Thursday, June 30, 2011

This Blog Will be Silent for a Few Days

This blog will be silent for a few days; I'm off to fill my sails with the winds of inspiration!  Yes, it's time for that annual break from blogging, time to spend undistracted time with my friends and family, time for the summer pleasures that will be gone too soon.  I'm off to eat watermelon, to grill good foods, to see the world through different eyes, to read a novel or maybe two!

I expect to return to blogging July 5.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Our Perfect Roses and Our Lost Planets

Today is the birthday of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, most famous to most of us for his work The Little Prince. Would we call him one of the first generation of airline pilots?  Yes, I think I would.  He loved extreme places:  the airplane, the skies where the airplane took him, the desert.

But it's with The Little Prince that he's left a mark on the world.  Ah, the classic tale of a traveler longing to return to his home planet!  I seem to be bumping into that theme frequently these days (Super 8 is the example that stands out most; I could also argue that the political wrangling that goes on in DC these days is about a longing to return to a home of sorts, a time when the world was safer and deficits were smaller and the future looked brighter).

I first read The Little Prince the summer after third grade.  It was the first time I was away from my parents, at Lutheridge.  I'd been to that camp before, but always with my parents.  I didn't really like the camp experience that year.  I remember feeling sad and lonely and not like the other girls--a feeling not unfamiliar to me some days, even now, and I suspect most creative types continue to feel this way throughout life.

My mom had slipped this slim novel into my suitcase as a surprise for me to find.  I loved the book, and I still feel fondness for it because it got me through a rough patch--again, a familiar feeling.

Later, I would read it in French class, both in high school and in college.  If third graders can read it in English, then it's easy enough for first or second year French students!

I seem to recall a film version, with Gene Wilder as the fox.

Ah, that fox that wanted to be tamed, that fox who showed us that the problem with loving is that we are likely to lose the ones we love--except that we've never really lost them, as long as we have our memories.

Here's a nugget of wisdom from the fox:  "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;  what is essential is invisible to the eye" (p. 87).

May you only tame the things/people/characters/symbols for whom you want to be responsible!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Radicals and Theologians, Comics and Politicians

Today is another day when Garrison Keillor has put together an assortment of birthdays and anniversaries in this web posting that made me say, "Hmm.  Interesting how all of these have impacted my life."

Today is the birthday of Henry VIII, long ago.  You might say, "Why on earth would that birth in 1491 affect you?"  To be honest, I've been more affected by the birth of Henry's daughter Elizabeth.  You may remember her as one of the greatest rulers ever, male or female--at least, that's what I was taught long ago.  We could spend a pleasant evening debating who's the best ruler in history--maybe several evenings. 

But I'm most impacted by Elizabeth's support of the arts.  Would we have had a William Shakespeare and all those other great Elizabethan writers without her, without the culture she created that supported the arts?

Or perhaps I've been more impacted by her support of exploration of the New World, although we might give future British rulers, like Charles, more credit.  As a woman who spent much of her teenage years in and around Virginia, it's hard to escape her impact.

Henry VIII has influenced me in other ways.  I think of him as one of the fathers of the Reformation, even if he began as a "defender of the faith"--the Roman Catholic faith, that is.  Still, the man went on to create the Church of England, which has influenced me, and the literature I have loved, in many ways.

Today is also the birthday of John Wesley, another great Protestant figure.  Yes, I know I'm a Lutheran, not an Anglican or a Methodist, but it's impossible to ignore the greatness of these men.  I wrote more about Wesley in today's post on my theology blog.

It's Rousseau's birthday too.  He spent much of his life thinking about issues of inequality, issues that impact us today as much as they did in his lifetime.  His works inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, which inspired so many of the British authors I love, before it all went terribly wrong.

We might even stretch and say that those ideas affected the gay men who decided they were tired of unequal treatment and who stood their ground during the uprising that came to be known as the Stonewall Riots.  I'm a woman who believes that oppression anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, so I would have cheered those men, had I been old enough to know what was going on.

It's also the birthday of Gilda Radner, who blazed a different trail, but who made the world a little bit more free.  I'm so grateful to all those 1970's era feminists who showed us a multitude of ways to be a woman.  We think of the 60's as an era that made great strides towards freedom, but I could make an even stronger case that the 70's made us all more free than the 1960's.  I mourned her early death, because she had such creativity and fearlessness.

Yes, I realize there is still much work to do.  Much of the world's women and homosexuals and people who are different in any kind of way are still under increasing threat as they face ever more difficult obstacles.  But I would argue that we've made strides I didn't think we would see in my lifetime:  Nelson Mandela not only released from prison but elected president of South Africa, East Europe shaking off the shackles of Communism, a president of mixed race for our own country, the fact that we're almost at the point where more women get college degrees than men--wow!

Yes, all it takes is the melting of one large enough ice shelf, and our attention will turn to survival of a completely different kind.  The apocalypse that haunts me is very different from those of the past.  But still, humans have shown great dexterity in dealing with those kind of crises--indeed, it is often those very crises, from the political dramas that Henry VIII and Elizabeth handled so deftly to the French Revolution to the human rights demands of the twentieth century, that change our lives so dramatically.

When you're tired of arguing about whether or not Elizabeth I was one of the world's greatest rulers, you can amuse yourselves at dinner parties by wondering what revolutions are changing the world for future generations right now, even as we may not perceive them doing that.  What young theologians are travelling hundreds of miles, like John Wesley?  What other ideas are inspiring those who would overturn our world?  What great characters, comic and otherwise, will young comedians create in response to all these changes?  And will any of it matter, as the seas rise and the continents burn?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Carpe Diem Summer and Beyond!

Bookgirl has a great post about her planned carpe diem summer.  Her post has all sorts of applications, from our individual lives, to a great teaching idea that incorporates the British Romantic poets.  She says, "I’m not going to go fight in a War of Independence in Greece, get a fever, and die. I’m not that ambitious. These are just small moments. I’m starting a list."

Her list contains all sorts of things she'd like to do this summer, things like going to the beach more often, having picnics, going to the zoo, going to a drive-in movie. 

I love the idea of having a list.  I've found that having a list of books I plan to read during the year not only helps me remember some of the books I meant to read, but it keeps me reading more in general.  Maybe I should generate a carpe diem list every so often.

So, what would be on my list this summer?  Let's see . . .

--go to the beach more often (why live here, after all, with all the extra expense, if I'm not going to the beach?).
--go kayaaking in our local park
--swim in my friends' pools
--make homemade ice cream
--grill corn on the cob
--enjoy watermelon
--go to one of the tourist attractions in the area where I haven't gone before, like Vizcaya
--SCUBA or snorkel more
--go to yoga class more regularly
--finish creating the fountain that we started building last year

I'd like to have items from my childhood on the list, like chasing fireflies, but we don't have fireflies down here.  But some of the things on the list are from my childhood, like homemade ice cream and grilled foods and watermelon.

In some ways, my list feels like a bit of a cheat.  I'm likely to do a lot of these things, like eating watermelon and swimming in friends' pools, anyway, list or no list.

One of my colleagues at work told me that I have a rich life, and I felt a bit surprised.  In some respects, I do have a rich life; I have time for creative pursuits, I read widely, I have friends who are willing to meet me for lunch, I have a spouse who's willing to have adventures with me, and I have a bit of extra money and a bit of extra discretionary time.  I'm lucky in many respects.

Now, if I could just hush my inner voice, which says, "No, if I had a truly rich life, I'd be spending the summer in a French vineyard.  I'd be the poet-in-residence at that vineyard.  I'd be paid to sit on a flagstone patio, sip wine, and write blog posts about the whole experience."

Of course, I recognize these tendencies.  I wrote a poem about it.  I won't post the whole thing, because I'm hopeful it will be published elsewhere before I post it here.  But here's a stanza from my poem "Tuscany Dreams":

No one mentions the cost of phone
calls to all the ones left behind in the move
to Tuscany. It’s all sun-drenched
colors and fresh foods, and no one suffers
homesickness in Tuscany.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

We Were Artists Once and Young: "Super 8"

A few nights ago, I went to see Super 8 at the movie theatre.  As I watched the special effects, which made me gasp, I thought about how rarely I see movies on the big screen anymore and how wonderful it can be.  Of course, there was only one other person in the movie theatre besides me and the two friends with me, so we avoided many of the things that annoy me about seeing going to the theatre--like people who can't put their phones away, so we get little glowing screens across the theatre.

What a wonderful movie.  On some level, I agree with Ann Hornaday, who in this review says, "Set in 1979, this is a pop-culture nostalgia trip that feels as if it’s been beamed from a sweeter, more innocent time, when youngsters could tear around on bikes all night without texting home and when the height of technological innovation was a clunky, cassette-playing Sony Walkman."  I wanted to see the movie because I always find it intriguing to see how movies set in the past that I can remember handle that part of the setting.  This movie rewards that kind of viewing.  At one point, the kids bring their film to the shop and ask if it can be developed overnight.  The stoned clerk gives them a dismissive look and says, "Kid, nobody can develop film overnight."  Oh, how things have changed!

I didn't expect the movie to be so much about the artistic process, about creativity, about how children grow up to become artists.  By now, you probably know that the kids in the film are shooting a movie.  I didn't expect them to be approaching it so professionally.  They have costumes and make-up and a variety of special effects.  They rewrite the script to take advantage of some of the background shots that they can use.  Time and time again, I thought, wow, these kids are real artists, devoted to their craft, going to all lengths to make the piece of art they want to make.

But why should that surprise me?  These kids are closer to the age of childhood than adulthood.  It's adults, most of them, who have forgotten how to be creative, adults who have abandoned their artist selves.  Children have a tendency to create, often rather exhaustively.  My nephew who just turned five will create all sorts of things out of paper:  pirate accessories and weapons and creatures and books and clothes.  My nephew has transformed every old blank book my sister has into books of his own.  I love his zest--the same way I love the children in Super 8.

But they're not just making movies.  One of the kids creates explosions of all sorts, which might seem more like a destructive streak than a creative one, but he's more interested in the explosion than in destroying anything.  The main character paints models (trains and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example).  One of the plot points revolves around whether or not he'll let his best friend the filmmaker destroy one of his trains for the sake of the movie.

Ah, the eternal question:  which art form gets to reign supreme?  I've wrestled with this question my whole life, as a creative person who enjoys a wide variety of art forms but who only has so much time in the day.

I love the collaborative process that we see in this movie.  I miss that aspect of my own childhood, where we worked on puppet shows.  I miss that aspect of undergraduate school, where we had the same spirit of camaraderie as we worked on putting together the student newspaper, the literary journal, various plays.

I don't feel that same sense of camaraderie in my current work life, but maybe I'm just looking at it wrong.  In twenty years, maybe I'll look back and say, "Oh how I miss that sense of camaraderie we had while we were working together to create the best school possible for our students."

Or maybe I just need to create some collaborative artistic projects as an adult.  It may not be as easy as it was when I was younger and we went to school together and we didn't have the distractions/obligations that we have now.  But it would be worthwhile.

An update:  I can't leave this movie alone!  For my thoughts on the theological aspects of this movie, go to this post on my theology blog.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Dark and Like a Web"--Let Yourself Be Caught

Back in April, when some of us wrote a poem a day and others of us committed to ramping up our poetry reading, Nic Sebastian started writing prayers and charms. She posted them to her blog for about a week before she realized she was creating something deep and special. Months later, lucky readers receive this collection of 15 poems in a chapbook Dark And Like A Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine.

With that subtitle, it should surprise no one that these poems circle around religious themes. I love what she does with prayer beads, for example (“containing prayer beads and Bangkok,” “containing prayer beads and Villa de Leyva,” and “containing prayer beads and Muscat”). Before reading these poems, I’m not sure I realized how many religious traditions use prayer beads. She uses prayer beads not only to explore issues surrounding God, but also to explore romantic relationships and family relationships.

As I discussed yesterday, I approached this collection via many different mediums. When I heard Sebastian read the end of “containing prayer beads and Villa de Leyva,” I saw the poem differently. The last three lines give us the prayer beads around the wrist of the speaker “twisted tight red and beautiful / glint in sinking sun”—it wasn’t until I heard Sebastian read these lines that I saw them as threatening in some way. Her voice made me consider the twisting, the violence that seems inherent in the lines, but only once I heard them.

Variations of the color red filter through this collection along with many other colors, among them silver, gold and amber, black and charcoal. With her rich and varied use of color, her work becomes visual.

Sebastian uses a variety of images, some of them religious (like the prayer beads), but many of them not. Even some of the more overtly religious images aren’t used in a way that most of us would find offensive or offputting. For example, in “on escaping your toils,” Sebastian envisions life as a church bell:

I would hang high and be tuned for tenor
to ring birth death danger

and love
quite indifferently

It’s an interesting image, the church bell high above the landscape below, punctuating the lives lived.

As I read through the book, and reread it while listening to Sebastian read, I came away with different meanings. For example, until I heard Sebastian’s interpretation, I didn’t even think about the different ways that these lines could be read:

the girl watches deeply
under constant sun, never feels
she is alone

When I read it, I thought the girl never felt alone. When I heard Sebastian read it, the lines feel foreboding, the girl abandoned.

These poems wrestle with all sorts of issues of abandonment, which again makes sense, considering the subtitle of the collection Our days rush by, our lovers zoom in and out of our lives, yet we continue to be yanked by those we have loved, as if they’re a hook or a moon pulling, pulling, pulling (images found in "on the face of loneliness"). What does it all mean? Does it do any good to light our candles?

The last poem, “when you come to me in the dark of night,” gives a sense of hope, but not definitive answer. This poem promises reunion, and the collection closes this way, “I rise whole from the pool at sunrise / and step onto you as onto a straight road / lined with cypress trees and warbler song.” I like the ambiguity of the lines. Is the speaker talking to a lover? To God? Is the speaker God?

The poem works on all these levels, and makes me want to go back to reread the whole collection some more, even though I’ve read it several times. Will I discover other submerged religious possibilities? Perhaps the hours in “the girl and the hours” refers to the practice of praying on a regular basis? Perhaps the breath in “the names of my breath” has a larger significance than I first thought? My brain whirls with the vision of the God of Christian tradition, the God who creates by breathing, the God who comes in the form of the Holy Spirit through a huge exhale of sorts (the rushing wind of Pentecost).

Am I making too much of these connections? Is my inner English major self winning a battle she shouldn’t be fighting? Is my inner theology student self seeing connections that aren't there?  Happily, there’s plenty in this collection for all sorts of readers. Those of us who like to take analysis to new heights will be richly rewarded. Those of us who like to let the words wash over us will find many delights, especially if we let Sebastian read to us. This collection offers many delights, and since you have so many ways to access it, most of them free if you go here, you shouldn’t miss it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does the Delivery System Impact My Reading Experience?

As I thought about the latest book I want to review, Nic Sebastian's Dark and Like a Web, I realized I had an opportunity that I don't often have.  So far, Nic has committed to offering her books in the widest variety of formats possible.  If you go here, you can order a chapbook in traditional book form, download a PDF, download in a format that your portable device will deliver to you, download a sound file, and/or order a CD.  Wow.  And I'm humbled to think that Nic mastered all this technology herself; she gives an overview here, with links to the more technical information.

A brief aside, before we get to my reading experiment.  If you're fascinated by the nanopress experiment that Nic describes here, but the technology scares you, Nic has a special offer here, where she offers to do the tech part for a worthy project.

Another aside:  yes, I realize that my experiment has limitations, because I'm not brand new to the text after the first time.  I'm not sure what to do about that.  But my experiment, simply put, was to try the different formats to see if my reading experience changed.  I could only go so far because I don't have a portable device that can deliver text like that.  I've taken to calling my cell phone "my stupid phone."  I mean that in more ways than one.  But I digress.

My print copy of the chapbook came on Monday night, and I devoured it right away.  I fell in love with the cover:  so apocalyptic, as if Turner, the British Romantic artist, decided to paint the end of the world.  I loved the readability of the print.  At first, the glossiness of the paper felt strange to my fingers, but I quickly got used to it.

I read the book the way I always do:  I skipped around first, seeing which lines caught my eyes, which titles appealed, which poems pulled me in the first time my eyes saw them.  I looked for themes, which I saw immediately:  prayer beads make their way through several poems, and I saw lots of colors, especially silvers and reds.

It was late, and I was tired after a hard workout (an hour of yoga, followed by an hour of circuit training), so I put the book aside.  To be truthful, it wasn't until the next day that I had my "aha!" moment and developed my plan.

I have long loved Nic Sebastian's voice, and I've said before that I'd listen to her read the phone book.  So, the opportunity to hear her read the book was too good to resist.  But first I wanted to read it silently, from the beginning to the end.  I did.  I loved it; I'll write a proper review tomorrow.

Then, I downloaded the PDF file.  Unlike some PDF files, I found it easy to navigate.  I could move through the pages without that annoying slowdown that PDF files at work seem to have.  When I read a PDF file at work, sometimes I feel like there are hooks behind my monitor and the text gets caught on them, only to be released and go tumbling by too fast (I have that same experience with Facebook, which is why I'm not on Facebook as often as some people).  Happily, I didn't have that problem with Nic's book as PDF file.

I didn't notice a different reading experience with the PDF file.  Next, it was on to the audio file, which I listened to with the print version open.  That experience was my favorite.  For the most part, hearing Nic read enriched my reading.  In some spots, her reading made me view the poem differently.

Let's take the last three lines of "the girl and the hours" as the best example:

the girl watches deeply
under constant sun, never feels
she is alone

Read those lines several times.  How do you interpret them?  I didn't even realize that several interpretations existed until I listened to Nic read.  Then I went back to the lines and said, "Hmm.  Look at what she's done there."  In case you want to replicate my experiment, I'll refrain from saying more until my review tomorrow.  I had a similar experience with the end of "containing prayer beads and Villa de Leyva."

For my final listening experience/experiment, I listened to Nic read without following along.  By now, I had read each poem at least 3 times.  Honestly, I didn't expect to hear anything new.

Yet I did.  The poem "containing prayer beads and Bangkok" ends this way:

a year later in deep Seattle
winter I pull the japa mala
from my prayer bag
and cannot speak

I was listening, and I said, "Wait.  There's a prayer bag?  Not just a purse of some kind?"  Sure enough, a plum detail I had missed.

I'm guessing that reading on a portable device would have yielded similar results, unless there were hyperlinks, and then all bets would be off.  I try not to click on links until I'm done with a reading, but I suspect most readers aren't that disciplined.

Lately, whenever I'm in the company of serious readers, the talk seems to turn to various e-readers and the future of print.  One friend, who was trained as a computer scientist decades ago, rejects all e-readers because she doesn't trust batteries and electric sources.  I'm sympathetic to that view, especially after hearing about the experience of another computer specialist friend who took his brand new Kindle on a cruise, only to have it crash the first hour of the first day, leaving him without his specially selected books during the whole cruise and at the mercy of the ship's library.  My English high school teacher friend adores her Kindle and can't imagine life without it.  The rest of us are somewhat dispassionate.

If someone gave me a Kindle or an iPad, I'd use it.  But plunk down my hard-earned money?  Not yet.  If I had a stint of travel that involved several weeks, I'd be tempted.  Those books do constitute the weight of my luggage.  Books and shoes--my travelling conundrum.

I tend to read individual poems online, and if I like them well enough, I yearn to buy the book, and I want a physical book, not a PDF file.  I want some pennies to go back to the poet.  It's even more thrilling when I've watched a collection emerge.  I remember when Nic started writing these poems, which began as "prayers and charms" that she took on as her National Poetry Month writing project.  I remember reading one of them, but I don't remember which one, and thinking, wow, she is diving deep.

I had a similar experience with Mary Biddinger's Saint Monica poems.  As long ago as 2008, she was working on these poems and blogging about them (for example, this post, where she contemplates how to organize them into a book).  And now, finally, the book arrived yesterday.

Happily, I didn't have to wait that long for Nic's collection, although it's a collection worth the wait.  Tomorrow, I'll post a review.  In the meantime, if you want to read it first, you have many different ways to access the work here.  That instant access is something that paper books haven't mastered.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Our Kindred Ancestors and Our Earthseed Futures

Today is the birthday of Octavia Butler, one of my favorite writers.  Notice I said one of my favorite writers, without any qualifiers.  Yes, she's a sci-fi writer, but she transcends that genre.  Yes, she's female, but her writing is more powerful than just about anyone else's, male or female.  Yes, she's African-American, working class--but again, those categories enrich her writing, not limit it. 

I'm using present tense verbs, even though she died several years ago.  She slipped on a sidewalk, hit her head, and never woke up.  Her death shocked me.  We forget how fragile our skulls really are.

Her scope is breathtaking.  She's as adept at envisioning new worlds and new races as she is taking us to the past.

Many people are most familiar with her novel Kindred.  In this novel, a black, female writer gets sucked back to antebellum Virginia.  It wasn't until reading this novel that I fully understood the horrors of slavery, the various threats of that time period.  To make the plot more interesting, she quickly realizes that she's being transported back to her ancestors, which limits some of her choices:  she can't just kill those people who threaten her; if her ancestors die, what will happen to her?  It's not one of my favorites of all the books she wrote, but it is one that I'm glad that I read--several times.

What would my favorite Butler novel be?  I'm torn.  At one point, I'd have said Parable of the Sower.  It's a novel that takes place in the near future, the year 2025, nearer now than when it was published.  It paints a picture of the future where money is not spent on infrastructure, but the space program remains somewhat intact.  It paints a picture of a crumbling future that seems more frighteningly possible to me now than it did when I read it back in 1994.  I've read this novel so many times that I rarely return to it; I'm so familiar with the book that it's hard for me to want to read it again.  If you like your future dark and dystopian yet shot through with a bit of light, pick up this book.

In 2001, I read Wild Seed, one of the most inventive books I've ever read.  At first, I thought I was reading about a different world, but eventually I figured out that I was reading about the earliest years of the slave trade.  What interesting wording--the slave trade, as if there was only one.  I mean the slave trade which brought Africans to the North American continent and the outlying islands.  It's an amazing book which deals with gender, race, and history in such amazing ways that it's impossible to look at those subjects the same way again.

One of the benefits of being a Butler fan is that she often wrote books that were part of a series.  And unlike some writers who do that, often each book of the series could stand on its own, while interacting with the others in interesting ways.

I was so happy when she won the MacArthur award.  I read an interview with her in Poets and Writers shortly after she won that award.  She talked about the value of money to a writer, how having a funding source freed her to write all the books she'd been storing up but couldn't write because she had to work.  And in her early years, that work was often menial labor, the kind that leaves one too tired to write. 

Her interview made me see myself as lucky.  Academic work might leave me drained on a different level, but most weeks, I'm not too physically exhausted to write.  So far, I've been lucky in that I've rarely had supervisors who were out to get me.  My coworkers have been pleasant and supportive.  While I might not find myself in a community of writers, my coworkers understand the appeal of doing it.

Octavia Butler was an amazing writer, and not a month goes by where I don't miss her and wonder what she'd be writing now, if she had lived.  She had such amazing insight, and I wonder what she would have made of our present time.  On the one hand, we have an African-American president, an amazing event.  On the other, we have so many grim features of our future bearing down on us.

In her book Dawn, a non-human character says that humans have two incompatible characteristics:  intelligence and the tendency to hierarchy (page 27).  Many of her books return to this theme again and again.  I suspect she'd tell me that these 2 incompatible tendencies explain a lot of our current problems.

Butler was a writer who writers could love.  Like many of my favorite writers, she stresses habit and persistence over talent and inspiration.  Here's a typical quote (found on GoodReads):  "First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice."

Maybe I'll return to Butler this summer.  It's been awhile since I read any of her books.  I need her voice in my head again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Value of Practice: In Yoga, In Writing, In Marriage

Last night I went to a yoga class for the first time in almost two years.  As always, I'm amazed at how flexible other people are.  I'm also amazed at some of the poses I can still do.  And I'm sad at how many poses I cannot do, how many body parts I can't twist around each other, how many times I can't touch my toes (but sometimes, I can!).

I'm most humbled at the fact that my body's fibers haven't shriveled up completely due to my inattention.  I'm grateful for the fact that no matter how much I neglect my daily/weekly practice, it's all still there waiting for me:  my body, the class, the teacher, the practice.

And yes, I know that one day, that may not be the case.  Yet, I've seen yoga participants make amazing progress, so at least it's not like having a ballerina practice.

In some ways, my approach to yoga has similarities to my writing practice.  I do best if I write every day.  I like to stay limber.  But even if I can't, my writing self doesn't abandon me.  She's there, waiting for me, storing up the ideas until I have a chance to return.

It's like a marriage of many decades.  Gone, for the most part, are the tumultuous ups and downs of the early years.  Some people might miss the thrill and the drama (and thus go out to manufacture some), but not me.  I write a poem, which gives me satisfaction, but rarely rapture.  And if I can't write a poem, my muse doesn't go off in a huff; likewise, in a marriage of many decades, there can be some times of benign neglect.  It's best not to let that go on for too long, but it's not the calamity it might be in the early years, before the partners really know each other.

People across many disciplines will extol the value of practice and habit.  One of the values that I rarely see discussed is that people who have a discipline and a habitual practice have an easier time returning when they've gone astray.  It's easier to adjust the trajectory to get to where we want to be, and because of our practice, we may not go as far off the path as we would if we didn't have a practice.

I have no scientific data to back up these ideas, just anecdotal evidence.  On this day when I've learned that fewer Americans believe in global warming today than they did 4 years ago (almost down to 60%), I'm wary of making large, sweeping claims.  I'm also aware of how easy it must be to dupe people.

Really?  Almost half the American population doesn't believe in global warming?  Please explain the disappearing ice caps, year after year of record setting temperatures, all the items which look like irrefutable evidence to me.

What's next?  Maybe we'll decide we don't believe in gravity?  Maybe we'll doubt that microbes can hurt us?

So, let us hold fast to the belief in the worth of regular practice, whether it be in our relationships with significant others, or in our writing, or in our practices to keep our bodies and minds supple.  Let us always be able to return to the habits which serve us well.  Let us shuck off the habits/beliefs/practices that don't.

And for those of you who have been out of practice, your muse awaits your return.  Here's a poem to comfort you (first published in the journal Emrys):

The Muse to Her Poet

You worry that I am some Ulysses,
headed off to distant lands the moment you turn
your back, easily seduced by goddesses,
and ever needful of new adventures.

You are the one who sets sail
for the distant island of your novel, sidetracked
from your true vocation by thoughts of the fruits
of fame, the warmth of characters
to put through their paces.
You are the one who often strands
herself on the dry, dusty shores
of academic writing, pursuing the metaphors
and symbols of other poets
while neglecting your own.

I am your muse, your Penelope, waiting
ever, always patient. I weave
even when you’re unaware, distracted
by those undeterred suitors of easier pleasures than mine.
I pluck out the threads that don’t match,
keep the tapestries safe,
keep my faith in your return.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Of Downbound Trains and Poetry Manuscripts

I spent some time yesterday with Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA CD.  Long ago, I'd have been listening on vinyl, if I was near the record player, or on cassette tape (homemade) if I was in the car.  Now I finally have cars with CD players and it's time to update everything to MP3s.  It's probably too late--there's probably new technology out there that will ensure that as soon as I get a bulk of material converted, the new technology will take over.

But I digress.  What I really wanted to say:  what a perfect song collection, regardless of delivery format.  The whole thing hangs together thematically, tonally, in every possible way.

I first bought this collection years ago.  It was 1984, and I was getting back to campus.  Although my school was in South Carolina, my dorm was unairconditioned.  I think about schools today with their fancy gymns and resort-like residences--ha!  Bunch of soft students.  We lived through the end of a South Carolina summer with NO AIR CONDITIONING!!!  One of our classroom buildings had no air conditioning.  It was brutal.

So, off I went to the local Wal-Mart to buy a fan.  While I was there, I picked up the new Springsteen album.  I listened to it non-stop through the fall of 1984.

I haven't listened to it in a long time, but it still seems so relevant.  All those songs of people losing their jobs, losing love, losing everything.  As I listened to "Downbound Train," I thought about how that song describes the situation of so many in this country.  Grim.

If anyone ever asks me how I learned to put together a poetry manuscript, I shall answer that everything I know comes from analyzing record albums.  I used to listen to records obsessively, poring over lyrics, thinking about how the songs fit together, deciphering the narrative arc as the album moved from song 1 to the final song.  I delighted in noticing symbols and figurative language that linked and informed each other.

Of course, some record albums were better teachers than others.  Some record albums resembled what first book poetry manuscripts used to be:  a good collection of songs, nothing else.  I suspect there aren't many first book collections like that anymore.  The competition is too fierce.

But I loved the record albums that had a larger vision, a wider scope.  I loved best the record albums that hung together as a work of art.  If I had had friends with musical talents and similar visions, maybe I'd have gone the musical route.  But I didn't, not that I knew of at the time, and so I started down the more solitary poetry path.

It was good to mourn the death of Clarence Clemons by listening to the music he created.  I'm so glad he had a long life.  I'm grateful that so many of the artists who were important to me got to live long lives--many of them still very much alive, still vital even as they live on into their 70's making the best music of their careers (Paul Simon's new CD is never far away from me these days).

What I'm really saying is that I'm glad my artistic goal doesn't rely on my youth.  It would be tough to have ambitions as a ballerina and to be in my 40's.  As a poet, I still hope to have many productive decades left.  Bruce Springsteen likely has some "Downbound Trains" left to compose.  So do I.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Our Bullies, Ourselves

I read a reviewer describe Lisa Scottoline's latest book, Save Me, as a book about bullies in elementary school.  Maybe it is, although that seems a minor plot point to me so far.  I'm finding it increasingly difficult to care about these characters.  I find myself skimming parts of the book.  I've thought about not reading any more of it, but I have a little over 100 pages and I really can't figure out where the book is heading.  Will a big secret be revealed?  Several of them?  What is up with these minor characters who get so upset over a mom who tries to save her child?  We're supposed to see the child with a birthmark as a victim of bullying, but I'm seeing the adults as much more bullying than the children.  Maybe I'm supposed to see it that way.  I'm not sure yet.  It's getting late in the book for me to be unsure.

I had really hoped that this book would be akin to the experience I had in the past year reading Laura Lippman.  Her books have characters that aren't quite as richly drawn as I might like, but they have compelling plots ripped right out of the headlines.  And they're dealt with imaginatively.

No, if I had to recommend a book I'd been reading it would be Jennifer Haigh's Faith, a story about the family of a Boston priest accused of child sexual abuse.  I wasn't sure how it would turn out, but the characters had depth and interested me.  In many ways, it has a subtheme of bullying too.

But if you really want an imaginative approach to the topic of bullying, watch Let Me In.  Oh my heavens.  It's a vampire movie, it's an intriguing re-spinning of Romeo and Juliet, it's about children on the cusp of adolescence and all the ways they torture each other and save each other.  It's fairly graphic, not suitable for children.  But the scenes of the vampire attacks freaked me out less than the bullying scenes.  The main character is so scrawny, and his torturers so powerful.  And where are the adults?

It makes me wonder how much I'm not seeing as I go about my regular life.  Surely I would notice if people were mistreating each other, wouldn't I?  Surely I would intervene?

The movie is set in 1983, which is a time period I actually lived through.  I didn't have trouble in high school.  I wasn't bullied, just largely ignored, and that was fine with me.  In 7th grade, I was bullied (the year was 1977, not 1983).  We had a student who had failed 7th grade numerous times, so she was 15, when the rest of us were 12.  She was huge, both in terms of height and weight.  She called me Goldilocks.  She threatened to get me--but she threatened to get everybody.  There were afternoons I would scurry to my bus taking different routes, hoping to avoid her.

My encounters with her came to a head when I called her Papa Bear as she called me Goldilocks.  She threw a pile of Math books at me, and we were sent to the principal's office, where she accused me of bullying her.

However, she had a track record of bullying, and I didn't.  It just happened that I was her final offense, and she got sent to a juvenile facility.  I felt kind of bad about that, but more, I felt relieved.  I worried that she'd get out and come looking for me, the kid who had her sent away, but happily, that didn't happen.

As I watched the movie, and I watched the kids being brutal, I felt like I had escaped a much more horrible fate.  My bully could have made mincemeat out of me if she had wanted.  I had been taught that the best way to deal with meanness was to ignore it.

If I had children, I'd enroll them in self-defense classes early.  I want to believe that times have changed and that administrators don't have a "let the kids sort it out" philosophy. 

In fact, if I was in charge of schools, I'd change PE classes to self-defense classes of all sorts, along with some gun safety.  Clearly, I'll never get elected.

But honestly, how often in grown up life have you needed to know the rules of volleyball?  How often would some self-defense training have come in handy?  Self-defense would be more valuable, especially for our female students.

My cynical self would say that we don't want to train women from childhood to protect themselves, because then society would change radically.  My rational self says that most people approach school from the way they were brought up, which is why things never seem to change.  We're not good at envisioning new ways of doing things.

But today, I need a break from the bullies that seem to be haunting my pop culture intake.  Today, I'll dust off Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and feel gratitude for that music and for Clarence Clemons.  I've gotten through many a rough patch in my life with music to cheer me up, to remind me of what's important, to inspire me, and to give me courage.  Bruce Springsteen's music has never been far away.  And Clarence Clemons was an essential part of Springsteen's creative team.

I have a vision (inspired by the episode of The Simpsons where Bleeding Gums Murphy dies) of Clarence Clemons having a jam session with so many of the musicians that I've loved who have died before I wanted to let them go.  If Joe Strummer, Clarence Clemmons, Kate McGarrigal, Kate Wolf, John Lennon, George Harrison--this list could go on indefinitely--formed a band, what kind of songs would they create?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

No Waterloo this Saturday in the Electronic Lake District

I read that today was the day that Napoleon met his defeat at Waterloo, and now I can't get that ABBA song out of my head:  "Waterloo, couldn't escape if I wanted to . . ."

Now you have it in your head too.

Let's try to get that song out of our collective brain by seeing what's out there on the Internet to read and how it inspired a poem this morning.

For those of you who can't get enough of my theological writing, head to this post on the Living Lutheran website, where I talk about what living as a Lutheran means (grace!  intellect!  works!  more!).  For those of you who aren't into theological writing, head to this post at Voice Alpha, where I talk about the poet as a cover band.

But those are not the posts that inspired my writing this morning.  I've been thinking about Beth's wonderful post on her tunic from Afghanistan.  I loved the last lines:  "Today I opened the carefully sewn French seams and ran my figertips over the silk embroidery, wondering about the Afghani woman who must have sewn this garment all those years ago. What would these years have been like if women had made more of the decisions? Instead, our world really is rent at the seams."

Ah, seams and textiles and social justice!  My brain went right to work.

I continue to be inspired by Luisa Igloria's poems and her process which she explains here.  She goes to Dave Bonta's daily post at his Morning Porch blog, and she writes a poem.  I, too, have been finding inspiration from Dave's blog, especially those posts of his inspired by his recent trip.  Oh, those graveyard posts!  I love this poem this morning.  I continue to go back to this post to enjoy the wonderful photos.

And then there was this post by Dale, about our ribs.  And it all came together into this poem:

Restoring the Seams

She used to count every rib,
a loom around her heart,
like the Appalachian tool
that spools honey into her tea.

But years of good food and wine
now hide her ribcage.
She lets the seams
out of the side of her favorite
dress, a dress bought long ago,
a dress stitched by a distant
woman in Afghanistan in a different decade.

She thinks of that country
come undone, torn and shredded.
She slides the seam ripper
under threads made softer
by the humidity of many Southern summers.

She thinks of distant graveyards,
young men buried in alien
landscapes. She thinks of English ivy,
that invasive immigrant, clinging
to the marble markers,
obscuring the names beneath.

Hours later, half blind from restoring
seams, she walks the woods
of a neighboring monastery.

The monks have reclaimed
an old slave cemetery, but a toppled
angel lies face down in the rich dirt.
She sets the angel upright
and brushes soil off her half-eroded features.

What does it mean that so much of my poetry inspiration comes from the Internet, particularly blogs, now?  To be fair, I don't think I was ever that poet who went out into nature for inspiration.  No, I read books about nature and said, "Hey, this fact would make a great metaphor!"  And thus, a poem.  So, since so much of my reading material is delivered electronically now, it shouldn't surprise me that I'm finding inspiration here.

If I was a grad student now, I might write a paper or a dissertation about how poets are inspiring each other through their works online.  It's our electronic Lake District!  We can't take long, rambling walks together like William, Dorothy, and Coleridge did, but we can meet in cyberspace and write works that we wouldn't have composed without each other.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Adanna" Arrives!

What an act of courage, to start a literary magazine, a print magazine, in our increasingly electronic age.  Sometimes I forget how much I like something to hold in my hand.  As I looked through the new journal, Adanna, I appreciated its solid heft, black words on a white surface, a collection that doesn't rely on electricity.

Some of my favorite poets are in this journal:  Kathleen Kirk, Sandy Longhorn, Angie Macri, and Diane Lockward.  I discovered some new poets; I particularly loved Particia Fargnoli's "Father Poem:  A Collage."   I found collage in the fiction section too:  Lani Friend's "Put This on Your Facebook Wall."  Much of the fiction, creative non-fiction, and essays are short--less than 3 pages--and lyrical, so it's not jarring to shift from the poetry section to the others.

All of the work here is by women, again an interesting editorial choice.  On first read, none of the work here seemed radically experimental in terms of subject or form.  Perhaps when I reread, I'll notice a radical tinge, but I doubt it.

Don't get me wrong; lack of radical experiment isn't a fault in this context. 

I also noticed a lack of art, again, an interesting editorial choice.  The journal cover is a bright, shiny red.  I wonder if covers of subsequent issues will change color, or if it will always be red.

I'm a woman who has cancelled all her magazine subscriptions because I found myself doing more reading online than on paper.  I got this journal because my poem appears in it too.  I'm grateful to Diane Lockward, the guest editor, for choosing to include it and for offering revision suggestions, which resulted in a stronger poem:

Household Spells

They paint me as a siren,
and if you squint at the canvas, you can almost hear
the melody I used to bewitch the wayfarers.

Too often, I’m seen as the cruel jailor
who kept marooned men against their will.
I should have sent that sloppy Ulysses
on his way sooner. All that moping.

But worse, he kept working on home
improvement projects, even when I begged
him not to. All that hammering!
I thought I’d go mad.

He forced on me a new filing system,
and now I can’t find a thing.
He rearranged all my kitchen cabinets.
Spare me from men who don’t cook
but feel called to impose a rational
system to a kitchen arranged for usefulness.
I hid my cast iron skillet.
I know he’s a big believer in cookware
made of fused metals,
but I know the strength that comes from cooking
with my grandmother’s perfectly seasoned pans.

When he eyed the quilts
and told me the price they might fetch
on the mainland, I knew it was time
for him to go. I encouraged
him to tell me all about the faithful Penelope,
and in a week, I was rid of him.

I don’t miss him much, but I find myself pondering
Penelope. Will she mourn her missing
solitude? Has she kept a list of projects
for him to complete when he returns?
He’s been gone for years.
will she still love a man bewitched by wanderlust?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Codes, Aberrant and Otherwise: Jeannine Hall Gailey's "She Returns to the Floating World"

I have spent the last week dipping in and out of Jeannine Hall Gailey's new book, She Returns to the Floating World--what a treat!  And last night, I read it straight through.  I hope to do so again, several times, because it's the wonderful, rare book that rewards that kind of close reading, as well as offering treasures for people who would rather peruse here and there.

As I read, I noticed several themes, all of them appealing.  This book has lots of siblings, many of whom save each other.  Early in the book, Gailey presents this central theme of salvation (by siblings and others), with "My Little Brother Learns Japanese."  We learn a bit about the Japanese language:  "He learns to conjugate / verbs with no future" and "how the word for heart / can also mean indigo blue" (italics in original).  Then we get to the lines that help shape the arc of the whole narrative:  "He learns in Japanese fairy tales / that siblings, not spouses, / are often saviors;".

Yet this is not solely a book about salvation and redemption.  Another thread that winds its way through this book is an exploration of all the ways that life can go terribly wrong.  For example, Gailey includes a series of 6 poems that explore aberrant code (after 3 poems that use the metaphor of code in a different way).  She finds inspiration from the world of computer coding, as you might expect, but she uses those ideas as a jumping off point to territory even more vast and full of riches.

In fact the book looks at aberrant code from all sorts of directions, in far more poems than the 6 that share that title.  We see DNA mutations, some from simple gardening, some from radiation poisoning, some from both.  The poem, "Chaos Theory" is my favorite example of this strain:  flowers that grow "churning offspring gigantic and marvelous / from that ground sick with uranium."

We see Gailey recombine the DNA of all sorts of fairy tales and myths that revolve around transformation, transformations that don't often go well.  We see poem after poem of mostly female characters trying to make themselves into the creatures that they think they want to be.  Most of us know it won't go well, but the poems that explore these themes are mostly gentle and sympathetic.  Sometimes they're even humorous.  In "The Fox-Wife's Husband Considers the Warning Signs," we get a list poem that tells all the reasons the relationship was doomed:  "When you had our baby, I caught you licking his head absently on / more than one occasion" and "Sometimes when you thought you were alone, you gnawed on / your forearm."

In fact, foxes run through this collection, from the creature on the cover, to the series of Fox-Wife poems, to the baby foxes that peep through some of the poems.  It makes sense the foxes should take starring roles.  Foxes are quick and cunning and adaptable, much like the characters in this book.  Birds, and their feathers, also appear more often than other creatures, which makes sense when we consider the Japanese culture which informs so many of the poems in this book.

Gailey also treats the theme of transformation in a modern way, with a sci-fi sensibility.  In some of the poems in this book, we see the modern response to this desire for transformation, the combining of the human with the machine.  In "The Lost Limbs of Anime Girls in Space," we meet women who "wake in the night to scratch phantom skin, / the joints between flesh and machine always aching."  I'm no cyborg, but I understand.

The poems vacillate between hope and despair.  In "Anime Girls Consider the Resurrected," many of the themes of the text converge.  We see the hope for resurrection across cultures, "Mary at the tomb / Nausicaa buoyed by caterpillars."  This poem shows us a woman who returns, in the form of a white bird.  We get the reassuring word that "She does not stay away forever."

But then we progress through the last section of the book, a section haunted by loss, by wives who must go away, by husbands powerless to convince them to stay.  Yet even these poems contain a central current of rebirth and resurrection, of transformation, sometimes into the dust that we'll all be eventually, sometimes into a more powerful force.

The last two poems show the push and pull of these themes and images.  In the second-to-last poem, "Yume (the Dream)," we have images of a small, frantic animal, a weeping cherry tree, "the sky like iced concrete," and the knowledge of "how hard we hold on to what must disappear."  The poem leaves us with an empty-handed speaker, a desolate, forlorn final sentence:  "I was hoping for a prayer, but here all I find is absence."

But absence and abandonment don't have the last word in this collection.  The final poem, "The Fox-Wife's Invitation," promises that life moves in a cycle, that today's loss transforms into tomorrow's bloom and fruit.  We see the promise of reconciliation:  "You may be imprisoned in an underwater palace, and I'll come riding the the rescue in disguise."  The poem and the collection end in these lines:  "From behind the closet door / I'll invent our fortunes, spin them / from my own skin."

Yes, the poet as silkworm (another creature that weaves its way through this collection)--what a wonderful book Gailey has spun for us.  Make sure that She Returns to the Floating World is on your list of summer must-reads.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bungeed Into Our Old Dreams

At work, we approach the end of the fiscal year, which means I must use up my remaining vacation time, personal days, and sick leave, or they vanish forever.  No rolling over, no being paid for them.  So, I'm taking them here and there, as I always do.  I start the fiscal year being worried that I'll use up my time off too quickly, and I often end the fiscal year trying to figure out how I'm going to take my leave.  I'm lucky, in many ways.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day at home, with my spouse at work, which meant I had lots of time to focus on writing.  I even got some poetry submissions out into the world.

While I work on poetry packets, I love to listen to NPR, and yesterday was a treasure trove.  For those of you who read my post yesterday and wished for more on Harriet Beecher Stowe, you should listen to yesterday's broadcast of Diane Rehm's show.  She interviewed David S. Reynolds, who has just published a new biography of Stowe and her culture, along with the New York Times piece that I referenced in my post.  He was just as fascinating during the long interview as he was in the short piece.

Then, Terry Gross interviewed Stephen Colbert on her Fresh Air show.  In addition to his satirical and comedic talents, he also has musical ability.  In fact, Stephen Sondheim told him that he has "a perfect voice for musical theatre."  You can see him for 4 limited days (today, Thursday, Sunday, and next Tuesday) in the filmed version of Company that he was part of earlier in the year (go here for details).

We shouldn't be surprised--the man went the theatre school after all, and what theatre student doesn't dream of musical theatre?  O.K. plenty.  Still, it was fascinating to hear about how he prepared, about his experience with voice lessons.  He says that singing lessons are "like doing yoga but for the inside of the body."  He talked about learning to turn his head into a bell.

It was a fascinating interview, and I loved every minute--so much in fact, that I've listened to it again (how I love the Internet!).  He talked about his experience with musical theatre as being "bungeed into an old dream."  I love that image.

I know a bit how he feels.  A few days ago, I remembered that I hadn't sent my novel manuscript to a friend who wanted to see it because she never got the finished version.  So, I dug through the computer files and read the end of the likely file, just to make sure it was what I thought it was.

I finished revising it in March of 2006 and haven't looked at it since.  Reading the last 40 pages was an interesting experience.  I had written it, and thus, I remembered it, but not with the freshness of someone who had just finished a draft.  Frankly, some of it I had forgotten.

I still loved the part I read as much now as I did then.  So, your next logical question:  why did you never do anything with it?

I had written several manuscripts before, one of which I sent to at least 20 agents.  I got some positive response, along the lines of "We like what you sent, but it's not quite right.  Let's see what you write next."  The smart writer would have sent that manuscript to those agents, right?

Yes, in some ways.  But I hesitated.  I knew that if my manuscript was picked up and published, I'd need to do a lot to support that novel.  I knew that the incarnation of the job I had then wouldn't really let me do that.  I knew my heart would break if my book got remaindered after 3 months.  I knew that I'd damage my chances for future publication if my first novel didn't do well.

Or maybe I was simply scared.  Or tired.  It was 2006, which meant I'd just come through one of the worst years of my life, 2005, a year replete with 2 damaging hurricanes, job changes for my spouse, the drawn out death of my mother-in-law.  By March of 2006, I could hardly make it through the day, much less mount the effort it would have taken to propel my novel to publication.

And now, in the intervening years, we've seen all sorts of new ways to get one's writing out into the world.  It's dizzying.

It was interesting, reading my old novel, sorting through some short story manuscripts, wondering if it might be time to revisit fiction again.  Part of me thinks that with the time limitations that come with a full-time job, I should continue to focus on poetry.  Part of me thinks that I can only do so much, and I'm wary of spreading myself too thin.

Part of me wants to take voice lessons and bungee way far back into older dreams that I've let go of completely.  When I was young (18 and younger), I had all sorts of creative dreams.  I wanted to write, I wanted to paint, I wanted to make doll clothes, I wanted to act, I wanted to film things, I wanted to make jewelry, I wanted to be an inventor (but what to invent?).

I miss the exuberance of youth, the sense of unlimited possibilities.  I haven't lost that exuberance completely.  But I am aware that I will only live so long.  When I was pre-18 years old and slogging through the drudgery that was high school, the days often seemed interminable, the  months endless.  Now, the years zoom by; I look up, and it's been 5 years since I finished a novel and put it aside, thinking I'd get back to it soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fighting Injustice with Our Pens or Our Guns

Once again, an interesting juxtaposition of birthdays which have set my thoughts racing.  This morning, I'm thinking about how we, as humans and artists, respond to oppression and injustice.

Today is the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Have you read this book recently?  I read it the summer before 8th grade, and I remember being powerfully moved by the plight of all the slaves in the book.  In later years, I remember the novel being denigrated for being sentimental, and then there was that phrase, "Uncle Tom," used to criticize people who sold out their race.

Then I reread the book when I taught a Survey of American Lit. class (gulp--10 years ago!).  I was surprised by how powerful it is.  I was surprised by how a huge theme of the book is how humans deal with oppression.  What's wisest?  To escape?  To revolt?  To submit?

David S. Reynolds has a great piece in The New York Times today, in which he reminds us of what a powerful book it was in its time, how inspiring, and how the stage variations of the play watered down the strengths of the novel.  He tells us about the true nature of the character of Tom:  "At the heart of the book’s progressive appeal was the character of Uncle Tom himself: a muscular, dignified man in his 40s who is notable precisely because he does not betray his race; one reason he passes up a chance to escape from his plantation is that he doesn’t want to put his fellow slaves in danger. And he is finally killed because he refuses to tell his master where two runaway slaves are hiding."

When I was younger, I wanted to create works of art that would howl against oppression in just the way that Stowe did.  I wanted to create works of art that would inspire people to find a way to end injustice.  In short, I wanted to be Anne Frank.

On this day in 1942, Anne Frank started her famous diary.  I read it about the same time I first read Uncle Tom's Cabin and was astounded at her ability to keep her faith in humanity.  Her diary is full of nuggets like this one:  "It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."

Yes, my heart still breaks a little when I read this passage, knowing what I know about the end of the story.  I understand the Che Guevaras of the world who decide that the only response to injustice is armed struggle.
Today is Che Guevara's birthday, and I wrote a post about him and Latin America at my theology blog.  What makes one person who sees social injustice pick up a pen, and another person pick up a gun?
I've shot guns, and I understand the satisfaction that comes from explosive confrontation, even though, I've never had to use a gun that way, and I hope I never do.  I understand the frustration that those of us who create art and hope for social change must endure.  Sometimes the pace of social change seems so slow, the waiting so long.
And then, suddenly, it seems that the world changes for the good at a dizzying pace.  I think back to the events of late 1989 and 1990.  The Berlin Wall came down--peacefully!  Nelson Mandela walked out of jail--not only did he not get shot, he lived on to be elected president of South Africa.
We can argue long and hard about what led to these changes.  Was it the internal collapse of repressive regimes?  The protest and pressure by the larger world?  The art created by social activists?  The prayers of the faithful?
I will continue to believe that all of those things can be important factors in our essential work of bending the arc of history towards justice (MLK's words, not mine).  We can't know for sure what the outcome of our art might be and to a large extent, we can't control that.  We can argue whether or not Uncle Tom's Cabin propelled the nation into Civil War, and whether or not that was a good development.  We can argue that Anne Frank's diary did nothing to stop Hitler--but did she sensitize us to declare that we would never tolerate that oppression again?  Yes, she did for many of us--yet the cynics might look at the rest of the twentieth century and ask what good that did.
Still, we must go on, with our pens (or guitars or paintbrushes or . . . ), protesting injustice, directing people's imaginations to the better world that must be possible.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Toast to Trailblazers

Today, again, we have the interesting juxtaposition of anniversaries and birthdays of people with something in common--today, it's trailblazers!  Does Garrison Keillor notice these things and write about them on purpose?  Today's information comes from this post on The Writer's Almanac.

Today is the birthday of Fanny Burney, and all of us who are female writers--or females with dreams of supporting ourselves by whatever means--should raise a toast to her.  She was one of the first women to make a living by her writing, depending on your metric.  She bought a house with the proceeds from her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth.  There is no denying that she opened the way for women writers to be seen as acceptable. 

She wrote novels, and many of us have forgotten how scandalous the novel once was considered.  Why?  It was low brow, not a noble pursuit, like poetry.  Again you ask, why?  Probably because it was such a new form, and people could just make stuff up in terms of plot.  Shocking!

Fanny Burney is also important because of her journals, which she kept for her whole life, and in which, she wrote many observations of history, like the madness of King George and the Battle of Waterloo.

Some of us may remember that she suffered a mastectomy with no anaesthesia and lived to tell the tale--and to tell how excruciating the surgery was.  Yikes.  If you ever needed a reason to be glad you live now and to make you resolved never to time travel, studying the history of medicine will make you happy to stay put. I imagine future readers will feel the same about our time period.  Our approach to breast cancer is not much more sophisticated than it was when Fanny Burney suffered it in the eighteenth century (cut out the cancer)--we just have better pain management tools.

It's also the birthday of Dorothy L. Sayers, who blazed a trail for female mystery writers everywhere.  She was also one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. 

On this day in 1967, Lyndon Johnson named Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.  Talk about your trailblazers.  I know that many people came to hate Johnson because of Vietnam, but it's important to remember how many changes he made in terms of making our society a more equal one.  And promoting Marshall was one of his big accomplishments.

Here's what Marshall said about the founding fathers and the Constitution:  "The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today."

He's right--most of our founding patriots wouldn't recognize this country, where women can have a career, where minority citizens can rise to the highest offices in the land, where one of the richest women in America is a descendant of slaves.  And we likely wouldn't recognize those founding patriots either.  Their religious beliefs would be unfamiliar to most of us:  Deists and Quakers and Unitarians (which meant something different then), oh my.

It's also the birthday of William Butler Yeats.  I could write a lengthy paper on how Yeats changed the face of modern poetry.  I could give Yeats credit for the whole Modernist movement, if pressed.  I could point to Yeats the dramatist, who was important to Irish theatre in so many ways.  I could praise the Yeats who documented Irish folk traditions, traditions which might have been lost to us today, if he hadn't championed them. I could consider the Yeats who influenced the course of Irish nationalism.  All of these faces of Yeats are important to me.

So, today I lift my berry smoothie to these great trailblazers who left a path--or a huge, wide, highway!--for the rest of us.  May I do the same!  Or at the very least, may I not squander my chances, chances that I wouldn't have had without the trailblazers.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Years Before We Wore Our Bossypants

I have been thinking about childhood and adolescence this week-end.  Donna Vorreyer wrote this great post about her childhood, which launched me into musing about mine.  She remembered long days spent outside, dirt and skinned knees and elbows and drinking from a hose.  That made me think about my own childhood of exploring drainage ditches and riding our bikes--without helmets or sunscreen!--all across the neighborhood.  We weren't allowed to stay out all night, like those kids in the new movie Super 8, but we did have more freedom than today's kids.

We played Little House on the Prairie, and my garage was the house; the back, underneath the storage racks, was the sleeping loft.  When we were really lucky, my dad would set up the pop-up camper, and we'd use that for any number of sets.  We didn't film what we were doing, but we were creating narratives, and dressing in costumes, and designing sets.

Yesterday, I devoured Tina Fey's Bossypants in one giant reading.  What a treat!  I loved her memories of her adolescent drama troupe.  She's got great insight into managing people, into gender differences in the workplace (men pee in cups; women don't--happily, that's not true at my workplace, at least, not that I've ever seen).  She gives us great advice about doing improv, advice which easily translates into other aspects of life:

"Always agree and always say yes. . . .  Start with a YES and see where that takes you.  As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no.  'No, we can't do that.' 'No, that's not in the budget.'  'No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.'  What kind of way is that to live?"

"The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND.  . . . It's your responsibility to contribute.  Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion.  Your initiations are worthwhile."

"The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS.  . . . In other words:  Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.  Don't just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.  We've all worked with that person.  That person is a drag.  . . .  Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions.  . . . Make statements with your actions and your voice."

"THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities.  . . . In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents."                                                                             (pp. 84-85).

The whole book is full of insight, often in places where we don't expect it.  It's got some ringing feminist themes, and the kind of wonderful humor that Tina Fey has always given us.

Here's a nugget for us creative folks:  in talking about Saturday Night Live, she says, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30" (p. 123).  In other words, not everything you do/create must be perfect.  Sometimes it's better not to overthink the process and the result. 

She tells us why she won't take another cruise and sums it up this way:  "Luxury cruises were designed to make something unbearable--a two-week transatlantic crossing--seem bearable.  There's no need to do it now.  We have planes.  You wouldn't take a vacation where you ride on a stagecoach for two months but there's all-you-can-eat shrimp" (p. 100).

Her stories about her dad will also be very familiar to those of us of a certain age, with parents of a certain age.  I was born in 1965, and I often think that my parents were the last of a distinct type of parents.  They weren't afraid to set very stern parameters.  Yet I also had lots of freedom to explore my neighborhood and lots of freedom to create in all sorts of ways.  My parents were much more friendly and supportive than their parents had been when they were children (their Depression era parents--my grandparents--were not exactly warm).  But the world of my childhood had clear demarcations:  there was an adult world and a child's world, and they didn't overlap much.

Maybe I also have childhood on the brain because yesterday I made cookies from a recipe I haven't used in decades, the imaginatively named Boiled Cookies.  We used to make this recipe when we hadn't put butter out to soften.  Now, of course, the microwave has changed all that.  No need to think ahead to soften butter for baking or to defrost a hunk of meat for dinner.

Revisiting this recipe, I was surprised that it's relatively healthy for a cookie:  high in protein, high in whole grains because I made it with old-fashioned oats, not the quick cooking oats that would have been in the kitchen of my childhood.  The cocoa has anti-oxidant properties that chocolate chips probably don't.

It's easy, quick, and at the end, you've only got one dirty pot.  It satisfies my chocolate craving, and my spouse, who doesn't usually like the chocolate intense recipes that I do, likes it too.

So, in case your Sunday needs sweetness, here's the recipe:

Boiled Cookies

1 stick of butter
2 C. sugar
½ C. milk
4 T. cocoa

Bring the above to a boil and boil 1 ½ minutes. Remove from heat and add the following:

2 ½ C. quick cooking oats (old-fashioned works, but results in chewier cookie; steel cut will not work)
2 tsp. vanilla
½ C. peanut butter
½ C. chopped nuts (will work without this addition)

Beat until well-blended. Drop onto wax paper and let set.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mangoes Are the New Zuchini

In my younger years, we could always spot the desperate gardeners.  They were the ones with baskets of tomatoes, stacks of peppers, bags of zucchini, endless bags of zucchini.  At first we felt lucky to bask in their bounty.  Later, as the zucchini continued to prosper and the other veggies had gone to the great compost pile beyond, we started to avoid those desperate gardeners.  We often arrived at work to find bags of zucchini outside our doors and piles of zucchini on every communal flat service with those pleading signs, "Please help yourself."

We're well into mango season in South Florida.  I'm beginning to see similar signs across the county.  Last week, my neighbor had signs on his van:  "Yard sale and mangoes."  I went over to see their microwave, and my neighbor shook his head as he dumped another bucket of mangoes on the table.  "This is how we spend our week-ends now.  We've got three trees in the back."

Those of you in the upper 48 are probably wondering why we don't just eat all those luscious mangoes.  Well, we try.  But your average tree can produce hundreds of mangoes, often within the same three week period.  It's exhausting.  And they're not easy fruits to work away from the stone.

I tried to take a picture to give a sense of how tall the trees grow, but it's hard to get far enough away.  The height of the older trees makes mango harvesting hard.  I've been keeping an eye on the tree in the yard behind me.  It's producing well after a few off seasons.  When Hurricane Wilma blew through in 2005, the tree suffered:  it looked like a huge hole had been blasted right through the center of it.  But this year, all our trees are in fine shape.

When we first moved down here, we'd take long walks.  The landscape was so different than South Carolina, than Tennessee, than Virginia, than Indiana, than any place either of us had ever lived before.  I noticed all these tentacles that started growing from some trees in mid-May.  I just couldn't imagine what was happening.  Were the trees sick?  Then we noticed little buds--and then, mangoes!  I couldn't imagine living in a place where mangoes grew so plentifully.  Surely we had moved to paradise!!  I thought about paying $5 a mango back in a South Carolina grocery store.  And here, I could just pluck them for free.

Now I use what I can and leave the rest for the birds and the inevitable rotting process.  I'm not like some of those South Floridians who leave mangoes on the tables at work.  I understand hating to see food go to waste.  I understand that other parts of the world would pay premium dollars for our mangoes, even though down here, we can't give them away.

Aesthetically, I love the way they look on the tree, as the green globes turn golden and red.  I love the way they taste, especially if someone else has done the prep work. 

I see how the first settlers to the continent and the islands must have seen the native fruits as vaguely threatening, with their tentacles and their vibrant colors and their encroaching leaves.  Back in graduate school, after one of those ferocious Southern thunderstorms, my British friend remarked that the first settlers must have found the landscape very threatening:  "Back in England, we don't have poisonous snakes and scary storms."

And now, here I am, still a settler of sorts, still trying to figure out this landscape.  We should be to rainy season by now; our daily rains usually start mid-May.  We're having warm weather, which we always do, but no rain at all. No moisture in the air. My lips are chapped--and in the 12 years we've lived here, my lips have only been chapped when I've travelled north in the winter.

I don't miss the humidity. It's much easier to live with drier air. But it's weird. Like we've been teleported to Arizona--except it would be hotter--and this year, on fire.

I find myself hoping that this non-rainy season will extend into a non-hurricane season.  To distract my anxious eyes from searching the east for any signs of swirl in the atmosphere, I look to the trees for distraction.

Friday, June 10, 2011

First Peek at "She Returns to the Floating World"

Yesterday, after a day of many meetings, I returned home to a treat:  an advance copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey's She Returns to the Floating World.  I'll be writing a more comprehensive review next week, but I could resist a sneak peek--and why not share my sneak peeks with you?
I loved Gailey's approach to fairy tales, and it looks like this volume will not disappoint.  Consider "The Little Mermaid Has No Regrets":  "I wore dresses that covered up the pale lengths, / in sea greens and azure blues, wove seashells into hair / and sang on a rock.  None of it did any good."
Readers who wished that Gailey had gone further with her fascinations with Japanese culture will be happy with this new book.  I'm seeing haibuns, a form I would know nothing about if Gailey hadn't written about them on her blog.  I'm seeing references to anime and Japanese names and language.
For some of us, Japan brings up nuclear anxieties--well, maybe for most of us, what with the recent tsunami and nuclear reactor catastrophe.  Some of us have earlier fears rooted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I first discovered Gailey's apocalyptic strain through her work that appeared in Qarrtsiluni.  I'm torn between which I like better, her fairy tale poems or her apocalyptic tinged poems.  It looks like I'll have plenty to enjoy in this new volume.
In this current book, Gailey has also done much with mythology, for those of you who prefer mythology to fairy tales.  I'm seeing intriguing approaches to reworked mythology, most from Japan.  I'm not as familiar with Japanese myth, so I look forward to learning--and I'm happy to see some notes in the back.
So, if you haven't ordered this book yet, what are you waiting for?  It will be released next month.  And it only costs $12.00.  We're not talking about a chapbook--we get over 100 pages of poetry.  It's the best value for the money I've seen all year.  Go here to order now.
Add She Returns to the Floating World to your summer reading list.  You won't be sorry.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Yoking Our Words to Images

In the past few days, I've been increasingly attracted to the idea of yoking images to writing.  Well, I've always been pulled in that direction, but I don't always notice people blogging about the subject and making me yearn to have more time to play with my art supplies.

Yesterday, Sandy Longhorn wrote a post about receiving art from Matt Kish.  For reasons I can't quite fathom, Matt decided to create a drawing for each page of Moby Dick--yes, that Moby Dick, the American classic that measures well over 500 pages.  He did this on top of working a full-time job that required 3 hours of commuting.  Suddenly, I feel like I have accomplished absolutely nothing with my life.

This morning, I read Kathleen Kirk's post about pairing poems by Hannah Stephenson with photos by Claudia Rugge.  Just gorgeous.  I'm not surprised.  I loved what she did with Sandy Longhorn's poems here.

If I was a young graduate student today, I'd be tempted to write about how modern technology has made it ever easier to pair our poems with a variety of images.  I'd try to develop some sort of theory.  I'd comb through all sorts of sites looking for work that supported my grand theory.

Five people would read my dissertation.

So, perhaps it's good that I can just relax and enjoy what serendipitously comes my way.

And do some playing of my own.  This morning I read Dave Bonta's post about his visit to Highgate Cemetery in England.  As I composed a poem inspired by his words, I watched his slide show.  Wow!  What great images!

And here's a poem I likely never would have had without Dave's post (and the phrase "day of many dusks" was inspired by an earlier post of Dave's too; go here and scroll down to the 4:33 section):

Land of Ruin

Give me an armless angel
with an eroded face.
Bury me in an ivy-clad
graveyard, where you can let
my grave go untended.
Leave me in a land of ruin.

Don’t you dare deposit
me in a land left flat
for the convenience
of the lawn mower.
Plant a crop above me.
Feed the poor or provide flowers.

On that day of many dusks
when you must let me go,
remember a distant cemetery
near a college football field.
Open a bottle of wine
and remember the stolen
kisses of our youth, the illicit
thrill of a midnight ramble
in a neglected graveyard.

Suddenly I have a sudden urge to hear The Smiths.  Yes, some gloomy British rock, circa 1986.  "Cemetery Gates," here I come!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fortress of Books and Solitude

Another day of interesting birthday juxtapositions, the kind that make me grateful for the writers and editors that came before me, that helped me become the reader and the writer I would be.  And let me say how grateful I am to Garrison Keillor and his website, The Writer's Almanac.  He's such a balanced counterweight to the V. S. Naipauls of the world, and unlike certain congressmen (and yes, I'm intentionally being gender non-neutral), his electronic communications always make me happy, and often inspire gratitude.

In today's post, I learn that it's the birthday of John W. Campbell, the editor "who ushered in the Golden Age of Science Fiction."  We find out "in 1937, the editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories retired and hired Campbell to replace him. Campbell immediately changed the name to Astounding Science-Fiction (and later to Analog), and he transformed the magazine. He wanted to change its reputation from that of a pulp fiction publication to one based on real science."  He recruited and supported famous writers like Asimov and Heinlein. 

In addition to all the romance novels I read in high school, I also devoured science fiction.  In fact, slogging through some of those works was probably some of the finest preparation for grad school a student could have.  Less determined girls would have given up on Dune.  But I had heard so much about it that I kept going, and once I got past the first 100 pages, I was hooked and couldn't put it down.  I read everything I could get my hands on, but I particularly loved Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury.

Oh, Ray Bradbury, how I loved you!  I haven't gone back to reread the others, but I have reread Ray Bradbury, and his work holds up well.  I love science fiction for much the same reason I love poetry:  it turns my head inside out and makes me see the world in such different ways.

I didn't read many female science fiction writers as a high school girl, but I did read detective fiction that featured females; I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Trixie Belden, girl sleuth, protagonist of the first mystery novels I ever read.  Today is the birthday of one of my favorite mystery writers for grown ups, Sara Paretsky.  I haven't read a V. I. Warshawski novel in awhile, but I'm grateful to Paretsky for her insistence in creating realistic female characters.  A female who likes shoes and sex and can handle a gun.  Sounds appealing!  Maybe these times we live in call for a return to the Sara Paretskys of the fictional world.

I remember going to the Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago with a a friend back in the middle 90's.  I bought about 5 books of feminist theory.  My friend spent the same amount of money, but got a much huger stack of mysteries.  I resolved to write one.

Well, it's easy for me to develop a plot, but hard for me to write a novel that's much more than a detective interviewing various suspects.  You'd think that all those years of reading every Trixie Belden novel written, every Nancy Drew, many a Hardy Boys novel, you'd think this reading past would make mystery writing easy, but it did not for me.

Clearly I was not the most discriminating reader in my youth.  I devoured everything:  sci-fi, mysteries, romances, classics, anything at all.  I don't know how I would have made it through the boredom that was my public school experience without those books.  I'm grateful for teachers who just let me sit there reading peacefully when my work was done before everyone else's.  I'm grateful for teachers who likely noticed me reading when I should have been listening to their lectures but decided to leave me alone.  I'm grateful to librarians who let me escape the chaos of the cafeteria by slipping into the library and reading.

Let me also stress that I'm grateful to the humans throughout my life who forced me to leave my fortress of books and solitude, who breached my defenses and befriended me.  Much as I love Trixie Belden and the ones that came after her, real human friends are better.  Most days.

Happily, I don't have to choose.  I can enjoy the friends who are characters in books, and they'll wait patiently for my return from my flesh and blood friends.

These days, my larger issue is feeling like I don't have time enough for either.  Gone are the days that I can neglect the work I should be doing for the reading that I'd prefer to be doing.  Ah, for those lost days of summer, with a stack of books.  Ah, for those lost days of high school, with friends at the Pizza Hut on the Hill and aimless driving in my parents' Monte Carlo.

Thirty years from now, will I look back fondly and say, "Ah, for those days of endless meetings and writing reports that few will read!"?  Hard to imagine.  Of course, if we could travel back in time to talk to High School Kristin, she wouldn't believe that she was nostalgic for high school, an institution which provoked equal measures of boredom and dread, shot through with terror.

I shudder to think how many institutions inspire similar feelings.  But that's a subject for a different day--it's time to start thinking about work.