Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Poetry Prompt from Archbishop Tutu

Last night I went to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak. He and the Dalai Lama are both in South Florida this week--what are the odds of that? The tickets to hear the Dalai Lama sold out quickly, but that was cool with me. I'd much rather see Desmond Tutu. To read more about what he said, go to my theology blog where I posted here. For a little trip down memory lane, back in the 80's when apartheid was one of the faces of evil on the planet, go to my theology blog posting from yesterday here.

Early in his talk, he said that an ancient prophet said, "Your name is engraved on the palms of God's hand."

Later in his talk, he said that God sees the evil in the world and waits for us to do something about it. He said, "You are God's hands."

I then wondered, if I am God's hands, and names are engraved on God's palms, what names are engraved on my palms. I thought, there's probably a poem in here somewhere. I thought you might like to play too.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Planning for the Future You Want to Have

I've been thinking about making a book trailer (or 2 or 3) for books that I hope will be published. Even if I never use them, it might be an interesting exercise.

Of course, I guess I should figure out how to make the sound work. I haven't actually tried that, so it may not take much time.

I like the idea of making a trailer for a book that doesn't exist yet. I know this is an exercise that might drive some people to despair. But I like that idea of envisioning a future that isn't quite here yet.

I've been enjoying Sandra Beasley's posts over at She Writes in the Countdown to Publication series. In this week's post, she talks about author photos and cover art. Earlier, I talked about Kelli Russell Agodon's post about things you should be doing to get ready for your book, right now, even if you don't have a book.

I think there are several advantages to this approach. One, when the book is finally accepted, my life might be different. I might not have time to do this things. Now, before there's a book, I have the luxury of time, the gift of not feeling panic induced by deadline. Now I can try things, without anyone looking if I fail.

That's one reason why I want to keep experimenting with book trailers and visual poetry. I want to master this now, before I feel the pressure of a book release (please, God, let me be that lucky to some day feel the pressure of an impending book release!).

Maybe we need some time away. A writer's retreat. Leslie Pietrzyk has a great post on preparing for your stay at a writer's colony. They might be good tips for your every day writing life too. Buy yourself treats. Who wouldn't like a new towel? Upgrade your pillow. Stock your pantry with snacks that will see you through.

One last thought about visual poems and book trailers. Last night, I showed my students what I had been working on, along with some of the other animated poems that are out there (thank you Sandra Beasley for creating your 2 poems and for calling my attention to this form!). We had been having a low energy evening in the classroom. Nobody's fault, really. But we're on the other side of midterm, and I can see how tired my students are. No matter how energetic I was, they didn't perk up.

So, we took a break, and I fiddled with the computer--and I got it to work! I've had a week of technology triumphs that I usually don't get to enjoy. I cued up all the pages I wanted them to see. They returned.

They watched intensely. They talked about poetry in this form as opposed to poems on paper. They talked about animated poems as a new art form. We talked about who should get credit, when it's really a collaborative process. It was quite rollicking.

I think having a radical change in direction for part of the night helped reinvigorate us. I think that poems in animated art form are closer to the creative work they prefer and closer to the creative work they do.

I also wonder how much of this is generational. I showed my visual poem-in-progress to two of my colleagues earlier in the day. They said how much they preferred their poetry delivery system to be more traditional: words on paper, books.

I think animated poems and book trailers will be a way to get more readers. Diane Lockward has a great post where she proposes doing both--and she's absolutely right. In a twist I haven't anticipated, these new forms might be a way to attract the attention of younger readers/viewers. Will viewers/readers who fall in love with our animated poems love them as much in an old-fashioned book? Will we eventually create something in terms of a larger collection for readers/viewers who want animated poems? Intriguing.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My First Attempt at a Visual Poem

I need a better term than visual poem, first of all. My friend mistyped when she was responding to yesterday's post via Facebook: vidual poem. I've been thinking about that all day. I know that some people are using the term animated poem, but as you'll see, my poem is a collection of photos, not very animated at all.

So, without further delay, let's see if I can upload. I spent some time trying to upload the other day with no luck, and yesterday, I thought I was taking my finished visual poem with me on a thumb drive. Imagine my surprise when my poem had words but no pictures. I finally discovered that Movie Maker has several Save features. One lets you save the project, and one lets you save the finished movie.

For several reasons, I only did stanza one of my poem. The first reason: the poem hasn't been published in traditional form. The second reason: it took a long time to do this much. And I still haven't added any sound. I'll experiment with sound next week.

Here's the way that stanza one would look on a page:

Mary’s Sonogram

All children appear otherworldly in the womb,
a strange weather system come to disrupt
the world as we have known
it, to rain blessings on unsuspecting souls.

And here's my visual poem for the same stanza:

Some notes about the photos I chose, in case you're interested. The little boy in the photo is my nephew. I got the idea for the poem on the night we saw the pictures of him in the sonogram, about a week before Christmas. On our way home, my dad said, "Imagine what would have happened if the Virgin Mary could have had a sonogram." The photo on the "strange weather system" slide is actually a shot from the top of the Cape Florida lighthouse.

I decided to add a photo credits slide at the end because I realized how many of those photos I didn't take. In one shot, I thought, those aren't my shoes; those aren't my husband's shoes; I bet someone else took this shot (we went to the lighthouse with our Jacksonville friends, Lisa and Russell Davis, and we took a ton of photos).

Now, as I've said before, I have no music in the background, no me reading the words. I kind of like the silent version, but I'd be interested to know what other people think.

I'm in that dangerous artistic phase where I'm in love with what I've created, and part of that love stems from the struggle of creating it and the euphoria of starting to master a new computer program. I realize that there are some slides where the words are hard to read, and I worked on that for about an hour before I ran out of time. I'd like to be able to arrange the text, and I haven't figured out a way to do that. But I'm so happy to have reached a logical stopping place that I just don't care.

Here's what I can't decide. Is it worth it to keep working in this medium? Obviously, with my next book publication, I'd like to have some of these to send out into the world to promote the book. It would be easier if I knew what that book was going to be, since I have several manuscripts making the rounds.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My Week in Collage

This past week has seen me return to collaging techniques again and again, if we use that term loosely. Or do I need to use it loosely? You decide.

In my Poetry class, which is a Creative Writing class, I have my students assemble a small manuscript. I want them to have the experience of thinking about how poems go together in a larger work, whether it be a chapbook or a book with a spine. Will they go on to be poets? Doubtful. It's a class for elective credit. So why bother them with this task?

It's important in a poetry class to remind students that poems don't exist only in anthologies. When I first started conceptualizing the class I would teach, poems didn't exist online the way they do now, so I focused on books. Most of my students had never held a single volume of poems in their hands. So, I brought in a pile of them.

I wanted an exercise that would make them interact more with the book, instead of just flipping through them. So, at last week's class, I passed out volumes and slips of paper. I told them that for each book, they had to write down at least one line that spoke to them. Then we put them in a bag. When we took a break, I sent students out with slips of paper and told them they needed to return with observations written down.

We did an exercise similar to one the Kelli Russell Agodon described here. My students started writing, and every few minutes I pulled a slip of paper out of the bag, and they had to change directions. The paper might have been a line from a poem or it might have been something like, "Students rolling dough" or the words from a sign that a student had written down.My students came up with some intriguing starts. I look forward to seeing what they do with the material they created during what was essentially a very long pre-writing session.

That was Thursday night. On Friday, I joined several other teachers for a field trip down to the Rubell Family Collection. What interesting art was on display. I particularly liked the work of this artist (click on each image to enlarge). We walked into one gallery and hanging on the wall were 6 large (poster size) works of lines of death metal lyrics. The lines were surprisingly poetic, even though they would have been shocking to more conservative people: "Solstice of Oppression," "Feeding Off Unholy Growth," "Sculpting the Unclean." Our guide told us that if we searched, we could find those actual lines penned by actual people.

I'd have loved to talk to the artist. Did he just put them in the artwork randomly? Did he think about how the lines worked in relation to each other? I'd love to know more about his process.

I'd already been thinking about creating a collage out of my own poems for my art project for the week. As I said last week, I have a lot of poems that mention Ash Wednesday themes. So, on Sunday I printed them all out and put them on a prepared canvas. I also cut apart a calendar page. Once I placed the fragments on the canvas, I couldn't figure out how to glue them down, so I took photos. I decided the photos would be enough, so this artwork no longer exists in the real world:

Then I decided to return to the fireplace. I wondered how the work would look with some actual ash. Here's that version:

Yesterday, I was successful in starting to learn the program Movie Maker, but not successful in uploading. I'll keep working with the upload issue, and hopefully, with tomorrow's post about my first attempt in making an animated poem (or should I just call it a video poem? a visual poem?), I can include what I did. It was quite exhilerating to be working in a form that was so new, yet so familiar. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Patron Saint of Diarists (and Bloggers?)

Today is the birthday of Samuel Pepys, perhaps one of the most famous diarists ever. Much of what we know about the English time period of the Restoration we know because we have his diary. He wrote about the Coronation of Charles II, the plague years, and of course, the Great Fire. He also wrote about his sex life and other details of regular life. He wrote for 10 years and his journal fills nine volumes.

I used to think that it would be exhausting to write that much. I used to think that I could never fill nine volumes. Now, of course, I can't imagine transcribing all those journals into electronic form. I have a box of journals, which will probably moulder away, because I simply don't want to type them all into a computer. Let some graduate student do it several hundred years from now, if my life is deemed that important.

I've said this several times on this blog, but I do wonder how historians and scholars will use the blogs that so many of us are keeping now. Will some poor graduate student not only have to consider my paper journal, but also my blog? And then there's all the rough drafts that I can't bring myself to throw away.

Are there authors who don't have to worry about future employers who can be completely free and open in their blogs? Can any of us really be completely free and open, knowing that at some point, those writings (whether in a blog or a paper journal or in a landfill) will likely be seen by others?

And of course, I wonder about how long we'll all be able to blog for free. How much storage space is there really out here in cloudland? The scholar in me mourns all the data that will be lost as we work out new protocols.

I wonder about all the people who have kept journals in the past, and how they would have responded to this brave new world of blogging. To me, blogging is a somewhat different medium than my old-fashioned paper journal. There's the privacy issue, of course. But there's also the linking aspect, which I love. Of course, I used to do this with my paper journal, where I'd keep book or record reviews or articles that spoke to me in some way. There's the aspect of blogging where I can include pictures, photos, and videos. Long ago I kept a scrapbook (back before scrapbooking became such a hot hobby, back when scrapbooking was just gluing stuff in a larger book). It feels similar.

Yesterday I spent a bit more time thinking about book trailers and video poems. I discovered that my work computer has Movie Maker on it, but I didn't have much time to play. It's work, after all.

Well, now I feel stupid. I just checked, and my home computer has Movie Maker. I wonder if I can make a poem with no sound, since recording has always been my downfall. Maybe Movie Maker makes it easier (then I'll really feel like a dolt, having never realized that the solution was right there). I wonder if I can use my own photos to go along with my poems. I know that Sandra Beasley uses iStockphoto, and lots of other people do too. But maybe for my first experiment, I'll just use my own photos.

What fun! But kind of terrifying too. I've been playing with the idea of collage for several years now, although my first collaging was in the world of fiber arts, not words. This week I've been playing with the idea of collage in poetry, which I'll say more about tomorrow. I can't help but see poetry videos and book trailers as a type of collage.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Facebook vs. Blogs: Epistemological Questions for your Sunday

I've been thinking about Jeannine Hall Gailey's blog posting where she talks about why she likes blogs more than Facebook: "Facebook is like seeing a bunch of people at a party; a blog is like going for coffee with someone you're really interested in."

I see her analysis as exactly right, but with one caveat. Facebook has allowed me to keep in touch with lots of people with whom I'd lost touch through the years (and yes, it's still probably more like a party than like coffee). At one point, I would have sung the praises of e-mail, because people will write e-mails, but not write/mail letters the old fashioned way. But these days, I've noticed that I keep in touch via e-mail with an even smaller number of people each year.

Facebook allows us to stay in touch, even when we only have time to write a sentence or two. I'll confess that some (most?) of my daily activities don't warrant a full e-mail. I don't want to write a long e-mail about how my life hasn't changed. I'm also interested in how people will choose that one nugget from the day to create the update. I'd expect poets to be good at this, but so are non-poets. It seems there's a poetry exercise in here somewhere.

I've loved blogs because I feel like I'm getting to know people, especially once I got bold enough to write comments and start my own blog. But now I'm also getting to know people through Facebook. When I first started my Facebook account, I thought that I'd only respond to Friend requests from people I had actually known. But I'm glad that I eventually gave in and BeFriended people whom I hadn't actually known in person. Just yesterday, I had 2 poems accepted in a journal that had a call for submissions from South Florida poets; I knew about that call for submissions because of a new Facebook friendship with a poet whom I've never met in real life.

Now I'm curious about whether or not these online friendships with people I've never met in person would survive a real-life encounter. I suspect they would. I think of the Miami Book Fair, and the fact that my house is only a county away, a thirty mile drive if the traffic is tame that day. I wonder about the wisdom of inviting these online poet friends with books coming out this year to send their press packets to the Miami Book Fair, and to look me up for coffee. That's not exactly an act of bravery. Could I be brave enough to say, "I'm near the major airports. I'll pick you up. You'll have a friendly face at the end of your plane ride." Could I be really brave? Could I say, "I have a guest room. Stay with me if you can't afford a hotel."

Here, too, is a difference between blogging and Facebook. With a blogger (the kind who writes a real post, as opposed to a collection of links, at least several times a week), I feel like I know people well enough to make some of those offers. I feel sure enough that those bloggers aren't secret, serial killers. It would take some kind of commitment to start a blog on the off chance that your serial killer plans would come to fruition. With Facebook, I'm not as sure that I know these new Friends whom I've never met in person.

Of course, I'm fairly new to Facebook, and I don't read/post there as regularly. Maybe in a few years, I'll change my mind.

And my inner Philosopher just needs to ask, "Do we ever really know anyone?" I think that I know these people I went to school with decades ago, but do I? They could have changed rather radically too. Or do we change that radically? Is there some essential Kristin-ness that was there when I was 9, there when I was 19, there when I approached the middle years of my life, that time and circumstance will never strip away?

O.K., I'll stop now. It's a nice normal Sunday in most of the nation: no blizzards howling in until tonight, no scary storms, perhaps the sun is even peeking through. Back to your coffee and breakfast foods. Back to the Sunday papers, which for the most part, won't trouble you with these epistemological and ontological questions (and big words that you have to look up! big words which perhaps I didn't even use properly! except that I did, because I doublechecked with my husband, who has an MA in Philosophy).

Enjoy your Sunday, whether you spend it reading blogs and/or Facebook, dreaming of the Miami Book Fair, wrestling with philosophical questions, or pondering theology, which once was a Sunday staple.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Will My Next Computer Be a Mac?

I don't really need a new computer yet--or do I?

I used to think that computing power is wasted on me. I have always used the computer primarily as a giant typewriter--but a typewriter with glorious time-saving power when it comes to revising and printing out new copies.

In later years, I've come to appreciate the ability to store numerous photos in one place, a place where they might not turn yellow with age (but they might disappear in a big electronic goof--a definite downside).

And of course, there's Internet use, which now probably accounts for much of my computer time, once we subtract work related e-mailing. I was early-ish to the Internet. I remember a time when there was no World Wide Web--no pictures, no video, not much commerce. I remember discussion boards and online games that required readers/players to use their imaginations to envision the virtual world. I was late to blogging, late to having my own website.

I don't think the fact that I was so late to blogging and having my own website hurt the book sales of my chapbook, but I'll never be sure. If I had been writing a blog when my chapbook was published, would I have had more sales?

I've certainly bought my share of poetry books because I loved the blogging voice of the poet. So, it's hard to say.

I've begun thinking about publicity for my next book, even before I've had a next book accepted for publication (the best time to do this thinking, I think). I've been reading about poem videos (on Sandra Beasley's blog here, here, here, and here) and book trailers (on Diane Lockward's blog here and here). I've been thinking about the fact that so much of this video work seems to be done on a Mac.

I've tried to do some basic recording on my Windows based computer and it was a complete disaster. Sigh. I tend to blame my own incompetency, but perhaps it's not me, but my equipment. And if the Mac comes preloaded with all this nifty stuff, that might justify the higher price. That, and the fact that Macs are easier to use, that my first love was a Mac, that Macs are less vulnerable to viruses and other Internet nasties, and I've never heard anyone voice regrets with a Mac purchase.

Maybe I should just blame Kelli Russell Agodon. I've been thinking about this possibility more intensely since she wrote this post on her blog.

Of course, it may be months or years before I actually make the switch. I tend to think about possibilities and research possibilities, but to have a hard time plunking down the money, especially when it comes to computer decisions, which seem fraught with peril.

But one thing that might tempt me to make the plunge earlier rather than later is that I feel this ever more pressing need to learn how to do some video creating--and I'm pretty sure that I can't do it on my old computer.

So, here's a creativity resolution. I'll give it a try on this rickety old computer . Let me see if it's really as useless as I think. And then I'll revisit this idea of buying a Mac sooner rather than later.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Happy Birthday Carson McCullers

I have this vague memory of watching a television version of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in high school with my mom. I have a memory of both of us weeping on the sofa. My mom, a former English major herself, was always turning me on to good books, and we shared a love of Carson McCullers.

Carson McCullers is the perfect writer for females who feel isolated and alienated in high school. Perhaps she's also the perfect writer for males who feel isolated and alienated in high school, but I haven't met the males who fell in love with McCullers. The men I know who felt isolated in high school tend to have drowned their sorrows in Salinger or Hunter S. Thompson.

My mother and I could both so relate to Frankie, who was so lonely, who so wanted to be part of a family. I wonder what that says about us. I suspect it says something about the human condition, that so many of us feel alienated and isolated and alone--even when we have perfectly good friends and family members who love us.

I haven't returned to that book as an adult. I think of Frankie as a character like Scout, but I've returned to To Kill a Mockingbird several times in the last few years as I've written an academic paper. I've loved her just as much as an adult.

Maybe I'll pick up a copy of The Member of the Wedding. As I recall, it's a short book, a quick read (probably a reason why both my mom and I were able to read it at such varied points in our individual lives).

I'm so happy to have had parents who gave me fairly free run of their bookshelves and who encouraged my love of reading--often, by reading what I was reading, or by having what seemed to me at the time to be fairly sophisticated conversations about the ideas in the books. My parents were fairly fierce censors of what we could see on film or television, but they'd let me read just about whatever I wanted. I remember that there was a television show about the Holocaust that aired when I was in the 7th grade, and we had bitter arguments about whether or not I should be allowed to watch the show--it was on network television in 1978, and I imagine that if we saw it today, it would look fairly tame.

Now, I'm willing to admit my parents were right. I try to be careful about what images I let into my brain. Words I can work with. Images tend to take over.

My mom gave me a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for Christmas the year after we watched it together, even though we'd already read the battered copy that lived on the family bookshelves, and so didn't technically need a new copy. Let me see if I can find it today. If my parents weren't trying to downsize, I'd buy her a copy for her upcoming birthday. Maybe I will anyway. It's a small book, after all.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Loose Limbed Poems and Words We Fear to Hear

In this blog posting Sandy Longhorn talks about a rejection note from an editor and says, "Let me here admit that I received a rejection this week that cast me off track a bit. This rejection note included a specific reason the editor wasn't accepting the poems, and usually that is encouraging to me, knowing how busy and over-worked editors are and knowing that someone took the time to try to help me make my poems better. However, this comment had to do with syntax and style and included a phrase that I live in fear of hearing about my own work."

No, she never tells us what that phrase is. But her post took me back to a rejection letter experience of my own.

An editor wrote, "Your poems certainly are accessible, aren't they?"

My non-writer friends saw that comment as a good thing. I heard a sneering tone. I've heard people talk about Billy Collins. I know how they use that word.

Let me just clarify: I LOVE Billy Collins. Some of his poems just blow me away. I suspect that the critics who hurl the accessibility label at him haven't even read his work. They jealously study his book sales and his poetry readings that are standing room only, and they assume he can't be writing good poems.

I've had more than one person tell me that they like my poems because they understand them. They don't say this dismissively. In the same breath, they say something like, "But how did you think to link nuclear deterrence to a love poem? I would have never thought of that." It's the way my poet mind works. It's those surprising linkages that I love about poems, both mine and other people's.

My thinking about the issue of accessibility led me to write this poem, which appeared in both The Xavier Review and The Worcester Review :


He says the poems are accessible,
as if it is a bad thing, as if loose
limbed poems spread open their legs
to anyone who gives them a glance.
Those poems don’t even demand drinks
and dinner first. Slutty poems. Ruint.

Perhaps he wants a sulky
poem, one that lets itself be petted, who pretends
to like him, but always holds a part
of itself back while he tortures
himself with evidence of his poem’s infidelities:
other people, plainer than him, who profess
to understand this poem when he cannot.

Perhaps he prefers poems that ignore
laws of accessibility, that barricade themselves behind bars
and up stairs and through perilous mazes.
After tunneling through to the heart
of the poem, he’s so disoriented
that he can’t hold his head upright.

Better yet, poems that speak a language
of their own creation; only a very
few in the world understand how the words
are strung together in this idiom.
Instead of seeing it for the dying language
that it is, he proclaims its linguistic
complexity and pretends to understand.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Season of Ash and Somber Penitence

Here's a picture of the painting that I made on Monday. I had Ash Wednesday on the brain (for those of you who didn't grow up with this liturgical tradition, Ash Wednesday is the day when we have our forehead smudged with ash, which symbolizes how quickly we return to the dust from which we are made). I painted a canvas board with gray and black paint, and then used real ashes from the fireplace. I like how the black wispy pieces look like birds or black butterflies. For more on this painting, and how it ties in symbolically to the theology of Ash Wednesday, go to this blog posting on my theology blog.

Looking back over my writing life, I'm surprised at how often I see the themes of ash and penitence in my writing. As a younger person, I hated Ash Wednesday and all its morbid themes. As an older person, I keep returning to that well--or should I say ash pit?

The haunting words of Ash Wednesday--"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"--often provide powerful motivation to get that writing done (or in the words of Andrew Marvell, "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near"). In his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says, "But death is the central truth of our existence--the sadness at our core. Everything we love will vanish. We can't hold on to anything. It is this tragedy that accounts as well for the beauty and nobility of our lives because in the face of this knowledge, we go right on loving, trying to hold on to what we cherish, defying death with hubris and with faith" (page 61).

On a related note, Ash Wednesday also reminds me of unfinished projects. Once, years ago, I wanted to learn to write using rhythm and meter. My good friend and poet Catherine Tufariello recommended that I use poems already in existence as a model while I tried to write similar sounding lines. Those poets had already worked out the rhythm and meter, so I could take this shortcut. This process worked more smoothly with some poems than with others. Suffice it to say, I will never be the poet who automatically writes in iambic pentameter, without having to count on my fingers. But at least I now understand rhythm and meter.

I've always loved John Keats, and like many literary critics, I consider "To Autumn" one of the best poems in the English language. I started with his first line: "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." I came up with "Season of ash and somber penitence," but never got any further.

So for those of you who want an Ash Wednesday writing prompt, I give you that line. See what you can do. May you be more successful than I have been in the past nine years (nine years--yikes!) since I came up with it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Revisiting My Art Supplies

The other day, one of our new adjuncts looked at the walls of my office and exclaimed, "You did these things? You're a real artist!"

I immediately felt a bit bad, because I don't do much visual art these days. I have some of my paintings and fabric art on my walls, not because I think they're so fabulous, but because I needed something to tone down the starkness of those white walls.

Actually, I do like my paintings and my fabric art. Are they "REAL ART"? I don't pretend to know. I look at some of the art done by people who have MFA's and are presumably professionally trained, and I think that some of my art could compare to theirs. Am I Picasso, Monet, or Matisse? No, of course not.

But here's my radical thought: I could be, if I devoted myself to the visual arts, the way that they did. I'm more committed to my poetry, so I have my eyes on a different prize.

I'm not a big believer in innate talent. I believe in practice. We get talented at whatever skills we practice regularly.

I've always loved the visual arts, but I stopped doing them at some point during high school. I returned to them in 1996, after a friend and I went to an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the High Museum in Atlanta. Nothing makes me want to paint like seeing paintings. We were in Atlanta, so we went to one of the Pearl art supply stores there.

What a delirious experience. I didn't have lots of money, so I had to be judicious. I bought a set of liquid watercolors that were on sale, and a set of paintbrushes, also on sale. I probably also bought some paper.

For weeks, I was paralyzed. I didn't want to mess up my art supplies. I didn't want to use them up--then they'd be gone! Eventually, I broke open the paints and had fun with color. I bought different types of paints and experimented. I worked on really seeing the world. Amazed, I realized that I really could draw, if I stayed present and concentrated on what I really saw before me, instead of what I thought I was seeing.

For example, I used to draw people with arms down to their knees. My spouse stood before me and said, "Look at my arms--how low down my body do they really go?" Shocking! Just down to the top of their thighs. I'd been thinking of human beings all wrong.

I also learned to look at negative space, as well as looking at what was there, filling up the space. I read countless books on art and theory and what to do with the pencil or paintbrush in your hand. I painted, painted, painted. It was exhilarating. I miss it.

A few years ago, I started experimenting with fabrics, threads, yarns, and layering techniques to keep them all together. I played with beads. I made one creation a week. I'm not sure what to do with them. At least poems don't take up the same kind of space.

One of my goals for Lent is to return to the visual arts by making a visual art creation each week. Yesterday, with a school holiday, I decided to get started. I had a great day off. This week is a heavy week at work, with accreditors in town, so I made a pot of broccoli cheddar cheese soup and a pot of beef stroganoff. It will be good to have meal prep done for the week. I also did laundry. And I had time to read and to paint and to write. My spouse spent hours playing the violin, while I painted. It was much more peaceful than it might sound.

I'm a grown up now, aren't I? My idea of a good day off: to get caught up on household chores and to enjoy a cozy domesticity with time for creative endeavors.

If I'm honest, that's how I've always preferred to spend my time: cooking and creating and companionship. Let other people go to distant sites to enjoy drunken Carnival and Mardi Gras festivals. I'll stay home to paint and write poems.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Biology Department, Slaughtered by a Colleague

I can't stop thinking about the campus shooting in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday. I was going to post about it yesterday, but it seemed so unseemly for Valentine's Day.

Long ago, when I was a schoolchild in Montgomery, Alabama, we took a field trip to Huntsville to see the space industry exhibits. I remember it as a sleepy town, and by all reports, it still is.

But school shootings are still shocking to me, regardless of whether or not they occur in sleepy towns or big urban centers. Or perhaps I should clarify: mass shootings are still shocking to me. I'm not one of those anti-gun people. I'm the daughter of an Air Force colonel, and I spent most of my life in the American South, and the gun owners I've know have been sober, responsible people. They may have owned a small arsenal, but they've always understood what that meant.

I don't think that more gun control is the answer. I think that more funding to get people mental health care might be the answer.

I keep thinking of that Biology department, having a faculty meeting, when one of their own shows up and opens fire. I keep thinking of the dead, and how they spent their last minutes on earth in a meeting, and it was probably not a thrilling meeting.

Many years ago now, one of my colleagues dropped dead of a brain aneurysm just after she turned grades in. One of my other colleagues said, "You know what horrifies me most? She spent her last days on earth grading research papers."

As I said yesterday, we're here for such a short time--and these experiences remind me of just how short they might be. I don't want to get so freaked out that I decide not to give myself goof off time. On the other hand, I'd like to keep my goof off time to a minimum, or at least in balance with my other priorities.

For years now, I've known that I'm in a dangerous profession. When I was full-time faculty, I taught over one hundred students a term, and it wasn't uncommon for several of them to be a bit unhinged. And even if all my students were the picture of solid mental health, they were likely dating (or breaking up with) people who weren't. I always assumed that if someone showed up on a dark night in the parking garage to shoot me, that I probably wouldn't even remember who they were--which would, of course, enrage the shooter even more.

Of course, given how well our students remember our names, I'd have probably found myself at the wrong end of a gun of someone else's enraged student.

It's only recently that I've begun to think about the mental stability of my colleagues. I don't work in a tenure granting institution, so at least we don't have to worry about colleagues who don't get tenure showing up to take revenge. But I can't help but notice how in any workplace, there's at least one colleague who blows up everything way, way out of proportion, who takes things way, way too personally, who can't remember that work is really just not that important in the long range scheme of things. I've noticed that our buildings are not well-constructed, that our walls are paper thin.

I don't see much that I can do about these vulnerabilities, except to be the cheerful person who tries to help us all keep life and work in perspective. Most of us aren't doing work that's worth dying for--or killing for.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thinking about Rejection, Loss, and Love on Valentine's Day

I don't have happy memories of Valentine's Day. I remember longing for a secret admirer, someone who would reveal their tender feelings on a Valentine left in my mailbox; we spent the week before Valentine's Day making those mailboxes out of shoeboxes.

I went to elementary school in the 1970's, before we worried about children's self esteem. If you wanted to bring Valentines for only your favorite five fellow students, you were allowed to do that. So, some people wound up with a shoebox/mailbox full of greetings and treats, and some of us wound up with very little.

I was never the popular girl, but not the total outcast either. I was the Lisa Simpson of my classes: a little too smart, with interests outside of the standard ones. My teachers loved me but didn't quite know what to do with me. I usually had a few friends, who also loved me, but didn't know what to do with me.

Some things haven't really changed. But some have. I'm better at making people comfortable. I don't feel a need to show how different I am, how outside the norm, and how that somehow makes me better. I'm no longer so needy for love. That's because I have love. Every day is Valentine's Day in the Berkey-Abbott household.

O.K., I exaggerate a little. But still, when you have a beloved, when you have a family who loves you, when you have friends who still want to have lunch with you--well, then, most weeks do indeed feel like Valentine's Day.

Even if you're having a sluggish technology week, the same week when all sorts of things break, you still get Valentine's moments. This week, the handle inside the car that opens the door broke into several pieces, the toilet seat finally cracked, we had to buy a new car battery, my work computer finally died, and we had to buy two new car tires. I'm a poet, so it's hard not to read some sort of symbolism into all of this. But sometimes, I read too much into what is really a set of coincidences.

Today, I'm reading on various blog/web sites that Lucille Clifton died. Now that's a loss I could have done without. I have always loved her self-acceptance. I can't find a citation for what I'm about to relate, but I remember someone asking her why she didn't write longer works, and she mentioned that she had all these children, so she wrote what she had time to write. I've often thought of those words as I've struggled to balance my writing with the needs/demands of my job. If she could keep going and making such important art, even when she only had scraps of time, surely I can do it too.

Many of us love her poem "Homage to my Hips"; go here to hear her read it.

We are all here for such a short time. I hope that my poems some day inspire and comfort and support a wide circle of readers, as Clifton's poems have done.

So, one last Valentine's Day wish for us all: may you get what you desire this Valentine's Day. And may it live up to your expectations and hopes!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

As a budding Victorian Literature scholar, I learned early on about the importance of Darwin's writing to literature, as well as the writings of other Victorian scientists, like Sir Charles Lyell. I always reminded my students that we're used to living in a time period where this year's scientific fact will be overturned very shortly. We're used to living in a time period where our dearest beliefs will be challenged. The Victorians were not.

I remember the first time I taught a British Literature survey class. I was just finishing up my Ph.D., and I was allowed to teach the class at the local community college in Columbia, South Carolina. I talked about Darwin as I launched into our study of Tennyson's "In Memoriam." I said, "Of course, these days, there's no one who doesn't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution." I looked around the room at the disbelief in those faces, and from the ensuing discussion, I came to realize that I was the only person in the room who did believe in evolution. Granted, it wasn't a very big class. But still, I was shocked that this theory was still seen as debatable.

I realize that scientists use the word "theory" differently than the rest of us. My students did not realize that, and no amount of arguing on my point could convince them.

Several years later, I came across a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in a used bookshop. Across the nation, school systems were embroiled in debates about whether or not evolution could be taught in Biology classrooms. I probably bought that book as my own silent protest. When I brought that book to my college classrooms on the day when I talked about Victorian thinkers that changed our lives, I could see some students fighting revulsion, as if I had brought them porn.

Strange to think of how revolutionary that book has been, how radical it has seemed to people--and how boring it is to read. It's like reading Marx, another writer, whose books students react to as if I've brought them porn. I can't decide if it's because the ideas seem so basic to me or because the prose is so lumbering.

Darwin, Marx, and Freud: I would argue that those Victorian writers probably changed the twentieth century more than any other. We could have spirited debate about whether those changes were for the better or worse. As with any great writers, I suppose the answer would be that those changes were both for better and for worse.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Natasha Trethewey's Fabulous Reading

Let's talk about poetry readings. Some I've endured, much like some of the more odious vegetables, because I know that they're good for me. Some I've endured because I was raised properly, and it would be rude to just get up and leave. But most of the poetry readings I've attended have been on the spectrum from good to fabulous.

Natasha Trethewey was on the outermost end of fabulous. I do not exaggerate when I say I could have stayed in my auditorium seat and listened to her read and talk about her work all night.

She took questions at the end, and I decided to be big and brave. I've often resisted saying anything to my favorite authors after an early encounter with Marge Piercy, where I tried to tell her how much her work meant to me as she fixed me with a piercing stare, and I could just hardly talk, and I walked away feeling like the world's biggest idiot. When I read, I try to remember to smile, especially afterwards, when people come up to talk to me. I'm still painfully aware of how hard it can be to approach an author or any creative type who seems successful in a way that I worry I will never be.

I prefaced my question by saying I was interested in how people put together book length manuscripts, and I asked Natasha Trethewey how she put together her book Native Guard, which seemed so beautifully woven together.

She said that she was working on poems about her experience of growing up the child of a mixed race marriage in the South and on poems about the black soldiers, often forgotten and nameless, of the Civil War. She said she didn't realize at first that her book would also include poems about the loss of her mother.

She recounts an experience where she was running through a cemetery near her Georgia house, and she could almost hear ancient voices talking to her. She talked about the end of the poem, "Graveyard Blues," the couplet that talks about her mother's headstone. She talked about that poem coming to her in a rush, and that the end is a fiction, that she wrote it even as she realized that her mother had no headstone. She realized that her mother was just as lost and nameless as those black, Union soldiers. And thus, she realized how the poems all worked together.

She talked at great length, and I was so grateful for her thoughtful answer. Some grubby part of me wanted something more technical, how she decided on which poem went in which order. But my more noble part of me was just so thrilled to hear her talk about her work in such an honest way.

She talked about miscegenation before she read the poem of that name. She said, "You know what miscegenation is, right?" She cocked her head quizzically and said, "Raise your hands if you don't know the term miscegenation." I looked around, and all the students had their hands in the air. Again, I thought about how much the world has changed, just in my lifetime. Those students all looked like a glorious mix of races to me, and down here in South Florida, race has a whole different dimension than in most parts of the country. But still, even in the most remote parts of the country, it's not illegal for me to marry outside of my race, and in much of the country, the act wouldn't command much interest at all.

So, will gender be next? How will our lives and our relationships be different in the next 44 years?

But I digress.

Here's another thing I noted. One of the students asked Natasha Trethewey how long she had been writing poetry, and she said basically, her whole life. She said that she had published her first book about 20 years after she published her first individual poems.

Again, the grubby part of my mind sprang into action. Let's see, I first published my poems in 1998, so 20 years . . . . I felt so grateful, because there are times when I feel like I'm behind some sort of schedule. Who creates this schedule? I don't know. But I'm always happy to hear about poets who don't just blaze into public awareness some three months after their first poem appears. I like being reminded that it's fine to let the work take time.

When I was younger, say thirty years old, I still felt behind schedule. Sure, I'd earned my Ph.D. and bought a house or two, but I hadn't published my first book yet (I had written some book-length works, but I gave myself no credit for that). I comforted myself by reminding myself that people were living longer these days, so what used to be midlife really wasn't anymore. I wasn't approaching midlife!

Now that I really am, probably, approaching midlife, more than ever, each passing day, I hear time's winged chariot hurrying near (thank you Andrew Marvell). It's good to go to readings like Natasha Trethewey's, to come away inspired, to remember that the point of it all is to write the poems, to see the connections, to work out one's obsessions on the page.

It's also good to remember how fortunate I am, even if I haven't had a book with a spine published yet. I was surrounded by people who had gotten their M.F.A.s, who couldn't find much in the way of jobs. And I'm in a job where I'm feeling happy and fulfilled these days (even though much of my office work this week has consisted of racing to finish tasks before the computer crashed and watching the computer reboot, slowly, oh so slowly). Unlike some poets, who claim that they need to be miserable to write, I do best when I've got a steady paying job that gives me some fulfillment. I did the adjunct thing for awhile, but the uncertainty drove me mad. That and the driving.

It's wonderful to go to a fabulous poetry reading at any point, but it's especially great during a time when I'm having good luck with my own poetry. Natasha Trethewey is as polished in person as she is on the page. If you have the chance to hear her read, grab it!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Satellite Dreams

The other night I dreamed I was a satellite. Almost always, I'm either a passive observer of my dreams, like I'm watching a movie, or if I'm a character, I'm some version of me.

I'm almost sure I've never dreamed that I'm an inanimate object.

Actually, in my dreams, I wasn't inanimate. I was moving far above the earth, and I was sentient. In part of my dream, I realized that there had been some kind of apocalypse, and I was watching a woman in Cincinnati. I was worried about her, because I wasn't seeing any other humans, and I wasn't sure how she would cope.

I wonder if I can transform any of this into a poem.

Perhaps I dreamed this because I've been thinking about technology lately. It only takes one day in the office where the computer isn't working properly, the copy machine is jammed, and I realize that I don't know how to send a fax to make me realize how dependent we've become on the machines. As if I didn't already know.

As I was walking the few city blocks between the parking lot and the building, I realized that I was the only pedestrian not talking into a cell phone. That made me think of the satellites far above us which make it possible for us to talk wirelessly.

I also thought of earlier generations who talked to god on high. Now we talk to satellites. Or do we talk through satellites?

Again, I'll be interested to see the poems that might emerge from this bubbling stew.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thank You--to Title Voters, to Reviewers, to Readers

A big THANK YOU to those of you who voted on titles. I'm leaning towards I Stand Here Shredding Documents. I like the reference back to Tillie Olsen (and I'm thrilled that people caught the reference), and I like that the original short story had a tie to women's lives across generations, which is what I'm hoping my collection does.

I worry that Sleepless Beauties might turn off people who hate poems which are based on fairy tales. Who are these people who hate allusions and think that we should never refer to literature that came before? Why would you throw such a powerful tool out of your toolbox? Interestingly, I never met those people in my classes where we were working on our M.A.'s, M.A.T.'s, and Ph.D.'s. No, it was the MFA students who seemed to think they could go it alone.

Of course, the University of South Carolina had a very different M.F.A. program when I was there than the one they have now. When I was there, people came to worship at the feet of James Dickey, and nary a woman taught in the program. Come to think of it, not many women stayed in the program long. The men who were there were young and braggy types. Now, when I think about them, I see them as young and scared, but at the time, I was young and scared myself, and all that swagger and braggadocio turned me off.

But I digress. I've almost decided to reject Penelope Plans a Play Date and Scout at Midlife for the same reasons. Why risk turning off readers?

You might say, "So, you're not willing to risk turning off readers by alluding to fairy tales and mythology, but you'll allude to Tillie Olsen?" Yes.

And Meeting Hell, while I like the word play, just isn't attractive enough, I think.

So, thank you again for helping me decide!

And while I'm saying thank you, let me say a big thank you to Sandy Longhorn, who agreed to swap books with me--and then wrote a wonderful review of my work! Yesterday was a day of technology hell in my office, so during the brief window when the computer/network let me onto the Internet, it was even more of a delight to read kind words from a reader who got what I was trying to do! Go here to read the review.

There have been many advantages to having a chapbook, but one of the main ones is having something to trade. What a treat to send my poems out into the world and to get poems back. There are benefits to a barter economy. Rachel Dacus has a great post that praises chapbooks. Apparently there's a Facebook page set up to trade chapbooks. I can't find it, but maybe you'll have better luck.

If all this talk of chapbooks inspires you to the ancient art of book creating and/or book binding, go here and here for a great photo essay on Elizabeth Adam's blog. Sometimes, when I dream of returning to school, I think that I might get a degree in Book Arts. Let's see, I dream of degrees in Fiber Arts, in Theology, in painting . . . . Happily, today is our General Education Festival, where I get to have fun with tie dye and beading. Tomorrow I'll be typing with teal-tinted hands!

But maybe you're saying, "Forget it. I'm snowed in my house indefinitely." Leslie Pietrzyk has a great list here of reads for a snowy day. She warmed my heart by talking about the Laura Ingalls Wilder book The Long Winter. When I was a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder was one of my favorite writers. I dreamed of a little house on the prairie. My father gently reminded me of how the plumbing of that long ago day would not have lived up to my standards.

Her post reminded me of Doug Fine's recent post about his struggle with a wheelbarrow and his family's reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder: "At night, in front of the fire whose fuel a functional wheelbarrow is supposed to be carting to the Ranch house, we’ve been reading Little House On the Prairie out loud as a family here, and let me tell you, the fact that book patriarch Charles Ingalls could build a cabin in three days causes me some head-scratching. It takes me (and my toddler assistant) longer than that to inflate a Tru Value wheelbarrow tire. (Never mind that Ingalls settled his family and built said cabin in the middle of the existing culture’s Superhighway.)" His writing is always very funny--even though it's very honest about the difficulties of being a modern Ingalls family, it still makes me yearn for a homestead on hundreds of acres to call my own.

I know that many of you are despairing about your ability to ever shovel your driveway, much less doing any other type of homesteading activities. Many of you are probably drooling over seed catalogs (if your creative proclivities run that way) and doubting that Spring will ever come.

Enjoy these days of darkness--we get a chance to get caught up with our reading. And if you're down here in sunny South Florida, come on by the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale: dye a T-shirt, buy a taco, find some inspiration to go green: enjoy the fact that we can be outdoors.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hopelessly Devoted to "Grease"

Today at spin class, we cycled away to the songs from the soundtrack to the movie Grease. I already knew that these songs would make great exercise songs. When my sister and nephew visited in September, we spent much of the week-end dancing around the living room to that soundtrack.

So now I have a number of pleasant memories associated with that movie, but this morning, I'm awash in memories of first seeing the movie. It was the summer of 1978, and we went several times. My mom even let me and a group of friends go see the movie without an adult along--a first for me. We spent the movie buying more from the concession stand than we should have. Yes, some pre-teens would have done something more daring, but my big rebellion was buying not one soda but two!

My friends and I fell in love with this movie. We mourned the fact that we had been born too late to wear poodle skirts. In retrospect, our moms were awfully patient. I'm sure that their high school experiences were quite different.

As an older woman, I find the movie's statements about gender and class to be fascinating and often overlooked. It's not really such a feel-good movie at all! Why on earth would pre-teen girls think that the 1950's were a better place to be? The movie isn't shy about presenting the limited options for women. Go listen to "Beauty School Drop-out" again. You can trade in your teasing comb for a shot at the steno pool--swell. And those kind of movies, along with Our Bodies, Ourselves, taught me to be profoundly grateful for the birth control pill, which wouldn't have been available to the girls of Grease. There's that subplot about whether or not Rizzo is pregnant, and even in my more innocent pre-teen days, I could tell that pregnancy would REALLY limit her already limited options.

Somewhere, Alternate Life Kristin wonders whether or not to say too much about what her teenage years were really like as her pre-teen daughters fall in love with the movies of John Hughes. They debate about which characters they would have been in The Breakfast Club or St. Elmo's Fire. Alternate Life Kristin wonders if she would be seen as a bad mother if she showed her pre-teen daughters Heathers or Pump Up the Volume. Alternate Life Kristin decides not to talk about the movies that really influenced her: Threads, The Day After, Testament. She wants to shield her daughters from those nuclear nightmares for just a bit longer.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"9 to 5" and the Modern Office

Usually, one of our local PBS stations shows very old movies on Saturday nights. By very old, I mean movies that were made before I was born in 1965. However, last night, the station aired the 1980 movie 9 to 5. I was sucked right in, at least until the movie devolved into a curious crime caper.

It was interesting to see what the office was like 30 years ago: the dictaphone, the IBM Selectric typewriter. I remember lusting for one of those, before I lusted for a personal computer. There's that shot of the secretarial pool: all those desks, with nary a cubicle, in one huge room. People typed, ran the adding machines, and talked into the phone. How noisy it must have been!

Many of those office machines have gone into storage closets, but there's a scene where the Jane Fonda character battles a demonic copy machine. Yes, the demonic copy machine is still with us, at least in my workplace. Each time the IT department upgrades, we end up with a machine that has more places where a jam can occur.

I found the working dynamic fascinating, and thankfully, unfamiliar to me. There's that sexist boss, barking orders, sexually harassing the female workforce, stealing the ideas of the female workers while refusing to promote them. I know how lucky I am not to have experienced that. I know that there are many workplaces where women are desperate to keep their jobs, and thus unable to utilize the laws that could protect them from hazardous bosses. I know that I'm lucky because I'm educated, which so far has put me in a different working class than the characters in the movie, and I have knowledge of the law, and I have money for a lawyer, should I need it. Not every woman is so fortunate.

Still, the workplace has changed; most men realize they can't get away with their outrageous behavior forever, and the offenders have changed. Often, their behavior becomes more subtle and more difficult to prosecute. I dream of the day when all those dinosaurs die out. Sadly, I suspect that the dynamic has less to do with gender roles, and more to do with how some people abuse power. The abusive boss we will always have with us, but the nature of the abuse will change.

Every so often, I encounter an old-school kind of person, and I'm shocked at what he (it's always a he) will say. Luckily, so far, those people have never been in a position of power over me, and those people don't often last long in the modern workplace. Those people just pose too big a risk of a lawsuit to keep them around very long.

I started a poem once with these lines:

Yes, I will make that pot of coffee,
if you change the oil in my car.

I'd be happy to proofread
your project this week-end,
if you come to my house
to mow the lawn.

I could go on and on like that, but I can't figure out where to end the poem and what the larger point should be. I've played with lots of possibilities.

The other thing I noticed was how that movie set office emptied out at 5:00. Yeah, right, that doesn't happen these days. Many of us are working 8 to 6 or longer. Sigh.

As I think about how the office experience has changed, I think ahead to the next 30 years. How will our 2010 offices be unrecognizable in 2040?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Which Title Is Most Effective? Vote!!!

I've spent part of the morning assembling my working woman chapbook (some time ago, you may remember that I wrote about noticing how many of my recent poems discuss mid-life despair at working life and wondering if a book of those poems could work or whether it would be too depressing; unfortunately, I can't find the original blog post).

Now for the hard part: choosing a title. I don't have the same kind of trouble choosing titles that some people have written about. Some people can't find a title because no title seems applicable to the book as a whole.

On the contrary, I usually have at least 5 titles with which I am swoonily in love. I suppose it's a good problem to have.

So, I'm turning to you, faithful readers (both here and on Facebook). Which title would most appeal to you? I'm going to leave aside the issue of which title is most applicable to the collection, since they all are (perhaps I'll save that for a future blog post, if there's enough information). All of these potential titles are also titles of individual poems in the collection.

What I really want to know is which title would most compel you to pick up the book?

Here are your title options, in no particular order (you may also say, "None of them are appealing; try again":

1. Scout at Midlife

2. Sleepless Beauties

3. I Stand Here Shredding Documents

4. Meeting Hell

5. Penelope Plans a Play Date

Let me know what you think; if you want to expound on why/how you chose the one you did and/or rejected the others, feel free. And thanks for playing/voting.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Natasha Trethewey at Broward College Wednesday, February 10!

If you're in South Florida next week (your flight north was delayed by the massive blizzard that's forming today, you came for the Super Bowl and couldn't bear to leave, you've migrated for the winter, whatever reason), put this event on your calendar.

Natasha Trethewey will be reading at the South Campus of Broward College on Wednesday, February 10, at 7:30 p.m. The event is free (as is parking), and it will be held in the big theatre. Events at this venue are always lovely: enthusiastic audiences, a good mix of students and community, refreshments, books to buy (bring cash or your checkbook).

The South Campus of Broward College is located on Pines Boulevard, at the corner of 72nd and Pines. If you're coming from Interstate 95, take the Hollywood Boulevard exit and head west; you'll see the campus on your left, just before University Boulevard. If you're coming from the Turnpike, take the Hollywood Boulevard/Pines Boulevard exit and head west; you'll see the camus on your left, just before University Boulevard. If you're coming from points west (the Everglades?), take Pines Boulevard east, and you'll see the campus on your right; if you get to the Turnpike, you've missed it.

Natasha Trethewey, you may or may not remember, won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago for Native Guard, a collection that left me breathless with both envy (the good kind, the kind that makes me want to be a better writer) and appreciation. I can hardly wait to see what kind of reading she puts on.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Don't Iron While the Strike Is Hot"--Happy Birthday, Betty Friedan!

Today is the birthday of Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique. If I had to choose a feminist book which changed my life, it wouldn't be this one. I'd probably give that award to Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I say that her book didn't change my life because truth to tell, I've never read the whole thing. I'm familiar with her argument, so in many ways, I feel like I have, but I haven't. I have a used copy, which I bought for 80 cents from George's Book Exchange on Broad River Road in Columbia, South Carolina (I know this because of the stamp inside the book)--that store probably doesn't exist anymore, and given all the development near the Columbia Mall area, I'd guess that the strip mall probably doesn't exist anymore either.

Here's the opening paragraph:

"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?'"

I feel like I've read this book because the central thesis is so familiar: women don't find fulfillment being wives and mothers. And let me revisit my idea that this book isn't in the running as the most influential feminist book of my lifetime. As I think about my life and my ideas (and ideals), I see the deep influence of this book.

I arrived at college declaring, "Marriage is a trap." I was convinced that children were even more of a trap--at least you could leave a marriage. I was convinced that the traditional role of women held nothing but heartbreak, and I was determined to carve out an alternative.

So, you'd think that maybe I would have majored in something a little more lucrative than English and Sociology. But for many reasons (love of literature, conviction that the world would shortly end in a nuclear blast, hatred of accounting and finance), I didn't want to join the waves of my generation heading towards business school. My artist soul rebelled at that thought too.

This morning, as I reread the first few paragraphs of The Feminine Mystique, I see the lives of modern women (and probably many men) reflected. So many parents that I know are running themselves ragged by trying to balance the chores that must be done to maintain life with the activities of their children with their jobs that must be done to bring money into the household. I know many people, still, who stare into the darkness as they wonder, is this all? People with children and without, people in their dream jobs and in other arenas, people who work at home and those of us who rarely see our homes anymore because we work so many hours--we're all still dissatisfied with our quality of life.

I chose not to have children, but as I think about my work life, I can't help but see some family dynamics in the dynamics of the work day. There's this person who functions as the 3 year old, this group who functions as the dysfunctional in-laws, this bully who reminds me of an abusive spouse, and luckily, for me, the majority of my co-workers who remind me of my loving family members.

I used to think that Betty Friedan tapped into something unique to middle class women, but now I think what she describes is a variation of the classic idea of alienation (see, my Sociology education continues to serve me!). Our modern lives alienate many of us from the people that we want to be. Our lives are out of sync with our values, our work even more so. We work hard to achieve balance, but we fail to see that we're playing a rigged game.

I always have this idea on the brain, but lately, I've seen it popping up on various blogs and in various newspaper articles. I particularly enjoyed this post on Historiann's site, which declares that balance is a myth. Even people with what once would have seemed like dream jobs in academia are overworked and stressed.

Of course, they probably always were. If Marx noticed that workers were suffering alienation, then it's not a modern problem.

How do we solve it? If only I knew.

I think it's important in our increasingly frazzled lives to remember what it was we wanted our lives to be. I had a vision of living some kind of bohemian life in a big city, where I'd stay up all night writing and spend the day in rehearsing whatever drama event was next and I'd cook wonderful meals for intriguing people who would fill my mind with thrilling ideas. And where would I get the money for this life? My younger self just assumed that I'd earn a living wage with my art.

So, my current life as Interim Chair of my department doesn't quite match what my sixteen year old envisioned. But I spend a chunk of time each day working in some sort of creative arena. I'm lucky to have friends, both locally and far-flung, who fill my mind with thrilling ideas (and there's books and blogs and all sorts of Internet reading). I do live near big cities, and have family in other big cities, so when I want to muster up the energy, I can do all the cultural things I once envisioned doing.

I find myself sinking into swamps of despair during those weeks when work consumes all my free time and there's nothing left for poetry, for leisurely meals with friends, for cultural events. Happily, those periods haven't lasted long--perhaps because my Sociology training, along with my feminist training and activist training and spiritual training, warned me that most work will happily consume every scrap of time you offer it. Every day I try valiantly to save some part of my life for me, for my deepest yearnings, the ones which the world doesn't reward with money.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Revising the Book-Length Manuscript

This morning, I woke up thinking about ways I might rearrange my book length manuscript, Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site. I did an extensive revision of the manuscript a few years ago, as I realized that my publishing trajectory might be different from a traditional one.

Before I did the revision a few years ago, I had a substantial chunk of my chapbook as the first section. I thought it would show to book publishers that my work was publishable. Plus, many of the first books I'd been studying seemed to do it that way.

But later, I reconsidered. After all, I had sold almost 100 copies of that chapbook, and I'm a firm believer that my mailing lists are going to be the main driver of sales. If my audience had already bought the poems once in chapbook form, why would they purchase them again? My hope, of course, was that they'd buy them again so that they got some new poems and a more permanent home for the chapbook poems.

Now it's becoming clear to me that for most of us, we're going to go longer times between book publishing (and I include chapbooks here) than we once might have, unless we self-publish. I've decided to see chapbooks as books in their own right, not something to be included in a larger work.

I have that luxury because I have a huge reservoir of poems. I have several manuscripts, many of them chapbook size, including my newest one that's book-length, When God Switched Fabrics. I'm feeling more excited about that one, but I'm not ready to give up on Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site yet.

I've decided not to revise that manuscript this year. I'll spend the year sending it to any publishers I've overlooked, and if I can't find a publisher this year, I'll think about a possible revision in 2011.

I am interested in how people decide to retire a manuscript. I have several. Some are products of my earlier writing life, and as time went by, I decided that my later work was more sophisticated. In fact, that's probably my main reason for retiring a manuscript.

Retire or revise? How do we decide?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Would James Joyce Have Watched "Lost"?

Tonight again I ask, as I have for several seasons now, "Do I really have the time and commitment to watch Lost this year?" Of course, this year is different--it's the last season. I might not have to ask this question again.

For the first several seasons, I was committed to the show. I delighted in all the twists and turns. Just when I thought I had figured it out, ka-blam, there went my theory. I loved all the allusions, even though I couldn't order them into anything that helped me figure out the story. I loved the fact that there was so much reward in watching the reruns, so many things to notice that I didn't catch on the first viewing.

In short, watching Lost is similar to my study of literature. Finally, there's a payoff for being such a font of usually worthless information! I'm the woman you want on your team when you play Trivial Pursuit (along with someone to answer the sports questions that elude me), but that skill for storing a lot of ephemeral information isn't usually rewarded many other places.

Today is also the birthday of James Joyce. I've thought of Ulysses, as I've thought about Lost this morning. They're similar in ways that might not ordinarily occur to us: lots of allusions both to popular and classical culture, a looping narrative, a story-telling style that can drive one mad (and is often driven by mad narrators), interesting juxtapositions, and a simple tale (or is it a simple tale) blown up into a huge endeavor.

I've written about James Joyce before, here, on Bloomsday, and I expect to write about him again. His accomplishments fascinate me, even as I admit that many of them aren't exactly readable. There's a reason that writers abandoned all the experiments that the Modernists undertook in the 1920's. Yet, we still find traces of those Modernists everywhere, especially in some of our more interesting and intellectual pieces of popular culture, like Lost.

I made my way to Joyce accidentally: as a new graduate student, I was in the last group to register for classes, and Tom Rice's James Joyce class was one of the few classes that still had seats left. Some of the more seasoned grad students congratulated me on my bravery, but really, Dr. Rice made it easy. You do need a guide with a project like Ulysses, and you couldn't ask for a better one than Dr. Rice.

Likewise, I didn't start out watching Lost. Although the apocalyptic, stranded on an island theme appealed to me, I was afraid it would make me afraid to fly on a plane. But in early 2005, after we came back from Christmas vacation with a long plane journey, we collapsed into a heap and got sucked into one of the repeats.

At first I would have said I was watching because those actors were so lovely to look at. But quickly, the puzzles of the narratives sucked me in, while the pleasures of spotting allusions and making narrative connections.

I get the same charge from reading poetry that I do from reading Joyce and watching Lost: the thrill of catching the allusions and realizing that there's far more at work than the deceptively simple surfaces would suggest. That's the same thrill I get from writing poetry too: trying to create something with rich textures in a tightly compressed space.

Monday, February 1, 2010

In Praise of Reading for Joy, not Education/Edification/Elaboration/Exasperation

In the past several days, I've come across many recommendations that we spend more time reading for joy, less time reading for the other reasons that we do. I was reading back through the Happiness Project blog and came across this post with the recommendation that we read only what we enjoy.

Yesterday, I picked up a book I was fairly sure I would enjoy, Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. It's the follow up to The Polysyllabic Spree, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I didn't even know there was a follow up until I read about someone else's reading of it on a blog that I can no longer locate. It's a collection of his columns where he talks about the books he's reading. I know that it sounds massively dull, but Hornby injects such wit into his writing that it's fun. Even when he's writing about books I've never heard of, he makes it interesting. He doesn't try to pass himself off as a trained literary intellectual; on the contrary, as this quote shows: "When you're as ill-read as I am, routinely ignoring the literature of the entire non-English speaking world seems like a minor infraction" (page 27).

The book has a preface that's a manifesto for reading for the joy of it. Hornby says, "If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity--and there are statistics which show that this is by no means assured--then we have to promote the joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits. I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a TV program" (page 15).

He says this bit, which made me laugh, ". . . here's something else no one will ever tell you: if you don't read the classics, or the novel that won this year's Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do" (page 17, emphasis Hornby's). As you read that sentence, did you feel a little tingle of shock? What, we should read just because we're enjoying it?

Indeed. Hornby pleads, "Read anything, as long as you can't wait to pick it up again."

I can't tell you how many piles of books I have that I can--and do--wait to pick up again. What a great reading goal, to read only the things which compel me to read above other activities.