This picture is actually one of a cove in Hawaii, not the North Carolina mountains where I'm headed, but I like its symbolism of both safety and unknown depths--an apt metaphor for a creativity retreat!
This morning, I heard Laurie Garrett on National Public Radio (go here if you want to listen too). Until I read Natalie Angier, Laurie Garrett was my favorite Science writer.
If you're in the mood for a serious book on disease and its impact on culture, you can't do much better than Garrett's The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. I spent yesterday rereading parts of it, and even though it was published in 1994, I still found it extremely relevant. Each chapter could stand alone, if a reader was only interested in one disease of the many that Garrett covers. But read as a whole, the book gives important insight into how diseases spread, and the steps humans can take to fight microbes. Along the way, Garrett considers pre-2oth century pandemics, and she gives great history lessons.
If you want up-to-date information about the current flu strain, I heard two level-headed programs on NPR yesterday. Diane Rehm covered the subject in her first hour; one of her guests was Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH, who is always a great guest. On Talk of the Nation, this segment also gave information that avoided hysteria.
But maybe you're not in the mood for balance and calm. Maybe you want to scare yourself silly. Well, consider that 4 of the past 5 mass extinctions involved microbes--climate change speeds up the changes that make life more comfortable for microbes and more dangerous than their hosts. I picked up that nugget of information on a Science Friday episode; the scientists were talking about whether or not we should be worried about something like a meteor hitting the earth, and one scientist pointed out that climate change could be (and likely will be) far more catastrophic.
Maybe you're in the mood for fiction. I still consider Steven King's The Stand as one of the greatest novels about plague and the ensuing struggle between good and evil. I've read both the shorter and longer version, and I even like the miniseries that came out in the mid-90s. I know, I should give the prize to Camus, but I like Steven King better.
When King's book, On Writing, came out, I thought it was worth the price on many accounts, but I must confess that I especially loved the section on how he wrote The Stand. Until I read this book, I hadn't realized that so many people loved this work best, and how disheartening that might be to a writer who is still writing; King says, "There's something a little depressing about such a united opinion that you did your best work twenty years ago" (page 201).
Yesterday, I reread T. C. Boyle's short story, "After the Plague," in a collection of the same name. If you're in the mood for a humorous look at the end of the world, this one is for you. I think that Boyle's Friend of the Earth is one of the best apocalyptic novels that involve a global warming theme.
Yesterday, several people who know how much I love a juicy apocalyptic scenario asked me if I was worried about this current strain of swine flu. But I'm really not (except for that niggle of fear as I wonder how many people in late adolescence are amongst the dead--that's never a good sign). I'm impressed with how the world is working together, and I have been since the days of the avian flu of the late 90s (which has resurfaced in Egypt just recently) and the SARS crisis. I'm impressed with how swiftly the various governments are paying attention. If you look at the history of the world, you expect to see new flu outbreaks periodically. It's important to remember how rare it is that a new flu, fearsome as it has the potential to be, flames into a pandemic like the kind we saw in 1918.
I have been interested in the intersections of disease and culture (especially collapsing cultures)for several decades now. Coming of age during the early years of the AIDS pandemic can do that to a person. Plus, I'm drawn to apocalyptic narratives, and apocalyptic narratives that involve diseases are that much more compelling to me.
I've been on the outlook for the next flu pandemic for 10 years now. I thought that we might be on the cusp several years ago, with the recent strain of avian flu (H5N1--I didn't even have to look it up, although I did doublecheck--that's how much of a disease geek I am). But once scientists discovered that the disease did best in the deepest part of the human lung (bad for lungs, good in terms of reduced transmissibility), I began to think we might be safe. At least, safe from that strain.
Yesterday morning, I read various newspaper accounts of the recent swine flu outbreak and went to church. I was acutely aware of everyone sneezing and coughing and sniffling. Now, I'm not saying that I think we're seeing the early signs here in South Florida. No, not at all. But hearing all those respiratory noises and thinking about human-to-human transmission--one just becomes that much more aware of how easy it is to spread an airborne virus.
I came home in the mood to read an apocalyptic novel, but I couldn't decide which one. Many of my apocalyptic books are more sci-fi in tone and setting than I wanted yesterday.
So, I'm re-reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. I remember reading it in 2003; I remember tracking down the one remaining library copy and going to a strange neighborhood, hoping and praying it would be there. And I remember feeling so happy when I found it on the shelf.
What I don't remember is much about the plot. So much more fun for me.
A few years ago, my friend and her daughter and I went to see Margaret Atwood when she came through Miami. What a treat. I love how her apocalyptic novels (sci-fi tinged, but would we call them true sci-fi? I'll keep blogging, while y'all argue terminology) are firmly rooted in stuff that's already happening or at least already possible. It makes it that much more terrifying. Try re-reading The Handmaid's Tale in light of what's happening in Pakistan, and see if you can still sleep at night, especially if you're female. Then consider that the book was written over 25 years ago.
If you were a fiction writer, you wouldn't put all these elements from our current real life into one book, at least not one that claimed to be realistic fiction and not some strain of sci-fi: economic collapse, global climate change (leading to impending climate collapse?), a new strain of flu that mixes avian, swine, and human types. It would just be too unbelievable to have all those things happen all at once, in one book. And yet, here we are.
Last night I dreamed that I was being asked--no, forced--to teach a 5 class load on top of my 40+ hours that I spend on administrative tasks. If my dream had lasted much longer, I'd have probably jumped off a building or a bridge (and then I probably would have been asked to do all that from my hospital bed!).
I see this dream as a metaphor on so many levels. This week, for the past few days, I've felt bone crunchingly tired when I woke up. I'm usually an energetic person in the mornings. I'm told that can be annoying. But for the past few days, I could barely muster the energy to make some coffee. I wake up feeling as if the day's tasks are more overwhelming than they turn out to be.
Happily, this week I'm fleeing the Florida flatlands to go to an Arts and Creativity retreat in the N.C. mountains (you could still come too--go here for more details). I hope to come back refreshed. I had been going great guns on the poem-a-day project, but on Friday, I went to bed without writing a poem and haven't written much since. Hmm. Like I said, I'm in need of a retreat.
I also look at that dream and wonder if it's telling me that I miss teaching. I only miss some of the teaching that I used to do. I feel somewhat sad at not teaching sophomore survey classes or upper-level English classes anymore. I quit teaching those in 2003, when it became harder to juggle adjunct work with my full-time job, which was mostly first year classes. Happily, that full-time job also led to some Creative Writing classes, and then to my current administrative job.
The other morning, I woke up wondering if I could juggle a Victorian Brit Lit class along with my administrative schedule. I pondered that question for about 3 minutes before deciding, no, not really, not right now.
I wish I was the kind of person that returned to much-beloved classics on a regular basis, like my Florida friend who reads her way through Shakespeare as the year progresses, or my South Carolina friend who reads Anna Karenina on a regular basis. Much as I love the classics, I tend to revisit them only when I'm teaching them. Otherwise, I'm reading to try to fill in the gaps in my education or for escapist pleasure or for theological edification. Currently, I'm reading The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science and remembering how much Science I never knew or have forgotten--Natalie Angier is the most wondrous writer!
I think my dream also shows that for much of my working life, even as I've been happy with whichever job I've had at the time, I've wondered what I was giving up by keeping that job. For every door that opens, I worry that ten others have slammed shut permanently. One of the things I miss most about undergraduate school was that idea that every door was open, every choice was possible, and that there was plenty of time. Sure, those ideas might have been illusions, but I liked them, and I miss them.
Last night, I picked up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's one of my books to read this year, and it's the next book my school's book club is discussing.
Before I picked it out of the bookshelves last night, I'd have sworn that I hadn't read it since high school in 1981 or 1982. But there, on page 120, was a Miami Metrorail transfer dated April 3, 2001. So, I'm thinking I must have started re-reading it then, when I was commuting to the University of Miami, but not finished, since the marker was only about 1/3 of the way through the book.
And now that I've found that evidence that I'd been to the book before, I have vague glimmers of a memory of re-reading it then. But do I really? Or am I creating those memories in response to a transfer ticket? And why did I decide to stop reading it?
It bothers me that I've forgotten this re-reading attempt, which happened fairly recently. I've grown resigned to memory lapses and forgetting earlier times--when I search the Facebook people for graduates of the high schools I went to, around the time I was there, I don't recognize most of those people--not their names, not their faces. How scary is that? I have yet to dig out my high school yearbooks to see if that helps. No, I expected to remember them, but I'm not freaked out that I don't. It's getting to be awhile ago, and I haven't kept in touch with people from that time period very well.
But I expect to remember books I've read, poems I've written--but I don't. Sometimes, when I've decided a poem is done, I leaf through the pages of the rough drafts that surround it--and I don't remember writing some of those poems. Some of them aren't very good and some are just fragments. But I've come across some gems.
I used to type up poems right away, immediately after I wrote them, and I would send them out to journals. Now they percolate in my purple poetry legal pad. Perhaps I'm letting them sit and stew for far too long. Of course, if I can't remember writing the poem, it does make approaching it with fresh eyes fairly easy. I'm reading it as a stranger would, which I would tell my students would make the revision process easier.
But does it? Only some times. Other times, I still look at a poem that needs work, and I don't have the slightest idea what to do. Happily, I have plenty of other poems percolating, and I move on to those.
Yesterday, my department put on its quarterly festival. It began as a tie dye event that had a tie-in to a writing class, but it's expanded into something larger, with beading, free lunch (hot dogs, hamburgers, chips), and sales of various things, like shirts to dye and books and other art. After doing some research on student retention, we moved the festival to week 3 of the quarter, in hopes that an event like ours would give new students an opportunity to feel connected to the school.
You might say that administrators should be doing something else, like working on curriculum, rather than coordinating a festival. You might be right. Yet it's one of my favorite events. I love serving the food, even though it's not the healthiest food; the students are SO delighted to have a free lunch. It's one of the few times I'm not being barraged by complaints or demands or yearnings (made by students, by faculty, by administrators). It's so nice to hand out food and face nothing but gratitude.
The other day, on NPR, I heard about a restaurant, The Nickel Diner, that's in the Skid Row section of L.A. (go here to read or hear the story). The owner asks the homeless men who are just hanging around what they'd like for dessert that evening, and she makes it and invites the men in for dinner. I heard the story and thought, yeah, that would be a cool job--dessert maker for homeless people. I envisioned a similar gratitude from those homeless customers. Then I wondered how long it would be before people criticized my peach cobbler because it wasn't like their grandma's or I was berated by someone who really had a hankering for red velvet cake. I wrote a poem that ends:
I imagine the joy of a daily deadline determined by the time of dinner. I yearn for the sweetness of a career soaked in sugar. I indulge in the fantasy that no one would complain.
I also love doing tie dye, even though I end up with hands of an inhuman color (last night I went home with teal hands--exquisitely beautiful, if odd). I love the whole process, but what I love most is that I'm never sure what the shirt will look like. I'm not sure how the colors will interact with each other and how the rubber bands and twisting that I do will affect the dyes. I don't do tie dying often enough to be sure.
I love the moment when I undo everything and see the shirt that I've created. It seems like a fitting metaphor for artistic processes of all sorts. We may begin with a vision, and we may end up with a product that's exactly what we expected. But so much more often for me, I start out with a glimmer, and just follow that glimmer to see where it leads. I often end up with something that's utterly different from what I thought I was creating--yet I don't feel disappointed. I feel delighted to be creating--the process is what's essential, not the product.
One of the coolest things about the Molly Peacock reading was seeing all the poets there. I'm lucky to live in an area that has lots of poets who are writing work that I love, even if they're not all well known.
Just as the reading was about to start, Denise Duhamel walked in. I thought, this must be what it's like to live in New York City, where one might be likely to see famous poets at a poetry reading.
It was doubly strange for me, because I had just spent the morning Googling any number of word combinations that might give me insight into her writing process that she took with her collaborator Sandy McIntosh in their new chapbook 237 More Reasons to Have Sex. I didn't find much out there, and then to have her come to a reading--well, it was just too good to resist. I knew I had to ask her the questions that my Googling failed to answer.
I worried that I might seem like some kind of odd stalker. I worried that it might be weird or rude to approach one poet at the reading of another poet. As always, my inner awkward high schooler comes out ("My hair doesn't look good today, I can't talk to her, she's cooler than me, what if she snubs me, what if I say the wrong thing, what if I really am destined to always be this geeky person, what if it's a phase I'm not going to grow out of"). Luckily, I've gotten better at just ramping up my courage, ignoring my inner critics, and approaching people.
Denise Duhamel couldn't have been nicer. We talked about her chapbook and the fact that Entertainment Weekly just gave her book Ka-Ching a very nice microreview (go here to see it). Once I took a workshop on collaborative writing with her at the Florida Center for the Book, and she asked how my writing was going. She complimented my bracelet.
I see her periodically, and I'm always impressed with how enthusiastic she is, how cheerful and generous with her time. I know some people who have studied with her at Florida International University, and no one has a mean thing to say about her. It must be exhausting to be so instantly recognizable, and yet if she ever feels hounded or wishes for anonymity, she gives no outwardly sign.
If I should ever achieve a modicum of Poetry Fame, I hope that I can exhibit a similar graciousness. But why wait for Poetry Fame? The world would be a much better place if we all worked towards a gracious, generous spirit now.
Molly Peacock gave a great reading last night at Broward College, and she faced some challenges. The room was packed, so it was stuffy and hot. Many teachers were giving their students extra credit for attending, which helped contribute to a packed room, but it also meant that many of those students weren't terribly interested. So they did what students do when they're not interested: they talked to each other, they talked on the cell phone, they were restless. Much of the talking was done in whispers, but it still led to a disconcerting hiss from the corners.
Still, Peacock persevered and really impressed me. She's just retired a one woman show, so she knows how to read dramatically.
She also gave a great question and answer session. She talked about the years that she was a 7th grade teacher, the disabilities specialist. During those years, she wrote a poem every Saturday. She told us that she started thinking about the poem she would write on Thursday and Friday, and on Friday, no matter how tired she was, she got the grocery shopping done and cleaned the house. Then she woke up on Saturday and wrote.
That made me feel better about the times that I have trouble finding time. I usually can find enough of a scrap of time to write one poem a week, but I remember weeks when I'd write several poems a week, decent ones too, and those memories make me feel inadequate during weeks when my work life intrudes on my creative life. It's good to be reminded that a poetry life can be created even if you only have time one day a week to write poems.
Someone asked her about writing in form, and she told us that she taught herself. How cool. She saw herself as "kidnapping the form," the form of the white guys of the canon. She said that she's attracted to rhyme, because "rhyme is a promise that's kept," and for years of her life, the people in her life couldn't keep their promises. She said, "I started writing because I wanted to hear the truth."
I picked up her book, The Second Blush, which looks like a good one. I decided to buy it after hearing her read the last two poems in the book, "Marriage" (a poem which describes what it's like to have been married to someone for a long time, a positive vision) and "The Flaw," which reminds us that there's really no such thing as a flaw. What a treat, to go to a poetry reading on a Monday night.
I first fell in love with Molly Peacock's writing, after reading How To Read A Poem & Start A Poetry Circle, still one of my favorite books of hers. If you think you hate poetry (then you're not likely to be reading this blog, are you?) or if you know someone who says they hate poetry, give them this book. This book makes poetry (dare I say it?) accessible.
Her one woman show intrigues me. I'm always interested in the ways that different art forms can intersect and feed each other. But more on that in a different blog post.
Yesterday at my church I gave blood. I've been hesitant to give blood, because of the last time I gave blood. Nothing dreadful happened to me, but it was a LONG process. I gave blood at school, so there was a back up, and the blood bank sent too few people, and the people who were there didn't seem to know what they were doing. As blood pumped out of my arm, the young woman next to me got woozy as she was giving blood. The phlebotemist started yelling, "I don't know what to do! I don't know what to do!"
Oh good grief! Does nobody take first aid classes anymore? I was twenty years older than most people in the room, but still, these were supposed to be trained medical professionals.
In my loud, booming voice, I said, "You need to get her head lower than her heart."
The young phlebotemist looked at me blankly, and I said, "Have her put her head between her legs or recline the chair."
She did so, and the young woman was fine, and my blood continued pumping, and soon it was all over.
I walked out with the supervisor, who was probably the only person in the room older than me, and she told me how much she hates doing blood drives at area colleges and universities. The students tend not to have eaten or they're on a variety of medications any one of which could react badly to giving blood, and many of them haven't ever given blood, so the procedure freaks them out.
Happily, giving blood at my church was a much easier process. I spent the whole rest of the service thinking about the symbolism of blood, both the religious symbolism and the secular symbolism. I'm a Lutheran, so we don't emphasize the blood sacrifice aspect of Christianity (an aspect which I think is seriously misguided and theologically wrong, but this isn't my theology blog, so no more on that here). We're water symbolism people and Eucharist people (a bit of blood imagery there), both of which are cool with me.
I also thought about the word phlebotemist, which I think is such a cool word. I'd like to write a vampire poem which uses it, but nothing comes to mind. Maybe you can use the idea as a writing prompt.
Yesterday's prompt (which was really an earlier prompt on Robert Lee Brewer's blog) was fun for me. I strayed away from it, in that I used a line, the first sentence actually, from Moby Dick to get me started. And I didn't change it. Well, I actually didn't do that prompt, did I? But it inspired a poem that wove in Moby Dick and all sorts of elusive quests and unfinished projects.
I keep thinking about literary works that inspire other works, literary and otherwise. Have you heard about the new book which combines Pride and Prejudice with a zombie narrative? When I first started hearing about it, I assumed it was an April Fool's Day prank. But now, I keep hearing about it, and just read a great article in The Washington Post. Go here to read it--it's got some great ideas about why Jane Austen is so timeless and why it's Jane Austen, rather than some of my other favorites from grad school (like Charlotte Bronte) who don't seem to find themselves similarly transformed.
I often return to the works of others for inspiration and for allusions. Alas, now that I'm not teaching as much literature, I don't have as much inspiration coming from that direction.
Maybe it's for the best. My poems often referenced works of literature that are fairly obscure to the general public (unlike Moby Dick, which I hope the general public still recognizes, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out if they didn't). I know that the general public hates feeling stupid, so poems that reference literary works they've never heard of might be a bad career move.
Did I really just type the words "career move" when talking about writing poems? Yes, I did. I'll wait a moment for the hysterical laughter to subside.
The part of being a poet that I really love is that I'm writing poetry for me, and hopefully for a select audience who will love what I do. There's no need to think about a career, in the way that my friends who write in other genres might need to do. If I have a poem which is obscure to everyone but me, that's O.K. I'm likely to have plenty of other poems that are accessible, for better or worse (you can go here if you want to read more about my experience with the word "accessible").
I've been reading the prompts on Robert Lee Brewer's blog, even if I haven't always attempted them. Some of them have been really good ones. Yesterday's was one of my favorites, because it rewards my Inner English Major:
Here's what he writes:
After today's poem, we'll be half-way there. 50% of the way. It's all downhill from here. And other half-way stuff. (For some reason, I've got BonJovi's "Living on a Prayer" song running through my head. "Ooooooo, we're half-way there; woooooo-oooo, living on a prayer; take my hand, we'll make it I swear..." Err, or something like that.) ;)
For today's prompt, I want you to take the title of a poem you especially like (by another poet) and change it. Then, with this new altered title, I want you to write a poem. An example would be to take William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and change it to "The Red Volkswagon." Or take Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter" and change it to "Why I Am Not a Penguin." You get the idea, right? (Note: Your altered poem does NOT have to follow the same style as the original poet, though you can try if you wish.)
Back to me:
You can go to his blog to see what he did with Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!"
Kelli Russell Agodon also has a great poem inspired by this prompt at her blog.
Ah, the BonJovi references . . . I will have a sweet run this morning, with 80's music pounding through my head which will mingle with all the poems I could use as inspiration for this prompt. I remember the song from my Senior year in college, with it blaring out from all the dorms. Of course, if everyone else loved it, I would have to hate it, because that was the kind of perverse punky girl I was. But now, I like it both for its nostalgic value and the sweetness of the lyrics, which I didn't notice back when I was so focused on finishing my undergraduate studies so that I could get to grad school, which I was convinced was where I really belonged . . .
If you live in the South Florida area, or if you'll be travelling here, you'll want to know about this Molly Peacock reading at Broward College (formerly Broward Community College), the South campus, this Monday, April 20. Broward College is easy to find: take Hollywood Boulevard going west, after you exit from I 95 (don't panic when Hollywood Boulevard turns to Pines Boulevard at Highway 441--just keep going west); in about 7 miles, you'll see the campus on your left. There's plenty of parking, and a great venue.
The reading starts at 7:30 p.m., and will be held in Building 68, the Southern Breeze Dining Room. The official address so that you can Google or Mapquest: 7200 Pines Boulevard, Pembroke Pines, Florida.
I saw Marilyn Nelson read at Broward College last month, and I was greatly impressed: a great poet, an appreciative audience (including my students, who might have enjoyed that field trip more than anything else we did in our poetry class), a beautiful venue, books to buy, food to eat. I look forward to this reading. I'm feeling a bit sad, too, because this may be the last reading, unless organizers can find another funding source.
On Easter Sunday, I watched Jesus Christ, Superstar twice, once for the plot, and once with the Commentary on. Now I have the music in my brain.
Because of the music in my head, I've noticed some things about that rock opera, which has led me to remember some things I already thought about book length poetry collections. What I noticed about Jesus Christ, Superstar probably holds true for many other longer length musical compositions, but let me focus on that one primarily.
I notice how often the songs repeat the same music, and often very similar lyrics. Those songs weave in and out of the opera, and thus cement themselves firmly in our minds. They provide a kind of touchstone for us as we watch and listen.
Sometimes the song is exactly the same, but the context is different. When Judas sang, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," I sucked in my breath in delighted surprise.
Often the music is the same, but the lyrics are completely different. Again, the audience gets a touchstone. It's similar to what I used to teach Composition students about transition: remind us of what you've told us as you provide the next major point (i.e., "Not only did I like x about this movie, I also liked y").
When I first started writing, I thought that every poem I wrote should be completely different from any other that I had ever written. I got distressed when I realized I was using similar images and returning to my favorite themes.
Now, it doesn't bother me as much. In fact, as I compile larger collections, I think that poems with similar images should weave themselves through the book, thus providing a touchstone for readers. I'm a trained literary critic, so having poems that address one theme delights me--and it seems like an obvious requirement for a book. Gone are the days when the poet's first book was assembled around the theme of including everything ever written by the time the poet was 24 years old (or whatever age the poet got the book contract). Some have decried the loss of that first book that's so clearly destined to be labeled juvenalia if a poet is lucky enough to live and write and publish into old age. But if you go back and look at some of those first books published in the 60's and 70's, I'm not sure we lose much from an aesthetic point of view. Many of those poems are hardly worth reading when you look at the poet's later work (although the literary critic in me does understand the thrill of understanding the artistic trajectory).
Some of my poems are re-worked versions of older poems, often so re-worked that I'm the only one who can see the connections. Once, I would have put the older version into my juvenalia file, meaning it would never be seen again. Now, I often use them to book-end a section or a book-length manuscript. And rock operas, like Jesus Christ, Superstar, show the power of that strategy. If someone reads my book of poems and finds themselves thinking about it days later, because the woven together poems have worked their way into the willing brain, then my work is complete.
Yesterday, we watched Jesus Christ, Superstar, which we had never seen before. Then we watched it with the commentary track on. We meant to just watch the first bit, to see where the movie was filmed, but I found it oddly compelling, so we kept watching it.
Norman Jewison, the director, and the actor who played Jesus were the people doing the commentary. The actor who played Jesus has continued to play Jesus right up to this day. At first, I thought, how unusual. But then I thought that many of us probably have a similar career trajectory: we start doing something, never realizing we may be doing it 35 years later.
Think of the person who gets a Ph.D. in English. That person probably starts teaching in graduate school, if he/she is lucky. That person may dream of teaching the subject of the dissertation, but is likely to continue to teach Composition classes that are similar to the ones taught in graduate school. One wakes up and it's several decades after graduate school, and one is still teaching Composition.
The artist part of me was interested in how the movie was made. The group of actors was taken to Israel, and they created the movie. They were fairly isolated, which led to an intense bond. I suspect that experience made the movie richer.
Some of my favorite movies have a similar approach to the making of the movie. I'm thinking primarily of The Big Chill, where the actors were in a part of South Carolina which was fairly isolated in the early 80's, and so they spent their off-hours together, which led believability to what they portrayed during filming.
It also makes me wonder about the implications for those of us involved in more isolated arts. What would happen if we put a lot of poets together in an isolated location to create something? I suppose there could be similar dynamics at work at writer's colonies and MFA programs--the idea that I might find a community of writers has always been what has attracted me to MFA programs.
I love what I learn about other art forms by listening to movie commentaries. I only despair at the fact that it means I have to not only watch the movie once, but several times, to get the full benefit. At one time, the fact that I got all those extras made DVDs seem like a great bargain. Now, I find it hard to find time to watch a movie once, let alone multiple times.
I like blogs for much the same reason: they give me insight into the creative process of writers and a window into their lives.
It seems like a good day for a poem. This one first appeared in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard (Pudding House Publications, 2004). The poem is based on real events, and I wrote it to remind myself of the possibility of miracles.
She told us the X-ray showed a black spot on her lung. We assumed the cancer harbored in her breast had set on an odyssey for new land, and when we didn’t see her again, we assumed the worst.
Three years later, the flowers bloomed in their annual tribute to spring, and I saw her in a parking lot. At first, I thought I saw a ghost, but I held her fleshly form, still sapling-thin, and knew she had returned, Lazarus-like, to live among us again.
Our culture focuses on the lost, the missing in action, but we forget the world commits to resurrection and reunion. The twig of a tree sends sap to its tips, the crispy lawn returns to a life filled with chlorophyll, muscles wait for the mind to remember what they never forgot, each generation resurrects the music of its elders, babies look towards the sky for the familiar face of the missing parent, history holds us in its hands and offers rainy redemption.
I grew up in the Lutheran faith, part of a family that was in church whenever the doors were open. When we went on vacation to Myrtle Beach, the first thing we did when we got to town on Saturday afternoon was to drive by the Lutheran church so that we would be sure not to miss the service on Sunday, then we'd go do the grocery shopping. We were that kind of family.
As an adolescent, I found this diligence frustrating, but as I look back, I understand how much this early experience of the church formed my poetic practices.
Lutherans are very liturgical--when Luther broke away from the Catholics, he didn't go far. I grew up listening to passages from the Bible that would give me a wealth of images later. I watched the sanctuary change as the liturgical seasons changed. I listened to the music change. I internalized the rhythms of great hymns and Psalms. And I also came to realize the value of a commitment to be at church, no matter what your emotional temperature registered.
Just because we had doubts about our faith didn't mean we wouldn't go to church. We could have rollicking debates about the church and its past mistakes, but every Sunday (and some Wednesdays), we had an appointment at church. My writing life is similar today. I will write, even if I don't feel like it. I will write, even if I'm convinced that I'm churning out drivel. I have made a commitment, and I will show up.
And I still go to church, even though I had a period of time in my 20's, when I didn't. I missed it, even when I tried to convince myself that I didn't. I missed the rhythms. I missed the comforting sameness of the liturgy, which seemed strange to me, because I hated that sameness when I was a child and asked, "Why does it always have to be the same each Sunday? Can't we do something different?"
I feel like a religious life makes me more alert and aware and I glimpse connections that other people don't. For example, this week Maundy Thursday and Passover intersected, and yesterday, I saw such interesting images that I hope to weave into a poem. When I went out yesterday morning for my run, the moon had two rings around it--one a pearly white, and the larger one, a light green-purple. The full moon looked like a far away Communion wafer. When I drove home after Maundy Thursday service last night, under a full moon, I noticed that the whole sky was full of feathery cloud formations in the shape of giant wings.
[Some background for the non-observant: Maundy Thursday celebrates the Last Supper which many theologians see as a Passover Seder meal (which becomes the sacrament of the Eucharist), Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, and the commandment (maundatum, the Latin word that means commandment, which gives the day its name, Maundy) to love one another.]
During this Holy Week where one of the huge worship days is the Good Friday service (which commemorates the Crucifixion), I keep thinking of the captain of the freighter ship who offered himself as hostage to Somali pirates so that his crew could go free. I keep thinking of captives of all kinds, especially political prisoners. But juxtaposing a political prisoner with the Crucifixion probably won't yield many fresh images; writers have been doing it for centuries.
No, back to rings around the moon and feathery clouds and Maundy Thursday. Any connections to the Exodus story? Let me ponder . . .
My writing time is short today, so I thought I'd point everyone to some interviews with Denise Duhamel you might have missed. For those of you who live in the South Florida area, Duhamel will be reading at Books and Books in Miami (the Coral Gables location) this Saturday, April 11, at 6:00 p.m. (not 7:00 p.m., as The Miami Herald reported). In January, I saw her read from Ka-Ching, and it was a real treat. For my review of the book, go here.
Nin Andrews interviews Duhamelhere. Lots of interesting information about her family.
Robert Lee Brewer interviews Duhamelhere. Lots of interesting information about her writing process and publishing process, plus a sestina-like poem about Sean Penn.
At Kelli Russell Agodon's blog, she posts about her habit of imagining worst case scenarios, and I can truly relate. One of my nicknames is Apocalypse Gal, because my brain tends to go that direction if I give it any freedom at all. Is it because writers have such good imaginations? Is it because we're in the habit of noticing? Perhaps some of us are just wired that way.
One day in December, after a day of brutal meetings at work, when most people had gone home, but I still had several hours to serve in the office, I watched Threads on YouTube. Yes, I felt guilty about it, but I didn't download it and burn it to a CD. I would buy the film, if it was available in a form that my equipment could play. I'd love to have my own copy to complete my trinity of 80's nuke films, along with Testament and The Day After.
There I was, Christmas lights outside, watching Threads on my office computer with the sound on mute. After a day of draining meetings, I found it oddly satisfying to watch the world blow up in scaldingly graphic detail. Call it my own kind of smoking break. After 15 minutes of nuclear apocalypse, I was ready to return to administrative work.
Lately, I've been waking up in the middle of the night, and I have an odd technique that helps me get back to sleep: I get up and read one of the short stories out of Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. I find it oddly soothing, and often return to a sleep of sweet dreams. I would have expected the opposite, but somehow the short stories are just the right length to lull me back towards sleep, and the stories just outrageous enough (or I'm tired enough these days) that I don't lie there, wide-eyed in the dark, waiting for the nuclear afterglow.
A few days ago, I got my contributor's copy of New Delta Review, with its captivating front cover art. My poem, "Huck at Midlife," appears in the Winter 2009 issue.
I wrote this poem a few years ago after getting an e-mail from a friend. She had gone to Mepkin Abbey and really enjoyed sitting by the Cooper River. She said it reminded her of Huck Finn and all those wonderful descriptions of the river; I think she gave me the last line, in fact, which I'm fairly sure comes from Mark Twain himself.
Her rapturous e-mail sent me back to the novel, which I don't like as much as I feel like I should like, but I can understand its importance to American Literature. And as I often do, I found myself wondering about what happens after the novel ends--it's a practice that drove some of my graduate professors nuts; I remember one of them saying to me, "They're characters in a novel. When the novel is over, so is the life of the character."
However, I've found much creative fodder in imagining the lives of characters 10 or 20 years later; maybe you, too, might find this writing prompt to lead you to some interesting territory. I wonder if a book made of only these kind of poems would be compelling or would it get tiresome? I'm about 60 poems away from having to worry about this issue, but I still find myself wondering . . .
In the meantime, here's the poem:
Huck at Midlife
Huck reconsiders his adolescence, that dogged pursuit of unshod feet and freedom of all sorts. At what point did he decide that money mattered?
Huck rests his hands on his paunch, a pregnant flab of flesh foretelling of future heart attacks. He wonders what’s become of Jim and all the other friends of his youth.
Have they forgiven him for the arrogance that comes with youth? He flushes each time he thinks of wrong directions, fleeing north only to find himself back in slave territory.
Huck balances the bank accounts, his ledgers neat and contained. He’s ahead with his scheduled personnel reviews, taxes paid according to the timetable.
He returns to his snug house, the wilderness kept outside where it belongs. His wife has kept dinner warm. She bustles in the kitchen while he kisses his sleeping children.
Only late at night does his faithfulness waver. Only after midnight does he let himself think of his first love, that river, awful, still, and grand.
Yesterday afternoon, we watched Pump Up the Volume. I had "Everybody Knows," the Leonard Cohen song, in my head and since I first became familiar with that song through the movie, I had this strong urge to see the movie.
I dug the tape out of the cabinet and was struck by how representative it was of so many things, media and otherwise, that had passed away. My husband bought the tape after a video store was done with it. The video store was on the site of a building that had been a famous landmark before it became a video store: Zesto's, in Five Points, in Columbia, South Carolina. Now, there are no signs of any past owners--the site is something else altogether (a parking lot? hard to remember, and by now, it's probably something else again).
Videotape itself is an outmoded medium--at work, we've just been informed that Technology will no longer provide support services for VHS. My first question: what support, exactly, does videotape require, now that we've bought all the VCRs?
My husband bought the tape to celebrate the fact that I had just won my first teaching job at a community college in Charleston, S.C. I no longer have that job, and I'm moving ever more and more into administration.
And then we watched the movie, which revolves around a teen radio pirate. Lots of music of a different time--what seemed radical then is now seeped in nostalgia (an early Beastie Boys song! the Pixies!). And to think of a time when everyone would be glued to their radios instead of listening to podcasts, a time when a teen radio pirate would be seen as so threatening that the FCC would go all the way to Arizona to hunt him down.
Is there a modern counterpoint? What would a disaffected youth use today? A podcast? A blog? Hmmm.
It's still a great movie of disaffected youth, and many of the radio monologues about a wasted culture still ring true. As with Footloose, I watch and find myself more sympathetic to the views of the adults in the movie than I once was (although in Pump Up the Volume, some of the adults are evil in a one-dimensional way--the high school principal and her assistant principal). It's a great movie, and I think I'd think that even if I didn't have an already existing affection for it.
I've often wondered if it's possible to write a book of theology that appeals to believers and non-believers alike. With Barbara Brown Taylor's latest book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, might be that book.
Much of what she says is useful to creative people, who are just as vulnerable to the sickness of busyness that afflicts the culture as anyone else is. Her chapter on keeping the Sabbath has valuable insights for creative people, believers and non-believers both, as does the chapter that comes before it, the one that explores the practice of living with purpose.
Taylor notes, "As much as most of us complain about having too much to do, we harbor some pride that we are in such demand" ( page 122). She advocates saying no to various commitments, to carving out a hollow space where we might encounter the Divine. She says, "I know that saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row . . . " (page 125). She muses, "It is hard to understand why so many people put 'Thou shalt not do any work' in a different category from 'Thou shalt not kill' or 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me,' especially since those teaching are all on the same list" (page 139).
She points out, "If Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex" (131). Indeed, I count about 12 Bible passages in the whole Bible that are about sex of some sort, while there are thousands of passages that discuss economic justice.
Taylor writes beautifully, poetically. She says, "Sabbath is the great equalizer, the great reminder that we do not live on this earth but in it, and that everything we do under the warming tent of this planet's atmosphere affects all who are woven into this web with us. Just because the land and the livestock cannot hire lawyers does not mean they have not been violated" (page 132). Don't you love that alliteration? I'm always such a sucker for thrilling alliteration.
I imagine that some of the chapters of this book might be off-putting for non-believers, but since the book primarily discusses discovering the Divine outside of church buildings, I thought I'd take a risk and recommend it. Taylor talks about being invited to speak at an Alabama church. When she asks what she should talk about, she's told, "Come tell us what is saving your life now" (page xv).
That might make an interesting writing assignment, an interesting vocational emphasis.
This week is one of those interesting weeks where various religious high holy days intersect (Today Palm Sunday begins the Holy Week that will culminate in Easter Sunday, and Passover starts on Thursday). For years, I wasn't much of a churchgoer, but I was in tune to these rhythms that filled me with a sort of longing (Taylor says, "No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it" page xiv-xv). I wish for all of us a chance to think in meaningful ways about bondage, escape, exile and homecoming, about redemption and salvation, about the ways these stories and our stories are still relevant in the world.
My writing time today is short, so I thought I'd point out some interesting postings on other sites that have been inspired by National Poetry Month:
--a New York Timesarticle gives 30 ideas for how to celebrate. Some are writing prompts, some require collages, some sound like the really cool writing ideas that you always wished your high school English teachers would develop. In fact, this page has ideas that could be used in a variety of writing classes, and it looks like it's part of a larger site with lots of resources for teachers of all kinds. I discovered this site through Rachel Dacus' blogsite which already has several National Poetry Month postings, including a daily give-away of her chapbook.
--Kelli Russell Agodon has some interesting musings on writing a poem a day and the lessons we can learn for our poetry writing the rest of the year. Go here to read.
--Jeannine Hall Gailey is writing a poem a day using the periodic table for inspiration. Each day brings a poem based on a different element--but she's only leaving the poem posted on her blog for a brief time each day.
--January O'Neil always has interesting reading on her blog, and she's posting even more frequently during April.
--On Ron Slate's website, 24 poets make recommendations, a practice which always intrigues me. Go here to read. I wouldn't have found this site without Sandra Beasley's blogsite.
A few weeks ago I came across some scribblings I wrote as I watched Little Women (the Winona Ryder version that I picked up for $5 at Target, and I love it for many reasons, but most of all because it makes me want to stay up all night writing).
I wrote down the lessons we might learn from Little Women: sisters will die and men might leave you (if only to go to war) and your hair is your one beauty.
Can such a list make a good poem? I like the alliteration in the title: Lessons Learned from Little Women. But a poem needs more than a good title, and I think list poems desperately need some larger point. As I play with the list, I'm somewhat shocked at how little these lessons have changed, even though Jo March lived in the 1860's, and I live now--perhaps that would be my focus.
Typing the name Jo March makes me remember Geraldine Brooks' fabulous book March that came out several years ago. Another title that makes me jealous--all the ways that word fits the book. But I digress.
Interesting also, as I play with these ideas: so many of the ways that women generated money during the time period of the Civil War involved their bodies: selling hair is the most obvious. Alcott's story doesn't specifically mention prostitution, but it lurks in the background for me. We start by selling parts of ourselves that don't matter (our hair), and move on from there. Even Alcott's writing success is tinged by the knowledge that she wasn't writing what she most wanted to write, or at least that's how I've interpreted her literary trajectory, with all the manuscripts we've found in the last two decades and the work that she published under pseudonyms. I've always thought that she wrote Little Women out of a desperate need for money and then, with its success, she found a reading public that wasn't interested in reading any other type of work from her.
So, my list poem has evolved into something else, but I'm happy with it.
Now I'm wondering how many other movies and novels out there might lend themselves to similar treatment: start with a list, let your mind wander, and come up with a poem that's different from what you intended, but intriguing all the same.
Happy National Poetry Month! Have you written your poem for today yet? I decided to go with one of my prompts from yesterday--writing a poem from the point of view of the pumpkin that gets turned into Cinderella's coach.
Don't forget that all sorts of things are going on in the blogosphere and wider Internet. At the Poetic Asides site, you'll find not only daily prompts, but a contest (go to this posting for details on the contest).
Knopf will send you a poem a day for the month of April. I've discovered some great poets from this service. Go here to sign up.
And if you want a poem sent to you each day throughout the year, along with interesting literary history, go to NPR'sThe Writer's Almanac. Go here to sign up. Through this service, I've found some great poets and started my day of e-mails being reminded of what's really important to me. Well, at least one of the subject areas that's given great meaning to my life.
Even if you're busy, busy, busy, I'd still encourage all poets to try writing a poem a day for a month. On days that you're busy, you'll discover the joys of the short form, like haiku. You'll develop an awareness that sadly, we don't always have--the awareness comes because you'll always be thinking about the next poem and alert for material that you can use (similar to keeping a regular blog posting schedule). At the end of the month, you're almost guaranteed to have written more poems--even if you fail at writing a poem a day. And some of them will be quite good!
So, join us all as we write a poem a day for the month of April. You don't need to pay any money or get any pledges or do anything requiring extraordinary levels of exertion. You don't need to have a blogsite so that you can post. You don't have to show anyone your poems.
Give it a whirl! What do you have to lose? Just your chains of wrongheaded thinking about what's possible for your poet self (oops, there goes my inner Marxist taking charge of my inner poet--it's not May yet, inner Marxist. Next month we'll sing "Solidarity Forever," I promise! If you're really good, inner Marxist, we'll sing "L'Internationale" too!).
A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.