Friday, June 25, 2010

This Blog Is On Vacation

It's time for me to go offline for a bit, time for face-to-face interactions, time for family. I plan to return to regular blogging on July 7.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reading Communally

Some time in April, my RSS feed that imports this blog to Facebook stopped working. So, each day, I went in and did the update manually. In a way, I didn't mind, since it forced me to look at Facebook once a day. I don't want to lose too much time to Facebook, but I enjoy seeing what my friends are up to.

Yesterday, Facebook started to tell me that my blog url isn't valid. I find this interesting, because this seems to be the week where more and more of my Facebook friends are commenting back and forth on various posts I've written and photos that have been posted. Some of them who don't even know each other are talking to each other. Cool.

I've needed this interaction as I've been reading Anna Karenina. It's been great to post comments on Facebook and blog postings and to hear what other people think. It kind of reminds me of grad school.

One of the things that I miss most about grad school is that experience of a group of people reading the same book at the same time and taking it very seriously. I haven't had that experience much since I left grad school. Even in book clubs, I'm often the only one reading (the others have given up or haven't started or won't be reading this book).

I find it interesting how we can talk to people we've known in real time and people we know primarily through their blog postings and people we may not know at all. Apparently, if I bought a Kindle, I could have this experience more often. I only just now came across this Times article about the Kindle feature that lets you see what other people have underlined. That would intrigue me but only so far. Now, if we could write notes (like some of the e-textbooks I've seen let you do) and share them, that would be cool.

One big communal reading group--that's my utopian vision of the future.

And for those of you keeping track, I'm about 150 pages from the end of Anna Karenina. I'm going to finish today so that I can read more modern books during the rest of my vacation. I've written a poem in which I envision Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre meeting for coffee. And yesterday, while I waited for McDonald's to finish the dinner order that I would take to Vacation Bible School children, I read the book--surely there's a poem there.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Would Jane Eyre Do?

I'm a good chunk of the way through Anna Karenina. On the one hand, I'm finding it delightful, like getting back to my grad school self. On the other hand, 19th century fiction is frustrating to me these days. I now know more than I ever really wanted to know about nineteenth century wedding customs, and illnesses, and high society, and farming (and the list could go on and on). Of course, I tend to skim through those passages--one of the benefits of not being in grad school!

I used to have more patience with these loose, baggy monsters (as Henry James called 19th century novels). The melodrama was not such a turn off. Now I read about Anna K/ and her complete inability to control her emotions and her sex life, and I feel the utter frustration and annoyance that I feel with modern middle class girls who don't want to get birth control because then they'd have to admit they're sexually active. Give me a break!

I find myself wishing that Anna would just throw herself under that train already.

I yearn for the sturdy pluck of a 19th century heroine like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. She wouldn't have sacrificed everything for a man. In fact, when she had that chance, she walked away, into a life of utter poverty. There's a heroine who is secure in her selfhood.

Maybe we should adopt this motto: what would Jane Eyre do?

In my between reading times yesterday, I found myself running through 19th century heroines in my head, trying to figure out any admirable ones. Could it only be Jane Eyre that I like?

O.K., I'll give grudging admiration to Jane Austen's characters. At least when the ones who lack sense are hurtling through their plotlines, there's a lesson for us all. I like them, I root for them. Why can't I do the same for Anna?

Of course, I like Kitty and Levin. Those two characters are the only ones who redeem this epic novel. Even when Kitty is having her 200 page nervous breakdown across Europe, I like her. She's not quite as self-reliant as Jane Eyre, but she'll do.

I realize that many of these 19th century novels were trying to show how constrained the lives of 19th century women were. If I paint them in the best light, these novels argue that women have the need for meaningful work, just as men do.

I no longer believe as fervently that all the 19th century male writers really had that agenda. I suspect that some of them just didn't care for women, and that's why their female characters are as unlikable as they are.

Last night I announced, "This will be the last 19th century novel I ever read." Well, now I've dared the gods, haven't I? At least I will now no longer have to feel embarrassed at not having read any of the great Russian authors. But I'm not about to slog through War and Peace, either.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Octavia Butler and the Artistry of Genre Fiction

Today is Octavia Butler's birthday. I've long been in awe of her talent. Her time travel book, Kindred, made me understand the horrors of slavery in the U.S. like nothing else ever had--until I read her book Wild Seed. Amazing stuff. My favorite of her books is Parable of the Sower, a book that I read several times a year for about a decade. She was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship.

I'm always interested in writers who try to infuse some artistic qualities into so-called genre fiction, like science fiction or the romance novel. I think that Stephen King has been able to do that with some of his books, and I look forward to seeing what Justin Cronin will do in the same vein (pun intended, the vampire vein) with The Passage, a book that I'll be reading in the next few weeks.

I just finished Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin. I What a chilling, yet compelling book.wanted to read more of her work after reading The Post-Birthday World. In some ways, We Need to Talk about Kevin also seemed like a time travel book, since it takes us back to the days of the late 90's, when it seemed like every other week, some teen-age boy was shooting up his school.

I tried to read You Are Not a Gadget, but frankly Jaron Lanier could stand to take some writing lessons from Octavia Butler or someone like her (someone who is still alive, obviously). He had some interesting ideas, but his prose was just too deadly. Perhaps it's because he's writing nonfiction. The ideas about machines taking on human characteristics, while humans become more machine like is just more fascinating when explored in fiction. Octavia Butler had real skill in taking something that we'd have thought we already knew all about, like the slave trade, and turning our understanding upside down and inside out. I remember reading Wild Seed on the Tri-Rail as I commuted down to teach American Lit survey classes at the University of Miami. I was like some deranged convert, as I went to class and implored my students to read the book. I said, "This book will teach you more about American Literature than most of what's in this Norton Anthology!" I was always gratified when several students wrote down the title and author when I'd make book recommendations.

So, here's my startling admission. I'm trying to get through Anna Karenina in the next few days (I figure that's about 200 pages a day, which I think I can do). I want to be free and clear to read whatever I want on my vacation, my vacation where I plan to read The Passage, One Day by David Nicholls, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I'm actually enjoying Anna Karenina, although I find myself skimming over some of the extravagant description. Even if I didn't know the basic plotline, I'd be saying, "Well, this cannot end well." It's one of those books that makes me happy to be born when I was. I'm happy to have work and art to keep me from the enormous boredom that seems to afflict the women in this novel.

In fact, most novels make me happy to be living my life, and not the life that I find in novels. Much as I like the apocalyptic plotline, I don't really want to live it. I like reading books about modern life that convince me that we're all struggling with our various demons. I like reading books about the past that make me grateful to be living right now. But most of all, I like having novels, so that I'm not forced to rely on the plotlines that translate into film or television. I'm happy to have novels that make me rethink the way I see the world, which is something that film so rarely does, and television almost never does. I'm happy to have books with which to pass the time during lazy days of summer.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Summer Solstice

Well, we've reached that strange time of the year when the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is generally hotter than we are. My in-laws in Memphis told us of heat over 100 degrees--that's the actual temperature, not the heat index. Likewise for my family in the D.C. area and my friends in South Carolina.

Our record breaking summer highs down here in South Florida are in the neighborhood of 96 degrees. It certainly feels hot, with brilliant, searing sunshine, but it's simply not the same as the swampy heat that I've experienced in other Southern states. There's usually a sea breeze down here which cuts down on the humidity.

Don't get me wrong, I don't go out for a walk or a jog in the middle of the day. I hide out in my cool, air conditioned house. I get a lot of reading done. This year, since we haven't had much in the way of thunderstorms (or rain at all, a very dry rainy season thus far, which makes me fretful), I also find myself writing more.

I've been enjoying Sandy Longhorn's blog posts where she's been writing a draft a day. I especially find her experiments with other media for inspiration to be similarly inspiring. Here she talks about the poem she composes after looking at a book of photographs of the great plains. Here and here, here and here she talks about how she uses other books of poems for inspiration. Here and here she talks about the inspiration cards that she's crafted, and how they inspire the day's writing. Here and here she talks about the catalogue of an art show and the art show itself as the starting place for work. Her blog postings offer fascinating insight into the world of creativity. She gives us just enough from the work to whet my appetite. Plus, I found them inspiring. Some of my own lines from the last two weeks have come from reading about her varied approaches.

I often find the blogsite How a Poem Happens offering inspiration, but the interview with Roger Mitchell has kept me turning lines around in my head for weeks now. He references Vallejo (" I will die in Paris in the rain") and Donald Justice (“I will die in Miami in the sun”), and I have found that pattern intriguing: I will ____________ in _______in the _____________. I haven't come up with much more than first lines, but some day, one of them will zoom off.

But maybe it's all too cerebral. Maybe I should try something else. Joanie Stangeland offers this interesting, multi-day approach to writing here. It sounds like something that might loosen the grip that narrative retains over me. It sounds like it would make me experiment with line breaks.

I think of previous summer solstices, and all the parties I used to throw. Once, before a party, a friend and I went to have wings. We got the atomic variety. What were we thinking? My friend, who really likes hot food, looked at me halfway through and said, "This is killing me, so I know it must be killing you." All night, as my friends arrived with their favorite summer foods, and we watched the soft dark take over the yard, I found that I couldn't really taste anything. It took me days to recover.

My days of throwing big parties are over. I prefer a quiet time to write and read. The Summer Solstice makes a good time to pause and consider what we wanted to accomplish this year. I yearn for a book length publication, and I've been doing a fairly good job of sending out manuscripts. I need to keep doing that.

I also need to keep working on writing new work. Like Sandy Longhorn, I wonder if I'm pushing myself enough. Summer Solstice is a good time to make some assessments and adjustments.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cape Magic Beach Read or Analysis of a Mid-Life Crisis?

I spent the last few days reading Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, which I thought would be perfect for summer. In some ways, with its depictions of weddings and beach vacations, it is. In other ways, with its dissections of all the ways a perfectly ordered life can come unravelled, it's not.

For those of you who love skewering satires of academic life, this book will satisfy. For those of you interested in family dynamics and the way they run through generations, this book provides a good primer, but at 272 pages, it's not an intergenerational book the way that other books are. It doesn't have that depth.

Russo is a masterful storyteller, and right until the last page, I couldn't tell where the novel would be taking me as a reader. Yet in retrospect, the plot moved in ways that the characterization set in motion: nothing in this novel strained my faith or broke the spell.

Some have said that the characters are unlikable, but I didn't find them so. Bumbling, yes. Flawed, yes. What kind of book would we have without flawed characters?

So, for people who want reading that's lighter than, say, Anna Karenina, but not quite as fluffy as some beach reads, this book will fit the bill. Pour yourself a lemonade (or a gin and tonic) and enjoy!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Gorging on Books

Yesterday, I got a huge shipment of books from Amazon. Yes, I buy from Amazon, even as I also support local, independent bookstores--and chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders; I'll buy books from anyone who has what I'm seeking. I got 5 or 6 volumes of poetry, which I'll write about in the weeks to come.

My husband and I fell under the spell of Daniel Amen, who seems to be on the air nonstop when our PBS station does fundraising, so I bought us a copy of Amen's Change Your Brain, Change Your Body: Use Your Brain to Get and Keep the Body You Have Always Wanted. After hearing William Alexander on this installment of The Diane Rehm Show, I got 52 Loaves:One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust and Justin Cronin's The Passage, which I'm almost afraid to read whilst on vacation on my sister's sailboat, since several reviewers have mentioned how the book left them afraid of the dark. I remember in high school reading Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which left me scared to sleep--what if I invited a vampire into the house because I was talking in my sleep?

Last night, as we watched The Simpsons, I read (out loud) a poem from a different volume at each commercial break. It was an interesting approach, both to old reruns, the commercials that dissect them, and to poetry.

I flipped through my stack of books and was reminded of my adolescent practice. I used to save up all my allowance and birthday money and babysitting money, and every so often, I'd go to B. Dalton Bookstore and buy whatever I wanted. For the most part, I was buying those young adult novels, where a teen is in trouble (pregnancy, drug abuse, hit and run driving, paranormal experiences of all kinds) and can't rely on the adults for help. I loved not having to choose between them. I loved gorging on books.

I still love gorging on books. Now I tend to buy them and put them on the shelf while I wait for a chance to read them. But I love going to a bookstore and telling myself I can buy whatever I want. I love loading books into the Amazon cart and waiting for the right time in the credit card cycle to place the order--that wonderful anticipation! I love being surrounded by stacks of books--the books which wait patiently for me and the books which I read long ago, but can't quite surrender yet.

I've already bought my dad a Father's Day present (a book--shh! don't tell), but if I hadn't, I'd contribute to one of the social justice organizations suggested in this piece by Nicolas Kristof. He tells us some of the stats of what we'll spend on Father's Day cards and gifts, and then he suggests some amazing social justice organizations which could make better use of that money. Most of us have dads who have more stuff than they can use in any one lifetime. Why not give to organizations which help the kids who don't have dads in their lives?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nuclear Homecoming

Today is the birthday of John Hersey, perhaps most famous for his book Hiroshima, which began life as a nofiction piece in The New Yorker. In the summer of 1985, I read obsessively about nuclear weapons, both their genesis and their current status, and Hiroshima was one of the books I read. Best book of that summer? War Day, by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, a sobering piece of fiction about life in the U.S. after a massive nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; it's still a compelling read. I remember Hersey's book as being elegaic in its depiction of the lost city and the suffering of the people.

Several hundred years from now, some enterprising graduate student might write a dissertation about my poetry. That graduate student might muse about the theological and nuclear themes in my poems. In some ways, they seem so separate, and yet, in some ways they dovetail. What will that dissertation conclude? Hmm.

That graduate student might read this stanza from my poem "Century of Ash and Smoke" (unpublished) and see the influence of Hersey:

If I had lost you
in the bomb blast at Hiroshima,
I might have found your likeness,
fused into concrete.

The poem goes on to talk about a bomb blast at the office, about the office worker becoming a permanent part of the office. A cheery little poem.

The other day, I started writing a poem about bread, and before I knew it, I had a character set off on some sort of journey into a post-apocalyptic landscape with loaves of bread in the backpack. I puzzle over this. It's an ongoing theme in my writing. I understand why I find the post-apocalyptic landscape compelling. What I don't understand is why I always start at the beginning of this story (or is it the beginning?). What happens to these characters? Why don't I ever write about the end of the story? What happens to these people after the journey?

Maybe I'll write some of those poems, now that I've noticed this lack. Maybe I've got a book trajectory, once I do.

Or maybe I'll discover what I already knew. The part of the apocalyptic narrative that interests me most is the build up to the catastrophe. The aftermath doesn't always interest me as much.

I still go back to watch some of those 1980's nuclear war movies (I have two of them on videocassette tape--how long will I support that medium? Do I get DVD copies of those movies?): War Day, Testament, and Threads. I often watch only the first hour or so. As the movie world descends more permanently into the post-blast world and becomes desolate, I get impatient.

I have yet to watch the post-apocalyptic movies released around Christmas, The Road and Book of Eli. I wonder if I'll feel the same way. I read The Road and loved it, even though I thought it was about the bleakest book I've ever read--but so eloquently and elegantly written!

Nuclear Homecoming. Now there's a title. I have a sneaking suspicion that it would only attract a small subset of people, but that the larger chunk of potential readership would run for the metaphorical hills from a title like that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy Bloomsday!

Today is June 16, and James Joyce fans around the world will be remembering this fateful day in fiction, the one single day on which all the action in the book Ulysses takes place.

Those of us on this side of Modernism forget about how revolutionary this technique was. We forget that many novels used to start on the day a character was born and trudge through a thousand pages depicting that character's life. We forget about how recently we first started using inner monologues as a narrative technique. We forget about how we've only recently begun to understand psychology and use it to explore our characters.

Ulysses is a hard book, the hardest thing I've ever read, yes, harder than Shakespeare, harder than Tristram Shandy. Joyce did pure stream of consciousness, with no sort of architecture to help a reader. After all, if you just tuned into my thoughts, I wouldn't give you background on who these people are in my thoughts. I know, so I don't have to fill in those blanks.

Some day, I must make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia, where the original manuscript is kept. Some day, I must make a pilgrimage to Dublin, where the novel is set.

Of course, I could make a pilgrimage to Books and Books in Miami, where actors will be reading passages of Ulysses and where the Irish pub will be offering specials on food and drink. The first year we lived down here, I read about the event and that trek was our first journey down to Miami. We weren't sure what to expect, but that was the trip where a car pulled up, rolled down the window, and rather than gunshot, we were greeted by a young woman who smiled and said, "Welcome to Miami, sir. Enjoy your stay."

Well, we've stayed a long time. Maybe instead of the trek down to Miami, in the heat and the traffic, I'll simply stay put and have a solitary retreat. Maybe I'll read my favorite passages. Some of them still ring in my head: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan . . ." I forget the rest of that first sentence.

How many first sentences do you remember? The only other one I can pull up from memory is from Charlotte's Web: "'Where's Pa going with that ax?' asked Fern over breakfast." Oops. I just looked it up. Not quite right (hint: everything after the word Fern is wrong).

Yes, a solitary retreat. Maybe right in my office, where I keep the book now.

I'll try to keep my Bloomsday vibe going throughout the day. When I post a sign on the office door, I'll say, "Happy Bloomsday! James Joyce forever!" It will mystify most people and delight me (yes, my rebellious streak is odd, and as always, not likely to get me into trouble).

And at the end of the day, I'll reflect back and raise an imaginary glass to Molly Bloom. Yes, I said, yes, I said yes. I'll try to say yes more today, in honor of James Joyce and his unlikely life long love affair with Nora Barnacle. I'll try to be open to experiments, realizing that they may lead to revolutions. I'll try to take my writing to places where writers haven't been before. Oh, who am I kidding? That's not my role in this life. My writing is nothing, if not accessible. But there's a place for my writing too.

Today, I'll appreciate what other people can do, what I cannot do, what very few people have ever done as well as James Joyce. I'll think about language and relationships and the rivers that connect us.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New Technology Gadgets at My House

While the rest of the world was playing with their new iPhones (what's new, exactly?) and iPads, Florida Power and Light installed a new electric meter at our house. Now we can see exactly how much power we're using, minute by minute, measured either in kilowats or voltage (I think).

I find it mildly interesting, I must confess. My spouse spent several days reconnecting with his young scientist self. He measured the output of all the electric-using parts of our house. The biggest electricity gulper? The AC, of course. The second largest? Our dryer, which is almost 20 years old, so no surprise (but I really thought it would be the television). We are now thinking about ways to sun dry our clothes without installing a permanent clothesline. I'm inclined towards several drying racks. For half the year or more, we have daytime temps in the 80's, so it's really goofy to use the dryer as much as we do.

The other technology gadget that's changing our lives is the new recycling system. The collector weighs our recycling, and we get points per pound. We can then go online to see how many pounds we've collected, and thus, how much energy we've saved: in terms of trees, in terms of kilowat hours, in terms of several kinds of measurement. This would be enough motivation, but we also get to trade in our points for prizes: grocery store coupons (so far, we've saved $6), magazine subscriptions, that kind of thing.

We've been recycling for a long time, even when it wasn't convenient, when we had to take the recycling to a collection center and sort it. So I'm surprised by how much more motivated I am to recycle when it's being charted this way. I'm bringing recycling home from work--amazing how much paper my work week generates. Sure, I could put it in the recycling bins at work, but I'm not convinced that garbage makes it to the recycling destination, and besides, there are points I could be getting!

Yes, I'm that woman, bringing refuse from work.

I'm pleased with the progress we've made in terms of living lightly. We throw out very little food, and I'm always looking for ways to reduce packaging. We compost our food scraps. We eat the leftovers. We're always trying to keep the thermostat at an energy efficient level. We've replaced the windows and made the doors more weathertight.

However, I'm astonished at how much these two new technology gizmos have inspired us to try to do better. It makes me wonder if there are technology gizmos that could make me more inspired in other areas of my life.

I suspect that if I wrote down the hours I spent on my art (any art, choose one), that I'd be astonished at how much time I waste, and I'd probably work on wasting less.

If only there was a way to make it more automated. I know that I could probably get some kind of gizmo that would be only too happy to keep track of data for me--but I'd still have to type it in, which means it would only be slightly more efficient than writing things out by hand.

And then I think about my quest for efficiency and that intersection with art and creativity. Why am I so obsessed with making the most/best use of my time when I sit down to write a poem or to paint or to craft things with textiles?

Probably because I feel like there's never enough time. Maybe my time would be better spent by changing that inner tape. Instead of fretting about Time's winged chariot always, always, always hurrying near (thank you Andrew Marvell), I should tell myself, "You have all the time in the world."

Since I was little, I've worried about not living up to my full potential--I've always wondered if I could be doing more to be the best Kristin I can be. Maybe I should relax a bit more about that.

I'm the kind of woman who, if she solved the world's hunger issues so that no one was going to bed with an empty stomach, why, I'd say, "Well, that's very nice, but there's all these landmines that are maiming and killing people. What are you going to do about that, Kristin?"

For me, a gizmo that took accurate measurements might be a useful reminder of all that I do get done. Or it might be a way for me to beat myself up with more accuracy.

Clearly, I have some self-improvement work to do--work at self-acceptance, at not flogging myself to always do/be more.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Before I Was a Poetry Geek, I Was a Theatre Geek

I did not originally plan to be an English major, a Ph.D. in British Lit, a Composition teacher, a poet, or Chair of a Department. No, I originally planned to be a star on Broadway. Yes, as early as seventh grade, I was reading the great classics of the theatre world. I read my way through Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams. Since I planned to be a star on stage, I would choose one of the parts and read it out loud. If I made the mistake of choosing a minor character, I switched roles. I thought about how I would stage the productions. I thought about costumes. I spent many of my waking hours dreaming of theatre.

Even before seventh grade, I was writing plays and puppet shows. My mother graciously donated old clothes for our dress up trunk. My family went to real, live drama on a regular basis. We supported community theatre and university groups, and every so often, we made the trip from Montgomery to Atlanta (and later, the trip from Charlottesville to Washington, D.C.) to see Broadway touring groups. By the time we moved to Knoxville, there were more touring groups hitting more midsize towns, so we didn't have to make as much effort.

My big theatre memories of the 70's are Godspell (the first play I remember seeing, when I was in the second grade) and A Chorus Line. My sister and I memorized every song, and once we saw the shows, we acted out scenes.

It was only later that I realized what a unique childhood/adolescence I had. While some kids played sports or got stoned, I devoted myself to theatre. I didn't dream of being a movie star. I was very clear on the superiority of live theatre to any other manifestation.

As I got older, I joined school drama clubs and acting troupes for teenagers. I was always happily surprised to see how our school drama groups included many types of people who wouldn't socialize otherwise: jocks and chorus people worked side by side to put on a show, along with the punk rock crowd, people with learning disabilities, new kids, and general misfits. I'm fairly sure that other groups (like, say, the football team) didn't experience this.

I've had this on the brain as I've been watching Glee. Even though those kids have devoted themselves to song, their world feels familiar.

I gave up on my Broadway dreams for many reasons, not the least of which was that I had no self-confidence in my singing, and I couldn't stand to dwell in my body long enough to become a good dancer. I've often been struck, though, by how often I use the skills I developed as a teenage drama geek. Much of my teaching has involved reading texts out loud, and I'm good at it. Much of my teaching has required a certain theatricality to keep students interested; I'm really good at that.

I haven't been an administrator long enough to know which theatre geek skills will translate into this arena. The ability to keep my face passive? Well, I suspect I still haven't mastered that skill. Stay tuned.

I have these thoughts on the brain because of tonight's Tony Awards. When I was a teenager, I would have stayed up late, watching and studying. Tonight, I won't.

For those of you interested in the generational aspect of musical theatre, how enthusiasm comes and goes in generational waves, I refer you to this article on the Glee generation. Great fun. And for those of you still keeping up with the New York theatre scene, you probably won't need to read this article about tonight's musical theatre awards. For those of you raising young drama geeks and wondering which touring shows to see, it might be useful.

Maybe I will watch the Tony Awards after all. I, too, need to plan my theatre going. I've been away too long.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Teenage Reading Self

Do you still have all the books you bought as a teenager? Do you ever go back to read the books you read when you were a teenager? Do you remember what you read?

I remember my eleventh grade English teacher, a grandmotherly type. I sat on the front row, and I was always carrying a book with me, usually a book of which she would not approve. One day, she picked the bodice ripper romance novel I was reading off the stack of books on my desk and held it over her head. She said to the whole class, "Why do you waste your time with this garbage? Can't you see that books like these are just written to titillate you?"

I was shocked, shocked, SHOCKED by her use of the word "titillate." Those of you who teach or who live with adolescents know that young folks are easily shocked. I couldn't believe she would use that word in mixed company. Didn't she know there were BOYS in the room?

But her words sunk in. I put myself on a regime. For every 2 trashy books I read, I had to read one of the books on the list of books that every college bound high schoolers should have read by the time they packed the boxes for college.

Where did I get that list? What's become of it? I do not know.

I was a voracious reader in high school. High school bored me, and I learned early on that most teachers would leave me alone to read if I got my work done quickly and efficiently. So, with my rigorous reading plan, I read a lot of the classics, mainly British and American. I didn't get as much out of them as I would when I read them again in graduate school and had a class in which to discuss them and the author and the world which produced them. But it was a valuable discipline.

I'm prompted in these thoughts by this delightful essay on the website of The New York Times. The writer talks about his different selves as a reader, and about how teenagers imagine that there's all the time in the world for reading. Our older selves know better.

I'm also thinking of my teenage self because last night I started reading Anna Karenina. Yes, I have a Ph.D., but I have yet to read one of the Russians. It's a gaping hole in my knowledge, one of many gaping holes. My school reading group has taken this on. So far, one member has fallen rapturously in love with the book again, and one member has given up. The in love reader has read the book again, and the member who gave up made it through War and Peace, but isn't going to make it through Anna Karenina.

My current life as reader and writer reminds me that time is short, getting shorter, and that the choices of things to read keep exploding. Do I want to fill the gaping holes in my knowledge or just enjoy reading pleasure? I'm not headed off to college, not that I can foresee right now--do I really need to put myself on a self-improvement-by-reading campaign?

I will certainly not be as disciplined as my teenage reading self was. But every so often, yes, I need to return to classic literature. Even if it takes me many more weeks to read a classic than it would have taken my teenage self.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Needing Balance, Enjoying Munificence

The New York Times has been running a series of articles about various new (and newish) technologies and their impacts on our lives. Until today, the main message has been negative.

As you might expect, some writers report that researchers have found potential damage done by this 24 hour connectedness, potential damage to our brains and our relationships. This story shows a family of many screens, a family who probably has much in common with many of us. This story tells us how too much technology might change our personalities; we're likely to become impatient, irritable people as we use more and more technology. This Commentary series talks about ways to cut the electronic cord, at least for short bits of time.

But today, we get a different story about how knowledge is increasing exponentially, and our new technological resources will be the only thing that can save us: "The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart."

I have a friend who says she can't read a book on a screen, but I suspect she could if she made herself. I used to say I couldn't write rough drafts on a word processor (back when computers still weren't dirt cheap, you could buy a word processor that could store about 25 pages on a disk). But I trained myself to do it, because I knew it would pay off in the end.

In the end, though, it's up to each of us. Technology can really improve our lives. I love being able to look up all sorts of stuff; what used to take a trip to the library now takes minutes. I don't love having to deal with junk e-mail, but I love staying in touch with friends. I need to get better at turning all the electronics off at certain points in the day, but so far, I've been fairly effective at establishing boundaries between work and home. I love that I can read newspapers online and not have to recycle the paper. I love that I can catch NPR stories at a later point. I like to watch TV via Hulu and have less commercials to suffer through. I wish I had more time to read books, and I suspect I would, if I read less stuff online.

The struggle for me, and I suspect for many others, is balance. That's the struggle of many aspects of my life. I keep thinking I'll arrive one day, and find myself with perfect balancing skills. It's now occurring to me that I might keep working on this issue of balance my entire life. There are worse issues with which to struggle, I suppose.

Or I could reshape my thinking. Needing to work on balance means that my life overflows with bounty, and I have to determine my focus.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A New Volume to Celebrate--What I'm Reading Now

I've been enjoying Richard Allen Taylor's new volume of poems, Punching Through the Egg of Space (Main Street Rag, 2010). It has an wonderful mix of poems, all of them appealing.

I was drawn in by the poems that describe places around North and South Carolina, states where I've spent lots of time, have family living, and go back to on a regular basis. There are poems about the beach and the mountains and the havoc that ice causes in the South. "Charleston Crabhouse," "Gullah Woman," and "Return to Charleston" take me back to my own time in the Lowcountry, and make me hungry for the smells, the sights, the sounds of the Charleston area. "Charleston Crabhouse" includes a wonderful description of how wine interacts with food, far better than most wine aficionados would write (I'll put in slashes to designate line breaks, since they don't translate in this Blogger software):

"I sip a Pinot Grigio that tastes like an old shoe until it sinks /
into the tongue and the grape stands to meet the hearty meal, /
greets the creamy corn and the chewy shrimp like long-lost friends /
and wraps its vines like strong arms around /
their flavors. I order a second glass, which proves /
that first impressions, while lasting, are often wrong."

Delicious! In all sorts of ways.

You don't need to have lived in the Carolinas to enjoy these poems. Taylor includes a variety of intriguing poems that aren't rooted in place. I'm partial to poems that imagine characters from literature or pop culture in other settings. I love Taylor's poem "The Scarecrow: After Oz," a terrifying vision of being "again crucified in some godforsaken / cornfield."

Similarly, Taylor's poems are often inspired by other works of art or popular culture. "'Moonrise'--North Buncombe County, North Carolina" was inspired by a photograph. It makes me want to go to the mountains or some other spot with less light pollution, so that I, too, could stare at the night sky and be inspired to think about the moon. There's a poem inspired by a painting of an Italian vineyard which leads to an interesting contemplation of soil erosion. My favorite poem in this vein is "What I'm Doing with My One Wild and Precious Life," a response to Mary Oliver, a poem which thinks about that word "plan" and all the plans that get made and abandoned along the way.

Several poems talk about the writer's life. I found "Giving Advice to a Prose Writer Who Wants to Write a Poem" funny and familiar. "Writer's Block" is a wonderful poem, full of inspiration and comforting to those of us who might find ourselves struggling to create. Everyone who has ever struggled with or enjoyed the company of a writer's group will enjyo his poem "Dear Wednesday Night Poetry Group." His poem "Obscurity" explains his approach to his art and the types of poetry he creates: "I am not particularly fond of the notion / that obscure imagery is a good thing." His poems are gloriously accessible but not inconsequential--not an easy thing to accomplish.

I've been enjoying Taylor's work for many years, from his individual poems to his book Something to Read on the Plane to his work as a co-editor of Kakalak Anthology of Carolina Poets (a book which kept migrating from my desk, when I shared a joint workspace with a variety of Humanities instructors). Punching Through the Egg of Space is my favorite of his work so far.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rebellions, Mid-Life and Otherwise

Over at Sandy's blog, she's writing about her draft-a-day project. Her postings make me want to write, especially when I'm at work with hours to go before the end of office hours.

Yesterday, feeling rebellious, I started writing at the office. Nothing makes the phones ring faster, the students come searching for someone or something, the forces of chaos assemble faster than me starting a poem. I try not to be superstitious.

I've been thinking about rebellion lately. We've been under strict orders not to do any streaming from the Internet at work. We're using too much bandwidth. Rather than restrict students, some of us have found access to our favorite websites cut off. Not the streaming capacity cut off, but no access to the website at all.

So, I can't access the Diane Rehm show but I can still stream videos from YouTube. Really? Which uses more bandwidth?

On the day I found my access to certain NPR sites restricted, I spent the afternoon streaming from YouTube. Sure, it was juvenile. Not much in the way of rebellion. But it made me feel better.

I streamed old punk videos, yes I did. Yes, I'm that woman, who sits in her office watching 25 year old vintage video of the Violent Femmes. I recognize the pathetic aspects of this portrait.

I'm sure my 70 year old self will shake her head with bemusement at the memory of this mid-life rebellion. I think back to high school days and shake my own head over youthful rebellion and the adult response to it.

I seem to recall that boys who wore eyeliner at school could get suspended or expelled. You may read that sentence and assume that I went to a school with a lot of self-assured gay boys, but it was the punk rockers who wanted to experiment with girl's make-up. No one else would have dared to have been that transgressive. I seem to recall that the Knoxville school board spent a lot of time discussing what should be done with boys who pierced their ears. And back then, it would have been just one ear.

Now students pierce parts of themselves that would have been unthinkable when I was in high school. Back in the early days of the Reagan administration, that kind of behavior would have gotten you sent away to a mental asylum (and yes, some people still used that term in the early 80's).

Now we have students who put rods and spikes through their faces but are grossed out by a bit of baby vomit (according to reports from colleagues of mine). Most intriguing.

Ah, transgressiveness and gender. I could write about this topic all day. But I must get to spin class and then on to the office, where I will slam dance with the copy machine and let the computer croon to me in the punk songs of my past. I shall remind myself of why I am too old to take scissors to my hair. I will eye the safety pins, but my fear of needles and sharp edges will keep me safe from that particular rebellion.

Maybe I'll just write a poem in the early hours, before the drama starts.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Values of Education, Classical and Otherwise

For those of us who teach in the Humanities (or those of us who earned a liberal arts education or those of us who love/support people who teach in the Humanities), The New York Times has given us some love letters this morning, and from columnists with whom we might not always agree.

For some, the names of David Brooks and Stanley Fish result in an immediate spike in blood pressure and temper, and sure, I'll be the first to admit that I don't always agree with their perspectives. But I've almost always enjoyed their writing and their intriguing thoughts, even when those thoughts are radically different than mine.

But this morning, their thoughts aren't radically different than mine. In his piece, David Brooks talks about the various skills that a Humanities education bestows (knowing how to read and write, understanding the language of emotion, making analogies) and how they will be useful in any field. He finishes by talking about The Big Shaggy, his metaphor for something inside a human that makes the human behave in irrational, often unexplainable, ways (like a politician who risks everything for love/sex or oil engineers becoming comfortable with risks). He talks about how a Humanities education will help us understand The Big Shaggy.

In his piece, Stanley Fish reviews three recent books about education and contemplates the value of a Classical education. Many of his observations look at K-12 education, but they might be equally as valid for a college education.

It's sometimes hard to advocate for a college education, whether one gets a Humanities degree or something that seems to lead more directly to a job (say, Accounting), when one factors in the price. Two weeks ago The New York Times presented this story of a student who ran up $100,000 getting a top notch undergraduate degree. Yikes. The Sunday Business section of The Washington Post this week ran several stories about paying for college. Very sobering.

My spouse and I were recently talking about how lucky we were to go to school when we did. I got through my undergraduate education at a small, liberal arts college without having to take out too many loans; I got lots of scholarships, and a bit of help from my parents, but mostly scholarships. I didn't take out any loans for my graduate degree. I got a small stipend for teaching, and a steeply reduced tuition ($150 or so a semester, not per course, per semester), and I lived very cheaply. My spouse got the same deal for graduate school, after leaving undergraduate school with just a smidge of student loan debt, which we deferred until after graduate school. My spouse returned to graduate school in the mid-90's, and we did take out loans then, but mainly because it was a cheaper way to finance the adventure and to consolidate some other debt. At that point, tuition was still very cheap, even though he didn't have a TA or other kind of work-study deal that grad students get. It was a very good deal.

I doubt that those kind of deals exist anymore, although I still think that community colleges and state schools are usually a very good bargain for the money. I know that it's tough to get any kind of job without a college degree, but to take out $100,000 for an undergraduate degree? Will you ever really see the return on that money? And how many of those people go on to rack up debt for grad school?

And we're not even talking about the vast hordes of people who take on substantial debt and never finish the undergraduate degree. Yikes. That's debt that will likely never pay for itself.

I don't have any answers. Happily no one has elected me thinking that I'll come up with answers. Unhappily, I'm not seeing anyone on the national level who's got any sort of vision of a way to do things differently.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thinking about Dystopian Futures on a bright, June Day

Today, in 1949, George Orwell's novel 1984 was published. He would die seven months later, after suffering all sorts of medical indignities--somehow, in all my years of English major undergraduate and graduate study, I never knew this fact. Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac site describes the final part of the writing process this way: "He wrote from bed, and by longhand when his typewriter was taken away from him in the hospital. He went through an intense drug treatment in the hopes of curing his TB, which caused him mouth blisters, throat ulcers that made it hard to swallow, rashes, and flaking skin, and his hair and nails fell out. He was losing weight, had fevers, and his right arm had to be put in a cast, but he kept writing with his left. Under pressure from his publisher, he finally finished the book by the end of the year, and had to retype the messy manuscript himself."

Suddenly, nothing in my writing life seems bad. I have my health, so what do I care if the printer doesn't work, if my work life consumes my writing time for a week here or there, if my manuscripts remain unpublished. At least I can keep writing with my dominant hand!

I haven't read 1984 since graduate school, probably around 1988 or so. Back then, the world depicted in 1984 still seemed like an impossible, improbable future of some future Soviet-like state. I suspect if I reread it now, I'd be amazed at how relevant it still seems.

I remember first reading the book in high school and being horrified at the idea of cameras everywhere, at a government who could always see you. And now, with the advent of cheap, easy technology, we seem to have arrived at that world. Well, we're always on camera, it seems or trackable in some way. I have trouble believing in a government efficient enough to keep track of us all in the way that the government in Orwell's novel was able to do.

In terms of a terrifying glimpse into the future, I still think that Octavia Butler got it closer than the mid-20th-century dystopian novelists, Orwell and Huxley. Go read Butler's The Parable of the Sower. Go read it right now. You'll see a picture of a government that can send a ship to Mars, but can't keep the earthly world from unravelling. It will feel chillingly possible.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

South Florida Poems and Pictures

I have two poems up at the South Florida edition of Poets and Artists. You can read the entire issue here. I'm on page 73. Special thanks to Terry Lucas, who alerted me to the call for submissions. Twenty years ago, before everything was so Internetized, none of this would have happened. I probably wouldn't be in touch with Terry Lucas, because we came to know of each other through our online presences and poems and Facebook. The issue wouldn't have been published because it's too beautiful/multi-colored to be able to afford a large print run on paper. It's one of the more gorgeous settings in which my poems have found themselves.

The thing which scared me most about acceptance is that I had to send in 3-5 high resolution pictures taken in a picturesque Florida setting. I have a complicated relationship with photographs of me. I want to look beautiful and mysterious, yet also I want to look like the kind of woman everyone wants to know and have for a friend. I want to look warm. I want to look thin. I want to look glamorous. I want everyone to look at my picture and say, "I want to be her"; I want not to be so shallow that I care this much about what people think of a silly photo of me.

Plus there was that issue of resolution. I was told the picture needed to be high resolution 300 dpi. I spent time researching and trying to figure out what that meant. I explored lots of aspects of my camera. Finally, I just sent the picture below to the magazine editor, with a simple note asking if the resolution was high enough.

That's me, on a canoe in the Everglades. What could be more typically South Florida than that? Plus, my face isn't showing. What better way to be mysterious?

The magazine editor wrote back to say that the resolution was fine, but this picture wasn't the kind of thing she would use in the magazine. More panic in my head.

So, I spent more time with the older issues of the magazine, only this time, I wasn't looking at the types of poems published, but at the pictures of the artists and writers. I went through all the photos on the computer, seeing if I already had something that could work, or if I would need to schedule a photo shoot with my spouse as photographer.

The picture below is taken at the Morikami Museum and Gardens in Boca Rotan. Careful readers will note that the photo of me that appears on the cover is a cropped version of this photo.

My favorite picture that I submitted wasn't used. It's the one below. I like the shadows. I like how happy I look.

I also like it because it reminds me of the time it was taken. I cropped the picture below.

Don't we look like a glamorous young couple with a toddler? It's not our toddler; that's my nephew, Jack, in 2008, when he came to visit with his mom, my sister. We went to Le Tub, a Hollywood restaurant that's more dock and picnic tables than fancy eating place. It's on the Intracoastal Waterway, and we thought that Jack would like being near the water and the boats. He did, almost too much. We took turns hanging on to him so that he didn't fall/jump into the water.
It's interesting to me how this quest for publication leads to learning experiences of all kinds. I've learned to work with the software that lets me manipulate photos (although I didn't change my haircolor or make myself thinner; I mainly learned how to trim and crop, and how to move pictures from various places to a folder on my computer). I've thought more about photos, what they mean to me and how I want to present myself to the outside world; for example, I had several pictures that I rejected because of a beer bottle in front of me. I don't think there's anything wrong with drinking beer, but I did think about the ways that kind of photo could come back to haunt me. I even worried about the ashtray in one of the above photos.
This experience has also led me to think about the ways that easier, cheaper computing (the Internet, digital cameras, faster home computers) has made all sorts of things possible that wouldn't have been as easy 20 years ago. I bemoan the possible loss of books and the paper publishing world, but I'm excited by the worlds that the Internet and our digital age open up to us.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Liberation, Female and Otherwise

On this day in June 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, if the states ratified the Amendment. They did, and the rest is history.

I grew up devouring stories of those early suffragists and abolitionists. I loved narratives that involved oppressed groups fighting for change. It astonished me that it took so long for women to get the right to vote.

I was growing up in the 1970's, another important time for women's expanding freedoms and rights; sure the roots for that movement were seeded in the 60's, but I agree with those authors who argue that the decade of the 1970's is really the decade that saw great strides in human liberation of many stripes and colors. I remember the various conversations that I overheard about what women could and could not do. I remember hearing older folks aghast at the idea of a woman preaching. I remember hearing many a woman say that she could never go to a female doctor, which just mystified me, even as a child.

We live in a world that hasn't been transformed by those human rights movements quite as much as I had hoped for when I was younger and more idealistic (and much, much more impatient). And yet, in some ways, the pace of change has been breathtaking. It's fascinating to me to see which states and municipalities are granting homosexual people the right to legal unions, for example. Many of us are working for companies that are family friendly in ways we never could have hoped for back in the 70's, when we began to work for that change. We have a president who is part African-American, and for the most part, people haven't had much trouble coping with this idea.

I've never understood why people are so casual about the right to vote. I grew up watching citizens in other countries fighting actual wars to get the right to have a voice in their government. Women haven't had the right to vote in this country for a full century, and I'm going to give up that opportunity to cast my vote? I don't think so.

I'll try to remember my good fortune as I watch politicians do and say increasingly goofy things, and as I suffer through political ads during the bit of television watching that I do. I'm lucky to be able to cast a vote.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Would You Sell Your Literary Soul?

Today is Larry McMurtry's birthday. I have an older book, with an older picture of him wearing a shirt declaring "Minor Regional Novelist." Little did he know that Lonesome Dove was about to take the world by storm--and win a Pulitzer Prize.

In The New York Times, I read this story about Justin Cronin, a Rice University professor and writer of short stories and two literary novels. He's just published a vampire novel, The Passage, which has catapulted him into a different literary level, with a huge print run and tons of money.

He reflects on the difference between the tags "literary" and "commercial": "I think literary is shorthand for appreciated, and commercial is shorthand for sells. I did not undertake the writing of this book thinking that it was one thing or the other, or even that books in general have to be one thing or the other. Those are descriptions of what happens to a book after it’s written."

The story also reminded me of an encounter I had with an MFA student years ago, when I was almost done with grad school. He learned that I had literary ambitions, and he asked, "Are you hoping to be good or are you hoping to sell a lot of novels, like John Grisham?"

At that time, I was the only person in America who hadn't read The Firm. I had been finishing my Ph.D. in British Literature, and I hadn't read any literature written by a non-Brit in almost two years. I thought the MFA student offered me a false choice. I asked, "Can't a book be both?"

He said no, and I have to admit that so far, it seems like the rare book that's both beautifully written and compelling to read in the way that sells lots of copies. I have since read several of Grisham's novels, and I think he pulls it off. Likewise, Larry McMurtry accomplishes a certain level of beautiful writing into his page turners.

Other novels, not so much. I thought The Da Vinci Code was terribly clunky writing, so wretched that I couldn't finish it, with various plot twists that felt obvious and manipulative: we're about to unlock a puzzle, and gee whiz, here's a puzzle included inside. All that and badly done dialogue to boot. I've heard similar things about the Stieg Larsson series (you know, that fire playing, hornet kicking girl with tattoo series).

So far, I write poetry and blog entries, so I don't have to worry about selling my soul. I think of that MFA student, and the temptations he thought we would face, the choice between writing compelling prose and writing beautiful sentences. I still hope to do both, to create well-written prose that's compelling. I even have that hope as I write various reports for work. It delights me to sneak in some lovely sentences, even into such dry materials as assessment documents.

I think of that MFA student and the question he was really asking: would you accept boat loads of money for your writing? Of course I would; wouldn't we all?

What he was really asking: would you accept boat loads of money for your writing if you had to dumb it down?

We were young then, and we thought that the literary devil that tempted us would be the idea of writing a thriller or a bodice-ripper of a romance. Little did we know how many ways there would be to sell our literary writer souls.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Happy Birthday, Thomas Hardy!

Today is the birthday of Thomas Hardy. My earliest memory of Thomas Hardy comes from undergraduate school, when my favorite English professor told us that most people didn't write well across genres, but Thomas Hardy was one of the few who could pull it off.

Actually, that's not true. I read Tess of the D'Urbervilles in high school, after the movie Tess came out. I didn't see the movie, but it made me aware of Hardy. I remember thinking that the book was much more interesting than most of the 19th century novels that made it onto college prep reading lists.

I continue to think about the comment of my undergrad professor, especially now, when I've seen so many artists cross all sorts of genres. I disagreed with her then, and I still disagree. I think I do.