Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Blog Quiet Until May 2

This blog will be quiet for a few days, as I wrestle with writing deadlines, work deadlines, retreat deadlines--trying not to notice the word dead repeating.  I expect to return to regular blogging on May 2.

Here's a close up of a bubble wand that my spouse made last year.  Consider it your creativity wand to give you that last push to get through National Poetry Month or the end of the term or whatever deadline you may be facing.

The End of the World as We Know It

Yesterday we had a great poetry lunch:  students showed up with favorite poems to read, plus a Short Story class came and was good-natured about listening to poetry in exchange for lunch.  I was happy not to have food going to waste.  I thought about Chalking the Walk, in the way that Sandy Longhorn describes here. But it was HOT yesterday, and no one wanted to kneel on blindingly white sidewalks for any reason.  Neither did I.  So, I'll tuck this idea away for later.

Then I read the Chris Hedges piece that my colleague recommended.  He talks about how the corporations have won and ended this way:  "Do not expect them [the elites, the haves, the rich] to take care of us when it starts to unravel. We will have to take care of ourselves. We will have to create small, monastic communities where we can sustain and feed ourselves. It will be up to us to keep alive the intellectual, moral and culture values the corporate state has attempted to snuff out. It is either that or become drones and serfs in a global, corporate dystopia. It is not much of a choice. But at least we still have one."

I was surprised to find myself thinking, not much of a choice?  It sounds like a great choice.  Small, monastic communities founded in the heart of empire, keeping alternative dreams alive--where do I sign up?

Of course, I've always lived outside the mainstream.  I've never felt that my values are reflected in the larger culture.  And even within my subcultures (like the Lutheran church), my view is oftenthe minority view.

I think it's interesting, too, that during his anti-corporate rant, there was no mention of the planetary changes barrelling down upon us.  I was intrigued by this piece by a professor who teaches what he calls comparative planetology.  He gives them glum news about the planet we're all inhabiting and he says this about how he tries to encourage them during the last class: 

"What I will tell my students today is that the choices they face hinge on where they live, what kind of community they choose to live in, and just as important, what kind of communities they choose to build for themselves.

If water resources are likely to become an issue then living in a region where water supply is already an issue may be a bad choice (sorry Las Vegas). If the loss of cheap energy is likely to become an issue then living in a region that can not support itself by growing the bulk of its own food within a few hundred mile radius may not be a good idea. If the loss of cheap energy is an issue then living in a place where personal automobiles are the only means of transport may not be a good idea either. Just as important, if the systems which support culture are likely to be stressed by climate, resource and energy issues then finding a town or city that has a long history of valuing community and innovation may be effort well spent."

It seemed like an interesting counter-message to the bleakness preached by Hedges.  Of course, the trick is forming that community while we still have some choice in the matter.

These ideas are ones that I come to again and again.  I've long been fascinated by the idea of intentional communities.  If one was ever going to buy land for such a venture, now would be the time to buy.  I'll keep my eyes open as I head towards my creativity retreat in the coming days.  Will I spot the perfect piece of land?  As I drive and my brain shifts into problem solving mode, will I think about a different way to create the community I want?  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What National Poetry Month Teaches Us

Last night, Dave Bonta and I interviewed William Trowbridge, author of the last of the 4 books that we read together for National Poetry Month (look for that podcast next week).  Our conversation with Ren Powell can be heard here, as well as links to the other responses to her book.  For those of you who haven't heard enough of my voice, on Voice Alpha this week, we're presenting our readings of the same poem, Elisa Albo's "How to Make a Raft," and I'm the first reader here.

Each April holds a different lesson for us.  In past years, when I've attempted to write a poem a day, I learned that I didn't need to wait for inspiration, that I just needed to sit down long enough to sink into the writing.  I also learned that I needed to be thinking about the next day's poem, observing and pondering and getting ready. 

What has this April taught me?  It is good to read a book of poems a month, and it's good to know that someone else is doing it too.  It's good to know that a phone interview is coming, and the book should be read by then.  It is good to have those deadlines.

I am not sure I could continue at this pace, although I'm sure that I'll miss this weekly engagement with a single volume.

I am still working at achieving balance:  what is the work that needs to be done this month, this week, this day?  Often the writing of individual poems has been the sacrifice as I've read the volume of poetry, blogged about it, and participated in the interview.  I've also been trying to promote my forthcoming book.  If you haven't bought your copy yet, time is running out!  Go here to order (scroll down until you get to me; buy some others while you're there).

I've spent years yearning to have  my very own book with a spine, and I still want that to happen.  I have several manuscripts that would make very good books.  But the reading of full-length volumes has reminded me of the beauty of the chapbook.  I like the smaller length.  I've been reading lots of full-length volumes in the past 2 months, both with Dave Bonta's project, and as I prepared for my CEA presentation.  There have been times when I've wished for shorter volumes.

As I've prepared manuscripts, I've approached them in a certain way, the consumer's way:  how many poems can I pack into a manuscript so that buyers get the most poems for their dollars?  As a reader, perhaps I'll approach poetry manuscripts differently:  do I really need 90 or 100 pages of poems?  Is that just too exhausting for a reader?  What's the difference in the quality of reading experience between a 55 page manuscript and a 95 page one?  I might very well decide that 55 pages is too short.  But as book publishing becomes ever cheaper, I must remember to resist the temptation to stuff every poem I've ever written on a subject into the volume.

Let me hasten to add that I'm not accusing any author of doing that.  The books that I've been reading hold together very well and show evidence of careful thought.  I'm just aware of my own tendency to want every poem that I consider finished to have its moment on the manuscript stage, and I want to remember that the book might suffer if I give in to that tendency.

Once again, National Poetry Month reminds me that there's only so much time in a day, a week a month.  This month always reminds me of how much time I waste, even though I've gotten fairly good at jettisoning the tasks that aren't important to me, the ones my culture would have me doing (like dusting or washing windows or ironing).  But I'm amazed at how many pointless tasks remain.  Take, for example, the sorting of e-mail.  I keep a lot of older e-mails.  I don't delete them right away, because what if they're important later?  And then, later, I have to read them again, to determine if they're important.  And if I think they might be, I have to sort them into electronic file folders.  And how often are they really important anyway?  What would happen if I just deleted them all?  Hmm.  Something to ponder.

I've felt fed in all kinds of ways this month.  I've seen poets read.  I've prepared a poetry event at school (today, noon-1, HarborWalk 213--bring a poem to share!).  I've plotted my own readings with other poets.  I've had the opportunity to discuss books of poetry with the poets who wrote them.  I've had the joy of talking about books and creative processes with all sorts of people.  What a fabulous month!

Some might say that we wouldn't want every month to be this way.  It reminds me of when I've had a good week-end with friends, and I feel sad at the end of it.  I try to console myself by saying that I couldn't continue at that pace--but what if I'm wrong?  What if every month could be like this one?  What if I really made poetry a priority, not just this month, but every month?

Monday, April 25, 2011

National Poetry Month Draws to a Close with "Ship of Fool" by William Trowbridge

Turns out that both Dave Bonta and I were reading William Trowbridge's Ship of Fool on Easter Sunday.  I've been trying to get in the habit of carrying around a volume of poetry with me everywhere I go so that I work poetry into the crevices of my life.  But that means that I rarely read a volume straight through.  One reason why I have loved reading along with Dave Bonta, who is actually following a more ambitious path of reading and blogging about one volume a day, is that I have to understand the text as a whole--more thoughts on this in a later blog post.

Easter Sunday was a morning spent at church--lots of downtime, as I waited for the next thing to happen.  I sat waiting and reading.  I wasn't surprised that I found the Christ-like connections in Trowbridge's main character of the Fool--I have a degree in English, so I can find Christ figures in any literary landscape.  Dave Bonta wrote a great blog post about the Fool as Christ character; the only thing I would add is that I love the idea of sacrament in the third-to-last poem, "Roll Out the Fool": 

Forest gatherings
lacked the proper tan
without a Flaming Fool,

Exploding Fool,
or--big mistake--
a Fool Frappe, which,
one snowy night,
everybody ate

like it was brain
food or something,
so now we've got
Fool in our marrow,
which explains

history, for one thing.

This collection of poetry shows us all the forces that conspire to make fools of us, but it circles around again and again to the ways that popular culture betrays us.  The middle section, which features not the character of the Fool, but a variety of human fools, shows a car-enchanted culture, full of pretty girls, cigarettes, and a strict social order. 

The last poem of this middle section shows a redemption of sorts, as all the high school kids from all the social spheres show up for a high school reunion: 

We muster smiles as we try
to read between the lines
and wattles.  This must
be you.  This must be me, we muse,
surprised we're not unhappy,
showing our age,
showing our class,
lifting our plastic cups.

What I've written thus far probably makes this volume sound like a grim affair.  But one of the delights of this book is the humor, the parts that made me laugh out loud.  In "Basic Fool," the Fool joins the military and finds himself thinking ". . . he should have tried / something easier, like / fire-eating or celibacy."  In "Fool Expelled from Eden," we see the Fool investing in a "discount Ark franchise."  Almost every poem made me smile.

One of the dangers of this humor, I suspect, is that people might not take the poems seriously, that they might skate along the surface, smiling and laughing, not realizing that Trowbridge is making larger, more serious points about us as individuals, us as a society, about our history and our future.  But he also makes clear that our foolish traits may be what saves us in the end.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Dawn

The dawn is just breaking here on the Southern tip of the U.S.  In earlier years, I might have gotten in an Easter run at the beach.  In even earlier years, my dad and I would have gone for our Easter run in the afternoon.  Today, I'm taking a minute to write, to center myself, before leaping into the relentless pace that this Easter is likely to be:  finishing the bunny cake, spending the morning and early afternoon at church, sharing an Easter meal with friends.

For a more theological meditation, feel free to migrate to today's post on my theology blog.  Or maybe you want to read this surprisingly accessible post by the Bishop of the Lutheran church (ELCA version).  If you're used to a doom and gloom message given to you by religious folks, you won't find them in these posts.

Or maybe you came here hoping for an Easter poem.  Here's one I like, although I suspect that poetry purists would find it too narrative, too much like prose with line breaks.  Other poetry purists won't like it for its religious themes.  So be it.

It appears for the first time here.

Good News

Awash in Paschal mysteries, I awaken early
Easter morning and run to the beach to watch the sun
rise. I know what to watch
for, the luminous presence, the one to call Rabboni.
Instead, I see the usual assortment of homeless
folks, the crazed newspaper carriers, people just off
work from the extremely early or really late
shifts, and me.

My father and I used to run every holiday, hollering
good wishes to everyone who could hear. But this morning,
I find myself mute as Peter, unable to proclaim
a simple Easter greeting. Like Jesus’
Jerusalem, my city situates itself at a distant edge
of a great empire, a crossroads of continents.
What if I, in shouting “Happy Easter!” offend
a Muslim or a Jew? Chances are good that my language
would be incomprehensible anyway. I sit
on the beach, watching the sun struggle
through the clouds, sketching fish in the sand.

On the Intracoastal Waterway bridge, I muster
my courage. This man looks like he could use a friendly
greeting. He has that downtrodden look that could have
a number of causes: chemotherapy? Homelessness? Aging badly?
I smile and say, “Happy Easter!” His face glows
as he returns my greeting, “The Lord is risen.”
I expected, at most, a “Happy Easter” in reply,
but he bestow this great gift,
a reminder of the reason I’ve risen
early. And like any gift of grace, this one multiplies.

Now, like a woman who has returned from an empty
tomb, I race through my neighborhood streets.
Every pedestrian, every driver with an open window,
gets my greeting and a silent benediction,
along with a smile, that universal sign.
I have a second chance—the essential
Easter message. We have as many chances as we need.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Week Readings of "Mercy Island" by Ren Powell

Dave Bonta is reading a book of poems every day for the month of April and blogging about it--what a great way to celebrate National Poetry Month.  I proposed that some of us join him by reading one pre-determined book each week; you can see details here.  This week's book was Mercy Island by Ren Powell.

My life often presents me interesting juxtapositions.  When we made the reading list, I hadn't read Mercy Island, and I didn't think about the fact that we'd be reading as Holy Week progressed and Easter came towards us.  But of the four books we chose, we couldn't have chosen a better one for the Easter/Spring season.  This book positively drips with fecundity.  "Inner Space Qasidah" asserts, "I know the human body is too fluid / I hold these truths to be self-evident."

And the book explores the many ways that the human body drips:  sex and blood and dreams that leave us soaking wet.  The book takes the wider view too, looking at ways that all of creation is dripping and oozy, with birth and death and everything in between.  There are bloody poems about birth, including the ways that birth can go wrong.  Eggs of all sorts make their way throughout this book.

Of course, not all of the fertility will come to fruition.

One of the poems that has stayed with me longest is "Spinster's Shroud," with its central image of a woman stitching herself a dress out of egg shells.  She wears "An undergarment of ivy / woven to lift the dry shells /from her naked collarbones."  These images of dress and trim and undergarments would be intriguing on their own, but look at the last stanzas:

     She saves for the last
           to tie the knot.

     Breaking the thread with her teeth
     sliding the needle into the cushion
     leaving open the door
           to the coop.

I've puzzled over this poem for over a week now.  On the surface, it seems simple.  But that word, "shroud," in the title suggests that this poem isn't a joyous acceptance of singlehood.  It also reminds me of Thomas Hood's, "The Song of the Shirt," a British Victorian poem that laments the status of poor seamstresses who must do piece work.  Hmmm.  Could she have known that poem?  Could this poem really be referencing that one?  Or is it just my strange brain, that font of mostly useless wisdom, hard at work?

As I re-read the book, I remembered that autumn stalks these poems as well.  "Mercy Island" presents autumn as almost human:  "Already autumn stakes its claim / unclenching fists of purple heather."  The poem roots itself in summer images, "the rowboat filled with peaches / like tender cheeks like swollen words / the fruit we'd picked throughout the week."  But this poem, and others in the book, knows that winter will come.

And yet, the almost final poem, "Eventide," in the collection reminds us that even winter will leave.  It's a lovely, calm final poem, and its title reminds me of the word "Evensong," an old term that refers to an evening worship/prayer service.  And as I've spent my evenings this week shuttling back and forth between work and home and church, I've come back to these poems again and again, startled by their images, intrigued by the connections that Ren Powell makes, and comforted by the idea that even though life leads us to bloody/gory places, we can survive and perhaps even find redemption in the suffering.  That's one of the central messages of Holy Week and Easter too, and it's been wonderful reading her poems with the various Holy Week liturgies also singing in my head.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thinking About Jane Eyre on Good Friday

Yesterday, I planned to write about Jane Eyre, since it was Charlotte Bronte's birthday.  But the day ran out ahead of me, and kept running, and I never got to it.  Some of you might be saying, "Good.  You've written about Jane Eyre quite enough, thank you."  One of my favorite post titles, which I almost used again yesterday before I realized I had already used it, is "What Would Jane Eyre Do?".  I've written about both Charlotte and Emily Bronte here and I wrote a birthday tribute to Charlotte Bronte here.

Today is Good Friday, and I still have Jane Eyre on the brain.  I confess that I have seen the movie.  Why is this a confession?  My local friends will know that various groups of us have tried to find a good time to see this movie for weeks now.  One friend called me on Wednesday and said, "Let's go to tonight's 7:00 show."  In an act of impetuousness that I don't think of as like me at all, I said, sure, why not, my spouse will be at choir rehearsal."  I thought it was the best adaptation yet.  I did wonder if the movie would make as much sense to someone who hasn't read the book numerous times the way that I have.  Still, I loved that the movie stayed faithful to the book.

As I was watching, I thought that most modern audiences would not know how perilous Jane Eyre's life (and the lives of so many nineteenth century women) was.  Jane Eyre had so very few ways to make a living.  And as an impoverished woman, she had very little hope of marrying.  That Jane Eyre was able to hang on to her integrity and to live her life according to her core beliefs--how miraculous that was!

And this being Good Friday, I can't help but consider Jane Eyre as a Christ figure, although in my literary criticism, I haven't focused on this angle.  I think about her childhood beatings, both at the hands of her cousin and at the Lowood School.  I think about how she made her way in a hostile world, gathering small bands of compatriots around her, much like Christ did.  Like Christ, she had a different vision of how human life could be, a vision of people treated fairly and justly, even if they're poor and/or plain.

In the book, and less in the movie, Jane Eyre is also in touch with some higher power.  Literary critics have differed over whether or not the voice that she periodically hears is God or her dead parents or a guardian angel or her own inner wisdom.  But she moves through the world knowing that she must live differently than most people, like Christ did.

Like Christ, Jane Eyre must suffer.  She discovers Rochester's wife, and she tears herself away from him, a crucifixion of sorts.  She wanders across the wilderness, only to discover some family members that she didn't know she had.

In the end, Jane Eyre redeems all the people in her world.  Her cousins will have money, because she shares with them.  St. John will go off to save the savages in India.  She forgives her aunt (the mother of a different, abusive, set of cousins), who can die peacefully.  Most important, she returns to Rochester, who is a ruin of a man, and she brings him back from his living death.

So, on this Good Friday, I will be thinking about Jane Eyre and the crucifixion of Christ.  I will spend some time at the labyrinth, where some people will come to do a self-guided walk with the Stations of the Cross, if they desire.  I will be writing a book review of Ren Powell's Mercy Island, which I will post tomorrow.  I'll be reading Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination and Mark Pierson's Curating Worship.  I'll be thinking about the questions I want to ask Justin Evans and hoping that you go here to read the reasons why you should buy his latest book.  I'll be hoping that you buy it--it's a gorgeous book, which I'll be reviewing in more detail in May.  I'll be getting ready for a creativity afternoon tomorrow, after a phone interview with Ren Powell and Dave Bonta.  I'll be plotting the bunny cake that I plan to make for Easter Sunday, since I'll be with a group of people which will include several children.

I hope you have a wonderful day planned.  Or a contemplative day.  Or a day that reminds you of the miracles of resurrection more so than a day that reminds you of what the powerful do to those that challenge the status quo.  Unless of course, that's what would please you most.

For those of you who would like a more theological meditation on Good Friday, I invite you to visit my theology blog here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Good-Bye Grete

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of the great runner Grete Waitz (for The New York Times story, go here).  She was one of my high school heroes.

Yes, I realize that statement marks me as the strange adolescent that I was.  At one time, I could have told you various running statistics, the same way that men can talk about batting averages for hours on end.  I could have told you who ran which marathon in which time, who beat who, who was likely to be the best runner ever.

Of course, back in high school, it was easier.  We didn't have so many marathons.  We didn't realize that even then, a generation of Kenyans was running barefoot through the landscape, getting ready to obliterate all the records.  Back in high school, there wasn't even a women's marathon in the Olympics, and the inclusion of it in 1984 was heavily debated.

My dad started running around 1973, when much of the U.S. took to the roads in their sneakers which are amazingly low-tech compared to today's standards.  My dad quickly realized that he had to choose between running and cigarettes, and he chose running--and that's probably why he's still with us today, because he was a heavy smoker.

We spent the 70's going to various local road races, cheering on our dad.  It wasn't long before the whole family was running.  I spent my high school years running 10K races on Saturday mornings.  My dad would zoom ahead, finish, then circle back and finish with me (and my sister, if she was running).  My mom, with her bad back, was more often the keeper of warm up clothes and the person who cheered us on.

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was.  Even in the early 80's, I had people ask if I was worried about damaging myself--and they were serious.  One adult lectured me about how I'd lose my uterus.  I still have this vision of running along with a uterus bouncing along behind me.  A large chunk of the population truly believed that women shouldn't be doing such strenuous sport.  Fortunately for me, my parents weren't part of that population.

Happily, we had women like Grete Waitz, who was able to establish records and win races at every distance.  You might grumble and say, "Oh sure, it was easy to establish records when you're a pioneer in the field."  But I think if you  compare her times in the early marathons she ran to the times male champions were achieving, in one of the New York marathons, she came in second or third place, regardless of gender.  Amazing.

And she seemed to suffer no ill effects.  All of her lady parts stayed put, she never broke any bones, and she never developed those bulgy muscles that frightened so many women away from working out.

Go ahead, I'll wait until you finish laughing.  Yes, once upon a time, females didn't work out because they were afraid they'd look like guys.  Now, we all want to look like ripped guys, and if we're women, we want to look like ripped guys with breast implants riding high on our rib cages.  It's fascinating to look at a picture of Grete Waitz during her glory days and to compare them with track and field stars of today.  Sure, we're working out in different ways, with weights now, but it's hard for me to believe that women are achieving some of the shapes that they are without chemical help.  And with some of the disgracing of some of our recent track stars like Marion Jones, I rest my case.

The death of Grete Waitz reminds us that all the working out can't save us in the end.  We're all going to die.  I'm a bit shocked to realize how young she was:  57.  But she was a great proponent of the value of sport in facing everyday adversity, and I agree.  Running and training for events has gotten me through many a difficult time in my life.  In grad school, I completed my first (and probably only) triathlon.  In high school, I'd lace up my shoes and run 6 miles after school, day after day after day.  I'm no longer the athlete that I was, but I still make time for vigorous, sweaty exercise 5-6 days a week, and I'm convinced that I'm staving off the ravages of old age, not forever, but at least for now.  I'm one of the few midlife to older people I know who's not taking meds for high blood pressure or high cholesterol or pre-diabetes (or full-blown diabetes).

I'm also convinced that my experience with running has given me a can-do attitude that I find lacking in a lot of people.  I've trained myself to run distances that might have looked impossible for a woman with my flamboyant hips.  I've come back from weight gains that would have sidelined most people.  And that knowledge, that I can do things that should be impossible for me to do, but that I can do those things with persistent training, that knowledge permeates my whole life and makes me a bit more fearless than I would otherwise be.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I feel fear, but I push through and strive anyway.

So, thank you Grete Waitz for blazing a trail for the rest of us to follow.  Thank you for showing us that women can run and not damage themselves--in fact, that they can still be vibrant women with spouses and friends and a full life.  I know that somewhere in Heaven, you and Fred Lebow are running this morning, free of your cancers, creating great running courses for the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday Links: the Descent into Passion Week

For those of you who want more thoughts on Passion Week, navigate over to this post on my theology blog, where I ponder the word "passion."  I even include a poem that appears in public for the first time ever.  If it makes you hungry for more and you missed my Sunday post, go here.

But maybe you have no desire for theology.  Maybe you're yearning for an in-depth discussion of poetry.  Head to this post on Dave Bonta's blog, where you can click on links to read our reviews of Luisa Igloria's Trill and Mordent.  Maybe you're tired of reading.  At the same post, you can listen to a podcast of the conversation that Dave, Luisa, and I had last Wednesday.  It was fascinating!

Maybe you're longing for something more practical.  Susan Rich has a great post on what makes a reading work.  She reminds us that we need to practice.  Good reminder.  I've scheduled a reading on May 11 with 2 other poets.  Time to start shifting gears to think about that reading.

I've been trying to generate pre-publication sales of my chapbook, since the press run will be determined by how many copies are ordered now; for example with prepublication sales between 55-104 copies sold, 250 copies will be printed.  At 105 copies, 500 will be printed.  It's likely that there won't be a second printing, so I'd like to sell as many on this side of publication as possible. 

Yesterday I launched one of the tools that was most effective for the sales of my first chapbook:  my mother's Christmas card address list.  All of the people on that list will be getting a notice of my second book.

What I wish I had known as a younger poet?  The importance of keeping my address lists up to date.  I've let so many people slide away.  Of course, I don't just wish I still had their addresses so I could sell them books.  It makes me sad that I've lost touch.  I envy the women of my mother's generation who always kept track of each other.

If you'd like to help me with my pre-publication sales push, go here to order. Scroll down to see me in the second row and click to order.  I'll keep reminding you--you've got until May 13.  But why wait?

Yesterday I created stickers to go on every envelope of my mailing, which I can't import here (but I'd be happy to send you via e-mail attachment):  they reminded people that the holidays are coming and that poetry makes a great gift.  Let's agree to make this be the year of poetry presents (presence!).  It doesn't have to be my work; many great books have been published in the last few years.

Of course, maybe you don't have money for poetry, either for yourself or for others.  Have you entered all the National Poetry Month drawings going on across the blogosphere?  Kelli Russell Agodon has the complete list here.  Go, enter--the odds are in your favor!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Trailer #2

Here is my second book trailer for my forthcoming book, which I posted to YouTube today.  Let's see if this embedding feature works.  No, it doesn't seem to work.  Instead, let me link to the YouTube site: 

In the interest of us all learning from each other, I'll leave the embedded bit here.  Maybe someone can tell us all how one fixes such a thing.  It's probably easy, but I don't have time to fix it today.  There's a summer schedule conflict resolution meeting momentarily, and I must take my pre-emptive aspirin!

I appreciate everyone's comments on the rough draft several weeks ago.  I fixed what I could, but alas, some of it I just can't figure out how to fix.

Some day, I'm sure I'll look back and shake my head over what I allowed to go out into the world, but for now, here it is.  Enjoy!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm/Passion Sunday for Poets and Writers

Today churches across Christendom will celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.  Of course, the same crowd that cheers for Jesus will just a few days later be screaming for his death.  Many churches will cover the whole Holy Week story today:  Palm Sunday has become Passion Sunday.  For a theological meditation with photos, head over to this post on my theology blog.

This morning I woke up thinking about what the Palm/Passion Sunday story has to say to us as poets and writers.  As humans, we are susceptible to the desire for praise.  We don't feel like our work is important unless someone else says it is.  In some ways, this tendency is good.  We need the checks and balances of brains that aren't our own.  I've written many a harsh things in my younger years, much to my later regret.  How I wish I had listened to other voices that encouraged me to temper my tone.

But taken to its extreme, this need for praise can be damaging.  We stop believing in ourselves and our worth and the worth of our work unless someone important tells us that we're great.  And quickly, we start to determine which praise counts and which doesn't:  this journal is worth our time, that one isn't.  If we can't be published by the top 10 presses, we won't bother.  If my book doesn't sell x amount of copies, it's not worth it.  The danger is that we'll become paralyzed by all of this.  I'm all for shooting for the top.  I'll send my manuscript to W.W. Norton or Knopf.  But if they say no, I don't want to stop there.

The Palm/Passion story also reminds us of the fleeting nature of fame.  Don't get me wrong:  if I'm chosen to be Poet Laureate, I'll do as good a job as I'm capable of doing.  But I'll start every day by reminding myself that the fame is likely temporary.  The important thing remains:  the work.

The Palm/Passion story reminds us that we're characters in a larger narrative (as does the Passover story, which people across the world will be hearing this week too, both in Jewish traditions and some Christian traditions).  We will find ourselves in great danger if we start to believe it's all about us, personally.  No, there are larger forces at work.  To put it in poetry and Scouting terms:  I'm put here to do my best writing, but also, to leave the poetry campsite better than I found it.  How do I do that?  I work to promote not only myself, but other worthy poets, I work to make sure that the next generations know about the rewards of poetry, I envision the kind of world we would have if poetry was valued, and I work/play to make that possible.  I also work to have a balanced, integrated life:  my work in poetry cannot be allowed to eclipse other important work:  the social justice work, the care of my family and friends, my relationship with the Divine, the other creative work I do, the self-care that must be the foundation of it all.

I find many values to being part of a religious tradition, but the constant reminder of the larger vision, the larger mission, is one of the most valuable to me.  The world tells me that many things are important:  fame, money, famous/rich people, a big house, a swell car, loads of stuff.  My religious tradition reminds me of the moth-eaten nature of these things that the world would have me believe is important.  My religious tradition reminds me of the importance of the larger vision.  And happily, my religious tradition is expansive enough that my creative work can be part of that larger vision.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Poetry Friday

Some days, I feel the universe smiles on me and says, "Yes, dear one, you ARE living the life you're meant to live."  Yesterday was one of those days.

It was a blessedly quiet morning in the office.  Fridays are often heavy-duty meeting days at my workplace, which means a Friday like yesterday, which has no meetings, seems even more calm and productive than a usual Friday, than a usual work day.  In the afternoon, I got some assessment work done.

I also got an e-mail from Diane Lockward who accepted one of my poems for the journal Adanna.  Hurrah!  She suggested some changes, which I think made the poem stronger.  No worries there.

And then it was time for our book club.  We usually meet for a brown bag lunch, but we decided to do something special this time.  Since it's National Poetry Month, we had been reading the collection of poems by one of our very own members (go here for your chance to win a copy of the book).  We decided to go off campus and enjoy food and friendship and a poetry discussion.  We decided to go a bit later, at 4.

What a great time we had!  We had some folks come along who, for various reasons, don't always make it to book club.  We talked about the poems, about the writing process, about whether or not the speakers and the characters in the poems were the author, about modern life in general.  We kept circling back to the poems; with some of our book club conversations, we don't stay on track like that (we wander away and never get back to discussing the book).  We had Middle Eastern food.  We had GREAT conversation.  It's what I always imagined grown up life would be like.

Then my friend and I went to an artist talk at the Girls' Club Gallery (which I've talked about here and here).  Kerry Phillips, the artist who made the installation piece out of small jars with crocheted bits and wooden spools and other things was giving an artist lecture.  It was fascinating and made me look at my odds and ends in a whole new way.  I'm beginning to think that everything looks like art if you put it in a shadowbox, and I intend to play with the idea of shadowboxes over Easter week-end--stay tuned.

Kerry Phillips talked about the "migratory habits of the junk drawer," a phrase which captivated my friend and me.  You know about those habits, how the stuff you use the most is in the front, while the less-used stuff migrates to the back.  If you need a writing prompt for this Saturday, here's one:  migratory habits of the _____.

I got home tired but happy.  Yet there was one more surprise:  Justin Evans' new collection Town for the Trees arrived in the mail.  What a beautiful book, both as an object itself (handmade! ivory paper!  perfect page weight!) and in the poems.  I'll be reviewing it in the next 12 days, and later, I'll be interviewing Justin

Yes, it was a great day, one of those days that, while long and tiring in some ways, filled up my inspiration well, one of those days that I struggle to remember on days that are bogged down in meetings and less inspiring events.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Halfway Through April: The Tax Man Cometh

So, here we are, halfway through April.  How is National Poetry Month treating you?  Are your taxes done?

I have a more low-key National Poetry Month going on.  I'm not writing a poem a day.  I went back through my poetry notebooks and decided that while I had learned a lot from attempting it the past two years, I didn't end up with a surplus of poems that I wouldn't have written otherwise--but I did end up with more haiku than I would have written otherwise.  So, I continue with my goal for the year to write a poem, a finished poem as opposed to an attempt, each week.

I'm not reading a book of poems each day, but I'm reading a book a week for a review and a phone interview.  I'm finding this so enriching that I might continue.  Or maybe once a month?  I've found it helpful knowing that someone else is doing it too; do I need the accountability to keep up this practice?  Anyone want to create a reading schedule with me for the rest of the year?

I'm jealous of all the poetry events that other people are attending.  Ah well.  I've seen Emma Trellis read.  That was a treat. There are all sorts of other events, especially around Miami, but I have to balance work and spouse and church and creative projects and upcoming retreat.

Today my book group discusses the book of poems written by one of our members!  How exciting.  Afterwards, I'm going to the Girl's Club Gallery for an artist discussion.  It makes for a long day, but I want to attend one of these events.

On Tuesday, April 26, at noon, we're doing a Favorite Poem event at school.  We're offering a light lunch and hoping that people come with favorite poems.  If not, I will have a few anthologies and let people find a favorite for the day.

And I finish National Poetry Month by heading to the mountains for the Create in Me retreat.  It's not too late to join us.  And for those of you who like doing all kinds of artsy craftsy activities, it's a great way to try things.  More info here.

And finally, taxes.  This is not the first year that I filed as a writer, in addition to my day job, but it is the first year that it made much of a difference.  If I had one piece of advice, it would be to keep track of your mileage.  You may think you're not going to make money in a tax year, but you never know when you'll get a call from someone who says, "Hey, we like your blog.  Would you write for us?  We'll pay you" or "Hey, we like that blog piece.  Could you turn it into an article for our magazine?  We'll pay you."

And while you're keeping track of mileage, keep those receipts from all those meals out, a tip I learned from the tax accountant husband of a writer friend.  You go out to eat with friends, you talk about your writing projects--suddenly that meal is tax deductible.

It all adds up, and while for me, it hasn't yet meant that I can quit my regular job that gives us not only an income but health insurance, it's a nice bonus.

This might sound a bit new-agey to you, but if you start thinking of yourself as a writer, the universe might reward you with more writing gigs/income/recognition.  One way to start thinking of yourself as a writer is to use the tax code to your advantage.  I'm not a tax lawyer or an accountant, but those people exist, should you want to fully explore the tax code and deduct part of your study or the electric bill used to power your computer.  Still, some deductions are easy, once you get into the habit of keeping receipts and recording your mileage.

So, start a folder or an envelope.  See where you are by the time that you prepare next year's taxes.  May you be happily surprised!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Hungers that Crochet Us Together

Dave Bonta is reading and reviewing a volume of poetry during each  and every day of April.  He graciously accepted my idea that those of us who can't hollow out time to read a volume a day would still benefit from reading one of the week's books with him.  We created a reading schedule here, but you can participate at any point during the month.  Dave also created an interview schedule with the poets and asked me to participate, and of course, I said yes.  What a generous poetry universe I'm finding myself a part of!

This week's book is Luisa Igloria's Trill and Mordent, and last night, we had our phone conversation--podcast coming soon.  You have a lot to look forward to.  In the meantime, here's my review of the book.

I first met the poems of Luisa A. Igloria on Dave Bonta’s blog, where she writes a daily poem in response to his front porch observations. The poems in Trill and Mordent are much more complex and more fully developed.

These poems ask us to think about the lives we’re living, the trellises that undergird our lives, the armor that we try to construct to protect our lives. But as the poem “Armor” makes clear, these efforts to protect all that we love may make us falsely confident; armor exists “to make the body moving / into battle feel braver than it is . . . .” Our lives are crocheted out of fragile links, “for every coin of happiness, two of uncertainty.”

Igloria uses images of crocheting in this poem, even as she’s describing the making of chain mail. Elsewhere she uses braids to ask, “What separates, what brings together?” (“Braid”). Even once we’ve protected what we know, this poem reminds us, “ . . . New / knowledge supplants old, in science and history together / with all the arts which hollow out this space . . . .”

Many of these poems remind us that we have choices, many roads diverging in our multicultural woods. These poems both remind me of Robert Frost and remind me of how much simpler was the worldview of Frost. We live in a world that’s on the move, a world where our ancestors might get left behind. Many of these poems circle back to past times, back to the ghosts that haunt us. The poem “Wounds” reminds us that we live in bodies “with its hundred hearts,” and in the poem “The Four Seasons of Life,” we meet the speaker who says, “I am trying to learn how to leave / my body. Much more difficult how to manage each / return.”

In the end, we’re sunk, “stung by love and hurt and the knowledge that there’s no hope for any of it” (“Stairway to Heaven”). Yet there are consolations. There’s wine and food; we can learn “how to turn / the dullest of leftovers into a dish so unforgettable / my friends will beg and beg, years after, for the recipe;” (“The Unrepentant Hour”). There is the blood that “must match with blood, to cause effective chemistry” (“In the Blood,” a poem about transfusions and other couplings).

These poems know that “Karma is only another name for longing, the soul / returning and returning, begging to be loved or taken” (“Field Planted to Winter Grass”). These poems know that although there is no hope for us, we are full of “unpredictable hungers” (“Tree of Watchfulness”). And in those hungers, paradoxically, we find hope.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Living in Godot's Land

Today is Samuel Beckett's birthday.  Ah, Beckett, the older I get, the more relevant your work seems.  And how that scares me.

I first read Waiting for Godot in grad school, at the tender young age of 25.  I was baffled.  It made sense to me as a response to World War II, as a response to the newly birthed nuclear age.  But as a staged work?  I could hardly stand to read it.  How could audiences watch it?

Of course, not all audiences did.  Some audiences greeted the play with the mindset of my graduate school self:  "What on earth is this?  We didn't come to the theatre for this!"

I used to work at a community college in South Carolina, and for some reason, we had a filmed version of the second act of the play, which I would show to my Brit Lit survey class.  It was fun to watch their reactions.  It's safe to say that Waiting for Godot was like nothing they had ever seen.  And it's a great play to launch a discussion of how 20th century drama was so very different from the drama that had come before.

I am glad that my younger self had no vision of how life--just regular life, not post-apocalypse life--can seem so very much to resemble the lives of those folks who wait for Godot.  Why are we here?  Why are we doing this?  Why don't we do something differently?  Do you have a radish or did we eat them all already?  Think about your daily tasks, especially if you're working in an office, and how much that play resembles office life.

Do we have hope?  The tree sprouts leaves, after all.  Are we really just living the same day over and over again?  Some days I think we are, other days, I'm learning/doing something new--but often, the something new will become cyclical too.  Are we just trapped together, the way that all of Beckett's plays suggest?  Can we not escape?  And where is God (Godot?) in all this.

Ah, the existential questions!

And yet, we're well-trained, aren't we?  Our broken belts won't allow us to commit suicide, and we don't want to leave our lives of circularity, because what if there really is a pay off?  What if Godot really does show up and it will all be worthwhile after all?

And so, in the meantime, we wait.  We wait with the people around us, not necessarily people of our choosing.  We wait, in hope and in despair.

It's called absurdist theatre for a reason. 

It's also theatre that refuses to spoon feed us.  What does it all mean?  At the end of the drama, it's hard to determine.  Beckett doesn't say, "Wake up you dopes!  Shake off your chains!"  Beckett doesn't say, "Don't worry.  It will all be worth it."  The audience is left to make up its own mind.

So, it's off to my Beckettian work place.  Today, I'll finish/polish the schedule of summer classes, knowing that I'll probably have to revisit it several times.  Over the next week, I'll go to multiple meetings that cover much the same material last month's meetings did.  But teaching life felt much the same way:  different students, same writing issues.  I felt in a loop I never got out of, since I never saw students progress through the years.  I taught them and sent them on to the next teachers. 

Life as absurdist theatre:  it's good to have a sense of humor!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Drop Everything and Read! (or listen to a podcast)

Today is the 95th birthday of Beverly Cleary.  Yes, she's still alive.  Around the nation, communities will celebrate D.E.A.R (Drop Everything and Read) Day, which encourages deep, silent reading--so, at some point today, take a break, turn off the electronics, and read for 30 minutes.

I'd be tempted to return to the books of Beverly Cleary, although I confess I haven't read them as a grown up.  I bet they'd hold up well.  At some point, PBS did a multi-show series based on the Ramona Quimby novels, and my spouse and I loved them.

When I was young, Beverly Cleary was one of my FAVORITE writers, along with Laura Ingalls Wilder and whoever was writing the Trixie Beldon series at the time.  I loved Beverly Cleary long before I loved Judy Blume.  And even now, I have a fondness for those Cleary characters that I don't necessarily have for the Blume characters.  That mouse on the toy motorcycle who lives in a hotel!  Ramona, who has the normal problems of childhood (being the youngest, oh, how unfair!), not the scoliosis and larger social problems of the Judy Blume novels.

So, thank you Beverly Cleary, for writing the kinds of books that teach children to love to read.  Now, to find a quiet half hour to sink into reading.

Today is also the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  If you've always wondered about the role of Ft. Sumter, and how the events unfolded, The Washington Post has a great story here.  Actually, I'll have to link to it later--that website seems to be having issues.

I am one of those people who get used to a website and get weary of changes.  The Washington Post just did a major overhaul, and for two weeks, nothing has been working properly.  I get enough glimmers of what it might be eventually to make me see why they're attempting this change, but right now, it's simply frustrating.  Add to that The New York Times' new policy attempting to get big bucks for what had once been free, and it's enough to drive me back to old-fashioned books, the kind I read when I would dive into Beverly Cleary and saw newspapers as boring things that grown ups read.  Maybe my childhood self was onto something.

Even though I grew up in the U.S. South, the Civil War still seemed a distant event--until I moved to South Carolina for college.  There I met people who called the Civil War "The War of Northern Aggression"--and they were serious.  Here people still argued about the Civil War, and though the events took place 120 years ago, people argued as if it happened in their lifetimes.  I've known Civil War re-enactors and scholars and I've gone to battle sites and read countless books, and I must confess, I still puzzle over the meaning of it all.

I think about the ways that technology meant that slavery would continue--or at least, that's what we were taught when we learned about the cotton gin, which made the harvesting of cotton much more economical, the profit margin larger.  I learned about the cotton gin, and not too far from my school in Montgomery Alabama were fields where people still harvested cotton.  I went to college in a town that had just had two mills shuttered, ending a way of life that had given people a moderate living, along with lung disease from the cotton fuzz.  It was a rather desperate time in Newberry, South Carolina in the early 80's.

You wouldn't know it to look at the town now.  The Opera House has been re-opened and the downtown revitalized.  I think about the whole state, how people come to Charleston and never realize how the Civil War flattened the city.  I remember going to the old slave market, which during the early 90's had a kind of low-rent flea market vibe--I shook my head over the disconnect, but I doubt most people thought about it. 

I think about the South Carolina State House, with its lovely grounds.  The summer between undergraduate school and grad school, I worked for a afterschool program which offered all-day programs in the summer.  We took field trips, and several times we went to the State House; the children loved to try to find all the bronze stars in the walls of the building, and we tried to distract them from the sight of the police on the grounds who shot squirrels.  The stars mark the spots where Union cannonballs hit (fired by Sherman?).  Later, in grad school, I'd walk the grounds.  I loved the statue that was dedicated to spirit of Confederate womanhood.

How lovely it would be to find 30 minutes to read about the war.  I'd return to the journals of the women of that time.  How brave they were in the face of such destruction. 

We may feel like we're living in apocalyptic times, but reading those journals reminds us of how we're not, not really, at least those of us industrialized nations.  Even those of us sliding down the economic ladder are not facing the kind of hard times that the Civil War wrought.

I wrote a series of poems about the South Carolina state house, and I'll post one of them below.  But before I do, I must link to Dave Bonta's podcast.  If you don't have time to read, maybe you can have our discussion to keep you company as you work.  On Saturday, Dave and I talked to Diane Lockward about her latest book Temptation by Water, about the writing life, and about technology.  I listened to the podcast last night, and even though I knew what we'd all said, I still enjoyed it.

But now, to the poem, which won't take half an hour of deep reading, alas.  "Progress" first appeared in Clapboard House.  I wrote this paragraph about the poem much earlier in this post, when the poem first appeared online:  "And in case you're wondering about the poem "Progress," let me just give some background. Until 1989 or so, it was legal in South Carolina for a man to rape his wife. I was part of a campaign to change that law. I remember heading over to the State House after my graduate school classes at USC (an easy walk) and watching the proceedings. I didn't testify, since I wasn't married and had no horrifying stories, but I like to think that the fact that so many women jammed the meeting halls led to the change in that law."


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

If you liked this poem, you might enjoy "Modern Abolitionist," over here at my theology blog. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Should You Find Yourself in a Sci Fi Universe

Maybe you're tired of National Poetry Month.  Maybe you need a novel that isn't 600 pages long.  Maybe you need something that's fun and both light and deep at the same time.  I highly recommend Charles Yu's latest novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

It's a book that rewards those of us who wasted great wads of our adolescence reading/watching sci fi, but even if you didn't, the insider jokes won't be too off-putting.  It's the kind of book that rewards those of us who wish we could be physicists (we're fascinated by theories of time and space, but not great at Math), and it's for those of us who are too far behind in our science knowledge to even keep up with Brian Greene's accessible version.  It's the kind of book that's got a plot and characters, and it's also about writing and about fiction and also the ways that writing and fiction are about life.

In short, the protaganist spent his youth building a time machine with his dad.  They never quite got the time machine to work, but a short time later, the technique has been perfected, and the protaganist gets a job repairing time machines.  He remarks "But no one grows up wanting to be the time machine repair guy.  No one says, Hey, I want to be the guy who fixes stuff." (p. 30)

Here are some additional quotes to whet your appetite:

(after telling us we can't change the past, good news or bad news, depending on your perspective):  "The universe just doesn't put up with that.  We aren't important enough.  No one is.  Even in our own lives.  We're just not strong enough, willful enough, skilled enough in chronodiegetic manipulation to be able to just accidentally change the entire course of anything, even ourselves." (p. 14)

"A typical customer gets into a machine that can literally take her whenever she'd like to go.  Do you want to know what the first stop usually is?  Take a guess.  Don't guess.  You already know:  the unhappiest day of her life." (pp. 45-46)

"Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years." (p. 131).

"Everyone has a time machine.  Everyone is a time machine.  It's just that most people's machines are broken.  The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind.  People get stuck, people get looped.  People get trapped.  But we are all time machines.  We are all perfectly engineered time machines, technologically equipped to allow the inside user, the traveler riding inside each of us, to experience time travel, and loss, and understanding.  We are universal time machines manufactured to the most exacting specifications possible.  Every single one of us." (p. 164-165).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tropical Poetry Saturday

So the rest of you in the upper 47 states (notice how I didn't include Alaska) are enjoying lovely Spring weather or terrifying Spring weather--we, here on the lowermost edge of the U.S. have been plunged back into summer.  It's hot, hot, hot--almost 90 degrees with blindingly bright sunshine, the intense sun that means we should really put on sunscreen just to go between house and car.  Ah, well.  Hot, with blinding sun, is our weather default setting here, after all.

(bougainvillea against April sky)

I was determined not to let the heat get me down.  I had a full poetry day yesterday--complete with poetry surprises.  Yesterday's post from The Writer's Almanac featured one of Martha Silano's poems from her new collection--what a treat!  I must go back and give Silano's collection The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception the complete attention it deserves--but that will have to wait until May.

For several days I'd been working on press releases.  Yesterday morning, I finally finished one part of my promotion project, and I'm happy to say that the first press release about my new book can be found here.

Then it was off to spin class and back. 

As you may or may not remember, Dave Bonta and I are reading a book a week during April, which we've invited others to read with us (for the schedule, go here) and we're doing a phone interview with each author, which Dave will turn into a podcast.  Our first book was Diane Lockward's Temptation by Water.  Dave live-blogged his reading here, and I reviewed the book here.  Dale has also reviewed the book here.

Yesterday was the interview with Diane.  I woke up feeling kind of nervous, and I wondered why.  I've talked on the phone with Dave before, and Diane and I have communicated via e-mail and blog postings before.  I've never had an unpleasant encounter with either.  So why was I feeling anxious?

I worried that we might run out of things to say.  I worried that the technology might fail us.  I worried that I thought I understood her work, and maybe I would find out that I really didn't.

In short, my high school era anxieties had reasserted themselves and were raging about in full form.  I felt like I was going to get to hang out with the cool kids, and my anxieties were all about blowing it.  Don't I ever get to graduate from high school?

And yes, I understand all the ironies implicit in the idea of poetry cool kids and technology-proficient cool kids.  But in the interest of living an honest life, a life that will allow others to say, "Oh, intriguing, I'm not the only person who feels this way," I will let the above paragraphs stay.

As usual, I was fretful for nothing--we had a GREAT conversation.  We talked about poetry, about careers, about technology, about the future of publishing, and about Temptation by Water.  Dave will post the podcast later, and I'll let everyone know when it's available, so that you can enjoy it too.

And then, later in the day, I met with real poets in real time and real place.  Two poet friends came to my house and drove down to Miami to see Emma Trelles read at Books and Books.  We went early so that we could have dinner in the courtyard.  And even though it was blazingly hot, the courtyard was shady, and we had a lovely supper.

During the ride down to Miami and during our meal, we talked about our work, about our future work, about the reading that we'll all three be giving on May 11 at Hollywood Vine (in Hollywood, FL)--more on all these things to come.

And then, it was time for the Emma Trelles reading.  What a treat!  She read beautifully, and she gave just the right amount of introduction. 

I also picked up her two books, and I look forward to reading them in more depth later.  The reading did what a good reading should do--it introduced me to the poems and whetted my appetite for a deeper intereaction with them.

And then it was time to come home, by way of downtown Hollywood, where we'll be giving our reading in a month.

Yesterday was one of those embarrassment-of-riches days, a perfect balance to my administrator days when I have to deal with all manner of absurdities; one reason I wanted to create this post was so that I could remember this kind of day as I'm suffering through other kinds of days.

No, not every day is like my Tropical Poetry Saturday.  But I feel fortunate to enjoy them fully when they come along.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

In Praise of Public Libraries

We awake this morning to news that there will be no government shut down, at least not right now.  Of course, this deal affects the budget that should have been passed before last October, when the fiscal year started.  I dread the bombastics sure to come as lawmakers turn their attention to the next fiscal year's budget.

I kept hearing lots of folks talking about taxes, but I can't help but notice that I'm taxed at the lowest rate I've ever been taxed.  I know people who rant and rave about the rich avoiding paying their fair share of taxes, but frankly, I'm not paying much tax either, and I assure you it's not because I'm rich and not because I have a lot of tax shelters.

In fact, I wouldn't mind paying more if the money went to things like public libraries.  I mention these items on the birthday of the first library to be supported by taxpayer funds.  In 1833, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, citizens voted to set aside a portion of their tax money to buy books--and thus was born a great American tradition.

It's an intriguing question:  which is the greatest of the contributions that the U.S. has given the world.  Some might say jazz.  Some might offer the quilt.  Some might go for a loftier idea and say that the idea of democracy is uniquely American and our greatest gift to the world.

But I could make a strong case for the idea of the public library.  Before the Internet became so widespread, the public library was the only way to access information easily and cheaply.  You can't get more cheap than free! 

I remember the first time I tried to go to the library at the University of Miami without my faculty ID, and I was denied entrance.  I felt outrage at the idea of a private library.  Oh, sure, in theory, I get it, but emotionally, I felt ashamed, almost, and denied of something essential.  I hungered for entrance!

One of my earliest memories is of my mom riding her bike to the public library with me behind her in the baby seat.  For a long time, my family had one car, which my dad drove to work. 

And later, I remember the Montgomery (Alabama) public library, which let adults check out as many books as they liked, but children were limited to 10.  My mom and I worked out a deal:  she'd check out as many books for me as I wanted on her card.

I was a voracious reader and always grateful for the library which meant  that I didn't have to buy books.  And of course, the library has always had more than books.  As poor graduate students, we had access to lots of movies (on VHS!), and the downtown Main library even had framed art which you could keep for a month, which we did.

I'm happy to pay for libraries and public education and police/fire protection and the upkeep of roads.  I'll even pay for weapons systems and multiple branches of the military, even though my younger self would be horrified at my complicity.  Once upon a time, I'd have wanted more say in the decision making process about how my tax money was spent, but now I hardly have time to do the shopping and the laundry, so I'll let the experts decide which weapons systems are best and which resources should be bought for the library.

I can't be the only one who feels this way--can I?  And yet, in all this budget bluster of the past week, I haven't heard many voices that match mine.  But I continue to be hopeful that I will.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Writer as Miracle: Happy Birthday, Barbara Kingsolver!

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver.  The story of how she moved from being an academic and a technical writer to a woman who makes a living as a creative writer has probably inspired tens of thousands of people.

She was pregnant and suffered insomnia.  Her doctor suggested that she clean the bathrooms with a toothbrush, so that she had motivation to stay asleep.  Instead, she decided to write what would become her first novel, The Bean Trees.  She moved her typewriter into a closet so that she could write on her typewriter and her husband could sleep.

Notice that she had always been a writer.  In addition to the academic and technical writing she had been doing as part of her work, she had been writing poems and short stories (for most of her whole life).  But The Bean Trees catapulted her into popularity.  She's continued to write fantastic novels and wonderful essays.  I love how her novels weave themes of social justice into compelling plotlines with characters who are utterly believable.

I love her essays too.  If I ever give up this South Florida life and move to a farm, her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle will be partly to blame.  That book makes sustainable living sound doable.

This week has been somewhat hectic for me--several evening obligations after days at work where I've been filling in for a dean who's away giving a paper at a conference, while still covering the needs of my department.  Last night, some 15 hours after I got ready for week, I discovered that I had spent the whole day wearing non-matching earrings (luckily, I wore my hair down, so I'm guessing that few people noticed).  I've been wearing earrings since 1979, and I've never worn two different earrings.

If you've been having a similar week, a week where you wonder if anything you do is worth doing, here's a quote from Kingsolver to inspire you:  "What a writer can do, what a fiction writer or a poet or an essay writer can do, is re-engage people with their own humanity. Fiction and essays can create empathy for the theoretical stranger."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Temptations of Diane Lockward's Latest Book

One of the things that I miss about being in school was that knowledge that if I was consumed by my reading, other people were reading the same books, and I had a built-in discussion group.

When Dave Bonta announced his plan to read a volume of poetry each day and to blog about it, I wrote to ask if those of us who couldn't be that ambitious could tag along anyway--could we vote in advance to read a book a week and discuss it?  He said yes--and it's not too late for you to join in!  Go here for details.  Our first book for National Poetry Month is Diane Lockward's Temptation by Water.

Dave Bonta live-blogged his reading of the book, which I found fascinating.  I wrote a response blog post that imagined what my live-blogging would look like in the day of an administrator, but that was not my serious response to the book.  I've spent the last week returning to this book again and again--it's that kind of book that rewards multiple readings.

I first read this book back in July, in the way that I usually read a collection of poems, by dipping in and out.  As usual, I loved her poems about food.  I worried about fully immersing myself, since the poems seemed to have a bluish tinge of loss.

I'm glad that I read the book as a whole, because that reading has given me a different sense of the book.  There are plenty of poems that explore the ways "Winter consumes what I love and leaves / behind the wreckage of absence--" ("Hunger in the Garden").  Even with the theme of loss, however, I found myself delighted by the new metaphors Lockward uses to describe it:  "Azaleas, too, surrender to teeth, to hunger's / chomp and winter's bite" ("Hunger in the Garden").  Yes, the collection explores loss, but also the ways that loss makes us stronger:  "Even the chain link fence endures, no matter what / has happened here, it grows rusty but endures" ("Learning to Live Alone").

The first poem in Section 1 both warns us and comforts us, reminds us of " . . . how we are all / looking for someone to push back / the waves, to grab hold of us, and keep us / here, pressed to this earth" ( "Weather Report").  One of the ways we grab hold of each other is through food, a wide diversity of food, from plums, to soup to pork and potatoes in multiple forms.  My favorite of the food poems is "You Offer Lychee to Your American Friends."  This poem explores the nature of sweet treats across cultures and encourages us to "Breathe the ghost of cacoa tree."

Nature also keeps us anchored to the earth.  "Birdhouse" reminds us that for every loss, comes consolation; in this poem, the speaker doesn't get a profusion of flowers, but of birds.  "For One Who Crumbles in Spring" reminds us that no matter the desolation, Spring's lushness returns every year.  The speaker in "The Temptation of Mirage" says, "Give me starkness on the horizon, / predictability of beige and brown," yet this collection of poems celebrates a wide diversity of colors.

I've loved Diane Lockward's books, each and every one, and I first found her work by reading her blog; if you've ever wondered if a blog can lead readers to your other creative works, I'm here to report that they can and do.  If you've ever worried that by putting your individual poems on your blog, people might not buy your larger works, I haven't found that to be true.  I like to have a complete collection.

And Temptation by Water is the kind of collection that rewards us for our attention.  It's wonderful to perceive the poems relating to each other, both those in close proximity, and those across the collection.  It's wonderful to see poems that get their inspiration from traditional sources, like nature and love, but also popular culture, like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld.  But most important, it's the kind of collection that holds treasures for both the casual reader and the close reader.  You don't need an advanced degree to understand these poems, but if you're the kind of person who likes to delve below the surface waters of a poem, there's plenty of undersea poetry life here.

And now, sensing that I may be stretching the world of metaphor too thin, I'll return to my own poetry writing, refreshed by this immersion into Diane Lockward's Temptation of Water.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hobbes, Locke, and Those Legislators Who Want to Read Our E-Mails

Today the news is full of stories about government shut downs.  It's the birthday of Thomas Hobbes, and so, a good day to think about the role of government.  Do we want governments that troll through the e-mails of university professors, for example?  More on that later.

When I taught the Brit Lit survey classes, I always periodically gave my students a crash course in political theory.  It was great fun to talk about Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and their views of humanity.  I'd include a question on the exam:  are you more like Hobbes or Locke in your view of human nature?  In some ways, it was a give-away answer, except that for the student who wasn't there the day we discussed the 2 philosophers.

So, are you more like Hobbes or Locke?  Oh, how I wish I could believe, like Locke, that humans are by nature rational and reasonable and tolerant.  But I turn on the news, and it's hard to argue that point.  These days, we all seem to be like Hobbes, who describes the lives of humans left to their own devices as "poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan).  Yes, I know, I'm simplifying their views. 

But on Hobbes' birthday, it's worth considering the idea of government as social contract, an idea that can be traced directly back to Hobbes.  Do we want government that controls our most base impulses towards each other?  Do we want a government that somehow ennobles us (or, as a Simpsons episode might say, embiggens us?).  And how do we manufacture such governments?

I'm rather intrigued by the drama playing out in Wisconsin, where there's a state legislator who wants access to the e-mails written by a university professor.  Really?  Really???!!  What on earth does he expect to find?  News stories like that one bring out my Hobbesian beliefs--but why do nasty and brutish people become legislators?

National Poetry Month brings out my Lockeian self.  I'm amazed at how people in the poetry world help each other and look out for each other.  I'm happily surprised at the level of support that's out there.  Look at what Dave Bonta has done in his live-blogging post that also reviews Diane Lockward's Temptation by Water.

I will be writing a post about this book tomorrow or Thursday, but I will not live-blog.  Here's what my live-blog would look like (a disclaimer:  all the writing below describes fictional events, although it points towards the truth of my administrator life):

Thirteen e-mails with syllabi attached.  All looks well with the syllabi, as it always does.  I file them into the appropriate folder, just in case a student appears with a question later or in case something happens, and I need to cover a class.

Read a poem.

Read two e-mails that were forwarded to me so that there would be an e-paper trail.  As far as I can see, they don't require action on my part.

Read a poem.

Read ten e-mails about various student issues that don't really concern me or my department, but I'm kept in the loop as a courtesy.

Try to read a poem, but interrupted by an irate student who is upset because she had to do a group project for her Anthropology class, but she didn't think she should have to do a group project, she prefers to work alone, she shouldn't be required to work in a group, and besides, her group was lame.  When I point out that she had the syllabus from day 1, and the syllabus is very clear about the group project, she asks, "How would I have known about that?  I didn't read the syllabus."  I almost say something unkind, but choke down those words.  We go round and round, and she claims that working in a group will have no relevance to her future life when she's a famous director of films.  Finally, I resort to one of my points I always have to make:   the syllabus says there will be a group project, and it's a contract of sorts.  We continue in this vein for over half an hour.

I want to read a poem, but my head hurts.  Instead, I eat chocolate.  In the time that I've been talking to the irate student, I've gotten 30 more e-mails.  Not a one solves essential problems.  Not a one will be important a month from now.

I think about that legislator who is convinced that those of us working in the post-high-school educational fields are plotting great social change via our e-mails, and we must be stopped.  I think about my 19 year old self, who would not believe my life has come to this:  a relentless cycle of e-mail management.  I try to remind myself that I do some good in the world, even if I'm not setting the world on ear, like a liberation theology priest, like Archbishop Romero, but surely he felt ineffectual at times, as the bodies piled up and the rivers ran red with blood during that horrible time in El Salvador.

I go back to reading the blog posts of others, and I feel better, knowing that there are kind poets in the world, wonderful voices, everyday acts of kindness and redemption.  I make a note to myself to remember to make a vegetarian lasagne for dinner with the homeless on Wednesday and to call those people who need a ride to the BOLD Justice rally Thursday night.

With a bit of peace restored, I return to Lockward's book . . .

Monday, April 4, 2011

National Poetry Month Day 4

Today I have switched to the composing choice with Blogger that allows me more choices.  I changed the type font.  I wonder if I should change the type size.  We shall see.

This morning was more hectic than I thought it would be, but it means I get a middle of the day breathing space at home.  I needed to go to school early, which I didn't anticipate, to find some subs for an instructor who found out that her father died on Saturday.  So, I went to school, took care of various administrator duties, and then came home (I'll go back again this afternoon).  I tried to replicate the gratinee that I had at the French restaurant a week ago--it was tasty, but not the same.  I have laundry in the washing machine.  I'm trying to ignore the rest of the dirt in the house so as to have a chance to write.  I'm trying to ignore the lure of the afternoon nap.

I'm feeling slightly sad because everyone else seems to be having a more productive month than I am, and it's only day 4 of National Poetry Month!  I'm trying to remember the advice of my yoga instructor who always used to reprimand us when she'd catch us staring at others in the mirror:  "Quit comparing yourself to others.  It doesn't help."

Besides, it's not like I've been completely indolent.  On Friday, I had lunch with a friend who's a writer, and after that, I decided to be big and brave and go to the local wine store with the lovely wine bar to see if they'd let us come do a poetry reading there.  They said yes!  Here's hoping the date checks out.  I've sent out some e-mails about my forthcoming book.  I've done some reading.  Yesterday I continued to work on my 2nd trailer for my book.

But still, I need to write a poem before the month goes on much further.  So, by this time tomorrow, I'll write a poem.  That gives me some time to plot, and then tomorrow, I'll get some poetry writing done.  It's not a poem a day, but I'm cool with that.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

St. Petersburg Sojourn and Thoughts on Academic Conferences

Months ago, I submitted an abstract to the College English Association and happily, my paper was accepted. In past years, I've gotten away from the practice of going to academic conferences. They can be ghastly expensive, and out of price range for adjuncts. And I wrestle with whether or not presenting at academic conferences will be seen as important, should I ever go on the job market again. Some years I think it's far more important to focus on my poetry, and others, I worry about this hole in my CV.

So, even though there was no travel money this year, I decided it was time to go to academic conferences again. I went to the AWP and enjoyed it thoroughly. I decided to cut my time at the CEA short.

For one thing, when I had originally thought about going, I thought that my spouse could go with me, and it would be a mini vacation. Alas, he had to work. Suddenly, that special conference hotel price of $129 a night started to look very expensive.

So, I decided to cut my time short. I looked forward to time away and the chance to explore a new city. However, it was not a good weather week-end for exploring--very stormy. Plus, St. Pete was having some sort of Speedway car racing event, which meant that parts of the city were impassable,wrapped in chain link fencing. And when you've come from the DC region, where the Smithsonian museums are free, finding out that the museums in St. Pete charge $14-21 for admission--well, I decided to stay put.

I braved the winds and read by the pool. No threat of sunburn on Wednesday. I came back to the room and did some final proofreading for my writing project that was due Friday. I looked through the volumes of poetry that Dave Bonta and I will be discussing. I read some of the poems in each book and took notes for what to look for during my intense read. I read Kelli Russell Agodon's Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room straight through. I made notes on my presentation.

I didn't write a paper, the way I would have when I was younger. One of the reasons that I don't like traditional literary conferences is that everyone reads a paper, often in a dreadful monotone. One of the reasons that I liked the AWP so much is that people had conversations. So, I approached my CEA opportunity as a talk, not a paper presentation.

It went very well. I presented at one of the very first of the 12 (!!) concurrent sessions, at 8:00 a.m. We had an audience of about 8 people, not counting presenters--that's about 6 more people than I was expecting.

I had thought that I might stick around for more sessions, but the weather that morning had already been apocalyptic to the north, and the system was expected to head south and settle in by afternoon (which it did, with massive damage). So, after my presentation, I threw my stuff in the car and headed home.

There are people who might criticize my approach to this conference. They might say that I should have made more of an attempt to network, never a strong suit of mine. What if I find myself flung back onto the merciless job market?

Well, it will be hard to know which connections will be most important, should I find myself out of work. Will it be the people I might have met at conferences? Will it be old friends from grad school? Co-workers from past places? People I've met through blogging? I suspect the latter categories will be more important than random connections I might make at a literary conference.

It's the same way that it's hard to know how best to prepare for retirement. Or to return to an earlier example, which form of intelligent interaction with my field will be most important (conference presentation, poetry publication, reviews, literary criticism, something that hasn't even been invented yet?) should I ever need another job?

As with investments, I try not to put all my eggs in one basket. I publish creative works and theology and the occasional review or literary criticism piece and I hope that my Renaissance approach will be appealing to the kinds of places (non-research focused, post secondary education) I would apply.

The best part of my 20 hours in St. Pete? The chance to reconnect with old family friends, who have known me since I was 4. They've seen me in all my unattractive phases (think smart-mouthed 19 year old in combat boots), and they were still willing to meet me for dinner. We had a lovely evening with a perfect dinner.

The best part of my drive? That trek across the state, through the Everglades, with broad vistas unmarked by humans--well, except for the stretch of Interstate, of course. If I had been in a mood to stop and take pictures, I'd have taken a shot of the sign that said, "Check your gas gauge. No facilities for the next 50 miles." How often do you see that? I might have also taken a picture of the sign that announced the Florida Panther Sanctuary.

But I took no pictures. I got home, put my stuff away, and went right back to the process of meeting deadlines, thinking about book promotion (look for upcoming announcement about a reading in the wine shop--hurrah!), grocery shopping, laundry, what needs to be done at work. I'm both missing my St. Pete sojourn and feeling happy to be back home. I need to get back to poetry writing, and what better time than now, National Poetry Month!