Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review: The Writer's Report

New Year's Eve has never been my favorite holiday. It's easy for me to slip into self-loathing and despair about all the things I didn't accomplish. However, I've also come to realize that I'm often doing better than I think. It's wise for me to take stock, to sit down and take some honest measurements. It's also important for me to have this record, so that in later years I can remember.

I'm one of those people who's fascinated by these kind of reports. I like seeing what other people have done. But I also understand if you're not one of those people. I won't linger long in this assessment practice (although in the coming week, I will post about the books I read last year).

I also know that I have a tendency to read what others have been doing and to use that information to make myself feel even worse about what I have or haven't accomplished. Why do I engage in this useless behavior? One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a yoga teacher, who back in 1996 or so told me, "Quit comparing yourself to everybody else. It won't help." She was right, both in terms of my ability to hold a pose--and in every other aspect of life.

Professional Leaps Forward:

In my January 3, 2010 post on Writer's Resolutions for the coming year, I found this paragraph:
"But here's my main hope/dream/goal: by this time next year, I'd like to have a book forthcoming or published from a press that's reputable (I'm not averse to self-publishing, but I don't think that 2010 will be the best year for me to start a press). I'd love for it to be a book with a spine, although I'd also be happy with a chapbook."

Hurrah! I accomplished this goal. I realize that about the only control I had over this goal was to send out manuscript after manuscript, which I did. I sent out book length manuscripts 7 times, and chapbook length manuscripts 11 times. In addition to the acceptance of I Stand Here Shredding Documents, my manuscript Dismantling the Fallout Shelter was a finalist in the Split Oak Press Chapbook contest.

My other big writing news: I was asked to be an official blogger at The site has posted 5 of my blog postings, and here's the big news: they paid me!

Obviously, this event wouldn't have happened if I hadn't already been blogging, both here and at my theology blog. And Facebook helped as well. On July 21, I got a Facebook message from the woman who would become my editor (old-school term, I know, but it feels like that kind of relationship), asking if I would be one of the bloggers for a new site about to launch. I said yes, and it's been a great experience, which hopefully will continue throughout the coming year.

Poems Written

For this category, I'm counting even failed attempts (but not ideas that I had that I wrote down, but didn't wrestle into any kind of poem shape): 96.

A clarification: the 96 figure means even just a few lines, even those lines that I know will go nowhere. I don't want people to think that I'm talking about fully realized poems. If I counted those it would be far, far less, probably less than a poem a week.

Why didn't I count fully realized poems, so that I'd know for sure? I didn't want to know for sure.

There are weeks that go by when I don't write a poem at all, followed by weeks when poems gush out of me. I am always relieved when I do the yearly count, and I average at least a poem a week. And as I go back through the notebooks, I'm glad to see that at least some of these poems have potential--and some are circulating, even as we speak.

Poems Submitted

I often feel like I don't send out anything anymore, but that's not true. In 2010, I sent 154 poetry packets out into the world. Let me try not to feel bad about how many found a home in the larger world.

Poems Published

Fourteen poems were published.

Blog Writing

I've continued to keep up with two blogs, as I've posted almost every day. I've also posted at Voice Alpha and at Living Lutheran. In many ways, this year blog postings were what brought me most joy. At first, it was a guilty pleasure, and I worried about the time taken away from my "real" writing. Lately, though, I've wondered if blog writing isn't its own genre, as yet barely recognized (like the state of Creative Nonfiction in 1987).

Other Writing

Most of my other writing just depresses me: draft after draft of assessment documents, draft after draft of faculty development forms and supporting reports, countless e-mails about mostly non-consequential items, meeting agendas, that kind of thing.

However, I did have a fun summer. Inspired by Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, I started writing short stories again--two! Yes, in years past, two short stories would be my weekly output, but I'm happy to be writing in that form again.

And even better, I looked at my short stories, and saw how to link them. Hurrah! I had tried before, but not succeeded. I think this attempt will result in success. I wonder if I could finish that manuscript in 2011? I think I'll try!

Manuscript Progress

I revised my book length manuscript, Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site, and I revised my chapbook length manuscript Dismantling the Fallout Shelter. Yes, you do notice a theme.

Other Creative Pursuits

I finished one baby quilt and one full-size quilt. I sewed several baby quilt size quilt tops.

I did a bit with paint and collage.

I did more with photography. I experimented with animated poems (which I called visual poems since my experiments didn't seem very animated), although I'm still unsatisfied with the results (here and here; even though the screens look dark, if you click on the play button, you'll get movement, of a sort).

I worked with a lot of new-to-me technology, and I'm pleased with how I pushed through my discomfort/terror levels. I learned how to record my voice on the laptop. I experimented with Photoshop. I learned to use Movie Maker on a limited basis. I learned how to create a database, and how to make mailing labels (a process which took far more time than anything else I attempted and not nearly as intuitive as it should be). I also learned a lot about the computer as I dealt with computer virus issues and the breakdown of Windows during the late Summer and early Fall.

I continue to cook and bake, activities which I've loved since I was old enough to pour ingredients in a bowl and mix them together, the creative act I've been doing longest. This was the year I came back to sourdough starter, although I've neglected it lately. Today I'll see if a neglected starter can be brought back to life (an apt metaphor for many a thing!). My spouse and I have experimented with a variety of fish, although we haven't caught them ourselves, something I thought we might try.


Overall, I'm happy with my progress as a poet and a writer and a creative person. I'll always wish for time to do more, but I'm happy to be making use of the time I do have. I am painfully aware of some time wasting that I could still eliminate (I do more Internet surfing than I'd like, to sites that leave me feeling malnourished, for example). But if I can keep doing what I'm doing, I'll be happy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Random Thoughts from Christmas Vacation

Well, I'm back in South Florida, after travelling to the D.C. area to spend Christmas with my immediate family who lives in the area. We avoided the blizzard that socked the Northeast, although we did have a few days of snow drifting past the window, but not really sticking (the best kind of snow, really). We didn't have to go through any kind of invasive pat-downs or x-ray technology. Very uneventful travel--the best kind.

I got a lot of reading done--more on that in a later post. My parents have a very slow computer--I've had dial-up connections that were speedier. Amazing what else I get done, when the computer isn't there to distract me. Plus, I wanted to be more present--my nephew isn't going to be young forever, and the computer can wait.

One of the highlights of the trip, besides the Christmas merriment: we got a backstage tour of Wolf Trap, the national park for the performing arts, with a huge stage and an even larger backstage area. We thought the tour might be cancelled; it was snowing, and we still weren't sure whether we'd get a dusting or a foot of snow. But we went anyway, and the six of us who braved the elements there got a great tour.

Here are some other tidbits:

--I'm happy to report that old-fashioned puppets can still compete with high tech Star Wars toys.

--My 4 year old nephew loves the Star Wars franchise, which is several decades older than he is. How is this? The brand has reinvented itself, through the animated Clone Wars. A lesson for all of us in the arts?

--Another lesson in narrative: my brother-in-law says that my nephew has never seen a complete Star Wars film. He's seen bits and pieces and he watches Clone Wars out of sequence. Yet he seems to understand the complete narrative arc, in ways that we grown-ups, who had to wait for each movie to be released, do not. Is he just a typical post-modern child? Or is everything we learned about narrative (beginning, middle, end, with flash backs if necessary) wrong? Or maybe humans have never approached narrative that way--except for artists, who are creatively attempting to control the story.

--We also watched Grocery Store Wars on You Tube. What possesses people to create a Star Wars knock off with vegetables, and a fairly serious message? What great technology advances, that allows people to create independent films and launch them.

--All I remember from French class is the words to carols and how to ask for the location of the bathroom. Well, that's not exactly true, but it would make an intriguing poem, perhaps. Un flambeau, everyone!

--In the airport, I watched a young man swing his toddler child up into the air. Then, with his other arm, he scooped up his pre-school daughter. He proceeded to walk around the baggage claim area, holding at least 40 pounds of children in his arms, not appearing to be tired. I thought, this is why young people are strong and sturdy. Or perhaps love makes us strong and sturdy.

--We spent a significant amount of time with the nephew looking for bad guys hiding in the house. It didn't seem to scare him at all. My spouse thinks it's a variation of hide and seek that we always play.

--Everything is a gun to a pre-schooler boy. I noticed this when I worked in a day care center too, that everything is a gun to elementary school boys (we were strict about no guns and no gun play, all to no avail). Even during our arts and crafts time, we constructed guns (I made mine with a festive pink fringe). The puppet shows involved fighting and death. Sigh.

--Still, I'm glad that we're letting the nephew be the nephew, instead of trying to hurry him to the next phase. I do think that we'd all be better off if we learned self-defense techniques in P.E. classes, and if we all knew how to operate guns safely.

--As we wrapped packages, my spouse said that all our packages look wounded (because of lots of tape). I will never be the kind of person who gives beautiful packages, at least not if I wrap them.

--I watched a TSA agent hug a man and exclaim, "Happy birthday, honey!" She treated all of us like we were rock stars--she was so happy to see us all. I want to be that kind of woman on the job. I want everyone who comes across my path to feel blessed to have interacted with me. A worthy goal for 2011, yes?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Boxing Day Present!

I just unwrapped the best present! Nic Sebastian reads my poem "Honeybees on Holiday" here. I love, love, LOVE her voice, and her interpretation of my poem made me so happy. Hopefully, it will make you happy too, whether you're shoveling snow, waiting on the blizzard to arrive, cleaning up from festivities, fighting off the post-Christmas blues, searching for those last year-end bargains, or reminding yourself of why you want to be a poet.

Here's hoping that everyone had a very happy holiday--and may we all continue to enjoy this happy holiday season!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Blogging Forecast

As we head into the Christmas season, it's always hard to know what my blogging schedule may be. Perhaps I'll be up before everyone else, and I'll blog. Maybe I'll be so tired from all the festivity that I'll sleep. Suffice it to say that I'll be off schedule, and blogging may be lighter than usual. I expect to return to regular blogging on December 29. In the meantime, I wish great gobs of holiday cheer for everyone!

Above you see a poinsettia bush that's been growing in our backyard since last year. What possessed my husband to stick it into the ground? That's what he does. He plants and waters and hopes for the best. I had no idea that poinsettias are actually tropical plants--who would think that the plant most associated with Christmas actually comes from Central America? So, it's thrived in the back yard, and it's been thrilling to watch it change colors. The photo above was taken in mid-November, and its leaves have continued to redden.

When Your Week Needs Sweetness

The other night, my spouse and I were watching one of those Santa Claus movies, the one where Tim Allen discovers another clause in the contract, the one where he/Santa needs a wife. My spouse turned to me and said, "I'd really like a Christmas cookie."

I said, "We can make that happen." I always have baking supplies in the kitchen, even if I'm not always in a baking phase. Off we trooped to the kitchen, and 30 minutes later, the oven transformed dough into cookies.

I took a moment to say a prayer of thanks for the microwave. In my childhood years, we'd have had to plan ahead to make most cookie recipes: the butter needed to soften, and there was no good way to do that except to pull it out ahead of time. The microwave does an imperfect job, but it still makes cookies possible with no thinking ahead required.

It's fun to make rolled out cookies with people who don't do it very often. My spouse dug through the huge collection of cookie cutters, the ones I rarely look at anymore. And thus, in addition to Christmas trees, stars, and Santas, we had Christmas pigs and Christmas sea gulls.

I was reminded of a baking session in grad school, where we made traditional Christmas cookie shapes, and the guys showed up to help decorate. Fun with food color! We had some of the most garishly decorated Christmas cookies ever--but everyone was having so much fun that I silenced my inner Martha Stewart critic, who declared we were not making good things.

In case you want to have fun, I'm posting my sugar cookie recipe below. It's not as sweet as some recipes, and if you roll it out thicker and keep an eye on the oven, you can end up with a much softer cookie.

After reading this piece, I've also been having fun with candy making. Some of these recipes can turn out a fairly low-fat candy (although not low calorie!). There's even a jellied candy recipe, one that will be perfect for the vegans on your guest list. As I was pouring the nut brittle onto the parchment paper, I cautioned my spouse not to touch it. He made his disappointed face, and I said, "You can have some later. If you touch it now, you'll get 3rd degree burns." It's important to remember that not everyone remembers basic chemistry.

Holiday cooking always reminds me of holiday fiascos. I remember when we tried to make fudge as children, and we put in double the amount of chocolate chips (we needed a 6 ounce bag, back when they made bags that small, and we put in the 12 oz bag). It never quite firmed up. But the grown ups in our lives were gracious about it. We spooned it over ice cream--or just spooned it into our mouths. If you get the ingredients right, the fudge recipe below has rarely failed me.

I made that fudge recipe once, only to have one person who tasted it wrinkle his nose and say, "It's awfully sweet." Well, of course it is! It's fudge!!! Sometimes, you just need something sweet. And if you're watching your waistline, your insulin, your health--well enjoy that first bite or two, and then quit. We all know--and now it's been scientifically proven, that the first bite is best, and each bite afterwards, we experience diminishing returns.

Take a moment to slow down. Take a bite of sweetness and savor it. Think about the other kinds of sweetness that you'd like to see manifest in your life.

Sugar Cookies

2 sticks butter
1 C. sugar
2 eggs
¼ C. milk
2tsp. baking powder
4 C. flour
2 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter, sugar, eggs. Add milk and dry ingredients. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness on a floured board and cut with cookie cutters. Sprinkle with colored sugar or leave plain to frost when cool (or to enjoy plain). Bake 10 minutes at 375. Easy frosting: moisten powdered sugar with enough milk to make spreadable and tint with food color.

Festive Fudge

2 C. sugar
2/3 C. evaporated milk (skim works fine)
12 regular marshmallows
½ C. butter
1 C. chocolate chips
1 tsp. vanilla
1 C. nuts, if desired (other stir-ins would work too)

In a heavy, large sauce pan (or dutch oven), mix sugar, milk, marshmallows, and butter. Cook, stirring, over medium heat, until it boils. Boil and stir for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Mix in chocolate chips until completely melted. Stir in vanilla and nuts/stir ins. Spread in a buttered 8 inch square pan.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Eclipses as Reminder and Metaphor

My spouse looked at me as if I'd lost my mind when I suggested that we get up in the middle of the night to view the lunar eclipse. I can forgive him. We've had unfortunate experiences chasing eclipses and other astronomical events.

One time when we had a full lunar eclipse, it was going to occur earlier in the evening. I declared that we should go to the beach to watch, where we'd have the perfect view. We invited friends. We packed a picnic. We drove to the beach, where everyone else had converged. We spent some time looking for a parking space before returning home to watch the eclipse from the comfort of our back yard.

I remember years ago, when my spouse (who was then my boyfriend) and I drove to a dark country road where we hoped to see Halley's Comet. We were 20; we figured it was our last/only chance to see it. We looked in the direction where it was supposed to be and were underwhelmed. That smudge on the horizon? Was that it?

Far better was the Hale-Bopp Comet, which was clearly different from other sky objects, which stuck around. I was driving back and forth between Columbia, South Carolina, where my spouse was in grad school, and the Charleston area, where we had a house and roommates and where I worked. Much of that driving happened at night, and I felt a communion with that distant chunk of dust and gas. I loved its appearance and the fact that I could always find it.

What I love most about these celestial spectacles is that they reignite my childhood sense of wonder. When I was a child, I spent lots of time tracking the sky. I delighted in finding the constellations, although I rarely could figure out why the pattern of stars reminded ancient people of bears or archers or those other objects.

Why didn't I become an astronomer? I had many childhood passions that dropped away as I got older and faced that pressure to choose, to specialize.

But astronomical events, like the lunar eclipse, remind me of that child that I used to be, the one who watched the sky, the one who painted and wrote poems, the one who put on plays that she had written, the one who sewed costumes for her Barbie dolls, the one who followed her interests, wherever they took her that day. I lift a prayer of gratitude for my wonderful parents who said, "Of course you can have that big box to make a fort. Of course you can wear my old clothes as costumes. Here are some neat puppets. Let's go to the library to get some books. Let me show you the Big Dipper in the sky; let me explain how you can navigate if you can always find the Big Dipper. Look at this punch card; that's how a computer spells your name." On and on I could go.

Lunar eclipses remind me to look up from all the screens which consume so much of my time, from assessment reports and the other minutiae of my work life. Lunar eclipses remind me to appreciate the natural world, to reorient myself.

Here's a poem I wrote years ago, in the early part of this century, before I even knew the friends with whom I would go to the beach, only to return to the backyard (that's how you know you have good friends: they don't storm off in a huff, but they let you regroup and have a great lunar eclipse party from a different location). This poem is part of my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Lunar Lessons

Waiting for the lunar eclipse requires
a certain amount of patience. I watch
for the first hint of a shadow. My eyes trick
me. I can’t be sure of what I see.

I always forget the time required
by these solar system spectacles.
I sit in the lumpy lawn chair, impatient
to be done with this show, to move
on to other commitments.

Perhaps this is the lesson the eclipse contains:
to savor the cool night air, the hot cocoa that warms
me twice, as I sip and as I cradle the cup in my cold
hands. To sit and watch and wait.

So often, change takes place in these incremental
pauses. A shadow so subtle we can’t be sure,
then the change consumes our mundane
lives, transforms the whole character
of our night sky.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Our Houses, on Mango Street, Painted Purple or More Subdued

Today is the birthday of Sandra Cisneros, one of a generation of artists who showed us what great art can be made out of being an outsider. She's probably most famous for her book The House on Mango Street, which was published to little fanfare or acclaim, but has gone on to be one of the most widely assigned books in U.S. middle and high schools.

I must confess to being a bit mystified by the book. It's one of those books that I want to like. Some of the short stories lead to a great discussion of how we decide to assign genre. Is it a short story, really? Or just a vignette? Or some sort of blended form, a bit of poetry, a bit of essay, a bit of something we don't have a name for?

I probably came to the book too late. I can imagine falling in love with it as a high school student, being thrilled at its depiction of ordinary people, being enthralled by its experimental bits. But it was published in 1984, and I was already gone off to college, where we studied primarily dead, white men writers, and it would be years and years before I discovered her.

I've always admired the fierceness of Cisneros. I remember when she came under fire for the color that she painted her house, a purple as I remember, although the Wikipedia article says it was pink. It was a shade her neighbors considered garish and threatening to their national historic register kind of status. Cisneros, as I recall, did research to prove that the color had been widespread in San Antonio in the native cultures. I believe she won that battle.

Even if Cisneros is not an author whose work I read, I hold her in high esteem for carving a path for the rest of us. She's part of a generation who claimed that the stories of women, of the poor and marginalized, of the immigrant--those stories were important, vital, and deserving of a voice, deserving of study. If not for artists like her, we'd all be writing very different things. Well, maybe we wouldn't be writing differently, but we'd sure be reading differently, and we wouldn't have the same sorts of publishing opportunities.

Happy birthday, Sandra Cisneros, in your purple house! Those of us writing our work that in earlier times would have been roundly rejected--to you we lift a mug of hot chocolate (another gift from the Mexican ancestors of Cisneros)!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reading, both Non-Festive and Festive

My leisure time has become a bit disjointed. We've been watching holiday stuff via Hulu and Netflix; last night, for example, we watched an old holiday episode of Silver Spoons. And when I'm not watching holiday fare, I've been racing through Laura Lippman's heart-pounding thriller I'd Know You Anywhere.

I don't usually read thrillers, especially not when the plotline revolves around young girls held captive and/or hurt. But this review in The Washington Post convinced me to add the book to my list. And then I read Leslie's review and wanted to read it right away; but the public library waiting list was very long, and I didn't want to buy a hardcover book that I was pretty sure I'd only be reading once. So when I found the book on my school's library New Book shelf, I snatched it right up. And finally, this week, I read it.

It's a different kind of thriller, much more a personality study--of several different personalities--than a standard thriller. There is a subdued rape scene, but it comes at the end, and so it seems less horrifying and less exploitive than it might have otherwise. It was an effective book, and I wished that I knew someone else who had read it.

In that spirit, I returned to Leslie's post, and I was surprised and delighted to remember that it was a post about the power of words, particularly the book review.

Today is a great day to reflect on the power of words. Over on my theology blog, I've written a post about Nicholas Kristof's The New York Times article where he tries to convince us to spend our gift giving dollars on worthy charities. He makes a solid case. But of course, I was already convinced, so I'm maybe not the best judge.

In 1776, Washington's army was not convinced of the righteousness of their purpose: morale was at an all-time low. On this day in 1776, Thomas Paine published the first of his important pamphlets, with those famous words: "These are the times that try men's souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper prince upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated" ("The American Crisis").

These words kept the Continental Army going, and on December 26, they won an important victory at the Battle of Trenton. Who knows, if not for Thomas Paine, perhaps the war would have taken a different turn.

Here I could insert a pep talk about why it's so important to remember the power of the word and our writing. I could write a mini-meditation about how no other person on this planet has the kind of unique perspective that we have, that we've been put on the planet for just such a time as this, and we need to get busy creating our art.

But if you're reading this blog, I suspect you already know all that. You're already convinced. But perhaps you're tired. Maybe like me, you've spent the week-end grading the last papers, some of which remind you of your worth as a teacher, some of which make you wonder if you should exert the effort to uncover the plagiarism. Maybe like me, you've been suffering from a cold that leaves you with such sinus pressure that you wonder what an aneurysm feels like and makes you think of your colleague from almost two decades ago who complained of headaches when she was grading research papers and you thought it was only the poor quality of the student essays, but 3 days into the holiday she dropped dead of burst blood vessels in the brain. With all that pain in your head, you can't possibly return to poetry just yet.

Luckily, there are lots of holiday shows that you can watch for free. Cue up one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol today. On this day, in 1843, that classic by Charles Dickens was published. Think about how that book has changed the world. Think about all the works, both serious and comic, that make allusion to A Christmas Carol. If you need a writing prompt, you might have some fun with this classic. Imagine Ebeneezer Scrooge going back to school, either as a returning adult student or as adjunct faculty. Imagine that Bob Cratchit gets a promotion and now he's the boss. Tiny Tim, all grown up.

If you're in a reading mood, you could finish this book in an afternoon. You might be surprised how different it is from the many movie and television varieties. Or if your brain is oatmeal mush at this point, just watch one of the versions and enjoy this ghost story, a tale which Victorian England would have read as a thriller, much the way I read Laura Lippman as a thriller first, personality study later. A Christmas Carol still has much to teach us. But if we're not in the mood to be taught, it's entertaining nonetheless.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Milestones Holiday and Otherwise

Are you tired of my holiday postings yet? Do you feel snarly, thinking, well how lovely for her that she has time for all this holiday festivity?

Thankfully, I'm having a less hectic December than last year. It's still busy, but I've tried to be very careful with commitments.

Part of my marshalling of time and resources has to do with my December 31 deadline for Finishing Line Press--that's when I have to deliver a whole bundle of items: manuscript, bios long and short, mailing labels, author photos, cover art, blurbs, and electronic copies of everything but the mailing labels. Along the way, I've learned more aspects of Microsoft Office (not as easy to make labels as I anticipated) and how to have my printer make photos (blissfully easy).

And yesterday, I found out when the pre-publication sales begin: March 29! I had been fretful that the 6 week sales period might come at a bad time, but happily, March 29-May 11 will be just fine.

Finishing Line Press bases the press run on the pre-publication sales, which makes sense to me. Why print more books than you're going to sell? But of course, there's the pressure of having to generate sales. I'll strategize more about that as we get closer to the sales time.

But onward to the holiday milestones. Today is the anniversary of the premiere of The Nutcracker. You can read more about this ballet at The Writer's Almanac post for today, or if you'd rather listen, the NPR program On Point has a show that explores The Nutcracker.

I no longer see this ballet often, but as a child, it was an annual holiday tradition at our house. I feel a fondness for all of it. I remember one bleary-eyed December night when nothing much was on television, and I was too tired to do much more than stare blankly at the screen. As I flipped through the channels, I came across a televised version of the ballet, and I lingered, once again sucked into the world of sweets and fancy.

But maybe it's all too sweet for you. Maybe it's too secular. If so, you can celebrate the birthday of Charles Wesley, who wrote many of our best loved hymns (those few of us who still sing hymns), including "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Again, I'll always love this hymn, but would I love it if I hadn't grown up singing it every year? Would I love The Nutcracker if it wasn't so woven into my childhood memories? Hard to say.

My childhood churches didn't sing "In the Bleak Midwinter" as often, but as a grown up, I almost prefer it. I like Christmas music that has a bit of melancholy, and this one fits that bill. Knowing that Christina Rossetti wrote the words makes it even more wonderful for me. She's one of my favorite 19th century poets. If I had to choose a favorite poem of all time, it might well be Rossetti's "Goblin Market."

So, here we are one week from Christmas, all of us with our crowded to-do lists, our life lived at a hectic pace. Today is a good day to slow down, to listen to our favorite music, to contemplate the end of the year, to think about what we hope for in 2012.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Paper Poetry Prompt

Yesterday's comments to my post, especially Sandy's about recycling, took me back a few years, when I taught with lots of handouts. Because students were absent, and because I was always afraid of not having enough handouts, I always had too many handouts. I always dumped them into the recycling bins and hoped that the paper actually made it to a recycling center somewhere.

I often taught night classes that ended at 9, and the custodian always moved right in to clean my classroom so he could declare that part of the hallway done. One night, I had to come back to the classroom, and I discovered him reading my poetry handouts. Or at least he was peering at them intently.

He and I always only exchanged a few words each night because we spoke different languages. I wondered what he thought of those poems that he pulled out of the recycling trash bin. I wondered if he was trying to teach himself English, and he kept my handouts as free material to help him learn to read.

I wondered how a person's language skills might be different if he or she used poetry as model English.

Yesterday, as I drove to work, I thought about how much of my work paper recycling these days are earlier, abandoned versions of assessment reports, faculty development plans, and schedules. A person who learned to read from that recycling pile might have a very different type of English than the person who learned to read from poetry handouts.

I thought of all the other writing done on campus: tests from various disciplines, the articles from economics journals that our Macroeconomics instructor always leaves in my box, other handouts, heartfelt notes, resumes (hopefully with cover letters), flyers that advertise a wide variety of things.

Ah, the heartfelt note: there's an art form in itself. One night, a friend and I went to a near-campus venue, Greenstreets, where one of our favorite bands was playing. When we came out, there was a heartfelt note taped to her car. It was clearly not addressed to us, but to someone who drove the same car. It was some tortured soul who talked about waiting and waiting and you're not coming and then I track you here and I hope you're happy; I made a wonderful meal and you blew it and I was willing to say yes tonight. On and on the note went, over several 4x6 sheets of paper, taped to the driver side door. It was so heartfelt and so hysterical that we wondered if we should try to find the writer, to reassure her that perhaps she hadn't been abandoned cruelly. But as we looked at the parking lot and the surrounding stores, we realized that would be futile. I've always thought a short story or a plot turning point lurked in that scene. Are there poetry possibilities?

So, within this post you have all sorts of potential prompts. Or maybe you just want to sit still for a few minutes and savor the idea that a week from today--just one week--it will be Christmas Eve. Maybe you're snowed in. Maybe you're nervous about the weather the week-end will bring.

Return to poetry! Read your favorite poets, the ones who aren't in anthologies yet. Which of their poems are your favorites? If the limited-English speaking custodian read those poems on castaway handouts, what would happen?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Resolutions that Revolve Around Trees and/or Paper

I wrote a post about carolling in the workplace here. I talk about being the only one to know the dreidel song (me, a Lutheran girl!) and about being fearless enough to sing in public. So, if you're still looking for Christmas postings, that's the one you want.

Or maybe you want to celebrate Jane Austen's birthday today. If so, you might want to read my post from last year. Make a pot of tea, eat a warm scone, and enjoy.

Or maybe you still haven't gotten enough apocalyptic thoughts this time of year. Kathleen has some reading suggestions for you in this post.

But maybe you want to do more than read. Now is the time to reflect on what forests mean to you, and as Dave explains here, you can share your writings here.

A resolution that involves trees. I like it. I'm tempted to vow to plant a seedling a month. But I won't be making that resolution. We've planted just about as many trees as our South Florida yard can hold.

No, I've been thinking of a different resolution. I'd like to write in my offline journal more. Have no fear--I'll still be blogging daily as I can. But I've realized that since I've started blogging, my offline journalling has really dropped off. I've wrestled with wondering what I've lost.

In some ways, the blog does act as a journal, a more searchable database of my thoughts and interests on any given day. I read back periodically and have those same moments as I do when I'm reading my old paper journals: "Oh, yeah, I remember pondering that! Oh, yeah, I remember that moment." In some ways, it might be even better--I have pictures and links.

I've continued to write in my paper journal, mainly about issues that need to be kept more private. Happily, my personal life is fairly drama free, which means I haven't been writing in that paper journal as often. I write once a month or every other month. I write about things that need to be recorded, but events that likely aren't very interesting to people out there who don't know me. I write about other people who might not want an online presence. I write occasionally about work drama that needs to be kept offline.

I wonder what I'm losing though, by not writing in the paper pages where I don't have to censor myself. When I'm blogging, I try to always remain conscious of who might read: my boss, my future boss, my friends, my family, Facebook connections, someone who's doing a Google search and somehow ends up here. Am I less self-aware than I used to be?

So, I think that in the coming year, I'll try to write in my paper journal once a week. While I'm at it, let's make some other writing goals, and let me keep them small and attainable. Then, at the end of 2011, I'll see how I did:

1. Write in my paper journal once a week.

2. Write at least one poem a week.

3. Continue to blog on a near-daily basis, when I have computer access.

4. Arrange at least 3 readings to promote my new chapbook.

5. Continue to submit both individual poems and book-length manuscripts.

Five goals should be enough. I feel slightly guilty that none of them involve planting trees; in fact, to achieve some of them, I'll have to use dead trees (paper). And the amount of paper I use as an administrator haunts me.

Maybe I will plant some trees next year!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Keep Them from Closing the Book by Splitting the World Open

Today is the birthday of Muriel Rukeyser, who is probably more important to me personally for her mentorship of Alice Walker than for her own work.

I LOVED Alice Walker when I first read her in 1984. I struggled with the dialect in The Color Purple, but the content of the book blew me away. I had picked up 2 of her books at the same time, so that summer, as I spent long hours on public transit commuting back and forth between my parent's house and my summer job in inner-city D.C., I devoured In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. From then on, I loved Walker's essays better than any other genre in which she wrote.

But Walker got her start in poetry, and she recounts writing poems and sliding them under the door of Muriel Rukeyser, who taught at her college. Rukeyser showed her agent Walker's poems, and a literary career was born. Maybe it's because I spent last night watching It's a Wonderful Life, but I'm always happy to be reminded that our lives enrich many others, even when it's not obvious to us that our work enriches anyone.

But Rukeyser did important work, both with her writing and her activism. She's also important to me as a feminist; this quote has sustained me through many a dark night of the writing soul: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."

She had the enthusiasm about poetry that P.B. Shelley and Matthew Arnold had. Muriel Rukeyser said, "If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger."

But she was also a realist, of sorts: "No one wants to read poetry. You have to make it impossible for them to put the poem down--impossible for them to stop reading it, word after word. You have to keep them from closing the book."

So, there's our challenge, as poets, as writers. What we write must be so compelling that our potential readers cannot look away. We might argue that we have so many more challenges today, so much more that can distract our potential readers. Our task has not changed. We must make our work more compelling than all the other stuff competing for eyeballs.

Happily, how hard can it be? Television becomes more and more inane, punctuated by commercials that are ever more awful. I don't know of many people anymore who spend their hard-earned dollars at movie theatres. People who get sucked into the world of computer games were likely lost to us from the beginning, but some day, they may emerge, blinking, back into the non-computer world, and our poems can be there, waiting for them.

Go ahead. Tell the truth and split the world wide open.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Late Great Planet Earth--of Eschatology and Holocene Extinctions

Today is the birthday of Nostradamus, which dovetails nicely with my research interests--brief and fleeting, as they may be. Actually, my research interests aren't brief and fleeting. It's more like they're circular cycles, something I come back to again and again. For almost as long as I remember, I've been an eschatology girl, fascinated by the end of all things. I remember reading Nostradamus in college, after hearing about him for years. I remember thinking, "Huh. People see actual events in these vague writings?"

Similarly I read the book of Revelation in early adolescence. It was the 1970's, those days of The Late, Great Planet Earth, a book which declared that Biblical prophecy foretold the end times, end times which were currently underway. When I was bored in church, I read those prophetic books, Revelation and Daniel most memorably, and I didn't see the same events as Hal Lindsey did.

That damn book is still in print. Why are we so enthralled by these kind of books and so blind to eschatological events that are actually happening, right now, in real time?

Somehow, yesterday, I found myself researching the 6 great extinctions, the 6th of which is currently underway. What began this meandering? I can't remember, but soon I was dashing down this Internet corridor and that one, learning about various species that have vanished, various types of habitat loss, thinking about vegetation die offs. Google the term "Holocene Extinction" and prepare to be distressed. Each year, approximately 50,000 species go extinct. And that's just animal species, from what I understand.

I answered e-mails and wondered how many species had gone extinct in the amount of time it took me to reply to those e-mails. I found myself thinking about habitat loss, including human habitat loss. Usually I can go about my day without thinking about sea level rise and frog die offs. Then there are the other days, when I'm on a quest for a fact that I remember hearing on NPR's Science Friday or some other show. And so, this morning I had a memory of microbes being responsible for x amount of the great die offs in the past--but how many? And then I wandered through the archives, listening to this show and that show. And before I know it, I've lost hours.

But I feel some sort of poem brewing. I've been jotting down phrases. I particularly like this sentence from scientist Lynn Margulis: "We are mammalian weeds" (quoted in an Oct. 8, 2010 Bozeman Daily Chronicle article). I also jotted down the idea of torturing nature. I've been noticing the prominence of torture in our mass media. I can't watch Criminal Minds anymore. I can't take all those storylines that involve captivity and torture. I'm appalled by how many movies are 2 hour long torture fests. Why do we find that storyline so compelling these days? What will future researchers deduce about us as they watch our cultural artifacts?

Of course, we're torturing the planet too. And the planet is no wimpy female who will just accept whatever punishment the diabolical male wants to dish out. The laws of Chemistry and Physics are harsh. In our hubris, we think we can control these processes, but we can't.

The laws of Biology can be harsh too. Last night I paid over $4 for a bag of potatoes, the most I've ever paid for potatoes. I think of those humble root vegetables that have kept so many populations alive. I think of those Irish women who moved their families to the side of the sea when the potato crops failed. Where did I get that nugget of information? I no longer remember, but I know that I came across it long ago, because it made its way into the poem that I'll post below. I wrote it in 1998, and this blog posting is its first publication.

Not an upbeat post, is it? You're wondering what happened to the cheery Christmas pictures of last week. Well, I come out of a liturgical tradition, where we celebrate Advent, that period before Christmas with its whispers of end times and trauma. But for those of you who need a cheerier poem with Christmas/Easter themes, scroll down (and let me stress that the last poem isn't biographical--my father did have cancer, but in a different time frame, and so far, he's fine, and he didn't lose his hair).


The bits of potato refused
to spout and grow, the stubborn
soil spitting nothing through the crust
of earth. So Irish women moved
their households to the side of the shore.
All the better to scavenge a bit of seaweed
to suckle, to send starvation
away for a few more days.

I sigh at the grocery store, reject
one piece of fish after another.
“Don’t you have anything fresher?”
I request an even bigger fish, even though I feed
just my husband and myself.
Might as well have some leftovers
for a nice bouillabaisse.

Women in Cameroon kept the bodies
of their families together by sucking
on the bones of scavenged seconds.
First the animal slaughtered the prey and ripped
the flesh to bits.
The women waited for the predator to eat its fill
and then prepared their own buffet.
They cooked the brittleness out of the bones,
drew out the marrow,
served this strange stew, and hoped
for a better growing season.

In my country of all-you-can-eat extravaganzas,
I refuse to eat meat that clings
to the bone. I indulge
in boneless, skinless chicken,
cook spareribs until the morsels of meat
flake off onto my fork,
and sigh over how much my eating options
bore me.

Plunging Through Darkness

The liturgical year creeps to a close.
The secular world prepares for Christmas
before even buying Halloween candy.
Each November Sunday we hear
the prophecy of the end, the signs of imminent

The last leaves fall when tests find my father’s
cancer resurrected. Those dark
masses lurk behind our holiday conversation.
We argue about the best stuffing,
but what we really want is reassurance
that this Thanksgiving will not be our last,
no holes in future family photos.

We light the Advent candles as the planet
plunges into darkness. We learn the names of procedures
and strange chemicals. We draw Secret Santa
names and devise a caretaking schedule.
We read Isaiah, a strange comfort, that anguished
voice, crying for connection. We hear the Advent
tales again, angels who appear with unsettling
news, submission to strange wills not our own.

In January, the earth inches towards light,
two extra minutes of sun each day.
My father’s appetite returns, and color floods
his flesh. Hair appears in new sprouts
the same week as the daffodils.

(written in 2004; appearing for the first time here)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Happy Santa Lucia Day

My writing time dwindles, like the leaking of the light out of our days this time of year. If only I could stay home to listen to the howling wind, while baking holiday breads and contemplating the traditions of various people. I suppose I should be careful what I wish for: plenty of people are home in their chilly houses because they've lost their jobs. So, off I go to work, to finish the annual reviews of several employees, so that they get their pay adjustments in time. There's an honor to that, right? A different kind of holiday festiveness? I'm no Ebeneezer Scrooge of a boss! In fact, if I was the one in charge of the holiday schedule, we'd have many more days off: Santa Lucia Day, Diwali (all 5 days!), Hanukkah (all 8 days!), . . . well, you can see why I'm not the one in charge of holidays.

So, instead of writing a new post, let me repost what I wrote on my theology blog a year ago.

Today is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath for the head. Many churches, particularly Lutheran churches, will do something special today.

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still. I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders--I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.

It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried. What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Planning for the Future You Want to Have Part 2

Most of us don't have writing lives that consist of day after day, month after month, year after year of success. If your writing life is like mine, you have a year that has a success, perhaps something remarkable, like publication of a chapbook or a book with a spine. And then, maybe you have year after year of plodding along, with a poem publication here, a reading there, but not the remarkable high mark of a book publication. You might wonder if you'll ever get to a high mark again.

You might also wonder if there's something you should be doing in the relative quiet of the down time to get ready for the increased pace of the high mark time. I've written about that before in this post, as has Kelli Russell Agodon in this post. You've probably already done some of these things. For example, most of us have some sort of bio, and maybe we have bios of varying lengths. Many of us have created blogs and websites. If we're writers, those kinds of tasks play on our strengths.

Here are some other things to think about.

I've spent more time in the past 2 weeks than I like to think about trying to figure out how create an address database and import it into Word to make mailing labels. Finishing Line Press will send out 100 postcards to promote my new chapbook in the pre-publication time, but I have to send them mailing labels. You'd think these huge, widely used computer programs would be easier and more intuitive, but I know better. My spouse, who has done more work with these programs than I have, couldn't figure it out. I knew we were very close to having our list of labels, but I could only get one address onto one label; it was maddening. For me, the missing step was to hit the Update Labels button. If I had been on a tight deadline, or if I was a serious procrastinator, I'd have been out of luck when I hit this glitch.

It's holiday card time--why not start typing those names and addresses into a database now, while you have time?

You should also start a file where you keep photos of yourself that you like. You might protest that there are no photos of yourself that you like. Well, start working. Look at the photos of others that you do like. Try out those poses. Most of us have a digital camera and most of us have family, friends, and partners. Surely one of those people would like to play with you as you try out different poses in different locations. Kelli has a great post on photo sessions, and Sandra Beasley talks about author photos done by professionals in this post.

I'm late to the world of digital cameras, and I'm late to the world of Photoshop. Photoshop reminds me of my brain. It will do far more than I need it to do. But I have forced myself to learn some of the elements: to change a color shot to black and white, to crop and edit. And later this afternoon, I'll use my newish printer for the first time to learn how to make old-fashioned photos. I've gotten so used to storing and viewing pictures digitally that I've never used my current printer to create photos. I should have been playing with all of this earlier.

And of course, the challenge comes in staying current with all the old and new technology, with all of our collections (of poems, of photos, of addresses), while at the same time continuing to write the poems (or whatever creative work we're doing). And we have to do all of this, most of us, while maintaining some sort of job that will pay the bills and spending time with partners, families, and friends, and taking time for rejuvenation. Ah, the eternal quest for balance!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gratitude Saturday

I sit here waiting for the cold medicine to take effect. Yes, my cold has resurrected itself (insert heavy sigh here). Let me be honest, as colds go, it's more an annoyance than anything major. Still, I'm aware of my skull and my sinuses in an unpleasant way. At least it seems to respond to over the counter medication.

I had begun to feel the cold resurrecting itself on Thursday, but I responded to Dave Bonta's call for poets to make recordings in honor of Emily Dickinson's 180th birthday. He then went on to create an impressive podcast. I'm so happy to have been part of it (I'm at minute 32 or so). I listened to the whole thing straight through. How intriguing to hear the voices of all these poets, most of whom I had never heard before, although many of them I know through their blogs.

An interesting epistemological question: can we really know each other from reading blogs? (the grouchy philosopher might chime in here to ask: "Can we really ever know each other at all?").

I certainly feel like we can know each other from reading blogs, although when I'm writing to poets whom I know through their blogs, I remind myself of the importance of boundaries. I don't want to seem like some crazy poetry stalker, after all. I remind myself that I'm often more aware of poets whose blogs I follow than they are of me.

Still, I've felt very lucky to have fallen into this world of blogging. I've made some connections that feel more like friendship than fandom to me. For example, when Dave Bonta called me to record my Emily Dickinson entry, we chatted for a bit as if we were old college friends. And a day earlier, Leslea Newman wrote me an e-mail to ask me about my experiences with chapbook publishers--me! I remember reading her book Writing from the Heart (almost 20 years ago!)and wishing that I could have the life of a writer. And now, I do have the life of a writer. I wrote a blog posting that mentioned my delight at appearing in the same journal as Leslea Newman, and she wrote me an e-mail. We exchanged books--what a treat that I never would have hoped for, back when I was that solitary writer first starting out, reading books like Leslea's for inspiration.

And then, last night, a real treat in the mail: a handmade collaged card from Sandy Longhorn, whose blog I love, and whose poetry writing excursions often inspire mine. I'm speechless with happiness.

This year is the first year that I'm going to the AWP. In the past, I've read about bloggers who meet each other in real life at the AWP. This year, perhaps it will be me!

But even if these Internet connections never move to a more conventional type of friendship, I'm still happy to have this community. I remember years ago thinking about MFA programs. People said, "But you already have a PhD. Why would you want an MFA?" For me, it was about the possibility of a writing community. Of course, I've talked to enough people to know that one might not find that writing community in an MFA program. One of the best writers whom I know in real life was so scarred by her time with MFA students that she was in danger of never writing again.

Happily, the connections that I've made on the Internet provide the kind of community I've always wanted. I like having far-flung connections. I like sitting down to my desk, knowing that Sandy will soon be sitting down at her desk, that Dave will be crafting a microposting and a longer posting to document his day, that over on the Pacific coast, Kelli and Susan will be writing soon enough too. I like reading about January's juggling work and motherhood and poetry, and I live the life of a vintage bookstore worker vicariously through Kathleen's blog. I'll likely never live in the wilds of Montana, but Sherry makes it so appealing that I'm tempted to pack my bags. Likewise, Jeannine usually moves to intriguing places; I live vicariously through her blog. I love reading about Diane's forays into the world of book trailers, and I envy her reading events. Likewise, I envy Sandra's schedule, her residencies. Rebecca makes me want to garden and cook and take up the violin, and Beth's blog makes me want to brave a Canadian winter, so as to have such wonderful multicultural opportunities (I want to sing in a cathedral! I want to paint and draw! I want to ride my bike down the streets of a metropolis).

Some days, I worry that I've stopped reading, but it occurs to me that I'm still reading as much as I ever did, but the delivery system has changed. I do read fewer books written on paper, bound between covers. But I read a tremendous amount online. And many of these blogs offer postings every bit as wonderful and carefully crafted as the writing that in pre-Internet days, I'd have found in books. These blogs offer essays about living the writer's life, essays about food and cooking and every other possible topic, book reviews, writing prompts and tips, and all sorts of other instructions.

I'm not one of those writers who worries about the Internet meaning the death of books, the death of writing, the death of reading. On the contrary, I think the Internet offers more of us more opportunities than we would have had otherwise: reading opportunities, friendship opportunities, networking opportunities, educational opportunities, opportunities for all sorts of community.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tribute to My Grandmother's Handiwork

Today is Emily Dickinson's birthday--you probably expected a meditation on her, didn't you? But I don't want to steal Dave Bonta's thunder. He's preparing a really cool podcast, where some of us modern poets talk about what Emily Dickinson means to us. Will he keep the snippet of me singing "Because I Could Not Stop For Death" to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? Will he decide that my voice was too creaky after a day of meetings and an evening of teaching? You'll have to tune in at his blog to find out--but it won't be ready until later today, late afternoon or early evening.

If you absolutely can't wait that long, Garrison Keillor has devoted much of today's The Writer's Almanac to Emily Dickinson; I love the poem on the site, which imagines Dickinson's to-do list.

My blog posting today comes to praise my Grandmother's Christmas crafting. My grandmother was always working on some kind of handicraft: hooking rugs, embroidery, and of course, sewing all her own clothes, and clothes for my mom, my sister, and me.

As her eyesight dimmed and her fingers got stiffer, she found she could still work with plastic canvas. She made more Kleenex box covers than anyone will ever use. I'm partial to her Christmas crafts. Above, you see a tree she made. It now hangs on my office door, and I'm hoping it doesn't offend anyone. To me, a Christmas tree is a secular symbol by now. I'd be cautious about bringing a creche into the office and putting it up where everyone could see it. But a tree seems innocuous. I realize, of course, that I'm biased.

Here you see one of the plastic canvas ornaments, hanging next to a White House ornament. There's a new White House ornament every year, and they're fairly pricey, as ornaments go. I like the juxtaposition. I also like it, because it makes me remember an earlier time, a time when my Grandmother could travel by plane, and we all travelled to be with my folks and to do Christmasy things in the D.C. area. I remember a time when air travel was easier.

This is a bell pull, made out of some kind of burlap type cloth, but more tightly woven. Even in the days when my Grandmother worked with it, that kind of fabric wasn't widely available. I took these pictures and was somewhat shocked to see how badly the inside front door needs a coat or two of paint!

And below, two more ornaments. My grandmother made a few special ornaments out of 3 plastic panels, not the two.

She used to make more ornaments than she could possibly use, and one year, I told her that I'd love a collection of them. She'd always scoff: "Why would you want these old things? It's just something I do to pass the time." Now I'm glad I insisted.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday Pictures to Prompt Your Poems

Maybe you're tired of festive pictures; in that case, scroll to the end of this post, to see the kind of migratory birds who visited our tropical backyard yesterday. Or scroll through, looking for the quirky holiday pictures I've embedded below.

My friend from grad school sent me this picture she took and turned into a Christmas card. She said "We have palm trees too--but ours get covered in snow!!" She lives in Eastbourne England.

Our tree top angel below came from a student many years ago. When I taught at my first full-time job at a community college in the Charleston, SC area, a student in my basic English class gave it to me. As state employees, we weren't supposed to accept gifts from anyone; the previous summer, several legislators had been indicted for taking bribes for votes (puny bribes too!), and tough ethics laws had been enacted. But I simply couldn't give her gift back: all those hours of crocheting work. I decided to accept her gift and hope for the best.

If you want to see more angel photos, migrate over to my theology blog posting.

Elizabeth,one of my friends from graduate school, creates gorgeous counted cross stitch ornaments of her own design; one year, I was lucky enough to receive one.

I love the metalwork below.

We do our own kind of creche around here. I made the dragon on the right side of the picture (medium: clay) and my spouse made the headless figure on the left. One of my talented artist friends from grad school made the two heads out of clay (the woman in the bonnet, the man in the hat).
I also like the books from my childhood on the shelf below, a cool juxtaposition, but I must confess I didn't plan it. If you look closely, you'll see the Little House on the Prairie series, a few Trixie Belden mysteries (much better than Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys!), some books by Madeleine L'Engle, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and a few Narnia books. You'll also notice the shift to adolescence: Judy Blume's Forever, the movie tie-in Fame, and Go Ask Alice.

Below, my first large counted cross stitch piece. I counted cross stitched my way through grad school. Once I had the pattern, I made smaller pieces for all my relatives one year, with different groupings of 4 squares each.

And for those of you tired of Christmas, enjoy this picture of a majestic vulture, taken by my spouse (as is the other vulture picture).

We arrived home from errand running yesterday to find at least twenty vultures flying over our yard. Some of them landed on our shed. I love the picture below as it shows the hugeness of the birds and the tropical jungle of our backyard.

If you enjoyed the pictures of the crafted holiday ornaments, come back tomorrow. I'm planning a tribute to my grandmother's crafting skills.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Holiday Writing Prompts and a Poem that Uses Eggnog as Symbol

I've been having a good poetry writing week. I wonder if it's because I'm avoiding other work. Probably not. I'm doing that work too (back to assessment documents; I wonder if they teach that type of writing/analysis/professional life in grad schools now).

I think it's because I had a few weeks of not writing poetry. I always worry when I'm not writing that I will never write again. You'd think that at some point I'd say, "Relax. You always work in cycles."

Many thanks to Sandy Longhorn, who in this post offered a nugget that led to this morning's poem: "Maybe Scrooge was actually a teacher?" And so, this morning, I thought about that idea, Scrooge as adjunct faculty in today's university. He doesn't last long.

These kind of prompts have often worked well for me. I love imagining characters in different situations. For example, here you'll see my poem that imagines the characters of To Kill a Mockingbird at midlife and beyond; in some ways I think it's one of the saddest poems I've ever written.

My Jesus in modern life poems, however, have a joyfulness that I love. At first, I hesitated to show them to anyone, much less publish them. They felt almost sacrilegious to me. But in some ways, they've proven to be the most popular of my poems. You can hear Garrison Keillor read about Jesus at the bowling alley here; it's the poem that started me down this thematic path.

So, if you're needing a poetry prompt, feel free to play with the idea of Scrooge in modern life. Are there other literary characters that we associate with this holiday time of year? Why not play with them?

Or perhaps you want to take a holiday food and see what kind of symbolism you can work into the poem. Here's one I wrote that revolves around eggnog, published here for the first time:

Homemade Eggnog

Back before we knew the fat grams of every food,
back before we worried about salmonella and other exotic
sounding creatures lurking in food, waiting to poison
us, back when eggs were the perfect food, not
cholesterol time bombs. Back in those innocent
days, we make homemade eggnog.

We do not cook the eggs. We separate
yolk from white, just as we are apart
from our families. We beat sugar into yolks
the color of sunshine, some sweetness
into the darkness of solstice days.

We whip air into the whites, we beat
them into a frenzy, the way that exams have stirred
us up, the way that school plots of our own devising
pump us full of the air of our own self-importance.

I pour cream into the mixture, cream clotted
with the richness of butterfat. In later years, I will create
cooked eggnog with skim milk, a pitiful
affair, thin and runny, not worth remembering.

We blend the fluffed whites into the sugary concoction.
Carefully, we fold until the separate ingredients
cannot be teased apart again. We dip out cups
for everyone and toast our eternal friendship.
I feel nourishment seep into every cell
as I fix the faces of my friends into my brain.

I cannot imagine a time when I will forsake
eggnog as too fatty, when I will be too busy
to create from scratch. I cannot dream
that I will lose touch with these friends, cannot fathom
the many ways in which we will betray each other.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Arctic Chill Invades Everglades Country

When we first moved to South Florida, I wondered why anyone would buy an AC unit with a heater down here. We even live in a house with a fireplace, but when we built a fire, it usually heats up the living room so much that the AC kicks on. We went for years without ever turning on the heat. I couldn't have even assured you that it worked.

I am afraid that some time during the last 12 years, we have become more like native Floridians. I no longer swim in the wintertime, even though the backyard pools are usually warmer than the pool I swam in when I was a grad student at the University of South Carolina. We turn on the heat earlier each year.

Today, our heat has been running. We resisted yesterday, as I joked about the fact that a few months ago, I was fighting the urge to turn the thermostat down towards the lower 70's to get cool enough, and now that the internal temp in the house was 70 degrees, I was shivering melodramatically.

Last night, we were down to 66 degrees. I realize that for most of you in the upper 48 states, that's not really very cold. I have chilly houses on the brain because of Dave's recent post about how to stay warm (or warmish) in a chilly house. It reminded me of my grad school years, when we lived in an apartment that had a single heat register in the middle hallway, and I would stand over the grate to try to warm up. We put plastic up around the windows and made heavy blankets to insulate the doors and keep the heat blocked into the only room we'd be in. We used a space heater.

And this was South Carolina, which didn't exactly have frigid winters. It's not like we were going to grad school in upstate New York. But the humid South often has much damper winters, and that damp chill seems to settle into one's bones and not leave until Spring.

This morning, I decided to stop being such a wimp, and I put on my Christmas sweatshirt that I hardly ever get to wear because Decembers are usually so warm and went out for my brisk walk. It was brisk because it was 43 degrees outside, and it was brisk because I walked at quite a quick pace. Chilly air and a smattering of Christmas lights in the pre-dawn hours--just wondrous.

Now it's back to the poem I was writing about this recent Autumn of the Ax, as I'm calling it, where we've lost jobs and several of my colleagues have lost family members and my friend will soon be losing her original hip. Some days I feel more like a hospice chaplain than a department chair.

I also listened to this great Walter Moseley interview on Fresh Air. He talks about family and the agony of Alzheimer's. Lots of great poetry possibilities there. What if our computers contracted Alzheimer's? After this Summer of the Broken Computers, I'm not so sure that computers don't.

And he gives a great writing prompt, for those of you (like me!) who still need writing prompts for your Composition students' last assignments. If you were losing your memory in a severe way, and a doctor could give you a pill that would restore your memory for 3 months after which you would die or you could live in a deteriorating state for the next 10 years, which would you choose and why? His latest book explores this question.

Or maybe I just want to dream about a session with a professional photographer. After reading this interview with Rosanne Olson on Susan Rich's blog, I'm almost convinced.

Head over there to enter a drawing for Olson's latest book--it sounds like a winner.

What I'd really like to do is some holiday baking. Time to make a holiday bread or two or three. Santa Lucia Day approaches; what is Santa Lucia Day, you ask--go here for some answers. Alas, today I go to school early. Maybe later this afternoon. Or maybe I'll bask in the glow of the Christmas tree and address Christmas cards. Or maybe I'll take a nap. Perhaps I'll write a poem.

Today is a shorter day at work--I could do all of those things! But it's the time of year when it's important to reign in my overachiever self, to just choose one activity and force myself to be fully present.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Happy Birthday Everglades National Park and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge!

On this day in 1947, Harry Truman dedicated Everglades National Park, here in South Florida. Intriguingly enough, on this day in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge became a federally protected area. I have never been that far north, but I have spent time in the Everglades. Below, you'll see a picture of me canoing in the southernmost part of the park, where the Everglades mingle with the Atlantic.

It's also one of the few places on earth where you might see alligators or you might see crocodiles; usually those animals don't cohabitate. You might also see Burmese pythons, although we have hope that last year's unusually cold winter killed a lot of these invaders who are so destructive to the natural inhabitants. Happily, I didn't see any of these scary creatures when we paddled through the water. We did see alligators several times during the summer of 2009--much to the delight of the out of town guests who were with us--but always from the safety of boardwalks and shorelines.

They call the Everglades the river of grass, which it is in places. It's a cool park because there are so many different kinds of ecosystems, from swamps to marshes to grassy savannas to pine forests. It's close to Miami, but such a world away. It's great for birdwatching, biking on back trails, camping, hiking, and boating (at least in some areas, with some kinds of boats).

One year we came back from the mountains in the Spring, and I just felt jangled, not yet ready to be back to the hustle and bustle and noise of South Florida. We hopped in the car and went to the park, where we spent a Sunday afternoon and evening. We only saw 3 other cars when we were out there that May Sunday: the out-of-towners had gone home, and the natives usually stop coming to the park in the summer, out of fear of mosquitoes. It was WONDERFUL. Even during the park's more crowded times, I still leave feeling refreshed and renewed--one of the purposes, of course, of protecting these vast swaths of natural areas across the U.S.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Give-Aways Coming Soon!

Over at Kelli's blog, I was delighted to see this blog post where she's giving away The Happiness Project, a book that originally belonged to me. I read it, enjoyed it enough, but knew I didn't want to keep it. Shortly after, I saw that it was on Kelli's To-Read list, and I wrote to ask if she'd like a gently used copy. She said yes, and I mailed it. And now it's ready for a new home.

I have many books on my shelves that I'm ready to send on to new homes. I've spent the last 2 decades buying books. I'd often read a library copy first, then about a year or two later, I'd see the book on the remainder shelf or in a used bookstore. I'd think, "Wow, that was a good book. Some day, I'll want to read it again. And here it is, only two dollars." And I'd buy it. And it's been sitting on my shelf ever since.

I am coming to terms with the fact that there are more wonderful books in the world than I will ever have a chance to read. I am sadly acknowledging that I will never reread most books.

In addition, my bookshelves contain many books that were important to me years ago, but I've internalized their wisdom now and don't need the book. I have a whole bookcase of creativity books, for example. Lots of how to get published books (most of them, yes, saying the same thing, and most of them written before the explosion of Internet/electronic possibilities). Lots of books of writing prompts.

We used to move every other year or so. Moving offers a wonderful opportunity to sort through stuff and get rid of it. We haven't moved since 1998. It's time to start sorting, beginning with the books.

But what to do with them? I will send the books in my theology bookcase to the Theological Book Network. This organization ships books to seminaries and schools Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Why books, you ask. Why not electronic material? Because in many of those countries, electricity cannot be counted upon, and Internet access is not existent. But a book is surprisingly durable and can be shared with many readers.

But what to do with the non-theological books? I could donate them to the public library, which doesn't need them. You'd probably think that they would sell them, in a Friends of the Library sale kind of event. Maybe. But really, how many of these books can they sell in a year?

When I saw Kelli's book give-away postings yesterday, I had a flash of insight. I could give books to people who might be genuinely interested in giving the books a good home. The book gets a second life. And if the recipient passes the book along, so much the better: third lives, fourth lives!

I'm considering this possibility: each week next year, I'll have a book give-away. Maybe I'll give away one book that everyone knows about because of my post and a surprise book. Maybe in the comment section where people enter the drawing, they could talk about their other interests to help me choose the surprise book. The idea of doing this delights me.

I had this thought too, which may seem unbearably mercenary. If I put some information in the packages of books that I sent out, information about my own books, then the cost of postage becomes tax deductible, if I declare myself a writer, and deduct expenses and claim the income, such as it might be.

So, yes, I shall give this idea a whirl. On January 2, I'll post the first book give-away and have the drawing on January 9, along with the next book give-away.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Favorite Poetry Books of 2010: Add These Books to Your Shopping List

So, it's 3 weeks until Christmas, and you can't face one more crowded store. Why not order books to finish out your Christmas shopping? They'll be shipped to your door. You'll be supporting poetry from the ease of your armchair.

You say that the people on your list don't like poetry? I bet they'll like these books. And if they don't? Well, it won't be the first time that they've gotten a gift they didn't like--and maybe they'll grow into it.

I chose the books I've most enjoyed this year, most of them published this year. For last year's list, which is more comprehensive, go here. For a list of chapbooks, go here. For other ways to support poetry with your gift dollars, go here.

And as I chose this list, I couldn't help but notice how every book but the one by Kamiko Hahn came to my attention because of blogs. With several books, I already knew about the poet (again, usually because of stumbling across their blog), and I had the pleasure of watching the book publishing process of the book on the list below (author photos, blurbs, promotional videos, book covers--a wealth of information on various blogs). So if you ever wonder if your time spent writing a blog is worthwhile, I would say yes!

Here is the list in alphabetical order by author:

Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room by Kelli Russell Agodon: An original voice, poems that change the way I see the world, poems that plagiarize moonlight and confuse macrame and macabre and firmly situate themselves in the pantheon of American literature. (White Pine Press, 2010)

I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley: poems that animate the inanimate, from sand to eggplants to jukeboxes, poems that took my breath away, so unique was the approach of this volume. (W.W. Norton, 2010)

Unmentionables by Beth Ann Fennelly: how could you not like a book of poems that includes a sequence of poems inspired by kudzu? (W.W. Norton, 2008)

Toxic Flora by Kamiko Hahn: nature poems, red in tooth and claw. (W. W. Norton, 2010)

Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread by Ava Leavell Haymon: poems that use the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel" to illuminate modern life. (Louisiana State University Press, 2010)

Temptation by Water by Diane Lockward: poems of ordinary life, from filberts to lychees to observing the neighbors to watering the lawn--along the way, the succulent poignancy of midlife. (Wind Publications, 2010)

Blood Almanac by Sandy Longhorn: powerful poems that pulse with life with glimpses of a scary, violent undercurrent (Anhinga Press, 2006)

Underlife by January Gill O'Neil: poems that explore being a parent, being a child, all the roles we navigate as adults. (CavanKerry Press, 2010)

The Alchemist's Kitchen by Susan Rich: poems that explore contemporary life (midlife romance, food, walks, abandoned buildings, structures we claim) and poems that explore the life of early-20th-century artist Myra Albert Wiggins (White Pine Press, 2010)

Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith: poems that explore Hurricane Katrina from every possible angle. (Coffee House Press, 2008)

The Wave-Maker by Elizabeth Spires: poems rooted in the natural world, poems that shimmer and shiver with a numinous quality. (W.W. Norton, 2008)

And for something slightly different: Poetry in Person edited by Alexander Neubauer. A wonderful teacher, Pearl London, invited some of the best poets of the late twentieth century to her classroom, where they talked about poems in process. This book is a wonderful book of interviews and poems, full of gems of insight, like this one from June Jordan: "Accessibility is a preeminent characteristic of work that lasts, work that therefore has the possibility of a world-changing impact" (p. 68).

Happy Reading!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lessons from Pre-Schoolers

One of the treats that comes from spending time with my nephew is seeing his completely different take on the world. During the last 2 visits, we played hide-and-seek. But he makes up the rules as he goes along. He'll say, "You go hide, and count, and then yell, 'Ready or not, here you come." Or "You count, and I'll hide, but don't look for me behind the sofa." One variation that he loved involved me hiding, and then him chasing me once he found me. One time we ran through the house exactly 3 times. One time we had to go to certain parts of the house, but not others.

He's not a rule-bound little guy. When he paints, his mom (my sister) squirts all the paints on a paper plate palette. He takes his brush and swirls all the colors together.

As far as I know, he's never said, "Yuck, I made a color I didn't want." He's never balled up a painting and said, "This doesn't look like a turkey at all!"

I've been trying to adopt his attitude. Adults get too bound by the world as they've always known it. As the years go by, if we're not careful, our world constricts until we can't even dream another possibility.

Yesterday, I talked with a student in an elevator. Her sister works 3 shifts of 12 hours each during a week, and she says she'd like a job like that. I said, "Yeah, but a 12 hour shift--how exhausting. What if we worked 10 hour shifts? Or had a boss who gave us the task and the deadline and said, 'Do it however works best for you.'" She looked at me like I had lost my mind.

If she sees that dream as radical, what does that say? I see it as a modest little dream, this dream of not having to sit in an office just because work tradition has it that people sit in an office for x number of hours a week.

I've noticed something similar in the Internet storms over whether or not an MFA is valuable: all these people, holding tightly to what they know to be true--but all these conflicting truths can't all be true, can they? I like Kelli's response best, that there are many ways to be a writer. The important thing is to find out what works best for you and your work. No other writer can do what you're doing, in the way that you're doing it. It's important to structure your life in a way that nurtures your work. For some of us, we can make a life in academia. For some of us, we may need a different path. There are thousands of ways to be a writer.

We should take a lesson from pre-schoolers, who don't have decades of socialization molding them. If we could have any kind of life we wanted, what would that look like? If we could make up the rules and the boundaries, what would we create? If we believed that any kind of life we wanted was possible, what would we create?