Monday, November 23, 2009

If You Need a Thanksgiving Escape

On my ever-growing list of technology things to conquer, I've now begun to ponder making my poems into videos. Sandra Beasely has created an inspiring pair of posts on animating poems: part 1 is here and part 2 is here. Would my creations be something akin to trailers promoting a larger book? Or would they be a separate art form? When I started blogging, I thought of it as a promotional tool. Now I've come to think of it as its own form of justifiable writing.

Of course, maybe creations can have more than one purpose.

Or maybe you want to create soul cards. Both Sandy Longhorn (here) and Kelli Russell Agodon (here) have written posts that make me want to rip up my magazines.

While you're at Sandy's site, check out her list of inspiring quotations here.

Things to ponder as we start the great feast preparations . . .

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Forecast: Blogging Will Decrease

We've got 3 toddlers in the family this year, so I'm not sure what my blogging time will be in the coming week, as Thanksgiving approaches. I plan to dance wildly around the living room, go to playgrounds, color pictures, tell stories about the old woman who lived in a firehouse, and see the world through pairs of less judgmental eyes. Plus, there's all that eating to do! I plan to return to regular blogging on December 1, 2009.

Other Ways to Support Poetry with Your Gift Giving Dollars

As we think about our favorite books and chapbooks to give to others, let's not forget about other ways we can support poetry with our gift giving dollars:

--Give a subscription to a magazine or journal. I'm not going to make a list with this one. You know the ones you like. You know the ones you wish would publish your work. Do an act of good poetry karma and actually subscribe, if not for yourself, for someone else (and maybe they'll let you take a look!).

--Give a donation to a magazine or journal in the name of your loved one. Maybe your loved one is like me: my stack of magazines waiting to be read includes material from the spring. I feel guilt over the fact that I don't make time to read them. But magazines and journals need money, and I'm sure they'd take a donation.

--Likewise, you could donate to your public radio station, if you're blessed to have a good one. My local station, which is fairly huge, not only delivers great national programming, but does some local programming too, and they devote considerable time to the arts.

--Donate to other organizations that support the arts. Maybe you've got a local television station or radio station or newspaper/magazine which regularly supports the arts. Let them know that you appreciate it. While you're at it, make some suggestions about how they can make poetry more visible. Suggestions that come with a donation might be taken seriously (make sure to put your contact info on any communication).

--If you've come out of a great school program, donate back to it, in the name of your loved ones. You probably got some assistance, and now is a great time to give back to the community. This idea applies to more than just the MFA graduates. I got my first real non-family encouragement for my writing during undergraduate school, from my English professors to my school's newspaper. I suspect that in this time of shrinking budgets, any gift would be welcome.

--Shop at your local independent bookstore. Even if you're shopping for non-readers, you'll find all sorts of stuff there: notecards, coffee mugs, calendars, music, DVDs, magnets, edibles, shopping bags, and the like. If you don't have a local independent bookstore, shop online. Some of my favorite independents: Books and Books in Miami, Malaprops in Asheville, Charis Books in Atlanta, Women and Children First in Chicago, and Davis-Kidd Booksellers across Tennessee.

--If you're giving a gift to a poet, why not give a gift certificate to enter a contest? Most contests don't have a real certificate you can buy, but you can make one. Most contests don't cost more than $25, but many poets don't enter, because lots of fees can be prohibitive. Or give a writer the gift of a conference. These fees can be prohibitively expensive for the national conferences, but across the country, there are lots of local conferences.

As I've said before, I've moved away from gift giving, at least to first world people. I'd much rather support the third world with my extra dollars. But I know that not every family works that way or would accept my social justice stance. So, if you can't support those who have nothing, you can do next best, and support poets and the poetry economy!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chapbooks Make Great Stocking Stuffers

I've been a fan of chapbooks, even before Pudding House published mine. I love their length--it's long enough to cover a theme, but not so long to be overwhelming. I love the fact that they can be made cheaply or in a gorgeous edition. I love the fact that anyone could make one. They appeal to my inner punk-do-it-yourself girl. In fact, if you can't afford presents this year, why not make some chapbooks of your own work?

Long ago, when I first went to graduate school, grad students had several old mimeograph machines that we could use. Those of you who are old enough might remember that purple fluid and that intoxicating smell. As I learned to operate it, and I thought of an older generation of students who had spread their revolution with machines like these (I was in grad school in the late 80's and early 90's), I thought, wow, now I can control the means of production. Little did I know what was waiting for us just around the corner, with cheaper computing and photocopying.

So, even if you're not sure that the people on your gift list will like a full length book of poems, why not give them a chapbook? That way you can still support the poetry economy.

Here are some of my more recent favorites:

Stealing Dust by Karen J. Weyant

For the readers on your list who love literature of the working class. In many ways, a wonderful elegy for the lost manufacturing infrastructure. (Finishing Line Press 2009)

Passage to America by Elisa Albo

Wonderful poems about the Cuban-American experience. "How to Make a Raft" is one of my favorite poems about immigration and the risks we take for freedom. (March Street Books 2006)

Another Circle of Delight by Rachel Dacus

A wide range of poems that made me think about my body in whole new ways. (Small Poetry Press 2007)

Oh Forbidden by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Untitled sonnets of longing and desire. Very sexy, very physical. (Pecan Grove Press 2005)

237 More Reasons to Have Sex by Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh

The subject matter is clear from the title, but the whimsy is unexpected and delightful. (Otoliths 2009)

A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland by Jessica Goodfellow

This is the book for the astronomers and mathematicians on your list. (Concrete Wolf 2006)

The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald by John Guzlowski

Guzlowski is my favorite poet exploring World War II and the concentration camp/displaced persons experience. (Finishing Line Press 2007)

Something to Read on the Plane by Richard Allen Taylor

Taylor does a wonderful job at capturing regular, every day life and helping us to remember why we should appreciate it. (Main Street Rag 2004)

Oyl by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton

Fun with popular culture! (Pearl 2000)

Little Novels by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton

For the English majors on your list--they'll enjoy these revisitations of classic works. (Pearl 2002)

Waiting for Pentecost by Nancy Craig Zarzar

Wonderful poems about all sorts of outsiders. (Main Street Rag 2007)

Dating the Invisible Man by Gwen Hart

Intriguing poems about relationships, with some pop culture references threading through. (The Ledge Press 2005)

Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum? by Nin Andrews

For all the teachers on your list, who will recognize all the notes in this collection. (Subito Press 2008)

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

I still enjoy the poems in my chapbook, poems which explore how we live with the knowledge that all we love will be lost. If you want an autographed copy, I'd be happy to take your orders starting on December 1; my book only costs $8.95 if you order from me (which is cheaper than if you order from the publisher). I'll even throw in shipping! Unlike Amazon, I won't make you order $25 worth of books before I ship for free.

Tomorrow: Other gifts that could support the poetry economy

Friday, November 20, 2009

Books with a Spine for Your Holiday Shopping Pleasure

We all know that the economy is bad, bad, bad--or at least, the unemployment rate and the news from the housing market is enough to frighten my inner Apocalypse Gal. And now, the holidays approach. In one week, some of us might be lined up outside of stores to get the best deals. Some of us can hardly afford that (or tolerate the crowds at Christmas). What should we do?

You might adopt the approach of my family. We all own more stuff than we can use, and we really don't desire more (I'm speaking of the grown ups here). Each year at Thanksgiving, one of us chooses a charity, and we donate to that charity instead of giving gifts to each other.

If you really want your charity dollars to go far, give to the developing world. If you want to read more about that idea, see my post here.

One year, before my family adopted the charitable giving idea, we made the rule that no gift could cost over $10. That was interesting. We've also had fun with the homemade gift idea.

But in this time of struggle, particularly for non-profits and arts organizations, why not support poetry with your holiday gift giving dollars?

Today, I offer a list of books of poems for everyone on your list (this idea is not original to me, of course. I first saw Jeannine make a similar list here, which inspired me to start thinking in this direction, once I started blogging). I've tried to choose books that I've held in my hands during the past year, but I didn't limit myself to books that have been published in the past year. I tried to choose books from small presses and/or books from poets who aren't as famous nationally as other poets. In other words, Billy Collins is probably doing just fine, so why not support others? I also tried to choose poets that non-poetry readers were likely to enjoy.

I thought about including a quote from each book, but that would have made this post impossibly long. Many websites, either author websites or publisher websites, will offer a sample of the work.

What Feeds Us by Diane Lockward

Luscious poems about food and all the other things which nourish us. I devoured this volume in one big gulp, and came back for seconds. (Wind 2006)

Small Knots by Kelli Russell Agodon

A great series of poems about breast cancer makes up the last third of this book. The profound poems in the first part of the book explore other aspects modern life. (WordTech, Cherry Grove imprint 2004)

National Anthem by Kevin Prufer

This apocalyptic collection is full of haunting images, dark and strange. I returned to this volume again and again this past year. (Four Way Books 2008)

The Freedom Business by Marilyn Nelson (poems) and Deborah Dancy (art)

What an interesting artifact! This book contains the slave narrative written by Venture Smith in 1795, poems by Marilyn Nelson that were inspired by the narrative, and Deborah Dancy’s art that responds to the poems. (Wordsong 2008)

Geometry of Dreams by Barbra Nightingale

This is the book for the mathematicians and physicists on your list. The sonnet cycle that concerns the death of the ex-husband should have wide appeal for all of us who have lost loved ones. (WordTech 2009)

Ka-Ching! by Denise Duhamel

Poems about money and economics—just the right note (often a funny note) for these hard times. (University of Pittsburgh Press 2009)

Kinky by Denise Duhamel

For every reader who has ever loved a Barbie doll. (Orchises 1997)

Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Gailey explores all sorts of female icons in all sorts of pop culture: fairy tales, mythology, comic books, video games, and film. What a treat! (Steel Toe Books 2006)

Blue Positive by Martha Silano

A wonderful look at modern motherhood and what it means to be female now. (Steel Toe Books 2006)

Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds by Eleanor Lerman

Great poems about surviving the cold war, as well as surviving the horrors of mid-life and old age. (Sarabande 2005)

Theories of Falling by Sandra Beasley

The Allergy Girl series of poems changed the way I see the world and reminded me to be grateful of the smallest thing, like the ability to take a breath. (Western Michigan University Press 2008)

Native Guard by Natasha Trethaway

For the reader who loves Civil War history. Or for those of us who miss our moms. (Mariner 2006)

Figure Studies by Claudia Emerson

Another book for those who love history entwined with their poems. An intriguing exploration of gender runs throughout the book, but I won’t soon forget her technique of using an imaginary boarding school for girls. (Louisiana State University Press 2008)

No Sweeter Fat by Nancy Pagh

For every woman who struggles with body image issues (that would be almost all of us, right?), especially those of us who tend towards heaviness. (Autumn House 2007)

Cadaver Dogs by Rebecca Loudon

Poems of strange surrealness and beauty. (No Tell Books 2008)

Harlot by Jill Alexander Essbaum

For the reader who likes the sacred and the profane mixed in one poem. (No Tell Books 2007)

Modern Life by Matthea Harvey

For those who love wordplay. These 2 series will change the way you view the abecedarian: The Future of Terror/Terror of the Future. (Graywolf 2007)

Torched Verse Ends by Steven D. Schroeder

Another book for readers who like an acerbic look at modern existence: robots and personality tests and life in the office. Also the book for those who love wordplay. (BlazeVOX 2009)

The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale by W. T. Pfefferle

Men hit midlife too. An interesting experiment in telling a longer narrative in linked poem format. (NFSPS Press 2006)

The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn

A book for the reader who loves all things Asian. Also great for those who want to explore the zuihitsu form. Or for those of us who deal with the juxtaposition of being a daughter and a mother. (W. W. Norton 2006)

Keeping My Name by Catherine Tufariello

For your readers who like formalist poetry. Tufariello covers all sorts of interesting topics, from student leaders of the White Rose movement to women in the Bible to in vitro fertilization.

Prairie Fever by Mary Biddinger

Stunning Images and zinging language. (Steel Toe Press 2007)

Saving Daylight by Jim Harrison

Strong, savage poems full of wilderness. (Copper Canyon 2007)

Tomorrow: Chapbooks make good stocking stuffers!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lists, Links, and Literary Inspirations

One last thought about my Tuesday night reading: one of my friends was there, and as I finished reading a poem, she made that happy gasp that she makes when she's especially pleased with something. It was only later that I thought, I've heard her make that noise when we've been to a Shakespeare production and when she heard the lines of Keats during Bright Star. And she just made that same sound and did that same hand gesture over my poem. My poem!!

I know that those of you who are non-poets might not understand the thrill. But poets get so little in the way of rewards. Our books of poems won't be made into movies, and we aren't likely to get a multi-million dollar book contract. The general population tends to think that poets are moody and strange, unlike other writers. I'll hang on to the thrill of seeing my poem inspire the same happy gasp that Shakespeare and Keats get from my friend.

Today, during my day of long meetings (you know the kind--if they're merely boring, you feel like you've gotten off lucky), I'll remember that moment. I'll also daydream about being named Poet Laureate (I'd rather be a Supreme Court Justice, but they must endure much on-job boredom too, I imagine). I'll wish fervently that I could be a National Book Award winner, once I have a book with a spine.

I won't daydream about being on the Publisher's Weekly Top 10 or Top 100 list, since I'm female, and their recent lists didn't include one female. I know that many people are creating their own lists, and I thought I might do that too. I've bought a lot of volumes of poetry in the past year, after all. But when I looked at them, I was astonished at how few of them were published in the past year. I shouldn't be surprised. I'm always a year or two or three behind on my reading, my CD listening, movies . . . and don't even talk to me about clothes fashion.

So, here's what I've decided to do. Over the next few days, I'll post recommendations to add to your holiday shopping list. What do you get for the person who has everything? Poetry, of course.

I've noticed lots of good blog posts out there this week, so for your immediate reading pleasure, here are some links:

Sandy writes a post about those lists and closes with a wonderful Emily Dickinson poem--short enough to memorize. Maybe that's what I'll do during boring meetings: memorize poems. I used to think I would write sonnets, but I can't always do that unobtrusively.

Kelli writes a post about getting a speeding ticket and finding gratitude--and about being reminded to slow down and to stay in the current moment. I've been working towards a similar experience as I open bills for insuring my property and paying property taxes and figuring out how to afford a new roof--I'm trying to focus on staying grateful for the fact that I have a roof, when so many people have no home at all.

If you enjoy interviews with poets, Serena Agusto-Cox interviews Temple Cone both here and here. Temple Cone says that when he's asked what he does, he answers simply, "I'm a poet." He doesn't qualify by talking about his work as a professor. When people ask how he lives on that, he says, "Prize money." He lets them think they've just met a very important poet, and he says, "And who knows, maybe they’ll look me up." The whole interview is full of wonderful nuggets like that one.

Reb Livingston writes a post about a virtual walking poetry tour (neat idea!) and remembers a fascinating, funny encounter with an all night palm reader.

Mary writes a post about eating Halloween candy to keep from losing 5 pounds every 2 weeks.

Now, there's a fantasy for people like me. I've always had the opposite problem. I could easily gain 5 pounds every 2 weeks, if I wasn't careful.

So, it's off to work, where I'll sit through meetings and daydream about being the Poet Laureate who can eat as many sweets as she likes and never gain weight--all the while making readers gasp in happiness as they read my poems.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reading Report

Last night's reading was a fabulous experience. Before the reading, I met the organizer, Barbra Nightingale, and one of the other poets, Mia Leonin, for dinner. I decided to steer clear of wine and heavy food, since I didn't want to risk feeling sleepy later, so I had a big salad (and spent the rest of the night worrying that I'd have a speck of greenery in my teeth and not realize it, even though I checked and doublechecked). We had great conversation about poetry and balancing one's life as a poet, a teacher, and a family member.

Then we headed over to Broward College, where poet Michael Cleary was waiting for us. The Hannah Kahn Poetry people really know how to put on a reading: great refreshments, great publicity, great mood.

We attracted a good crowd, which was a pleasant surprise. Down here, the last two weeks have left us saturated with reading events, because of the Miami Book Fair, so I worried that people might be too exhausted to attend. A lot of my work colleagues made the trek to a different campus, but the biggest surprise was the amount of students. Granted, I suspect that most of them attended because they got extra credit, but they were attentive and took notes (again, I suspect they didn't get extra credit without some kind of write up, but I appreciated their attention).

Afterwards, we mingled and signed books and chatted. One young student came up and asked if she could have her picture made with me because she had enjoyed my poems--wow! No one has ever asked for that before. We also had a student selling the books, which was unusual for me. Usually, my dear, sweet husband takes care of that.

Last night was another one of those satisfying nights when I said to myself, "Wow, this evening matches the vision I had for myself when I thought of being a poet."

I tend to think of being a poet as akin to being an opera singer: my art is an acquired taste that I don't expect most people to have or want to acquire. So I'm doubly pleased when I see a room of people new to poetry who might have a taste of poems they would like. Having a reading with 3 poets seems a perfect set up to me: we had a variety of poetry and a variety of reading styles.

Even within our individual readings, we had variety. Poet Mia Leonin read both poems and a piece of her memoir. I read from my modern work life series and also from my chapbook. I think I planned that right. The work life poems can be dark, and I worried about reading them with so many of my work colleagues there, who might assume I'm deeply unhappy. Plus, there were lots of students, and I don't want to be the one who discourages them. Then I read from my chapbook, where the poems are more hopeful, and I read some of the more whimsical ones. I ended with "Rainy Redemption," one of the more hopeful poems, and I'm posting it below, in case you need a shot of hope into your November day:

Rainy Redemption

She told us the X-ray showed a black
spot on her lung. We assumed the cancer harbored
in her breast had set on an odyssey
for new land, and when we didn’t see her
again, we assumed the worst.

Three years later, the flowers bloomed in their annual
tribute to spring, and I saw
her in a parking lot. At first, I thought I saw a ghost, but I held her fleshly
form, still sapling-thin, and knew she had returned,
Lazarus-like, to live among us again.

Our culture focuses on the lost, the missing
in action, but we forget the world commits
to resurrection and reunion. The twig of a tree
sends sap to its tips, the crispy lawn returns
to a life filled with chlorophyll, muscles
wait for the mind to remember what they never forgot,
each generation resurrects the music of its elders,
babies look towards the sky for the familiar
face of the missing parent, history holds
us in its hands and offers rainy redemption.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I'm Reading Poems Tonight--Come Join Me!

Just a reminder that if you're in the South Florida area and need a Tuesday night outing, I'll be one of three poets reading their poems tonight. The reading starts at 7:30 in the Southern Breezes Cafe of Broward College (the South campus, 7200 Pines Boulevard in Pembroke Pines). The Southern Breezes Cafe is on the east side of the campus (the public library branch is on the west side of the campus). The reading is free, of course, but books will be available for sale.

I've decided to take a risk and read some of the poems from my Office Life in America series; my poem, "Missing," is part of that series (go here to read it). But I worry that an entire reading from that series might be too relentlessly grim, so I'll close with some of the more uplifting poems from my chapbook.

One of my chapbook length manuscripts that I created during my Mepkin Abbey retreat consists primarily of the Office Life in America series of poems. I worried a bit that the collection would be too grim (although thematically, that could work, depending on your view of modern office life), so I tried to mix in some whimsical poems and some poems that have some humor, even if it's dark humor. I tried to stick to that approach when preparing for the reading tonight.

I have so many chapbook manuscripts that it becomes hard to know which to submit. I've always delighted in assembling the chapbook manuscript. I've noticed that several of those chapbook manuscripts seem to be chapters in a series--which makes book-length assembly that much more easy.

But before there are manuscripts there are individual poems and the joys of a poem reading. I hope to see you tonight!

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Kathleen Norris Teaches Writers

Going to Mepkin Abbey always makes me ponder the long, strange, winding ways that brought me there. One of the main motivators was the books of Kathleen Norris, particularly The Cloister Walk. At my theological blog, I wrote a post about her books from the point of view of how they contributed to my spiritual life. But she also helped me think about what it means to be a writer.

I hadn't ever thought much about the emerging genre of creative nonfiction before I read her books. I hadn't ever read much in the field of the modern essay before I read her work. Her work included journal entries and meditations on the weather report. Her work explored her writing and her return to church and her return to small town life on the prairie. Some of her essays were long and structured. Some seemed more like snippets. I read her books and said, "You mean I can do this?"

Her works also made it clear that the modern writer did a variety of things, some for pay, and some for love. She traveled to be a poet in the public schools. She filled in as a preacher for one of her churches when the circuit rider preacher couldn't get there. Her husband, also a poet, served as a bartender, among other jobs. She helped mobilize her Plains community to deal with the fallout of the farm crisis of the 80's.

Her life and writing made it clear that a writer should be out in the world, to be part of the world--so unlike the model offered by an older generation of writers, who somehow managed to support themselves from their writing alone. I also liked the model of the author as magpie writer, exploring the topics which held current interest to the author. I liked the variety of forms that she embraced: poetry, memoir, journalism. These days, I like the fact that I can dip in and out of her books. There's an essay of any length for whatever amount of time I have.

I know I'm not the only frazzled reader who copes with having varying amounts of time (most of it much too short!) to read. I use Kathleen Norris as a model as I blog. On days when I can only muster a paragraph or two, I think of those readers who only have a gasp of time. I know that days will come when I can write more--and hopefully, when we all can read more.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

More Ways to Promote Our Work

I've been reading a great interview: Maud Newton interviews the writer Stephen Elliot here (and thanks to Leslie for the original link, here on her blog). I'm always on the lookout for ways both old and new to promote poetry, and Elliot has some good ones.

He had a great idea for getting his work into the hands of readers who would then get his work into the hands of other readers: "Prior to the book coming out I did this thing called the “Lending Library,” where I allowed anyone who wanted to read an advance copy of the book to get one. The deal was they had to agree to forward the book within a week to the next reader. 400 people signed up for the lending library."

What a great idea for those of us (which is most of us) who don't get many free copies to give away.

This idea led to his next great idea, a variation of the book promotion tour: "So when I decided to go on tour I contacted them [the people who signed up for the Lending Library] and asked if anyone wanted to host a reading or an event in their home. I said they had to promise to get at least 20 people to attend. A bunch of people signed up, and more people are signing up all the time."

He talks about how effective this process has been, in terms of attendance at his readings: "In every town I read there is someone who is responsible for the reading, someone who will be embarrassed if nobody shows up. Also, if there’s demand, I can do two or three home events in the same town. I could never do that if I was reading in a local bookstore. I’m not a famous author; for me to get 25 to 40 people out in Lincoln, Nebraska or Las Vegas or New Orleans, places where I don’t know anyone, is a really good turnout. The people hosting the events also often convince the local media to do coverage of the event. Also, the readings go much longer, the discussions often go past midnight, so there’s a much deeper connection."

Does this attendance lead to book sales? It depends: "I find book sales are more class based. The readings are a reflection of whoever’s home I’m in. If the person is more affluent than many of their friends will be more affluent and I’ll sell more books. I had an event where I sold more books than people in attendance. People with money will come to a reading and buy extra books to give as presents. In other places, where the average income is much lower, I sell a lot fewer books."

The whole interview is worth reading, but I always love interviews with writers. I especially love hearing about different approaches to writing, and about different approaches to promoting writing and reading. I've long thought that promoting one's writing, particularly one's poetry, is becoming more like being an indie music artist: the poet has to be the one to arrange the tour, figure out how to keep the van running, find a couch to sleep on, think in terms of connections across the country.

It wouldn't hurt to start thinking about these logistics before the book comes out. Many small presses have a very long turn-around time between acceptance and publication, but even those of us still waiting for a press to accept our book-length works might benefit from some thinking about this question: If you had a book length collection of your poems in your hand, what would you do to make sure that the world knew about your book?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Blog Anniversaries and Book Sales

Yesterday at work, I helped a friend and colleague get a blogsite set up--an appropriate activity as I approach the one year anniversary of starting my blogs (Nov. 12 for my Theology blog and Nov. 17 for this blog). It was also about one year ago that I created a website.

I'd been meaning to create a website for years, and I'd been longing to create a blog for almost that long. I had all the regular worries: being the victim of some strange cyberstalker, posting things that would embarrass me later, never being able to get a job again. So far, none of my fears have come to pass. On the contrary, it's been an overwhelmingly positive experience: I've written more than I ever would have thought possible, I've trained myself (again) to observe the fine textures of daily life, I've made connections with poets and other writers I admire.

Plus, I've learned new skills: how to work a digital camera and how to use blog/website creation tools.

Before creating my own blogs and websites, I thought about websites and blogs primarily as a tool to promote writing that I had already done. I wanted to create a website so that when I have a book-length collection of poems published, I have some promotion architecture already in place.

I didn't think about how much blogging would prompt me to write anew. There's not only the blog post itself, but the ideas that I capture and sometimes return to, as I write poems. There are the goals that I post, and the entries where I assess how I'm doing.

I have promotion on the brain, as I prepare my book-length manuscript to send to WordTech Communications. I really like their books, and their reading period is now open. They expect to sell 250 copies of a book within the first year, and they expect writers to promote their books.

I have no problem with that. When Pudding House published my chapbook, I did everything I could to promote that book, and I sold almost 100 copies through my efforts that first year. That was before I had a blog or a website. My secret weapon? My mother's Christmas card list. The same people who sent me graduation presents and wedding presents were willing to buy my book!

I think that blogsites can work similarly. I've bought many books of poetry because I like the blog of the writer. The blog can introduce poems, and the same themes that run through poems are likely to run through a blogsite. A website is a good spot to collect all the relevant information, but I don't find an artist's voice shines through in a website, the way it does in a blog.

I love being a poet because I have all sorts of ways of getting my poetry out into the world, and reaching new potential readers. A few weeks ago, a harpist that I met at an artist's retreat at Lutheridge (the Create in Me retreat) called to ask if she could use one of my poems as her Christmas card. I happily agreed, as long as she provided my contact information so that her Christmas card list could be in touch with me, if they were interested in knowing more about my work.

The monks at Mepkin Abbey have notecards for sale. I wonder how much it would cost to create some sort of artwork that featured my poem and have a notecard created. Hmmm. Something else to sell at poetry readings. I've read about visual artists who have much, much cheaper prints and cards to sell, since most of us can't afford the original painting.

Happily, most people can still afford a book of poems. But there are so many other ways to reach readers. Some cost only time, like blogging. Others require more of a financial investment. I wonder what else is out there that I haven't thought about or tried yet.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Back from Retreat, Plunging into Regular Life (and a Poetry Reading!)

Today is my long day at work, so I'll wait for a different day to write a meditative essay about Mepkin Abbey. I had a successful writer's retreat. On the 10 hour drive up to Mepkin Abbey, I figured out which poems I'll be reading at Broward College on Tuesday, November 17--if you're in the South Florida area, come join us! I'll be reading with two other poets. The reading starts at 7:30 in the Southern Breezes Cafe of Broward College (the South campus, 7200 Pines Boulevard in Pembroke Pines). It's hard for me to realize that we're really this far along into November, so it was good to have time to think about that poetry reading.

I got to Mepkin Abbey before my friends, so I just sat for awhile on the porch. I reveled in the fact that I heard no traffic noise, aside from the occasional car. I listened to birds and the breeze. It was delightful.

One of my friends asked me if I couldn't do that in my own backyard. No, I really can't. If I sit in my backyard, I hear the heavy construction vehicles that are building an elementary school. I hear non-stop traffic noise and thumping car stereos. I hear a variety of neighbors, some of whom have moved their stereos and televisions into the yard. It is never quiet enough to hear the breeze.

I took several folders of poetry--literal folders of poems on paper, not computer files. I figured out the order of several manuscripts I've been wanting to create: two chapbooks and one full-length manuscript. I figured out possible titles. It was wonderful.

I wrote in my journal--my real, paper journal, which I've somewhat neglected as I've been blogging more and more. It was fabulous.

I've wondered what accounts for my productivity, and I have to assume it's because I had such few distractions. I didn't have to think about food preparation/clean up or shopping. I didn't have to go to work. I didn't have a computer, television, radio, or any other electronics.

There's a natural rhythm to life in an abbey or monastery--it's set up that way. There are certain hours for prayer and worship, certain hours for sleep, certain hours for eating, certain hours for work, and certain hours for reading and study. And since everything is on site, it leads to more productivity. There's no driving to work, to church, to school, to the library. Certainly there's some driving, as the monks don't raise all their food. But much of the busy rushing to and fro isn't part of the monk's life.

When I visit, I fall right into the natural rhythm. In some ways, I feel more wrenched as I return to regular life, with the noise and the traffic and the work crises that must be addressed. Some people have asked me if it wouldn't be easier if I didn't make these periodic retreats. After all, I wouldn't have the re-entry-to-regular-life process to endure. But I can't imagine how burned out I would be in short order if I didn't make periodic retreats and vacations. Actually, I can imagine, and that's why I make the effort.

Friday, November 6, 2009

This Blog Will Be Quiet for a Week

I'm off to Mepkin Abbey for a writer's retreat with some old female friends (they're not old, we've just been friends for almost two decades). We'll see if praying the Psalms with the monks helps me with poetry writing. I also hope to assemble a manuscript or two. But mostly, I need quiet time for reflection. I need natural beauty and autumnal coolness and long walks. I need the Liturgy of the Hours. I'm off! I plan to be back to regular blogging in one week. (the above picture was taken at Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp in North Carolina, but it captures the spirit of Mepkin Abbey nicely, so I'm using it).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Prose Shakespeares and Life at Work

I thought I might post a photo today. When I went out very early for a run, I gasped in surprise. There was the beautiful full moon, in a silvery blue sky, with a huge ring around it. The ring was so big that I wasn't sure I'd be able to capture it on film (but it's a digital camera--what's the term for that? capture in pixels?).

By the time I got back, the ring was gone, so we'll never know. However, the experience reminds me of one of the things I've missed as my exercise has shifted to spin class--the outside experience. I spend so much time cooped up in an office.

As I made my morning smoothie, I listened to a news story about a local person who is accused of stealing millions from the social service agency where he worked. At first I was outraged about the fact that he worked for a social service agency, and he stole all that money that was designed to help people. I know that I don't have all the facts, like what kind of social service. But still, if he had been arrested for stealing from a big Wall Street firm, would I feel better? Stealing is stealing after all.

Then I started to think about the logistics of the theft. He probably didn't just take all that money in one chunk. Does the theft start small? How small? Does the thief intend to pay it all back some day?

I found myself thinking, maybe he just took office supplies. Then I laughed at myself--how much would one have to cart away to steal a million in office supplies?

I turned my attention to The Washington Post, where I read a great book review of a new Dickens biography. I had forgotten how prolific Dickens was and how young he was when he died--58. Reviewer Michael Dirda says, "Many modern readers, I think, rather neglect Dickens, disdaining him as melodramatic and sentimental. Instead, we revere Jane Austen for her subtle wit or turn to Henry James for his delicate analyses of human motivation. But Dickens really is our prose Shakespeare. For proof, try almost any of his novels or just watch a DVD of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the BBC dramatizations of Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist or David Copperfield."

I will always have a soft spot for Oliver Twist, since it was part of my dissertation. But I also love Hard Times--what wonderful names in that novel. Bleak House is my short hand term for any monumental task that I attempt again and again and never quite slog through.

And now, for my long day at work. I've been thinking about the Iranian hostages, since yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran. I remember exactly where we were when we heard the news. In 1979, I was in the 9th grade. My family had spent the week-end with another family at the Outer Banks, and we were in the final hours of that get-away. We were gathered in the living room and the TV was on, but no one was paying much attention. Suddenly, my father turned up the volume and asked for quiet. We watched the breaking news report. I remember thinking that those crazy people would never get away with this, and at the same time, wondering how it would all be resolved.

In later years, as I've worked in a variety of places with a vast assortment of people, I've returned to the thought of those hostages, taken and held in their place of work. I can't imagine spending over a year in captivity with most of my colleagues. I'm lucky in that I like most of them well enough to spend a working day with them. But to be cooped up with them day in and day out?

I've been toying with a poem that uses images of hostage taking and the modern workplace. After all, these days it's usually the job itself that holds us hostage. Let's see what happens . . .

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Changing the World, One Book Recommendation at a Time

Over on Facebook, my friend Bryan reminds me that I recommended Margaret Atwood to him, specifically The Handmaid's Tale: "I read it after you recommended it to me in a letter. It was in the summer of 1989 while I was working at a summer camp in Eva, TN. I thought it was a great book. I'd like to read more of her writings. There's just so many books I want to read and so little time."

I have no memory of that letter. Similarly, another friend says that she read The Handmaid's Tale after I insisted that she must, and that book changed her life. She said that book made her understand the importance of reproductive rights for women and that she'd never take those for granted again. She says that we had many conversations where I argued valiantly that without the right to control when and if we reproduce, all other women's rights are meaningless.

I probably did argue fiercely. I argued about many things fiercely back in my younger days. I still agree with my 19 year old self on many things, but I'm feeling a bit more exhausted these days. But it's strange to me that I have no memory of these discussions.

My friend went on to work in state government. I remember working with her to overturn the laws that said a married man couldn't be charged with raping his wife. You may remember that I wrote about that experience earlier on this blog, in this blog post. She worked on a lot of legislation that tried to improve the lives of women.

I wonder how much the Margaret Atwood book shaped those choices.

That time period is getting to be a long time ago, and I certainly can't prove anything. But this morning, I was thinking about how when I was younger, I wanted to be the writer who wrote those books and poems. I still do.

But I overlook how important a force I can be in recommending life changing books to other people. If I was a young Sociology grad student, I'd try to create some kind of study to determine how much reading choices affect social justice movements. People have done similar studies with song lyrics, so it must be doable.

But I'm not a young grad student, so I'll keep reading, keep recommending. In this time period which sees the 30th anniversary of the Iranian takeover of the American embassy and the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's important to remember that social justice movements sometimes rise and fall on the chance word or action (or book recommendation?). For a fascinating essay on the hopefulness of that idea, read Roger Cohen's piece in yesterday's The New York Times. I love this sentence of his: "The hinge of history hangs on a heartbeat."

Of course, The Handmaid's Tale reminds us of how quickly human progress towards justice can be eroded. It's an important cautionary tale, and it seems just as relevant now as it did 25 years ago.

Since I haven't ever posted it here, here's my poem, "Progress," inspired by my memories of working to get rid of the marital rape bill. It was published here in Clapboard House, where there's a photo of the statue--very nicely done!


The statue, a tribute to Confederate
Womanhood, keeps her bronze eyes fixed
on the statehouse, while her metal
children clutch her skirts. Inside,
women throng into the chambers, this once male
bastion of legislative power.
The current law states a husband
cannot be charged with the rape of his wife;
a wife is property, to do with as a man pleases.
Females of all ages bear witness, testify
to the violated sanctity of home and hearth.
Only one senator remains unswayed
by their pleas for a twentieth century view.
He doesn’t approve of racial integration either.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Margaret Atwood Week-End (You could have one too!)

A few weeks ago, I heard about Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Year of the Flood, which takes place in the same world as Oryx and Crake. I'm a huge fan of Atwood, so I would have read this novel eventually. But since I just reread Oryx and Crake in the spring, I wanted to read The Year of the Flood sooner, rather than later, while I still remembered the details.

On Friday morning, I listened to Atwood on the Diane Rehm show (go here and scroll down to listen), and she mentioned the great tradition of 19th century novels, where groups of characters circle round and one of the pleasures is figuring out how they will connect. She describes the reading experience as the writer saying, "Meanwhile, back in London . . ." to transition from one group of characters to the next.

I actually started Year of the Flood the week-end before last week-end, and by Friday afternoon, I had gotten to the point in the book where the major characters in Oryx and Crake show up as minor characters in The Year of the Flood. I realized that I didn't remember as much of Oryx and Crake as I thought I did--I couldn't remember what caused the great die-off, for example.

So, on Friday night, I returned to that book. I skimmed through parts, and I actually reread the last chunk of the book. I had added pleasure as I finished The Year of the Flood, keeping the first book in my mind, speculating about how Atwood might intertwine them. I will say no more, since I'd hate to spoil the reading of either book for people.

What I find most interesting about Atwood's speculative fiction is that she claims to use no details that aren't already available in this world. Part of what made The Handmaid's Tale so chilling was knowing that anything she described was already happening to a group of women somewhere. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are scary because any of these science details are possible, even if we don't see rakunks running around. We know how to make them, should we choose to create a raccoon/skunk blend of a creature.

Margaret Atwood is a treasure of a writer, and I love her as a model of a person who continues to be creative even into older age. Her website for the book shows how much fun she's been having, creating a new religion for the book (complete with hymns and Saints' Days) and a blog (which sounds like it might become collaborative) and different kinds of reading tours and all sorts of interesting stuff.

Speaking of religion in the book, I blogged about this here on my theology blog. And if you want to hear Atwood's address to the Whiting Award winners, go here (thanks to Jeannine, who mentioned it here on her blog).

I can think of no better way to spend the week-end that encompassed Halloween and All Saints' Day than reading this book, which intertwines the themes of Halloween and All Saints' in interesting ways. I was scared to death (but couldn't stop reading) and spiritually nourished. I was reminded of all that we have and how easy it would be to lose it all.

One of Atwood's characters describes the Fall as multidimensional, as a fall "from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future" (187). In some ways, this book increases my anxious contemplation, as all the best utopias/dystopias do. The Year of the Flood is one of the best books I've read this year. But of course, that comes as no surprise to any Atwood fan.

Spend the week-end with Margaret Atwood. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What to Do With All of Those Uncarved Halloween Pumpkins

Long ago in graduate school (1990 to be exact), I treated myself to the October Bon Appetit. It had easy recipes for preserves, which sounded so delicious that I spent the better part of a late morning wrestling with a pumpkin. I sliced it into chunks (the most time consuming part), cleaned it, and cooked it. Then I made pumpkin cider butter.

The taste was phenomenal, but was it worth all that effort? I must not have thought so, since I haven't dealt with fresh pumpkin since.

But this year, I ended up with 2 pumpkins, and I couldn't bear to throw them away. With the larger one, I wanted to experiment with making soup right there inside the pumpkin. So, I cut the top off and hollowed it out (the most annoying part of my day). Then I put the following into the pumpkin (all measurements approximate): 1 and 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock, 1/2 pound grated cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup old (long past its cooking/drinking prime) sherry and Madeira and a can of fat free evaporated milk (NOT condensed). Into this mixture I put a handful of chicken chunks from last week-end's creation: I coated the chicken with Mexican spices (cocoa powder, cinnamon, and cumin) before grilling it. I didn't particularly like it with the chicken alone, but it did marvelous things for my soup.

I put the whole pumpkin in the oven and baked it for 2 hours. I put it on a flat baking sheet. In retrospect, I should have put it on a rimmed sheet or into a Pyrex bowl. I stirred the soup periodically, and towards the end, I scraped through to the outer shell. Some of the liquid started to drain out. Luckily, I caught this early, so the clean up wasn't too awful (cleaning the pumpkin was worse).

Last night, I had a bowl with a glass of Petite Sirah (Bogle is my new favorite, low end winery). Yummmm.

Since I was going to have the oven on anyway, I decided to cook the smaller pumpkin too. Unlike in 1990, I just put the whole pumpkin in the oven on a baking sheet. Once it's cooked, it's much easier to peel and clean.

I plan to either make a pie or the Pumpkin Cider Butter. If you want to make Pumpkin Cider Butter, put 3 cups of pumpkin puree into a heavy saucepan. Add 1/2 cup apple cider, 3/4 cup brow sugar, and season to taste with these spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves (the recipe written by Janet Fletcher suggests only 1/4 teaspoon or 1/8 teaspoon--absurdly small!). Bring to a simmer and cook down. Some cooks would tell you to spread the mixture into a 9 x 13 baking dish and bake at 250 degrees for 1 and 1/2 hours, but I imagine the stove top would work equally well. Your house will smell delicious! Pumpkin Cider Butter stores for months in the refrigerator.

So, as I look at the relentless sun and face another day of near-record heat, I'll continue to pretend that harvest is upon us. I'll make yummy things out of pumpkins and gourds and hope for a cold front to come our way soon.

Tomorrow, back to blogging about more literary things: my Margaret Atwood week-end!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Thoughts on Halloween and Creativity

We had a very slow night here. Only 5 groups of trick or treaters. The smallest was in a Superman costume and blew me a kiss instead of saying thank you. His mom tried to convince him to speak, to say "Trick or Treat" and then "Thank you"--he was too overwhelmed, so she said, "Can you blow the nice lady a kiss?" and he did! Too cute! We had a group of heavily costumed teenagers--at least I think they were teenagers; who can tell any more, with elementary school kids so huge these days, both tall and fat--too many hormones in the milk! Anyway, I gave them candy because at least they put on costumes.

Very few elementary school kids out. Is it because it was so hot? I thought that since Halloween was on a Saturday we might see more kids, but that was not the case.

Oh well, At least I got decent candy--although I don't like Milk Duds and Rollos as much as I did when I was in 7th grade. I have more upscale chocolate tastes now!

But the last week has got me thinking about Halloween and creativity. I think that in some cities, more adults celebrate Halloween than the kids. At my school on Friday, I saw more adults in elaborate costumes than the college age students (who are, in fact, technically adults, come to think). I have friends who decorate elaborately--and some of them refuse to decorate for Christmas, but they'll decorate for Halloween.

So, here's my question: why will we, as adults, be creative during this time of the year, but not other times? Or is it just a matter of having the opportunity?

Last year, the Employee Engagement Committee at my workplace had a cookie decorating day for Valentine's Day. People put elaborate amounts of effort into decorating cookie hearts. Maybe we just need more times where creativity is encouraged--encouraged and not judged.

I envision workplaces with creativity posts, where people can gather and do a different creative project each week. If we can have smoking breaks, why not creativity breaks? I'd also like nap rooms, because a 30 minute nap can be so rejuvenating. I understand why napping on the job is problematic--who would wash the sheets? What if people used those nap rooms for other, more nefarious purposes?

But creativity stations . . . hmm, let me think more about that.

It's November 1, which means I should return to my October goals. Here are the goals I recorded in this post on Oct. 1, 2009, and below each, I'll write what I actually accomplished:

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

I did this--two copies of my book-length manuscript to two publishers, and one entry of one of my chapbook manuscripts to a contest.

--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).

I have most of them done--I may still need to type in one or two.

--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.

I did not do this during the first two weeks of October. I did this during the last two weeks of October.

--Make submissions to journals and periodicals.

I failed miserably. I only submitted to three places. In some years, by this time, I'd have made 75 submissions.

Now, to turn my attention to November. Actually, let's make it November and December:

--keep writing a poem or two a week.

--organize next book-length manuscript and chapbook manuscript. The book-length manuscript will be my Jesus/God in the world poems and the chapbook manuscript will be the modern working women poems.

--submit to the journals that stop taking submissions at the end of December.

--submit older book manuscript to 2-4 publishers.

On Jan. 1, I'll check in again to see how I did. Knowing that I would make a report to this blog on Nov. 1 was a surprising motivator on some days in October.

Happy November everyone. Down here in south Florida, we're still dealing with record breaking heat, but I know that some of you struggle with the dying of the light and the cold this time of year. January O'Neil has posted a great November poem by Tony Hoagland on her blog here. For those of you liturgical folks who celebrate All Saints' and All Souls' Day today and tomorrow, there are great resources (poems, pictures, memories) on John Guzlowski's blog here. For those of you who want some ideas for how to celebrate, even if you're not church-based, you might enjoy my post on my theology blog. Shefali's post on the sacred and the profane seems particularly profound to me this morning, as we've passed through one of the "thin spaces" between this world and the next, that thin space celebrated by ancients and moderns alike.