Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Praise of Metaphysical Conceits

Today is the birthday of Andrew Marvell, probably most well known as the author of "To His Coy Mistress."

I love some of the images and metaphors that he uses. I love that they often go straight over the heads of my students, and I love pointing them out.

For example:

"Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chap't power."

I always say, "Really? Amorous birds of prey in a love poem? Really? Does anyone know how birds of prey mate?" Predatory birds having sex in free fall--not the image we typically associate with love poems.

Most of all, I love this image, which comes earlier in the poem:

"My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;"

Vegetable love--describe your love as a vegetable. Is carrot love better than broccoli love? Is rutabaga love a different kind of love than brussels sprouts love?

Ponder these questions as we prepare to leap into National Poetry Month (gulp!). Tomorrow I hope to post a list of 30 poetry writing prompts to keep us all inspired as we write a poem a day or cheer the ones who are making the attempt!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thinking about Training Sessions, Webinars, and PowerPoints--Must They Always Be So Bad?

Yesterday I accomplished a work requirement: I watched a training session on my computer about sexual harassment. It took over 2 hours. I reminded myself that I was paid very well to sit and watch and then to take tests, but I found myself getting very frustrated. Can there really be people out there who do not know these things?

Part of the reason that all the managers at my worksite had to do this had nothing to do with us, of course. My workplace isn't trying to tell me that they think I'll be a sexual harasser if I don't get this training. I'm a manager, so if one member of my department harasses another or creates a hostile work environment, I'm culpable. If I don't take action, various people up the ladder are culpable. I get that.

I also understand that by making me watch this thing and take tests, the managers on up the ladder can say that they've done all that could be reasonably expected, should I screw up my managerial duties. And just because I create a zero tolerance workplace when it comes to sexual harassment, that doesn't mean that everyone will.

I should have just zipped over to this post on Kelli's blog and tried out some of her writing prompts. I'm such a good girl though. I really felt that I should pay attention.

As I paid attention, I thought, why are these things always so dreadful? Dean Dad has been asking similar questions here and here. The training session yesterday could have been worse. I've sat through far worse, with PowerPoint slides with no pictures and a droning voice reading the slides. The training session yesterday had still shots of people in harassing situations, along with some dialogue. Why not go the extra amount and insert some video--would that cost more?

I also found it disconcerting that the same people (I don't use the word actors, since they didn't act) were used as different characters. One guy is Julio and in another section, he's Mario. As a writer, it offended me. No reason to change names--he's clearly the same guy. And the creators of the training session were very careful to use a rainbow of people and to show that even women can sexually harass men--not much discussion of male on male or female on female harassment--we're not that up to date yet.

In retrospect, I could have turned the sound off and read the whole thing much more quickly. I know, however, that we were being monitored, and most people are doubtful of my speedy reading abilities. And we had to spend 2 hours on the project, and I didn't want to zip through it too quickly.

At least I don't live in California. California law requires managers to undergo sexual harassment training every 2 years.

In this post, Dean Dad pondered his own intolerance with webinars: "I don't think it's impatience on my part. I'm an academic administrator; if I hadn't built impressive boredom calluses by now, I would never have made it. I've listened to faculty emeriti tell war stories from nineteen-ought-six; I've stood in subfreezing weather for a solid hour listening to multiple politicians declare that they'd be remiss if they didn't thank still more people; I've parsed mission statements and outcomes assessment reports."

Maybe I just haven't built up my own boredom calluses. Even when I remind myself that I'm being paid impressively to sit through a training seminar, it still grates on me. Even when I remind myself that the fact that I've never been a victim of sexual harassment is due to several decades of these kind of training seminars being forced on people until the culture changed a bit, I still chafe. I know that the culture hasn't changed entirely, and that's why we must all suffer.

I look forward to the day when we all can take for granted that sexual harassment and/or creating a hostile work environment is reprehensible, and we would all no more harass each other than we would sexually abuse a 4 year old--alas, we're not there on the sexual harassment count, and there's still more sexual abuse of small children than I can comprehend.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Last Person in America to Appreciate Lorrie Moore's Descriptive Powers

I had read a few of Lorrie Moore's short stories before I picked up A Gate at the Stairs; a few years ago, I read "The Kid's Guide to Divorce" and "How to Become a Writer." Based on those short stories, I thought of her as an interesting minimalist, witty certainly, but I'd have never put her on my list for best descriptive writers of our time.

I remember a colleague raving about Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, so I tried to read it in the mid 90's. I loved the witty title, and I wanted to fall in love with it, but I couldn't. I don't remember why.

I'm not very far along in my reading of A Gate at the Stairs, but I'm already enjoying it immensely. Here is how Moore's main character describes a French restaurant: "It was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entree freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollack, filets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies . . . " (17).

A few pages before, she's described the best restaurant back in her hometown this way: "On Sunday's there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad and something called 'Grandma Jell-O,' but 'prime rib with au jus,' a precise knowledge of French--or English or even food coloring--not being the restaurant's strong point" (7).

And these examples are just the ones where Moore says a lot about restaurants with just a bit of description. I can't wait to see what's ahead!

I love the main character, a young college girl. I'm afraid she's going to have a very rough time, based on what I've read about other Lorrie Moore characters, but I'm willing to go along for this ride, especially if I continue to get such witty, wonderful descriptions of modern life.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lessons from My Hot Glue Gun

Some of my most inept friends can use a hot glue gun. Small children can use a hot glue gun. Why can't I?

Yesterday was the kind of very bad day where I should have just gone back to bed at any number of times. It wasn't the kind of very bad day where anyone died or wrecked the car or something dramatic. No, it was just the kind of grinding bad day that we all get occasionally, the kind of day where things aren't quite right, and they don't righten at all during the day.

Spin class was blah. I didn't get enough sleep, not overnight and no naptime. I thought I would accomplish some art projects for the upcoming Create in Me retreat, and ended up feeling snarly about my husband, who said things like "Are you making a bird or a ghost?" Another attempt: "That looks like a fish. Or a rabbit."

I kept trying to make the day better, and kept failing miserably. I kept trying to use the hot glue gun, and kept burning myself and inanimate objects. I now have huge blisters on several fingers and my leg. I had to cut glue out of the carpet. Why didn't I quit while I was ahead?

Finally, at the end of the day, when nothing good was on T.V. (is anything good ever on T.V.?), we watched the late 80's miniseries Lonesome Dove, which we have on DVD. What a treat. It reminds me that my life is actually pretty good, even though I'm having a bad day (I'm fairly safe in my current life as a woman, unlike the characters in the movie; I don't have to struggle to eke out a living, like those characters). It's full of cowboy wisdom. It appeals to the side of myself that fell in love with Little House on the Prairie.

I might have salvaged the day if I had just put away my hot glue gun and taken a nap. Instead, I burned myself again and again. Most days, I'm better at knowing what I need and making sure I do some self-care. Yesterday, I wasn't. And now, I'll have some blisters to remind me of what I should have known all along.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Quarter's End

Last night, I went to Graduation. Many people complain about our obligation: we have four graduations a year.

But I like Graduation. I like being reminded that students can make it through. I often see them in crisis: as an English teacher, when they have trouble with Composition and as an administrator, when they have any other varieties of trouble. It's good to be reminded that students can and do overcome these difficulties. Yes, I know our grim national statistics of how few people make it to college at all, and how many fewer finish a degree. But on Graduation night, I celebrate the ones that persevere.

Occasionally, I enjoy other celebrations. Last night, one of our department's members was chosen as Honored Faculty, and I got to introduce her. Joy! I've served under a Chair who, in her later years, never, ever would have nominated any of us, and it began to affect morale, mine at least. It's a treat to be able to nominate faculty for the position.

Afterwards, I waited in my office for my Poetry students to drop off their final projects and work. I require them to assemble some sort of manuscript, and to be eligible for an A, they have to do more than just put together typed pages. I'm always amazed at what they create. I shouldn't be--they're art and design students, after all, and they have access to all sorts of technology. But I'm always delighted.

And now, once again, I have a quarter or two ahead of me where I'm not teaching. It's traditional for new Chairs at my school not to teach for the first year of the position, but I'll probably start teaching again sooner than that. It's good to be reminded of why Chairs serve.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Good Southern Writer Is Hard to Find--at least one as Good as Flannery O'Connor

Today is Flannery O'Connor's birthday. She's one of my favorite writers, and I think she's the best short story writer ever. Yes, I said it. The Best. Not one of the best. The Best. Ever.

I'll wait here for you to protest. What about Chekhov? What about Poe? What about _______ (insert name of your favorite minimalist writer currently favorite with the writing crowd set)?

Nope. Flannery O'Connor's brilliance takes her to another level. Her stories are over half a century old now, and they still seem fresh, daring, and radically different. She's one of those rare writers who takes a form and shows us what that form could do. She explodes it and enriches it at the same time.

Go back to read "Good Country People." Hulga and the Bible salesman--no one alive is creating characters like those. And when you read the story, watch out for the so-called minor characters. Richly developed. Read "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and ponder that epiphany at the end. Oh, take the afternoon and read all the short stories. What else are you going to do with your time? Watch the useless television? Go grocery shopping? No, read Flannery O'Connor and prepare to be amazed.

I was first exposed to Flannery O'Connor through church, interestingly enough. In the late 70's, we had a campus minister who had an office and some duties in Charlottesville's Lutheran church. He had a degree (or was he only working on it then?) in Religion and Literature. He led a study of the stories of Flannery O'Connor, and my parents attended. My mom encouraged me to read those stories. I was hooked early, at age 14--who knew literature could be like that?

In the late 70's, O'Connor wasn't as highly regarded as she is now, but I knew nothing of literary reputations--well, I knew, but I didn't care. I liked what I liked. I'd read classics that were good for me, but I'd reread what I liked.

As I became an adult and lived in various Southern towns and cities, I became more interested in O'Connor's Catholic faith, and how it influenced her writing. I still am. One of the best books of literary criticism/biography I've read in a long time was Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which looks at four prominent mid-20th century Catholic writers: O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day. I read it on a plane and couldn't put it down--it was that gripping.

O'Connor herself was a shrewd literary critic. All writers of all genres should read her nonfiction. There's precious little of it, so it won't take long, alas.

O'Connor's life was all too short, and it's amazing to think what she produced in the 14 years that she was dying of lupus. Or maybe it's not amazing. Maybe like Keats, she knew she had very little time, and she made the most of it.

This week has been one of those where I find it hard to write or to focus on anything at all--my focus is pulled to this thing, then the other, then the other. I'm feeling whipsawed. I'd like to claim a bit of doomedness--not because I want to be gloomy, but because for all of us, our time here is so short, and we will never create all that we could. If we started each day with that knowledge, how would we spend our time differently?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thirtieth Anniversary of the Death of Archbishop Romero

I've had Archbishop Romero on the brain. I usually do this time of year, as the anniversary of his assassination approached. Today marks 30 years since he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass (or was it as he lifted the chalice? I've read both).

He had been appointed to the position of Archbishop because Vatican leaders thought he wouldn't be any trouble. But when his good friend, an activist Jesuit priest, was killed by a death squad, Romero decided that he needed to take up his friend's work.

He advocated for the poor and talked about the hazards of the huge disparity of wealth in the country. He called upon the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brothers and sisters. And because he was vocal in his support of the poor and dispossessed, because he criticized those in power, he was killed.

When I arrived at undergraduate school, I didn't know anything about this story. In 1984, I was asked to help lead a worship service that commemorated the life of the recently martyred archbishop. Thus continued my political education, an education begun when I saw the movie Missing. I would spend much of the 1980's horrified by what my country helped bring about in Latin America.

I remember when some of the U.S. government documents about Central America in the 1980's began to be declassified in the late 1990's, and again I felt horror in realizing that the oppression, supported, and in some cases engineered by my government, was actually worse than activists from the time period told us. I remember reading of cases of political activists thrown alive out of airplanes. All torture makes my brain recoil; I don't know why those cases stand out for me.

I thought about making myself read all those documents, but decided against it. There's only so much awfulness my brain can handle at any given time.

As the Romantics did, I wrestle with how much of the current political scene should find its way into my poems. One of my favorite undergraduate teachers flatly declared that political poetry could never be any good, and her words haunt me. Some of my favorite poems that I wrote during the 1980's show a radical poet contemplating the horrors of Central America, but I doubt they will be my best work when all is said and done. I'm still fond of my poems that use images of nuclear war and weapons in interesting ways, but will they be considered my best work? Hard to know.

In the end, I think it's best to follow whatever images haunt my brain at the time and to look for interesting connections. Let future critics sort out the rest.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reading Retreats and Other Varieties

Over the week-end, I was away, helping my mom with a creativity retreat at her church (go here for a full post on that topic). I flew, and while I'll be the first to complain bitterly about all the indignities of air travel, I do treasure the time to read.

I consumed Gail Godwin's latest book, Unfinished Desires. I usually like Gail Godwin's writing, but I must confess I haven't like one of her new books this much since The Good Husband. The characters are richly developed, the places beautifully described, and Godwin moves skillfully back and forth between several time periods. Godwin has always been one of our best writers when it comes to describing the inner and outer lives of adolescent females, and this book shows her at the height of her powers.

I also read half of Zoe Heller's The Believers, which was slow to draw me in. If I hadn't been trapped on an airplane, I might have quit. But I'm finally getting interested in the stories and the characters. The characters are quite unlikable on many levels, and one of Heller's talents has always been that she can make us want to keep reading, even though we find the characters appalling.

With The Believers, I've stumbled across another book that deals with Orthodox Judaism as part of the plot. That's at least two books in a month, which seems odd to me. Are there just that many more books with Orthodox Judaism as part of the plot or subplot, so I'm more likely to pick them up? Is something cosmic happening? Is it just random coincidence?

I read so few novels these days that it seems odd to me that I'd choose two with this similarity. In my commuting by train days, when I read 5 novels or more a week, I might not have noticed, or maybe there would have been more similarities for my mind to glom onto, so the presence of Orthodox Judaism wouldn't have seemed strange. Or maybe, as someone who grew up in the Southern part of the U.S.A. who never met a Jew, Orthodox or not, until grad school, the presence of Orthodox Judaism will always jump out at me.

Now it's back to regular life, with the last week of the quarter upon us, with some retreat coordinator duties pressing down (I leave for the Create in Me retreat in 2 weeks, which seems impossible), Holy Week approaches, and I'm always aware of all the poetry tasks left to do.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Census Reflections

My Census form arrived a few days ago, and I filled it out right away. When I pulled the big packet out of the mailbox, I was excited, thinking I'd been chosen to do the Census that asks more detailed questions. Yes, I'm a Civics Geek that way--I'm also the person who doesn't mind waiting in line to vote. But no, the short Census form is now a booklet--was it in 2000? I don't remember. I'm sure it wasn't in 1990. And I'm almost sure that in 1990, it didn't ask all the questions in both English and Spanish. Do people living in places with less ethnic variety get this bilingual form too?

The first time I ever filled out the Census, in 1990, I filled out the longer form. I'll probably never be randomly selected to do that again.

As I was bubbling in the circles, I took a minute to think about the changes that have happened since the last Census, since the first Census I filled out. In 1990, I'd been married for 2 years, just starting a Ph.D. program and scared to death, not doing much creative writing. In 2000, we'd lived in South Florida for 2 years, I was adjuncting a variety of places, but my husband had just gotten the kind of job his MPA prepared him for. We were hopeful. I hadn't published but a handful of poems.

Now, I have a chapbook published, with lots of poems published in a wide variety of places. I'm Chair of my department. We're still in the same house, which I wouldn't have expected back in 2000. I've never lived in any house as long as I've lived in this one. I've never lived in any town as long as I've lived in this one. I think my general outlook is sunny and hopeful, and my spouse is usually fairly upbeat too.

As I bubbled in the circle about housing, I realized how lucky I am to have a house that I can afford to maintain--although with each year's insurance bills (regular insurance and windstorm, which total over $4,000 a year, and we're still underinsured because it's impossible to buy that much insurance), I wonder how long we'll be able to cover the big bills. But each year it works out. And I know it's largely a matter of luck, as well as careful planning. And I'm grateful.

As I paged through the Census form, I realized how lucky I am that only two of us live in this house. I know people who take in boarders to make ends meet. I know people who are supporting a variety of family members by taking them in. So far, our family members are holding their own. We've avoided that stress. We won't always be able to avoid it, perhaps, so I'm enjoying this time now.

Where will I be in 10 more years? I'll be 54, my spouse 55. I imagine that the retirement age will be 75 by then, so I'll still have 20 years of working life ahead of me. I hope I have a book with a spine by then--or two! Will I still be working in my current job? What new art forms will I be exploring? What new technology will we be enjoying or cursing?

It will be here before we know it. Let me get back to this poem that's been percolating.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

National Poetry Month Book Give Away--My Offering

Kelli Russell Agodon came up with such a cool idea on her blog that I knew I had to participate. Here are the details: leave a comment with this post, and you'll be entered. You have until April 30, 2010 to leave a comment, thus entering yourself in the contest. On May 1, I'll put all the names in a soup pot (because I'm low tech that way), and select 2 lucky winners to receive a book, which I'll mail at my own expense. Make sure that your blog comment gives me some way to reach you (a blog profile or link or an e-mail address--no need to leave more personal information). Those of you reading on Facebook will need to migrate over to my blog to leave a comment at this post:

What books might you win? One is the earliest book of poetry that I fell in love with and wrote about a few days ago, but don't worry--you'll get a new copy, which is being shipped to me, even as I type.

Actually, the first volume of poetry I fell in love with was Nikki Giovanni's My House. I was a counselor at a Girl Scout camp, and this volume was on the bookshelf. I read it again and again during the summer of 1984. But it didn't really affect me profoundly, the way that Marge Piercy's The Moon is Always Female did.

The other book I'm giving away is my chapbook, which I'll be happy to autograph for you.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celebrating St. Patrick and William Gibson

You'd have to be living the life of a total recluse to not know that today we celebrate the life of St. Patrick. Maybe it's just an excuse to drink green beer and to eat the Irish food you'd usually never let yourself consume.

But in a piece in today's The New York Times, Thomas Cahill argues that we should celebrate the life of St. Patrick by reading a book. He talks about the collapse of Rome, and the role that the Irish played in saving books:

"The glories of Christianity — particularly its books — fascinated the Irish. They came to love the Roman alphabet that Patrick and his successors taught them, as well the precious illuminated manuscripts that he presented to them. There was indeed nothing in their intellectual heritage to block their receptivity to the Christian faith.

There was also nothing in their heritage to draw them to master the intricacies of the Greco-Roman tradition. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, for the ancient Irish never embraced classical cynicism or the gloomy Greco-Roman sense of fatedness.

Instead, they remained in many ways remarkably unjaded, full of wonder at the unexpectedness of human life."

Cahill also talks about the delightful development of illuminated books under the hand of the Irish. That made me think about the new turns that mediums take as they become something different, yet at the same time a more intense version of the original.

Today is also the birthday of William Gibson, who is probably most famous for coining the term "cyberspace" and for his book Neuromancer. I first read his name after I read Marge Piercy's He, She, and It, and she mentioned him in the acknowledgements section. Piercy's vision of a connected world didn't seem impossible to me: I hung out with some computer geeks as an undergrad, and I had a glimpse of the future which we're emerging into these days (an intense sense of community with far-flung people whom you've never even met in person--cool!). But when I presented a paper about the book at a conference in the mid 90s, my English major colleagues expressed disbelief that so much life could be lived in this place--what did you call it?--cyberspace?

It would be interesting to read those early books about cyberspace again, to see how accurately they predicted our world. It would be even more interesting to imagine where we'll be in ten or twenty years.

So, celebrate March 17 by reading an old-fashioned book, and thank the Irish. Or go to cyberspace, where many of us read such an assortment of materials, and thank the early sci-fi writers who dreamed this world of electric sheep and Turing machines (O.K., it's a botched series of allusions in that last sentence, but I like it, so it stays).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Believing in Bound Books--and Giving Them Away

In the next day or two, I plan to join Kelli's cool effort to celebrate National Poetry month. Deciding on which of my books to give away is easy, since I only have my chapbook. But how to choose the other book to give away? There are so many wonderful possibilities. Will I choose Denise Duhamel's Kinky, or is that too Barbie focused? Will I choose a small press book, thus supporting those worthy efforts? Will I choose one of my old feminist favorites, like Marge Piercy's The Moon is Always Female? I just might. That was one of the first volumes of poetry I ever bought, and I read it fiercely and ferociously throughout my undergraduate years, underlining and cracking the spine and taking it everywhere.

When you only have one volume of poetry in your collection, it's easy to love it fiercely and often.

Of course I can't give away that copy. Let me wander away for a minute.

I am SO happy. That book is still in print. I wonder why so many poetry books published by mainstream publishers have gone out of print, but this one has not. I have to assume it's because the book is still making money for the publisher.

So, in a day or two, I'll make the final decisions and join Kelli's celebration. But today, I just had to log an encounter from yesterday.

My office is on a corridor which opens to a central location, where several times a week we have an administrative assistant sitting at the desk. Once upon a time, we did our tutoring in that space, so we still have a bookcase left over from those days. We have a much better tutoring center now, but getting someone to move furniture requires a celestial act, so the bookcase has stayed behind. When publishers send me books, I'll add them to the shelves. I also put old editions of textbooks there, the ones I don't use anymore, but don't have room for on the shelves in my office. They're worth nothing: I don't teach out of them anymore, but I can't bear to throw them away, and since they're older editions, no one will buy them.

Yesterday, I noticed a student standing by the bookcase reading the Michael Meyer's The Bedford Introduction to Literature. I said, "It's so good to see someone reading."

The student said, "I love this book. It's got such great poetry in it." Keep in mind that this was not my student; she had no reason to know that professing admiration for poetry is a sure way to impress me.

I asked, "Would you like to borrow it?"

The student said, "Oh, no. I go online to get poems. I come here to read poems, and then I go online to see what I can find. I love this Maya Angelou poem."

We chatted some more, and I said, "Why don't you just take that book and keep it?"

She said, "Oh, no, that's alright." But her hands lingered on the pages.

I insisted. I wanted to believe that I saw a longing for poems and a bound book. And even if I didn't see that longing, I wanted to believe that the book would find a good home. I wanted to believe that the student would read the wide selection of poetry in the book to expand her horizons beyond Maya Angelou (not that there's anything wrong with Maya Angelou--it's just that the poetry world is so much larger than one writer).

I want to believe there's still space in our world for books, the old-fashioned bound kind. And I want to give them away, because my bookcase space seems to shrink with each passing year.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happy Pi Day!

Today is Pi Day; it's March 14: 3.14. Think back (way back for some of us) to your Math classes to remember the concept of pi and then look at the date again.

The Writer's Almanac tells us how some people will celebrate today: "There are legions of people worldwide devoted to memorizing π to as far as they can memorize it. And today around the world, there are π recitation contests. The world record, according to the Guinness Book, is currently held by Lu Chao, a grad student from China, who over the course of 24 hours and 4 minutes recited pi to the 67,890th decimal place without error."

Other people will have pies to eat (pizza pies, dessert pies, ah the possibilities, ah the irrationality).

Why celebrate the irrational number? I just really can't tell you. I don't remember enough Math to even be able to explain the importance. But I can respect other people's healthy obsessions. These obsessions are the things which enrich our lives, which keep us from descending into drudgery.

It's also the birthday of Albert Einstein; spend some time contemplating these alliances. Think about time and space and relativity, and what it means for us.

Or just spend some time with this Einstein quote: "The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives."

Sylvia Beach's birthday is also today. Without her, we'd have likely had no James Joyce, a writer whose work seems appropriate for a day that celebrates the most famous irrational number and the birthday of Einstein. Ah to have a bookstore around which wondrous writers orbited! Ah, to believe in young artists and to have enough money to share to keep them all afloat.

So, how will you pursue truth and beauty today? Right now, I'm listening to one of my favorite physicist/cosmologists on the radio program Speaking of Faith (go here to listen). I think I'll write a poem inspired by Janna Levin's comments in which the quantum particle thinks about the rigidity of the human, which can only exist as one thing, not as particle and wave at the same time.

Or maybe I'll just bake a pie.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Call to Collage

I've been feeling drawn to the idea of collaging on cards, cards that could be used for inspiration of all kinds.

I know that Kelli Russell Agodon uses these regularly (go here), as does Sandy Longhorn (read about the process here and here).

I have used collage occasionally, but it never ends up looking as beautiful as the cards pictured in those posts. I'm not good at composition yet.

I also have a colleague at work who collages so skillfully that you have to look really closely to see the seams. My collaging still looks like something a five year old would do. An awkward five year old.

Allow me to demonstrate:

For a few months in the early part of 1997, I was trying to decide what I really wanted out of life. I was thinking about what was lacking, what I wanted more of, what I wanted the future to be. I wasn't trying to create art, so much as I was trying to find a new way to my subconscious. The above collage tells me that I wanted more time outside.

I have always wrestled with insecurity, and I've always been drawn to sayings and slogans that tell me to walk away from insecurity. I almost bought a No Fear t-shirt, except it cost $18 in 1995, and that seemed exorbitant.

Here's the larger collage. Clearly I wanted rest (the woman in the bottom is in a hammock) and a slimmer body. At that time I had just lost 50 pounds, and I desperately wanted to keep it off. I was successful for a time, then I gained 30 pounds back, then a few years later, I lost that, and over the past few years, I've slowly gained it back. Sigh. Clearly some work to do in that area.

I think the above collage is most interesting, in terms of what I was thinking about the future, and where I am now. In many ways, I am that woman in the central image: department chair who hands out business cards while spending lots of time in an office. I see a longing for downtime and vacations (and I have learned to scuba dive, although I don't go often). The woman in jeans is Sandra Bullock, I think, and I like that casual style: jeans, boots, boxy jacket.

I wonder if my collage cards that I'm about to make will be different. I wonder if they'll inspire me in terms of my writing. Will I return to them in 13 years to be astonished at what I knew then, what I've managed to accomplish?

First, I need some magazines. I've let my subscriptions expire. But I have a plane trip coming up. I'll use it as an excuse to buy those lush magazines that I love, but that I never purchase because they seem extravagant in price and sparse in content. But if I'm buying for images, a new corner of the world opens up.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Next Experiment with Animated/Video Poems

This week, I created another animated/videopoem. I wanted to be sure I returned to Movie Maker before I forgot how to use it. I still haven't experimented with sound. Perhaps I'll do that in the coming weeks.

Here's the stanza of the poem as it appears traditionally, on the page or on the screen (scroll down to see the whole poem):

If God is an old woman,
She saves all our old clothes. She alone
has a vision of a collage of cloth.
She cuts new shapes out of our discards
and pieces them into an intricate quilt,
even though she knows we will fail
to appreciate her demonstrated skill.

Here's my animated/video version:

This morning, I had a horrifying thought: without sound, am I just really making PowerPoint presentations? I haven't really done much with that program, because my early years of seeing other people's PowerPoint presentations left me with such a bad taste in my mouth. If no one ever reads a slide show to me ever again, it will be too soon.

So, I must continue to work to make sure I'm creating the best projects that I know how to do. But I think it's instructive to post these early efforts too.

Here's the poem in its entirety. It first appeared in Interdisciplinary Humanities.

The Precious Nature of Junk

If God is an old woman,
She uses no recipe.
Long ago she learned
what she needed to know:
how to make do with scarce
resources, how to create successful
substitutions, how to create
magic from simple kitchen chemistry.

If God is an old woman,
She saves all our old clothes. She alone
has a vision of a collage of cloth.
She cuts new shapes out of our discards
and pieces them into an intricate quilt,
even though she knows we will fail
to appreciate her demonstrated skill.

If God is an old woman,
She longs for closer connection.
She sends cards for every occasion
and fills the answering machine with cryptic
messages. She has such important
information to pass on and such little
time left. We listen
and wonder at her mental state.

If God is an old woman,
She knows that everything could have a larger
purpose. She hoards items we’d have discarded
long ago. She understands the precious
nature of junk.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Happiness Project--Choose Joy

An atheist, a Lutheran, a Hindu, and a Buddhist convene their book club meeting to talk about Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.

Now you're waiting for a punch line, aren't you?

But there is none. We actually did that on Tuesday. We talked more about our ideas of happiness and its place in our lives than we did the book (I liked the first part of the book better than the second part, and I'm not sure that I like the book better than the blog).

Oddly, our resident atheist had the most rigid Protestant work ethic. Happiness is the reward that you get when the work is done, and you can turn your attention to the activities you enjoy.

Some of you already know the problem with this mindset. The work is never, ever done. There are always surfaces to be scrubbed, paperwork that demands attention, the gaping maw of familial need.

Why is it so hard to carve out a bit of time? Even if we can't carve it out each day, surely we could find an hour or two a week?

I'm the Lutheran who spent a great deal of time in the middle 90's figuring out what I wanted, what society said I should want, what outcomes deserved which amount of effort. I was living in a communal household, with competing agendas of housemates and husband and self (all of which seemed reasonable), trying to balance a teaching/grading heavy job at a community college, while not losing my artist self. I spent a lot of time writing morning pages, creating collages, and taking a constant inventory: "Is this what I want? Does this activity fit with my goals and my values? If I had only myself to consider, what would I do? If I was selfless, what would I do?" It seemed endless, but it really helped.

I was overweight and trying to get healthy when I came across this quote in the first edition of Christiane Northrup's Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom: "Mary Catherine Bateson's book Composing a Life documents that the presence of a man in a household increases the workload significantly--not because he leaves that many more dirty socks around but because of the expectations that he has of those around him and that those around him have of themselves" (emphasis Northrup's, page 569).

Read that last bit again. I found it shocking when I first read it, and I was sure I had avoided that bit of socialization, but as I moved through my weeks, I realized how many activities I did simply because I thought that's how grown-ups--wives in particular--behaved.

I'm luckier than many people in terms of the expectations I must meet. I don't have children, and I have a fairly capable husband who isn't a sexist. But I still have some deeply ingrained expectations of myself, partly societal, and partly from the fact that I've been married almost 22 years. For example, I've almost always been the one who does the grocery shopping, and thus, some internal voice tells me to feel guilty if I can't do it. But I'm married to a grown up who is perfectly capable of doing the grocery shopping.

If I had children, I'd have a tougher struggle carving out time for the art which brings me joy. Children have needs which they simply cannot meet themselves, at least not when they're very young.

It's interesting to discuss our notions of culture and socialization and the approach to happiness. I tend to think that once we realize that our attitudes are a result of our socialization, we can work to overcome it. My atheist friend thinks that cultural messages are just too tough for most people to overcome. We both have degrees in Sociology, although she has a Ph.D., and I stopped at the B.A. level. Does she know something I don't? I suspect it's just because of our different experiences.

Our Hindu friend has a completely different view of happiness and joy. She says that her religious tradition mandates that she find as much joy as she can in each day. That idea just astonished me.

I've spent two days thinking about how our lives would change if we felt we had a mandate to experience joy and happiness, as often as we could, each day, day after day.

As I worked my way through graduate school, I had a photocopy of a bumper sticker above my desk. It said, "Anything is possible," and I wrote down the impossible things I accomplished along the way: "even writing a thesis," "passing comps," "writing a dissertation." Later, I adopted the mantra: "Magic happens." I saw that as a statement about making a way out of no way, even when you aren't sure how to do it.

Now I might have a different mantra: Choose joy. I haven't been doing enough of that lately. That may be my motto for the rest of the year. Choose joy.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Shenandoah" and Migrations to the Online World

In January, Steven Schroeder wrote a post in which he took a look at all of his poems published in his wonderful book Torched Verse Ends and counted which of those journals that originally published the poems are still with us. Now the book has only been out about a year, and five of the journals which originally published his poems are gone.

And yesterday, the news that Shenandoah will soon be an online only journal.

Since I first started sending out poems in the late 80's, Shenandoah has been on my list of places where I'd like to see my poems published. And just in the last year, I got a personalized rejection slip. Progress!

I realize that I'm living in geological time when it comes to the idea of progress in my writing career. I like to think that the tectonic plates are shifting, even if I can't see them. I remember when I first sent out chapbook manuscripts. For a few years, I felt like I was making no progress, and then, wham! One got accepted, and a few months later, I had the beautiful chapbook in my hands.

I'm ready for that next earthquake.

But back to Shenandoah. At least the journal isn't going away entirely. It will be online, unlike so many journals which just cease.

I have become one of those people who does most of her reading online. Once upon a time, only a few years ago, I only read a few newspapers online, and I'd have told you that I'd prefer the print editions, if I could afford to have them shipped this far.

Not anymore. When I read print newspapers, I'm annoyed at having to flip pages. I'm annoyed at the unwieldy size. I'm annoyed at not being able to look things up quickly, at not having a hyperlink.

For the individual poem, I think I could be happy to read it online or on paper. I read online journals in the same way that I read paper journals: I flip around.

For a collection of poems, I think I still prefer a book of poems. But my recent experiments with animated poems have made me think that an online book of poems should be more than a print version that migrated online. I may be moving to that idea when it comes to individual poems too.

There's so much that we can do with technology to entice the reader. We've only begun to explore those ideas.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bloomsbury Groups: Sex and Creativity

Today is the birthday of Vita Sackville-West, who is perhaps most famous for being the lover of Virginia Woolf, which made me think of that Bloomsbury group.

I remember in grad school being fascinated by the sexual relationships in that group. I've always been interested in non-conventional relationships, both sexual and otherwise. How do people fight against whatever structure their society tries to impose upon them? I'm interested in people who live in intentional Christian communities, in people who create all sorts of co-parenting relationships, in people who refuse to be boxed in by society's need to classify and sort. It probably shouldn't surprise me that I'd have been interested in the Bloomsbury group.

Now, though, I find myself frustrated in our society's need to talk about everybody's sex lives. Yawn. After awhile, I find myself feeling like I've heard everything. What seemed endlessly fascinating when I was 21 no longer interests me at all.

When I was in my late 20's, an older colleague said, "I'm bored with people's sex lives. Don't tell me about what you're into in the bedroom. Tell me about your investments."

She meant financial investments. I was horrified. I saw her as deeply repressed. Now, I understand.

However, there's still one aspect of human lives that I long to know better; we rarely talk about people's creative lives to the extent that fills my hunger. I've read book after book about the Bloomsbury group, and very few writers talk AT ALL about how the creative individuals influenced each other as individuals and as the group. To me, that's the interesting question: how do we become better artists when we're part of a group? What do we lose when we're part of a group? Do artistic groups influence individual artists differently than other groups (like, say, being part of a group of new parents or environmentalists or grad students)?

No, writers exploring the Bloomsbury group tend to focus on the sex or the upper class background of the group or any number of other things except for the art.

Let me qualify. I haven't read much about the Bloomsbury group since I finished my Ph.D. in the early 90's. This situation may have been rectified.

But I doubt it. Perhaps there's a lesson for us artists: have a boring sex life or risk having your art trivialized--at least for the first hundred years after your death.

Yes, yes, I'm oversimplifying. But many people would tell us that simplifying/making dull more parts of our lives will lead to more interesting art. Or maybe it's just that having a streamlined life will give us more time to make art. If we lose so much time to drama and turmoil, we won't have the time, space, and quiet that much art demands.

Here's a Vita Sackville-West quote (from The Writer's Almanac) for your Tuesday inspiration: "It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?"

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Which I Retreat from the World's Noisiness into Kitchen Quietness

Am I the only grown up who feels that life has gotten too loud lately?

I will now wait a few minutes, so that those of you who knew me when I was young can bring your laughter under control. I was that girl who disturbed the whole dorm with her loud rock music. I partially deafened one ear by my relentless listening to loud music through headphones.

And even though I'm partially deaf, I'm still finding modern life too loud. Some of it, I expect. I went to Best Buy, which has always been too loud, which was a shame, since I could have spent more money if I could have stood to be in the place a minute longer. I only went there because they had the printer I wanted for a cheap price.

I went to happy hour on Friday, which I guess I should have expected to have loud music. But I was the youngest one there by probably a good 10 years. Am I the only one who has outgrown my tolerance for loud music?

The penultimate loud experience of my week-end came at church, if you can believe it. Usually, the sound system at church seems to be working at half potential, which is good for me. Alas, not yesterday. Everyone seemed overly amplified. I thought I might not be able to stand it. I thought longingly of monasteries and their contemplative services.

Maybe I haven't written much poetry in the last week because I have felt increasingly jangled. I've spent more time cooking, which is good--a retreat into the quietness of the kitchen. On Wednesday, I made a recipe from The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper, Oven-Roasted Chicken Cacciatora (page 202). Unfortunately, I can't find it online. It was so delicious that I made it again on Saturday--after all, I had left over sausage and sage and an extra bell pepper, so why not?

And it's easy, once everything is chopped. Put chicken in the 9 x 13 pan, dump a bunch of stuff on top (canned, chopped tomatoes, chopped red bell pepper, chopped red onion, chopped Kalamata olives, diced hard salami, some wine, some olive oil, torn sage leaves, some fennel seeds), throw it in the oven to bake. Yummmm.

I made it on Wednesday, because I've had a chicken leg and thigh in the freezer, the kind of leg and thigh that I hold up and wonder about the humongous size of the chicken. It seemed like a good recipe to use up that cut of meat and a chicken breast. On Saturday, I used boneless, skinless chicken breast, because that's what I had on hand. It would be a great recipe for those times when the grocery store puts chicken thighs on sale, though.

I need to write a poem or two this week. I need to get back on track. I need to keep working on soothing my jangled nerves so that I can hear myself enough to write.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

More on Poetry Book Trailers

This week, I've been seeing lots of interesting blog posts on making a poetry book trailer. Kelli Russell Agodon posted her book trailer here and then wrote a post on the making of the book trailer. She promises follow up posts, and I'm looking forward to them.

Diane Lockward has shown amazing industriousness and completed two book trailers (for the same book) for us to compare. If you go to her blog post, you can watch both and decide what you think. I commented over at her blog, so I won't say anything about my preferences here, so that I don't influence any virgin eyes.

In the coming week, I hope to return to the interesting process of making these hybrid creations. My spouse was home on Wednesday when I shot lots of photos, and he said, "What, exactly, are you going to do with these?"

I showed him Sandra Beasley's animated poems, Kelli's book trailer, and the wonderful animated version of Billy Collins' poem "Forgetfulness" (my spouse's favorite). He said, "You're making music videos!" Yes, in a way, we are. I think in the best poetry collections, all the poems hang together to make a larger whole, just as in a CD, the individual songs create something bigger. One animated poem can promote the book, as can a book trailer. How cool to have these resources that even the most untrained of us can master.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Muse Who Does Her Own Work

Today is the birthday of Lady Augusta Gregory. You've never heard of her? What a shame. Without her steadying presence, we'd have likely never heard of William Butler Yeats.

Yes I know, you might argue that Maud Gonne was the muse of Yeats. Perhaps. It fits with our idea of a muse, after all: a beautiful woman who haunts your visions for years or decades with her inability to love you back in just the way you love her.

Excuse me for a moment while I go vomit.

Maybe muse is not the word that I want for Lady Gregory. She served to inspire Yeats, to push him in directions he might not have otherwise gone. She had already done a lot of work in the field of folklore when she met Yeats, and the two of them probably accomplished more together than they would have alone. Without their work, those tales and customs and perhaps even those languages might have been lost forever.

Her work in establishing the Abbey Theatre and supporting Irish playwrights is most inspiring to me. She wrote plays herself, some 20 plays, which doesn't include the plays of others (including Yeats) that she helped revise; some scholars would tell you that she deserves co-author status. Her folklore fieldwork helped her to rewrite the language of the peasant characters to sound more authentic.

Of course, any artistic movement, particularly one in the performing arts, requires money, often lots of it, and Lady Gregory had plenty to contribute. What a wonderful legacy, as the Abbey Theatre still survives.

I often dream of having a huge chunk of money and the kinds of groups I would love to support. I often think of artistic colonies that I would create. I dream of scholarships for deserving students. I make a promise to the artistic gods that I would be wise and create a lasting legacy that would continue to support artists long after I was gone.

Did Lady Gregory and Yeats know what they were in the process of creating? I doubt they thought about it much. They had their passions and they followed them with verve and commitment. May we all be that lucky!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shooting Fabric

Kelli Russell Agodon's book trailer and post inspired me yesterday to get ready for another round of experimenting with videopoems, even though you would be fair if you pointed out that I wasn't through with my last experiment. I wanted to keep experimenting with Movie Maker, while I still remembered what I had done, and I'm working on a weekly art project series at my theology blog (go here, here, and here to read/see more), so I decided that next week's project would involve a stanza of a poem. Yesterday, I set about taking photos that would work with the poem.

The poem talks about God as a quilter, so I needed pictures of quilts, pictures of fabric. Luckily, I have plenty of fabric and quilts on hand (the above shot is a close up of a quilt that I pieced and quilted entirely by hand--below you'll see a larger picture of the whole quilt, but I love this close up--look how the stars glow!).

As I took photos, I thought about book trailers, and I thought about my newer book length manuscript, which I've titled When God Switched Fabrics. So, I decided to take some photos that might be useful for a book trailer.

Here's the larger quilt (the detail is above):

Here's another close-up shot of some of my fiber art. Several years ago, I made a piece a week. I'd put down a piece of cloth, cut smaller scraps of cloth and arrange them on the large piece, scatter other types of fiber (yarn, ribbon) across, and put a see-through fabric on top. I sewed the whole creation together, often with a glittery thread. I also experimented with beads.

I had a fun afternoon, taking lots of pictures which may or may not be useful some day. What a great development is the digital camera! If I'd been working with traditional film, I'd have shot through over $30 worth of film. Or I'd have been so cautious I wouldn't have tried my more experimental shot and been so delighted with the results that I pushed further.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Creations that Long to be Mediocre

Over at The Writer's Almanac, I read this quote from Ira Glass (of National Public Radio fame), who celebrates a birthday today: "It's hard to make something that's interesting. It's really, really hard. ... Basically, anything that anyone makes. ... It's like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that's written or anything that's created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity. It's all tending toward mediocrity in the same way that all atoms are sort of dissipating out toward the expanse of the universe. ... So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will. ... That feels exactly the same now as it did the first week of the show."

What an interesting idea, that the natural state of all writing is mediocrity. I wonder if I agree.

I know that it's hard for me to do substantial revision. I might write a free verse poem, and then play with turning it into a sonnet or some other poem with more form and structure. I might start on a poem, which might spark an idea or image that takes me in a different direction. I might make several failed attempts before I'm happy. But once I have a draft, that's likely to be the finished draft--unless I have an editor who makes suggestions.

Often, I follow those suggestions, but I find that I often like both versions equally. I rarely have a moment when I revise and revise and revise and the revision is clearly better to me. It may be because I'm too close to the work.

I wonder if it's because I've been teaching for 22 years, and I've always tried to be the kind of teacher who offers encouragement, who rarely says, "That's horrible. Throw it out and start over." I've always prided myself in being able to find some kind of spark even in the most terrible mess of a rough draft. Perhaps that carries over into my own writing.

I've noticed that with my videopoem from last week, as each day goes by, I'm more resistant to tinkering with it. Things I saw as faults (like the fact that the word otherworldly is hard to see) I'm resistant to change. I'm rationalizing: the word looks otherworldly as it is, so why change it?

I suppose I should take Ira Glass's words to heart and be on guard against mediocrity.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Back to Blogging, Bleary and Achy

I had a whirlwind week-end. After seeing Archbishop Tutu and staying up very late, we got up very early to hop on a plane to D.C.

My sister turned 40 on Saturday. At Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law suggested that we fly in for a birthday surprise. I had said that I doubted we could do it, but when I saw very cheap plane tickets, I decided it was a sign. We bought the tickets, my brother-in-law set about arranging a surprise party, and we all worked very hard at not blabbing.

It was phenomenally successful. She was completely surprised again and again. And she was remarkably able to recover from the shock and have a good time.

Then, early yesterday, we got on a plane back. It all made me feel very cosmopolitan and grown up. And tired.

How do authors do book tours? I guess they either have stronger constitutions than I do, or they get used to it, or they're not trying to hop from city to city and hold down a job.

I always feel like it takes time for all my parts of myself to catch up with me when I fly. Of course, when I drive, I'm painfully aware that all my parts of myself are with me and in great pain.

I do love having time to read. These days, the main time I read a novel is when I'm travelling. I wonder what that says about me?

I read Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's latest, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. It's about an academic who almost accidentally writes a bestselling book that defends atheism, and it's fully of witty and profound observations about academia, religion, and relationships. Here are some nuggets:

The main character, Cass Seltzer, reflects: "Now it's all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It's a tiresome proposition having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it's happened on your watch. You ought to have sent up a balloon now and then to get a read on the prevailing cognitive conditions, the Thinks watching out for the Think-Nots. Now you've gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe" (page 1).

Cass becomes famous after the publication of his book, and is surprised to find out that everyone is so much nicer to him: "If only everybody could be famous, we would all be effortlessly altruistic" (page 10).

Cass' girlfriend is extremely gifted and beautiful: "The imbalanced distribution of natural gifts seems unfair because it is; and people will always try to make things fairer by giving grief to the gifted" (page 32).

A crusty, old liberal artsy professor says, "What are the so-called exact sciences but the failure of metaphor and metonymy?" (page 171).

These quotes only give a sense of the wonderfulness of the characters, the exquisiteness of the descriptions, the movement of the plot, and the delight of the reading experience.

Now, back to my regular life. I must spend some time today trying to remember what poems I had planned to write. I must think about the grocery store. I should do some laundry. I'll think longingly of all the works of fiction that wait for me to read them.