Friday, July 31, 2009

"If I Could Make It There . . ."

The New York Times had an interesting article yesterday--the writer talked about what it takes to make it as a creative person in New York City vs. what it takes to make a creative career on the Internet.

I don't know how much of it applies to poetry, or even to blogging, my latest creative love. Those kind of stories still appeal to me for a variety of reasons, however. When I was young, I had visions of moving to New York and trying to become a Broadway actress. Even at the time when I was consumed by daydreams of acting success and a Tony award, my practical self could see that moving to one of the most expensive cities in the world to pursue a career that likely wouldn't pay much for years wasn't the wisest idea.

At least carving out a presence on the Internet doesn't require gobs and gobs of money, like moving to New York would do.

Yesterday, I was thinking about the time after my chapbook was published. I remember wishing that I had done more to prepare. In particular, I wished that I had a website set up. I was lucky because I had been collecting addresses of people who had might be interested in my poems, and I did a mass mailing, which resulted in sales, thanks in large part to my mom's Christmas card list. I knew a bit about literary festivals, and I pursued some opportunities in that area, with some success.

At the time, I remember being grateful for the chapbook experience as a dry run, an experience that showed where I was unprepared for the publicity and self-promotion that needs to come with publication. I discovered that I'm deeply uncomfortable with self-promotion, which surprised me. I'm not sure I'd make a good entrepreneur. I continually fight the urge to just give my chapbooks away, even though my intellectual side knows that people value more what they pay for.

Now, five years later, I have a website and a blogsite. I'm on Facebook. Should I Twitter and Tweet? I'm still unresolved on that. I've made more connections in the poetry world, thanks to blogging; I feel more plugged in than I used to feel. I used to think I might enroll in an MFA program, simply because I wanted a poetry community, and I wasn't sure how to make that happen.

And here's the most important thing: I continue to write. Years ago, I asked myself an essential question: would I still write, even if I knew I would never be published (at the time, I didn't have much in the way of publication)? I decided that yes, I would. Writing is its own reward, and a far richer reward than publication and acclaim.

What I like about being a poet is that I suffer no illusions that I'll ever make a living solely on my poetry (unlike when I attempted to write novels and daydreamed about a blockbuster novel that was made into a movie that would mean I could quit teaching). I don't have to worry about the market; I can write what intrigues me. I can follow my fascinations. And if I'm really lucky, my fascinations might also capture the attention of some kindred souls.

Most of us are more likely to find those kindred souls online than we are by going to a strange city. It's a wondrous place, this Internet world, never sleeping, always offering stimulation, a whiff of danger, the possibility of successes we couldn't have even imagined in our previous small-town lives.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Summer Report Card--with Friars!

I was feeling pretty good about my summer until I read this story in yesterday's The Washington Post, about six Franciscan friars who walked 300 miles from Roanoke, Virginia to Washington, D.C. They took nothing but a blanket, water, a change of underwear, and a toothbrush, and one cell phone for the six of them (to be used only in emergencies, of course). It took them 6 weeks and they ministered to many people along the way, while relying on the kindness of strangers (and God) to sustain them (for my blog post on the spiritual dimensions of this story, go here to my other blog).

And I thought that I had been living outside of my comfort zone this summer! Now I'm feeling inadequate again.

But before I succumb, let me remind myself of some of the things that I've done. I joined a fitness center. In long ago years, I'd go to a gym if it was covered by my student activity fees. But pay for it? Never. I went to a spinning class, something I was convinced I couldn't do and couldn't keep up. And I'm enjoying it so much that I'll be paying for more. I anchored out on my sister and her husband's sailboat--sleeping on a boat in the middle of water! I became more intentional about keeping up with people on Facebook. I sent some of my strangest poems out into the world--and they were accepted for publication! I continue to think about alternate ways to live out the second half of my life, visions based on what I'd like, rather than what the world tells me I should achieve.

Now it's time to shift my attention towards September. In past years, I'd already have all of my envelopes addressed, waiting for poems to be mailed to journals that only read during the school year. I'd have poems in the offices of all the journals that read through the summer. I might have put together a book manuscript or two, whilst reading a novel in the late afternoon. Ah, what one can achieve during periods of underemployment.

I'd like to spend the next two weeks sending out some poetry packets to the few places remaining on my list of places to which I meant to submit in June. And it's time to strategize my fall submission plan. I'd like to get all the poems for my next book length manuscript typed into the computer if they're not already, so that when I go on my writer's retreat in November, I have a sheaf of poems to take with me. At my writer's retreat in November, I want to decide on the best order for that manuscript.

I need a new poetry composition process. I've gotten into a blogging rhythm that works for me, but my poetry writing has tapered off. I'd like to spend time with my poetry notebook before I touch the computer. Once I start Internet surfing and blogging, my poetry composition time is over. I look up and hours have passed and I have that groggy feeling that I get from too many hours of staring at a computer and zipping around, spending less and less time on each site.

I wish I could be looking forward to the cooler weather that would invigorate me and energize all my efforts. Alas, down here in South Florida, we won't be getting much of that until November. But that's no excuse for slogging down into the slough of despond that August can be. It's time for my own metaphorical march from Roanoke to D.C., just like those friars on their journey of discovery.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Silencing My Inner Guidance Counselor

There's a great conversation going on in the comment section of a post on January O'Neil's blog. She started it off by saying, "Earlier, before the car went on sick leave, I was listening to a conversation on talk radio about work/life balance. Do men think about balance in these terms? I read a lot about this subject from the female side of the equation. But I never hear men, single or married, talk about making choices to maintain stability in their personal lives. In my case, I work because I enjoy it, and now I'm the breadwinner for the family so not working is not an option (sorry about the double negative). But I'm constantly thinking about how to spend more time with the kids while remaining effective at work and nurturing a writing career. Is work/life balance a term women created to make us feel better about ourselves?"

In the comment section, Kelli Russell Agodon said, "What I'll say-- women tend to judge themselves too harshly because we want to do a lot of things well. A friend told me early on just to try to be a "good enough parent." I was shocked by this, I wanted to be the best. Since then I've heard it a lot and what I realize is what some smart woman said, "We do the best we can and when we can do better, we do that."

I've spent 24 hours thinking about this concept of being good enough--not being the best, simply being good enough. How would my life change if instead of striving to be the best poet, the best teacher, the best wife, the best assistant chair--but decided to do a good enough job? I feel rather subversive just typing that sentence!

I realize that somehow, a loathsome guidance counselor has gotten into my head. She's always saying "You're not living up to your full potential." She never, ever says, "Wow. I'm so proud of you." No, she says, "So you got to read your poetry at the Library of Congress. Do you have a book with a spine yet? No you do not. Back to your desk. Flog, flog, flog." And I slog, slog, slog.

My nephew has gotten into the delightful habit of telling us all we're doing a good job; one of his favorite phrases is "Good job, guys." The most mundane task will get a "Good job" from him. He'll make a great manager or life coach some day.

I must work on banishing that loathsome inner guidance counselor. I need more voices saying, "Good job, Kris."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spinning Classes and the Creative Life

I've joined the Wellness Center at a hospital near my work. It's a small gym, along with 2 classrooms, where I hope to take Yoga and Tai Chi. I got a great deal: no initiation fee, and only $25 a month, and I can take all the classes I want, except for Spin classes. Spin classes are extra, $7.00 for members, $10.00 for non-members.

At first I shrugged. I had no intention of taking Spin classes. I'd heard that they're hard beyond belief. But then I got a coupon for a week of free Spin classes.

My inner cheapskate was thrilled: something for nothing. So, I decided to give it a whirl, so to speak, even though I thought I might last 8 minutes, tops.

I went on Friday and lasted the whole class. I'm sure I wasn't working out at the levels of the people around me, but I completed the most vigorous workout I've ever had. I endured. I made it to the end of class. And I went back again on Monday.

This whole experience made me think about my creative life, about what I'm willing to try and the road blocks I put in my way.

For years, I wouldn't have been caught dead in a gym. I was one of those snooty runners, logging long miles on open roads and scoffing at people who stayed indoors. And yet, I've found myself really excited by the thought of taking new classes and trying new things. I've felt a kind of energy that I haven't felt in past summers as I slogged through the heat and humidity. I've already tried new things.

I see a similar dynamic in my creative life. I get comfortable with what I've been doing and so, I see no reason to change. Eventually, I become a bit ossified. Yet when I try something new (a new poetic form, writing a poem a day in April, anything that breaks me out of my routine), I find myself exhilarated and I push to heights I haven't seen before.

Sadly, all too quickly I return to my ossified ways. That's why I'm always on the lookout for ways to break out of my routine in my writing life, like the postcard project I mentioned a few posts ago.

I think about the rest of my life and wonder if this lesson applies to other parts of my life, not just athletics and writing. I suspect it has a broad application; I'll contemplate it as I sit in traffic on my way to work this morning.

Monday, July 27, 2009

While You're Writing Those Poetry Post Cards

Mail delivered the old fashioned way must be on a variety of brains right now. I found this entry at Leslie's blog: a writer who is headed off to a writer's colony pleads for us all to send her mail. She promises to write us a letter back, and there's a contest attached!

I'm one of those odd people who loves the moment that the mail comes. Even though there's often nothing interesting in my snail mail, I am trained too well. I've been looking forward to the daily mail since I was a little girl and that PBS T.V. show Big Blue Marble gave us all pen pals.

Of course, the U.S. Mail is in big, big trouble, as fewer of us send letters and pay our bills by mail. I suspect that we won't have Saturday deliveries much longer. I'm fairly sure we'll be harassed by yearly increases in stamp prices--why not just raise the stamp price by ten cents and leave it there for awhile?

Still, while we have the U.S. mail I'll send my nephew fun things by mail and I'll send mail to people who are working away in the solitude of writer's colonies and I'll send out poetry packets and I'll send letters, the old-fashioned kind, to my grandma--and I'll look forward to the postal carrier's arrival each day!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Poem Published in "Naugatuck River Review"

Yesterday, I got my contributer's copy of Naugatuck River Review, a beautiful journal which explores narrative poetry. Lots of great poets appear in this issue. I noticed a poem by Leslea Newman, who wrote one of the first creative writing books I ever bought, Writing from the Heart (a updated version of this book is still in print! what are the odds of this?). Just before Leslea Newman's poem was a poem by Diane Lockward, who is my new favorite poet this summer. I've been savoring her book What Feeds Us, and her blog is one of the first that I bookmarked.

My poem, "Watertight Seal," appears below:

Watertight Seal

The rain spits against the window. I prefer
water contained in these days when I can barely hold
my own tears inside. I help
you with your homework while downstairs
your mother simmers soup for a simple supper.
Soon she will be off to seminary, and I will sweep
up the crumbs, wash the dishes, and make sure you sleep
in your safe bed, a clean boy with his homework done.

This house is our island where we have washed
ashore after being spit out of our previous cozy
domains. I miss the family life of my undergraduate
dorm, and you miss your father. Your mom yearns
for a more stable financial future as she worries
about losing this house, our last life raft.

Shattered survivors, we huddle close
for warmth and safety in the darkness. Your mom
wanted a babysitter, and I needed the money.
But as the years go by, we share
meals, even when it’s not a babysitting night.
I wash my clothes at your house and stay
with you when you’re sick. We celebrate
life events, this family made of castaways.

Years pass, and we find other life preservers.
My husband landscapes your yard. Your new step-dad
finds me an agent. You fall in love for the first time.
We grow new skin over old scars,
a watertight seal.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Do Farm Crises Lead to Lyrically Powerful Writing?

The other day, I listened to John Cougar Mellencamp's Scarecrow for the first time in a long time. I think it's one of the most lyrically powerful albums to come out of the farm crisis of the 1980's, and I might go even further and argue that it's one of the most lyrically powerful albums to come out of the mid-80's (ah, but there are so many contenders . . .).

I thought about the fact that last week I was listening to Woody Guthrie sing about a different farm crisis. All those images of people losing their farms haunt me. For weeks (months, years), I've been thinking about American workers who assume that their jobs are safe, only to wake with horror one day, realizing that whole industries have disappeared. For a long time, I've wondered if this end story will also be the one that workers in the nation's education/industrial complex will face. I know that the adjunct life has some similarities to migrant life: lots of miles on the highway, feeling like a faceless laborer, working long hours, life grinding away.

I also wonder if we're about to change our American approach to food. When I tried to eat locally one season, I realized how far most of my food travels before I see it (my food, my clothes, all my stuff, is more well-travelled than I am!). I saw a website that wanted us all to pledge to eat food only from a 100 mile radius from our homes. I thought, I'll starve! And I'm practical enough to realize that as we arrive at the end of a cheap, endless supply of oil, my way of eating is not sustainable.

The Washington Post's Food section this week has a variety of articles about people who are taking a different approach to farms and how we get produce from them. Go here to read a story about a business that delivers produce from Washington area farms to the houses of people who have placed Internet orders (brilliant!) or here to read an interview about the future of farming.

I like the idea of us all as food citizens, as one of the interviewees put it. We're all much more aware of our food these days--can we take that knowledge and transform the nation's food policies so that we don't have as many farm crises in the 21st century as we had in the 20th? I'd be willing to lose the lyrically powerful writing that comes out of a farm crisis if it meant that we solved these problems and made these crises disappear.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Housing Appraisals and Poetry Expectations

The other day, my friend and I sat by her pool, drinking yummy wine from New Zealand and bemoaning the state of the housing market. Yes, sitting by the pool, crying in our wine about how much our houses were worth during the housing bubble and how much they're worth now. Part of me has to laugh at that picture: we're luxuriating by a pool, sipping wine from the other side of the world, while we moan about the state of housing. I think of all the residents of developing nations who would be happy to live in our garden sheds, and I shake my head. I think of the dreadful housing years of the early 80's when my parents had to bring money to a closing, and I know that we're really lucky, even if it doesn't feel like it.

I've known people who have gotten distressed when recent home appraisals came back with lower figures than expected: "They say my house has only gone up in value $20,000 in the past 3 years. I know my house is worth more than that." Pre-bubble, most people would be THRILLED to sell a house and walk away with $20,000 in their pockets. But the housing bubble made all of us in South Florida think that our houses should double, triple, quadruple in value every year--because for a few years, in South Florida, they did.

I think of that situation as I survey my poetry progress. If my 21 year old self should appear, she'd be thrilled with what I've managed to accomplish. She'd be intrigued by my publications, but I bet she'd be more interested in the poems that I've written in the past ten years. She'd say, "Wow. I didn't know I'd turn out to be capable of doing this." She'd be impressed with how often I write. I doubt she'd say, "You could do more if you added an extra hour or two of writing and sending out mailings, you know." She'd say, "I'm so impressed with what you do each day. Wow. I should have given up T.V. sooner."

My 44 year old self is not as generous. She looks at some of the poets who are celebrating book publications, and she wonders what is wrong with her. She castigates herself for the days she doesn't write, instead of celebrating the days that she does write. She wonders why she didn't have her first book published when she was 25, and where she would be now if she had.

I need to get to the point where I'm profoundly grateful for my metaphorical poetry house, which is beside a lovely pool of publications, well stocked with a wine cellar of figurative language, where I can invite friends to be languid in the hot, summer sun.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Maybe Poetry Postcards Will Be Just the Thing for August

I've been having some trouble getting myself to sit down and write out the poems that are in my head. I write down a phrase or a line so that I'll remember later, but I don't write out a poem. I don't know if the project described over at the NewPages blog will help with those poems, but it sounds like a fun, jump-start, get through the August doldrums kind of adventure.

In this post, Denise explains how it works:

"Get yourself at least 31 postcards. These can be found at book stores, thrift shops, online, drug stores, antique shops, museums, gift shops. (You'll be amazed at how quickly you become a postcard addict.)

On or about July 27th, write an original poem right on a postcard and mail it to the person on the list below your name. (If you are at the very bottom, send a card to the name at the top.) And please WRITE LEGIBLY!

Starting on August 1st, ideally in response to a card YOU receive, keep writing a poem a day on a postcard and mailing it to successive folks on the list until you've sent out 31 postcards. Of course you can keep going and send as many as you like but we ask you to commit to at least 31 (a month's worth). "

Denise's post has more details and links.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Departures" and Meaningful Work

When my niece was here, we went to see a foreign film I'd never heard of, the Japanese film Departures. With all of my recent blogging about meaningful work, I thought I would mention it here. In the movie, a young man needs a job after his orchestra is disbanded, and he finds a job preparing bodies for burial--not in terms of embalming, but in terms of the elaborate rituals followed during what we would call the funeral service. I learned a lot about Japanese rituals around the end of death, and it made me think of our own rituals. Here in the U.S., we seem in deep denial about the fact that we're all going to die, and before this happens, we're likely to experience the loss of just about everything we love. The movie was very open about the grieving of those left behind. It made me want to grab onto my husband and hold him tight. The film made me happy about all the times I made the extra effort to go see my family members.

The movie had a lot to teach the audience about savoring the current moment and about how none of us is really on this earth for very long. It also had a subplot about the loss of a father and the son's search for his place in the world. Very moving.

The movie also had a lot to say about meaningful work. At first,the young man is repelled by the nature of the work. But as he does the work, he realizes the important role that he and his boss play in the process. He almost loses his wife when she finds out what he does, but by the end of the film, she, too, realizes how vital his work is.

There's also a subplot about art and how artistic ambition and the need for creativity impact these issues. The young man is a gifted cellist, yet there is no work for a gifted cellist. Throughout the movie, the young man returns to his music for various reasons (and the music that he plays is gorgeous!).

I'm not sure that the movie was what my niece expected. I had never heard of it, so I had no expectations (probably the best way to enjoy popular culture). I found it beautiful in its seasonal rhythms, beautiful in its music, beautiful in its meditative state and what it inspired in me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy Birthday to Petrarch

Today is Petrarch's birthday. Petrarch didn't invent the sonnet form, although he gets that credit. Today, the website The Writer's Almanac gives us a great sonnet by William Shakespeare and much background information on the history of this poetic form. Go here to read all about the sonnet and its important creators.

Often, I'll ask my students, "Why write a sonnet? Why subject ourselves to such a rigorous form?"

They understand. Anyone can create a poem with rules they create themselves. But not everyone can write a sonnet.

In fact, a lot of folks don't understand what a sonnet should be, even people who should know better. I was at a poetry reading, where a poet introduced another poet by saying, "He's such an innovator. He's done so much with the 13 line sonnet."

I nearly fell out of my chair. A 13 line sonnet is NOT a sonnet. It's a failed sonnet. It may be a more interesting poem than it would have been if wrestled into sonnet form, but it's not a sonnet. I'm old-fashioned that way. We've been agreeing about the particulars of the sonnet form since about 1575, so I'm hesitant to just rewrite the rules. Maybe I'll let you write an unrhymed sonnet (but I'll do so with serious misgivings), but you must write 14 lines.

So, today, in honor of Petrarch and the sonnet, maybe we should all try writing one. Or if that's too hefty a task, take an old poem of yours and see if you can rewrite it in sonnet form. Even if you fail, you may come up with a more interesting way of crafting a line or two of the poem.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Villette: I give up!

I had such good intentions. I was going to read Charlotte Bronte's Villette. I was going to participate in conversations over at the blogsite, The Valve. I was going to prove that my brain isn't turning to mush.

With my niece's visit, I fell behind in my reading. It was only week 2. And now, I'm willing to admit defeat. I find this book so boring and this narrator so detached that I have no drive to catch back up.

I feel somewhat guilty, yet I know what happens when I force myself to read something I'm just not getting into. I end up reading nothing--sometimes for weeks at a time.

I'm not in grad school. I'm not teaching the book. It was never on the list of Great Books that I mean to read before dying (like Anna Karenina--I simply must read the Russians before I die).

I came across this article which posits that some great books should be left out of the canon. Villette is not exactly part of the canon. I'm giving up.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Obama, Community Colleges, and the Future of Us All

I have a talent for graduating in the midst of great economic downturns. I finished high school in 1983 and went to school in Newberry, South Carolina, a small town that had been almost wiped out by Reagan's recession, as all the poultry processing plants closed. In 1992, I finished my Ph.D. in the midst of one of the great economic contractions of the last part of the 20th century (though not as big as the one 10 years earlier).

I got a full-time job offer from a community college and grabbed it, even though I got a Ph.D. hoping to go to a small, liberal arts college, like the one where I went to undergraduate school. I've worked in a variety of educational settings, but I'll always have a fondness for community colleges. When I taught at community colleges, I've always known that I was making a difference in people's lives. I was helping them to have another chance. I knew the odds were stacked against some of them. But I also got to see some of them succeed beyond what should have been possible, given the odds against them.

I love David Brooks op-ed piece in The New York Times today. He starts off this way: "If you visit a four-year college, you can predict what sort of student you are going to bump into. If you visit a community college, you have no idea. You might see an immigrant kid hoping eventually to get a Ph.D., or another kid who messed up in high school and is looking for a second chance. You might meet a 35-year-old former meth addict trying to get some job training or a 50-year-old taking classes for fun." So true.

Later in the piece, he seems to fault these schools: "Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low." Or is he faulting all schools?

Most higher ed institutions lose an appalling amount of students. I've taught in almost every setting, and the graduation rates are shockingly low across the board. Student engagement is another constant subject, especially as more and more students have to work to pay for school. And remedial classes are a bone of contention most places, except for community colleges. Most community colleges accept that part of their mission is to help students fill in the gaps left by their high school educations.

I'll be interested to see the effects of Obama's plan for community colleges. My favorite analysis of Obama's speech is Dean Dad's post over at the Confessions of a Community College blog. Community colleges have done amazing things during the past 50 years as they've saved people one by one. Maybe it will be community colleges that save our communities (and thus, the nation) as we head into this brave new century.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hard Travelin' Office Jobs

I was listening to a CD on the way to work, listening to contemporary artists cover a version of Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin.'" It's a song about tough jobs: harvesting crops, driving trucks, mining ores of all sorts--the kind of work that leaves you bone tired and dirty.

I thought about creating some sort of companion piece. I talk to a lot of my friends, and we're all astonished at how tired our work leaves us. We're not working in jobs like our fathers worked: military jobs, factory jobs, sales jobs. Most of us sit in comfy chairs in air conditioned offices. Some of us teach. Some of us appear in court. Even if our working conditions are grim, it's usually because of problems that are quickly fixed (like several weeks ago, when we had no AC and only half of our needed electrical power--but after several hours, everything was back to normal).

Should I listen to Woody Guthrie's lyrics and be grateful that I don't endure such hardship? Or should I use them as a scaffolding for my own poem about office work, much the way that James Joyce used Homer as a scaffolding for Ulysses? Hmm. Mining numbers, driving data, harvesting graduates. I'm not sure I can pull this off without meandering into the realms of the absurd--but in the hopes that absurd will border the land of profound, off I go to play with this idea. Feel free to play along (the lyrics are here)!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck--Who Will Be the Great Artists of Our Depression?

Yesterday, I spent the day listening to Woody Guthrie's music in honor of his birthday. Actually, I spent the day listening to other people singing his music. I've been listening to this music for decades, and I'm amazed at how fresh and relevant it sounds in light of our current economic woes.

I thought about other Dust Bowl artists, particularly John Steinbeck. I loved his work as a teenager, despite having to read The Grapes of Wrath in one single school night. It was my fault, really. We had had plenty of time to complete the assignment. When our teacher found out that we hadn't finished the book, she declared that we'd have a test on it the next day. Luckily, the plot perked right along, and I'm a fast reader, so it wasn't too bad.

I think about the Joads as I hear the constant stream of news reports of people losing their businesses, their homes, their life savings. I know that nationwide more and more of the dispossessed are setting up semi-permanent tent camps. I know that more and more students are living in their cars.

What I don't know is what to do. I look to the past, as do so many people. Can we get answers from the downturns of the 20th century? Some people look to public policy, but I look to the art created.

Who will be the great artists of this current depression? I'd probably look at people who have been writing about the dispossesssed even when our national leaders denied their existence. I'd nominate Bruce Springsteen, whose song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" moves me to tears each time I hear it. I'd nominate Rage Against the Machine.

I suddenly realized that I could list musicians for days and days. Down here in South Florida, I'm also acutely aware of the power of political painting: some of my favorite artists right now are exiled Cubans.

Where are the poets? I'll start compiling my list; meanwhile, if you have any poets who are creating great poems about the current Depression, I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day! and Happy Birthdays!

Today is my birthday. I was born on an Air Force base in France, where July 14 is Bastille Day. My mom always told me that when I was born they had parades and fireworks and people took the day off to have a picnic; it was years before I realized that these celebrations had nothing to do with me. I've always found it thrilling to be born on Bastille Day, and later, as I discovered the influence of the French Revolution on some of my favorite British authors, I've been even more happy to have been born on Bastille Day. Even my knowledge of how the French Revolution turned out (boo Napoleon!) doesn't dull my appreciation of the event. I see it as one of the important world events that paved the way for the world of freedoms that so many of us in the first world enjoy.

It's also the birthday of former president Gerald Ford, which impressed my elementary school classmates (sharing a birthday with the president!) more than it impresses anyone now. Now I'm most happy about sharing my birthday with so many great artists. Woody Guthrie was born on this day, as was Irving Stone. It's also the birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer--not bad to share one's birthday in such company!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thinking about McNamara and the Gender of Management Styles

I've had Robert McNamara on the brain, which is strange. I didn't spend much time thinking about Michael Jackson after the first two days' flood of pop culture tributes, and yet, I find myself gobbling up every article I run across about McNamara.

I'm not a Baby Boomer. I was born in 1965. I have no personal memories of Vietnam.

But I find myself intrigued by his personality traits. I see him as a cautionary tale. I'm fascinated by how confident he was in his own abilities, in his beliefs. It never occurred to him that he might be wrong.

As I read these articles, I think of my own management style. I'm looking for my own personal weaknesses. Are there places in my work life where I've set myself up to fail?

I like to think that because I'm on the lookout, I'll be less likely to suffer from that streak of hubris. But I know that when it comes to our most deeply held beliefs, very few of us are capable of even realizing we might be wrong. Once we get it into our head how something should be done, very few of us can think of other possible ways.

I say that, but I wonder how closely linked to gender and privilege this trait is. I read an article in The Washington Post that has some interesting statistics about successful corporations that are run by women:

"Pepperdine found that the Fortune 500 firms with the best records of putting women at the top were 18 to 69 percent more profitable than the median companies in their industries. McKinsey looked at the top-listed European companies and found that greater gender diversity in management led to higher-than-average stock performance.

Is there a magic number of women? In some cases, it's just three. Catalyst, a research firm focused on women and business, found that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women in senior management positions score higher on top measures of organizational excellence. In addition, companies with three or more women on their boards outperformed the competition on all measures by at least 40 percent."

It's an interesting article, and it makes me want to read the book by the authors, Womenomics. It makes me wonder if my management style is more male or female. I do have a tendency to be ruthlessly efficient: I like to get decisions made, particularly if all the possible outcomes are fairly similar, and get on with it. But I also like to work collaboratively (especially with people who have similar decision making/management styles to mine) and to keep everyone in all the communication loops. Yet I also don't like to spend a lot of time making sure that everyone feels O.K. and no one's self-esteem is damaged, especially if there's a deadline to be met. I realize that we can't please everyone, and that there are often a multitude of agendas at work.

I like to think that I'm navigating all of this successfully. I'm sure Robert McNamara would have thought that he, too, was navigating it all successfully, which makes his life's trajectory such a powerful cautionary tale.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Author Interviews that Should Not Be Missed

Our niece is visiting, and we're racing from South Florida attraction to South Florida attraction. Yesterday, Everglades National Park, today the Keys!

For several weeks, I've been meaning to recommend the interviews that Serena Agusto-Cox has done over at the 32 Poems website. Often I read her interviews and discover a new poet. In late June, she interviewed 2 poets whose work I already love: Jeannine Hall Gailey and Steve Schroeder. She also interviewed Alexandra Teague and H. L. Hix. Go here for the list that will get you to each one. She also interviewed Rosemary Winslow here.

I think a good interview has a lot to teach us: about the writer, about our own writing lives, about the larger community of writers. I'm never disappointed when I read the interviews that Serena does.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Facebook Flurries and Follies

How many times have you said, "If I could go back to high school and redo everything, knowing what I know now, I would have such a different experience." I used to think that too.

I've noticed that my Facebook use comes and goes in cycles. Periodically, I scroll through the listings from my high school and college class groups, and then, I forget to do it for a few weeks. I get a flurry of Friend requests, which reminds me of all the other people I meant to look up.

So far, I don't feel inadequate when I notice that other people have hundreds, if not thousands, of friends, and I don't. But I have noticed another interesting phenomena: I sometimes hesitate to be the one who sends the Friend Request to a friend with whom I've lost touch. I say to myself, "Well, maybe they lost touch with me for a reason. Maybe they decided they no longer wanted to be friends with me. Maybe I was mean to them, and I just don't remember. If I reach out, maybe they'll tell me exactly what they think of me." Thankfully, so far that hasn't been true. I tell myself not to be ridiculous, and after a few days, I send the Friend Request, and so far, no one has sent me an ugly message.

I've spent years thinking that if I could go back and redo high school and undergraduate school that I'd be more outgoing; if I found someone interesting, I wouldn't hesitate to make the first move towards being friends. I've told myself that if I could go back with all my years of knowledge, that maybe I'd ask people out on dates, instead of waiting patiently.

Ha! It takes me a phenomenal amount of courage to reach out to people who used to be my friends. These would be people who I should assume would be interesting in being friends with me; what is the big deal? What is wrong with me? I have yet to reach out to people who I only knew tangentially during those years. And I might not. I have a small set of Facebook Friends, and sometimes, I find it hard to keep up with all those status updates.

I finally broke down and dug out my high school yearbooks. I just can't figure out who most of my classmates are, based on their Facebook photos. It's fascinating to me how people have changed. More fascinating: how many people I just don't remember. Was that person a jock or a nerd or a drama geek? I just don't remember anymore. Based on old yearbook pictures, I no longer remember who we all considered particularly gorgeous. In my high school yearbook, class of 1983, most of us look more or less the same to me. I remember that there was quite the hierarchy--I just don't remember where anyone fit into that hierarchy. Now, 25 years later, those pictures just look quaint and dated--they inspire a weird nostalgia, not dread and hurt feelings. Am I finally a grown up? Or are these the early symptoms of memory disorder?

I'm supposing that all these emotions have been around for all of human history, and that only the trigger--all this new technology--is new. But I wonder if that's true. Are we more or less well adjusted, now that it's easier to find each other?

And I wonder if there's a poem anywhere in all of this. Lots of possible symbols: the yearbook picture, the Facebook picture, the Friend Message, the yearbook message, the people who want to be found, the people who lurk, the online reunions, the old-fashioned kind of reunion. Hmmm. I'll let these ideas percolate a bit--see what you come up with!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Facebook Flutters and Other Technology Trials

During our Faculty Development meetings, we spent lots of time mulling over technology issues. Whenever we do that, the issue of Facebook is sure to arise. Most of us have come to see Facebook as one of the many possible tools in our toolboxes. Sure, it can be used for nefarious purposes. But I'm impressed with its ability to link people, to find those people who I thought were lost forever.

I confess that I haven't used it much with students. I don't teach as much as I once did, and I don't have as many friend requests from students as some of my colleagues do. I understand the need to have several Facebook pages: one for private use, one for school use. I also understand that anything that's posted on the Internet isn't really private, but I don't understand why so many people don't get that.

What intrigues me is the visceral negative reaction of some of my colleagues: "I hate technology. I hate this idea that technology will save us all."

Well, I'm in the other camp. I think that online teaching will preserve jobs for some of us long after many of the on-ground jobs have disappeared. I love the idea that I could teach online from a sailboat or from a cottage in Europe. I love using a computer, and I wish I had had more computer access when I was writing my dissertation. I wrote my entire dissertation on a Smith Corona Personal Word Processor. It had disks that would hold about 25 pages, but you couldn't be sure when you were close to filling it up. And once you went over the limit, too bad--you couldn't save.

I'm in awe of our present computer power and how cheap it is. Of course, my dad worked with computers his whole life, so I might be more aware than most folks. I'm not sure I understand this sneering disdain towards technology.

I'm also younger than many of my colleagues, although I'm turning 44 next week. Maybe it's a generational thing. I've noticed that my younger colleagues are often eager to play with technology and to see what kind of adaptations can be made for the classroom. Many of my older colleagues are still writing notes on the board (to be fair, I do that too).

When I teach my Poetry Writing class in the Fall, I plan to experiment with keeping a class blog or a wiki. When I taught it before, this technology was too new to me to want to experiment. Now, after eight months of blogging, I'm ready.

I understand that many of us are afraid that technology will make us obsolete, unnecessary to our schools. After seeing what has happened to auto workers in my lifetime, I get that. But I also think that refusing to keep up with technology will make us obsolete.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Extreme Writing Processes

I get an e-mail from The Writer's Almanac radio program every day. Say what you will about Garrison Keillor, he's done a lot to promote poetry and other literature. I freely admit to being biased, since he read one of my poems once. I love getting the e-mail, both for the poem and for the literary history it contains.

Yesterday I read about David McCullough's writing process: "To research Truman and Adams, he not only read their letters and visited their homes, but he imitated their daily rituals, read the same books they read, and reenacted pivotal events in their lives." That intrigued me. Did he eat the same food that they did? Not bad when you're researching Truman, but following the diet of our founding parents might be tough. Which pivotal events did he reenact? Reading the same books seems like a good way to find out about a person; in fact, I've often done the same thing. If one of my heroes/models speaks highly of a book or writer, it hasn't been uncommon for me to seek it out.

Usually I get writing inspiration after visiting someone's birthplace or reading about them or stumbling across an interesting fact. Something burrows in my brain and emerges as a poem. I haven't done the kind of long project that might require a reinjection of inspiration.

It's an interesting approach. I've read about artists who surround themselves with items/totems to remind them of their projects, who build altars or other concrete objects, who journal, who clip pictures and hang them. Since I share space with my spouse, I don't do that as much as I might when alone. I have been thinking about various writing processes and wondering what would strike the outside world as extreme and what seems perfectly reasonable. I've been thinking about inspiration and encouragement and how we keep to this poetry path we've chosen.

But today, I must return to more mundane topics. I'm off to work to assist in leading an all-morning workshop on Information Literacy. At least we're in charge, so there will be plenty of breakfast food. At yesterday's faculty meeting, I got there just in time to snag the last muffin, a crumb of a muffin, really. And no more were forthcoming. And then we met, with our rapidly cooling coffee, for hours, with no break and no food.

I've written on this before, and again I say, here is evidence of why more women should be in charge at the upper echelons. Make me dean and there will be enough muffins! Not much of a campaign promise, is it? Not an effective interview strategy. But I bet it resonates with lots more people than we'd like to think.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Harry Potter, Poetry, and Academia

I have an ambivalent attitude towards Harry Potter, I admit. I've never been able to get into the books. I found the first two somewhat simplistic, very much children's books. I stopped reading, although people have assured me that the books get better and better as the series progressed; I certainly hope so, as I can't imagine the writing style of the first two spread out over 800 pages.

Let me just say it early in this post: I really admire Rowling, especially her accomplishment in getting children to read. I don't feel the way I do because I'm jealous.

I remember some time ago, before the New York Times separated children's books out of the bestseller list, there were two Harry Potter novels on the list, along with the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. It must have been the summer of 2001. I was teaching a Brit Lit survey class, and we spent some time pondering this state of contemporary literature, as we slogged through an older translation of Beowulf.

I also have an ambivalent relationship with the Harry Potter movies. Some of them I've really liked. Some of them only hold my attention sporadically. There are themes that move me deeply, like that loss of and longing for parents.

Over the week-end, I watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was a dark movie, and I'm not just talking about the subject matter. The film was so darkly lit that I literally couldn't see much of it. I let the movie play, while my husband watched, and I quilted

There were some scenes that made me look up from my quilting, however. I loved the scene where Harry teaches his classmates how to use their powers. He talks about the older wizards and says, "If they can learn to be wizards, we can too." I immediately thought of that scene as a metaphor for the creative process. Most of us start off faltering. We try on different voices and styles. We experiment with different media and delivery systems. We imitate first this elder and then that one. If we keep at it long enough, we discover our own powers, and we soar.

I also looked up from my quilting when the horrid Dolores Umbrage takes over the defensive magic class. She tells the students that they won't actually be practicing magic, but they'll steep themselves in theory. She tells them that they don't need to learn how to do magic, but instead, they must become good at test taking.

I laughed, even as I winced. Her words reminded me of the battle between the theorists and the creative writers in grad school. We had one budding theorist who said, "Literature is the dung pile from which the sprout of theory can bloom." There weren't many examples of people who would like to do both, not many contemporary examples at least, and the MLA Job List didn't encourage us to be Renaissance people who followed our fascinations and interests wherever they led us.

When I started teaching, I tried some experimental approaches. I remember the shock of a more traditional faculty member when I told her that I let students in a typical English 102 class write short stories. I said, "I think you can learn as much about short stories by writing one as you can by writing about short stories." She looked at me as if I had suggested that we sacrifice puppies in the yard at midnight. And yet, to this day, I believe it, although now, I give students the choice (and sometimes, with my art students, I let them respond to the short stories in media other than words--let them paint, if the purpose of the class is wider than just a writing class).

Those of you who teach public school can say more than I can about the movie and what it has to say with our current testing craze.

I admire Rowling and her ability to imagine this alternate world. I admire the ability of the filmmakers to translate this much loved series into film. As a life-long English major, I really admire what Rowling does with language--and has there been an author since Dickens who has such pitch perfect names for the characters? I find much to admire, and thus, I find my ambivalence doubly baffling, but I've decided to dwell in this mystery and not dwell further on it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What I Read during My Summer Travel

As I put away my books from my summer travel, I pondered the similarities and differences. I read two historical novels and one novel of the future that might be. None of them had the kind of plot lines that "how to write a bestselling novel" books would tell us is necessary. All of them were somewhat liesurely paced and in many ways, they were more character studies than plot, which is fine with me.

On the plane north, I read James Kuntsler's World Made by Hand, a novel which explores what the world will look like after the oil age. If you've read his book The Long Emergency, you've got some idea of what he's envisioned. I found the last part of that book most interesting, the part that looks at life in the U.S., region by region, after we use up all the oil. In World Made by Hand, Kuntsler makes similar points by creating a fictional world (and in many ways, that world is more of a complete character than any of the human characters). In some ways, it's an appealing world, where people play instruments and appreciate their food more. In some ways, it's a more brutal world, where the strong have power over the week, and many people sign up for serfdom, in return for safety and food. The ending, with its bizarre dip into mysticism and the supernatural, after an unnecessarily brutal depiction of torture, might have bothered me more, but I was on a plane making its landing, and I was ready for the book to be finished.

On my sister's sailboat, I woke up early each day and read Exiles, by Ron Hansen. It was on my 2009 reading list, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's a book about a shipwreck and the ways in which it inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins. I learned a lot about life in the late 19th century and remembered a lot about Hopkins. It was an interesting look at the creative process, but a more interesting look at what it means to be a person of religious commitment. The main characters, Hopkins and the five nuns who drown in the wreck of the Deutschland, are members of vowed religious communities, and Hansen explores their lives in detail, leaving little doubt as to the sacrifices required. It's an even-eyed look, a non-stereotyped depiction, a non-romanticized portrait. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.

I read Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines because I heard her speak on an episode of NPR's Speaking of Faith. It was a wonderful program, and I could have listened to her talk for hours. Her novel is about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing and their fascinating minds and the twists and turns their lives took. I thought she might do more with the physicist's view of time, but she didn't.

With both historical novels, I knew where the end would head. But that knowledge didn't diminish my enjoyment. I wonder if writing about historical figures constrains the novelist or sets him/her free. I've always thought that I preferred to create characters that were completely fictional. And much as I enjoy Science Fiction, I've never been good at creating alternate worlds. I've only tried to write historic fiction once (a romance set during the Civil War), and I found myself so hampered by my inability to imagine the daily lives of characters (what would they wear? were chairs upholstered then? what did they eat?), that I gave up early.

In his end notes, Hansen says that he was writing this novel at the same time that Paul Mariani was writing a definitive biography of Hopkins, and he helped immensely. I'd love to know more about that process. He says they took a six day retreat to St. Bruno's, an important location for Hopkins. What a treat that must have been.

Now I'm reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which I haven't read before (but I have long loved Jane Eyre). I want to be ready for the discussion of the novel on The Valve (go here if you want the reading schedule). Returning to one of my early loves--19th Century British Lit--makes me happy. Feeling my brain perk up from its recent mush-like state makes me even happier.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Rereading the Declaration of Independence

I always love NPR's reading of the Declaration of Independence, the whole thing. It's wonderful to hear the various NPR voices read this document. I've been listening long enough that I've been through several changes of beloved voices, as people die and new people arrive. Go here to hear the whole thing.

When I taught more English Composition, I often used the Declaration of Independence as one of our readings. Most students had never read it, and I was surprised how much more useful it is as a model of rhetoric than many of the essays in a standard English Comp reader. And it provides lots of interesting writing possibilities: write your own Declaration of Independence. Choose a chunk of the text and analyze Jefferson's logic. Talk about how the document holds up some 200+ years after it was written. I always got great essays. Great essays and a chance for teaching a Civics lesson--what could be better in a reading and writing assignment?

I've always been a Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights geek. I love, love, love these documents. The NPR reading always reduces me to tears by the end of the reading.

Here's a great writing prompt (and a great thing to ponder on Independence Day): for what would you be willing to pledge your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Recent Poem Publications

This past week has been full of poetry publications (along with a few rejections). You can go here to download your copy of Southern Women's Review. You'll need to scroll to page 48 to see my poem, "Reunion."

Chiron Review includes two poems of mine in their Summer 2009 edition. "Safe" is part of the same series as "Reunion," and I've pasted it below. The other, "Basal Cell Penelope," I'll post at some later date--an August day that needs a poem about skin cancer.


Jesus showed up on my doorstep, demanding
to clean my bathroom.
I refused.
I mean, it’s one thing for him to face
Crucifixion for my sake.
It’s quite another for him to see
how I really live.

His face—so sad.
He talked about searching
for feet to wash, but modern feet are so clean.
It’s no sacrifice to touch people’s feet.
In this world of pedicures
and solid shoes, a foot washing doesn’t convey
the same care it once did. That’s how he came
to develop his crazy cleaning scheme.

I offered to let him scour my oven,
but he said it wasn’t the same,
and besides, it’s self-cleaning.
He really wanted to deal
with the detritus of my life.

What can I say? Jesus is persuasive.
He organized my jumble of cosmetics and healed
my slow drains. He cleaned
my toilet with his hair.


I wrote this poem after a Maundy Thursday service. I was thinking about how shocked the disciples were that Jesus should wash their feet. I was wondering what a similar act would be today: what would be both invasive and intimate. I thought about how many of my friends refuse to let people see the true state of their houses. I thought about how the state of my bathroom often embarrasses me. And voila, a poem was born.

Of all my poems, none of them provokes the same amount of shock and outrage in people. I thought about putting it away, but one of my Lutheridge friends reminded me that we'd been talking about art that moves people out of their comfort zones, and that my poem certainly does that. She encouraged me not to abandon it.

So, if you're shocked and outraged, I'd encourage you to return to the story of Jesus, to remember how often he did things that provoked shock and outrage. I tried to translate that story into modern terms. If you're shocked and outraged, perhaps I've been successful.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Could One Live on a Sailboat?

I've been daydreaming of a farm/retreat center to call my own, but this past week-end has made me ponder the possibility of a sail boat.

Global warming is one of the reasons my spouse and I talk about buying land elsewhere. If you look at maps of how coastal areas will be affected by sea rise, it's clear that South Florida will be underwater at some point during this century. The main question is when. My friend's oceanographer father gives us 12 years. I've read various climate reports that give us a bit more time: 20-50 years. I suspect that it won't be a creeping thing. I anticipate a catastrophic event: some part of an ice shelf falls into the ocean and that's it for our property.

I've always wanted a piece of land somewhere else; my husband's response to global warming: "We should buy a boat!"

My sister and her husband own a 37 foot sailboat, and during the past few years, we've gone up for sailing excursions. This past week-end was the first time that I ever thought that I might could face living on a boat. My brother-in-law told us about a story they read that said that frugal folks could live aboard their sailboats for $12,000-$16,000 a year. Hmm. Interesting.

My mind immediately started to wonder how one could earn that much money in a year. With the widening opportunities in online teaching, it seems possible. In earlier days, I might have thought that with wise investments, the yearly earnings in interest and dividends might cover that amount. I still think it might be possible.

I love the idea of going up and down the coast, seeing all sorts of environments. I love the idea of not being bound to a desk. I love the idea of living off the grid.

I worry about the smallness of a sailboat, much as I love how easy it might be to keep the space clean and tidy. I worry about bad weather.

This vision of living aboard, sailing to various places, appeals to the same part of me that always thought I would hike the Appalachian Trail one summer or bike from one coast to the other. I want to be that self-sufficient person.

I want NOT to be so fearful about the future, about retirement, that I miss out on glorious opportunities; we talked about these sailing possibilities in the context of sailing with my sister and her family, while my nephew is young--between us all, we'd have the home schooling covered. I don't want to get to the end of my life and discover that I haven't really lived at all. I want to be like Thoreau and all those American folks who have made a stab at living authentic lives. I want to be like the Wordsworths and Coleridge, in those Lake District days, when they are living the most integrated lives they will ever live.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back From Vacation

So, this morning, I return from a gorgeous week-end of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay (the picture in my last blog post is from that area, taken by my brother-in-law). My fridge is nearly empty, as is my fuzzy brain right now.

So, while I adapt back to regular life, I'll refer you to something else to read. Go here to read about a new approach to farming close to cities. The farmer in the article is a retired CIA man, who has interesting ideas about farming, both the obstacles and the joys. He has some fascinating plans for involving younger farmers in his farm--a way to get some help with the farming and to support the next generation of farming.

As I return to my office, it's good to have ideas of alternative lifestyles in my head. I'll be interested to hear how these farming ideas play out. Will renting out parcels be a way to finance my dream of land in the country? Could I buy the land now, while it's cheap, and attempt to copy some of the good ideas in this article in the interim time, while I need to keep working in my office, far away from any plot of land I could afford?