Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Birthday--and Molly Ivins' Too!

Since I blogged about Percy Shelley's birthday awhile back, I feel compelled to notice here that today is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's birthday. And interestingly enough, it's also the birthday of Molly Ivins, who was one of our wittiest writers/commentators/op-ed crafters, well, I would say, wittiest ever. Yes, ever--let the pondering begin. If you can think of any writer, male or female, who is as clever and smart and witty and warm as Molly Ivins, I'd like to discover him/her. When she died of breast cancer, I felt like someone punched me in the gut. She felt like a constant friend throughout the Reagan years, when I knew very few people who thought Reagan had a few screws loose. But she did, and she expressed it all so much better than I could hope to do as an adolescent/young adult.

I discovered Mary Shelley later, in graduate school. My undergraduate training as an English major was fairly traditional: lots of dead, white guys, with a token female here and there, and even fewer token minorities.

I loved Mary Shelley once I discovered her. And my students have loved her too. Frankenstein teaches really well, even for non-majors (not many 19th century works can make this claim). I've had the most resistant readers lose themselves in Frankenstein--it still seems so relevant.

My dissertation director, Paula Feldman, did important work on Mary Shelley, and she had a portrait of Mary Shelley on her wall. I remember meeting with Dr. Feldman, handing her new pages, and feeling agonizing stress watching her read them. I'd focus on the portrait of Mary Shelley that hung on the wall beyond the desk. I'd imagine Mary Shelley saying soothing words to me. I'd think about Mary Shelley's life and reflect on how much more fortunate I was, even though I had a dissertation to write and an uncertain job future--until this year, the 1991-1992 hiring year, the one in which I finished my Ph.D., was the worst in history.

I love that we live in a time period where we no longer have as fierce a fight in justifying that women and minorities can write as well as men. We forget that we haven't been living in this time period very long. I could make a solid argument that Mary Shelley wrote novels that were every bit as accomplished as those of Charles Dickens--I could probably make the case that her novels were stronger. I can say what I said about Molly Ivins without fear of sounding silly. Some forty years ago, I'd have had to fight a fiercer battle to prove that women were capable of writing anything of worth at all.

We're not where I want to be just yet. Look at who has the majority of the full-time jobs in English departments--still men, mostly white. I suspect that if we did some comparisons, we'd find out that more men win book publication competitions than women (go here to read Kelli muse about the recent winners for the Tampa Poetry Prize)--I know, I know, they're judged anonymously, so I can't prove any sort of bias. Well, not with the time constraints in my current life I can't. I'll leave that to intrepid exploring journalists, like the kind I fancied that I was while I was in undergraduate school.

No, we're not living in the world I'd love to see ideally. But we're closer--and I think the works of writers like Mary Shelley and Molly Ivins have helped move us there.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

All We Love Will Be Lost--The Coral Reef Edition

Yesterday, I went Scuba diving and snorkeling in the marine sanctuary off Key Largo. Part of it was job related--tough gig, I know--as I was there to do an observation of a field trip that one of our Science Faculty has created for her classes.

On the boat in the morning, I overheard one of the dive guys say that he'd just heard on the radio that the ocean temperature at Molasses Reef was 91 degrees, the hottest ocean temperature ever recorded at that location. The normal temp would be 83 or 84 degrees. But we may be looking at the new normal. This summer has seen the hottest recorded ocean temperatures across the globe. Should these temperatures remain as the new normal, we're facing severe consequences. Most of the marine life that we like best, whether to look at or to eat, cannot survive those temps. What can survive? Jellyfish, and other creatures we find unpleasant.

As I swam the rest of the day, I looked at all the beautiful fish, so many of them, awed at such variety. I felt like I was part of some gorgeous movie, as swarms of fish came towards me and swam around me. I felt oddly at home in this quiet environment (quiet to me, at least), which is strange, of course, since I can't remain submerged there long without a tank of oxygen on my back and other bulky equipment that weighs me down on land but becomes more weightless in the water.

I felt a piercing sorrow, since these creatures may be doomed, and I hate that helpless feeling that it's much too late, and I can do nothing about it. I thought of what John Dufresne says in his wonderful book about writing, The Lie that Tells a Truth: "But death is the central truth of our existence--the sadness at our core. Everything we love will vanish. We can't hold on to anything. It is this tragedy that accounts as well for the beauty and nobility of our lives because in the face of this knowledge, we go right on loving, trying to hold on to what we cherish, defying death with hubris and with faith" (p. 61).

Some day, perhaps I will be that old woman who tells youngsters what the seas used to look like: "Before the seas became so enswamped with jellyfish that you can't swim through them, there were beautiful creatures in such a breathtaking variety of color and shapes. You don't believe me, but I swam there, and I tell you that it was true."

Maybe the question that future generations will ask is not that old classic: "What did you do in the war?" Maybe it will be "Why didn't you do more to save these threatened environments?" Or maybe no one will be around to ask these questions, no one human at least.

I think that one of the most important jobs that we have as writers is to be observers who write things down. I've noticed that in my own life, things that I don't write down tend to be lost. Of course, throughout human history, the act of writing doesn't ensure against the loss of what we love. But future generations have a record.

I love the coral reef and all its beautiful (and ugly) inhabitants--even jellyfish have a strange beauty. I love old-fashioned vinyl records and typewriters and the summers of my youth. I love the music of the 80's, even the music that I hated during that time period. I love the Appalachian mountains and the museums in Washington D.C. The list of all I love is so long and getting longer. My life is so short and getting shorter. Nothing to be done but to write it down.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Amidst the bills and junk mail . . .

Being away for a week means a pile of mail (and even huger piles of e-mail) to sort through upon return. We got tax bills, which didn't look out of whack to me--but I'm still staggered by the amount we will owe. I'm lucky to own a house and to have a government which will provide services--that will be my mantra as I move money around (from my bank account to government coffers). The scarier news is that my windstorm insurance will not be automatically renewed.

For those of you who don't live in hurricane country, you may not realize that here at the coast of Florida, we pay for regular homeowner's insurance, which covers normal disasters, like fire, and we pay windstorm, which will pay us something should a hurricane wipe out our house. I say something, because it's a complicated formula--and because most of us are insured by the state of Florida. I can do basic math, and I know that if a big storm hits a big population area, like the one in which I live, there won't be enough money for us all. But we pay our money--lots of money--and take our chances.

When I lived in South Carolina, I paid $300 a year for a policy that would pay what it cost to rebuild my home, no matter what the cost of the building materials and the labor to put my house together. I had replacement costs.

Down here, I will get a lump sum, once I pay a huge deductible. Maybe I will. Maybe I'll get a portion of the sum. Maybe the state of Florida will declare bankruptcy and give me an IOU.

I've worried about continuing to live here for many reasons, most of them apocalyptic, having to do with global warming and sea level rise. But realistically, the cost of living is likely to motivate me to move long before the ice shelf melts into the sea.

Happily, my mail was not all bad news. I've been getting some delightful poetry postcards--some people are even creating their own post cards! How cool is that? Original art and an original poem!

And I got a poem accepted. Chiron Review had a call for submissions for its upcoming punk issue. I was surprised at how many poems I had that fit the theme, so I sent them a packet. And they accepted one. When it's published, I'll print it here. Let me just give you a foretaste of the feast to come: it's one of my Jesus in modern life poems. I'm beginning to think those poems aren't so bizarre after all. I'm beginning to see a book coming together.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer Reading Synchronicity

The books I read on my summer vacation last week seemed to all go together. I've had this experience before, but it's completely unplanned and always surprises me. I took the books that I took with me because they were in the library. The fact that they had surprising links to each other was a delightful synchronicity!

I started by reading Resistance by Owen Sheers, a book that imagines life in Wales in 1944 if the Allies hadn't succeeded in the Normandy invasion. The ending haunted me all week. I love alternate histories, so the premise didn't bother me as much as it has bothered some other people who reviewed the book.

Then I read one of the books on my 2009 Reading List, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, about the discovery of a rare manuscript. Brooks then weaves various chapters that tell the stories of all the people who have handled the manuscript. I enjoyed all of the various tales; she made a wide cast of characters come alive. One substantial chunk of the book dealt with characters living in the early years of World War II (hence the link back to Resistance). Like Resistance, the book spent considerable time with characters who must deal with some limiting circumstances, most of them through no fault of the character's own. And I found the description of various occupations fascinating, particularly that of the scholar who specializes in rare, ancient manuscripts. It made me want to quit my academic job and find another one.

The next book I read was set in more traditional academia: Susan Choi's A Person of Interest. It's about the set of events that unfolds when a Computer Science teacher at a Midwestern university receives a bomb in the university mail. The main suspect might be his office neighbor, an Asian man. Choi excells at using real events as the basis of her fiction (I loved her book American Woman which uses elements of the Patty Hearst kidnapping). Even though I figured out the mystery early on, it didn't destroy my enjoyment. Like People of the Book, part of the fun was in the intertwining parts of the puzzle and seeing how the author pulled off the stunt.

The next book was Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan, which I zipped through. It, too, was set in academia, as a young Slavic Lit professor works towards tenure, while trying to balance home life with a toddler, teaching, and research. Like People of the Book, it made me wonder about roads not taken. I have consciously chosen to focus more on my own creative writing and less on writing scholarly work about the writing of other authors, but this book made me yearn for my grad school days. Ah, to lose oneself in the library and to transport oneself back into another literary century!

I'm still working on the last book, Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills. It, too, explores creativity and the sacrifices that we make for our art (like Lady of the Snakes and like People of the Book), although she explores the world of Hollywood, and the other books do not. I need to plow through it, while I still remember who all the character are, since there's an extensive cast in this book.

What a treat, to have a stack of books and to read straight through them. How lucky I was not to have any of them turn out to be a dreadful slog. How lucky I was to be travelling by car, so that I could take a huge stack of books with me. How lucky I am to have a job that gives me vacation time and to have the ability to actually take my vacation time.

And now, back to my regularly scheduled reading of endless e-mails (only some of which have anything much to do with me) and the numerous documents that we're generating for our accreditation reviews and our various assessment documents. It could be worse, I suppose. I don't have any dreadful student essays to read--although reading dreadfully written documents by people who have gone to school and should know better than to make the horrible mistakes that they make is no picnic either.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reading, Computers, and the Demands of Work Life

What a heavenly vacation I just had: I spent most of it reading a pile of books. I got up early in the morning and read (while feeling slightly guilty that I didn't have any desire to go out to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic). My mom and I went to AquaAerobics every morning, and then I took my book to the pool, where I read most of the day.

I always feel a bit of relief when I return to reading books. I read a lot during the course of a week, but much of it isn't anything I would choose to read. Reading a week's worth of e-mails upon my return to the office reminds me of that fact. I read a lot of online things, and much of it I treasure: the ability to read The Washington Post online, a variety of blogs, intriguing articles from magazines that most libraries wouldn't carry. But I also spend a lot of time reading absolute drivel.

And then I worry that my ability to concentrate has been shot. Going on vacation reminds me that the problem isn't with my concentration skills.

I used to think that television was the problem. But now, when I watch T.V., I fall asleep almost instantly. Likewise, I used to watch a lot of movies. Now I tend to watch in binge sessions while quilting.

So, is it my computer or the demands of work that sap my ability to read whole books? Some of both, I suspect. I sit down to read The Washington Post and The New York Times, and then I bop around from blog to blog, and before I know it, my morning is over. Then I go to work, and my reading options dim and die for the day.

Being on vacation meant that I didn't have to work for 40 hours last week--and I filled that time with reading. Heaven!

I didn't want to be that person that I saw who brought his laptop down to the kiddie pool so that he could do whatever computer things needed doing, while his kids played in the pool. I declared a computer moratorium last week. It was quite refreshing. I wanted to be more present than I usually am to the humans in my life. One day when I slipped and checked my work e-mail (just for a few minutes!), I woke up at 2 in the morning thinking about work issues. Grrr. I don't even have a job that makes too many demands, so I can't imagine how I'd be if I had one of those jobs that requires a constant online presence in addition to the office presence.

People always ask me why I don't read in the office, but I've found that if I'm reading on the computer screen, people assume I'm working, whereas if I'm reading a real book (even if it's a book that addresses educational issues or a book that keeps me current in my field), people seem to assume that I'm shirking my work duties. So, if I have a bit of free time at work, I'm likely to read online things.

If I was a smarter time manager, I'd work on poetry at work. Poetry publication can be seen as professional development for me, and working on a poetry document looks like working to people who walk by my office. I did go through my old poetry notebooks to flag the poems I want to use in a manuscript that I want to assemble in the fall. Other than that, I didn't focus on writing. I just immersed myself in delicious reading. It's good to know that I can still do that.

Tomorrow I'll write a bit about what I read. It wasn't just beach-trashy reading. I feel fortified and refreshed. I wish I had a job that paid me real money and benefits to read by the pool--don't resorts need to hire people who will pose as tourists and report back to the parent company about how their resorts are run? I would be willing to be that person!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This Blog Is On Vacation


It's time for me to wander off again, to spend time with family and friends, to stay away from work and electronics, to ponder the waves and the future, and to read some good books. I'll be back to blogging around Aug. 25. (The people in the picture are my husband and my nephew, who are staring out at Hollywood Beach).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Shop Class, Soulcraft, the College Classroom, and Assessment

Dean Dad has an interesting post over at his blog, Confessions of a Community College Dean. He's been reading Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft, which those of you who read my blog regularly know that I've been reading too (and in fact, our school's book club just discussed it this week). Dean Dad comes at the book from an interesting angle, talking about teaching in higher ed and where it fits into Crawford's paradigm. He also talks about assessment issues, or as he calls it "evidence-based policy in higher ed."

For those of you who are blessed enough to never have heard of assessment, let me just report from the front lines. Those of us who teach in higher ed are under pressure to prove that we're actually doing what we say we're doing in the classroom. I suspect that if George Bush had had another four years (shudder), we'd have seen No Child Left Behind for the college classroom.

Many of us in higher ed want to prove that we're successful so that the Feds don't feel any pressure to impose standards upon us. Why would the Feds feel any pressure? Because of the massive amounts of student loan money and other Federal dollars that flow through the nation's colleges and universities. And of course, because so many employers have been hiring college graduates, only to be horrified to find out that they can't write, can't think critically, can't do basic math, that kind of thing.

As Assistant Chair of my department, I'm responsible for helping create an assessment initiative. Luckily my Chair has the vision and the knowledge, and he can lead the assessment push. We've faced some push-back from faculty, but we're facing some challenges with accreditation, so most of our faculty are fairly cooperative, even though we all understand that when we went to grad school, we never realized our lives would come to this.

I've come to favor a pre-test, given on the first day of class, and then a post-test (the exact same test) given near the end of class. Many faculty resist at first. They say, "But they don't know anything on the first day!" Exactly. It would have interesting implications if all your students knew all the material from day one.

Many faculty worry about the morale of the students, but I remind them that these assessment tools don't have to be part of the grade. We'll be interested to see if students take the assessment tools seriously if there's no grade attached.

Of course, turning learning into data that can be quantified and scrutinized is a bit soul deadening. My Chair reminds us that our larger purpose is to improve student learning, but sometimes, it feels like we're in the business of generating statistics, not the business of improving students' brains and abilities. And Statistics is the class that convinced me not to pursue my love of Sociology beyond the B.A. (I was a double major, Sociology and English).

One of the commenters on Dean Dad's post reminds us that you can have the most fabulous teaching in the world, but many of our students are underprepared. Grossly underprepared. I think that many faculty are distrustful of "evidence-based policy" for fear that they'll be held accountable for the lack of success of these students. We all know that there's only so much we can do during the term, especially as we're competing against all the other things which snag students' attention.

Our book club all expressed frustration with Crawford's lack of solutions. We agreed that he did a great job of analyzing the problems with our modern work lives, but how many of us can just give it all up and open our own motorcycle shops? I've already blogged about the gender issues that Crawford doesn't address (go here and here), but most of us, male or female, aren't fortunate enough to have hobbies and passions that can be translated into money generators. And many of us have gone into fields that can be outsourced to developing nations. I fear that higher ed is on that path too. As more and more of us move our teaching online (and our assessment online), what's to keep us employed? But that's a blog post for another day. Or for a past day (go here to read a past blog post on the topic).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My poem, "Missing," and Long Days at the Office

My poem, "Missing," is up at Qarrtsiluni. I must warn you, though, it's sad; when I read it out loud for the purposes of recording it, the sadness in the last stanza almost left me breathless. Go here to read it (or to hear me read it).

I chose the title to make an allusion to the 1982 movie by the same name, a movie which continues to haunt me. I first watched it as a politically naive teenager. We wanted to see the movie Making Love, but it was R rated and the movie theatres in Knoxville, Tennessee were very committed to making sure that underage children didn't see R rated movies without an adult along. No matter how much I wanted to see the homosexual love scenes in Making Love, I didn't want to see them sitting beside my parents.

So we went to see Missing, which we'd never heard of, but it started at the same time as the movie we'd been hoping to see. I still find it rather humorous that the city Fathers of Knoxville were so concerned with morality that I couldn’t see a rather frivolous movie about a woman who loses her husband to his homosexual yearnings, but I was allowed to see a much more incendiary movie about good governments gone terribly awry, a movie that would change forever the way I viewed power and my leaders and my country. I’m grateful, no doubt about it, but I think the whole incident serves as an example of essential Americana. We’re deeply concerned about sex, to the point of strange obsessiveness, but we’ll let children see any kind of violence their heart desires. And it never occurs to us that a political message might carry such a jolt that youngsters should be protected (or at least provided with an adult to help them sort through the issues). Yet I’m not arguing for more censorship. I’m glad the scales were ripped from my eyes. But I am amused at the issues we choose as essential to keep from our children and teens. Amused and concerned. And baffled that some folks, even after thirty years of shocking allegations of our government’s unsavory actions, can deny this knowledge. And I continue to be horrified that our government, even after all these cautionary tales, like the one the movie documents, will still choose constructive engagement for the sake of capitalism, even if more fundamental issues, like democracy, must be sacrificed.

My poem doesn't tackle those kind of weighty issues exactly, so perhaps the allusion to the movie will prove to be a bad choice. But my poem does question what we're sacrificing for the sake of our financial well being in a similar way that the movie asks what we're sacrificing in the name of our dedication to democracy and capitalism.

See the movie. Read the poem. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My Poem about Skin Cancer, for Your Summer Enjoyment

Last month, my poem, "Basal Cell Penelope" was published in Chiron Review. For your reading pleasure, I post it below.

I wrote it years ago when I got my first skin cancer, which rattled me more than I thought it would. After all, I have fair hair and skin, and spent my childhood out in the Alabama summer sunshine. All the photos of me from my childhood summers show a sunburned child. In my teenage years, I pursued a tan, which often resulted in blistering sunburns. I'm a goner. When I went to my first dermatologist, before he even examined my skin, he looked at me and said, "Why do you live here?"

Ah, those existential questions! From the dermatologist, no less. Anyway, onward to the poem, which was also inspired by all those British authors who were so inspired by Ulysses, which always made me ponder poor Penelope.


Basal Cell Penelope


A stay-put Penelope, my skin cancer harbors
no desire to wander, to conquer the new worlds
of my inner organs. She’ll leave that travel
to the other adventurers. Let them explore
the inner cavities, ride the bloodstream
to the far reaches of the known universe
of the human body.

She stays home, even though there might be better climates,
if only she would go. She remains on the craggy cliff
of my upper arm, subject to winds and harsh weather.
She could find a more tropical clime,
a lush landscape in the lining of my lungs,
the rich reproductive tissues.
But no use telling Penelope, loyal to a fault.

She weaves a strange tapestry on the top of my arm.
Weaving and unweaving, one evening a scab,
next morning, smooth skin. In this way, she weaves
herself space and time.

But in the end, I go to the doctor, who punishes
her for her lack of wanderlust.
Too easy to excise.
She should have headed inland long ago.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Books that Travel

I'm always daydreaming about the future. Some of those daydreams are practical, and many are not (like daydreaming about being Supreme Court Justice). I have yet to live in a place which I love so much that I can't imagine living elsewhere. I have yet to have a job that's so fabulous that I can't imagine leaving it. I used to fault the places where I've lived and the jobs that I've had, but now I suspect it's a personality trait (fault?) of mine. Don't get me wrong: I yearn to live in a place that I love deeply where I work at a job I'd never dream of leaving.

Lately, after our glorious experience on my sister's sailboat, my husband and I have been pondering the possibility of living on a sailboat. Not tomorrow, of course. We need more planning time than that. We need to learn to sail. We need to make sure that we really like sailing. We need to wait for the real estate market to recover. We need to see what the health care reforms will really look like.

Eventually, we'd need to get rid of most of our stuff. Many of my friends say, "What about your books?"

Once I would get rid of books because I assumed they'd always be available at the library. No longer can I assume that. I'm tempted to believe they'd be available electronically, but the recent stories about the Kindle make it clear that you might not always have those books. But honestly, if I haven't touched those books in many years, why hang on to them?

When I have this discussion with my book loving friends, they tell me about the books that they read over and over again. I'm not talking about those books. Obviously, those are the ones that have earned a space on the book shelf. But I'm hanging on to many books that I know I'll never read again. I'm hanging on to many books on the off chance I might have to teach them in a class. I'm hanging on to many books who might be enjoyed by some different reader.

In today's The Washington Post, I read a story about people who leave their books in public places and the web site that tracks the travels that a book takes. I love this idea, although I understand it must sound loopy to people. But I'm that weird woman who is enjoying sending out poetry post cards and getting them in return. It would be fascinating to see the travels that my books take, especially in these days when I'm feeling anchored here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

If Obama Appointed You Chair of the NEA

Usually, my favorite escapist fantasy that involves careers has me daydreaming about being Supreme Court Justice: job for life, weighing in on important national issues, office in downtown D.C., my own parking space at National Airport--what could make a job better?

This morning's story in The New York Times has me thinking about being head of the National Endowment for the Arts. Actually, it was this ending of the article: "Cultural mavens like himself feel they “have one of their own” in the White House, he added. 'It makes the arts community feel finally, for the first time in a long time, there might be some wind at their back.'"

And I thought, wait, cultural mavens didn't see Dana Gioia (exiting Chair) as one of their own? Why? Just because he was a poet and not some big theatre producer?

I know there are many poets (and other arts people) who hate Gioia for any number of reasons, but I'm not one of them. I thought that some of his ideas during his tenure at the NEA were very cool, although I'm not sure I'm remembering them perfectly. The one I remember most? A Shakespeare production in every state, put on by travelling Shakespeare companies. Of course, we could argue about the merits of Shakespeare. It's not hard to see a production of Shakespeare in any corner of the U.S. in any given month, is it? Far better to put on a touring production of August Wilson's plays, perhaps. So maybe cultural mavens were right to feel that Gioia wasn't one of their own.

The article made me think about what I'd do if Obama had appointed me to that position. I've been thinking in that direction for many of Obama's appointments. Basically, Obama must say, "Here's a mess--want to try to fix it?" Some people rise to that challenge. I'd find it overwhelming, depending on how much budget I had to work with.

I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with them.

Then I give them a copy of an interview (in the fabulous book We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews) with Jello Biafra which has this challenge: "It's time to start thinking, 'What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?'" (page 46 of the first edition). Many of my students find this idea to be a wonderful writing prompt.

So perhaps as I sit through boring meetings, that will be my daydream prompt. I'll dream bigger than just becoming dean. What if some future president called upon me to be the Chair of the NEA? How would I promote the Arts and various artists during my tenure?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

New Poem up at "Qarrtsiluni"

One of my poems is up at the online journal, Qarrtsiluni. For months, they've been publishing work on the theme of Economy. A darker poem of mine will also be published shortly, but for now, you can enjoy the more humorous poem, "Collective," by going here. You can even hear me read it, if you're so inclined.

I got to the office early and decided to be big and brave and listen. It wasn't too bad. Ever since I was a child, listening to my voice on the tape recorder, I've always felt repelled when I heard my voice. But I guess 40 some odd years of listening to it has given me a certain fondness for it, even though I'd change it if I could. I'm getting to that midlife age where I'm just happy if body parts are still working--at a certain point, one knows how many ways the body can go wrong, and likely will go wrong, if we live long enough.

Qarrtsiluni is such a cool online journal, and I've thought that long before they published my work. They show the possibilities that exist for an online journal that paper journals can't match: recordings, collaborations, links, art that would be too expensive to print on paper. They've got a call for submissions posted now--if you're an artist, go check it out on the right sidebar when you link to my poem.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Poetry Postcard report

I counted up the poetry postcards that I've written for this project, and I've written 10 (but I'm trying to mail them out one at a time). I thought, wow, I'm a third of the way through. So far, I've only gotten 1 postcard, but I'm not surprised. When my mom goes on vacation, she mails postcards each day, and I receive them in clumps.

I'm photocopying my poem before I send the postcard, not because I think they're fabulous as is, but because I like having a record. I'm finding the postcard confining, but a good exercise in restraint. I'm keeping the photocopy to use as a prompt to a longer poem later.

Here's one that I wrote last week that I like:

We snack on salmon
that once swam
in a cold northern sea.

We sip wine that tastes
of minerals from the soil
of a different continent.

Our provisions have travelled
further than we ever will.

I find that not only am I writing these small postcards, but I'm writing longer poems too. Hurrah!

It's probably not too late to join this experiment, but I can't tell you for sure, because the website always recognizes me, so I can't see what the first time visitor to the site would see. It's great fun, and I'm such a sucker for mail delivered the old fashioned way: with a stamp, to a mailbox.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Percy Shelley

Today is Percy Shelley's birthday. Although I never liked much of his poetry, I did use his play, "The Cenci," extensively in my dissertation, so I feel a bit of fondness for him. His personal life, however, gives me pause.

He left his pregnant wife and toddler to run away with Mary Godwin (who would go on to write Frankenstein)--underage Mary Godwin. The two left a trail of wrecked lives behind them: the pregnant wife committed suicide; Mary Godwin's half sister, Fanny Imlay, felt so abandoned that she committed suicide; Claire Clairmont (Mary Godwin's stepsister) ran away with Mary and Percy and began an ill-considered affair with Byron. Three of Mary's children died during the first years of their travels (staying ahead of bill collectors). Reread Frankenstein with those biographical facts in mind.

And yet, I tend to let Percy Shelley off the hook a bit--I used his work in my dissertation, after all. I'm not willing to give everyone such a free pass.

For example, it's hard for me to like Wordsworth, now that I know the biography of Dorothy Wordsworth. I will always wonder if Coleridge's story might have had a happier ending, had William Wordsworth been a better friend. With those facts in mind, I've lost my adolescent love of Wordsworth's poetry.

I never loved Percy Shelley's poems, so perhaps there was less estimation to lose. And yes, I have a Ph.D. in British Literature, and yes, I understand that it may be a mark of lack of sophistication to let my judgment of authors' personal lives to color my estimation of their work. I'm also a feminist, so it's hard for me to discard relevant facts, particularly when I think about how much creative work was done by men because the women in their lives took care of the details of daily life: the cooking, cleaning, childcare. And many women did the hard work of the business side of writing for male writers whom they loved: transcribing, keeping a journal for male writers to cannibalize, working for publication, publicizing.

Imagine what kind of writer you might be if you had a Dorothy Wordsworth in your life. Read her journals from the Grasmere period and dream a little dream.

We likely wouldn't remember Percy Shelley today, if Mary hadn't devoted much of her life to securing his reputation. Frankly, I think she's the more interesting writer, and I find it intriguing that for over 100 years, she was remembered primarily as Percy's wife. Even when I was in undergraduate school in the mid-80's, textbooks still rarely recognized the genius of Frankenstein. Now I could make a cogent argument that that book is one of the most important literary works to come out of the Romantic movement.

So, happy birthday, Percy Shelley. You were smart enough to choose a good wife, even if she was underage and you were already married to someone else. Perhaps, in another hundred years, we'll look at your biography differently. After all, my favorite P.B. Shelley poem, "Mutability," promises that the only thing we can count on is change: "Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but Mutability."

Monday, August 3, 2009

On this Day, in 1492

On this day, in 1492, Columbus began his journey to "discover" America. Of course, he had other plans, and plenty of other people had been here before him, some discoverers, some settlers (for a great book on the subject of the "discovery" of America, I highly recommend Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World).

So, if Columbus left today, that means it took him 2 months to get to his goal. I suppose that's not long, in the overall scope of things. And yet, at Charlestowne Landing, I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

I've often wondered if Columbus (and other explorers) ever woke up in the middle of the night and said, "What am I doing here? I could have just settled down with my sweetheart, had a few kids, watched the sunset every night while I enjoyed my wine." Of course, back then, a lot of options were closed to people, and that's why they set off for the horizon. No job opportunities in the Old World? Head west! Sweetheart left you for another (or died)? Head west!

It's easy to feel full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project. Far harder to keep up that enthusiasm when you're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but your instruments and the stars to guide you, with no sense of how far away the land for which you're searching might be.

I'm guessing that many of us have similar feelings during our creative lives. Maybe we have a manuscript that we feel is good, but no publisher has chosen yet. Maybe we have a batch of poems that seem to go together, but we have no sense of how to assemble the manuscript, while at the same time, we know we need to create 20 more poems. Maybe we have a vision of the kind of job that might support our creative selves, but no idea of how to get to where we want to be from where we are.

What can we learn from Columbus? To answer fully would take more research than I have time for right now. But I keep thinking of the ship's logs and the captain's journals. Perhaps we need to do a bit more journalling/blogging/notetaking/observing/calibrating/focused daydreaming.

Or maybe we need to just set sail, knowing that we're going to be out of sight of land for awhile. Maybe we need to get over our need for safe harbor, for knowing exactly where we're going.

Or maybe we need a benefactor. Who might be Queen Isabella for us?

And we probably need to know that while we think we're sailing off for India, we might come across a continent that we didn't know existed. Columbus was disappointed with his discovery: no gold, no spices, disappointing land. Yet, he started all sorts of revolutions with his discovery. Imagine a life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox."

Still, the metaphor holds for the creative life. Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cooking Shows, Meaningful Work, and a Sauce for Your Salmon

In this article in this week-end's The New York Times magazine section, Michael Pollan asks this question that's essential to understanding the time in which we live: "How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?" He goes on to think about the evolution of cooking programs, from Julia Child to our current crop on the Food Network, and to wonder what it all means for us. He asks why we don't watch T.V. shows where people change the oil in a car, and he comes up with some interesting opinions. He asks what really made us evolve into being human, not just one more type of primate: the invention of language, the invention of fire? He makes a persuasive case for cooking.

He also addresses the question of meaningful work. He notes how many time-saving devices we have and asks, "So what are we doing with the time we save by outsourcing our food preparation to corporations and 16-year-old burger flippers? Working, commuting to work, surfing the Internet and, perhaps most curiously of all, watching other people cook on television." He talks about making a souffle and says, "How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflĂ© doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflĂ© is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow."

It's an interesting article, but I must confess to bias, since I've always loved Pollan's work; his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is one of my all-time favorites. I've also always loved to cook, and it's one of the few activities that I love that I still make time to do several times a week. In fact, cooking may be the only thing I love to do that I do more than once a week.

I've been feeling like a bit of a slacker because so many of our meals have been grilled lately, which takes so much less time and effort than a lot of the soups, breads, and casseroles that I make on a regular basis. I've really been enjoying the wild Alaskan salmon that we've had for the last several weeks.

Yesterday, I wanted something different to serve with our salmon, so I decided to experiment with sour cream. I love the taste of maple with salmon, so for one of the sauces, I put several gobs of fat free sour cream in a bowl, along with a swirl of real maple syrup. Yummmmm.

My spouse, on the other hand, is not as much of a sweet freak as I am, so I made a different sauce for him. I put several gobs of fat free sour cream in a bowl and several teaspoons of horseradish. Again, a yummy concoction.

These sauces couldn't have been more easy, but it's hard for me to count them as real cooking or recipe development. It's sobering to realize that many Americans couldn't do what I did yesterday: to think, hmm, how could I make something different to go along with this grilled salmon? In fact, many Americans couldn't figure out how to cook that slab of fish. As I waited at the fish counter, a man asked, "How do you cook that salmon, anyway?" Grill, poach, throw in the oven--how could you go wrong?

Well, there's one way--you could overcook it. The first time I cooked fish, I totally ruined it by leaving it in a hot oven for 45 minutes. I wanted to make sure I killed any bacteria, and I certainly did that! It was hard to even claim it as fish jerky.

Still, this is how we learn, and as one of the experts in the Pollan article asked, how many of us have learned these skills? Who will teach the next generation? Even a lot of the cooking shows rely on "foods" from the food-industrial complex.

Happily, just as earlier generations had monks that preserved learning, we will find that this kind of learning has been protected in pockets of people. Cookbooks can still be checked out from the library, and one can learn to cook by following instructions carefully--that's how I did it (and a generation and a half before me, that's how people learned to cook with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking). I predict that we're about to see an explosion of interest in good food and sustainable agriculture, much the way Julia Child ushered in a new era. We see some glimmerings of that coming explosion in the interest in farmer's markets and canning and cooking at home. Perhaps, in twenty years, we won't even recognize the grim situation that Pollan has documented in his books and articles. Perhaps the changes he's advocated will have come to fruition.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Exercising in the Dark

My spinning class takes place in the dark--well, not true dark. There's the violet light that makes our socks and other white surfaces glow, and the wall sconces by each door burn softly. I always like that moment when the instructor turns off the lights, and I can only see a vague outline of myself in the mirror. In the dim light, most of us look like riders in the Tour de France.

I've often exercised in the dark--or at least, the halflight. My favorite time to run is early, early in the morning, long before most people drive to work. People always ask me if I'm scared, but I've felt that I was in more danger later, when the sun comes up and people speed through the neighborhood streets. When I run, at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning, there's a car here or there, but I see them long before they see me, and I can stay out of their way. Most of the drunk people have already passed out, so they're not a danger anymore, the way they might be if I ran in the evening.

I like that feeling of invisibility. I like that no one can see my flesh jiggle. I like that I can look my worst while working on transforming myself into some version of my best self.

As I pedaled and pedaled during yesterday's spinning session, I thought about how my writing life and my exercise life are similar. I prefer to write early in the morning, before the world wakes up, before phone calls start and the stores open and a thousand distractions tempt me away. I like to attend to my own priorities before I go to the office and face the demands of my bosses, our faculty members, and our students. The demands of the day leave me too exhausted by the end of the day to do much more than collapse in a heap. But early in the morning, ah, that's a different story.

Metaphorically, we're all creating in the dark, in many ways. Most creative types head off in directions they wouldn't have anticipated in earlier years. Many creative people work for years before something they've created gains some traction. It's not unusual for a person to work on a project for months or years before they understand the true shape of it. Every beautiful creation stands on top of mounds of failed projects that came before it.

I tend to be a solitary writer, as I've most often been a solitary exerciser. Yet, I don't mind having a group or a partner. One of my most fruitful periods as a writer happened during 1996-1998, when a friend and I met weekly to share a meal and to show each other a short story we'd written that week. Likewise, the most progress I've made as a runner happened during the years I'd be training for an event with someone. I'd never sign up for a half marathon on my own--but to run with a friend? Sure.

I don't need a friend or a group to force myself to exercise, or to write, but it gives my life richness. I feel lucky to be the kind of person who can adapt to my current circumstances, whatever they are.