Monday, February 28, 2011

The Birth of Blogging (Back in the 1500s)

Today is the birthday of Michel de Montaigne. Many literary historians credit Montaigne with creating and perfecting the art of the personal essay--although many of Montaigne's contemporaries found his digressions distracting.

I first started teaching the British Literature Survey class in 1992. I taught British Lit from the beginning to 1789, a dizzying task. I remember talking about Montaigne and the personal essay and seeing blank looks. Students could understand the road from the Mystery plays to Shakespeare to 18th century farces to the movies they loved. They understood how poetry had evolved. But essays? They hadn't really read essays and couldn't be convinced that essays, particularly personal essays, were important. Who cared what one individual guy thought about things?

My how life has changed. Now I have many students who want to refuse to read anything that isn't based in fact. They feel that a true story has more validity. They scoff at writers who "just make stuff up," as if it's somehow easier and therefore more dismissible.

I used to refuse to read memoirs, just generally, on principle, unless the author had actually done something interesting--and going down into a self-destructive spiral was not how I defined interesting. I loved to read memoirs by writers and collections of interviews with writers and other artists.

I still do, but now I'm watching those memoirs unspool in real time. I love hearing a poet talk about assembling a manuscript and then hearing that the manuscript will be published. I love seeing those steps: choosing a cover, assembling a book tour, planning individual readings. I have learned so much.

So, thank you Montaigne. Thank you for thinking that a regular person's insights were important enough to capture, that we didn't have to be a queen or a king to be worthy. Thank you for writing down your thoughts. Thank you for publishing them. Thank you for hacking out the trail that would be traversed by so many important people.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Movie Disappointments and Perfections on Oscars Week-end

So, on this Sunday when lots and lots of people will tune in to see the Academy Awards, I have movie disappointments on the brain. I have not actually seen many of the movies that are nominated for awards this year, or any year. Gone are my high school years, the early 80's, where my friends and I went to several movies a week-end. Given the fact that fewer movies were made back then, there were a few points in the year when we had actually seen everything that was released.

Ah, high school, back when I had scads of free time. High school took up about as much of my time as my current job--why did it seem I had more time? Was it the fact that there were fewer other distractions? Fewer movies, fewer television channels, no Internet? Was I better at time management?

Anyway, back to movies. On Friday night, we watched the latest (was it the latest?) Woody Allen movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona. It had gotten good reviews, so I took the chance. As I suffered through this movie, I tried to remember the last Woody Allen movie I really enjoyed. Then I tried to figure out why the critics liked this movie. I wouldn't have added it to the Netflix queue if I hadn't heard good things about it.

It could have been a sexy movie, but it was dull. It could have been an interesting exploration of alternative relationships, a triad, not a diad. We only got about 10 minutes of that. It could have been an interesting exploration of art and what it means to be a creative person, but it fell back on that old stereotype that artists are barking mad people who will stick a knife in you (both literally and figuratively) and shoot you. I even had hopes for the scenery, but alas, no. And what horrible, stilted dialogue--NOBODY talks like that, particularly not beautiful, young women. Sigh.

Then yesterday, we watched the remake of Fame. What a hideous movie. We couldn't keep the characters straight because they were barely developed (much like the Woody Allen movie). Were the characters talented? Hard to say. The male dancer who wasn't good enough? We saw him in his first week of class, but we never saw him dance again--and we get the interview that he has with the dance teacher where she tells him he'll never make a living by dancing, but maybe he could teach. Well, I'll just have to take her word for it, won't I? And my spouse was the one who noted that the other students wouldn't have seemed nearly as talented without all their electronics. The lunchroom scene for example--it began with a boombox.

It was SO bad that we watched the first part of the original movie. SO MUCH BETTER. What a relief to see students playing instruments in that lunchroom. What a delight to think of a lunchroom that had two old pianos just hanging out there. What a delight to see students improvise. What a delight to see students dancing like they've actually been classically trained. Ah well.

And then we switched gears. We watched When Harry Met Sally. And let me take a quick aside here to say how wonderful it is that my husband was perfectly happy to have this chick flick film fest with me. We wouldn't want to do it every Saturday. Some Saturdays we will watch nothing but Westerns--and then I get the Best Wife Award.

I'm happy to report that When Harry Met Sally still holds up all these years. Witty dialogue, crisp plotting, beautiful settings, perfectly done minor characters, truly funny bits. It was a great way to end my disappointing movie streak.

Will I be watching the Academy Awards? No, I will not. I just don't care enough to suffer through all those hours and all those commercials (I feel that way about a great many things these days)--I'll just catch the recap tomorrow.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Would You Blog for a Living?

Recently, I've heard of several people who just up and quit their jobs. My first thought was to wonder how awful the job must have become for someone to just quit in this economy. And then I wondered if there are some people who are just better off than I am. I know that economists tell us we should have 6 months to 1 year of salary in our savings account. Yeah, right.

But then I wondered if those people had better jobs waiting, which led me to a different train of thought. What kind of wonderful job would have to be offered to me to get me to leave the safety and the known qualities of my current job for something else?

Well, it's getting hard for me to think of voluntarily trading in my current salary for something lower; in my younger years, if the job looked better, I might not have given a salary cut a second thought. Likewise, I'm getting to the age (45) where I need to think about health insurance and retirement.

So, let's say that all of those factors stayed the same. What would I like to spend my days doing, if anything could be possible?

My friend and I had a conversation yesterday about whether or not we'd really like to be paid to write on a rigorous schedule. She said that even if she was able to write whatever she wanted, she wouldn't want to work out of her home. She needs the human interaction that her job gives her.

Many days, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with human interaction and the thought of staying home writing appeals to me. Would that appeal wear off quickly? Hard to say.

Yesterday, I saw this article about a woman who makes a living blogging, so the topic was on my brain. Of course, if you read the article carefully, you'll find out that it isn't just blogging pays this woman's bills. She does a lot of speaking engagements and some product endorsements, and she's written 2 books. Still . . .

So, if you could blog the way you always blog, but make a living at it, would you want to? Or would that be too much pressure?

I'd do it in a heart beat. I already feel the pressure of a self-imposed deadline; I used to think it was just because I was a student, but it has persisted. I write, even when no one is there to crack the whip (well, no one but me). I wonder if/how my writing would change if someone was there dangling carrots.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thursday Infrequencies

I walked outside this morning at 5 a.m.--fog! Silvery, misty fog. I've lived in parts of the country where fog in the morning would not be unusual, but we don't get much fog at my house at the southern tip of the U.S. We're three miles from the beach, so there's usually too much breeze for fog to form. There's also either too much moisture in the air, which would result in
rain, not fog, or not much moisture in the air at all, especially in the non-summer months.

People think of South Florida as humid and hot, but most of the rest of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River is much more hot and humid, at least in the summer. Here we break records if our high temps go above 96 degrees; I've lived places where the summer highs were 110 for days at a time, and those temps weren't record breaking. Likewise, with our beach breezes, the humidity doesn't really get dense, the way it does in many other parts of the country.

So, fog this morning. And then I went for a run, which is also infrequent for me these days. Four days a week, I go to spin class, and I force myself to pedal at a furious pace. My plan is always to run 2 other days during the week, but I rarely do. Some days I walk. On fewer days, I run. Some days, exercise is just not part of the plan.

Yesterday, I got notice that two of my poems had been accepted for pacificREVIEW. Hurrah! And later, I stopped to think about how long it had been since my work had been accepted by a new venue, especially a venue that had been in existence for awhile. I've had good luck with literary magazines that are just starting, but journals to which I've been submitting for years but never getting an acceptance? Not as much.

Maybe I should have realized that my luck was turning when I started getting handwritten notes on certain rejection slips. But then what do I do with the experience of almost having a poem accepted by a journal last year (rejected in the final round, darn it!), and then this year, a rejection slip without any encouragement at all? It's always hard to know, isn't it?

So, I will do what I've always done, submit and submit and submit again.

In the meantime, I have some prose pieces to write--for money! As well as for love! That's been infrequent, but I'm hoping it will become the new normal. More on those pieces as they appear.

If you're a Florida resident, you have until tomorrow to get your chapbook manuscript in the mail for the YellowJacket Press Peter Meinke Prize--no entry fee! Now that's an infrequent event. You can get more details here.

Tomorrow, I have the day off. Yes, the rest of the world had Monday off, but for reasons mysterious to me, our school will celebrate Presidents Day tomorrow. I'll continue to wrestle with the poem I've been writing that thinks about Metro cards and subways. I used to keep a Metro card with me, even when I didn't live in D.C. My younger self saw that Metro card as a talisman, something to keep me from seeming ordinary and boring. My younger self thought that being ordinary and boring would be the WORST THING EVER.

Now, I'm thinking about subways and journeys and life and wondering how to create a poem that doesn't seem cliched and all too frequent. Today I'm thinking about being on a subway line to a destination that wasn't what I planned, but isn't that bad, all things considered.

Today, I'm grateful for the days when my life is ordinary and boring, and happily, my daily life is frequently ordinary and boring. My grown up self knows that unordinary lives are often wretched. Non-boring means that a family member lies dying or a hurricane has come through or the house needs repair or the court system has opened its gaping maw and sucked you right into its grinding jaws.

Let the subway ride of my life be normal and boring! Let me conserve all the energy that goes into engineering an eventful life go to my creative pursuits instead.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How We Know the World Has Changed

I keep watching events in the Middle East and shaking my head (often my response to the Middle East, no matter what's going on). I keep thinking about these world leaders who seem to have been in power forever, and now, suddenly, it looks like they won't be. I think about how we've spelled their names differently through the years (al-Gaddafi, Gaddafi, Qaddafi, and back in the Reagan days, weren't we spelling his name with a K?). These people begin to seem immortal, except, of course, they're not.

I remember when Reagan bombed Libya in April of 1986--the whole world expected terrorist retribution. I was headed home from college to work in my summer job as social worker in D.C. I took the Metro everywhere. I was convinced that terrorists would blow up the Metro and end my young life.

I was probably in far more danger from other human elements on the Metro than Libyan terrorists. I was working in a dicey part of D.C., and that was the summer that D.C. had the nation's highest murder rate. But I kept my attention at high alert that whole summer. I was expecting terrorists or nuclear attack or any number of threats.

The world has clearly changed, based on my Metro experiences a few weeks ago. Several nights I came home after the evening rush hour, but still a bit early for club hoppers to be coming home. Still, I was amazed by how many young folks were staggering around drunk in the Metro stations.

These weren't down-on-their-luck drunks or homeless people looking for shelter from the cold by buying a Metro card. No, these were well-dressed hipster types and the females who loved them. In my younger days, I wouldn't have gotten drunk and descended into the caverns of the subway stations. It just didn't feel safe to me.

Truth to tell, it still doesn't feel safe to me. I was also astonished at what people will talk about on the Metro. I eavesdropped--the quarters were close, so how could I avoid it? I remember a pair of young women talking about their sexual exploits. I also remember the unsavory men nearby who were listening--and I worried about these young women and what might happen if the unsavory men decided to follow them. The young women were so oblivious, and for a brief moment, I envied them. What kind of world did they grow up in and live in to feel so safe?

Not the world of my youth, that's for sure. I was taught that the world was a dangerous place. There were rapists waiting, and if you escaped the rapists, the U.S.S.R. would be trying to resume taking over the world momentarily--and maybe, we'd all blow ourselves up in a nuclear bomb. Ah, the waning decades of the twentieth century! How strangely nostalgic I feel.

And yet, how hopeful I feel with these events in the Middle East. It's similar to how I felt in 1990 when Nelson Mandela walked out of jail. I cheered and yet worried for his safety. And yes, I know that it's a far distance from the first moments of liberty to a stable democratic country (South Africa still isn't really there), but how I love these first moments, when we can say, "Good-bye evil dictators! Be sure to release the captives on your way out!"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy Birthday Terry Eagleton!

Today is the birthday of Terry Eagleton. For those of us who have gone to graduate school to study literature in the past 20 years, we know that name and we may know his writing. I always enjoyed Eagleton because I found him more readable than most of the literary theorists I tried to plow through; in fact he wrote a book that explained literary theory in an approachable way, and he did it in just 200 pages. After reading enough of my posts, it probably won't surprise you to learn that if I had to label my literary criticism that I write (and my approach to literature and pop culture more widely), I'd say that I'm a feminist first (meaning that I look at literature through the lens of gender first), with strong Marxist leanings (it's hard for me to escape the implications of class and money).

Here's a taste of Eagleton's explanations of literary criticism: "In the Cambridge of the early 1960's, this was known among other things as existentialism, a term which was for the most part an ontologically imposing way of saying that one was nineteen, far from home, feeling rather blue, and like a toddler in a play school hadn't much of a clue as to what was going on. A few decades later this condition persisted among late adolescents, but it was now known as post-structuralism" (Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, page 4).

The only book of Eagleton's that I actually own is one that was released two years ago: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. What a witty book! For a meditation on the theology of the book, head on over to this post on my theology blog. In this space, I'll give you some of his quotes about art and creativity.

He says, "Works of art cannot save us. They can simply render us more sensitive to what needs to be repaired" (159).

Here are some quotes about Christianity and literature/the imagination: "Fundamentalism is in large part a failure of the imagination . . ." (page 54) and "But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov" (7).

Here's my all-time favorite quote from the book, a view of God, not as a judge or an angry parent, but God as a creator: "God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it" (8).

Think about your own art, and then read that quote again. How do you approach your art? As a way to get rich? For the sheer delight of it? As a way to transmit knowledge? As a way to create something that has never existed before?

I'm not suggesting that there's a right way and everything else is the wrong way. I do think that if we're clear about our artistic purpose, we'll save ourselves all sorts of time and heartache and dead ends.

And whatever our purpose, I'd argue that our art should bring us joy. If it doesn't bring us joy, what's the point? If I want drudgery, I'll go scrub the kitchen floor with a toothbrush. If I want joy, I'll turn to poetry, to blogging, to photography, to paint, to recipe ingredients.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Spectres Old and New

On this day, in 1848, The Communist Manifesto was published. I've written about my personal relationship with that book here. But it's interesting to me to think about the history of this little book as we enter the 7th day of protests in Wisconsin, and as we see revolution spreading throughout the Middle East, with such a variety of results.

I've spent years thinking about the issues of race and gender, and where they intersect with class. I've come to believe that class issues are at the bottom of many of our struggles. We can buy our way out of many of the areas of discrimination that come with being a minority or a woman.

Yesterday afternoon, after a long and successful morning of walking a half marathon, I watched Winter's Bone. What a riveting movie, a movie that shows us issues of class and poverty, especially rural poverty, in stark terms. We see the young protagonist try to join the Army because she so desperately needed the $40,000 sign up fee to keep her younger siblings fed. We see the desperation in these characters' lives.

Watching these kind of movies often feels like seeing an alternate future, the kind of grim reality that I'd be facing if some of my ancestors several generations ago had made worse choices or had been beset by more desperate circumstances. Watching these kind of movies gives me a kind of survivor's guilt and a wish that I lived in a country that gave people more choices and more ways to climb out of poverty.

Yes, the writings of Marx seem more relevant than ever. Yet when he died, he had no sense of how influential his writing would become (for example, by 1950, roughly half of the population of the world would be living under Marxist governments, although Marx himself might have disavowed a number of those governments). It makes me think about my own writing, about which ideas I consider most important, and about how those ideas might live on beyond me.

It might not even be only my published works. On Friday, I went with a class of students to a local museum to see the Treasures from the Vatican show. One of my teacher friends asked me about Paul and Paul's misogyny. I tried to explain that if Paul reappeared he'd be rather shocked at how we've been using his letters. He was writing those letters to real churches facing local problems. Paul likely had no sense that he was forming church/Christian practice for centuries to follow.

So, as you write your e-mails and Facebook messages this week, take a few moments to think about how they might outlive you. As you suffer through the disappointments that a creative life will sling at you periodically, take heart from our wide variety of literary ancestors who would shake their heads in disbelief that they've become part of the canon.

And then, spend a moment thinking about the workers of the world, how many chains we still have, how we might lose those chains, how our writing might transform the world.

I posted this poem in early January, but I can't resist the opportunity to post it again. It first appeared in The Julia Mango and will also be included in my forthcoming chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Morning in America: 1984


I read The Communist Manifesto on the DC Metro,
surrounded by commuters going to their downtown jobs
and tourists in town to see their government in action.

I wear sensible shoes and my hair in a braid.
I work in a tough part of town, that summer
that DC has the nation’s highest murder rate.

That season is also the one when the social
service agency runs out of resources. My summer job:
to answer the phone, to tell the downtrodden there is no money.

Between calls, I return to Marx. I picture
him, prowling the streets of Europe, winding up in the British
Museum, where he could write and stay warm.

I write my own poems. I imagine they will change
the world, that all I must do to rid the planet of injustice
is to point out the inequities, nothing to lose but our chains.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Trailer Experiments--You Watch While I Walk

Today I will be walking the streets of Ft. Lauderdale--no, not in the ways you might be thinking!

About a year ago, a friend asked if I'd walk the A1A Half Marathon with her. I said sure, not really thinking about how long it takes to walk 13.1 miles. I thought, we'll walk, we'll have a little breakfast.

Of course, that may end up being what we do. We haven't trained much. It will get hot once the sun comes up. Or we may walk the whole thing as we revel in being able to walk without the threat of vehicles.

video

In the meantime, here's the rough draft of a possible book trailer for my upcoming chapbook. It has no audio yet. And I wouldn't post it widely until the pre-order period actually starts. So, my question here is, would this book trailer make you intrigued enough to order or at least to investigate further?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Draft: Fairy Tale for Girls with Mapquest Fragments

So, for the first month of 2011, I was doing a fairly good job at accomplishing my writer's goals. Then I went to the AWP convention, and it all fell apart. I came away from that convention with a lot of inspiration, but in the 2 weeks since I've been back, I've felt almost too frazzled and pulled in too many directions to follow those inspirations to fruition.

A complicated way of saying that I haven't written a poem since January 28. I've spent the last few days feeling a bit agonized and desperate about that fact.

I tried to console myself by thinking about the other writing projects that have come my way this week, and some of them will result in money! Of course I've been distracted. But this morning, as I was making my coffee-cocoa-concoction, I told myself firmly, "You will write a poem between now and next Saturday."

And then, the magic of the blogosphere opened itself to me. I read this part of Sandy Longhorn's post on her Friday drafting process: "As I was drifting off to sleep I thought I might try for another fairy tale and suddenly had an image of a girl and a bunch of maps. There it was: "Fairy Tale for Girls who Gather Maps." I leaned over and grabbed my cell phone to email myself the title so I wouldn't forget. I was too tired to get up and write it down."

And then, suddenly, inspiration came to me! I thought of my own recent misadventures with maps and came up with this title: "Fairy Tale for Girls Who Rely on Mapquest."

I used the experience of Thursday night, as well as an earlier experience in September. We were driving up to meet my parents at a resort, a resort where we'd been several times, and I thought I knew where I was going, so I didn't take very good directional notes. To make things worse, I used a sheet of paper where I'd been doodling a poem and compiling a grocery list. My spouse, who tried to make sense of my notes, who was being the navigator as I drove, flung the paper away in disgust: "It says to make a right somewhere but with no street name and something about beer and bread, and manicures for the homeless and singing in the transsexual choir."

Clearly, Mapquest doesn't think in such lyrical images.

My spouse gets very irritated in these situations, and so he was not amused. I was so very proud of myself on Thursday because I actually printed out the directions, only to discover that the printer had cut off the end of the directions. All these ideas swirled in my brain, and it was the title of Sandy's poem that made them gel into a poem.

Hurrah! I wrote a poem this morning! May you all have inspired week-ends, whether you're inspired to explore your city or to explore a book or to explore a relationship or to write/paint/cook/collage/_______ (fill in the blank with your own favorite creative exercise).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Wrong Ways and Right Ways in Miami on a Thursday Night

Last night, my spouse and I headed down to Miami to hear the fabulous Sandra Beasley read her poetry and to enjoy the Open Studio night at the LegalArts residency building. At first, I thought we were in for a disastrous night. I had dutifully printed the Mapquest directions, but I had failed to realize that the end part of the directions hadn't printed. We zoomed by the building, and when I turned around, I was driving the wrong way down a one way street. I know that because a police cruiser turned on its lights and pulled over to my window to tell me so.

Luckily, the policeman was kind and took pity on me. He said, "Go to that corner and turn right and you'll be fine." No written warning, no ticket. But why? Because I looked like an out-of-place, suburban, middle-aged woman? Because my spouse sat beside me with his reflective glasses, short hair cut, and dress shirt and tie--a look that gives him an undercover, DEA/FBI/CIA agent kind of look? For whatever reason, we caught a break.

We weren't very far away from the building, and we quickly got our bearings. We parked and went upstairs to the studio floor of the LegalArts building.

What a cool concept, to provide affordable living/working space for artists. What a great idea, to salvage an old warehouse of a building. How wonderful to open up the building to guests so that we can see what everybody is up to.

We walked into the Sandra Beasley's studio. My first thought: whoa, I've never been to a poetry reading in someone's bedroom. But Sandra was a gracious host, and the reading was wonderful. If you ever have a chance to hear her read, don't miss it! She read poems and then she read an essay which explored the moment just before a school talent show when she committed to her poet self. The short piece was also an interesting meditation on her mother, a painter, and the tensions that women face as they try to balance family responsibilities and artistic vision. It's an issue that still interests her, as evidenced by her great blog post where Sandra responds to the Vida statistics about the differences in men's writing and women's writing that gets submitted and published.

After the reading, we visited the other studios. We met artists who are doing interesting things with paint and with light and and with pencil and with neckties. It was cool to talk to the artists, who were all so welcoming.

Afterwards, we drove to a Miami wine store which has been sending me enticing e-mails. On the way back, we got a bit turned around and got to see downtown Miami close up. It's interesting to think about how the downtown has changed since we moved here in 1998--so many more high rises. When we first moved here, downtown Miami had a bit of a seedy air, with a lot of abandoned buildings where now there is an arena and a revitalized arts district and an international financial district. And lots of traffic for a Thursday night!

But we made our way home, and tucked ourselves in, happy to have had something different to do on a weeknight.

The LegalArts people are up to something interesting in downtown Miami. I look forward to seeing what they do with their space and their opportunities.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Apocalypse Gal Considers Malthus

Today is the birthday of Thomas Malthus. As I recall from a long ago high school class, Malthus determined that population growth couldn't continue indefinitely, one of the first of modern times (modern even though he was born in 1766; my students would not call that modern, but in terms of the history of thought, he might be one of the first moderns, depending on your definitions) to do so. He seemed to see disease and famine as positive events, in that they put a check on the expansion that would threaten all humanity.

As a teenager, I found his ideas cold and hard. In grad school, as I learned more about the England of his time, I began to understand his mindset.

It's interesting to think about Malthus in this time period of climate change. I've been reading Mark Harstgaard's Hot: Living through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. He reports on the scientists who are realizing that climate change is happening faster than we thought. Not too long ago (like within the last 5 years), scientists assured us that we wouldn't pass the point of no return until the end of the 21st century. Now, many scientists are fairly sure we already passed it. We still need to make changes for the long-term good of humanity many centuries out, but those of us alive right now and those who will be born in the next several generations are going to be living through some interesting times.

What will it be like? We can't be sure. Weather, and larger life, will be unpredictable--that's all we can be sure of.

I live on a part of the continent that was once under water and will likely be under water again by the end of the century. This tip of the state has a coral bed foundation, which means that we can't even build retaining walls to keep the water out. It will seep up through the ground.

But I'm not worried. I'm sure that our area's leaders are fully aware of the situation and are taking steps to prepare.

Now we shall all stop reading while we laugh hysterically.

No, the one thing that Hurricane Katrina showed me is that we're all on our own. Maybe we'll get help from our government, but we simply cannot count on that.

So, you're likely asking what I'm doing to prepare. I'm as befuddled as anyone, since we can't exactly predict sea level rise accurately. I make my home repairs and my mortgage payments knowing that I may lose this investment completely, should a part of an Arctic ice shelf slide into the sea and melt quickly. As with most of my investments, I'm hoping for the best, while fully aware that I may lose all of my money.

My spouse thinks we should buy a sailboat. I think we should buy some property on higher ground in the upper 48 in case we need to flee. We could both be right.

Or we could both be wrong. The sea might not rise as quickly as we fear. Maybe in two centuries, my little house will still be here, and people will puzzle over some of our design choices as they remodel and add to the structure.

I think of these things as I'm hearing the news about Borders. When we first moved down here, I was ecstatic: a town with both a Borders AND a Barnes and Noble--with lots of them throughout the tri-county area, in fact. And now, Borders may be going under for the last time.

Or maybe it will emerge from bankruptcy whole and stronger. I remember the first Borders I ever saw, in Chicago. I was blown away. All those literary books, including scholarly works. Amazing.

Some day, maybe we'll say the same thing about Amazon. All those books, right there, ready to be ordered and shipped to you. We'll marvel that gasoline was so cheap that it was cheaper to ship books across the planet than to maintain local bookstores.

Change comes in ways we can't anticipate. We're seeing food scarcity which would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago, when we had more food than we could use, when we paid farmers not to plant. Now, because of our use of corn in fuel, we're seeing some shortages. We're seeing shortages for other reasons too, and during our time of climate change, we'll be seeing more shortages.

We live in an area that makes it hard to plan for the future, but realistically, it's always been hard to plan for the future. Changes have always come hurtling at humanity, many of those changes startling and unforeseen.

Maybe I'll write a poem--feel free to play along: the ghost of Malthus considers climate change.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Alternate Lives: Fiction, Truth, and Other

So, in a post a few days ago that talked about the Memetastic award, I listed 5 statements, only one of which is true.

1. I have an MFA from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

I have no MFA. I do have a PhD in British Lit (19th Century focus, with substantial work in 20th Century too) from the University of South Carolina.

When I began as a grad student at USC, you could still get a PhD with Creative Writing focus, but that program was taught out as the new MFA was introduced. My first office mate was writing his Creative Writing dissertation, a collection of haiku. I am not kidding. Seventeen syllables on each page. No analytical work of any kind required, just 100 pages of haiku. I thought of him often as I wrote my prose-dense dissertation (150 pages of analysis) and shook my head over the fact that we were awarded similar degrees.

I decided on a PhD because I thought I'd have more teaching opportunities with that PhD than I would with an MFA. I was likely correct.

2. I am a certified spiritual director with a thriving private practice.

I am not a certified spiritual director, although many have suggested that I pursue this career path should I ever grow weary of academia. I do a fair amount of spiritual writing each week, which I hope helps provide people with some spiritual direction.

3. I have a 3 legged dog named Trinity.

I would never name a 3 legged dog something like Trinity or Tripod or Lucky (ah, yes, that old joke). One must draw the line somewhere. I will take outrageous allusion risks when I name characters, only to be reminded that my character names are a stumbling block. Sometimes, it's a curse to know so much literature, mythology, and Bible references.

4. I was born on a U.S. Air Force Base in France on Bastille Day.

This statement is true. I was born just before de Gaulle kicked out US troops (historians may have a different take, but all the Air Force folks I know who were in France in the mid-60's tell it as a forced good-bye). Bastille Day is the French celebration of independence, so my mom told me that when I was born French people had parades and fireworks and picnics on their day off. It was years before I realized they'd have done that anyway, whether or not I was born.

And even though I know the history of the French Revolution, I'm still happy to share a birthday with an event that inspired so many to claim their liberty. I'm happy to share a birthday with Woody Guthrie. Even sharing a birthday with Gerald Ford is cool with me. I also share a birthday with Gretchen, and John, and other delightful people in real life and real time--lots of us were born on July 14!

5. I've published a Creative Writing textbook that was just adopted by the 100th school to choose my book.

Although I've toyed with writing many different types of textbooks, so far, I have not. That kind of writing seems more daunting than just about any other type. I also haven't transformed my dissertation into a scholarly book--so far, that writing task is most daunting to my brain.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Graphic Novels and Game Design: The Future of Poetry?

Today is the birthday of Art Spiegelman, the first graphic novelist to win a Pulitzer prize. I remember the day when Maus came in the mail. I had ordered it from the Quality Paperback Book Club, source of many great books I bought in the mid 80's. I pulled it out of the package and thought, I have never seen anything quite like this before. I thought it was an amazing way to tell a story. I still do.

I thought it was interesting to see the wide variety of panels at this year's AWP--in terms of genres, the graphic novel was severely underrepresented. Lots of poetry, lots about the short story, even more about online issues. Only one or two sessions that focused on graphic novels--if even that many.

My students, art, design, and culinary students, are not a representative audience by any means. But I'm here to tell you, they don't read poetry, they don't read short stories, a handful of them read traditional novels--but almost all of them read graphic novels. Even the ones who come to our school simply because they want to cook will read a graphic novel.

And frankly, more of them come to narrative by way of video games than anything else, except for movies.

I remember years ago when I got my first full-time teaching job at a huge community college in South Carolina. A member of our writing group got a teaching job at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Come to find out, he'd had a secret life all along. He'd been writing what goes in the speaking bubbles in the Batman comics.

Very telling, isn't it, how he kept that life secret? If he'd been writing and publishing novels, we'd have all known about it. We'd have celebrated it.

When he left to go to SCAD, we thought he'd lost his mind. In the early 1990's, SCAD was not the school it is today. Back then it was tiny, unaccredited (or barely accredited). Why would you leave a solid job at a community college to teach comic book writing?

Well, now, of course, the move looks absolutely brilliant. When I look at the SCAD website I'm torn between wanting to teach there and wanting to go there to study any number of art forms.

It's interesting to me how many art forms seem to be swirling around these days, how impossible it seems to go on much longer creating our one art form in a vacuum. Some of us do full-blown collaborations--a dream of mine, even in these arts-funding-starved times. I loved the collaboration panel at AWP: hearing about poets collaborating with fabric artists, poets collaborating with photographers, poets collaborating with dance troupes. Some of us learn enough about our computer's capabilities to create websites or book promotions. Some of us are pioneers in forms so new they don't have a name: animated poetry, for example.

Art Spiegelman was one of those pioneers. He showed us that the comic book had potential beyond the imaginings of most of us. And now, so many people are doing such a wide variety of creating with that medium.

Thoughts for the day: could we have a graphic poem sequence? A whole book of poems with illustrations? I feel like I'm thinking too small. How could the idea of adding graphic designs to a book of poems change the work (for better or worse)? Could poets reach a larger audience by embracing ideas presented by graphic novelists?

And for those of you who want to think even more radically: how could we use game design in our poems? Could we create a video game based on a poem?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Our Writers' Hearts

How can it be mid-February? Valentine's Day has snuck up on me, just like it always does.

We don't do much in the way of this holiday here at the Berkey-Abbott household. I'm rather opposed to letting commercial corporations dictate when and how to declare my love, and with what socially sanctioned gifts (chocolates and jewelry and roses) and activities (going out to eat with the other masses).

If you love someone, every day should be Valentine's Day.

My dad used to bring us all carnations, which my mom preferred to roses. But I mainly remember elementary school celebrations, where we'd make mailboxes out of shoeboxes and wait to see how many Valentines we'd get. And even though I got plenty of cards, I'd look around and it would seem that everyone else got more.

I'd be a happier woman if I could avoid that nasty habit of comparing myself to others.

I've seen this in my writing life too, and the writing life of others. Some people treat writing as a zero-sum game, where your gains are my losses.

In some instances, that's the case. If I enter a contest, there's only one prize, after all.

But as I wrote yesterday, often even our losses can open doors we weren't expecting, weren't even looking to open.

The world sends us writers lots of Valentines. Perhaps we turn up our noses, much the way I did as a child, when I wanted hand-created Valentines instead of mass-produced ones: "Oh, I want to have a book with a spine. Oh, I want to have won this contest by the time I'm this old. Oh, I want to be the youngest poet in The Norton Anthology of American Lit." I don't want this Valentine, I want that one.

I worry that the universe will stop sending me any Valentines at all, if I continue to be so snooty. So now, I'm happy for all writing success that comes my way. I'm happy (most days) for all writing success that comes someone else's way--that means that if they could do it, so could I. I'm happy to live in a world where poems are still published and read, perhaps more widely now than at any time in history, depending on what we mean by the terms "published" and "read."

May the writing gods send you extravagant Valentines and may all your decorated shoeboxes be full to overflowing with evidence that you are loved and cherished.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I, Too, Would Like to Thank the Acadamy


I have won a blog award! It's the first blog award I've ever won, and thanks to Sandy for nominating me. Sure, the rest of the world is watching the Grammy awards and arguing about whether or not Eminem could have reformed himself. I will not be watching because it will make me sad that I have no idea who most of these performers are, and alas, it's not because I'm listening to far cooler music, the way it once would have been.


But, enough thinking of that. Back to my award. It's the Memetastic Award. I know, you've never heard of it. Neither had I, before yesterday.

So,the Memetastic Award started with Jillismo and has passed from blog to blog, and one of my duties as a recipient is to send the award on to five other bloggers. So, I choose the first four because they were some of the earliest creative writing bloggers whom I read, and they helped me see the potential in blogging and want to do it myself:












Shefali has just published her first book of poetry, which is wonderful, and I want more people to know about her work, so I'm giving her this award in slot #5. Plus, later this week, I'll write about the book.


The other requirement is that I list five facts, four of which are lies. Guess which one is true!

1. I have an MFA from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.


2. I am a certified spiritual director with a thriving private practice.


3. I have a 3 legged dog named Trinity.


4. I was born on a U.S. Air Force Base in France on Bastille Day.


5. I've published a Creative Writing textbook that was just adopted by the 100th school to choose my book.


Let me know if you have any guesses for which of the above statements is the true one and I will reveal the right one later this week. Stay tuned...


***Requirements of the award:

–link back to the blogger who awarded you.
–display the graphic from award creator.
–post 5 facts, four of which must be lies.
–pass the award on to 5 other bloggers who must follow these rules.
–link the post back, so Jillsmo can follow its trajectory.

Literary Piece Work or Love?

Last Saturday, I went to an AWP session on when we should write for free. The discussion was dominated by all sorts of writers, but no poets (except for some quick comments during the discussion time), whom I imagine would have had a different take than the variety of opinions offered by the panel.

A more pertinent question might be when should we write for very little money? For me, that's a harder one to figure out. If we know that the press is struggling, should that influence our decision? If it's something we want to write, but there's very little money, how should that impact our decisions?

And of course, we all have to work these issues out for ourselves. It's only been in the last year that I've been offered any money for my writing, so I'm still at the stage where I'm thrilled to get a check, no matter how small.

At some point, I can imagine that I'll have to try to determine how many of these small jobs I can do for love and/or little money, but I'm not at that point now. And I'm lucky to have a full-time job that pays all of my bills, so I have the luxury to consider these angles.

Yesterday I thought of that panel because I had gotten an e-mail with an offer to write for a Lutheran prayer manual that's published each year, with different content each year. The deal offered was that I'd write a month's worth of prayers, excluding Sundays. Each prayer would be 35-40 words. It's due March 11, and I'd be paid $100, plus 2 copies, plus credit as one of the writers.

At first I thought I'd missed the opportunity completely. The e-mail was dated Tuesday, and the editor requested an answer in the next day or two. I didn't actually see it until Saturday. I decided to respond anyway. Perhaps he still needed writers. I figured it was worth it to write a polite e-mail inquiring and thanking him for thinking of me, even if he didn't need me anymore.

I'm glad I wrote. He did still need writers. I hadn't missed my chance. Hurrah!

I thought back to that panel and the ensuing discussion. I know that some of those people would say I had gotten suckered. But it's the kind of writing that I love to do and hope that others will find valuable. I can do it in the time available. It will get my name out there, and who knows where that will lead. I do worry about the future of the press, Augsburg Fortress, which has faced sobering financial issues, but not enough to worry about whether or not I'll be paid. I know the press has faced financial struggle, so I don't have to wrestle with whether or not there's an executive somewhere pocketing all the profits that should be going to writers.

It did occur to me to wonder how the worship editor at Augsburg Fortress knew my name to give to the editor of the book. Several years ago, I wrote a proposal for a book of meditations on the weekly Gospel lesson. I received a very nice reply back, even as they rejected my idea. And now, here I am, years later, about to work with them on a different project.

I heard this same kind of story again and again, the project that leads to a different project that leads to an opportunity that one wouldn't have had if one hadn't done one of the earlier projects. Some of us in the room that Saturday morning tried to say such things (most eloquently, the poet Kelli Russell Agodon, but I didn't take close enough notes to quote her directly).

Some of the people at the When Should We Write for Free might do the math, might figure out how much I'm being paid for each prayer. Would they feel I had been swindled?

What really matters, of course, is that I don't feel like I'm being swindled. I'm not some Victorian seamstress, doing piecework, going blind as I stitch the shirt that is also a shroud (thank you Victorian poet Thomas Hood, for that image). Some of the writers I heard during the AWP convention really do feel like they're doing literary piecework, being oppressed by a variety of forces. In some ways, I understand. In many ways, I don't, since I'm a writer doing much of what I do simply because I love it. Early on, I did dream of writing a best seller which would mean I would never have to teach again. But as it became apparent that I'm not going to write my way out of a need for a day job, I've made my peace with that. And being paid to do what I love and would be doing anyway gives a pleasure that I imagine writing to pay the light bill might not give me.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Are you there, Judy Blume? It's Me, Kristin

Today is the birthday of both Judy Blume and Charles Darwin. My mind has been whirling with connections all morning. Surely there's a poem in there somewhere.

For those of you who want a more Darwin centered celebration, go here to last year's post. Be warned--if you stay here, you'll be reading about adolescent drama.

Ah, Judy Blume. At the time I read her (from about 1977 onward), I assumed that she was the most evolved human on the planet--well, maybe my Mom was more evolved, because she not only bought me my very own copy of Forever, she also read it, and watched the made-for-TV movie with me, but she wasn't too pushy about talking about all those premarital sex issues. I was one of those children who found adolescence excruciating--all those changes! The only thing worse than enduring adolescence, during those years, would have been talking about it.

I knew that my mom was willing to talk, if I ever wanted to talk, and that was enough.

I always said that I would not go back to live through the 7th grade day by day, not for any amount of money in the world. I mean that sincerely. I would rather be poor for the rest of my days than have to live through those hellish 9 months ever again.

I used to think that having Judy Blume as a guide and mentor was helpful, but this morning, I've been rethinking that. I devoured all of Judy Blume's books, and in retrospect, I think they left me terrified. With each one, I read about adolescent dramas that I wouldn't have suspected. And with each book, came more anxiety: what if my parents divorced, what if I developed scoliosis, what if a boy wanted to have sex with me, what if no one ever wanted to have sex with me, what if, what if, what if. If I had been my current, hip, post-modern, ironic self, with each book I'd have asked, "What new hell is this?"

If you had asked me when I was 14, I would have solemnly assured you that knowledge is power and that forewarned is forearmed, and that I wanted to know the worst. In retrospect, I wish that I had discovered Our Bodies, Ourselves before I discovered Judy Blume.

I remember when Judy Blume wrote her first book for adults, Wifey. My mom, who let me read almost anything, told me not to read that one. So, I didn't read it until I was a late adolescent.

What a putrid book! Blhhhhhh. Adults behaving badly. Sexually. It was like reading Updike's Couples, which I thought would be a sexy read, but it made me want to vomit.

It was one of the first times that I thought that maybe Judy Blume was not the evolved writer that I thought she was.

I've talked to enough people who were helped by her books that just being slightly critical makes me nervous. I'm not saying that she shouldn't have written those books. Of course she should have. She blazed quite a trail with her openness. And it's interesting to ponder whether or not you'd prefer to have young females reading Judy Blume or reading the Twilight books. I will not be wandering into that tangle, since I haven't read the Twilight books. I haven't read the Harry Potter series either. Life is short, and my reading list is long, and I'm culling severely.

No, I'm not saying she shouldn't have written them, but I am wondering about the wisdom of me reading them. I am interested to think back to what an anxious, nervous child I was. Perhaps all children are anxious. The history of children's lit would make us think so, as those books speak to our darker fears.

Now I try to be careful about exposing my anxious inner child to too much worrisome stimuli. I would argue that more of us should do that. Don't watch political talk shows if they make you angry. Stop reading about the fate of the earth if it leaves you paralyzed with fear. Only read the work that convinces you that life is worth living and that humans can handle whatever comes their way.

No, that's clearly no solution either. Again, I think the answer lies in balance. A steady diet of Judy Blume was not good for my adolescent self. Let me spend the week-end analyzing where I'm making the same mistakes as a grown up.

Friday, February 11, 2011

All our Tom Joad Ghosts

A few weeks ago, I was talking to one of my oldest college friends on the phone. He said that he had just finished reading Little Women, and we had an intriguing conversation about that. Little Women is the first book that made me cry. I remember reading the book on our big family trip west, and I got to the death of Beth as we drove through the Rockies. I remember sitting in the back seat with tears streaming down my face.

You may wonder why my college friend read Little Women. He's trying to read more classics (I think his goal is one per month this year), and he chose that one for a variety of reasons. I admire him. I tried to reread the book as a grown up, and couldn't make it very far--but not because it's too much a child's book, but because it's too much a 19th century novel, with all the dense prose that indictment implies.

We talked about what he would read next. He was thinking about Steinbeck. We talked about The Grapes of Wrath, and we decided to read it together.

That's how I came to be reading The Grapes of Wrath on the plane. I found it much more compelling than I expected. It's breaking my heart in so many ways.

I've read the book before. In the eleventh grade, we were supposed to have the first several chapters of the book read, and my teacher figured out that none of us had read it. She said, "Well, you're having a quiz tomorrow. On the whole book. We'll spend the rest of the period reading. Go ahead. Take out your books. Get started."

I read the whole thing in one night, because I'm a good girl that way. But I didn't remember much about it.

I had forgotten how beautiful the prose can be. I think of Steinbeck as a master of creating great characters, and he is. But alternating with each chapter that tells the story of the Joads comes an alternating chapter that tells about the historical situation with great lyrical intensity. The prose breaks my heart with joy for the fact that it lies there, nestled in between the narrative chapters. The history behind it breaks my heart.

I think back to my own farming people, not that many generations ago. How did they hang on to their land? My relatives of my grandparents' generation remember the Depression, and they remember that they wore holes in their shoes and patched their clothes again and again, but they were always well-fed, with enough to share, because they lived on the farm. They lived on Southern farms--maybe that was the trick. If they had lived on Kansas farms, my family's trajectory would have been very different.

Reading the book also breaks my heart because it still seems so relevant. All those people, losing their livelihoods and their possessions and their very lives, because of corporate policies--true for the Joads and true for us. I expected the book to seem like a historical artifact, but it vibrates with pertinence.

The Joads have haunted our national consciousness and found their way into all sorts of pop culture. One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs is "The Ghost of Tom Joad" I also love the cover version done by Rage Against the Machine on their Renegades album. Long ago, I was a member of a Rage Against the Machine group, and I got intriguing things in the mail. Long ago, I got a vinyl 45 of the song, long before it appeared on any album. I was so happy to see the song on a CD that I could buy, back in the days when I assumed that CDs would be the way we'd experience music forever.

I've been working on a poem for years now: "Tom Joad's Baseball Field." Maybe I'll change the name to "Tom Joad's Sports Stadium." I started working on it years ago, when I let all the details of the proposed new Marlins stadium sink into my brain. It was bad enough that tax payers would be expected to fund a stadium for super rich team owners and players--tax payers in one of the poorest urban areas in the country. At the time, the place where they were thinking of putting the arena would have displaced many homeless people. Those of us with homes tend to think of the homeless as already displaced, but the truth is more complex.

We've had decades of research now that proves that sports stadiums always--ALWAYS--cost more than they contribute to the surrounding community. And yet, we continue to be in thrall to them.

I haven't gotten the poem to where I want it yet. That's why I was happy to reread The Grapes of Wrath with my friend. Maybe it will give me an angle to find my way to the end of the poem.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What I Bought at the Book Fair

I returned home with a LOT of books from the AWP book fair. If you knew how I'd been trying to clear off my bookshelves during the month of January, you might laugh--or cry. But I decided to support poets and literary journals and smaller presses--those folks in the writing world who need my money more than the established presses and big name authors.

For those of you who disdain Garrison Keillor, let me just say that I bought several books because I had heard of the poet through Keillor's program The Writer's Almanac. If I made a list of the top 10 people who had done the most for poetry in the late 20th and early 21st century, he'd likely be on the list--and yes, I'm a bit biased, because he did choose one of my poems once.

I stopped at the Sixteen Rivers Press table, and I said, "This is probably a long shot, but once Garrison Keillor read one of your authors' poems." Sharon Olson, the woman staffing the table, knew exactly the book: Light, Moving, by Carolyn Miller (go here and here to read poems from the book). She had it. I bought it.

How do I know Sharon Olson's name? Because I bought her book too (The Long Night of Flying). Yes, the presence of a poet at the table was a powerful incentive at several tables. I bought Victoria Brockmeier's book even though she wasn't at the table. The title of the book was just too wonderful. In fact, it gets the award for best book title of all the books that came home with me:

My Maiden Cowboy Names

I could not resist that title. And so I bought the book. And as I was walking away, the book table person called to me, "Wait. Here's the author of the book you just bought!"

I whirled around and gave a squeal, like my favorite rock star had just dropped by. I'm likely wrong about that. Should Bono ever be in my near vicinity, I doubt I'll be able to breathe, much less squeal. Victoria Brockmeier signed my copy of My Maiden Cowboy Names. I made her happy by my enthusiasm, and she made me happy with that book title alone. The poems, too, look wonderful.

Other wonderful book title and author encounter? Martha Silano's The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception. It's fascinating to me, because I follow her blog, and so I had seen her blog posts about the book cover. It's much more beautiful in real life. I told her I'd been following her book's progress on her blog, and then I worried about sounding like some pathetic poetry stalker. She assured me that I did not. I love that book title and cover too. And Martha Silano was lovely in person. And while I talked to her, Kelli Russell Agodon wandered by, and we chatted, and then Deborah Ager of 32 Poems came by, and we all talked for about 2 minutes about the journals we subscribe to and the piles of reading materials that are taking over our houses. I meant to get over to the 32 Poems table to take advantage of their AWP subscription rates, but I waited too long. For a brief second, I reveled in the insider feeling that being around literary lights like Kelli, Martha, and Deborah gave me, but then I forced myself to move along. I was keenly aware that if I stood in front of a table too long, other potential buyers couldn't get close.

I also picked up a copy of Crab Creek Review, the very last one. What a gorgeous cover! What a great section guest edited by Susan Rich.

At the BOA table, I got 3 books that were "distressed." They looked in fine shape to me. Three books (by Dorianne Luax, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Ellen Bass!) for five dollars--best deal of the AWP book fair!

While at that table, I picked up Dan Albergotti's The Boatloads, another poet first introduced to me by Garrison Keillor. How I love Albergotti's poem "Things to do in the Belly of the Whale." I devoured the whole book on Sunday afternoon, and most of the poems are every bit as stunning as the one I first loved.

At The Word Works table, I bought Barbara Louise Unger's Charlotte Bronte, You Ruined My Life, another great title, with poems that will be useful as I write my academic paper on contemporary female poets and their use of fairy tales. I was at that table as the prices on Saturday dropped from $10 to $5, so I bought 2 other books (Immersion, by Michele Wolf, with its gorgeous cover, and Spinoza's Mouse by George Young). I paid $20, because that seemed like a fairer price to me.

I picked up a copy of Maureen Seaton's Venus Examines Her Breast from 2 U of Miami MFA students who told me I just needed to make a donation. It could only be in cash. I had a twenty dollar bill, and I asked if they had a ten. The female student had 8 dollars, and I was happy to pay $12 for the book. But then the male student gave me two ones, and the female gave me the two one dollar coins that she had. I was so flustered by all these small bills and coins that I just took my deal and walked away. I've been a fan of Seaton since I saw her read in 2001, but it's taken me this long to get a copy of Venus Examines Her Breast.

At the CavanKerry table, I bought Nin Andrews' Southern Comfort. I loved her chapbook Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum? I love her blog. I look forward to reading a full-length book.

I got Susan Briante's new book, Utopia Minus, which I didn't even know was out. I loved her book, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, so I bought her new one. Whilst at the Ahsahta table, I picked up Brian Henry's Quarantine. How I admire Ahsahta books. I'd love to see how they'd transform my manuscript into a book.

I took advantage of the every title is $5 waning hours at the Autumn House table. I picked up 2 anthologies, Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry and The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. I confess that I bought the latter title simply because I know that it retails for $35. It seemed to good a deal to pass up for $5.

So, local friends, if you need a book of poems, I'm fully stocked. And yet, I'm not done. I'm taking advantage of the pre-publication period to pick up Lynn Domina's forthcoming book at a reduced rate. Hurrah!

What a great time to be a poet. The Book Fair reminded me of all the presses, small and largeish which publish poetry. The various panels reminded me of all the ways I can connect with poets that wouldn't have been possible before we all had Internet connections. New technology means that I could publish my own book, if I wanted, although the Book Fair, with all its gorgeous book covers might make me think twice. I'm no graphic designer. But I do have artist friends.

What I don't have is a surplus of time. It's hard for me to imagine doing all the other things a publisher must do, like attending to book orders. I can imagine doing publicity (my book trailer will be appearing in this space soon!), but much of the rest of the duties of being a book publisher seem overwhelming now.

So, I will continue to submit to the traditional venues. I returned home with a $5 off coupon for the Carolina Wren Press contest, so I'll enter that. I'm an AWP member, so I'll enter that contest, with its reduced entry fee for AWP members. By the end of summer, I want to revisit my spirituality manuscript to make sure I've got only the strongest poems in there, and to look at poems I've written since, to see if I should shuffle a bit.

For those of you who are weary of these AWP reports, I apologize and promise to return to regular blogging tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Celebrating Poets and Busboys and Other Writers Who Inspire and Champion Us

Today is the birthday of Alice Walker. I've written here about Walker's influence on me, and Muriel Rukeyser's influence on Walker. I had forgotten that Langston Hughes had also helped Alice Walker. Today's archived section of The Writer's Almanac tells us that Hughes was an early champion of her writing, after someone (who?) sent him one of her short stories. Go here to read, and before you scroll down, enjoy that wonderful poem of Nikki Giovanni's that celebrates great teachers, poetry, and reading.

And so, today seems a good day to celebrate not only Alice Walker, but also Busboys and Poets, that Washington D.C. restaurant whose name was inspired by Hughes' time as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920's. I think of Busboys and Poets as a D.C. institution, which it is, if a restaurant that didn't exist before 2005 can be thought of as an institution.

Early on, the founders of the restaurant wanted to be part of the community, a resource. And now, they're facing a bit of backlash, as some poets claim that the restaurant isn't paying their poets enough. My first thought: if they're paying poets, they're doing more than most people. If you want to read the whole story, you can go here. Perhaps it's a failure of my imagination, but I'm thrilled that any place will give poets a space in which to read, much less pay. When I went to the White Pines reading on Thursday, we had a whole section of the restaurant with a door that closed all to ourselves. And sure, we spent a lot of money on food and drink, but we only occupied about a third of the space. If the restaurant hadn't had the reading, they'd have probably made more money with more patrons filling all the tables and coming and going.

It's a great space. The room is long, but not narrow, with a bit of a stage up front.



Here you see the stage, with a table and a chair, with a candle and fresh flowers.


Above, Susan Rich reading from The Alchemist's Kitchen. Below, Kelli Russell Agodon, reading from Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room.



Lots of people took lots of pictures afterwards. I've always loved the kind of pictures like the one you see below. These kind of pictures always make me wish I had been there. And now I get to be in one of those pictures! We were standing under a rosy light--ah, if only we could always stand in this rosy light.


from left to right: January O'Neil, Kelli Russell Agodon, me, and Susan Rich.


Above, you see how the restaurant's poetry space looked if you stood at the stage and looked back towards the door: candles on every table, art on the walls--a beautiful place!





At the front of the room on a side wall is a big mural, with inspirational messages and pictures of influential African-Americans from the pages of history.

All in all, a great night in a great place that has become such an important community resource. Alice Walker once said, ""Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence." It's wonderful to have places like Busboys and Poets, places where we can celebrate the writing that saves us from violence, the writing that bathes us in the rosy light of hope and keeps that light of hope from being extinguished.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

AWP: Wrap Up

I've returned from the AWP--what a great conference! In the coming weeks, I might write the occasional blog post that talks about some of the sessions I attended in more depth, but for now, let me record some impressions and memories.

People I Met or Didn't Meet:

I've never attended a conference of this size--almost 7000 participants. HUGE. I foolishly thought that I might run into people, and so I didn't make as many pre-arranged meet-ups as I hope to next year. I wanted to have time in the schedule for serendipitous connections, but I didn't realize that the vast size meant that I was unlikely to just randomly bump into people I knew.

At least that's what I told myself as I watched other attendees fling themselves into each other's arms. At times, it was a bit too much like high school, where everyone else seemed to know each other, and everyone seemed to be having a fabulous time together, while I was having a fabulous time mostly by myself.

I did have a lovely dinner with Lynn Domina, editor of Poets on the Psalms, one of the first books I reviewed on my then-newly-created blog (go here to read that review). When I wrote that review, she and I became Facebook friends, and she asked if I was going to AWP. I couldn't that year, but when I knew I was going this year, I let her know, and finally, we met in person. We ate at an Indian restaurant and talked about our writing and our academic lives. What a treat!

Sandy Longhorn's travel woes meant that our plans for Thursday dinner were not to be--insert heavy sigh of sadness here. Hopefully, we'll meet in person next year. I'm already looking forward to it!

I did see Leslie Pietrzyk in the book fair on Saturday, the only serendipitous meeting I had. Her sister was staffing the Carolina Wren Press table, and I peered at her nametag, thinking, surely she's related to Leslie. So, I asked, and she said yes, and then she said, "There she is now." And happily, Leslie remembered me (we met years ago when my sister and Leslie worked together, and we've seen each other occasionally through the years), and we chatted.

While we were chatting, a man walked by, and then he whipped around and peered at my nametag. Then he whirled back around and marched off. Happily, Leslie and I were able to laugh about it. I said, "Nope, I'm no one famous. Keep walking." Still, I'd never quite had that experience before. It made me wonder who that man was hoping to see when he whirled around. Or do I just look lovely from the back and hideous from the front?

No, it doesn't do to think too deeply about these things. These kind of overpacked conventions bring out my inner 16 year old in the most unattractive ways, the ways that make me say, "Wait, I thought I got to graduate from high school at some point! Why am I still stuck in this high school mental place?" If I'm not careful, I become convinced that everyone is cooler than me, more popular than me, having a better social life than I am. And the older I get, the more convinced I am that no one is leading a charmed life.

One of my favorite memories happened Thursday night. I had decided that I wanted to go to the White Pine reading at the Busboys and Poets location near Chinatown. I was taking the Metro because I was staying with my parents in the suburbs. I figured out how to get there, and then I was big and brave and did it. While there, I saw the authors of three of my favorite 2010 books: January Gill O'Neil, Susan Rich, and Kelli Russell Agodon--and Susan and Kelli were also reading. I had good food, a lovely glass of wine, a bracing cup of coffee, and wonderful poetry, all in a great location. I'll post some pictures tomorrow. And then, I successfully navigated the Metro home. When I walked through Chinatown on the way back, I saw two people in Chinese New Year's Costumes, making their creatures move and dance--hard to explain, and impossible to capture on film. But it was certainly something I don't see in South Florida.

Poets I saw read:

Stephen Dunn, Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Gary Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Susan Rich, Kelli Russell Agodon, Elisabeth Frost, Holly Iglesias, Shin Yu Pai, Carolyn Forche, and Linda Pastan.

Overarching Themes:

I went to lots of panels on the impact of the Internet and online communities on our writing. Some of them made me brim with hope, and many of them made me wish that I had studied computer coding in addition to English. I was intrigued by all the commenters who declared that they would never write for free--these were usually fiction writers who seemed convinced that people are making money off our writing, and that those of us who write for less than top dollar are fools. Plenty of people countered with the idea of writing that leads to opportunities we'd have never had if we had insisted on getting top dollar for that writing. And there was lots of talk about building our online platforms. I don't tweet, but I'm already doing some of the things that panelists talked about, like having a website and a blog and commenting on the blogs of others and being involved in a literary life.

Biggest Surprises:

--So many very young people, undergrads and people who weren't done with their MFAs. When I was in my 20's and in grad school, a conference like this one would have been furthest from my mind. Of course, it was a very different time, and we were all desperately poor.

--I didn't expect the session on making a living as a writer without a full-time academic gig to be so funny; Steve Almond is a riot, and the other panelists were just as determined to make the presentation lively. The panelists were refreshingly honest about their economic lives.

--I went to a caucus for people who teach writing in art schools. I almost didn't go, but I'm glad I did. I met some really wonderful people with whom I hope to stay in touch. It was such a relief to talk to people who had some of the same concerns as I do, even though we're teaching at very different places.

--At a variety of panels, I heard from panelists and commenters about what's being expected of them: heavier teaching loads, larger classes (including one woman who will be expected to teach a writing workshop of 60 students--yikes). I tend to believe that people who teach in Creative Writing departments have a much better work life than I do. Some of them certainly do (and they are older than me, usually, and with much more impressive publications). But many of them are facing stresses and uncertainties that I wouldn't like to be facing.

Best Quotes:

--Someone asked Carolyn Forche how she does everything, how she balances her poetry writing and her teaching and her social justice work. Carolyn Forche gave us a wise, arch look and said, "There's no such thing as balance!" What a relief to hear someone say that out loud!

--Stephen Dunn was asked about prose poetry and formal poetry. He said, "I suspect if you took great prose and broke it into lines, people would be only too happy to call it poetry."

--One of the panelists in the Thursday session that had first time authors discussing the nitty gritty of publishing noted, "I'm not going to be Philip Roth. I've only got a few shots at this." He encouraged those of us who had opportunities to read, but opportunities that we'd have to pay for, to do it if we possibly could. The panelist said, "If you have a chance to go promote your book, you should probably do it. Even if you have to spend a hundred bucks, do it. You'd spend 5 bucks on a latte." And another panelist reminded us that we should be saving money for promoting our books so that we don't have to miss out on these kind of opportunities.

--Lots of good quotes from the Transmedia panel on Friday afternoon. I think it was Kevin Smokler who gave us his cheese cube theory. He said that people pay for coffee because they know what coffee tastes like. He mentioned grocery stores that give you cheese cubes so that you know you'll like the cheese, so that you'll be willing to pay $15.99 for the cheese. He suggested writers do the same. Give away a taste of your work that will hopefully encourage people to pay for the whole thing.

--Smokler also said that writers deserve to be compensated, but that doesn't mean they should be compensated at a middle class pay scale. He talked about dancers who crowded into rat-infested warehouses in the Bronx where it rained on them at night, but they were willing to go through that for their art. Why do we feel like we should be making a living from our writing right from our earliest work?

--Annie Finch talked about administration work as being the way that she builds community and creates ways for the community to listen to each other on a soul level.

Boots and Hats:

I expected everybody to be wearing cool boots, and they were (note to self: buy some boots at the end of season sales; my boots are about at the end of their lives).

I didn't expect so many people to be wearing hats. On Thursday, I saw a woman wearing a Russian style fur hat with a big diamond broach--all day and inside. On Saturday, I saw a woman wearing one of those Jackie Kennedy style hats: a small circle with netting. I saw a variety of scarves and shawls wound around heads. I saw a variety of jaunty chapeaux worn on the heads of students too young to have experienced their 80's clothing the first go-round. Lots of people wore hats with visors pulled low over their eyes.

Alas, I will not be investing in hats. I feel daring when I wear a scarf draped around my neck. I am not fashion-forward enough for hats.

Book Fair:

The most overwhelming part of the AWP for me was the Book Fair. I never did grasp the layout, and the map didn't help. By Saturday, however, I was able to wander around and actually talk to some people. I was able to ask whether or not to submit a manuscript that hadn't won previous contests (yes, do).

And yes, I got lots of deals on Saturday (more on that in a later post). And yes, my suitcase was over the pound limit, but happily, the Jet Blue check in person didn't notice or didn't feel like making an example out of me.

To Sum Up:

None of the panels disappointed me, except that I often wished we had had more time--how often do you sit through 75 minutes and wish for more. I learned a lot and came away inspired. I'm sure that other people were doing the networking gig better than I did--it's not a skill of mine, but I'd like to do better at making connections during the next 45 years than I've done in my first 45. I'd like to get over my inner 16 year old self who claims her aloneness as a badge of honor and uniqueness. And happily, this conference has made me feel that I might be able to do that, to finally graduate from the worst aspects of high school dynamics.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

This Blog Will Be Quiet for a Few Days--off to AWP!

So, today is the birthday of James Joyce, and the day I fly off to Washington for the AWP. For those of you who came here to find out what I'd write about Joyce (after all, I wrote my M.A. thesis on women in his work), I'd direct you to these older posts here and here.

Meanwhile, it looks like the blizzardy weather missed the D.C. region, and so, off I go. I wish I could be one of those people blogging the AWP, but that's not me. I'm not lugging a laptop around, and my cell phone is about as unsophisticated as it's possible to be. I am taking my camera, and I expect to post some reflections about the conference when I return. In the meantime, I'll be mostly unplugged. I'm looking forward to the electronic downtime, a retreat from the demanding screens that have come to rule my daytime hours.


The picture above is from a different February trip, back in 2009 when I read at the Library of Congress. My parents (who are the man and woman to the left of me in the picture), who live in the area, came to see me and the two others who read with me. It was a great crowd (about 80 people, my largest audience ever): lots of downtown workers who had poetry for lunch. My cousin's wife came, and my spouse travelled with me. It was one of the highlights of my life as a writer. If poetry never pays me a lot of cash, that's O.K. I've been richly rewarded in one-of-a-kind experiences. You can go here to read about the experience and here to see more pictures.
I expect to return to regular blogging on Feb. 8.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Good-Bye and Good Luck! Let's Write Abecedarians as We Travel!

So, this week offers the kind of weather that must leave many of us asking, "Why does the AWP so often meet in February in cold, northern cities?"

To which several years ago, you might have responded, "But D.C. is essentially a Southern city." And until recently, whole winters in the D.C. region could go by without so much as a flurry. Lately, it's a different story. A year ago, I was scheduled to go to D.C. to help my mom lead a one day retreat for her women's group. Jet Blue cancelled the flight a few days ahead of the event that many came to call Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon.

I fear we're in for another event of similar proportion, although it may skirt the D.C. region.

I assume that the AWP never comes to warm, sunny cities in February because it's frighteningly expensive. So, I will leave our temps of the high 70's and take my luck with the nation's travel system tomorrow.

It reminds me of a poem I wrote after a particularly ghastly summer experience trying to travel through the Atlanta airport (or was it Dallas?) after a nasty string of thunderstorms came through. This poem doesn't seem as appropriate for winter travel to a conference (the poem has a speaker who tries to get to her lover). Still, it's the best that I have on the subject.

Should you find yourself stranded, delayed, or marooned, turn your mind to abecedarians, that form that most of us can master. Write the alphabet down the right side of your page and let your brain go to work. Want a real challenge? Play with the left margin too!

Here's hoping for safe travels for everyone. I'm hoping to see you and perhaps meet you in D.C.!


This poem first appeared in Hurricane Review in 2005, and it was one of the first poems I put on this blog, way back in Dec. of 2008. If you're one of the two people who read the original post, I apologize for the repetition!


Traveler’s ABCs


All day I dream of you, as I’m stuck in this airplane,
Baggage above me,
Corpse of a happy vacation chained to my calf,
Drugged by the sudden stop of motion midstream,
Egged on by the airlines in my
Fervent wish to see you one more time.
Gasping for air, I awake to coffee-stained light and a
Hole rubbed in my sock from yesterday’s restless pacing.
Island of bliss in my travel nightmares, this dream of your fingers.
Jammed in between two corpulent beasts, but I don’t care.
Kind stewardesses offer me a cloth for my face and a cup of
Lemon tea as I watch thunderstorms recede to
Menace another town, wreck another’s vacation.
Nervously, the plane trundles down the tarmac.
Opiate of travelers everywhere, movement towards take-off!
Point of no return, this rush and hurling skyward,
Queues left behind on the
Runway, the security lines, the endless waiting and
Showing of picture IDs; air
Transportation requires so much more patience, so little room for
Upset and missed connections—some blame the recent
Violence but what did we expect?
We challenge the gods of the clouds every time we prove ourselves to be
Xerophytes, plants blooming in the least likely places,
Yoking ourselves in thin metal tubes and crossing three time
Zones, just to spend one night beside you.