Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Introducing Book Trailer #2: Your Input Needed

Soon, I'm off to St. Petersburg for the College English Association Conference. While I'm driving across the Sunshine State, I thought you might like to look at a rough draft of Book Trailer #2.

I'm most concerned with the last frame. I still haven't figured out a way to make music fade in and out, so I've just let the music play with the ordering information on a black screen. I suspect it goes on too long, but is that better than having the music come to a screeching and non-natural halt? Would it be better if the images behind ordering information changed? It certainly gives people enough of a chance to cut and paste into a browser window, which worried me about the first book trailer.

So, let me know what you think--no guarantees that I can fix it, but I'll try. I love creating these, but I'm often frustrated at what I still don't know about what the program can do.

I won't be gone long; on Friday, I'll unveil my contribution to Kelli's Big Poetry Giveaway!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Coping in the Half Light

Last night, we went out with friends to a French restaurant--the entrees were buy one, get one free, and each bottle of wine was half price. Amazing. Again, one wonders, why does anyone ever pay full price (for clothes, for dinners, for anything, really)? I suppose one reason is that date night is traditionally Saturday, when restaurants charge full price. This is why I can never re-enter the dating life (well, this and my spouse): I would invite people out on Monday, when things are cheaper, and I can afford an extra bottle of wine and dessert too! While we were eating, apocalyptic rains swept through the region. It seems even more apocalyptic since we're in the dry season, and we don't usually have flooding rains in March. Of course, our weather has shifted back into summer, so maybe I shouldn't have found it so unusual.

This morning, some of the lights in my study aren't working, but I'm too afraid of the circuit breaker box and the dark laundry room (which is attached to the house, but I have to go outside to get to it, and there's always the possibility of animals in the dark) to try to fix it. I'm sitting in the study thinking, there's enough light to get done what needs to get done. I can cope with this amount of light.

It's a fitting metaphor for the publishing ideas that have been in my brain in the last few weeks. At one point, I'd have said that I didn't have enough knowledge and/or skills to do anything more with publishing than the traditional, let the publisher handle everything route. But lately, I'm thinking that there might be enough light for us to consider other options.

The ever-wonderful Nic Sebastian has a post that links to her nanopress experience. There's lots to read, especially if you work through the links and the comments, which you should.

What I love most about this post is that she reminds us that we don't have to choose one publishing format. If we control our work, if we're our own publisher, we can publish in all formats at once: paper, e-readers of all sorts, PDF files for those of us who don't have e-readers,CDs. Why not do them all? Nic also offers stats, which she promises to update, which tells us how many readers are choosing which formats.

The whole e-publishing trajectory is dizzying. Last week, I also came across this interview, via Jane Friedman's blog. It asks the question, "What would convince you to walk away from a half million dollar advance from a big publisher?" It's got very interesting thoughts about electronic rights and why we as writers shouldn't just be giving them away (or letting the publisher take the share that's so much more huge that we may as well just be giving them away).

I hear some snide remarks out there. You might be saying, "Yeah, but you're a poet. No one's making big bucks on you."

Perhaps. But like many poets, I also write in other genres, and I have hopes for other writing projects. For example, I have lots of creative writing exercises which also can translate well into the Composition classroom. And since so many of us are going to be teaching endless Composition classes, even though we went to MFA programs hoping to teach Creative Writing, I think there could be a market.

So, in older days, I'd have started scouting for a publisher. But now, I'm wondering if self-publishing might not be a smarter way to go.

On a similar note, I'd be interested in interviewing people, poets and women especially, about their creative processes. I'd love to publish these on my blog, and later, I'd like to collect them all. Would people pay for a collection (either electronic or paper) if it was all available online? If they went online, it would take a lot of clicking to get to all the various interviews. Would people pay a few dollars for the convenience of having all the interviews already assembled?

I set the price at a few dollars in the above paragraph because there's a school of thought that people will buy all sorts of things if the price is between 99 cents and a few dollars. Once you get into the $8 range and above, people aren't as likely to hit that purchase button. Is this dynamic similar to the French restaurant dynamic? At half-price prices, I'll go to the restaurant, but charge me full price, and I'll cook at home. And where does giving our work away for free fit in? That's a topic for a different post, since this one is getting long.

I'm also aware that I'm writing this during the week where The New York Times begins its own experiment with charging fees. If they weren't charging fees, I'd link to a story that I saw on Sunday about a best-selling, self-publishing (via e-books) author who writes for young adults. She's just decided to take an offer from a mainstream publisher (St. Martin's?)--she says she was spending over 40 hours a week doing all the things that her publisher will now do (book design, cover choices, dealing with the technology). She wants that time to write.

Of course, many of us won't face these choices; many of us won't have publishers beating down our doors and trying to outbid each other as they compete for our work. Insert a heavy sigh here.

I've always thought about self-publishing, even when it wasn't as easy, even when the technology wasn't there. I've always been intrigued by the numbers of writers who self-published or formed themselves into publishing collectives. Today, Walt Whitman is generally considered to be one of our great American writers, but we wouldn't know about him if he hadn't believed in himself enough to self-publish. What other poets and writers might we be losing? In what ways do we need to be brave and believe in our own work and worth? How do we best harness the technology?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Crunch Time

I will write more as the week progresses, except for when I'm writing less. On Thursday, I'm presenting a paper at the College English Association conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. My presentation is at 8:00 a.m., so I'll head across the state on Wednesday, leaving my spouse behind to hold down the South Florida fort. I plan to give more of a talk than to read a paper. I hate those conferences when people read their 10 page papers in a monotone voice. I'm discussing the ways that modern female poets use fairy tales, which surprisingly, hasn't changed as much as I thought it might have. Not as much exploration of workplace issues using fairy tales. Even in my own work, I tend to use mythology when talking about the workplace, fairy tales when exploring relationship issues. Is this a wider trend than me? Still thinking about that one.

Friday is also when I have a big writing due date: I've been commissioned to write 7 meditations like the kind that I write weekly for my theology blog (go here for an example). I'm not anticipating problems, except that the meditations needed for the project are shorter than what I usually write. It's always a good exercise for me to see what's most essential, to boil down, to condense.

But first things first: spin class, then checking in at work, which will include a training session on student appeals. One of our deans will be absent next week, and I'll be trying to fill his shoes, hearing from students who want to appeal their dismissal. It's not a simple matter of hearing their sad tales of woe. There's a worksheet, where we determine whether or not they'll actually be able to get back on track. Some students have gone so far astray that it simply isn't possible for them to ever meet graduation requirements.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Varicolored Vagendas

First, let me give Kathleen Kirk full credit for this word, which I saw her use in this post, which comes from the show Fringe. What a cool word.

I thought of it again last night as my friend, her teenage daughter, and I went to see a college production of The Vagina Monologues. My friend and I had seen it before, but her daughter hadn't. Her daughter is a drama person--the kind of teenager who can argue about which Shakespeare comedy is overrated, the kind who shapes the drama troupe. She said, "I don't know what to expect. It's just monologues?" At the end, I could tell she needed some time to ponder what she had just seen, but she said, as if to reassure us, "I didn't dislike it."

I tried to think about what it would be like to see the play if I hadn't been steeped in several decades of feminist theory. I wonder if seeing the play is a similar experience to the day I discovered Our Bodies, Ourselves on the shelves of my college library. I was both shocked and thrilled that people would discuss such things in public.

Of course, that was before the Internet became as widespread. Heck, I knew people who still couldn't get cable, even if they wanted to afford it! I really am a dinosaur.

I loved being back on a college campus that had students who wanted to put on a play. Long ago, I used to teach at that campus--best teaching job ever, except that I was an adjunct, so I didn't have job security or much pay. But I taught upper-level British Lit classes to students who were English majors. Fantastic! It's the only time I've taught students who came to class having read the work--sometimes twice!

But then I got my full-time job, and it became increasingly difficult to teach at both places, just from a scheduling point of view. One was on a semester system, one on a quarter. One had classes that met two or three times a week, one had classes that met once a week for 3 hours at a time. And then, when I did the family taxes, I realized that I was teaching the Brit Lit classes basically just to pay the increased taxes for the tax bracket into which the extra classes catapulted us.

Last night, I felt a bit of sorrow/nostalgia for all the places I've taught, all the classes I no longer teach. I also missed my younger self who would have seen this play as being radical--but now, while I am full of respect and awe for what Eve Ensler has done and the movements she has sparked, it doesn't seem as radical.

I hate to say this, but there are times when I grow weary of a culture that seems to be in permanent consciousness raising status. But of course, that's easy for me to say, as someone who has had the benefit of all this conversation. I can't imagine what it would be like to come of age in a time before feminists had started to change the world--well, I can, and I wouldn't want to live in a world where women didn't know their bodies and didn't have many employment opportunities and couldn't demand justice when violence was done to them. We're still not in an ideal world, in terms of gender equality, but we're much closer than we were in the 1950's.

After the show, the teenage daughter of my friend said that she found it interesting, but not interesting enough to have all those conversations with women that Eve Ensler had had. That led us to wonder what topic would be most interesting. Even if we didn't want to write a play in the style of Ensler or Anna Deveare Smith, even if we didn't want to be a documentarian/sociologist like Studs Terkel, what conversation would interest us enough to have year after year of it with person after person?

We didn't have immediate answers, but as I've thought about it, I would have to say I continue to be interested in the question of having a creative life and how we manage the demands of our creative lives with the other elements of our lives, like work and family. I'm also fascinated by the intersections of creativity and spirituality (especially Christianity, since I'm Lutheran and understand Christianity more than, say, Hinduism).

After the play, we went to an Indian restaurant--what a joyful place. Even at 9:20, it was packed, with lots of families with small, energy-filled children. We had come intending to have ice cream, but we had a small meal, a late supper. Delish!

I thought back to my own adolescence, to all those plays my parents took us to, many of which were put on by the local university--thank God for university drama departments which put on quality productions at prices so affordable that the whole family can go. Afterwards, we'd go out for ice cream or frozen yogurt--remember when frozen yogurt was seen as exotic? Yes, again, I'm outing myself as a dinosaur. And then I reflected on the evening, the diversity of the audience and the acting troupe, the fact that we could have gone out to enjoy a meal from just about any culture I wanted. Yes, the world has changed, and not just in the way we discuss our vaginas. And despite my nostalgia for times gone by, I wouldn't want to go back. I'm mostly happy where I am.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

All Our Central American Nightmares

On this day, 31 years ago, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated as he celebrated Mass; for those of you who would like to read a more theological meditation on this event, go to this post on my theology blog.

Central America was part of the fabric of my college years, much the same as Iraq/Afghanistan region must be for recent college grads. There was real talk of invading Nicaragua during the 1980's, which led to many late-night discussions about what we would do if a draft was enacted. I met many Central American refugees during that time, some here legally, most here illegally. Like many Americans, at first I had difficulty understanding why we would support one Central American country and not another one.

I remember that Ronald Reagan said we had to be ever more deeply involved in Central America, because if we weren't, we would wake up one morning to find Communists invading the country from the south. And I thought, Communists crossing the Rio Grande? Well, let the Texans handle that; they're well-armed, and I have faith in them.

In the midst of the geo-political arguments, I also got my first hearing/reading of liberation theology, a pattern of thought that would change my life. Liberation Theology introduced me to a radical Jesus, a Jesus who demanded justice for the poor and the oppressed, a Jesus who was crucified not because of my individual sin but because he challenged the Roman power structure. This Jesus was not one I had met in the suburban, Southern churches of my youth.

Henri Nouwen was also inspired by the liberation movements in Latin America. As part of my Lenten discipline, I'm reading Show Me the Way: Readings for Each Day of Lent. Here's a quote from today's reading, which originally appeared in his book Out of Solitude: "When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers" (page 52).

Those of us who have a vision of social justice must remember that the world is not set up to reward those of us who call for a more just word. Sure, some of us may get acclaim, but the world tends to reward social justice visionaries with jail or martyrdom. But the vision is important, and it's vital that we demand it. Think of how different the world would be if people like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Romero, Martin Luther King, the Mirabal sisters--if these people had just sat idly by and said, "Well, I have my nice comfortable life. I'm not going to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Let them help themselves."

My favorite Oliver Stone movie is Salvador, a movie which isn't always faithful to the facts, but is faithful to the truth. It's a movie that manages to have a serious conversation about faith and the demands of faith--and I use that word faith in its many-dimensioned splendor. It's a movie with a graphic rape scene that is one of the few rape scenes I can think of that doesn't eroticize the act, not one bit. I tend not to watch movies with rape scenes these days because they disgust me on so many levels, and they make me afraid to live in this world as a woman, and I can't afford that fear. I'm not foolish about my safety, don't get me wrong. But I don't need those violent images in my head as I move around in the world. If you're like me, and you'd like to watch the movie, but the rape scene is a stumbling block, just know that it's about to happen when the van of nuns sets out from the airport; close your eyes and hit fast forward. It's a great movie, and you shouldn't miss it.

Below is an inspiration card that I made back in January, when I was having fun with collage. I have always viewed Romero as one of my heroes, and it was fun to make this card.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The True Pattern: Of Mayan Weavers' Prayers and Butterflies

On Monday night, Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat met to discuss In the Time of the Butterflies. It was an amazing conversation. I scribbled down the choice bits in my notebook, and I can’t resist sharing them here.

I’ll follow the journalist’s dictate to put the strongest material first. Edwidge Danticat asked Julia Alvarez about her writing routines and rituals. She said she starts each day with the Mayan weaver’s prayer. She explained that Mayan weavers begin the day with whatever is on hand, whatever thread, whatever dye—but with no pattern.

Here’s the prayer: “Grant me the intelligence and the patience to find the true pattern.”

With both women coming from an island which has seen such violence at the hands of dictators, and with the novel dealing with the brave resistance of Dominicans (including the Mirabal sisters, the protagonists), it was inevitable that the discussion turned to social justice. Edwidge Danticat said that memory can save us, that memory can be a powerful tool in our quest for justice.

Julia Alvarez talked about the slow, incremental pace of change, but she reminded us that social change does happen—often this change begins in our every day relationships. She quoted a Seamus Heaney poem, “The Cure at Troy”:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Alvarez went on to say that testimonial is a way that so many Latin American cultures have coped with what has been dealt to them by the dictators who ruled them—something to think about as we mark the death of Archbishop Romero tomorrow.

Even though the talk turned to social justice and the miscarriage of social justice, the discussion ended on an upbeat note, with the reminder that any one of us could be the one that helps usher in the change. If you went back in time and suggested that 4 sisters could bring down the entrenched Trujillo regime, people would scoff. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

We might say, “Yes, but we don’t want to have to sacrifice our lives.” The evening’s discussion didn’t go this route, but I would point out that martyrdom is not the only route of resistance. There’s a long tradition of artists working for, and achieving, social change. Likewise mothers and workers and all sorts of others—choose your favorite oppressed group.

During the question and answer period, I asked Julia Alvarez if she still writes poetry, since I still love her 2 volumes of poetry. Her face softened, she smiled, and she said that poetry is still her first love. She said that after she finishes each novel, she returns to a period of poetry writing, and she’s always reading the poetry of others. In fact, she begins every day reading poetry, which she compared to a choir that sings and holds the same note at a perfect pitch.

The event was webcast, and at some point, I expect you'll be able to see it here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Butterflies, Bones, and Our Place on the Planet

Last night, my spouse and I drove down to Books and Books in Coral Gables to see Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat talk about In the Time of the Butterflies. It was an amazing evening, as I knew it would be. Tomorrow I'll post a compilation of choice quotes, but today, I want to think about Julia Alvarez and her books.

I first heard about Julia Alvarez at a conference on World Literature held at Appalachian State University in 1996. I was a last minute replacement on a panel presentation when the originally scheduled presenter had to undergo surgery. I went up with two other people from the community college where I was teaching in South Carolina--I still meet up with these two women periodically at Mepkin Abbey.

During that conference, we heard someone mention Julia Alvarez--it was the first time I'd heard her name. Of course, her first book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, had only been out for a few years. The presenter spoke about a more recently published book, In the Time of the Butterflies, but frankly, the other books sounded more interesting to me. The first Alvarez book I ever read was Yo!, but my friend read In the Time of the Butterflies, and she raved about it.

I loved Yo!, but then again, I've always loved books that had a writer/artist/creator as the protagonist. If my friend hadn't been so enthusiastic about In the Time of the Butterflies, I might have never read it. I worried about the fact that it was a historical novel about a time and a country that I wasn't sure I understood. But then we moved to South Florida, and I wasn't working as much, and I didn't have any friends outside of my spouse, and I had a library card, and we were trying to conserve our money. And so, I read it, and I, too, was blown away.

I've read it several times since, and it still moves me. I'm rather staggered to think about how long this book has been part of my life. It's been 15 years since that conference, but I still remember so many aspects of that week-end. I remember being surrounded by all sorts of people, and I'd study all of them, looking for clues about my future and how to live it. I had a teaching-intensive community college job, and I wasn't sure it was a good fit. But I didn't want a research university job that would require me to write a lot of literary criticism. I met some administrators, and their lives also didn't inspire me to aspire to those positions. I wish I could say that 15 years later I've figured all this out, but I haven't. In a skinny minute, I would move to Boone, NC, home of Appalachian State U. At the time we were there, it was very white--even the cleaning staff at the university conference center was white, which was so unusual that we remarked upon it as we drove away. I wonder if the town and university is still that non-diverse.

I'm also staggered by how long we've lived down here, since 1998. I've met a lot of Dominicans and Haitians since moving here, and before we moved here, I'd never met one. Granted, I've met them primarily in a student-teacher relationship, so it's different than the friendship that Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat have.

That's where literature can rush in to fill the gap. Through the books of Alvarez, I've learned more than I probably would have learned otherwise about the Dominican Republic. Likewise, through the writings of Danticat, I've learned about the other side of the island, Haiti. I can weep over the characters that they create, and perhaps that's better than making a spectacle of myself by weeping over the stories of my students or friends that I might make.

In this week where we commemorate the life and martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, I have repression and dictatorship on the brain. Last night was a wonderful antidote to the despair that can come from contemplating such things. More tomorrow.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Prepare for National Poetry Month!

Hard to believe that April is just around the corner. If it's April, it must be National Poetry Month. What are you doing to prepare?

Kelli Russell Agodon has just announced that she will again be spearheading a book give-away for National Poetry Month, and she invites us all to participate--details are here. Basically, you promise to give away 2 books of poetry at the end of the month to everyone who leaves a comment at your blog post saying that they want to be entered into a random drawing. They have to be books you love, not just books you want to get rid of. I did this last year, and I'll likely do it again this year.

Dave Bonta plans to read a volume of poetry each day of April this year, just as he did last year, and post a daily review. I admire his stamina, but don't want to set myself up for failure that way. I wrote and asked if we could do a lite version, like a book a week. He agreed (although he will also continue with his original book-a-day plan), and we came up with a list. So, if you're like me and you love knowing that you're reading a book and other people in the universe are reading too, here's the list and the timeline:

week of April 4: Diane Lockward's Temptation by Water
week of April 11: Luisa Igloria's Trill and Mordent
week of April 18: Ren Powell's Mercy Island
week of April 25: William Trowbridge's Ship of Fool

You still have time to order, whether from your library or your bookstore.

Many poets across the country and the globe will write a poem a day. I've attempted this for the past 2 years now. The first year I actually did it. The second year, I managed about 20 days. I like doing it because it reminds me that I often waste time waiting for perfect circumstances or for inspiration. I must be honest though: I don't think I generate that many more poems that are successful in a given month, whether I force myself to write every day or take my usual approach.

I realize that we could get into an interesting conversation here about how I'm defining successful. So, let me confess: many days, as the day was winding down, and I remembered that I hadn't written my poem for the day, I'd dash off a haiku. I have no desire to be a haiku writer, but I wrote a haiku about a third of the days.

No, I will probably put together a few poetry readings and create some more poetry book trailers and continue trying to promote my forthcoming chapbook. It won't be every National Poetry Month that I have a book to promote. So, book promotion and larger promotion of the poetry world will be the way I celebrate this year.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Moon Exerts an Extra Pull

For days, I had heard about how magical the moon would be at moonrise on Saturday. We decided the best view would be at the beach. I couldn't imagine that it would rival another moonrise several years ago. That moon was the hugest moon on the horizon I've ever seen, huge and white and astonishing. Saturday's moonrise, while lovely, didn't seem out of the ordinary. But we had the camera, and we took pictures.

When we got to the beach, we heard something like a lawnmower engine. But it was coming from the air. What was it? An interesting contraption, one of those fan engines like you see in Everglades boats, coupled with a surfboarding parachute thing. Those bare twigs are sea grapes that have been cut back. I like the Asian look, but the roof rising up is most likely a snack shack.

My spouse tried to keep people in the picture to give a sense of perspective. Here we are at the beginning of moonrise.

My spouse tried to capture me with the moon behind me like a halo. He couldn't quite pull that off, but I like how happy I look. I decided to keep the twilight photo for this photo essay, rather than the clearer Photoshopped version that my spouse created later.

I like the waves in the picture. This picture is the last one to capture the moon as we actually saw it. Later pictures give the moon a Halloween effect, all orange and strange. We didn't actually see that, but we don't have a very sophisticated camera which could capture what we saw.

Later pictures show a moon with faces in it, a moon that looks like a place where mythical creatures would live.

I took other pictures too. We walked by a beach-side park that has a water-play area, with shooting fountains that children can run through. The fountains translated into sparkliness when I took the shot.

We finished the night at an ice cream shop. I looked down at the mat in front of the window where we stand outside and order. I love the combination of black rubber and sprinkles from day after day of ice cream service. I took the shot, and my spouse said "What are you doing?" Then he looked down and saw what I saw. What can I say? I'm a texture and color freak.

A final moonshot for you, more suitable for October than March!

And even though last night's moon was the special one, today is the day that marks the vernal equinox. Happy spring! May all your dreams and daffodils resurrect themselves.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Poet Laureate of the Wine Shop

Does my title make you think that I have an exciting announcement? Alas, no, I have not been invited to be Poet Laureate of anything, although it is one of those occasional fantasies I have. When people ask me my dream job, I say Poet Laureate of the U.S. Then I have to explain what that job is, and when I mention having an office at the Library of Congress, I often have to explain what that is, and by then, that discussion thread is worn out.

No, I have not been asked to be the poet laureate of a local wine shop, but they do send me e-mails with wine descriptions. Yesterday, one of the descriptions said that the wine tasted like brambles--not brambleberries, that English word for blackberries. Isn't brambleberry a delightful word? No, the wine tasted like brambles. And I thought, hmm, I'm not sure I would know what thorny vines actually taste like. And then my brain raced off, and I wrote a surprise poem, thus proving that the poetry brain can find inspiration in all sorts of unlikely places.

I wrote a dark poem, one that wanted to reference Litttle Red Riding Hood, but I'm not sure it did. I wrote a poem with broken boot heels and whiskers. It had nothing to do with work or with nuclear war. Hurrah! I can do something different.

I'm tempted to write to the wine store to thank them. And that idea sent my brain in a different direction--what if they asked me to come do a poetry reading and wine tasting? Wouldn't that be fun?

I've been thinking about alternate places to have a poetry reading as I've been reading January O'Neil's blog posts on the subject (like this one, where she talks about the poetry reading at the YMCA swimming pool). So, I've been thinking about doing readings in improbable places, but a wine shop . . . why didn't I ever think of doing a reading in a wine shop? It's actually not improbable, as some of our local wine shops also have areas where people can sit and sip wine.

National Poetry Month is upon us--I need to strategize, and maybe that strategizing will involve arranging a reading or two. Local poets, who is with me?

What if the inspiration-sending wine guys asked me to be the poet laureate of the wine store? Would I say yes? I say it's my local wine shop, but it's really not. It's about 18 miles south of me, in Coral Gables, which in any other part of the country would be a mere zip of a drive, but here, it takes 45 minutes.

Still, I'd probably say yes, particularly if they gave me free wine. Yes, I'll write poems for wine. In fact, I've often thought that poets would make the best writers of wine descriptions. I'd do that too. Hmm. Maybe I've found a new dream job.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Colcannon as Metaphor for the Creative Life

Thinking about St. Patrick's Day often takes me back to my early days as a budding vegetarian back in high school. I got one of those vegetarian magazines and decided to fix my family a special St. Patrick's Day meal. I would make Colcannon. Yes, Colcannon! It would be spectacular! They would never forget how fabulous it tasted!

I've now been cooking long enough that I would have skipped right over that recipe, a dish made primarily of mashed potatoes and cabbage. Blhhhhhh.

But no, I made Irish soda bread and Colcannon and served the family dinner with a flourish. Oh, my poor, long-suffering, generous family. What meals they endured as I experimented with vegetarian cooking. Looking back, I realize I was lucky to have such a family, who didn't complain too much about my cooking. My working mom was grateful to have anyone else cook, and she'd buy the ingredients. My dad, a long-distance runner both then and now, was interested in health. My sister, left to her own devices, would have had tacos every night.

We ate all the Irish soda bread that night, and each one of us finished our portion of Colcannon. It wasn't that bad--it just didn't taste like what I was expecting.

I see that experience as a metaphor for so much of life. Let's think about Colcannon as a metaphor for the creative life, which might be an important exercise in these days when so many contest and grant results are being announced, which means many of us are wrestling with disappointment when we're not chosen.

Many of us navigated towards a creative life with certain expectations. We would write that great novel which would be turned into a film which would mean we could leave our crappy jobs. We would write a beautiful collection of poems which would be win a prestigious prize which would net us a glorious teaching job where we taught one section a semester to adoring poet-students and had time to linger in the library and use the pool and eat our lunches in the faculty dining room. I could continue to spin fantasies, but you have the idea.

In the meantime, we've had to learn to live with what we actually have on our plates for dinner. Maybe we have a teaching job where we teach not poetry, but Composition. Maybe we don't have a Lake District circle of friends, but only one or two people who write. Maybe we have some kind of office job that consists primarily of sending, reading, responding to, and deleting e-mails, and we thought we were going to be doing important work. Maybe we've found ourselves marooned in a city or town that isn't as glamorous as we had planned.

And yet, our current Colcannon lives are perfectly satisfying, perfectly nourishing, if we could only bring ourselves to feel happy about them. The boring office job at least does not leave us too exhausted to write. The teaching job, while having its own difficulties (all that grading!), at least is work that will always be there--yesterday, as I drove to work, I heard an NPR story on the long-term unemployed, people who can't find ANY job that will bring in cash. I felt anxious, but immediately calmed down when I reminded myself that I can always find as much adjunct work as I can stand, if something should happen to my full-time job. We may have a smaller publication than we'd hoped for, but those publications are beautiful too, and they may open doors to larger publications and/or other opportunities.

In fact, I've talked to people who have achieved their goals, only to find that it wasn't as satisfying as they'd hoped. The book is published during the same week that something catastrophic happens in the world, so there's not much attention to it. The dream teaching job is in a department that is torn apart by strife. The glamorous city has a downside: crime or bad weather or high cost of living or homesickness for the place left behind.

Along with my quest to live a life that's in balance, a life that's in sync with my values, I'm also working hard to master being happy with what I have. I love that Zen saying, which I'm probably paraphrasing badly here: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." In other words, even if we get the dream publication, the dream job, the dream city, the dream partner, we will not be excused from the basic demands of life: the daily upkeep (body, housing, clothes, cooking), the bills, the relationship building and repairing.

I've often longed to live someplace else or to have a different job or to be at a different place in life, and then, when I'm there (the someplace else, the different job, the different life era), I look back longingly at previous times/places/jobs--all of which I didn't even like at the time.

Now I am trying to learn to shelter in place (yes, I know that we usually use that term in disaster preparedness, but it fits here too). I tell myself that I should enjoy this phase because I'll miss it later.

So, wherever you are, enjoy the Colcannon that's on your plate, even if you wish you had shepherd's pie or lamb chops. Some day, you'll likely have the lamb chops that you see others enjoying--but for now, treasure the taste of cabbage and potatoes. The lamb chops will taste that much better later for having had to wait.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Making of My Book Trailer

It's been awhile since anyone on the blogs I visit regularly talked about the making of these animated poems or book trailers. A year ago, the postings of Sandra Beasley , and Diane Lockward and Kelli Russell Agodon; since each poet wrote a series of blogposts, I won't link to all of them here (go to their sites and use the search engine using "book trailers" or "animated poems").

A year ago, I played with animating/illustrating/videographing a stanza from a poem, since I didn't have a book to promote. At some point, I'd like to do the process for a complete poem, but I haven't returned to that yet. During that time, I took photos specifically for the poem project, but in the time since, I've always had these kind of videos and blog photo essays in my head when I've picked up the camera.

As a result, I've saved a lot of photos that other people would have thrown away. For example, near the end of the trailer above, you'll see a blurry background in red and a blurry background in green: yup, Christmas shots that didn't turn out right, yet they're perfect to be the background in a book promo.

Before I started, I brainstormed some of the themes of my book and tried to decide whether or not those themes would attract buyers. The last thing I want my book trailer to do is to repulse people. I chose three themes and sorted through pictures. I took more pictures. Then I began to assemble.

I used Microsoft Movie Maker because it's on the computer. I know that a lot of artists swear by iMovie, and while I briefly flirted with the idea of buying a Mac, I decided to explore Movie Maker. It took me a few hours, but I found it fairly easy. Here's one tip that it took me forever to realize: you can save as a project or you can save as a finished "movie." Before I realized that fact, I spent some time frustrated and wondering why I saved my video but couldn't access it on other machines. Unless you've already gotten all the computers in your life to the point where they can talk to each other, so far, I haven't found a way to work on a video project on different machines without importing a lot of photo files.

I was most intimidated by importing music or my voice, but music was relatively easy with all the free sources on the web. I'm still working on recording my voice, but I'll save that learning process for a different project. I went to Kevin MacLeod's site where he has music catalogued by type and sound and length. I looked for a piece that was about the length of my book trailer and sampled a few. Voila. Then I imported it and added a clip to give him credit.

At some point, as I experiment with recording my voice, I'd also like to experiment with recording musicians. Just as I find it easier to generate photos to go with the project I have in mind, so I would love to be able to say to my guitarist friend and my violinist spouse, "I need a 2 minute variation of 'Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf.'"

The problem with using other people's video, photos, or music is one of having permission. I like using my photos because I don't have to worry about violating copyright laws. But there's an added bonus: I get the pleasure of creating the photos.

Soon I will be brave and upload my video to YouTube and maybe one or two other places that host these videos. So, if you have comments about how to improve the book trailer, it's not too late!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prevailing Winds, Pantoums, and Poetry Book Trailers

If you came here hoping to see my book trailer, scroll down. I'd love some commentary!

So, a week ago, I was playing with this map, thinking about sea level rise, realizing that my house is fairly protected, although eventually my neighborhood will transform into an island. This week, as nuclear plants continue to explode and burn, I'm realizing I should have been studying charts of the prevailing winds.

What to do? I suppose we could go to the store and stock up on supplies, but I'm fairly well-stocked and besides, fairly far away. For those of you on the Pacific coast, here's my counsel: should disaster come, you'll need more water than you think. During the disastrous hurricane season of 2005, we lost water for several days. I had stocked more water than recommended, but we went through it more quickly than I would have predicted, even though we used it sparingly, only flushing once or twice a day.

Of course a radiation plume doesn't mean water supply will be disrupted, does it? Or will workers abandon their posts? Can water supplies be delivered without human workers?

How little I know about modern infrastructure.

My response to disaster has often been to write pantoums. I wrote a pantoum in the early days of the Iraq war, as the stock market melted down in 2008, as oil gushed into the Gulf last year: yes, I'm seeing a pattern. The pantoum, with its repeating lines, seems remarkably suited to these kind of crises.

Here are the first two stanzas from my all-time favorite pantoum that I've written, "Alternate Apocalypse":

We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.
Instead we changed the chemistry of the atmosphere.
Chunks of glaciers break for freedom and sail across the sea.
Ice caps melt, and the sea swallows islands.

Instead we changed the chemistry of the atmosphere,
yet we refuse to believe the evidence of global warming.
Ice caps melt, and the sea swallows islands,
but global warming is just an unproved theory.

For those of you who need to see a complete pantoum as a model, here's the one that I wrote last year which appeared at the Poets for Living Waters website:

Alternate Apocalypse #3

We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.
We didn’t anticipate a plume on the ocean floor,
an unstoppable gusher.
We thought we would run out of oil.

We didn’t anticipate a plume on the ocean floor.
We assumed precautions had been taken.
We thought we would run out of oil.
Now we worry the flow will never stop.

We assumed precautions had been taken.
We thought there was an emergency plan.
Now we worry the flow will never stop.
We face a future of oily seas.

We thought there was an emergency plan.
We thought they cared about the environment.
We face a future of oily seas,
a fishless existence our fate.

We thought they cared about the environment.
Now we watch migratory birds slicked with petroleum.
A fishless future our fate,
we cry over lost treasures.

Now we watch migratory birds slicked with petroleum.
We hear the stories of generations living on the water.
We cry over lost treasures,
marine animals, an ecosystem, an ocean, a planet.

We hear the stories of generations living on the water.
All these cultures will evaporate:
marine animals, an ecosystem, an ocean, a planet.
We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.

But maybe writing a pantoum is too grim a mission for you. Maybe you want something more life-affirming. Create a book trailer for a book that doesn't exist yet or for one that hasn't found a publisher yet. A year ago I started experimenting with book trailers and animated/video poems. I knew that once I had a book accepted for publication, I might not have time to learn this software.

I must confess that I created a possible trailer for a different book, but no matter; it was fun to play. This post is getting a bit long, and I have to be at work early, so tomorrow, I'll write a post about how I created this trailer. You're the first viewers, so I'd be interested in hearing what you think, especially if there's anything in the trailer that would be such a turn-off that you wouldn't buy the book.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Apocalyptic Hope

On Saturday, I wrote a long, rambling post about the earthquake and tsunami, and about my forays into the art world, and about creating in the face of tragedy. On my Facebook page, where I linked to the post, my friend wrote that "every act of apocalypse must be balanced with creation."

It's beginning to look like we'll need lots of acts of creation to balance the apocalypse under way in the Pacific.

I continue to vacillate between hope and despair. Yesterday, as my spouse and I fixed dinner and listened to the news, I said, "You know, I really didn't expect to be hearing about nuclear reactor meltdowns again in our lifetimes." I foolishly thought that after Chernobyl, more stringent safety regulations had been put into effect. And if those regulations fail in Japan, a nation that is more careful about nuclear issues than any other, none of us are safe.

My Apocalypse Gal side has enjoyed Martha Silano's posts about reactor meltdowns and linkages with other things she's been reading. Jeannine Hall Gailey has been contemplating the connections between Japan, anime, and apocalypse in this post. And Kathleen Kirk has interesting thoughts on her form of prayer.

I've spent the last few mornings waking up and thinking, yup, I'm still here. It reminds me of when I took classes in college that explored nuclear war and other environmental hazards, and I'd be almost too afraid to sleep. And yet, the sun still rose in the morning.

I've told my students that I majored in English and Sociology because I fully expected Ronald Reagan to start a nuclear war, so I didn't think it really mattered what I majored in, so I might as well study what I loved. They always look at me as if I'm psychotic, yet I know that we were awfully close to nuclear war during most of my college years.

I've written before about how my parents got married right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps I come from people who are apocalyptically hopeful, apocalyptic hope as genetic trait?

But I do believe that most of humanity tends towards optimism. If we didn't, we'd just go ahead and end it, wouldn't we?

We may be needing that apocalyptic hope now more than ever. As if melting reactors and chaos in the Middle East weren't bad enough, many of us here at home are living in municipalities and states that are running out of money. Those of us who had clawed our way to a middle-class existence now find ourselves having to justify our existence to legislators who don't think we're worth the money.

Those of us who are in the education field may need to gird ourselves with more apocalyptic hope than we've ever had before. Dean Dad offers this post about efforts in various states to undercut higher education. Those of us lucky enough to still have our full-time higher ed teaching jobs may find ourselves asked to do more (with ever less resources) and make more sacrifices. I remember when I got my first job at a community college during the depths of a severe recession (1992), and I got looks/comments of sympathy and horror. But I was happy to have that job. And now, I know lots of folks with PhDs and MFAs who would be deliriously happy to have that kind of job.

And yet, even if we get those jobs, we may find ourselves overwhelmed with a full-time teaching load. Dr. Crazy offers a post that's full of good advice, and not just for folks in English departments. She talks about how to balance teaching and research interests, but her insights are applicable to those of us who struggle with how to teach and write poems (or paint or write novels or quilt or create multimedia spectaculars . . .)--for those of us who struggle with questions of balance and prioritizing of any kind, I think, but particularly for those of us with demanding jobs.

As I bounced from optimism to despair this week-end, I worked on finishing my book trailer. I'll reveal it here tomorrow--you'll see it first, so that if you have suggestions, you can let me know before I upload it to YouTube (I've never uploaded to YouTube before, so I feel a bit fretful about that--but surely it can't be hard, given how many people upload their videos, right?). Tune in tomorrow--more apocalyptic hope underway!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Apocalypse Gal Considers the Pacific Earthquake

Yesterday was surreal, to say the least. I was up VERY early. Alert readers of this blog may have noticed that I'm often up around 3 or 4, hours that other people might call "the middle of the night," but yesterday, I was up even earlier (O.K., 1:30, if you must know). I have a kind of insomnia that means I fall asleep at the time of night when toddlers are heading off to bed (8 a.m. or so), and I'm waking up between 2 and 4 a.m. Yes, that could be plenty of sleep, but it doesn't account for the nights when I don't make it to bed until after 10--but I'm still waking up around 3 a.m.

But I digress.

So, I was up as accounts of the earthquake and tsunami trickled in. I didn't watch any footage until much later in the day. I went about my day, wondering what was happening (would Hawaii survive? would waves make it to the California/Oregon/Washington shoreline? would the economic world go into meltdown because of the events?). But I was off-screen, and somewhat out of touch. I spent the morning ensconced in a meeting where we discuss (and rediscuss!) things which seem trivial in the best of circumstances, but even more so on a morning when a massive wave heads across the Pacific.

I spent the afternoon on a field trip to the Rubell collection. I rode the bus down there with the students (the teacher in charge had gone down with an earlier class, and I served as teacher-shepherd). One of the students asked me what was going on in Japan, and I was able to tell her (minus scary nuclear reactor news). She listened with wide eyes, and then she and her friend went back to talking about their studenty exploits, while I read The Poets Grimm, something I've needed to do for months, so that I can get down to writing this academic paper that I'm presenting at the College English Association convention at the end of the month.

The art work at the Rubell is always a revelation. And me, without my camera! Yes, it's one of the few museum/galleries that allow visitors to take photos. Happily, the show will be up through the summer, and I can return with my colleague's future classes. The show that's up this year (the Rubell mounts one giant show, and keeps it up through their season), made me want to go home and assemble things out of the broken bits of my jewelry box and the odds and ends of my tool shed.

On the bus back, my colleague and I were talking about why I like more modern art than art of the past. I posited that it's because I have a chance of producing similar art, whereas, when I look at the art of say, the Pre-Raphealites, I know that I could work on my techniques from now to Doomsday, and I will never be able to do what they did, unless I could quit my full-time job and devote myself to realism.

Of course, some of the art on display I'll never be able to do because I don't have space. It made me wonder if I did have space, would I do larger art projects? Or am I just drawn to small canvases?

My colleague suggested that I like more modern art like that which was on display at the Rubell is because it's more cerebral with more to interpret. One of the galleries had several works of art that used eggs in a variety of ways (images here), which immediately made me think of ovaries and all the other possible interpretations. David Wojnarowicz has a piece called I Use Maps Because I Don’t Know How to Paint with lots to consider. The image doesn't do it justice, since if you're up close to the real work, you see images of dollar bills behind the eyes that are loosely sewed shut. The collage includes maps and as I looked closely, I realized they were maps of places of great human rights atrocities (Nicaragua, South Africa) during the year it was created, 1984.

So, yes, my colleague is probably right.

We returned to campus and went over to grab a late lunch/early dinner and a glass of wine. I heard the news on the way over, but the news offered nothing that I hadn't already known when I heard the morning news. It wasn't until later that I actually saw the images from Japan. To say it staggers the imagination is an understatement. If you saw this kind of footage in a movie, you would say it went over the top and wasn't believable.

I felt a slight guilt at having had a great afternoon considering art and enjoying food and wine and having good conversation (and earlier, having had a great writing morning while events were actually transpiring). But having lived in hurricane prone parts of the country (and having seen damage left behind by hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, damage that existed years after the hurricanes hit land), I know that we're none of us immune from the damage that the planet can inflict. Hurricane Katrina knocked over a ficus tree that took up much of my back yard (brushing my house as it came down, but doing no real damage to the house) before it went on to devastate New Orleans. My spouse and I have only just now gotten our house fully repaired after the 2005 Hurricane Wilma damage. I cannot imagine how Japan will put the country back together again, but I know that they will--or people will be relocated. Galveston used to be one of the sparkling lights of the South until a hurricane in the early part of the 20th century wiped out the island; instead of rebuilding, the survivors decided that the island wasn't safe, and they moved.

This morning, I'm reading accounts of a nuclear reactor exploding in Japan. I'm thinking of much older reactor explosions. I don't have as many memories of Three Mile Island, but I do remember the morning that I sat in my dorm living room (the one place that had a T.V.--now, that dates me, doesn't it?), watching the news reports about Chernobyl. Had a nuclear bomb detonated, I'd have had a better idea of what to expect. But a reactor accident? In a country that was notorious for not giving out information? What should I do? I went to class, of course. I'm a good girl and well trained.

I feel a strange lack of panic with these latest news reports, while at the same time, all sorts of quotes for an apocalyptic day go through my head.

Now there's a book title: Quotes for an Apocalyptic Day. Any acquisitions editors who are reading, take note: I could have this book of quotes ready within a week, should you be willing to offer me an advance and a contract.

For most of my lifetime now, I have been expecting the world to end with a big atomic bang. Surely this explosion in Japan is not that bang.

It's probably time to bring this rambling post to a close. For those of you who would like a scholarly, yet accessible, explanation of earthquakes and the geology of the earth, find a copy of Natalie Angier's The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science and read the geology chapter. For those of you who want a theological consideration of the earthquake and a link that will let you donate to a social service agency go to this post on my theology blog.

And for those of us who are creative types, who may feel guilty attending to creative processes while nuclear reactors explode, I'd encourage you to go ahead and create. What else is there to do in the face of chaos and catastrophe? It's the way that humans have always coped.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Considering Dust, Considering Cassandra: Thursday Drafting Process

I've long enjoyed Sandy Longhorn's posts that describe her writing process as she creates individual poems (go here for the most recent example). So, today, I thought I would talk about my drafting process yesterday.

I have noticed that Sandy does some thinking about what she'll be writing before she starts. She has described reminding herself as she falls asleep that she'll be writing a poem in the morning. I know that athletes train in a similar way by visualizing themselves accomplishing the athletic feats that they train their physical bodies to do. Ah, yes, the mind-body connection: another form of balance for which I'll probably always be striving.

I also have realized that for me, the best time to write a poem is before I start doing other writing. I often write a daily blog post both here and at my theology blog. If I write the poem first, it doesn't detract from my blog writing, except in terms of running out of time. However, if I write the blog posts, I often can't get my poetry brain going.

So, yesterday, I wrote the poem first. I'd had some ideas circling in my head. About a week ago, I noticed that the sideboard had become very dusty, and I almost immediately thought, well, the house will be under water soon enough. Of course, I know/hope sea level rise isn't going to take place that quickly--I can't just ignore the daily/weekly/seasonal chores because at some point the Florida peninsula will be inundated with water. I immediately came up with a title: Cassandra Considers the Dust.

Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, so I had all sorts of ash and dust imagery in my head. At church on Wednesday, I was one of the lay leaders who smudged foreheads with ash. I found it startling, that black gash against skin. I even came home and took some pictures of our ash-smudged foreheads.

On Thursday morning, I returned to the main character of the poem, Cassandra. When I had been thinking about this poem a week ago, when I first got the title, I thought that the title character would be some kind of climate scientist. Are climate scientists the Cassandras of our day? In some ways they are, but they aren't in this important way: most of us don't doubt what they're telling us, but we can't seem to do much about it besides switching out our light bulbs.

So, I started writing and came up with this:

After midnight, she leaves the computers
to run their analyses.
Through the night, as humans dream
and the few keep watch
on the ramparts or in the monasteries
or by the hospital beds
with machines to monitor

And then I couldn't go any further. I thought about the Cassandra character returning home, and I was still thinking that Cassandra was a climate scientist. I wrote 2 stanzas about her return home. Then it was time for me to go for my pre-dawn walk.

As I was walking, I thought, no, Cassandra is a doctor! In some ways, on an individual level, I've noticed that people regard their doctors as Cassandras to be ignored or disbelieved. Of course, in other ways, we treat our doctors the way we treat climate scientists: we believe what they say, but we don't know what to do about it, or we don't want to do the things we need to do.

I came back and wrote 3 new stanzas; I kept the 2 stanzas about Cassandra returning home. I'm pleased with the finished poem.

I think from here on out, I'll try to write a poem each week on either Tuesday or Thursday. I'll spend the intervening time thinking about the poems I want to be writing so that when I get to the desk, I'm ready to go. And perhaps I'll write about my writing process more frequently, particularly if I come up with an approach that I think might be helpful for other people.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Would Harriet Tubman Do?

Today, Harriet Tubman died in 1913 and Sojourner Truth in died 1883. Think about that for a minute. Think about how much change Harriet Tubman saw. She was born around 1820 and spent her early years as a slave in Maryland. The next part of the story is probably most familiar, the part where she makes her escape to freedom, and she goes back to rescue others, not once, but at least 13 times. Harriet Tubman has been one of my heroes since I was a little girl and first read about her. My school library had a biography section, with that series about notable Americans, each book bound in orange. I read my way through the whole series and returned to ones I loved. Did I learn about Harriet Tubman there or elsewhere? No matter.

I've written about Tubman before, most notably about my view of her as a model for managers here and in some of the ways that Tubman and Southern history haunt my poems here. But today, as I read about her at The Writer's Almanac site, I learned about the ways that she avoided capture: "She used ingenious diversions to avoid being caught, like carrying two live chickens with her so that she appeared to be going on an errand. She worked coded messages into spirituals and hymns, and the singing of them spread her instructions from slave to slave. Once she evaded capture by simply pretending to read a newspaper — since it was well known that Harriet Tubman was illiterate. She traveled in winter, when folks who had homes were usually inclined to stay in them, and she scheduled departures for Friday nights because "escaped slave" notices couldn't be published until the following Monday."

What creativity! It makes me think about our own time, about our own approaches.

I hesitate to move in this direction, since I don't want anyone to accuse me of trivializing slavery. But this morning, as I'm reading about Harriet Tubman and her can-do attitude, I'm thinking about conversations that I've had over the past several weeks. It's an interesting time to be working in the field of education, and as you can imagine, many of us have been talking about the future of education. Some people I've talked to have become completely demoralized and defeated and just hope to hold on until retirement. I've talked to some people who are energized by recent developments in technology and can hardly wait to see what the future brings--and if there are some scoffers and doubters who would like to strip us all of our paychecks and benefits, these enthusiastic types just dismiss them by reminding us that there have always been scoffers. I've talked to several people who say, "Well, what else is there to do? How shall we get our health insurance?"

It reminds me of the split I saw at the AWP conference last month, where some people were enthusiastic about all the ways that technology makes it possible for us to have readers and outlets we never could have had a few decades ago, while others were convinced that the end was near.

I want to get back to thinking about the future in these terms: what would I do, if I believed that anything was possible? What do I enjoy doing? To put it in theological terms I want to structure my future in the way that Frederick Buechner would advise in his book Wishful Thinking: "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

What is the world's deep hunger? What are my deep gladnessess? Blogging brings me deep gladness these days. So does the writing of poetry. What are the world's deep hungers that my blogging and poems could meet?

The cynic would now sneer, "Yeah, this is all very well and good, but back to that issue of health insurance--how will you pay for all the insurances you require as a woman at mid-life, not to mention how you'll put bread on the table."

To which, on this Spring morning when the air smells so fresh, I would say, "Shut up, cynic." My life has taught me that there are more pathways out there than I can comprehend. I've had nice, comfortable jobs, and I've had times in my life where I relied on synchronicity and good luck and a benevolent universe (and to return to theology, on God). And guess what? I didn't go bankrupt and I didn't lose my house. I got to have marvelous adventures when I was in the synchronicity period that I wouldn't have had if I had remained shackled to my decent job with a good retirement package and health insurance.

It is probably time to dream of the future. Here's another quote for your day, from theologian
Barbara Brown Taylor: "From [Buechner] I've learned that the only limit to the revelation going on all around me is my willingness to turn aside and look."

Let me have the spirit of Sojourner Truth, who worked tirelessly for social justice, even when she envisioned a better world that many of her contemporaries couldn't see as possible. Let me have the courage of Harriet Tubman, who led so many to freedom. Let me look up from my safe life to see the revelations that are all around me.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday Linkage

--If you were hoping for a more in-depth Ash Wednesday meditation, go to the Living Lutheran site to read my blog post there.

--If you want suggestions for things to add to your Lenten season (as opposed to giving something up for Lent), I wrote this piece over at Living Lutheran.

--I've written longer pieces about Lenten disciplines on my theology blog. Go here to read about adding a creative discipline to your spiritual life for Lent, or go here to read about adding more reading to your Lenten season. I wrote about adding more hospitality in this blog post, and I wrote about praying more here. I wrote about fasting here and about other ways you could fast here.

--Kelli writes about Lent here, and Kathleen talks about reading a book of poems straight through for Ash Wednesday in this post.

--For a deeper theological treatment, give Jan Richardson's post a read, and if you're still not satisfied, she gives you links to previous meditations.

--I began the day over at my theology blog posting this quote from Henri Nouwen, an Ash Wednesday prayer that I wrote, and a photo that I took of last year's Ash Wednesday art project made with real ash from the fireplace (and paint and a canvas).

Season of Ash and Somber Penitence

Here are some random Ash Wednesday thoughts.

--You say you're unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday? Are you one of the bajillion people who celebrated Mardi Gras yesterday or maybe you went further and had yourself a season of Carnivale? You have participated in the liturgical year without perhaps even realizing it. Those holidays arose as a response to the liturgical season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. In much earlier church times, Lent was a time of discipline, of giving up, of penitence. Many Christians, if they were wealthy enough to afford the items in the first place, gave up sugar and meat and fat and alcohol. So, as the season of Lent approached, they had to get all those items out of the house--thus, a festive party opportunity!

--A decade ago, I was trying to teach myself about rhythm and meter and to actually write in meter. A formalist friend of mine suggested that I use metrical writing already in existence as a model, much the way that hymn writers used to do as they turned drinking songs into hymns. I came up with the line that makes up the title for this blog post, but got no further; it's modeled from the first line of Keats' "To Autumn": "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

--Ash Wednesday is the high holy days that reminds us that we're here for a very short time. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palms from the previous Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

--One Ash Wednesday, I went for a pre-dawn run at the beach. I heard an old guy with a cigar say, "This is how I'm celebrating Ash Wednesday right here. I'm gonna smoke all day long." I thought that approach actually worked on multiple levels.

--I've written a lot of Ash Wednesday poems: "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site," "Ash Wednesday in the ICU," "Ash Wednesday on I 95 South," and "Ash Wednesday in Miami."

--Only one of those Ash Wednesday poems has been published, so here, for your Ash Wednesday reading pleasure, is "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site," which was originally published in The Ledge:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Celebrate Women Writers on International Women's Day

Lots of great links for International Women's Day, a good day to think about how we make our way as women (or fans of women) in the world, especially in light of all the recent statistics about the odds being stacked against women as they try to publish.

Kelli Russell Agodon has a post about finding success in the writing world, advice geared to women, but likely applicable to all genders.

Jeannine Hall Gailey has a link to this post about how to make it in any boy's club, and then Jeannine offers her own tips for helping female poets.

If you want to help this woman poet, head over to Finishing Line Press to buy my chapbook here. Yesterday was very exciting, as I got word that my book is available for sale a full 3 and a half weeks before the planned date of late March.

You may be thinking, I'll buy the book when it's published. I'll buy the book at one of Kristin's readings when I can get her to sign it. But I'd encourage you to buy the book now--the press run is determined by how many copies are sold between now and May 11. If you want a signed copy, buy the book, and I'll pay for the postage to get it to me so that I can sign it and I'll pay the postage to send it back to you.

As an added bonus, if you order during this pre-publication period, you get a price break on postage.

The book isn't available at Amazon. You have to buy it at the Finishing Line Press website.

It's interesting to think about the long road to this moment. I'll write more about the complete road when I hold the book in my hand (and when I don't have to get ready to go to the dentist). It's interesting to me that they chose the picture that they did for the website. I had to send them several. One of them was a cropped picture from a photo essay that you may remember from a long-ago post. That picture was taken on the back deck of Stetson Kennedy's lake house, a house which is meaningful to me for several reasons: one of my oldest college friends, Russell, took us there, and it was at this site that Woody Guthrie hung out with Stetson Kennedy.

But no time to ponder any further. I've got a full day ahead: the dentist, book club meeting, work--and I'll try to remember to think about International Women's Day. I'll say many prayers of thanks: that I have a good job that doesn't leave me too drained to write, that I have the gift of literacy, that I can turn on a tap and have safe water, that I am fairly safe from violence if I take basic precautions, that I have the gift of good friends, that I have the examples of all the ancestors that have gone before me. Most women across the planet are not as lucky as I am, and I will think about the actions I can take to bring others along with me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Night Will Catch Us All

Yesterday, during a delightfully rainy Sunday afternoon, we watched Night Catches Us, a powerful film about what happens to some Black Panthers when the '60's turn into the 1970's. What an amazing movie from a first time filmmaker.

As I watched, I tried to remember other movies or novels which deal with what happens when radicals and revolutionaries must deal with the aftermath of their movements. The ones that came to mind are Marge Piercy's Vida, one of my favorite of her books, and the recent documentary Weather Underground. Weather Underground is more closely related. Both Weather Underground and Night Catches Us use archival footage mixed with storytelling.

I could also see all sorts of ways that these movies could be used in a classroom. I would show them both and then ask students to discuss whether or not they prefer a documentary or a fictional story to explore the same territory. Both movies use music in interesting ways. Both movies offer all sorts of opportunities for research and using that research to inform their opinions about the movie.

But even if you don't teach, don't miss this movie. It's some of the most powerful acting I've seen in a long, long time. And the young girl character (she's almost 10, and don't you confuse her with a child!) is an amazing piece of work.

For those of you who grew up in the 1970's or who remember the decade, you'll be amazed at how the movie stays true to the time period--where did the director find all those period cars? For those of you who remember an inner city before gentrification took over, this movie might provoke nostalgia, despite the gritty portrayal. It reminded me of the inner city D.C. that I spent time travelling through in 1985, as I did my summer job as a social worker for Lutheran Social Services. I remember visiting a lot of similar houses and being amazed at the flowers and vegetables that people coaxed to grow in their little plot of land.

For those of you who have had to cope with life after your youthful ideals have come unravelled, this movie doesn't offer pat answers. For those of you still enjoying your youthful ideals, watch this movie as a cautionary tale.

It will be interesting to see writer-director Tanya Hamilton tackles next. She's an amazing talent, the kind of woman who gives me hope for the future.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How Do I Love Thee, Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Let Me Count the Ways

Today is the birthday of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Like the rest of the Western World, from an early age, I was familiar with her love sonnet that begins, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." What a revelation to get to graduate school to discover that she had written so much more.

I wish I had my first Norton Anthology of British Literature; I think I began with the 4th edition, which was later lost to an aquarium accident. I bought them in 1984 or 1985, when I first took those survey classes. I know that volume 1 (the beginning of Brit Lit to 1789) had no women writers. None. Not one.

I think that the second volume had two writers, and I can't for the life of me remember whether or not Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of them. I think the two writers included were EBB and Virginia Woolf, but I could be wrong. When I was in undergraduate school in the 1980's, Woolf was not part of the canon. EBB was presented as this charming woman who wrote such lovely love poems. It wasn't until graduate school that I discovered her radical side.

Like many writers of the 19th century, EBB had a passion for social justice. She was one of the few British writers of the first half of the 19th century to directly address slavery and to call it evil. But that should not surprise us. She was the champion of all sorts of dispossessed and oppressed social groups.

Her book length poem, Aurora Leigh, is a revelation. Here we see the main character, Aurora Leigh, wrestling with her various desires and responsibilities. Should she get married? How can she best honor her writing? What are her responsibilities to her friends?

The book also presents a fallen woman character, Marian, who is allowed to live. Now we might shrug at that. We forget how the fallen woman was treated in 19th century literature: she must be PUNISHED, out of all proportion to the "crime." Even if she's the victim of rape, she will subsequently be punished, often with escalating hardships and gruesome death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning creates a fallen woman character, Marian, who is raped in several different instances and left in a brothel--but she survives, and she and Aurora Leigh create an alternative household.

In her own life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning showed us that a woman can have true love and a life as an artist. She's one of the earliest women writers to do this (I'm willing to be corrected, since I'm writing from memory, not from research; likewise, on the slavery question, since I was in graduate school from 1987-1992, there may have been new literature discovered or recovered that weren't available to me then). For that, I'm grateful. I know that I have to consider my choices carefully; I know that I can't have everything, at least not all at the same time. But writers like EBB show us that our choices don't have to be stark and sacrificial.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Friday Fabulousnesses

Yesterday was one of those kind of days that fed my writer's soul.

I began with a quiet morning, and I thought about my various March deadlines. By March 11, I have to have my prayer project written. You may recall my post of a few weeks ago, when I talked about being approached to write a month's worth of prayers. I've written prayers before, but usually just a prayer for a specific occasion. I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be so spiritually exhausting that I would only be able to write one or two at a time?

Yesterday, I decided to see. I had a head start because I had read through the provided Bible passages and underlined the parts that spoke to me. I wrote the first prayer. I decided to write another.

I got into a rhythm--not trancelike, not mystical, but more like the familiar kind of writing rhythm, where I'm in flow (as the psychologists might say), and the ideas are coming easily, and the language supports the ideas. I was interested in how the passages spoke to each other. In places, I tried to create prayers that spoke to previous prayers (while not doing it so often that it became obnoxious). Curious, I just kept going.

In a way, it was like writing poetry. Each prayer is supposed to be 35-45 words, which means, like poetry, the language is compressed, and every word counts. The Bible passage gives wonderful themes and figurative language to go with the theme. My knowledge of the Bible and theology and poetry from across the centuries gives me a large repository of images and ideas to weave into the prayers. I kept in mind the end audiences for the project: God, the editor, the press (Augsburg Fortress), the eventual reader--who might be someone like my grandmother or who might be a seminary-trained minister or someone in between those two extremes of readership.

If I had only had the experience of writing the prayers, it would have been satisfying enough. But then, later in the day, I met my fellow writer friend for lunch.

We met at one of those kind of Asian restaurants that makes me feel instantly at peace with its smartly balanced decor and lighting at the perfect level. We spent our lunch hour talking about our various writerly projects, about our hopes for the future (she's wrestling with her desire to move vs. her knowledge that she's got a kind of stability in her current situation that most people don't have).

We talked about my current obsession, which is how to balance all the online platforms and presences that I have and feel like I should have (I don't tweet yet, and I only post once or twice a day on Facebook during the average day). We also talked about the obsession that I suspect many of us share: how to make a living. Do we rely only on writing? Do we augment it with teaching? Are there professions which leave us more ready to write than others? Could we create such an online presence that we could make a living anywhere?

Well, one lunch hour will not be enough to solve these issues. But we resolved to continue to meet so that we could continue to inspire each other.

One last idea to remember: I think that we often forget how often we inspire each other and in so many ways that we inspire each other. For example, my friend said that I was the one who gave her her first Kathleen Norris book, which she thoroughly enjoyed and found a revelation in more ways than one. I had no memory of that, but hurrah! She has inspired me too. For example, each year she mounts a production of The Vagina Monologues each year. She does this for a variety of reasons, but chief among them because she feels so strongly about this play. She doesn't say, "Oh, I'm not a professional theatre person, I better leave that to the experts."

If you're in the Ft. Lauderdale area, you can see her production on Friday, March 25 at 7 p.m. The show will be at the Davie campus of FAU (easy to get to off I595, lots of parking) in room 120 of the LA building. I'll be there--we could go out for ice cream afterward!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Cover Revealed!

You may remember this post back in October, when I spent a week-end taking photos in a quest to come up with art for the cover of my forthcoming chapbook. It was a fun week-end: I spent Saturday taking photographs that I thought fit the theme, and then on Sunday, my spouse took a turn. The cover photo is his, and that's me in the slumped pose. I don't know if you can see it here, but the book on the counter is Tillie Olsen's Silences. That presence of that book makes me so happy, because the title of my chapbook is a nod to Olsen's short story, "I Stand Here Ironing" (hence, also, the presence of the ironing board in the photo). The china in the background is my grandmother's. The mug has the NPR logo, circa 1998 when I made the donation during a pledge drive.

I love the photo for all its symbolic richness, but I do worry that between the photo (which could be seen as having an air of despair, with the slumping woman and the dishes on the counter) and the title, I run the risk of people saying, "Ugh, what a downer; I'm not reading that." What I'm hoping, of course, is that people are intrigued, that they will say, "Why is that woman in a stand-off with the paper shredder? Why is it on the ironing board? Why is that book on the counter with the dishes? I must buy this book to find out!"

I only provided the photo; Finishing Line Press designed all the other aspects of the cover. I did choose black and white to keep the cost down (so my chapbook will cost $2 less than chapbooks printed in color). My first chapbook cost $8.95, and I've heard disbelief from some people that a chapbook would cost that much, so I decided to keep the cost down where I could.

So, even though I can't change anything at this point, I'd love to know what you think. Would you buy this book if you had no connection to me and saw it in a store or at the AWP book fair?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

All the Ways the Movies of Your Youth Will Betray You

Over at her blog, Sandy has been having this conversation about doubt and accomplishments. I find these kind of conversations fascinating. All this time, I assumed that I was the only one who had these doubts!

I left a comment on Sandy's blog, remarking that this conversation reminded me a bit of high school--and many other settings, as I think about it. I always assume that everyone is having a fascinating, fabulous life, and I'm the only one plagued by doubt and insecurity.

In high school, I assumed that everyone had a wonderful social life, while I stayed home with a book or went out to a movie and pizza with friends. As I look back on it now, it occurs to me that I did indeed have a wonderful social life--it just wasn't the kind of social life that popular culture told me to expect when I got to high school.

Popular culture tells us that we can be the awkward girl--and still, some boy, a popular and cute boy no less, is taking notice of us and admiring us. It will end in a date to the prom and a fabulous sound track featuring Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark. No, wait that was the plot line for Pretty in Pink, which to be fair, came on the popular culture scene a few years after I graduated from high school.

Still, there were plenty of other plotlines that promised the same thing. Davy Jones will take Marsha Brady to the prom, for example.

And yes, I watched liberated heros like Mary Tyler Moore--but go back and watch those shows. There's many an episode where Mary and Rhoda worry about men, not work, not artistic expression, not their financial portfolios.

Lately, I've been thinking about identifying with protagonists, and all the ways this habit has betrayed me. Lately I've been experiencing a different sort of betrayal as I've returned to movies that I LOVED as an adolescent. Lately, I've been identifying more with the adult characters than the cool teen characters.

Take Fame, for example. At one point, I'd have considered myself to be in league with the cool drama kids, even while acknowledging that they were WAY cooler because they lived in New York City and went to the High School for the Performing Arts.

Imagine my horror a few years ago as I showed the film to a class of students, who no doubt were identifying with the cool adolescent characters, while it dawned on me that I've become the English teacher in the film. Yikes! That scene where the English teacher waits in the hospital to find out how her husband is doing, and Leroy shows up to badger her about his grade--interesting to remember that humans undergoing adolescence have always been self-absorbed, that it's not just this current generation.

A few years later, I watched Footloose again for the first time in a long time. I remember the father as an insufferable, controlling pig, mistreating the women in his family and keeping everyone from dancing. I saw him as a horrid Christian, the kind that gives all Christians a bad name.

Upon rewatching it, I didn't see the misogyny that I saw when I was a strident nineteen year old viewer. I felt deep sympathy for the parents in the film, people so scarred by the loss of their oldest child, so pulled apart, yet able to find their way back to each other. I completely understood the father's fear about all the dangers that come from leaving adolescents unsupervised.

It's shocking to me to realize what an uncareful viewer I once was. I often just projected the storyline I wanted to see onto whatever I was watching. I assumed that all those Fame kids were headed to stardom. A rewatching as a grown up made it clear that those students have some serious strikes against them. Similarly, when I first watched The Big Chill, I assumed that these college friends had stayed close--I was in college, and that was the story I wanted to believe. It was only upon seeing it again years later that I realized how far apart they had drifted, both from each other and from their ideals.

It makes me wonder what will be revealed as I return to movies in my older years. It also takes me back to the English teachers of my youth, the ones that claimed that you know a great work of art because it reveals something new each time you return to it.

Am I claiming Footloose to be a great work of art? Or is it simply that I'm a different person each time I return to a movie/book/painting/musical piece?

That question is one that cultural critics have been arguing about since at least the time of Plato (although the ancient Greeks would have used vastly different language and had a vastly different idea of selfhood than we have). I won't pretend to be able to sort it out in a blog post. I'll leave that to others with more time.