Monday, January 31, 2011

Treating Your Writing Like a Business

There are days when I look back over the trajectory of my work life and just shake my head. I didn't go to med school because I didn't want to spend so much time in school. What did I do instead? I got a Ph.D., which was only slightly less time than a medical degree would have been. Once I would have declared that I didn't want to teach. So, what have I spent the bulk of my work life doing? Teaching, of course. When I first started teaching, I envisioned a time when I'd need to leave that work life because I assumed I'd write my way out of a job with a bestselling novel, or something. That hasn't happened yet.

In fact, there are times when I'm happy to have this day job that pays so well and gives me benefits like health insurance. I'm not as good at self-promotion as I would need to be if writing was the way I pay the bills. I'm better at keeping track of certain tasks than others.

When the editor of The Lutheran got in touch with me, I said that I could write the article that she had in mind, and I gave her a deadline, which I met. Years of training makes it hard for me to miss a deadline. I sent it off, she wrote back to say that she'd gotten it, and at first glance it looked great. I assumed she would want some revisions, and so I waited.

I sent my article November 1, and November was a time of lots of travel and after that was Christmas, and getting in contact with the editor was on my to-do list, but got swallowed up in assessment documents and new terms starting and all that other stuff.

On Tuesday, I got an e-mail from the editor which implored me to fax in forms so that she could pay me out of the 2010 budget which was closing momentarily. Hmmm. Was I to assume that she needed no revisions? Was I to assume the article had already appeared? I thought about an e-mail, but decided that this time was one that called for a telephone.

For one thing, ever since we got copy machines which can turn documents into PDF files, I haven't seen a working fax machine. But more importantly, I wanted updates. I had no idea how to ask the questions I had without sounding like a ditz of a woman who can't manage her writing business, but I forged ahead.

I'm afraid I still sounded a bit like a woman who can't manage the business end of her writing business. The nice thing about technology is that both of us could blame our miscommunications on our e-mail systems not talking to each other. The scary thing about technology is wondering how many opportunities do, in fact, get swallowed up in the maw of technology gone awry.

In fact, when the editor first contacted me, she called because she had sent an e-mail that never made it to me (later I did find it in my spam file, which I don't check as often as I should). What if she had decided not to make further efforts, not to make that call? I wouldn't have blamed her one bit.

My spouse shudders a bit when he thinks about how he answered the phone. He let slip that we weren't subscribers, but he recovered enough to say that we liked the magazine. The editor asked if he thought I'd like to write for The Lutheran, and happily, my spouse said, "Yes, certainly."

Perhaps I should see this experience as a cautionary tale, happily one that has a happy ending. Perhaps I need to take the same care with following up on projects with my writing as I do with my work as Chair of my department. I'm that person who puts reminders all over her calendars, her Outlook calendar, and there are sticky notes on my desk at work.

So, when I return from AWP, I need to have some more ideas for my editor. When I mentioned that I enjoyed working with her and would be interested in future opportunities, to my great relief, she said, "Send me some ideas." So, now, before 3 months just evaporates again, I need to do that.

I need to get back to sending out book-length manuscripts. I had taken a bit of a break while I got all the chapbook tasks done to get ready for I Stand Here Shredding Documents. Now it's time to get back to the long range work.

I need to start thinking about writer's festivals and other opportunities where I could read my new chapbook. It's probably not too early to get on those radar screens.

But first, it's time to start packing for the AWP convention. I think that this big midwestern storm will sweep just north of Washington. That means that I'll likely be able to get in, but I wonder about everyone else. How many panels will be cancelled because participants can't get there?

If you're going to the AWP and you see some holes in your schedule, I'd be open to having a coffee or a drink or a meal together--but we'll need to make plans quickly. Once we get to early Wed. morning, I'm hopefully on a plane and largely offline.

It's hard for me to reach out, to say, "Hey, let's have coffee." I keep waiting to not feel like this geeky 14 year old kid who watches all the cool ones go by having fun together. I keep waiting for my emotional self to realize that we've left high school long behind us. Sadly, that aspect of my emotional make-up also makes it difficult for me as a writer. I'm not very good at networking. I'm not very good at pursuing some opportunities that I might feel are only reserved for the cool kids. But I try to feel that fear and push on anyway. I've been rejected by some very cool people. And I've been accepted by some very cool people. It's not life-threatening, even though it sometimes feels like it.

So, away to pack, and to wish all the snow away!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Largest Circulation Yet

I have big publishing news: an essay of mine appears in the Feb. 2011 issue of The Lutheran, the official magazine of the largest groups of Lutherans in the U.S. You can go here to read the first several paragraphs. I'll likely repost the whole thing on my theology blog in a few months, but if you don't want to wait, feel free to e-mail me (or leave me your e-mail address in a comment), and I can send you the document in a Word file.

I find the process by which this article came to be in The Lutheran to be intriguing. First, a bit of background: if you had known me in 2002 and 2003, you'd have known a woman who was doing a lot more submitting, of poems, of completed manuscripts of poems, of essays, of short stories. I wanted to be my generation's Kathleen Norris. I submitted to all sorts of non-conservative Christian publications. (I also wanted to be my generation's Marge Piercy or Gail Godwin, but that's a topic for a different blog post).

Years ago, I sent essays to The Lutheran and every other publication my church produces, in addition to the publications put out by other mainstream Protestant groups. I never heard back or after many, many months, I got a rejection. As the years progressed, I wrote a weekly meditation on the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday. I sent it out with the electronic newsletter that I created for my church. My mom's church asked if they could use it. Of course, I said yes. When I switched churches, I continued to do the electronic newsletter for the first church (again, a story for a different blog post), while posting the meditation on the blog of the new church.

I used to joke that I was syndicated. I knew that I had more readers of my work on a weekly basis than I ever did from getting a poem published in a literary journal.

I'm not sure that I can say the same thing about poems published in electronic forums, but I'm sure it was true of most of my poem publications in paper editions. And in the meantime, I started 2 blogs, and I kept writing, even though I wasn't sure that many people were reading.

What's fascinating to me is to consider the many publishing doors that my blogging has opened for me. In some ways, blogging has been a more effective way of getting published (and I'm talking about publication beyond the blog posting itself) than sending out packet after packet of poems or other writing. In some ways, blogging has given me a much larger audience than anything else I've done.

Because of blogging, I was asked to be an official blogger at the Living Lutheran site. The editor at The Lutheran saw a blog post of mine on my theology blog and asked if I could turn it into a larger essay--of course I said yes. And now, that essay which began life as a blog post, is in a magazine with a circulation of 280,000 or thereabouts.

Will those readers become devoted fans of mine? I doubt it--although I certainly hope that some of them might. Still, it's a thrill to think of how far and wide these words are going.

I think back to the time when I was reading blogs and wanting to write a blog, but I was worried about all the ways it might harm me. What if I got ugly e-mail? I had heard of female bloggers especially being at some risk in the blogosphere. So far, nothing bad along those lines has happened to me. On the contrary, when I first started blogging, I laughed at my former fears of being a target. It seemed far more the norm that no one read a thing I wrote. But I expected the early time of blog writing to be slow in terms of an audience. That was fine with me.

I was more worried about my blogging somehow negatively impacting my current job or my future job searches. So, I've been a bit careful. I started out trying to keep my location, my job, those kinds of things, a bit hidden. I still don't mention my workplace by name, but it wouldn't take much sleuthing to figure it out. I'm careful when I write about my job. I'm careful when I write about the lives of others. I try to be, at least.

So, for all you wanna-be bloggers out there who wonder whether or not to take the plunge, I would say, do it. It's a platform that will open more doors for you than might open otherwise.

I haven't moved into Twitter, and I don't do as much with Facebook as I could. Some people say that the era of the blog is over and dead, but I don't believe it. There will always be new and emerging platforms. That doesn't mean that the old platform will go away.

For that matter, I still won't be happy until I have book-length publications. I'm hopeful that some of this writing will lead to a book. I also know that I can't be sure of the road to that publication. It's not as clear as it once was. Maybe someone will read a blog post and write me to ask if I have a manuscript. Maybe I'll send out a manuscript to a publisher who will say yes. Maybe someone will read my essay in The Lutheran and contact me. Maybe some new innovation that I haven't even heard of yet will open the door for me.

All I know is that I must keep writing and doing the work and showing up. That sounds so smug and self-assured. So, tomorrow, I'll tell you the rest of the story about this essay in The Lutheran, a sort-of cautionary tale, but one with a happy ending.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Science Fiction, Science Facts, and the Poems They Inspire

On this day when many of us will be remembering the Challenger explosion, I've been thinking about scientific discoveries and disasters and how they inform our literature. I listened to Brian Greene on Fresh Air; these days, my mind isn't blown away by the possibilities that Physics offer. He talked about inflationary cosmology and repulsive gravity, and almost at the same time, I both thought of the potential for metaphor, and thrust the idea away, already tired of it. He said that every aspect of reality has to do with how particles move. Greene said that matter must repeat, which is why we have to accept the possibility of alternate universes.

My friend and I were talking about how our love of the genre of Science Fiction made us more open to various ideas than our friends who are more committed to fields of science unpolluted by fiction. And Brian Greene would remind us that many items that we use daily, like cell phones, are made possible by ideas that come to us from Physics. A review of his latest book in The New York Times says, "Now, Mr. Greene points out, nobody’s agog — and you’re apt to be walking around with a hand-held device that has a GPS, the accuracy of which can be traced to Einstein. Perhaps future generations will similarly take in stride the thought of parallel universes — and not just the kinds that are a mainstay of comic books and science fiction."

But really, it's comic books and sci fi (like the Star Trek franchise) that prepares our brains for the more difficult ideas that Greene presents. I must confess to preferring to hear him talk to reading him. And some of my favorite science-tinged poems have been inspired by him.

Here's one from years ago when I first heard Greene talk to Terry Gross. I found myself intrigued by string theory and quarks and neutrinos. After hearing him talk, I wrote a series of poems; this one was published in The Powhatan Review:

Last Neutrino

If they can find the last neutrino,
why can’t I find you?
We live in a world where the Internet weaves
us together, keeps us touching across invisible
connections, helps long lost loves find
each other. Refugees return to burned homes,
evidence of their existence scorched from the earth,
yet still, they find their families.

I know you are not dead, but just untraceable.
Occasionally I get postcards from places
you’ve long left behind. Sometimes I meet
someone who has crossed your path
and lived to tell the tale. Those tungsten men
of beards and guns and fishing, the iron women
who build log cabins with their bare hands,
these are the heavy metal humans
who can slow you down, force you to interact.

Most of us you pass through, and most of us never
notice. Why did my skin sense your touch?
Why can’t I forget you? I need to turn
to those who yearn for me, but I long to shed
my mass, find my missing matter.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Days I Dream of Land in the Country, Other Days I Dream of Art Galleries

Last night I went to Girls' Club, an amazing gallery space. You can tell that it began its life as a garage, or something even more industrial. The gallery does intriguing shows. It's fun to go there with students, because the art that they see is often so very, very different from anything they've ever experienced before.

The Frances Trombley show looks very much like an unhung art show, with its canvases stacked against the wall. Only upon closer inspection do we see that those canvases are actually pieces of fabric that Trombley created on her loom. It's very monochromatic, very uniform, at least from a distance.

I much preferred the show upstairs, Facsimile, with all its variations, many of them having something to do with traditional needle arts, but those arts taken in very different ways. For example, one artist took old televisions and gutted them. Then he filled them with crocheted items that suggested static; in one piece, he had crocheted old VHS tape into a shiny sculpture, which he then put into the emptied television. If you want a further taste of the art, go here for the gallery notes--and then go see the show; it's on display until the end of September.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to do next, what I would do if my job vanished, what I might do if the entire educational-industrial complex collapsed out from under me, much like autoworkers and newspaper writers have had their industries disappear. My thoughts often run towards land in the country.

I know I don't want to be a farmer. What exactly would I do with land in the country?

I dream of some kind of retreat center, a place where people could come to learn about simple living and to explore their artistic yearnings. I'd also like to weave a spiritual component into it, for people who are interested. I've been fascinated in monastic traditions and the traditions of artistic communes, and I've wondered what could be possible if these traditions came together in one piece of land at one piece of time.

I know that the history of artistic communes would warn me away from this experiment. I know about the Lake District. I've read about the Bloomsbury group. I know about Bronson Alcott's disastrous experiments that almost led his family to starvation.

But I also know that many monastic communities have lasted decades, and some of them hundreds of years. Could that spiritual component be the missing key?

Last night's foray reminded me of other dreams of the future that I've had, dreams of an artistic space, dreams of urban living. Back in July, the first time that I went to Girls' Club, I had to drive around the block a few times, and I couldn't help but notice how many properties were for sale. Could my dream translate to an urban-ish setting?

It's not urban, in the way that New York City is urban. Girls' Club is only a few blocks away from downtown Ft. Lauderdale, but downtown Ft. Lauderdale lacks the inner city-ness of other big cities. There are homeless people, but for the most part, after dark, the downtown feels rather abandoned. I can walk the streets without feeling much danger. Of course, there's not much to do, not a vibrant nightlife. It's still a city where realistically one needs a car.

With all these dreams of the future, I still run up against basic economics. How does one earn enough to live? I could make the case for an urban retreat center, especially one where people come for an afternoon. But how many retreatants would it take to cover the mortgage payment and utilities? Quite a lot.

So, I'll let these ideas continue to percolate. Who knows where they may lead? In the meantime, it's wonderful that other people have converted these spaces and that they share them with the rest of us.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Critiques of Modern Life: What I'm Watching and Reading

Last night, we watched the movie The Kids Are Alright. I'd been looking forward to this movie for a long time; is that why I was so disappointed?

I just didn't believe the character's motivation for having an affair, so perhaps that was the basis of my disappointment. It was a lovely movie at first, but I ended up with more questions than the movie answered.

I said to my spouse, "Why are we supposed to believe that Jules would have this affair? Their marriage didn't seem that bad to me."

My spouse said, "We're supposed to believe it because she's the ditzy one."

Hmm. I'd have had far less trouble believing that Nic would have the affair, Nic who is bearing the whole financial load of the family, Nic who has a stressful work life, Nic who can't have good sex, Nic who can't drink an extra glass of wine without commentary, Nic who already seems detached from the family. But no, it's Jules.

And what, exactly, makes Paul so irresistable? Is it just that he's there? I don't get any sparks between the characters.

I said to my spouse, "You know, if it wasn't for the fact that we've got a lesbian couple and the sperm donor angle, this movie wouldn't seem so groundbreaking."

He said, "It's a pretty tired plot."

One of the oldest, in fact: a stranger comes into people's lives and watch what happens.

I should have just stuck with my reading. I'm reading some of the most wonderful poetry lately. In my quest to get ready for my academic paper on female poets' use of the fairy tale, I picked up Lana Hechtman Ayers' A New Red: a fairly tale for grown ups. What a treat. It modernizes the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, while not turning all the characters into humans. At least, that's not how I'm reading it on the first read through. Interspecies relationships, the possibility of sex with a real wolf--now that's revolutionary! (and yes, I do remember that scene with the 2 teenage boys and the dog in The Kids Are Alright--again, not groundbreaking, but a tired, old trope).

I'm also reading Tony Hoagland's Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, a much more devastating critique, in poem form no less, of modern life than The Kids Are Alright. I find myself returning again and again to "Sentimental Education," with the father who tells his children that the ones who survive are the ones who will do anything, even eat bugs: it's The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.

A bit humorous, and then you get to this ending:

"Oh, if he were alive, I would tell him, 'Dad,
you were right! I ate a lot of stuff
far worse than bugs.'

And I was eaten, I was eaten,
I was picked up
and chewed
and swallowed

down into the belly of the world."

Almost every poem delights and stuns simultaneously like that one: a far more rewarding evening than most of the stuff that pop culture will give us.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Magic Realism on the North American Continent

Today is the birthday of Gloria Naylor. I discovered Gloria Naylor shortly before Oprah Winfrey made sure that we all knew about her, with her filming of The Women of Brewster Place. About a year before that miniseries, I was in the public library and picked up Mama Day, knowing nothing about the book and nothing about Gloria Naylor.

If I had come to Gloria Naylor through one of her other books, would I have been as big a fan? Probably not, although I certainly understand why people prefer those other books. But Mama Day stunned me, with its depiction of an island off the coast of the southeast U.S. It seemed so perfect and complete. I suspended my disbelief even with the elements of magic realism, that ability to read and control the natural world. Later, we read the book for a grad school class, and again, I was just blown away.

Of course, the problem with grad school is that students study the great literature, which can be intimidating to those of us who want to be writers in addition to being writers. I will always be grateful for the deep understanding of literature that grad school gave me, and for the teaching jobs my degrees enabled me to have, but as a writer, it's taken me some time to recover from grad school. It's taken me a long time to feel worthy of working in this great tradition of literature written in English, especially when I spent my formative years studying the great works of such towering talents.

Once upon a time, I wanted to write just like Gloria Naylor, but her world is not my world, her stories not my stories. I remember a friend of mine from long ago, who patiently endured all my breathless love of various writers. When I would say, "I want to write just like __________!", she would say "Why don't you write just like Kristin Berkey?" And happily, through the years, I have learned to do just that.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Friday Outing: The Palm Beach Poetry Festival

One event that takes place nearby, and an event that I don't take as much advantage of as I should, is the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. I'm often tempted to participate in the whole thing: 5 days of intense workshops with an individual poet, afternoon craft workshops, and evening readings. The poets always have national reputations; for example, this year's poets included C. D. Wright and Jane Hirshfield.

Why don't I sign up for the whole thing? Part of it is the expense, and part of it is the time. I'm resistant to the whole idea of workshopping poems, and perhaps I should push through that resistance. Since I have a house less than an hour a way, I wouldn't want to afford to stay in a hotel in the area, and so part of the time issue is the driving issue.

But I usually try to go for part of it. The afternoon craft workshops and the evening readings are open to the public, for the low price of $12 an event. On Friday, I braved the billowing thunderclouds and headed to Delray Beach.

This time of year, I give myself extra driving time, because the traffic, which is likely to be bad at any hour down here, is impacted in multiple ways by the tourists and the snowbirds. On Friday, I got to Delray Beach early and once I bought my ticket, I had 45 minutes to fill. Happily, I had anticipated this possibility, so I headed to a natural food restaurant, ordered a smoothie (coconut, pineapple, and papaya), and settled in to read the books of poetry I brought by poets who were not part of the Festival. I spent most of my time reading Terence Hayes' Lighthead ("Fish Head for Katrina"--amazing! one amazing poem amongst many) and Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation--two poets playing interesting games with language, creating interesting experiments.

In many ways, that time was the highlight of the day: reading poetry, sipping a cool smoothie on a surprisingly hot day (85 degrees or so), and looking forward to the afternoon.

The craft lectures weren't what I expected, but still enjoyable. Stuart Dischell spent most of his time explicating Chaucer's "To Rosamunde." What a delight to have a poem fully explicated. I'm usually the one doing the explicating to blank faces and dull eyes. I tried to keep my face bright, to show how engaged I was.

Here's a Dischell quote for you: "Without unrequited love, there's no poetry--at least not in England, where it would be immodest to write of requited love."

C. D. Wright was going to talk about the documentary impulse in contemporary poetry. She began by talking about the plight of 4 Chinese poets who had to decide what to do with the Tiananmen Square uprising. She talked about the "rivers of gore that course through the poetic record."

Here's a Mongol poem from many centuries ago:

"Empires rise.
People suffer.
Empires fall.
People suffer."

Here's a quote from C. D. Wright to inspire your writing this week: "Poets must go to a place where listening is possible and violence is not inevitable."

The craft lectures were supposed to last until 4:00, but we were done by 3:15. Part of me felt cheated, but part of me was happy to head home before the rush hour set in, while I could still zip down I95 in the outside lanes, before they transformed into HOV lanes, as they do every afternoon at 4.

I thought about driving back for the Jane Hirshfield and Thomas Lux reading, but I just couldn't face the trip back and the various closures of I95 that were scheduled. Is this how I know I am old, or worn out from a week of work, or simply practical?

The Palm Beach Poetry Festival takes place every January, so you might put it on your radar screen for future years, especially if you're one of the seven academics left in America who enjoys a travel budget.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Give-Away #4--Books about Writing, in Honor of the AWP

In another week, some of us will be packing to travel to the AWP, and some of us will wish we were going, and some of us would happily pay others to go in our stead, and some of us will never get to go because it costs too much and we're writers for Pete's sake and if we have academic jobs, we stopped having travel money years ago, and we don't expect to ever get it back.

I've been looking at my bookshelves, and I'm amazed at how many books I have that are writing instruction books and books of tidbits for certain kinds of writers (like details about 19th century life) and books of inspirational quotes. I'm ready to send these books on to a new home.

So, as with the cookbooks, I'm not going to tell you exactly which books you'll get, although you could leave me something with your comment that would let me know what you'd most like (for example, do you write fiction or do you write poetry? any classics books you've wished you had? that kind of thing). Everybody gets books--unless I get lots and lots of people who comment and I run out of books.

So, it's my own version of the AWP bookfair, except that none of the books are recent, and I'm paying for postage. So, it's probably nothing like the AWP bookfair. I don't know. This year will be my first year at the AWP.

If you want to send me your address (perhaps privately to my e-mail address: kristinlba at (without the spaces of course and the @ symbol instead of the word at), I can get books in the mail to you even more quickly. And those of you who entered the cookbook drawing--everybody wins, but you won't get books if I don't get your mailing address.

We Are All Post-Colonial Now

Today is the birthday of Derek Walcott. For those of us who think of literature in post-colonial terms, we already know the debt we owe this poet. As I've taught 20th century British Lit, I've wondered how on earth future scholars will deal with the late 20th century and beyond, when borders aren't so neatly defined for many of us in the Western world. How will we define national identity? Happily, I will not be one of the ones who has to sort this out. Even if I should ever get a more traditional job teaching in the field in which I was trained, I'll be more likely to teach 19th century British lit, not post-colonial genres.

I remember first encountering Walcott at a in-state conference on infusing world literature into curriculums at 2 year colleges. In hindsight, I was feeling deeply inadequate. I so wanted to be a published author, and I wasn't yet. I was working with a group of creative writers, all of whom got to teach much more interesting classes than I got to teach. I felt both hostile and irritated. But all of that melted away as we looked at some interesting poems. And thus, poetry salvaged a week-end conference for me, and I was able to switch to being my more friendly self and to leave that conference with happy memories and no burned bridges.

Derek Walcott's "A Far Cry from Africa" was one of those poems. Consider these lines:

"Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman."

And that anguished cry at the end:

"How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?"

On today's entry for The Writer's Almanac, we're given this quote from Walcott from his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "For every poet it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History."

May you fall in love with the world anew today, in spite of History.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book Give-Away Especially for NPR folks

This week's book give-away at my theology blog might be of interest even to non-theology people. The books in this week's bundle all have some tie to NPR. I'm getting serious about emptying the bookshelves, so head on over to this post, leave a comment, and you're likely to get some books! You've got a little over 12 more hours.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: We Shall Know You by Your Relationship to Your Office Supplies

Last night, I joked with my husband that what keeps our marriage together is our obsessive love of office supplies. While the rest of the Western world went out on hot dates last night, we spent our Friday going to Office Depot. And we were deliriously happy about it.

Today is the birthday of Lord Byron, whom I can't imagine being happy going to the Office Depot. I imagine Byron scoffing at us, telling us that our life lacks passion.

Compared to Byron's life, perhaps my life does lack passion. Byron's biography often eclipses his literary achievements. Lady Caroline Lamb labeled him "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Here we have another writer having sex with his cousins, which, as the commenter on Poe's birthday points out, was not that unusual in the 19th century. Byron bedded a wide variety of people, and we think of the England of the early 19th century having a Victorian prudery about these things--but they were amazingly tolerant, as long as everyone was discreet.

My students--oh so hip and postmodern--are shocked when I tell them that Byron had a passionate affair with his half sister. Even when I tell them that he didn't know her as a child, that they met as grown-ups, they still cannot wrap their minds around that idea. Byron's contemporaries had the same problem, and he had to leave England.

So, yes, if I compare my sexual history to Byron's, I come off looking like a passionless stick. I haven't gallivanted around the Continent, leaving suicidal abandoned lovers in my wake. I haven't fought in a war for independence (Byron is regarded as a national hero in Greece, for his role in the Greek fight to free themselves from the Ottoman Empire). I've lived almost 10 years longer than Byron lived, but have I produced poetry of the same quality?

My poetry is so different from Byron's that I can't even begin to compare it--we must leave something for future grad students to do, after all. I do wonder what Byron might have accomplished had he had a more stable life. I'm amazed that he wrote all those hundreds of pages while doing all the rest of the things he did in his brief life. Could he have done more?

We might protest that we have no right to expect more. When I teach Byron in the context of a Brit Lit survey, I make the case that his most important contribution to literature is the Byronic hero, who is still alive and with us. How many females fall in love with Byronic heroes? It seems almost like a phase we must all go through. A man tells us, "I'm not good enough for you. You deserve better." Life teaches us that when a man says that, the proper response is to say, "You're right. Good bye. I'm off to look for someone who deserves a jewel like me." Younger woman bend themselves into pretzel shapes to assure Byronic heroes that they deserve no better than Byronic treatment.

I think about my spouse, who once was my college boyfriend, before we got married and settled into a domesticity that might seem dull on the surface level. I once described my boyfriend as a Byronic hero: he smoked, he drove a muscle car and he drove it recklessly, he could drink copious quantities of alcohol that had no effect on him. Ah, adolescence. But he wasn't a Byronic hero in one important way: he had empathy for others. I can't imagine him treating others in the way that Byron treated so many women (and one assumes men, but they don't get much of a post-death voice the way that his female victims have).

It's interesting to go back to the Romantic time period and to rediscover the lives of the women of this period. It's a time of great Scientific discovery, many of them made by women (for a great study of this time period, see The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes). It's interesting to discover how many women tried to write, only to be upended by the tumultuous men to whom they tied their fortunes. When we play the "how might their lives have been different" game, it's irresistible to revisit Mary Shelley. What might she have accomplished if she had not had to spend so much time running from creditors, cleaning up Percy's various messes (including his last one, that untimely death), establishing his posthumous reputation while raising their children all by herself? Yikes!

So, yes, give me a life of quiet Friday nights going to Office Depot and delighting in replenishing the office supplies. Give me a spouse who cheers my successes, a spouse who once gave me as a Christmas present a ream of paper in every color available at Office Depot, a gift which gave me as much joy as diamonds would deliver to some women. Give me a life in a stable country that's not suffering war on its soil. Give me a steady job with benefits, a job which if I plan everything carefully, doesn't leave me too drained to write.

Friday, January 21, 2011

On the Death of Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price died yesterday. I could forgive you if you didn't know him. While I admired him, I've read very few of his books. Every five years or so, I'd pick up one of them and try again. Somehow, they never captured me.

But his life captured me. His dedication to Milton. His support of new writers, some of whom (Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys, for example) went on to be my favorites. And of course, that tumor, and the operation to remove it that left him paralyzed from the waist down for the last 25 years of his life. What inspires me most is how the operation left him physically scarred, but seemed to liberate his writing. He wrote more and a wider variety once he was confined to his wheelchair.

In one of my all-time favorites in the category of books of interviews with writers (Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers; interviews by Dannye Romine Powell and photographs by Jill Krementz), Price ruminates on possible reasons for his post-operation prolific pace: "I've cut so much rival activity out of my life. Teaching and seeing my friends are the only old things that I still do. I've cut out all the chores and going for groceries, and I've cut out almost all the old going-places-to-give-readings stuff. So, I've got all that time."

Later in the interview, he ruminates on the tendency for 20th century writers, the male ones at least, to destroy themselves with liquor, drugs, and sex, unlike nineteenth century writers who "tended to be terribly solid citizens." He points out that the generation before him--Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway most notably--were dead by their early 40's or "had drunk themselves off the air. Their best work was behind them."

He hated this idea "that a writer was supposed to be somebody who was drunk all the time, or drunk at least once a day, and the marriage was disorderly, and the children were on food stamps or whatever."

What does he conclude? He says, "So, I really do try to remind my students, if they don't know, that writing is done by a physical organ called the human brain, and the human brain has needs that are just as ascertainable as the needs of your liver or your kidneys or your heart, and they are basically nutritional. An in terms of nutrition: exercise, rest, self-respect. Which doesn't mean I don't like to have a nice drink now and then."

In later years, it seemed to me that his writing became more tinged with theology--and then there were the works of outright theology (for more on this, see this post on my theology blog). You might expect a man who spends his days teaching Milton to move in this direction. But I think his lasting legacy can be summed up as The New York Times said it best in this article : "At Duke University, where he taught writing and the poetry of Milton for more than half a century, he encouraged students like Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys. Simply by staying in the South and writing about it, he inspired a generation of younger Southern novelists."

That generation of Southern writers turned out to be the one that most inspired me. So, Reynolds Price, thank you. I hope that there's a heaven where you've left that wheelchair behind, where you're finally pain free. I like to think of you and Milton arguing over those age old questions of human freedom and constraint, what we owe each other, and what God owes us.

Those of us left behind on this tired old earth will continue your work of observation and contemplation and writing it all down. We will heed your call to take better care of our physical selves. We will remember what you said: "Let's say that my material is simply everything that's been deposited in my mind--conscious and subconscious--for the last fifty-five years. A fiction writer's--and probably a poet's and dramatist's--success is in direct proportion to his or her ability to open up direct lines to all that material. Not to be frightened by it." We will not be frightened.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ask What Your Poets Can Do . . . Writers and Service

I have service on the brain this morning. Perhaps it's because of the death of Sargent Shriver, who helped create the Peace Corps, who helped with the War on Poverty, who changed our landscape in so many ways. My favorite rock star Op Ed writer Bono writes a lovely tribute in The New York Times today, a tribute which reminds me of how much any of us could do to make the world better, even if we don't have Kennedy family connections.

Maybe I have service on the brain this morning because it's the anniversary of that great speech by John F. Kennedy, the one that instructs "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." E. J. Dionne has a great essay in today's The Washington Post that deconstructs the speech. For those of you teaching Composition, this essay is a keeper. It analyzes why and how the words are so powerful. It also talks about the revision process and shows how revision made the speech stronger. The speech itself is fairly short, and if I designed a module for my Composition class, I'd have students analyze the speech and write an essay about the speech. Then I'd have them read E. J. Dionne's article and task them with finding another outside source about the speech. I'd then have them incorporate a quote or two or three into their original essay. Then, finally, I'd have them write a similar speech: "Imagine that you are elected President of the U. S. or head of your company or . . . write your inaugural speech."

There's my service for the day--an idea for Composition teachers everywhere, a teaching module that covers a variety of competencies that Composition classes must teach (analysis, use of outside sources, documentation . . .).

If you're like most people, you might not think of poets as social justice crusaders or the people who serve. But you would be wrong. Just a look through my blog roll shows how much poets do not just for each other, but for total strangers. Poet January O'Neil is raising money for the Cave Canem Fellows here (a group that supports African American poets). The 32 Poems blog gives us tips for making the most out of our AWP experience here. Kelli Russell Agodon continues her wonderful series about navigating the publishing world by interviewing Jeannine Hall Gailey here where they discuss the benefits of having your book of poems published by a small press or a micropress (go here and here for Kelli's discussion of poetry contests). And then, Sandra Beasley wrote a post on her blog about her experience with publishing; her experience has been different, and so it's a treat to get yet another perspective.

Scoffers might say, "Well, that's very lovely, but how exactly are these activities changing the world?" I could make a long list of the ways that writers have changed the world; I could fairly easily make the case (but it would take a lot of pages, so I shall spare you) that dissident writers helped bring down the Soviet Union, especially in Eastern Europe. And it was the solidarity of other writers that helped the visionaries--writers and others--be bold.

We've been having an argument in this country over whether or not words matter. Of course they matter. Do they move people to kill? Sure, although Jared Loughner killed because of his mental illness.

It's also important to remember how words inspire. We've lost sight of that in recent years. Thinking back to that inauguration of JFK can remind us of what we're doing here with our wordsmithing, of the power of words to call us to our better selves.

And for those of us in despair because our day jobs keep us away from our visionary task of poetry, read this book review of the latest book on the ever elusive Andrew Marvell, who had a variety of civil service type jobs, yet he still managed to write one of the most perfect poems, "To His Coy Mistress."

There are so many ways to serve--some of which will make a distance across generations, some of which will only make a difference for a day. We never know which poems will give comfort, which will inspire social change, which will call people to be their best selves. Our task is to continue writing.

Today is also the birthday of Edward Hirsch, a man who has done much to open the doors of poetry to the regular reading public, a valuable service indeed. If I could write a book like How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, I would be a happy woman.

Go here to read one of my favorite Hirsch poems,"I'm Going to Start Living Like a Mystic."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Say Nevermore to the Edgar Allan Poe Complex

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. Ah, Edgar Allan Poe. Without him, would so many of us still believe that the only way to be an artist is to consume massive quantities of brain altering substances and die in a gutter? In one of her books, Julia Cameron goes so far as to call this belief the Edgar Allan Poe complex. I might have doubted her and accused her of overgeneralizing had I not met so many artists, young and old, who cling to this myth, who refuse to believe that one can be sane and sober and still make great art.

Some of us sneer and want to dismiss Poe, who did, after all, do much to destroy his own reputation. Choose your favorite reputation destroyer: marry your cousin! who's only 14! live in dire poverty! consume massive quantities of alcohol! blow numerous second chances!

In some ways, it's amazing that Poe managed to create as many wonderful works as he did. We sometimes forget about his true accomplishments, so overbearing is his biography. Those of us who love detective novels owe a tremendous debt to Poe. Those of us who love short stories owe a tremendous debt to Poe. Those of us who love the horror genre in all its permutations owe a tremendous debt to Poe.

I've even met many more students than I would have thought possible who adore Poe's poetry. I find his meter wrecks his poetry for me; it's very much from an older century. But would I sell my soul to produce something like "The Raven," which has a staying power which seems beyond explanation?

Well, maybe not my soul. But I have yet to meet an artist in any genre who doesn't have that particular daydream. Of course we all long to create that amazing work that grips generation after generation. And perhaps that's what drives us to consume those quantities of soothing substances as we deal with the overwhelming anxiety that our desire for timelessness creates.

But as Julia Cameron and many others remind us, those substances will undo our creativity in the end, and in some cases, destroy our very lives. Poe's life is the ultimate cautionary tale for artists who flirt with substance abuse.

The only cure for the anxiety of the artist is to keep creating.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Inspiration Cards, Soul Cards: My Adventures in Collage

I've had a fun 3 day week-end working in collage. My spouse and I decided to keep our art supplies out for the whole week-end, which made it easy to move back and forth between collaging and our other activities. I'd live like this day in and day out if I could, but he doesn't have the same mess/clutter tolerance that I do.

I also did some cards that tended towards the spiritual, which I really fell in love with. I decided to post those here on my theology blog, since this posting is already quite long.

If I had to choose one card in this post that's my favorite, it would be the one below, with this reminder: "Treat yourself well. Every day."

I couldn't get a non-blurry shot of the card below.

The card below also has an important message for me. Readers of this blog may have picked up on my tendency to fret a lot, often about events that don't come to pass, while other events blindside me and leave me gobsmacked. I continue to need to remember to relax.

The images in the card below should be obvious. I love the bottle tree in the middle of the card.

Replenishment! It's what we all need.

I found myself collecting images of snow and glaciers and ice. What can it mean? Snow envy?

You are probably discerning some themes here.

In the card below, I love the typewriter keys. I love the glass star. I love the idea of an asylum for my soul.

I began on Friday night with the idea that I'd make poetry inspiration cards. Below is the "Diving Into the Wreck" card. My spouse has lots of SCUBA magazines. I could make these kind of inspiration cards from now to doomsday--but would they start to look the same after awhile?

Below you'll see a card I call the Poetry Goddess card.

May we all, male and female, find our inner poetry goddesses, our deep springs of inspiration, the words that we need to hear.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Things We Do for Love

--For those of you who came here hoping for MLK insights, I'll link you to some past posts. This one has a poem, this one talks about students' misperceptions of when King lived, and this one gives you some quotes.

--For those of you who came here thinking I'd have watched the Golden Globes and have an opinion, keep searching. I have never watched those kind of award shows.

--Wait, I just lied. I used to watch the Tony awards obsessively, to the point of taking notes and trying to determine how to get ready for my upcoming career on Broadway. Clearly, I should have taken better notes.

--I did spend part of yesterday watching Every Little Step, the documentary about the original making of A Chorus Line and the recent revival of the show. I loved it. LOVED IT. I wept. I wanted to dance. I wept some more. I sang all of the songs, and I kept singing, even if we didn't get the whole song in the movie. If I'm ever held prisoner anywhere, I intend to sing show tunes. In that way I will torment my captors. They will either kill me or let me go.

--Would I have loved that movie so much if I was not a drama geek or if I didn't still dream about running away to New York City to make my fame and fortune in some artistic venue? Probably. As a creative person, I'm always intrigued by the journeys of others. Now if I was the kind of person who only liked trashy humor, no, I wouldn't have liked the movie.

--I also did more collaging (pictures coming soon). My spouse and I spent a bit of time wondering if anyone could make a living doing visual arts because we were having such fun.

--I already know the answer to this. A few years ago, I was having a fabulous time making baby quilts, and I wanted to quit my teaching job and launch a career making baby quilts full-time. Before I did anything precipitous, I did some calculations and determined it simply wasn't possible to make all the quilts I'd need to sell to make even the minimum amount of money I needed (and I never did figure out how I'd pay for health insurance). Even if I managed to sew 12 hours a day, I wouldn't get it all done.

--And then there's the matter of desire. There's simply not much that I like to do well enough to do it for 12 hours a day, day after day. NOTHING. Well, maybe being a gourmet food and wine taster--but for 12 hours a day? Probably not--and if I could pull it off, I'd gain 500 pounds. As my little nephew would say, "And nobody wants that!"

--Today's forecast is for storms, lightning, and wind. I've been to the grocery store so that I don't have to leave the house again if the weather gets really bad. I've got a pot roast, an endeavor I only go through a few times a year. I'll pull out my grandmother's Magnalite roasting pan and fill it full of potatoes, carrots, onion, and a hunk of beef. I will try not to worry about the fact that I'm paying less for beef than I ever have and more for potatoes than I ever have--how is this possible?

--While the pot roast cooks, I'll collage some more and perhaps write a poem that weaves big bad wolves and modern workplaces and the idea of family. Am I the only one who grows weary of corporations who declare that we're all a big, happy family? Am I the only one who thinks in terms of dysfunction when being told how big and happy the work family is, even as we're downsizing (or regionalizing) and shipping jobs to other countries and being told we'll all be doing more with less?

--If I'm ever downsized, I'm headed for the big lights and the big city. Or maybe a farm to call my own, where I can finally understand food prices in reference to labor.

--And here's one more thing to strike terror in your heart: Baby Doc Duvalier has returned to Haiti. On NPR's Morning Edition, Cokie Roberts said that his return was a worse crisis than the outbreak of cholera.

--At least no one has said that I'm worse for my country than a cholera outbreak.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Great Cookbook Give-Away

Well, I'm in a mood to accelerate the giving away of books. So, everyone who leaves a comment will get at least 2 cookbooks. In your comment, you could tell me which kind of food you like, to ensure that everyone gets a useful cookbook. Be forewarned that some of them may be well-used and some of them may be over 2 decades old.

I do reserve the right to change the rules, should something strange happen and 50 people show up to leave comments (I don't have that many books). Should that happen, I'll stop at whatever point I run out of cookbooks. This book give-away ends Sunday, Jan. 23 at 2:00 p.m.
First come, first served, so to speak. Go ahead and leave a comment!

Revisiting the late 70's with "Breaking Away," "A Star is Born," and "A Chorus Line"

Once upon a time, I'd have told you that the movie Breaking Away was one of my all-time favorite movies. And then, I developed passionate attachments to other movies and the decades marched by, and I didn't think about this movie much. But this week, when the director died, I thought about it again, and I read a blogpost which extolled the virtues of this movie and mentioned that we can stream it via Netflix. Since I so rarely find movies I want to watch that I can stream on Netflix, I tucked away that nugget of information.

Yesterday, after a wonderful afternoon of collaging (photos tomorrow!), we settled in to watch a movie. I suggested Breaking Away. I expected my spouse to resist, since he usually refuses to watch movies he's seen before (which leads us to settle for all sorts of second and third--and lower!!!--rate movies, since at least we haven't seen them before--insert heavy sigh here). To my surprise, he agreed.

I often go back to watch movies that once were my all-time favorites only to be left shaking my head and wondering what on earth once moved me so profoundly. Happily, our experience with Breaking Away was just the opposite. I was happily surprised to see how well the film holds up. It's well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed. A great viewing experience.

It's also an interesting window back in time. I loved seeing the old haircuts, the old clothes, the old cars. Interesting to watch Dennis Quaid back when he was a teenager. Interesting to view all the variety in teen-age bodies in this film. You don't see that much in current films, where women look like concentration camp victims with grossly out of proportion breasts and men all look hard and ripped and muscled out of proportion.

Breaking Away has a lot to say about class, and what it has to say is still relevant to us. We see high school graduates with very few options in terms of jobs. We see the conflicts between the town kids and the college kids, who are richer and more entitled. There are scenes of a quarry, scenes that we should view when we lament how manufacturing has left our shores. While I, too, regret the loss of those jobs that gave many a man a middle-class paycheck and benefits, I think it's important not to forget that it was often hard, dirty work that left many a man dead early.

I also loved that the middle-aged parents of the teenagers have a sex life. Wow! Married people who still desire each other after at least 20 years together. That, too, is a message you don't see often in today's films. And when you do see it, it's often played for laughs, like the movie It's Complicated. And in that movie, the couple was reuniting--they weren't still together.

I had similar reactions to A Star is Born, which we also watched last night. I was delighted with the wide variety of women's bodies, bodies that had curves. I thought that the movie still had relevance to modern audiences, in terms of exploring creativity and success and all the ways that success can decimate the creative purpose. Like Breaking Away, one of the subthemes was how we deal with the fact that our idols have very human frailties.

I remember watching A Star is Born when it came on network television in late 1979 (so, yes, it was somewhat sanitized). I dug out my mom's soundtrack, and we spent a gloomy Sunday afternoon listening to it. I loved the more rocking songs, while she loved the Streisand numbers. I had no idea of Kristofferson's extensive songwriting experience, and it would be years before I explored the country music and roots music that led me back to Johnny Cash and Kristofferson. In my own adolescence, I was simply a sucker for a good love story. So was my mom. I have many happy memories of adolescence that revolve around my mom and me and popular culture. At the same time that we spent a week-end watching A Star is Born and listening to the soundtrack, we watched the PBS series The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I loved that series so much that it would be years before I realized that Miss Brodie was really a destructive force; I'm embarrassed to admit that it took some analysis from a grad school professor before I could really see that character anew.

Today, I plan to collage some more and end the day watching Every Little Step, a documentary about the revival of A Chorus Line (review here and here). I've loved this musical since my mom first got the soundtrack for Christmas in 1977. My sister and I memorized the whole album, and in 1979, my parents took us to Atlanta to see the show at the Fox Theatre, where we also saw Godspell in 1973 (we lived in Montgomery Alabama at the time, and if you wanted to see Broadway shows, you went to Atlanta--I have no doubt that travelling Broadway shows now make their way into Alabama). In 2009, went to see the touring revival of this show, and I wrote about that experience in this post.

I still find myself haunted by some of the lines of this musical: "Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty; pretty is what it's about. I never met anyone who was different, who couldn't figure that out" (ouch--yet true, at least in adolescence); "I'm feeling nothing."; "I really need this job; please God I need this job; I've got to get this job."

I don't want to tell you how many times I find myself singing silently: "Who am I anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don't know."

I count myself lucky to have a spouse who will endulge me (and accompany me!) in my ramblings back through the landscapes of my youth. But in some ways, they're his landscapes too. After all, we met in college; I was 18, he was about to turn 19. We spent intense times talking about all the pop culture stuff that had shaped us. Even though he had never seen the stage version of A Chorus Line until we saw it together in 2009, he probably felt like he had, since he had heard me talk about it so much--and of course, there was the movie version, but let us not talk about that particular disappointment.

As a grown up person at a non-performing arts school, I find it intriguing that I continue to have so many conversations with students who are torn between an education that might net a career and a rare chance at life in the performing arts. Is it my former drama geek self that they sense? Or do they have these conversations with anyone who will sit still and indulge them? I remember one student recently who talked about how intensely he missed ballet, but he was trying to be sensible. And on his way out of my office he did this perfect plie and then, with an amazing jete, he disappeared around the corner.

I'm lucky that I can pursue my artistic passions and still keep my day job. I am haunted by the possibility that I chose these particular passions precisely because I can pursue them without making difficult choices. People do make a living as actors. It's almost impossible to make a living writing poetry alone.

Let me end by reminding myself of that consoling conclusion to the essay I wrote two years ago: "But I'll take a page out of the songbook: "Won't regret, can't forget, what I did for love." I'm lucky that I've been able to do what I love: college work in drama, journalism, radio; graduate work in British literature; a wide variety of teaching work; time to craft poems, stories, and a variety of types of writing. If I had a chance to do it all over again, I'd sign right up!"

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last 22 Hours to Enter Book Drawing

In case you've missed it, I'm holding a book drawing tomorrow (and every Sunday that I'm near a computer) both at this blog and at my theology blog. You've still got 22 hours to enter. I'll draw the lucky winners at 2 p.m. tomorrow. If you're the lucky winner, you'll get the book plus a surprise book.

To enter the drawing for Flirting with Monasticism: Finding God on Ancient Paths, go here and leave a comment.

To enter the drawing for Exiles, go here and leave a comment.

And come back to both sites tomorrow for the next books to be given away! I'm leaning towards a cookbook extravaganza for the Creativity blog . . . everyone gets pairs of cookbooks until they run out.

Poetry Inspiration Cards--My Plans for a Three Day Week-end

Kelli calls them "soul cards." Sandy calls them "inspiration cards." Almost a year ago, I wrote about the process here, which gives you links to both Sandy's and Kelli's postings on their blogs. One of my 2011 goals is to do more with collage, and during several days, I've been mentally playing with designs of cards I want to create this week-end.

Much to my surprise and delight, when I got home yesterday to find that my spouse has been thinking the same thing. He had pulled out cigar boxes that he's been collecting with the idea that we'd cover them with images, fabric, and paper. So, last night I created 2 cards!

Perhaps we've both been thinking along the same lines because a week ago, when shopping for fabric, we discovered card stock that was on sale, so we bought quite a supply. It claimed to be Christmas card stock or winter card stock, but it's plain colors, with interesting textures (I bought 2 collections that are glittery!).

I not only want to create cards, but photograph them and see if printing them changes them. Or to make alternate cards with some of the images. Or to see if I can reproduce them, so I can share them more widely.

I've checked out a book on the latest version of PhotoShop, so if I got really ambitious, I could change the images in all sorts of ways. My artist brain doesn't seem to work that way though. I'm that woman who never rearranges the furniture. I'm the student who sits in the same seat as the one she chose the first night. I'm the writer who resists revision because she falls in love with the original decisions.

I'm also the technology-resistant person who is afraid of complex computer programs until she gets to know them.

Yes, I will post photos. Stay tuned.

And yes, I realize that it's MLK week-end, and that national leaders have determined that this week-end should be one of service.

As a Lutheran and a social justice person, these declarations make me grumpy. Every week should be devoted to social justice, and that's one of my spiritual goals, to make sure I do some work of social justice and/or charity each week (beyond giving money, which is a different spiritual goal; for more on my 2011 spiritual goals, go here).

This week-end, I'll be cutting out images for cards. I'll be sharing them. Maybe I'll write a letter to a legislator. Maybe I'll take some goodies to a recuperating friend. I'll contribute some money to a just cause. I'll read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King and feel renewed.

Here are some of his words for you: "Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men." (from today's post on The Writer's Almanac)

Those words were written almost half a century ago--remarkable how timeless they are!

The work we do as artists, whether creating collages or poems or nourishing meals or puppet shows or _______________ (fill in that blank with your favorites), is so important. It is our work that helps people envision a world that they wouldn't have been able to imagine otherwise. It is our work that calls out to the side of people who love truth and beauty. It is our mission to bring comfort or to bring discomfort, so as to spur people to change.

The work of social justice often begins in the dreams of artists. Dream big!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Linkage

--For those of you wondering if those book contests are worth it, head on over to this post at Kelli's blog. It's a thoughtful exploration of why those fees may not be so bad, along with a list of publishers/contests/presses that deserve our support.

--You still have time to be entered in two drawings that I'm conducting on Sunday. Head here to connect to links that will take you to each drawing. And at this post, some thoughts on compassion from Karen Armstrong, along with a link to the complete interview.

--Kathleen's post will make you want to read Abide with Me. She's part of a book club that sounds like every reader's dream book club. Ah, to meet with like-minded people, with treats that include wine!

--Leslie's post will make you yearn for an MFA residency to call your own.

--If you wonder what my voice sounds like, you can go to this post, where I read Collin Kelley's wonderful poem, "Wonder Woman." I must warn you that I'm not thrilled with the sound quality. In fact, it was this recording that made me form one of my 2011 writer's resolutions to learn to make better recordings. It's not horrible, but it just doesn't sound as good as the rest of the recordings by the Voice Alpha gang. Every day this week, you can hear a different one of us read the poem; today, Collin Kelley reads. It's interesting to compare the voice of the author to the voices of everyone else.

--Carolee reminds us all of why we blog in this post.

Well, it's off to spin class, then work. I know that many schools have gone to a 4 day work week to conserve money, and I know that many of you are at home today, drafting poems and keeping snow bound children/pets amused. Alas, I'm back to my rigorous schedule of weekly Friday meetings. I'm trying to keep my spirits up by reminding myself that many of my favorite poems of the last few years would not have happened had I not had this schedule of weekly meetings.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Luxurious (and Easy and Nutritious) Sweetness

This week is the kind of week where we need comfort food. But if you're like me, you're trying to get back to more nutritious, judicious eating. But you can have your comfort food and not undo your nutritional plans if you're careful.

For me, custard is comfort food (one of many kinds of comfort food). My mom only made it for us when we were sick, and she told us about her mom only making it when she was sick.

I remember having a wonderful week-end with my spouse in Columbia, South Carolina when he was in grad school, and I was living and working 4 days a week in the Charleston area, 90 miles away. One day, I found myself craving flan, probably because we had shared a flan over the week-end.

I looked at my various recipe books and decided to give it a try. It was surprisingly easy. Even though the recipe says to eat it chilled, I ate about half of it right out of the oven. As I ate, I thought about how similar comfort foods are across cultures--some cultures, at least. While my Hispanic friends share my love of flan, my Asian immigrant friends have a whole different comfort food ethos.

Flan seems intimidating, but it can be really easy. The most important thing to remember is not to touch the hot sugar syrup; in other words, don't lick that spoon!

If you want to make it low fat, go for the skim, 1% or 2% milk. If you want a lower sugar content, adjust down. If you're short an egg, just add a bit more milk. In other words, this recipe is really flexible.


3 C. milk (works with any combination of whole, 2%, cream, skim, half and half)
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
½ C. sugar (any sweetener will likely work; one recipe calls for ¼ C. maple syrup)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Whisk the above into a custard.

Place ½ C. sugar into a heavy saucepan and slowly heat the sugar until it starts to melt, bubble, and turn into a smooth, light brown syrup (no need to stir much). DON’T LET THE HOT SYRUP TOUCH YOUR SKIN OR MOUTH!!!

Quickly pour the syrup into a greased soufflé dish or individual greased custard cups. Then pour the custard into the dish (or custard cups). Place into a larger pan (1 or 2 9x13 inch pans work well) and put into a 350 degree oven. When the pan is in place in the oven, pour water into the pan around the dish(es), being careful not to get water in the custard.

Bake for 50 minutes until set. Let the soufflé dish (or custard cups) cool. When cool, unmold by running a knife around the edge and inverting into a rimmed serving dish or bowls. Chill.

For caramel coated surfaces: soak in hot water to dissolve the caramel before trying to clean.

Adopted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Community Colleges and Mentally Ill Students

Finally, I'm seeing some discussion of the fact that Jared Loughner was mentally ill. He likely was not influenced by the Tea Party or any other living Republicans, and as I've said before, I doubt that he was influenced by his reading choices either. I've had students who were mentally ill and students who were mentally stable--very few of them read anything beyond text messages.

Diane Rehm did a very good show yesterday on these issues, but I'm still intrigued by some of the comments in other various media outlets. I'm fascinated by how many people who assume that Loughner's community college had some mental health resources, places where he could have gone to get care. Are you kidding me? One of the reasons that community colleges are so inexpensive is the lack of these kind of services.

In fact, I've taught in a wide variety of settings, and only the largest universities have mental health services--and even then, those centers are often staffed by grad students. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but let's not kid ourselves about the level of care available. When I was in grad school, we could go to the campus service to talk about our anxieties and depression, but if we suffered severe illness, such as schizophrenia, I'm not sure how the mental health service would have handled that.

At the community colleges where I've worked, a far more useful social service would have been a day care center that was open during the entire time the college offered classes. But again, let's be honest with each other. Adding that very valuable service would likely increase the cost for students and perhaps exclude the single parents who most need training and education.

You might ask why there's not more state funding. Legislators have liked community colleges because they don't cost as much to run as the larger universities. And now, there's not much funding for anyone, no matter how cheaply they can provide education.

I've also heard commentators asking why Loughner's teachers didn't do more. But what would you have them do? Some commentators say that teachers should have alerted someone, but from what I can tell, they did--numerous times. Often when teachers report odd behavior, there's not much the school can do. And the ADA makes the situation more tricky than it once was.

On most college campuses, adolescents comprise the majority of students. It's hard to distinguish mental illness from typical adolescent behavior. I've had many students where I wondered if they needed medical intervention or just the patience required for them to outgrow whatever phase they were in. And even had I, or the administration, or the parents, or the police decided that a student needed medical intervention, it can be quite impossible to force the mentally ill to seek treatment. And again, the discussion circles back to money. Who will pay for the treatment, especially in these economic hard times when local, state, and federal governments are making tough choices?

But most heartbreaking to me is the accusation that the parents should have done more. Again, what could they have done? The child was not a minor--and as one of the guests on the Diane Rehm show points out, even parents of minor children don't have many options. And if there's no health insurance, there are even fewer options.

I have no answers. But I'm glad that we seem to be moving beyond the rather simplistic discussion of heated political rhetoric as the cause of this young man's breakdown.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Unlikable Characters and All the Ways We Betray Each Other

So far, 2011 has been the year of unlikable characters in my fiction reading. I didn't plan it this way. And if the characters hadn't been so extremely repugnant, I might not have even noticed. But now I feel like one of my students. I want to howl, "Doesn't anybody write about anything HAPPY?!!"

If Louise Erdrich's book Shadow Tag hadn't ended up on The New York Times Notable Books of 2010, I might not have read it. When it first came out, I read the reviews which gave me enough of a sense of the plot that I thought, ooh, yuck. And now I've read the book, and I still say, "Ooh, yuck."

It's about a woman who's keeping multiple diaries to deceive her husband, who is a painter who specializes in painting her nude in variously compromising positions, in paintings that depict the mistreatment of Native Americans. This book could have been an interesting meditation on identity and how we construct it, and indeed, the book does often come back to that theme. But the two main characters are so repugnant, and they behave so brutally, that it's tough to read the book. There's not much in the characters to like. Their children are far more interesting, but they don't get much time.

My first book of the new year (and last book of the old year) was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which is also full of repugnant characters. But they're more well-rounded, which means we see their redeeming qualities, limited as some of them are. And the reader is rewarded with social satire and keen dissections of modern life and bits of truly funny writing.

I'm also reading Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which is also full of reprehensible characters. But I'm not reading that book for the characters. I'm reading it for the stunt, which bears more resemblance to music or drama improv, than a novel. Mason retells the plot of The Odyssey in any number of ways; for example, in one story, Achilles is a golem. It's intriguing and it appeals to my intellect, but I'm reading more to see what Mason will do next, not to see what happens.

I'm in the mood for something sunnier. It doesn't have to be uplifting. I don't need pablum. But I'm ready for different subject matter than all the ways that we betray each other. Perhaps I'll read Richard Powers' Generosity: An Enhancement. It's a work of a certain kind of science fiction, a work which asks how our lives might change if science could identify the genetic basis of happiness.

Will it betray me too? Perhaps. After all, novels aren't very interesting when everything is going swimmingly. No conflict, no plot, my beloved undergraduate English professor told us. My obnoxious, late adolescent self declared that oh yes you could too have a story with no conflict. She challenged me to find one. I've been searching ever since, and now, twenty-five years later, I'm willing to say that she was right.

Monday, January 10, 2011

You, Sir, Are No Atticus Finch; You, Sir, Need Some Psychotropic Help

Yesterday morning, I read an article in The Washington Post about Jared Loughner, the college dropout who shot so many people in Arizona. It described a YouTube profile which listed his favorite books. The usual suspects were there: The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. I haven't read Hitler's book, but I've read Marx, and taught Marx, and so far, the words of Marx have moved my students towards sleep, not gun violence.

I was struck by the other books listed: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Aesop's Fables--what a strange assortment. But almost immediately, I thought, I wonder if he actually read any of these or if these are just the books he can remember or the books that he feels like he ought to have read.

I thought of the world of Atticus Finch. I think that Scout is one of the greatest characters of all time, and her father certainly is a wonder. With To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote a book of such perfection that it's no wonder she never wrote another. If that book really was Jared Loughner's favorite, if the world of Atticus and Scout really spoke to him, could he have done what he did? In the world of Atticus, bullets are reserved for rabid dogs; other disputes are solved in court.

Of course, my thinking presupposes a rational reading mind, and it's clear from reading about Jared Loughner that this man had some mental health issues. Those of you who don't teach in the college trenches might try to console yourself by seeing him as a rare specimen, but I'm here to tell you that he's not. Those of you in the world of politics or talk about politics may try to see him as evidence of rhetoric gone too far, but I'm fairly sure it wasn't right wing rhetoric that moved Jared Loughner to violence. It wasn't thinking of any kind, whether the thinking that inspires divisive political rhetoric or the thinking that inspires a great American novel or the thinking that discovers economic injustice.

The boy was clearly not thinking clearly. He wrote angry rants that declared that his community college was illegal according to the U.S. Constitution. He claimed that the government is trying to control people by having grammar rules. This is not the evidence of a mind led astray by the Tea Party. This is the evidence of a brain that needs some psychotropic help.

Lots of minds and pens are calling for an end of angry talk, and that would be great. But perhaps we might also talk about the mental health crisis gripping the country. I think of the teachers of Jared Loughner who probably knew that something was deeply wrong with the student, but who held their collective breath and hoped that they never faced him in a hail of bullets in the classroom. I think of the brave school administrators who forced him to drop out of community college until he got some help (but only after campus police had to intervene 5 times in situations that involved him behaving so disruptively that police were called). I think of his parents, who, even if they had health insurance, probably didn't have much in the way of mental health options--and once he wasn't in school anymore, those services wouldn't have been covered anyway (the new health care law changes that situation, and that portion went into effect this month, as I understand it).

The sad fact remains that even if completely revamp our health care system so that we pay as much attention to mental health as to other types of health, it can still be almost impossibly hard to force the mentally afflicted to get some help. I don't have any brilliant suggestions. But a discussion about the mental health part of the puzzle would be perhaps far more productive than the arguing about 2nd Amendment rights and partisanship and crude political drawings that put people and places in crosshairs. Let's talk about our national priorities that let students like Jared Loughner slip through all sorts of cracks. Let's talk about whether or not we could make some strides towards stabilizing the health--mental, physical, economic--of our young people, so that shooting weapons in a parking lot doesn't seem like the only viable option.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

And the winner is . . . And the next book is . . .

Michael is the lucky winner of the first book give-away. But happily, I have lots of other books to give away. So check back each and every Sunday (or the occasional Monday/Saturday) for your chance to enter and win.

And now, on to the next book, which is the novel Exiles, by Ron Hansen. It's the story of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the doomed nuns who drowned on the steamship Deutschland (and of course, the Hopkins poem about the event). It's a great pick for folks who love Brit Lit, for folks who are curious about sprung rhythm, for folks who love the 19th century, for folks with a curiosity about nuns, especially the nuns who set off to colonize . . . oh, it's a great pick for everyone. And you get a surprise book too!

Leave a comment, and I'll enter you into a drawing for this book. In one week, I'll draw a name, and if you're the lucky person, I'll contact you and mail you not only this book, but a surprise book too.

What Can Poets Learn from the Dave Matthews Band?

Yesterday, my contact lenses irritated me so much that I took them out early. I said, "If these lenses still feel this bad tomorrow, I'm throwing them away a week early." I took a minute to think about what I've said. A pair of contact lenses costs less than most of the bottles of wine that I buy. Why am I so reluctant to throw them away?

It goes back to how much they used to cost. They used to be hundreds of dollars a pair, so expensive that you might insure them. Now, we just toss them away. But my brain hasn't caught up.

Likewise with concert tickets. When I went to the first concert that I paid for (Journey, with Loverboy opening), I paid $9. So, forever in my head, a rock concert ticket should cost around $10.

Well, those days are over. An article in today's The Washington Post notes that the Dave Matthews Band keeps its tickets cheap, just under $60 a ticket, while an Aerosmith concert ticket will set you back over $90. Yikes.

However, the article had other interesting implications, aside from showing me how far behind the times I am. It explored the Dave Matthews Band and how it tours a lot, keeps costs low, and offers fans lots of value for their dollar, even aside from the cheap tickets. There's a fan club and merchandise and lots of cheap to make videos of concerts. They offer members of the fan club all sorts of special deals, which makes the fan club membership fee attractive. A Dave Matthews Band concert is different each time, because although the song set stays the same, the jam sessions change.

The article shows how the Dave Matthews Band and the Grateful Dead are similar, mostly in this important point, that they "courted their fans, treating the concert like a service rather than a commodity and their fans like members of a community rather buyers of a product."

Throughout the article, I thought that poets who aren't already doing similar things should be taking notes. If we're not using the Internet, it's time to start thinking about dipping our toes in Internet waters. If we have an Internet presence, we should make sure we're using it to its full capacity. Here's my guilty confession: although I blog almost daily, I don't always keep my web site as up to date as it should be. It's never horribly out of date, unlike those sites where you go and you can tell that no one has updated it since 2008. But I should make a weekly appointment to update it.

I'm probably not the only poet who has trouble thinking of myself as having fans. Why is it hard for me to let people know I've got a book coming out? Why is it hard to ask people to buy the book? We should act more like people who are helping to shape a community, not like solitary poets locked up in our isolated rooms.

How would our behavior change if we thought of ourselves as community builders, in addition to being poets? How can we make it worthwhile for readers to also be our fans? What would it take to create such loyal fans that readers might follow us around the country?