Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What do I look for as a reader, and what do I expect from myself as a writer?

When I read, I look for language that engages, that is verb-rich, and image-driven. I like humor and wordplay, but I also seek the metaphoric, and when I really enjoy writing the most it is when there is contrast, and an underlying message, a hidden key that my mind needs to find to unlock the meaning. I seek this in fiction, poetry, memoir, and plays. Meaning. It doesn’t have to be obvious, and I prefer when it isn’t. I like it when a writer trusts me as a reader to understand or make meaning. Tone can be humorous, obstreperous, sardonic, joyous. I expect sincerity in tone. Please don’t fake me out. Be genuine. Honest. I want to learn from what I’m reading. It can be a new word, or a way of folding a shirt, or a new perspective or opinion. Short, clear sentences engage me more than long rambly ones, and if a writer ends a sentence on the word “thereof” I am going to check out. The fragmentary intrigues me because I get to fill in the blanks. I love it when I read something and I think, “I could never do that!” because it challenges and inspires me as a writer. I know I’ve read a good book when I cry at the end – not for the content – but for the fact that I will never read the book the same way again.

When I write,  I want to connect with the reader, and I do my best to make that connection through clearly written observations. It isn’t always easy to be honest, writing the truth in memoir or poetry or a play, my truth, is difficult but it is the part of writing that I seek as a reader, so I expect it in myself. I expect to learn something when I write – about myself, about the world, about the way words click together or fall apart. I love it when I’m writing and something that wasn’t clear to me as I was writing suddenly surfaces, and it takes hold of the writing and states “I’m the theme.” Or, “Hey, metaphor here.” Surprise, surprise! I expect myself to be able to write to the point where that happens, to not give up, to be willing to let go for awhile and come back to it later to work on the craft of the language. I expect myself to work. Writing well is work. It’s excavation. If I’m only scratching the surface, I won’t discover any of what lies underneath, and neither will my readers. I expect to earn the understanding of my readers.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

There's a Unicorn in Here. It's Why I Perform.

It's 6 a.m. Glasses are necessary for me to see this thin line of eyelash glue. I tick off items on my mental checklist after I remove my specs and press a lash onto a crepey lid:

  • stuffed frog
    • lion
    • fox
  • dance ribbon
  • amp
  • 20 hoops
  • swivel chair
  • striped socks
  • sequin armbands
  • toy instruments
  • water bottle
It's all packed in my bag, and what doesn't fit will be lugged then tucked into the back of my VW Beetle. When I leave the apartment, I'm wearing butterfly leggings, cowboy boots, and the top half of a costume that was handmade by someone who can actually sew. As I drive to the school, I feel the familiar cloud of pre-show nerves that turn to half-hearted daydreams of having a job that doesn't include stuffed animals and hula hoops. I probably just need to hydrate a little more. I swig some water.

After I haul all my props to the gym and answer questions about my eyelashes to a lash-curious secretary, I get set up. The floor of the gym is my stage today. Three  hundred kids will sit behind the blue dashed line that marks the performance area. I rearrange the curtains that hide the stacks of gym mats and a large hockey goal cage, then set my props out. A parent volunteer introduces herself and her four year old son, who starts to climb all over the swivel chair. "Sorry, you can't play with that. I'm really sorry. I know it's tempting." I say. "Here buddy, take the Kindle," his mother says, and the boy parks himself against the wall with his digital dreampad. The stuffed frog and fox stare out at him with stitched on looks of "Are you flipping kidding us?"

I hate to admit it, especially to my impatient self, that I've been rehearsing the act I will perform at this school for a little over a month. Act development takes me forever. I love it, but I need time, and a lot of time, to create. Space. Plenty of room for screw-ups, flubs, bruises, popped off puffballs, getting stuck in hoop tangles, and complaining to my poor husband. Hours of videoing myself working the act. I share the rehearsal videos with my sister who I know I can trust for critical, honest, and very useful feedback. A sister will tell you when something isn't working. I develop the character, a little girl who has been banished to her room with her imagination, and create a 12 minute soundtrack. I polish the hoop choreography until my skeleton could dance it if my skin and muscles took off on a last minute vacation to Hawaii.

The boy with the Kindle is talking to it now. "I have gone to the most beautiful place! There's a unicorn in here!" His mother brings him over to the side of the stage where the amp sits. I've asked her to push play when I give her a nod from backstage. Kids file in from the hallway and sit by grade, the Kindergarteners in front. A few have spotted me waiting for my cue in the wings by the stack of gym mats and hockey goal cage.  The principal makes a few announcements, I give my nod, the soundtrack starts, and I'm on. They laugh and clap at the swimming on the swivel stool, the stuffed animals growling at my neck after I step on them too much, and during the hooping their "holy moly!" "this is so crazy!" and "ooooooohs!" push me further.

Two little girls break the ranks of dismissal after the show to say hello to me. "Hi! My name is Anna! This is Tristan! We love what you did with all of those hoops!" Their faces are so full of everything I remember about being eight years old. Total wonder. They look at me as if I'm a rockstar, and not some middle aged woman with a penchant for 70s sitcoms and chocolate chips. There is nothing like making other people happy. I've made 300 people happier this morning. Maybe even inspired a few. I have gone to the most beautiful place. There's a unicorn in here. That's why I do this.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


You’re sure if you squinted at the stars enough
heaven might notice the trowels, spoons,
tiny coins left in the dirt where you once
buried the ashes of the family dog. Daffodils
and grape hyacinths sent up their
green apostrophes the following spring,
and you once found a ring in a gardening glove,
sure it was sent by your dead father.
Now you do everything with your father’s
shield and sword in your hands, as if he bequeathed
them to you and you hadn’t really just stolen them
from a hope chest to remember the quest
of his imagination. You are still so far from guessing
the true meaning, but can point at the constellations
and rename them all: Falstaff’s Wrinkle, Circular Bear,
Skeezix and Threnody. You have something
to get you home safe and sound. You have
a belt full of tools at your hip as you stand  
in the center of your triangle of fire.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I know a lousy handshake
when I receive one, half-meant.
The unfocussed gaze. Not listening.
Or the hug that is so light I can feel
the chalk outline behind it.

It’s difficult to keep from falling
into the big black hole that hides
under all those metal plates
you see on the streets. To be swallowed
whole, to disappear, to drown
or be blown away by a gale-force
windbag you met at a university.

Unfair. Creating meaning requires
a good amount of just staring into the air. Time.
I like to build an act or a house of words
to walk through, a series of rooms
outfitted with damask and china,
then let neglect kill off all the plants.
Creak out empty nails from the walls where family
photos once hung. The windows were blown out
with buckshot that burst constellations of glass
on the floor, left shards and shadow.
An umbra that howls at night
so much it makes your knees jerk.

I think you have to add a lot first
in order to subtract.  Unless
you want to be a totally charming
but bad star in the field of creation.

Ask me when I am 90 what I loved most.
First I will tell you it was being held,
second, the slip of buttons through fingers,
then I will get lost in a spin of all there is to love,
a rambly multiverse that makes you wish for silence.
Ask and you'll receive a hug so hard you’ll feel
my whole life ahead.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why It Isn't Spring Yet

Because we will it so. Because the song of traffic thrums
against the wrestle of city gristle and grime, disguised
and then revealed by March's greyed lens. Because we will it so.
There is a mansion of snow for the carnival players
who burn their scripts to improvise longing. Because we will it so.
Because a rose stampedes its red into the eye. Because paper,
when offered up for an autograph, deserves one, but not right away.
There is a pause. A breath. The absence glitters.
Because we will it so.

Friday, February 14, 2014

We Always Have Things To Do

for Maggie Estep

“I would not think to touch
the sky with two arms”
                                    - Sappho

Oh no, not like this, not yet, with prophetic weathermen
singing their dirges of ice. Winter’s closed off attitude –
blank space. The erasure of entire fields, faces lost to scarves,
elegant thoughts to scientific sacrifice.
I’m not sure if this is right,
or even if the thoughts were
that eloquent, and what’s wrong
with a little Bill Nye, some blood
in what feels like a bloodless art?

I’m not sure if this is any good.
I’m not sure. Here. What can you tell me?
I am sure that snow drifts,
and other people’s memories float
between my own: a Lego lodges
in my throat, I skate across the pond,
I once sang in an opera, added graffiti
to the dome of a courthouse.
I forget myself, windblown
in the stories of others. No,
I remake myself. No, that’s bullshit.
I re-forget myself by turning the page,
by hating what I love, all of it. The words
that pile up at my door, shivering,
and the ones that sit at the end of the bed, waiting
for me to line them up into meaning. Their eyes glow.
They snarl. Their teeth are lovely, see?

Tell me a story and tell it now,
the story of a journey, a transformation,
a bit of dust in a storm.
Make the dust want something big,
to have arms to touch the sky with,
to think and breathe. Yes, make it breathe.
Please. Before my heart stops,
and before yours does too,
tell it.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Birds of North America

for Mom on her birthday

The only stretch of pavement for a mile around was our driveway. It was a capital U that sloped from the dirt road above our house to the garage. In the negative space of all that asphalt, my mother planted a few boxwoods along the perimeter, daffodils and crocus to bloom in spring, and a variety of perennials that exploded like fireworks throughout the summer and fall. A tulip tree dropped wooden flowers that looked like closed umbrellas. Patches of violets were a short walk down the road to the left, just past the blackberry bushes and sweetfern. They were actually in someone else's yard, and I snitched them often to bring them home for my mother to put in whatever lilliputian vase she could find.

What really ruled our home was not flowers and plants, but birds. We were visited by them at a schedule more regular than that of a train station. My father built a tray feeder that stretched along the length of the two kitchen windows. In the spring, the windows were cranked open to let in the scent of thaw and warmer air. A dogwood tree sprawled in a gnarly bloom of levels just beyond the kitchen and it was a safe perch for finches, chickadees, sparrows, titmouses, and the occasional cowbird that my mother admonished for its bad habits. Woodpeckers drilled the oak that supported our treehouse. Goldfinches flashed their sunny band uniforms, and a family of them lived in the little red birdhouse Mom put out one year.  Bluejays deviled the little birds with their bold markings and beaks, and called out like soldiers. The cardinals seemed built for cheering up winter, and hallmarking Valentine's Day.

Inside, our kitchen was golden and checkered. Baskets hung on the wall like nests. A sign that read "Virtue" hung above the kitchen table. On a spring morning, as my sister and I gulped a thick vanilla Carnation Instant Breakfast or wolfed a piece of toast, I shared "a really weird dream I had," as Mom gazed out at the feeder. She'd spot the first robin of the season, ask if Kristen had recorded last year's sighting in her journal, and claim that it seemed "awfully early this year." One morning Mom sang off key at the kitchen sink, and we wailed about how horrible it was, how out of tune and off key.  We asked to turn on the dishwasher. I felt immediately like I'd choked a swan. We squelched the song and ignored the beauty of our mother because she was the safest place for us to test out cruelty, but this didn't make us any less rotten. Cowbirds.

The front of our house had large windows that perplexed the birds of our woods. There were many afternoons where I'd arrive home after school to a small box on the porch with a bewildered bird inside it, all hunched down with its tiny eyes clamped shut in a dazed meditation. As sad as it made her that her birds dashed their brains into dizziness, my mother loved every instance she got to hold a patient inside her cupped hand - to feel the varied textures of its feathers, the light quick huffs of breath, and the wiry legs. She'd tell me all about the discovery of the bird on the porch, how close our cat Pyewacket came to finding it first, and the wonder of holding it in her hands. I listened, or didn't, lost in thought about how I'd started to dissect a cat in biology that day, the scent of formaldehyde still lurking in my pores, the word fascia caught in my mind.

My mother's birds never stayed long. I always thought we might keep one as a pet, but in an hour or two, the box would be vacant, the slow bird revived again. I'd hear Mom retell the story to Dad at the kitchen table when he returned from work.

My sister and I have twin graduation photos, taken three years apart. We stand at the lower curve of the driveway, flanked by our parents. We both wear the gold drapery of a gown, the sleeves like wings ready for takeoff. Not long after those photos were taken Mom watched us, a little bewildered ourselves, drive up the slope of that driveway and off into anywhere, anywhere else. She knew just how to catch, how to hold, and when to release.