Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Photo Essay

This past week, I noticed these gingerbread haunted houses down in the Culinary Department of the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, and I couldn't resist taking pictures. These were made by the class taught by Chef Peter Babcock.

Seeing these made me think of my own creative processes. In terms of cooking, I started my cooking life by slavishly following recipes. Now, I rarely use a recipe (but I keep my cookbooks to leaf through, like visiting an old friend).

I also think of my poetry processes. Some of my most interesting poems have come when I've taken a poem already written and changing it somehow, like taking a free form poem and putting it into form.

This week, I helped with pumpkin decorating at my school. Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera. But some of them were still on display late Friday, so I took pictures. Here are pumpkins on the stairs:

I brought in lots of my craft supplies: cloth, jewelry, yarn, beads. We weren't sure what would happen, but our creative students were up to the challenge. I made this pumpkin with my little nephew in mind; he loves pirates. I couldn't figure out much more beyond the eye patch, but I think it works. After all, my nephew is 3 years old; he's hardly an art critic, thank goodness.

Some students did traditional carving. I tried making this art pumpkin (below), with a face on one side and some cloth Halloween things glued on. I don't know if it translates well to the photo, but you're looking at a ghost, a spider and a Jack-o-lantern in cloth.

This pumpkin inspired me to make a Christmas themed pumpkin, but you can't see it, because someone had already claimed it by the time I arrived with my camera. I had those gingerbread houses on the brain: Christmas, with a Halloween twist. So, I went the opposite direction, Halloween, with a Christmas twist--it's very Nightmare Before Christmas of me. Now I'll return to my poetry notebooks to see if I can do something similar with poems: subvert a theme, exchange one holiday for another, . . .

Happy Birthday Keats, Happy Halloween

Later today, in my ongoing effort to learn to work the family digital camera, I plan to post a photo essay that uses Halloween themes (haunted houses and pumpkins) with thoughts of doing things differently, mixing things up.

But first, over on The Writer's Almanac website, I saw this post, with the following juxtaposition of history:

Today is not only Halloween, not only the true Reformation Day (the actual day when Luther nailed those theses to the Wittenberg door), but also Keats' birthday.

If Keats' birthday was a national holiday, how would we celebrate? With wine, so we'd have "purple stained mouths"? Would we sing in "full throated ease"? Would we engage in "wild ecstasy"? Or would we meet dreamy lovers, to recreate the Eve of St. Agnes?

Alas, I must sing the songs of autumn, down here in continued record breaking heat, where candy melts and pumpkins rot before we can carve them if we don't keep them cold.

In the meantime, there are great websites, where we can see the poems of Keats and get some background information and even "see" the original manuscripts if we click on the links (if the originals still exist). Here are links to my favorite Keats poems:

"Ode to a Nightingale"

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

"To Autumn"

"The Eve of St. Agnes"

Friday, October 30, 2009

Let's Do the Time Warp Again

Today was a Halloween Ride at my spin class. The music for the first part of the class was from my early college years--quite energetic to spin to "Thriller" and to the theme from Ghostbusters. I didn't really like Thriller when it was first released. At the time it became so popular, I said I was the only person in America who didn't own that album. I still don't own that album, but I feel some nostalgia for the music. And the song "Thriller" is great for Halloween.

I'm always astonished at the capacity of my brain to retain useless information, like music lyrics that I haven't heard in decades. I can still remember all the lyrics to "The Time Warp," and my feet itched to do the dance, even though I was on a spin bike.

I'm also intrigued by the power of music to take me back to a particular time period. Listening to the theme from Ghostbusters took me back to the summer of 1984, when I was a backpacking counselor at Congaree Girl Scout Camp. I'm still amazed at what we were allowed to do. We packed up our supplies and were dropped off at one point. The vans would meet us at the pick up site (12 or 20 miles away) a week later. We had no cell phones, because it was 1984. The lead counselor was all of 21 years of age. And yet, off we went, with our troop of girls.

And we came back perfectly safe and sound, despite howling rains and bugs and longer miles than we were used to. That summer taught me a valuable lesson about facing my fears and doing the things I wasn't sure we could do.

Actually, to be honest, back then, as a 19 year old, I had no fear. I hadn't yet seen Deliverance. I figured that we could protect each other, and if something freakish happened, like a snake bite, we'd deal with it.

It's only as an adult, looking back, that I shake my head at the horrible things that might have happened. As a grown up, I wonder how much I still let my fears of terrible things happening influence my actions.

I try to just feel my fear and do things anyway. Sometimes I'm successful--like with spin class. Sometimes, not so much. I try not to let those not so successful experiences dampen me.

So, as I posted a few days ago, I'll keep submitting. I'll keep writing. I'll take my box of craft supplies to a school pumpkin decorating festival and delight in the strange creations that we make. I'll try new recipes (and return to old ones). I'll keep trying to create the kind of marriage I want to be part of. I'll take vacations, even though I'd be more mentally comfortable if I just stayed at home. I'll take new vocational risks.

And later, as I approach the end of my 60th decade, hopefully I'll look back and be amazed at my trajectory, a trajectory that wouldn't have been possible without some risk taking.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Other Anniversaries

This past week marked not only my parents' anniversary. It was also the anniversary of Hurricane Wilma, which came ashore (from the west) in 2005. It was the end of a grueling hurricane season for us. Hurricane Katrina struck south Florida in August of that year, and we lost our huge ficus tree. We spent the next 6 weeks cleaning up from that storm, and life had just returned to normal for us when Hurricane Wilma struck.

We lost part of our roof shingles and had some damage, but nothing catastrophic. However, the church to which we belonged sustained massive damage. I spent much of the next 6 weeks cleaning up that church. It was a church of older people, and there weren't many hands to do that work.

You may remember that I mentioned this back in May, when I wrote about seeing the Bishop. I had spent the day hauling wet carpet to the curb after ripping it out of the floor, and I was wet, dirty, and bloody. The Bishop of our Synod appeared, dressed in casual clothes, an assistant by his side. I said, "Are you the carpet guys?" Oops.

Later it occurred to me to wonder why I should be expected to know what the Bishop looked like, to recognize him by sight. He had never graced the church with his presence before. And unlike the South Carolina synod conventions, which don't cost much to attend, our Florida synod conventions are astonishingly expensive. Even though I was church council president of that church, I never went because I knew the state of the church's books. We could barely afford to send the pastor.

Back in May, I posted some lines from a poem I had written that was inspired by that encounter, and I'm happy to be able to post the whole poem below. It was just published in North American Review.

Strange Communions

Jesus showed up at our church to help
with hurricane clean up.
“The Bishop was so busy,” he explained.
“But I had some time on my hands,
so I loaded the truck with tarps and water,
and came on down. What can I do?”

“Our roof needs a miracle,” I said.
“Do you know a good roofer?”

“I used to be a carpenter.
Of course, that’s getting to be a long time ago.
Let me see what I can do.”

I set to work ripping up the soaked
carpet in the sanctuary.
As I added a piece of dripping padding
to the pile, I noticed Christ across the street,
at the house with the fallen
tree that took out both cars and the porch.
He walked right up to the door to see
how the household was doing. I dragged
sopping carpet, trip after trip, while Jesus sat
on the porch and listened to the old woman’s sad
saga. The rough edges made my hands bleed.

Good smells made me wander down the dark
church hall to our scarcely used
kitchen, where I found Christ cooking.
“I found these odds and ends and decided
to make some lunch. Luckily, you’ve got a gas stove.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Otherwise, it’s just going to rot.”
How he made the delicious fish stew and homemade
bread out of the scraps he found
in our kitchen, I couldn’t explain.
We went out together to invite
the neighborhood in for a hot
meal, even though they weren’t church members.
We all spoke different languages,
but a hot lunch served by candlelight translates
across cultures.

I dragged drywall, black with mold, to our dumpster,
and noticed Christ walking by the cars in line
for the gas station on the corner.
When I got closer, I noticed he handed
out fresh-baked cookies and bottled water.
“Have some sweetness.
Life is hard when you can’t get necessities.”
Some drivers stared at him, like he was one of those predatory
scammers they’d been warned against.
“What’s the catch?” they growled.
“No catch,” he said with that convincing smile.
“Just a gift of grace, freely given. You’re free
to accept or refuse.” A strange communion.

Jesus left while there was still
much work to do: new carpet to be installed,
drywall to be hung, fencing to be constructed
around church grounds. I watch him drive
his empty truck, followed
by some of the neighbors, away from the church.

The next time it rained, I noticed
that the long, leaking roof had healed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Submit Again!

Yesterday, I mailed off several copies of my book length poetry manuscript and one entry in a chapbook contest. There are days when I wonder if I'm crazy to keep spending money on this adventure. There are days when I wonder at what point the postage will cost more than the entry fee.

In this recent blog post, Kelli Russell Agodon traces the progress of her manuscript, the same manuscript which recently won the White Pine Poetry Book prize. She submitted it to 76 publishers before this current submitting season, where she submitted to 9 other presses in addition to the one which chose her manuscript.

She's a braver woman than I am. She also tells about the evolution of the manuscript. One of her commenters says that it takes about 5 years for a manuscript to find a publisher.

I've been sending mine out in its current form for about 5 years, give or take a year or two of bad hurricane seasons, which thoroughly disrupted my submission plans. There are times when I wonder if I've committed to a flawed manuscript. But then I look at other collections and take another honest look at mine, and I feel mine is every bit as good as some that are in print.

Of course, there are lots of good poetry manuscripts out there that haven't found a home. So, I submit and submit and submit again. Some people waste over $100 a month on cable televisions, and I spend my hard earned money supporting small presses and publishing adventures--and I don't spend $100 a month!

For those of you who need a story of tenacity paying off, read this story in today's The Washington Post of a story of a man who entered an art contest for 27 years, never winning, occasionally coming close enough to keep his hopes alive. Yes, he spent the last 27 years drawing and painting ducks. And this year, he won. It's a fascinating story.

I continue to put together manuscripts and research publishers and submit. It's a strange hobby, but no stranger than many hobbies. It keeps my brain alert, so I figure it's better than television watching, or other mindless activities.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Act of Hope During the Cuban Missile Crisis

My parents celebrate their anniversary today. I can always remember how long they've been married if I can remember the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). My dad was a young officer in the Air Force, and up until just about the moment they got married, they weren't sure if my dad would actually be there, or if he might be called back to his unit. In later years, as I've realized how close to nuclear war the world came during that month, I'm amazed that they actually pulled it off--I'm amazed that we're all still here.

My mom and dad have only recently begun to talk about their wedding in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can't imagine my mom, as a young bride-to-be, planning the last details of her wedding, while watching world leaders huff and puff. She's rarely talked about that.

I can imagine how I would feel: terrified. I might wonder what would be the point of marrying and pretending that life would go on as normal.

And yet, here we are, almost 60 years later, with life going on as normal. If my parents had cancelled their wedding and lived as if nuclear bombs would rain down at any moment, they'd have spent 60 years living that way. They'd have missed out on the joy of marriage and raising two children. They'd have had no grandson (my sister's boy). They wouldn't have travelled or gone to back to school or had all the joys they've had.

I, too, have been haunted by the prospect of nuclear war, as have many people of my generation and older generations. I've noticed that younger generations just look at me, baffled, when I ask if they worry about the possibility of nuclear war.

Oddly, they're probably more at risk than I ever was. At least when the Soviet Union was intact, we knew where the nuclear weapons were. Now, many of them have vanished--but we know they're out there, somewhere.

Nuclear imagery has found its way into a substantial chunk of my poems, but I've never used my parents' marriage and the Cuban Missile Crisis in a poem. Maybe I'll let that percolate.

In the meantime, I hope that we can all continue to make gestures of wild hope, during these tough times, the way my parents did, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What would that wild gesture of hope look like, in this time of global warming and pandemic flu?

Love is always such a gesture. To commit to another person, to love others, even though you know they will disappoint you in ways that you can't even imagine--that's a radical act of life-affirming hope. We love, even though we know that all we love will be lost if we live long enough. Even if we don't have the dramatic backdrop of a international standoff that would likely end in nuclear war, to commit to love in the face of all that would erode that love is a such a bold act.

And of course, our love is not limited to people. We adopt pets with lifespans significantly shorter than ours. We write poems, even though we know that we'll be lucky if our readership measures in the hundreds. We read, even though we might be the last generation of readers--and some of us continue to be committed to our esoteric reading interests, even though we might be the only ones still reading those texts. We teach, even though we can't be sure of the lives we'll change--we can only hope to do no harm--and most career trajectories are similar, I suspect. We duck and cover and keep an eye to the horizon for those mushroom clouds--and in the meantime, we live our lives and hope for the best.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad! May we all have lives as full of love as you have had.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lessons from the First Quarter of Spin Classes

Today, I arrived at spin class, and the bikes were turned to face the windows, instead of the mirror. The curtains were open; they've never been opened, ever, during the last three months when I've been going to spin and yoga classes in that room. We began class in the dark, facing the dark outside (spin class starts at 6:30 in the morning). We saw the lights in the buildings twinkle, and the planes take off and land from the nearby Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. Gradually, as we pedalled, we got to watch the sun come up.

Actually, we saw the sky lighten and change colors, since a building blocked our view of the actual sunrise. We saw a cruise ship emerge out of the darkness. Changing the routine really invigorated my workout.

I've had spin class on the brain this week, since I've been doing spin class for 3 months now. I was telling one of the spin teachers that I just always assumed that spin class was something I wouldn't be able to do. And now, here I am, spinning away.

It makes me wonder what else I assume that I can't do, what kinds of things I'd be perfectly capable of doing. Of course, my mind goes to any number of physical things, but there's also a wide range of creative things ("I can't draw!" Yes, I can, but I rarely want to take the time to draw in a realistic mode), work things ("I can't solve that problem!" Yes I can but I often don't want to deal with all of the other people at work who would be required to change), and any number of other life situations.

This morning's spin class also reminded me of the importance of changing things around every so often. I felt a surge of energy when I first started taking spin classes back in July. It was such a different way to get a vigorous workout in the middle of summer. It was so thrilling to realize that I could do something I thought I couldn't do. Lately, I've been feeling grumpy occasionally, especially when the music wasn't my favorite. This morning, the simple act of changing the direction of the bikes made me feel excited about spin class again.

What could I do to reinvigorate my writing/creative life? I need to spend some time thinking about that. Do I want to add a new activity? Do I want to try creating in a different space? Do I need different subject matter? Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Poetry Prompt for Reformation Sunday

Today, Lutherans and other Protestants across the globe will gather to sing those good, old-fashioned hymns. And most of us will have no idea that many of those tunes were not composed for the hymn lyrics. Lutheran legend has it that Luther used drinking songs and folk music tunes for his hymns.

That idea makes me wonder what's possible for us today. We seem to have lost the idea of popular music, a song that everyone will be able to sing, even if they lyrics are different.

Or have we? If Luther was alive today, would he use advertising jingles? Would he use the tunes from songs that we learn as children, like the Barney song? Can we count on all children in a geographical area learning the same songs? Are there songs that we all know?

What would happen to our poetry if we set it to music? Even if we don't have that musical knowledge required to write music, we can borrow the tunes of others.

If it worked for Martin Luther, it could work for us!

Seriously, it's a fun way to work in form and a great way to memorize our poems, if ever we need to do that. And since so many songs utilize rhyme, it gives us a chance to flex our rhyming muscles. Who knows where this journey might take us. We might compose songs that later schoolchildren will sing, a song like "This Land Is Your Land," a song with radical origins (thank you Woody Guthrie) that will be completely lost on children as they sing it.

Now that would be a legacy!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mink or Manure in the Wee Small Hours of the Morning

When I wake up early and can't sleep, I catch up on NPR programs. Streaming audio is a wondrous thing. This morning I heard Diane Rehm remind Rita Mae Brown that the first time she saw the author, Rita Mae Brown wore a full-length mink coat, and now she's dressed, well, differently. Rita Mae Brown said, "Well, it's mink or manure around here," and she laughed that throaty laugh--such a delight to hear.

It's been great to listen to her talk about writing and about living in the country where she makes her living from timber, hay, and horses. She's written such a diversity of books--so far, no one has mentioned the groundbreaking Rubyfruit Jungle. And she's been very quiet about politics--these days that's a relief to me. I'm far more interested in the creative process than politics or sexuality. I must be really old now.

If you want to hear the interview, go here and scroll down.

I've found wonderful reading around the web this week. On Leslie's blog, guest blogger Carollyne Hutter writes about a conference she attended: Pushing the Electronic Envelope Even Farther! Using Cyberspace to Advance Your Career. There are such marvelous writers' resources in the D.C. area. I'm jealous that I can't be there to partake, but we're all lucky to have people reporting. Hutter gives great advice for promoting ourselves online. Go here to read the post.

But maybe you're feeling fretful because you worry that you'll never get a book together or you have a book, but you can't seem to find a publisher home for it. Kelli has a great blog post here about submitting a book manuscript. She's just won a prize, which will result in publication of her manuscript, so she knows whereof she speaks. I was heartened to read that she had submitted a lot ("way into double digits" she says) before the manuscript was accepted.

If you're looking for a different way to organize your books, go here to Sandra Beasley's blog. She organizes her books by color, and she's got some great thoughts on which books sit side by side. She's also got pictures!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tie Dye, Poetry, and Scraps of Time

Yesterday at work was our quarterly tie-dye event that has transformed into a festival. It began life as an event that one of our English faculty envisioned as part of a Composition class. She wanted to have her students tie dye, but that's not exactly an activity that can be done in a classroom. Since we were going to be outside anyway, we opened it up to the entire student body. My department chair got permission to give away hot dogs and chips, and the Red Bull people gave away free Red Bull.

Over the past 2 years, the tie dye event has expanded to include jewelry making, quilting, belly dancing lessons, and urban art. Yesterday, for the first time, the student-run Culinary club was the one selling food. We had students in a newscasting class roaming around with their cameras, doing local focus stories. The Green Committee sold T-shirts and muffins.

As I tied and dyed shirts, I said to the colleague who originated the whole idea, "I really love doing this. Maybe I should have been a kindergarten teacher."

She said, "It's not too late."

Well, I'd probably have to take a pay cut. And kindergarten probably isn't the fun place that I remember: various craft projects interspersed with naps.

I think tie dye is a fun medium, where you can plan and hope, but you can't be sure of what the final look will be.

This morning, I had a similar experience with poetry. I had that brain-addled feeling that comes from trying to make the computer do something that I only vaguely remember how to do. I wanted to take a picture from our pastor's blog and save it as a jpeg on my desktop. I used to be able to do that, so it was just a matter of trying things with my not-intuitive-to-me photo program to get the image to be a jpeg that I could import onto the church's website that I help maintain.

It took me longer than I anticipated (and I've written down the steps so that I don't have to do this process every time). Sometimes, when I wrestle with my computer, I feel this foggy brain feeling. Often, that's the end of my creative/writing time.

This morning, I worked through it. I pulled out my poetry notebook and my file of old ideas that I hadn't translated into poems. Months ago, I got to work to find a dead lizard firmly lodged in the printer, an event that I immediately tucked away to be used in a poem someday. Like my tie dye shirts yesterday, the poem went in a direction that I didn't anticipate--not a surprise, since I didn't have a vision of the poem, just that image of the lizard in the printer.

I'm also pleased with myself because I'm headed off to work this morning. The knowledge that I'm going to work soon often means that I tell myself I don't have time to write a poem. But really, it doesn't have to take that much time.

I'd like to do a better job of making use of the scraps of time that I have. I tend to think I need huge patches of time, like the multiple-hour tie dye event yesterday, before I can get any creative stuff done. Yet my experience with quilting should remind me that out of tiny scraps, a huge, comforting, gorgeous quilt can emerge.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Poem for Reformation Day

This Sunday, some of us will be celebrating Reformation Sunday. If you're a Lutheran, you're more likely to be celebrating than most, but all Protestants should celebrate. Of course, if Martin Luther hadn't broken away from the Catholic church, someone else would have. There was a lot of dissent when Luther nailed his theses to that Wittenberg door back in 1517, but Luther gets the credit for starting the Protestant Reformation.

Of course, I come from a long line of Lutherans, so I'm inclined to give him all the credit. I have other Protestant friends who scratch their heads and wonder how, exactly, Lutherans are that different from Catholics.

I spent years of my life in Confirmation class, so I could answer that question. But since this isn't my theology blog, I won't do that here.

Instead, I offer a poem for Reformation Day. It was written years ago, during another annoyingly hot October, where I thought about weather and social change--and this poem emerged. It appears in my chapbook. Enjoy!

Reformation Day

The catholic heat holds us
in a tight embrace for what seems an age.
We participate in the sacraments
designed to make us forget the hellishness
of everyday life: afternoons at the pool,
barbecues, beach trips, and for the fortunate few,
a trip to the mountains, a retreat, a pilgrimage.

We pay alms as we must: electric bills,
pool chemicals, cool treats. We pay indulgences
when we can’t avoid it: the air conditioning repair
man, the pool expert who keeps the water pure,
men versed in mysteries we cannot hope to understand.

Finally, the heat breaks. A cold front swoops
down upon us from the north country, a Reformation
bringing with it the promise of other Protestants,
more weather systems to overthrow
the ubiquitous heat, to leave
us breathless with the possibilities of change.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Seeing Barbara Ehrenreich

Last night, a few of us headed down to Books and Books in Miami to see Barbara Ehrenreich. I've been reading her work for most of my adult life. I think a lot of my fellow adults weren't aware of her until the publication of her amazing book, Nickel and Dimed, the book where she describes trying to live on the money earned in the types of jobs most likely to be held by women who recently left welfare behind.

As an undergraduate Sociology major (I doublemajored: Sociology and English) back in the mid-80's, I asked my wonderful favorite Sociology professor, Dr. McDonald, "Aren't there any female sociologists?" I'm pretty sure that he gave me one of Ehrenreich's books. I've been reading her ever since. I count her, along with Molly Ivins, as one of the writing voices that kept me sane during the Reagan years and the Bush years (father and son).

Now she's back with a book that looks critically at the American pop religion of positive thinking. At the reading last night, she described her experience with breast cancer and her increasing anger at being told to be cheerful and to imagine her immune system attacking the cancer cells. With her wry wit, she said, "I have a PhD in cellular immunology. I don't bring this up very often because it's rarely relevant, but in this case, it is. Your immune system is not going to attack the cancer cells. Your immune system is there to attack microbes, foreign invaders. Your immune system will not recognize the cancer cells as the enemy, because, frankly, they're you, part of your body."

She went on to talk about other areas where she's seen an increasing demand that we all be cheerful. She's especially critical of the Corporation, where we're not allowed to be negative at all. She succinctly summed up why this cult of positivity is dangerous: we delude ourselves about how bad life can be ("Cancer is not the best thing that ever happened to me, and if cancer is your idea of a gift, take me off your Christmas list"), we're mean to those of us who aren't curing their cancer or finding jobs with the power of positive thinking, and we don't work for the social change that would make us truly more cheerful and safe.

She didn't offer many solutions, but she did compare current citizens to the founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence and knew what they were risking (charges of treason, hanging, that sort of thing). She called for us to embrace courage, not positive thinking.

It was thrilling to see her, although the time she spoke was too short, and the audience members who asked questions tended to talk too much about themselves and never really ask a question. If you want a taste of her ideas, for your reading pleasure, go here for some great choices.

We headed down to Miami early, which we always do, since we can't ever count on traffic conditions. We planned to eat dinner at Books and Books, which we did. It was cool enough to eat in the glorious courtyard. At one point, I looked up and said, "When I was little, this is what I thought grown up life would be like." Unfortunately, my adult life is not like last night, not every night. But happily, I live in a place where I can see inspiring authors after an evening of great food, wine, and coffee. And if I had the energy and the money, I could have several evenings like that a week. I'm a lucky woman!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Promoting Poetry in Non-Poetry Classrooms

I've been catching up on blog reading, and I just came across this post where Sandy Longhorn mentions teachers who start or end every class with a poem (not their own), even non-literature classes. I might say especially non-literature classes.

I've often thought that if I go back to teaching Composition, I might try more of the exercises that I have my poetry classes do. It would be interesting to see if those exercises got the creative juices flowing for Composition students in different or similar ways to the tried-and-true exercises that I traditionally use in those classes (freewriting, brainstorming, clustering).

My Sociology friend went to a conference last week that was primarily peopled by English faculty from all over Florida. She was amazed at what those folks fought over. I saw a handout from someone who allows blogging in his classroom--as if this is such a shocking thing. She told me about the uproar that ensued when he admitted that he lets students use those e-mail/Twittering/instant messaging symbols, like lol, in their writing.

But when I looked at the handout, I saw that he was using the blog as an update on that old standby, the reading/writing journal. For at least 40 years now, Composition teachers, at least some of us, have allowed less formal writing (like those journals) in the classroom as a tool to lead people to more formal writing.

I remember years ago, in 1995, I ventured the opinion that actually writing a poem or a short story would help students learn about that art form in a way that writing analytical essays about them would not. I was the only creative writer in the room, and I'll never forget the look of horror on my colleagues' faces. I've gone on to experiment, and for some students, I was right.

Now I wonder about Composition. For most of us in the field, we'll be teaching far more sections of Composition than anything else, even if we're trained in literary fields. Could weaving poetry into Composition classrooms be constructive?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Pilgrimage to Stetson Kennedy's house

Last week-end, while visiting friends in Jacksonville, we made a pilgrimage to Stetson Kennedy's house. Most people haven't heard of Stetson Kennedy, which is a shame. He was a pioneering folklorist, and his most famous protege is perhaps Zora Neale Hurston (who had slipped into obscurity, before the efforts of Alice Walker and others to restore her reputation). Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Klan and unmasked them. He was a tireless Civil Rights worker, as you might expect from someone brave enough to expose the Klan. Woody Guthrie was a friend of Stetson's, and there is a room in this lakeside cabin that has Woody memorabilia.

Here's a view of the side of the cabin--lush beauty!

We saw this in the Woody Guthrie memorabilia room, and it looks like his style, but I can't guarantee it (the signature at the bottom makes me doubt myself, yet Seaman might be a Woody alias from when he served in the Merchant Marine). The rifle is labeled "race hate" and the tag line at the top says, "Now you just pull that trigger . . . "

Here I am, sitting at on the deck railing. I wish I had taken all the bulky stuff out of my pockets, but oh well. So I look like I have strange thighs. I still like the composition.

I love these mosaic birdhouses, which hang in the trees amidst the Spanish moss. Some day, I hope to use these in a poem. Or would this image make a good book cover?

Here's a plaque which commemorates what Woody Guthrie accomplished at Stetson's house.
(all photos taken by Carl Berkey-Abbott)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Of Air Conditioners and Leading Economic Indicators

Yesterday, I went to work early. The AC installers showed up early in the morning, and between having no AC in the house and construction noise, I decided that the office looked pretty good. I put on my work clothes and fled the house.

How wonderful to return home to cool air! We've had 15 consecutive days of highs in the 90's, with some of those days giving us record-breaking heat (94 degrees in Miami yesterday). When people used to ask me to tell what I thought the most important invention of the 20th century was, I would say, "The birth control pill. Or maybe penicillin." After the last few days, I might nominate air conditioning. I certainly don't understand how people lived down here before air conditioning (unless they spent summers elsewhere; six months of the year we have quite pleasant, mild weather down here).

Here's what I don't understand. The last time we bought an AC/heat system for a house was in 1994. The cost was the same in 1994 as we paid yesterday. There are probably some variations that I'm not calculating in, such as the electric company rebate and the programmable thermostat, which we didn't have in 1994. But still, how can the price be so similar? Is it because we're importing AC/heat units from China, and so therefore, the cost stays down? Is it because we're in an economic downturn now, so my AC company was desperate to sell me a unit? Is it because we've had fairly low rates of inflation during the past 15 years?

Last night, I read the owner's manual that came with the programmable thermostat, and I came across this sentence: "Adaptive Intelligent Recovery . . . allows the thermostat to 'learn' how long your furnace and air conditioner take to reach the temperature you want." I felt both touched and a bit freaked out--this idea that my appliances are learning about each other (cue music: "Getting to Know You").

My poetry brain is already at work with this idea.

I also return to the thoughts I heard long ago on an NPR program. Famous philosopher Daniel Dennett was on a program to talk about Artificial Intelligence. He said that he thinks that silicon based life forms (like computers) are eclipsing carbon based life forms (like you and me). Further, he said that computers are using humans to assist in the evolution of computers. The part of me that loves sci-fi was intrigued, and continues to be intrigued. The part of me that doesn't understand machines was horrified at the thought of enabling them to take over the world and enslave us.

I guess I shouldn't worry too much just because my thermostat is intelligent enough to sense the heating and cooling patterns of my AC/heat unit--still, it suggests to me that a brave new world is underway.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Record Breaking Heat and Discombobulation

Strange to think that this time yesterday, I was in South Carolina after a visit to my grandmother in Greenwood, and the day before that, in the mountains of North Carolina. It's always a bit disconcerting to me to cover such distances, either by plane or by car, in such short time. It takes me awhile to feel like I've collected myself.

Today it's more difficult. We return to record breaking heat (AGAIN!!! but global warming is a myth, of course--people who make that claim must live in cooler climes). Our AC, which was patched together to get us to tomorrow, when the new AC will be installed, is not working. It was 80 degrees outside at 5:30 a.m. this morning. Sigh.

Some day, when the house is cooler, I'll write more about my trip and our encounter with Stetson Kennedy (you don't know Stetson Kennedy? He was instrumental in unmasking the Klan in Florida and a friend of Woody Guthrie). Maybe I'll post a photo essay. Maybe we'll discover that we've gotten great photos of the mountains, but I'll save those for later.

Today, it's back to work, my longest work day of the week. At least I'll have air conditioning, as I try to adjust to being back from the mountaintop.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

This Blog Will Likely Be More Quiet for a Few Days

I'm likely to blog less over the next few days. I've got some autumnal visits with friends planned and a meeting to help plan the creativity retreat at Lutheridge in the spring (go here for more info on that retreat and then come join us--it's fun!). I expect to return to more regular blogging on Oct. 15.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Rearranging the Furniture of a Poem

The other night, a colleague and I were talking about the need for a Faculty Lounge, and where we might put it. She was great at taking a mental tour of the school and determining how to reconfigure what was there.

I've known for some time that I don't have that skill. Whenever we move, I know that if it's up to me, the furniture will stay wherever we first put it. Someone once asked me if I'd ever considered divorcing my husband, and I snorted. I said, "I can't even rearrange the furniture; I certainly couldn't manage the logistics of divorce divisions."

I think that I'm the same way with poems. I tinker with them as I'm writing them, but it's rare that I return and do massive revisions. A year ago, I was trying to get a few more formalist poems so that I'd have a manuscript to enter in a contest, so I revised about 20 free verse poems into poems that had more form. It was a fascinating experiment. I don't usually rip poems apart and stitch them back together that way.

Often, I'm not sure which version I like better. That's a drawback.

Sometimes, I'll work with a line or a word and come up with something that's stronger. But it's a scattershot approach. More often, I like what I wrote down just fine. And if I change a bit here or there, well, I like that just fine too.

I've noticed a dynamic in fiction writers' groups with which I've been involved. I've had writer friends who tinker and tinker and tinker. And often, the changes they make are lateral changes. They don't make the writing significantly better or worse, just different. And sometimes, not even that different.

Sometimes it's time for a poem to be done. Sometimes more work will help a poem. Alas, I'm not always sure I know in advance how my efforts will go.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Technology Fails Me Day

Yesterday was one of those days when I remember how much I rely on modern technology--I remember because it's not working. In the morning, I couldn't log on to my personal e-mail account, and in the afternoon, my work computer was held hostage to one of our security programs (the tech guys assure me it will be fixed today). I returned home to find out that at some point during the day, the AC stopped working.

Yes, on a day with record breaking heat (highs in the mid 90's, heat indexes of 105-110), we lost our AC. Hopefully, today, we'll find out that it's an easy fix, but it is an old system, so I'm prepared for the worst.

This morning reminds me of my summer of writing the first draft of my dissertation. We couldn't afford to run the AC, being poor graduate students, so I'd get up early to write in the cool of the morning. Back then, mornings were cool. This morning, the air is 80 degrees, with humidity of 86%. Unpleasant. Not Good Sleeping Weather.

It was interesting yesterday to be at work with no computer. I did what work I could the old-fashioned way--by making phone calls, writing some notes by hand, and reading books. Everyone I called said, "Could you send me an e-mail?" No, no I can't.

Then I started wondering how long I could go without reading that inbox of e-mails that was piling up. How long would it take before people realized that I no longer answered e-mail? That way madness lies, or unemployment, so I looked for something to occupy my time while I waited for the tech guys to fix my computer.

I hadn't written a poem since Sept. 6, so I thought, why not write a poem? I didn't feel particularly inspired, so I used a technique of Sandy Longhorn's (read about it here) which uses words from other poets and random generators to make pairs. I came up with some interesting combinations, something that might make good poems some day, but didn't lead me to a poem right away.

I played with some other ideas I had, about how we go to school to read great writers and then we end up spending our working lives reading really bad writing. I had Keats on the brain from seeing Bright Star on Sunday. I had an interesting swirl of a poem, but then I wondered, what would happen if I tried to transform this writing into a sonnet?

I must confess to being very pleased with the draft. I need to play with it a bit more before I send it out, and I tend to not post unpublished work on the blog--but if you want to see it, I'd be happy to e-mail you a copy. If you liked "Missing," you'd probably like my new sonnet.

I'm seeing a manuscript develop from poems that I've written that explore the shortcomings and frustrations of modern work life, especially from a woman's perspective. I wonder if the manuscript would be too depressing. But then I think of books like Deborah Garrison's A Working Girl Can't Win, and I'm determined to see where this leads me. How many books deal with the mid-life disappointments of working women? Working women without children?

I think of myself reading Keats yesterday, and a future scholar looking at the works I hope to have. What a strange combination: Jesus playing miniature golf, poems with nuclear themes, poems that explore work and school. Maybe during the next boring meeting that I must endure, I'll amuse myself by imagining a future graduate student writing a brilliant dissertation that explores my work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Something Wicked Goes Someplace Else

Today we will have heat indexes of 105 to 110. How can I prepare for Halloween with this kind of weather?

At this point, I'd settle for a subdued summer kind of vibe. Low humidity, temps in the upper 80's. I've grown used to that kind of burnished autumn. But we have high temps and high humidity--like August in much of the country (although not the August that much of the country had this year--how I envy those who had a cool, rainy summer!).

I'd quit whining about wanting cooler evenings if we could just have a bit of relief from swampy heat. I've grown resigned to never opening my windows again. I see no Canadian air masses headed our way.

Those of you with the more traditional autumnal weather: enjoy some for me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Requiem for "Gourmet" Magazine

You would think we would be used to the collapse of old media darlings. Still the news that Conde Nast will cancel Gourmet magazine came as a bit of a shock to me.

First, a confession. I was a Bon Appetit reader and subscriber back in the early 80's. My mom and I would buy individual copies in the grocery store, and after awhile, we realized it would be cheaper to just get a subscription.

A few years ago, I subscribed again. I was surprised by how few recipes remain in the magazine. Back in the early 80's, when I was a subscriber, there were more recipes than I would have time to try in a month. Decades later as a subscriber for a year, I think I tried 10 recipes--and let the subscription lapse.

Since I'm not a Gourmet reader, I can't analyze what went wrong. Or maybe there was nothing wrong with the magazine itself. Maybe Conde Nast just needed more profits than they were getting. With the explosion of recipes on the Internet, why would anyone need a magazine anymore?

We sometimes forget how much of the nation doesn't have access to high speed Internet. A lush magazine can be a way for people to learn to cook. I already had a head start on cooking before my first subscription to Bon Appetit, but the magazine opened my mind to all sorts of possibilities: savory cheesecakes, breads from around the world, all sorts of international dishes.

I feel both sad and guilty about the state of the magazine world. I feel sad, because so many magazines were so important to me as I grew up, and I know that they're likely to cease publishing in the near future. But I feel guilty, because I'm letting my subscriptions lapses. I have a huge pile of magazines, which I never seem to have time to read. I feel like I don't have the right to feel sad, if I'm not going to support these magazines. But I also hate spending money on something for which I no longer have time.

Perhaps this task is one of the primary ones for people at midlife. We have to look at what we've been doing and decide if it's worth continuing. We have to examine our values to see if they're still working for us.

And maybe, it's time to reclaim some of our youthful activities that brought us joy. I'm in one of those cooking slumps, where I feel like I make the same few dishes over and over again. Maybe I need to buy a cooking magazine and try something wildly outside of my comfort zone.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Bright Star"--If You're a Poet, an English Major, or a Lover of Lush Movies

Yesterday, I went to see Bright Star, the new movie about John Keats and Fanny Brawne. What a gorgeous movie--between the landscapes, the costumes, the language--just sumptuous.

The plot held me captive, even though I knew the ending. I had a similar moment to when I was watching a film version of Romeo and Juliet, that hope against hope that these crazy kids will find a way to be together. And I sobbed and sobbed when it didn't work out.

I've taught the poems of Keats and the biographical backstory for twenty years now, and somehow, I tend to forget about the real people who are there lurking in the story, the people who must deal with the devastating loss that follows a shattering love. This movie won't let you forget.

This movie will make you glad that you live in our century, with its medical developments that keep humans alive longer. But it also reminded me of the AIDS plague, which struck down so many artists before the development of protease inhibitors. It always amazes me to consider how many 19th century artists died of tuberculosis and other diseases which we can cure or control now.

I loved the movie for its insight into the creative process, although I wish the movie had focused more on that aspect than the doomed love. Keats credits his love for Fanny Brawne with his renewed writing spurt, and many literary scholars credit her for his late life masterpieces.

In some of the most evocative scenes, we do get to see him creating one of those masterpieces, "Ode to a Nightingale." And at the end, we get to hear the voice of Keats read the whole poem over the credits. Just beautiful.

I liked that Fanny is also shown as a creative type. She sews and creates all sorts of fashion designs that haven't been seen before.

When reading literary works from the nineteenth century or reading about pre-20th century life, I'm always struck by how incredibly difficult it was, unless you were the first born son into a well-to-do family. I complain about how my job, which is mostly administration, interferes with my creative life, but a movie like Bright Star reminds me that I'm lucky to have an income stream, so that I can focus on my art during my free time. And that movie reminds me of how fortunate I am to have free time, how easy it is to do tasks, like cooking and washing, that would have taken 19th century people at least 3 times as long as it takes me.

Bright Star is one of those movies that makes me happy to be an English major, for I suspect there were some visual bits of the movie that were more obvious to me than to someone who had never heard of Keats. Knowing the backstory also helped, I imagine. A thoroughly 21st century person wouldn't understand why Keats' poverty made it impossible for him to marry: of course you would marry and love would conquer all. Nineteenth century people were much more brutally realistic about that than we are.

Bright Star also has much to teach us about why we read poetry. Keats compares it to diving into a lake. You don't dive into a lake to analyze the lake or the experience. No, you dive into a lake so that you can luxuriate in the feeling of the water. His ideas seem quaint and ultra-modern at the same time.

But I'd watch this movie with the sound off, if I had to--that's how beautiful the movie is.

So, if you're looking for a way to open up poetry paths for your muse to wander down and meet you, I'd recommend this movie. If you need a reason to sob, I recommend this movie. If you're just interested in luxuriating in the lush landscapes, go see this movie.

After all, what are your alternatives? You already know what Michael Moore has to say. You saw Fame when it first came out 20 years ago. You're tired of horror movies that are violent in increasingly disturbing ways. The movies that are supposed to be comedies aren't.

Go see a movie by a talented female director who actually read biographies of Keats as she wrote the screenplay. Go see a movie that values poetry above all. Go see a movie that makes passion sexy and breathtaking--without any sex scenes.

The pop culture junk will still be there next week. But movies like Bright Star are rare.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Books: Obama's Pick vs. The Pick of the Blogosphere

While flying to the heartland last week, I read Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. I must confess that I hadn't heard of it, even though it won all sorts of awards, before President Obama read it. We were having some trouble coming up with a book for our book club, so I suggested this one. If it's good enough for the president . . .

At first, I liked the book, even though I skimmed over all the details about cricket. The book had some truly lyrical bits, like this one: " . . . we all find ourselves in temporal currents and . . . unless you're paying attention you'll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble" (64).

I was interested in the book because I thought it would be about the family of the main character, how the events of Sept. 11 pulled them apart and how they find their way back together. And in many ways, that's what the book is about. But most of the scenes revolve around the narrator and this shadowy Trinidadian character who plays cricket and introduces our narrator to the seamy underworld of New York City.

I wanted more details about how the narrator and his wife get back together. The book completely skips that part.

I confess that I have personal reasons for being interested, since I live in hurricane country and have had some scary glimpses of a possible hurricane-ravaged future. In 2005, we suffered 2 hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina did a fair amount of damage to South Florida before devastating New Orleans, and then once we got cleaned up from that event, Hurricane Wilma came through and wrought more damage. I saw relationships damaged because of these events, and the thought that damaged relationships can be repaired is one that modern literature/movies/music/pop culture doesn't address very often.

This book gives you no road map, and maybe there is no road map. Maybe people just have to muddle through and if they're lucky, they find themselves in the arms of loved ones again.

The ending of the book seems very subdued, especially compared to the explosive events that lead up to the end. I'm still puzzling over it.

Likewise, I'm also still thinking about the ending of The Unit, a book I first read about in several different blog entries, although I can only find one of the blog entries (go here for Karen's take on the novel). All the bloggers made comparisons to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, one of my all-time favorite books.

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist, shows us a future where non-essentials (people with no children) go to a huge institution when they turn 50. At first, it seems wonderful. People only work on what they want to work on (and most of them are artists), and everyone's needs are taken care of. Of course, there's a downside, and that is that these people are used in medical experiments (some non-harmful, but most with significant downsides) or have their organs harvested.

It's an interesting book about what makes people essential in a society. The ending is puzzling, and I continue to think about it. Unlike one blogger, whose entry I can't find these many months later, I didn't find the ending explosive or unforeseeable (although the event that propels the characters towards the ending did surprise me). But I thought the writer had gotten herself into a bit of a trap, and I couldn't figure out how she'd write herself out. I'm still not sure I'm satisfied with the ending, but it may have made the most sense in the world of the book.

I've come to enjoy, sort of, travelling by plane, even with all the indignities of lines and security requirements and seats that are too cramped, because I have long hours to read. It's often not as quiet as I would like (must we have CNN blaring at us from every angle?). But the joy of a good book is that I can submerge myself in a different world. And the joy of an extended reading period is to remind myself that I can still do this. After several days at work, I lose my ability for long, close focus that reading requires. Happily, at this point, my ability to read a book comes back quickly. I live in fear of losing that capacity.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Assessment and "Community"

My school is currently doing all sorts of assessment. We're assessing individual classes, whole departments and programs, both academic programs and other types of programs (student services, finances . . . ) across the campus. We're preparing for visits from accreditors, and we have to be super-ready.

Sometimes we lose sight of why we're doing this. Sometimes, our assessment processes seem like a series of extra work burdens on an already harried workforce.

Last night's episode of "Community" reminds us of why assessment is important. The students on the show have a teacher who fashions himself after John Keating, the charismatic teacher in Dead Poets Society. Students stand on their desks (and one topples off, in a funny moment). For homework, they have to swim in a lake and tell 10 people that they love them. The teacher tells one of the main characters that he'll fail the class if he doesn't live in the present moment.

But why do they do this? What is the point? There seems to be no point, other than the doing of it, the seizing of the day. But this class isn't a class in carpe diem. One assumes that the class has some sort of academic subject--probably English. But do the students write about their efforts? Not that we see. How does the teacher judge the swimming in the lake? How does he know that the students have told 10 people of their love?

He can't. It's an easy A class. Somehow, we're supposed to laugh at this? But again, I return to my point. There's some academic subject, most likely Composition, that's being shortchanged. At least John Keating actually taught his students something beyond the need to seize the day. He taught them about poetry and made them write. The teacher in Community just gives students assignments that may force them to move beyond their comfort point, but doesn't ever come to a point of any learning.

I hope that people at the Department of Education don't watch and think that's really how we run things--we'll be stuck with a No Child Left Behind for college students in short order, if that's the case.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Autumn Falls

All my Florida Facebook friends are talking about an autumnal coolness. Could it be? Have we really had our first cold front pass through? Let me open the front door to find out!

Hmmm. An equal mix of happiness and disappointment. Yes, it's slightly cooler. But that means 77 degrees at 5:30 in the morning, not our 85 degrees that's been our regular low for about 3 months now. It's certainly not the autumnal chill I felt in Indiana a few days ago. Of course, my husband's Indiana relatives confess that they no longer get any enjoyment out of autumn because they so dread the Indiana winters.

At least I won't be shoveling snow soon.

I remember when we first moved down here, we rented part of a triplex. One September morning I came outside for my morning run, and my landlady, who lived in one of the other parts of the triplex, was enjoying her morning cigarette. She smiled at me and said, "The weather is changing. Can you feel it?"

I had to confess that I didn't. She said, "It's subtle. Once you've lived down here awhile, you'll see it."

I've lived here since 1998, and I'm still surprised at how subtle the change is. September rushes by with no sort of weather markers at all, so I'm often still thinking that it's summer.

So, now October arrives, and I've done none of what I think of as my autumnal publishing tasks. Often, I've spent the month of August addressing envelopes and getting manuscripts ready. Often on the first of September, I have sent huge piles of poetry packets off to periodicals.

Not this year. I've been working on my paper on To Kill a Mockingbird, so that's taken up much of my creative energy. And we've travelled. Plus, I always forget how much time the last several weeks of a quarter consumes.

But now it's time to get back on track. Let's make a list here, and on Nov. 1, we'll see what I was able to accomplish:

--Submit book-length manuscript to at least 2 publishers.

--Get handwritten poems for next book-length manuscript typed into the computer. I've already chosen them from my poetry notebooks. This task will be good for the days when my creative energy is low and also good for the days when my organizational energy is low (I need lots of organizational energy to send poetry packets to journals).

--Get back to writing poems; I last wrote a poem on Sept. 1. Let's set this bar low. I'd be happy if I could write a poem or two a week.

--Make submissions to journals and periodicals.

In the past, my goal has been to do something--anything--each day to move me closer to my goal of being a published poet. I've done best with this least rigid goal. Even if I only have 15 minutes, I can do something simple, even if it's as simple as putting stamps on envelopes or typing up a poem I've written.

So, welcome to October. Perhaps I will make a pot of broccoli-cheddar cheese soup and some pumpkin bread and dream of cooler weather. Or maybe we'll grill burgers, the only food I seem to be craving these days (yes, my inner vegetarian is horrified!). But I will return to my poetry self. I've been missing that girl!