall ritual of buying The Best American Poetry. This anthology is suspect in some minds, but I look forward to it. Unfortunately, by the time I got my sick head and soggy stomach home, I had not interest in poetry, only in sleep, antihistamines, and off-loading in a very unladylike way that breakfast.

Today is much better. I had slept much of yesterday in naps, slept most of the night, and woke to my gentler routine--feeding the dogs, making tea, working on a poem, and finally, reading the first few pages of the anthology. Wow! There is life after smoked salmon and sinus pain. I even understood and admired John Ashbery's annual offering. I rarely understand his poems, but I did this time. And I found a quote by Guest Editor Amy Gerstler that sums up the delight I find in poems and in prose written by skilled, witty poets: "Our tribe of upright monkeys will always require specially charged, compressed language bursts that marry prayer and play, so we will never be without blessings, spells, curses, cures, protests, tongue twisters, riddles, hymns, vows, recipes, threats, boasts, apologies, pleas, insults, predictions, taunts, rants, or dirges." Now that sentence alone is worth the price of the book! Salmon, get thee behind me. It's Saturday and I have 72 more poems to read. Oh, I feel so much better.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Best First Sentence Ever!

In January I will resume teaching on a limited basis, dealing first with a short course on sense of place. So, I went to my local library--love my library--and checked out a book I had stumbled across online: Michael Perry's Population, 485. Of course, I was drawn to it because it is written by a nurse who became an EMT in his tiny home town in Wisconsin. Okay, I thought, this is the sort of thing I might want to read and recommend to my students. Within the hour, settled into a comfy chair in my neighborhood coffee shop, mango tea and lemon cake at the ready, I cracked the book and fell in love! And that was before I looked at the author's picture on the back flap. Perry looks like a wool-shirt hunk, just the guy to change a tire or save a life at the flip of a siren switch. But I'm not that much of a sucker for a hunk without brains. He had to prove himself. And he did, whew!

We hear often that the opening sentence of a book is the most important. Someone famous has said that it's not the most important sentence; it's the only one. I could imagine some junior editor at Harper Collins jumping out of her chair and racing to a senior editor: "You have got to read this!" I am now imitating that discovery phrase, because anyone who can sink the verbal hook the way Perry does earns my admiration, affection, and a good bit of running around to tell people about his book. Because he wrote this first sentence: "Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun." Just look at it--descriptive writing that tears around like a loose puppy, yipping and all forward motion.The diction tells me instantly who he is and the energy as we move from one word to the next just lights up the reader's mind. I think we should create a Michael Perry Award for the most wonderful opening line ever. Anyone got one better? And leave Ishmael out of it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ticket to Ride

I am just off a two-day, Boston to Denver, train ride. It was good. It was awful. Good means that I saw the country from a different perspective, neither highway nor sky high. The opportunities for people watching stretched across the continent. Not so good were wearing the same clothes for two days and sleeping--sort of--in a recliner that reclined about three inches and featured a foot rest too short for even me. And the coach the first night was chilly. (Note to all train travelers: take a blanket.) The bathrooms are tiny. I am not tiny. It's hard to read when the rails are rough and the page bounces around.

After a layover in Chicago, I boarded the California Zephyr. It didn't feel the least bit breezy, but at least the seating gods blew some luck my way. One of the two seats in my row was defective, so I got the remaining one and was able to use the broken one for my stuff. I needed stuff--snacks, a magazine, pens, a notebook, and a system that involved sheets of yellow lined paper, folded in thirds like a letter, but with the writing perpendicular to the lines. These narrow columns gave me a better grip when the coach rocked. It rocked a lot. Somehow, though, I made notes, a lot of notes. And it felt good. Now I must decide what to do with them. If nothing comes, at least I practiced noticing, and that's an important skill to nurture. Ginsberg said, "Notice what you notice." I noticed myself noticing.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Maybe I've said this before, but traveling destroys my writing. I have rarely produced anything but drek away from home. I try to replicate my schedule, up early, quiet cup of tea--now that I've given up coffee--and my journal, three pages minimum. Nada, yuk, spewed words about as exciting as mush without milk and sugar. This morning I forced an attempt at a new poem, but I don't trust it. Always in the back of my mind, or maybe it's the side (what shape is a mind anyway?) I think I will be interrupted, distracted, judged for sitting there scribbling. Where does this come from? My family knows I write. I publish, read in public, have a business card that says "Writer." So why this urge to hide while I create?

Maybe the muse, whoever he/she is, is jealous of other people who might want my attention. Or this unease comes from all those years when I did not claim my own creativity, hid my writing for fear of rejection or criticism, wrote after the family was sound asleep, so as not to feel that I was cheating my children of my attention. I wrote because I had to, still do, but I didn't believe that I had the right to do something that had no effect on the well being of those I loved and for whom I felt responsible. Writing has earned me very little money over the years, and in a world where value mostly means financial success, I have had to defend to myself the business of poetry and prose. Silly, I know. Because I know the excitement, insight, and pleasure that writing, mine and others', gives me. But I still don't see myself producing work that matters when I feel that someone might be watching the messy, lusterless process.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Writing in My Sleep

Have I mentioned My Novel? Well, there is one--actually there are four or five--and it has me in its thrall. This book started a decade ago. I distinctly remember its inception because I was in Manhattan on 9-11, and just before that event, I had come up with one of those irresistible What Ifs. I have poked along, put it away, played at it, and generally been a desultory, no, a scared-stiff-I-don't know what I'm doing-novelist. All of this in spite of having two completed and gathering dust, and another two sort of planned and started. But this particular story kept calling me back, and this summer I got serious about finishing it. As of this moment I have over 50,000 words on paper, the first nineteen chapters revised and a fairly clear path to the final scene. I have the final scene drafted, so I can see that famous light at the end.

Here's what's happening: I'm writing in my sleep. Not retrievable prose, nothing so lucky as that. But I woke in the middle of the night last night with the clear feeling that I was narrating something in past tense. I don't dream in past tense. So my question is this: if dreaming in a second language is a mark of fluency, is writing in my dreams also a mark of progress? Is this immersion changing my brain? I think it is. And given that my novel is one of magical realism, I may be in for an interesting ride.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Beetle Wings

About twice a month five Colorado women meet at someone's home, drink tea or coffee, eat a little something and talk at random. Gradually a topic develops, an idea or an experience that gels and becomes the "assignment" for twenty minutes of free writing. These women call themselves Pentangles, for the five pointed star that has been a symbol of many things, for these five the connections among them. By now you have surmised that I am one of these women. And here is part of what came from yesterday's prompt, an appeal for each of us to write something using as much specificity as we could. Here--lightly edited--is my offering for Ellen, Marcia, Dianne and Bonnie (who could not be with us yesterday).

Shining green beetle wings hang from Dianne's ears, match each other and the lush jungle of her blouse, bringing a bit of South America to Ellen's Colorado kitchen. Instead of beetle song, I hear the teakettle rattle and the drone of yet another P3 firefighting plane headed for the Fourmile Canyon wildfire with a load of sticky red slurry. What comfort is there for the people of Boulder County evacuated from their homes, not able to sit at a sturdy table, sip tea sweetened with honey, and write for the pleasure of it? For some, their houses burned, their tables have been shrunk to black ash, stinking and smoldering.

The beetle wings, jeweled and iridescent, are a luxury in a smoky world, a momentary relief from thinking about fire and the fear that any home may one day disappear, that this welcoming house could fall in on itself, taking with it cherished books and paintings. That a bright red and yellow child's lawn chair could melt in fierce heat. There--another plane, fading, until all I hear is the scratch of pen and pencils on paper, the fragile, exquisite safety of this group, four women free to write, one of us wearing beetle-wing earrings.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Your Next Assignment

Write 415 pages about a former CIA agent, wheelchair bound, putting in on the coast of Turkey to deliver 2000 contraband gas masks to civilians. No? Too weird? Not for Tom Robbins, but then I can scarcely think of a plot twist that would be too weird for him. So, you're off the hook. In fact, you cannot use this scene because he already did in Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. This is not a new book, came out in 2000, but I read as books fall into my hands, and this one fell, really, into my hands when I recently moved my books into a new bookcase. "Hah, didn't know I owned this one."

One of the several things I admire about Robbins is his devotion to his own concept of the novel. We have landfills full of books about spies who lie, steal, torture, and get killed. The pace is fast and the depth--well, you don't need boots to get from here to there in many of them. Robbins, though, goes deep. He not only makes room for big ideas, but embraces them, expands them, sets them free. All the thoughty stuff slows the pace, yes, but the language does a fandango and the thinking stretches the mind. He constructs a novel out of big blocks of idealism. Like Carl Hiaasen, Robbins preaches by example about the rot in our society--ecological, political, moral, and financial. He does it in this novel by having his wacko ex-spy, Switters, live these perils, dive into them, resist them, all the while displaying, no, flaunting, his own weaknesses--sex, drugs, and Broadway show tunes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Captive Readers

Last evening I was in the hot seat at one of my writing groups. We reviewed the second chapter of a novel that is long in the tooth, but coming to a conclusion this year, finally. The advice I got was varied and helpful, encouraging and stern. That's what I need from a review of ongoing work. What got me thinking this morning was the interest these readers expressed in a pair of characters whom I have seen as plot elements, secondary, maybe tertiary. One of these characters dies in the next chapter, and the other  storms off the stage, never--till now--to be heard from again. I've devised a way to deepen these paper people and satisfy the readers' interest in those two characters' backstory.

But I have also spent much of my journal time this morning thinking about our relationships to characters, and realize that as a reader, I don't do well with tragic stories in which fictional people whom I have come to care about suffer. I just read most of The Cellist of Sarajevo. It's a wonderful novel, well written and bearing important information into the world. But it's relentlessly dark, as it can only be, given its wartime setting. I closed the book before the end because I just could not watch these people suffer and die, and it was clear that they would. I was helpless. I could not be a rescue hero or a good Samaritan to them. My choices were to read on and suffer with them, or turn away by closing the book.

What then, do I make of the writers' relationship to characters with whom we live for months or years, watching them grow and take life from the wimpy little letters we type? How does a writer find the courage to see the story to its one true conclusion, even when that end means the death of these characters? This sense of inevitable loss, an ongoing lesson in mortality, casts light on the comfort of series books. As a reader, I know that no matter how tight the fix, Kinsey Millhon and Stephanie Plum will survive to delight another day. Evanovitch and Grafton know that too. It explains my delight in the TV--now DVD--series Monk. I know that Adrian Monk is immortal, like Hawkeye Pierce. I can get involved and know that I don't ever have to say goodbye.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Floppy prose

I love finding books at thrift stores. The problem with that approach to shopping is that I lose my perspective and tell myself that because a book is cheap/used/mildly interesting, I should take it home. And that decision has no major effect on my life. It just clutters up the coffee table until I decide to read and discard, read and keep, or just throw the darned thing out. Of the four books I brought home last week, three are readable, two of which will probably stay here, one will go to a friend. The fourth is a white elephant and weighs about the same as the real beast. It's about journaling, something I believe in and practice daily, rarely missing my morning pages, a la The Artist's Way.

This new/used book, though, promises deep revelations about my inner self. No, not lungs, liver and pancreas, but psyche, soul, an investigation of that amorphous but fascinating stuff that keeps escaping from my to-do list. And this tome showed me how to set up a cross-referenced notebook. Well, I always have spare binders and I found notebook paper on sale--back to school time--so I happily labeled sections and stocked the whole thing with crisp, clean paper. Ready, set, write. No, wait, read the directions. Ah, the directions are buried in repetition and redundancy, loose prose that tripped me up time and again. I consulted, briefly, a friend who leads journaling workshops. Yes, she had heard of this method but thought it too compulsive for her taste. Compulsive? How about maddening! I never figured out just which section I was supposed to use for what purpose. I would think that someone who means to teach writing could write. Silly me.

Today I stripped out the few pages that I had scribbled on, threw them away, stuck the binder back in the bin of unused supplies, and went back to my blessed morning pages. Ah, it's good to be home. Even when home is a slim paper-bound journal that will get tossed once it's full. The other journal textbook will make a good doorstop, for someone else.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Slog, slog, slog

Why did no one tell me how much paper work gets in the way of writing? I've spent hours today tracking poem titles from the various computer files where they end up, in theory a system that lets me know what's been where. Hah! Then there's the list of poems still out there in the big, bad world, waiting for someone to notice them. Or someone to take them out from under the wonky corner of her/his desk and say, "Oh, we got this submission a year ago. Too bad" and replace them with some other frustrated writer's pages. I've just queried eight editors who have held work for six months or more without a response. It takes a lot of teeth gritting to be polite, to avoid deletable expletives and judgmental comments about their ancestry.

No doubt about it, online submissions make life easier, cost less, and often get a much quicker response, but inevitably the day comes when the submissions notebook looks like a badger's nest and just has to be cleared, notes scribbled on each page of guidelines, lists of places that it's safe to approach again, lots of tea, much movement back and forth from the desk to the counter where I can spread out the papers. I'm not done yet. There are 22 potential markets on the safe list and I probably, between short fiction and poems, have enough material to send something to each one. Tomorrow is another day, which means writing another four pages of fresh material for the novel, rewriting the weekly poem for my online group, and drinking another gallon of tea. The romance of writing!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hitting the Poetry Wall

For much of my adult life I have pondered what it means to be American. I've traveled outside the country and tried to see myself through other eyes, but I still have big blocks of confusion. The Fourth felt good, but we must be more than hot dogs and fireworks. As a friend said at dinner on the holiday, our country is too big to understand. Theory just won't do. I want specifics. And, as always, I add books to my search. I've been wandering through Margaret Atwood's essays, taking note of her sense of being Canadian, knowing, it seems, what that means. I admire her clarity. Yesterday I read her review of Studs Terkel's final book and something in me snapped.

I closed Atwood's review, grabbed the car keys and went to the library. Checked out two of Terkel's books and put two more on request. My intention is to read his interviews till I cannot stand them anymore. Let the poems do whatever they want. Those in the notebooks can stay; the ones slinking around in my head can just bite their nails until I decide to deal with them. I'll be busy for a while reading and reading Terkel's first-person stories of other Americans to see what's going on here. See, a friend had challenged me to write a poem a day, and I've tried to keep up. The exercise has given my poetry biceps definition, but for now I am on leave from daily poetry writing. I've been faithful a long, long time, and I'm off to have an affair with a dead man.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Never Quite Finished

The latest poetry ms, Zero Gravity, is in the mail, twice. Once as a querry and once as a full-length submission. I've had two initial readers, and I've gone over the text with what I thought was an eagle eye, only to find out after I dropped them in the mail that I still have too many apostrophes. So what? you ask. The what is any excuse to reject one of too many contenders. Oh, well, I did say it was a multiple submission, so I'll clip out the offensive punctuation and send the whole thing off to my next option. Good to have options. Good to have wild hope that the poems will overcome the rejection process and some good soul will say, hey, these are so good that we'll overlook the minor mistake. Like that's going to happen! This is all part of the work, the constant grooming and hoping against the odds. But, hey, I've published before, so I'm not totally out of my mind to think that some knowledgeable stranger will fall in love with this work.Tomorrow the sun may come up purple and our cherry tomatoes grow to the size of basketballs. The dog and I may both learn to speak fluent French, and I'll win the Powerball. Right?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Up Late

Last night I stayed up very late reading a novel, Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah. Light, funny, full of detail about life in today's Beijing for an American-Chinese expat journalist. Exotic stuff to me, different from Amy Tan and Ming Dao, and I stayed with it well past midnight, willing to read all night, but finally giving in to sleep. Looking at the author's note, I see lots of parallels between the life and the novel, but it's a fine story well written. Isabelle, a young woman from the US moves to Beijing to redesign her life, to escape the smothering matchmaking of her family and to reunite with her only sister, a successful lawyer of impeccable education and wardrobe. Isabelle struggles with her poor Mandarin--hence the title, which refers to the language she learned as a child in her mother's kitchen, struggles with her self-image, as in Chinese or American? Struggles with her historically unsuccessful attempt at maintaining a relationship. Hmmm, all girl stuff, plus the exotic. I'm hooked.

The last time I raved here over a book it was John Irving's The Last Night in Twisted River, a sprawling novel set in New England, spanning a whole life time for the protagonist. I've put it aside to read Wah's book and I'm intrigued by my defection. I've lost my connection to Irving's characters, who were compelling at first. But because his canvas is so large, we get salient points back filled by a third person narrator, a distancing effect not felt in Wah's first person narrative, wherein the back story develops as dialogue between the sisters. And the whole time frame of the current action is much more compact. It also helps me, as a persnickety reader, that no one dies in Beijing, violently or otherwise. I can relax into the story. It helps that the relationships drive the plot. I'm a sucker for peeking into someone else's head and snooping around in their motivation.

With Irving, actions--often reactions--drive the story along. Fate! Whereas Isabelle is constantly making decisions for which she must, and does, take responsibility. I could go on and on about the contrasts in these books, but I won't. It's just helpful to me as a reader to say why I'm willing to read for hours at a stretch in one book and will likely return the other to the library unfinished.  

Sunday, June 13, 2010

John Irving and the Cook, the Writer, and the Woodcutter

In his twelfth novel, John Irving has me captured--almost. The Last Night in Twisted River takes place in my native New England, features an Italian cook, his novelist son, and a crude but wise woodsman. These men are circled and loved and hated and rescued by a cast of women who never quite achieve full characterization. That sort of works, because this book is about the three men and their failings and attachments to each other. People die because of them. Not always the right people.

What keeps me reading is the embedded lessons on novel writing--a talent which I still lack despite repeated tries. The story line shifts frequently in time, in point of view, and in subject matter. In one sitting, I can see how foreshadowing works, how flashback works, how the motivations of the key characters look from differing perspectives. Hints and details matter. For example, a woman with a notable head of long, dark hair is first seen as unique and attractive in a heavy-set way. When said woman is mistaken by a boy for a bear, she dies from a blow with his iron skillet, and I think aha! that  hair was not a casual trait. It sets the stage for a key event. This killing propels the cook and his then young son into an unsettled life of risk and suspense.  I'm a bit more than half way through the book, wishing it moved a little faster, but willing to see what Irving pulls out from under his hat next. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Amazing! Appalling.

It's back! For a month I was unable to sign in and now I can! Whee! The mysteries of cyberlife, huh? For those who might occasionally check in here, I've just come back from a week in New Orleans with very mixed feelings. Of course, the overarching concern is the death of so much life and livelihood in the Gulf. Despite that shadow hanging over them, the people in the city keep going, as they have before in the face of disaster. The French Quarter, you'll remember, and the Garden District were spared the worst of Katrina and tourists go about their shopping, drinking, beignet eating as usual. By the time I left on Thursday, May 27th, however, I was seeing signboards outside of seafood restaurants listing specials that features fresh water fish. I had eaten oysters the first day I was there, but by the end of the week, I was relying on barbecue for the flavor of NOLA. The spill is so wide reaching in its impact that we will see changes in everything--the cost of shipping in shrimp and crab, the fishing families out of work or working on the recovery efforts, future generations having to break a long tradition on the water, and the gut wrenching effects on the waterfowl, the fish, the ocean which is the basis of our lives, whether we live along its edge or not. We must speak out and speak up. Keep the event in focus and press for real solutions. Above all, we must hold responsible those who failed to plan ahead and allowed eleven people to die and an environmental catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ah, Hackers

Watch out, I'm in the mood for a mild rant. Yesterday my previous email account was hacked and everyone, as far as I can tell, on my contact list received an inappropriate message, seemingly from me. Well, quick as I could, I opened a new account with another server, imported my contacts and sent out a blast with explanation and new email address. Today I am trying to catch up with on-line accounts that depend on my email and to right that tipsy wheels-falling-off-the-wagon vehicle. It's not quite identity theft, but a pretty good approximation of what it feels like to have others doing things in your name that you would not do. Never, ever, no way.

The instructive part of this misadventure was how other people interpreted the mess. Close friends and family sent messages like "I think you've been hacked." Most just ignored it, maybe knowing that this weirdness was unimportant, really. A couple of responses seemed outraged: what did I mean by sending such a message? I could almost hear the disgust from the screen. I started to apologize, then caught myself. I didn't send that obnoxious ad. Someone with no discernible brain power sent it, thinking what? That the women on my contact list would buy an erectile dysfunction cure and hide it in their mates' mashed potatoes? That the men on the list were unaware that such products exist and will be eternally grateful for this method of improving their performance? Is some poor soul with a warped sense of humor snickering over my headlong plunge into defense over his/her offensive attack on my associates? I'll never know. I don't really care much, though I did say a few unkind words when I had trouble signing in here with outdated/updated information. So, Hackers of the World, have a nice day. Enjoy your mud pies.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kids & Poetry Class

As part of Poetry Month, I agreed to teach two sessions at my beloved local library of what I call Poetry 101. Notes piled up on my desk, books consulted, on-line sites perused, an agenda forwarded for copying, 15 copies made, ahh, five teens signed up for the first session, good to go. NOT! The teens, it turned out, were not teens; they were pre-teens disguised as sunny-faced little girls. Once their mothers left them, they tore off their disguises and became whirling pinwheels. Seated in office chairs that spin, they spun. They giggled, they turned their faces to the wall. One played a variation on the ignore-the-visiting-poet theme and stretched her arm on the table, then lay her head on her arm. She reminded me of my puppy when he's bored and waiting for me to put on my walking shoes. All the materials I had packed along were useless. One of the moms scanned my carefully selected books meant to show the variety of places one could find good poems to read. "Oh, she hasn't any Shel Silverstein here!" Well, duh, I expected older folks who might already be ready for other material.

Fortunately, I got a look at the attendance list a few minutes before the first participant arrived. I snatched back and hid the fifteen copies of our agenda. No way was I going to lead off with the first few lines of "Howl" and launch into a discussion of how we got to where we are in American poetry. No way was any information on publication useful. I did manage to squeeze some juice out of Shakespeare's wonderful description of poetry from "Midsummer Night's Dream." And let's be fair:it wasn't the kids' fault that they were kids, so I mustered as much patience as I could, gave them what I thought they could use, tolerated most of their fidgeting, at least until the second time one of them shot her hair scrunchy across the room. Then I did promise, with a strained smile, that if that happened again, I would confiscate the scrunchy.

As we wrapped up, I asked what each would take away from the afternoon. One girl was most intrigued to learn the origin of the term chapbook, said now she wouldn't embarrass herself in conversation by making up some far fetched origin. Oh, well. Then I asked what they would want to do differently if we ever met again as a group. The twirliest girl, the one with the scrunchy, said she'd only come back if I were not so "picky." I looked her right in the eyes and asked, without a smile, "Would you have learned anything if I hadn't been picky?" Well, no, she admitted. Then I smiled. Then I packed up my books. Then I went to dinner with friends and suggested that if I ever in the future mentioned teaching poetry to teens, they were to please, please, lock me in my room till the impulse died.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

AWP awesome!

I cannot give you the full story of three days spent in the company of 8,000 writers in Denver. But the people I heard read: Cornelius Eady, Matthew Zapruder, Jean Valentine, B. H. Fairchild, Joy Harjo, Diane Wakoski, eight other writers from Plain View Press (my publisher for The Great Hunger), Richard Jackson, Kathryn Winograd, Rita Dove, Anne Waldman, Gary Snyder, Gregory Orr, Pattiann Rogers, Robert Hass, Terry Tempest Williams (twice), Rick Bass (twice), William Kittredge, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Martin Espada, Toi Derricotte, Ray Gonzalez, Debra Busman and others.

As I had anticipated, I was tired and wired by the end of Sunday evening. As one of my companions said, we didn't know whether to give up in the face of all that excellence or dash home and hit the writing desk. I still have to finish sorting all the fliers and postcards and sample copies, to read and savor the latest book (signed!) by Wakoski, and find a prominent place for a new reference book. This morning's journal includes a list of things to do for promoting my own work, and a longer list of pleasures and responsibilities that attached or reattached themselves to the role of writer--building community, respecting the work of other writers, staying aware of the world outside the book. Espada's voice will stay in my head, and Bass's telling me that we have to be active, we have to connect, to use our skill with words to engage whoever will listen, and to do our work so well that others will want to hear.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Short Sabbatical

Tomorrow the madness begins--Associated Writing Programs convenes in Denver. Given the size of this monster meeting, I expect to be first thrilled to hear such folks as Gary Snyder, Ann Waldman, Diane Wakoski, Terry Tempest Williams, etc. I expect to read at one of the off-site readings, maybe sign a few books, and drink a gallon of coffee over the next four days. It all begins when I pick up my publisher at the airport. I expect by Saturday night to be spent, wiped out, my house cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of whatever washes up on the shore of the week. I'll be back here, what's left of me, next week. Till then, keep on keeping on.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Every Gesture Has Meaning

That title phrase popped into my mind as I went to bed. It rattled around all night and was still there when I opened my eyes. For a time in academia, people wrangled about intentionality. Could we trust a writer to mean what she said or to say what she meant, or is language hopelessly out of our control, like a nest of snakes with their own writhing intention and no regard for the hand that makes the mark? I don't know from onions if that argument still pertains, but I did a lot of thinking about meaning and intention this morning, and I don't think I'm done thinking. Here's one big question: does chance trump intention? Digging around in daily life, I think the original idea that snuck into mind has weight. My coffee is in the blue paisley mug. No, I didn't give much thought to which mug I took from the cupboard, but some  tiny spark of a plan led my hand to that item, not the yellow one next to it. It means something about my mood, my wish for a certain aesthetic, something!

On the other hand, a little bit of chance can tip the balance in writing. I intend to write about a cook, but see that I've typed the word crook. Aha! A crook in the kitchen is much more interesting than a cook. But here it comes, my intention to write about the more unusual becomes a factor. I cannot deny or avoid my own choices. Selection of detail is, perhaps, sparked by chance variation, but almost immediately the czar of language says, go this way, say that word, make it work. Who the heck is in charge here? Sadly, it's me. I have to take responsibility for the choices I make. I have to consider the arc/ark of communication, which is the goal of art. Even an avant garde throwing paint at the wall sends a message, "Look how I disregard the figurative. I'm being independent." I don't think we can deny intention and meaning anymore than we can willfully stop breathing.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Must Reads

Let me tell you, I just fell in love with two books, one about a Grandmother in Siberia and one about kayaking in the ocean off the coast of that cold and poverty stricken land. Jon Turk, trained originally as a PHD chemist, tossed all the academic temptations of an easy life and struck out for high places, wet places, cold places. He's been adventuring and writing about such places since he ditched CU.

First, I heard him speak in Denver, a speech which he opened by balancing on an exercise ball, holding a sign in each hand; one said Logic, the other Magic. When he finished, I was willing to believe in both. He showed us slides of Moolynaut, the Grandmother Shaman of Siberia, a 100-year-old reindeer herder, until the reindeer herds dwindled and all but disappeared, leaving the Koryak people at the mercy of perestroika--no dependable food supply, erratic power, virtually no communication with the outside world, too much vodka, too little respect for a life that had sustained them for thousands of years.Then I read his books.

In The Raven's Gift, Turk recounts his healing under Moolynaut's guidance from serious, chronic pain following a smashed pelvis suffered in an avalanche years earlier. As Turk said, he was not taught to believe in shamanism, but under the circumstances of reinjuring himself in Siberia, he had little choice but to try. And the healing invoked there has lasted. He again indulges in extreme skiing, open water kayaking, and mountain biking. Turk met Moolynaut during a layover to wait out a storm when he and a partner were paddling from the northern tip of Japan, up the coast of Siberia, and slightly southeast again to Alaska. Why? Because he could, and because he thought he might travel In the Wake of the Jomon, the title of the other book. Turk figured he loved adventure and might share such an attitude with the ancient ancestors of the Ainu people of Japan, who left an apparently adequate setting to challenge the perilous Atlantic in canoes.

What grabbed me was the immediacy of Turk's writing, his willingness to be on the page, admitting his own fears and feelings, whether waking up in a tent pitched on a grizzly bear path or facing another horrific avalanche. I found scenes lurking in my head while I was doing other things than reading. I don't want to kayak in frigid water, eat fatty, ethnic foods that I suspect would not pass our supposedly stringent food inspections. I don't want to ski anything, let alone the highest, most dangerous mountains a human being can access. But I'm very glad that Turk does these things and reports back.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sister Blog

Sometimes I am such a slow learner! As I have just explained on my new alternate blog, (look to your left) I wanted to write a book about being a good citizen, about practicing democracy at the local level. So, this morning I'm in my writing chair, mulling over that idea again, and at least two brain cells fired and I said, Hey, how about a blog dedicated to such things? A couple more neurons piped up and said, Yeah, good idea. Just go do it, now, before you chicken out. So I did. You can visit that blog: Begin At Home: The ABC's of Living Local, also on Blogspot. Now, since I spent a lot of time on it, I expect you to spend a little time on it. Let me hear from you. I know you lurk around and get shy, but geez, it doesn't cost a thing and you can use a pen name if you can think of one that isn't obscene or boring.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reading as a Writer

As you know, I read a lot. And I read a lot of different kinds of stuff. Supine with the sniffles this week, I read, in one day, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Smiling Bears, and part of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. Why only part? Because I did not like his characters. That's not to say I did not like his writing. The style was dense, detailed, well paced. The main character, a wealthy, self-centered, elite New York bond trader, bored me with his needy, whining, his ME-ME-ME attitude toward his job, his child, his wife, his mistress. I skipped to the end of the 659 pages and got the story encapsulated in an epilogue, without suffering through the intervening 600 pages. It is interesting that this particular copy, which I found on a thrift-store shelf, may well be a first edition and worth more than the pocket change I paid for it, so the time was not all wasted. Nor was I totally denied insight into the human mind, my own, to be specific.

See, I loved the Guernsey book, co-authored by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It began like so many of the English cosies I have long loved and fled to for solace, like a comfy sofa, no hard lumps or numbing postures. However, the tea and toast atmosphere very gradually darkened to reveal a necessary lesson in how the islanders survived the Nazi occupation, and how some of them did not. The love interest between the protagonist and a quiet island man provided a parallel arc, one I could predict but savored anyway. And watching my own reaction to these two books highlighted my concentration on character as the motivation to write fiction or to read it. I liked the islanders who displayed, if not social polish, courage, community, and a sense of humility. They did not act, always, out of selfishness, did not want, like Wolfe's bond trader, to be "Masters of the Universe" by manipulating others, lying to their loved ones, spending time admiring their own reflections in society, tormenting a pet dog--the Master of the Universe in question forces his reluctant dog to walk in the rain in order to provide said master with an excuse to visit his mistress.

As for the Smiling Bears, well, no fiction, but beautiful language and grand characters, albeit ursine for the most part. Else Poulson knows and evokes each bear by name and by personality. Like human beings, each of them has an agenda, but none of them trades bonds on Wall Street.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ethereal Gremlins

It's one sort of annoyance when friends cannot receive an email about where to meet for lunch. It's quite another when editors' comments, rejections, and acceptances land in the spam box; or the submission lands in a spam box. All of these have happened over the past few weeks. It may be a conspiracy by those who believe that poets and poems have no business clogging up the ether, but I doubt we draw that much attention from the sort of geeks and techies who know how to put a hex on us. Now I just check that spam thing every day.

The weirdest result of all this on-line kerfuffle was this: recently by mail--snail version--I received a copy of a publication to which I had not too long ago submitted poems. I hadn't heard back, but given the leaky vessel of my computer, I wasn't surprised. I was pleased because one only gets free copies by having work appear in the lit mag. Sure enough, there I was, listed among the contributors. However, I could not find my poem, despite squinting until my eyelids hurt, running my finger repeatedly down the contents page, and finally paging through the whole issue. Nope, nothing, nada, squat. So I emailed the editor. Well, he had sent an acceptance--long lost by this time--but somehow the poem got chewed by a dog, stolen by aliens, was written in slowly disappearing ink, or just melted in the rain. The good news is that he does intend publishing the piece, once he finds it, in his next issue. However, since I've already been in the contributor's column, I will be invisible in the subseqent one. I think he's joking, but it's hard to hear tone of voice from the bottom of a digital well.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Slow Poems or Fast

Those of you not interested much in the craft of making poems might want to go out for a bagel at this point. It's apt to get technical in here. But if you like lurking over the shoulder of a writer at work, pull up a chair and pour another cup of coffee. Here's my issue: in a writing group last week, I heard two equally intelligent poets make opposing statements about the effect of line length on the speed with which they read the poem. One said that the long lines in Poem A slowed it down; the other said that short lines in Poem B slowed it down. Can we have it both ways? Making a poem is not like ordering a chili dog where you get to choose from six different garnishes. Well, bad analogy--I like poems with lots of spice and chili dogs with just sharp cheese and mild chili so I can still taste the dog, and while there are not infinite ways of using the language, there is a bewildering variety of effect. (I think I'm giving myself a headache.)

Since that evening, I've tried tuning in to statements about the length of lines and their effect on the pace of the poem. The most interesting idea came from The Poet's Companion by Laux and Addonizio. These two admit, "We read somewhere that short lines speed up the pace of a poem, but we feel the opposite; we experience a poem in short lines as a more gradual movement" (112). I want to suggest that the pace is more susceptible to the length of the syllables, the presence or absence of enjambment, the rhythm within the line, whether or not the line ends as stressed or unstressed, and the white space around the poem. If the line walks along in primarily iambs, those most familiar feet by which we make progress through the piece, and the words are fairly short, the line either end stopped or at least finished with a noun, I see the pace as moderate. If the rhythm is in triple feet (dactyls or anapests) or in the thudding of spondee boots, it runs ahead like a pup off leash. The eye takes more time to cross the blank desert of a stanza break or open field design, thus letting the line linger a micro-second longer in the reader's brain.

Then there's the question of rhyme, not a matter I have any legitimate business talking about, but that's never stopped me before. My writing partner, Larry, is fond of rhyme and we often tangle about the ways it draws attention to itself and impedes the progress of the poem (my position, his differs). But here's the cute thing that popped up Saturday morning, when we ended up agreeing on an idea about rhyme. Rhyme both retards and rushes the line, we decided. Once the rhyme scheme is established, we rush forward to find the next rhyme, but at the same time we are pushed back to recall the previous rhyme. No wonder I freeze in the company of heavy, exact rhymes. It's like riding a Push-me Pull-you from Dr. Doolittle. So I suppose it's a bit of a wash in its effect on the speed of any given line, but the influence is there for us to care about. I welcome help on this question. Once one of you has negotiated peace in the Middle East, cured cancer, and fed the whole hungry world, let me know what to think here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Life Gets Ahead of Me

OMG! Has it really been that long since I wrote here? Blogspot doesn't lie. Sorry, kids, no good excuse, but that stack of Sue Grafton mysteries a friend loaned me is partly to blame. Because each book links to the previous one, it's like reading one long novel I cannot put down. And, unlike the Harry Potters, the next volume has already come out. They just sit there, lined up on my desk, whispering, "Oh, just one or two chapters more, then you can go out and play." Ha! But I cannot blame Grafton for all my procrastinations. We've had a family member, elderly, ill. She died last evening, and while we will miss her, she's no longer confused and in pain, and the air feels lighter without her suffering. It has taken all the adults in our extended family to support her and each other. That's a legitimate commitment to life outside the book.

Then there were writing assignments: a friend and I have worked on a script for a coffeehouse performance coming up this spring; another friend and I have been inventing a workshop on creativity; poems have piled up and now require compilation into a new collection. I'm plugging away at that, and my first readers have signed on, but I must get a generous selection to them so we can weed out the weaker pieces. Then the actual manuscript must coalesce. (Hmm, that's a big word for come together.) This whole mess, then, is the writing life. Stephen King says in his admirable book On Writing, to put the desk in the corner and remember that's where it belongs, not center stage. My desk sits in a specially built writing nook, in front of a big window, and from the living room it's invisible. But I always know that it's there, waiting for me to pay some attention. Just not all my attention. My desk is patient; it knows I'll be back. Now, I have a meeting to prepare for. Talk soon.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

On-line Learning

Given the overwhelming amount of stuff on line, I consider it a gift to have found a site called Open Yale Courses. I cannot tell you exactly how I stumbled across this grand virtual place, but if you have an academic bent and the curiosity to follow a semester's worth of lectures and reading assignments, go there. Free. Yes, you can be a Yale student--well, minus the transcript and those bothersome exams and written assignments--for nothing but the paper and ink to print out the materials. And if you choose a course in your own area of interest, mine being poetry, you may have some material on hand. My old, much used poetry books are helpful, if not all inclusive, for Modern Poetry, taught by Langdon Hammer in 2007. That sounds a bit dated here in 2010, but the great Modernist poets have been dead for years, so any information and insight is still useful. They won't be changing their style or content.

I started this course on Dec. 29th, and so far I've listened to four lectures, so I've done two weeks in one. I can move as quickly or slowly as I want. No waiting for the twice-weekly class schedule to roll around. If I need to shuffle pages in a book, I can stop the video, and Dr. Hammer resumes his talk at my request. If the dog wants out, I can attend to that need and not miss a word. This is better than squeezing into a cramped desk in a lecture hall. How else could I go to a 300-level lit class in my robe and slippers?

Most of the dedicated writers I know love to learn, whether it be the wiring of plot lines or the making of radial tires, anything that feeds their work, that enriches the world of thought and feeling that makes writing exciting. Now I'm about to check out renting textbooks on line at,, and I don't have room on my shelves for more books, but renting sounds like a good reason to take more courses. Look at me, I'm studying at Yale.