Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 List in Review

It's out of fashion or unoriginal to make resolutions, and it's also a bore to say you don't make them. I like to make lists. They help to keep order to my days, and some sense of a goal for longer stretches of time. Last year I made a list titled 2008 - Goals Ordered by Whim. Here is that list, with a brief commentary on what I achieved, what I didn't, and what fell into a goal purgatory.

1. Less residencies. No teaching in the summer.

Overall, this went pretty well. In 2007 I overextended myself with teaching in schools and community centers. I love the work, but I burnt out and was committed to rest, learn, and work on my own writing.

2. Write more. Daily.

Hm. This was a half-hearted promise to myself I think. I wrote in my journal, but maybe I should have been more specific about what type of writing I wanted to do on a daily basis. I completed a project that was in the works for awhile, so that's a plus.

3. Publish more.

I did send more work out this year than I have in the past, and a few short fiction pieces and poems found homes.

4. Workshops at the studio - programming.

We came up with a great idea for this that we never really set into motion. There were several workshops this year that were successes, and a few that no one showed interest in at all. Setting up programming is exhausting, and more often than not a thankless job, and it takes away time from #2 & #3. This goal defeated what #1 was trying to accomplish.

5. Publish PKP books, develop program for others to print.

Wow. This is quite a list I have going here. Lots of big goals. I kept my promise with this one, and the second half is just starting now, but it a slightly different form than we envisioned. Not bad. Did I mention that the layout, design, editing and correspondence with authors also takes away from my own writing time? It did. However, I love the work.

6. Get married.

Done. We got married in a library.

7. Take more walks in the woods.

What happened here? I raked my mom's yard the other day. I don't think I took one good forest walk this year at all. Maybe? I don't remember, and that is sad. Since I grew up in the woods, I feel very close to nature and miss it here in the coal town burbs. I did buy a bike this year, and loved riding it in the nice weather across town, or to the studio.

8. Fix sidewalk. Finish two rooms in the basement.

Thanks to my husband, the first part of this is done. I have to say, it is nice not shoveling concrete away along with the snow. The second half of this is not complete, and the flames of passion to finish those rooms now are tiny embers. Meh.

9. Travel.

I think we did more traveling last year, but we did make some pretty great and meaningful short trips into the cities this year.

10. Spend less money, and keep track.

Did I really think I was going to keep track? I should be more honest with myself when making these lists. And we got married, fixed a sidewalk and installed a new bathroom sink this year, which means we spent a chunk of money. Did I mention the work on the patio? Yeah. That too. Oh, and the county decided to raise my property taxes.

11. Exercise, but don't be obsessive over it.

I bought the bike and used it in nice weather, and have been going to the gym on a daily basis since late October. I still feel fat.

12. Visit elderly relatives with Mom, Helen and Dan.

This is the most important of all, and I fell short here for sure.

13. Read more, and diversely.

The diversely part could use a little work. We all have our favorites.

14. Take a class instead of organizing or teaching one.

I had one all lined up for myself this summer, and it was cancelled because of low enrollment. This isn't to say I haven't learned anything this year. Instead of taking a class, I spent July/August acting in a play, and learned a whole lot from my fellow performers, the director and the stage crew (Helen did all the props for the show).

15. Give more readings.

No more than usual. This seems to be seasonal - a few in the spring and a few in the fall.

16. Spend quality time with Helen.

The play was a big part of our quality time together this year, I think. We met a lot of wonderfully talented new friends, and we both got a chance to learn something about ourselves. Helen's got some great prop making skills! We're always doing something goofy together, and I can almost always make her laugh.

17. Teach Helen how to drive - then panic when she can.

I don't know if Helen would classify this as quality time spent with Mom or not. Probably not. Apparently I have a tendency to panic. We started driving in Dan's car, which is a standard transmission and a tough go for a first-time driver. Then we switched to my car, which is an automatic, and winter happened. We'll resume in the spring. Both the panic and the lessons.

18. Record dreams, and interpret.

You have to really love someone to listen to the retelling of their dreams. I know who loves me for sure. I've recorded some, and let others disperse with the vapor in the shower.

19. Keep in contact with and visit Dan's family.

Pretty good, not great. The wedding offered an opportunity to visit a tiny bit, but certainly not enough.

20. No more blogging.

Cut back, but ha, ha, ha! My desire to do this has something to do with a public vs. private writing struggle, that I'll write more about tomorrow...on my blog.

21. Finish the novel. Start it.

I like how finishing the novel comes before starting it here. I finished the former, the latter needs work.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Palimpsest

In the course of spending 12 years of my life in this slanted little house, my writing desk has settled itself into three rooms, the first being the living room. This was a total disaster, because even with my morning writing schedule, I felt the pull of the kitchen dishes stacked behind me, or the laundry below, or whatever remnants were left from the previous evening on the dining room table. Exotic plants took up valuable real estate in the windows, so there was little view. In the summer, I took my journal outside and sat on the kitchen steps, avoiding the desk altogether, writing among the bamboo we have planted along the fence. Later, the desk moved upstairs into the bedroom, and near a window that overlooks my neighbor's deteriorating concrete piling, their covered swimming pool weighted with gallon jugs of water, and the empty eyes of an abandoned Catholic church. In winter, the birds congregate near the cross, where I suspect most of the heat from the building escapes. Being able to roll right out of bed and into the writing chair has benefits. The drawback came when the bed was upgraded to king-sized and I didn't want to leave it. For the past few weeks I've been a surreptitious writer, dashing off whatever notes I could, and my desk became just another surface to fill with old playbills from the theatre.

Yesterday my desk took up residence in what we refer to as the "back room," which houses the bulk of our books, a library card catalog, and an old Dickson coal stove. It felt good to carry the desk, dust it off, and settle it under the bookshelves and next to the card catalog with its ever everlasting hope of order. To the left of my desk is a window that looks out onto the patio and backyard. Being near a window only makes more time to daydream, watch the last brown leaves hang on with diligence, and listen to the cat's wheeze as she stares out the window too, waiting for a sparrow to notate the feeder. Still, I'm hopeful that this new space will be one I return to on a daily basis. I know that there is nothing better than being here, writing with so many great sentences above me, and one white cloud hanging over the neighbor's shed like a thought balloon.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Suggested Reading

There's a great cartoon in Issue #7 of Opium Magazine that says "I thought I'd never write again. Then I put on my cold wristwatch." The text is a short poem from either the wife of Philip Guston, or Philip Guston himself.

I've never been able to wear a watch because whatever chemical goodness is going on in my body stops time. Gee, maybe I should take that as a hint: Quit taking time for granted. Also - thank your friends for opening bookstores and recommending books to you.

This is a reading list that was prompted by my friend Jennifer, who is going to have a bone marrow transplant at the beginning of the year. It will be a renewing spring of 2009 for her. The other day she asked Dan and me what we've been reading that's been good lately, because she wants to stockpile some reading material for her months of recovery time. She asked particularly about poetry. I had no quick answers for her, which was upsetting. I've been a lazy reader this year - or rather, a not-so-interested-in-poetry reader this year.

So, here's my updated reading list - some of the books I've read recently that I liked. For you, Jen, and anyone else who loves to read.

Poetry

Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus The Corduroy Kid by Simon Armitage

The collection begins with a short found poem called "Hand-washing Technique -- Government Guidelines," which I thought was odd at first, then realized the brilliant placement of the poem. You should always wash your hand before reading a book of poems. God knows where they've been, and perhaps you should wash after, also. This collection has one of my newest all-time favorite poems in it, which I read to Dan last night. It's titled "You're Beautiful." Seek this collection out if you haven't read it already. I bought my copy at my favorite indie bookstore, Anthology. If you don't have a favorite indie bookstore, seek one of those out too.

The Door, by Margaret Atwood

A poet I return to on a regular basis for her terseness. The Door is her newest collection of poems, which includes a CD of Atwood reading some of the poems. I haven't listened to it yet, because I have a happy memory of my friend Heather reading a few of the poems from the book in the car on our way back from her reading in Scranton. Where was that reading? Oh yes, at Anthology, where I bought the book. I love these lines from "The Poet Has Come Back...":

The poet has come back to being a poet
after decades of being virtuous instead.

Can't you be both?
No. Not in public.


The Journals of Susanna Moodie, by Margaret Atwood

I already have this book and have read it, but I scored a first edition paperback at the Philadelphia Free Library bookstore last month on our honeymoon. I read it all in one sitting when we returned from our trip, and was surprised and happy to read in the Afterword that the poems were in Atwood's words "generated by a dream." She also did all of the art for this collection.

Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, Translations by John J.L. Mood

A gift from Heather, purchased the day of her reading at the bookstore. I've written in the margins of this book, a sure sign that I liked it. It contains selections from Rilke's letters on love, poems on love and other difficulties, and shorter selections or Rilke's work, and an essay by John Mood. I thought the prologue to the book was one of the best I've ever read, and we used a selection from this book on our wedding program.

The Beforelife, by Franz Wright
This collection begins with a simple dedication:
I wrote these poems between December of 1998 and December of 1999 for my wife, Elizabeth." Wright wrings out striking, brief poems about alcoholism. From "Nothingsville MN":

The sole tavern there, empty
and filled
with cigarette smoke;
the smell
of beer, urine, and the infinite
sadness you dread
and need so much of
for some reason


Sleeping on the Wing, an Anthology of Modern Poetry edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell

A guidebook for reading and writing poetry. I was going to take a class with Heather Thomas this summer, but it was cancelled, so I bought the suggested book anyway, did some of the exercises, and learned more about poetry, which is always good.


Plays

Fat Pig, by Neil LaBute

Great dialogue. One of three plays by the playwright all on the theme of body image.

Reasons to Be Pretty, by Neil LaBute

I didn't like this as much as Fat Pig. Opium Magazine has an excerpt from this play in their current issue.

The Shape of Things, by Neil LaBute

See the movie too, but after reading the play of course. Helen and her friend Grayson watched it when he was visiting recently. Helen read the play as well.

Kimberly Akimbo, by David Lindsay-Abaire

I loved "Fuddy Meers" which a friend gave to me. This one is just as brilliant. I really like the absurd/real in his writing.

Baby Food, by David Lindsay-Abaire

Where would I be without my theatre friends? Reading less plays, which would be a travesty. I want to produce this collection of short plays. A group of us read this at the studio recently and laughed a lot.

The Faculty Room, by Bridget Carpenter

Hilarious description of setting, funny characters, heavy ending. A little expected, actually. I enjoyed the characters a lot though.

Crave, by Sarah Kane

Like reading poems that are all cut up and thrown up into the air. Wherever the lines land, that's the dialogue. Disconnect, but also some places where there was narrative going on - an intention. I have a collection of her plays to finish now. Helen's reading this play now, and she said the non-naming of characters makes it tough to follow. I agree with her.

Fresh Kills, by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

A loaner from Dei, who is home from London on Christmas break. Eddie, a middle aged married man, becomes strangely obsessed with a teenage boy named Arnold, who takes an overactive interest in him. Really terrific dialogue, but there are some places where Arnold is a little unbelievably prosaic, and the end kind of reminded me of my friend Mike's old joke about writing for the theatre: "Don't know how to end it? Bring in a guy with a gun!" That's not a total spoiler, by the way. Worth reading, still.


The Mistakes Madeline Made, by Elizabeth Meriwether.

I read this over and over. Memorized lines. Played a part in a production of it this summer, which was just what I needed. It's a play that is wildly open to directorial interpretation and I'm glad our direction had good vision.

Fiction

Until I Find You, by John Irving

Took me two months to complete. Retitled in my head as "Until I Finish You." It was worth the time. I can't imagine how long it took him to craft this. Beautiful, lush sentences. This copy was a gift from my friend Bob, and Dan loaned our copy to our friend Jack.

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

This was recommended by Dan, and I'm not sure where it was purchased. I had to read the first sentence several times before it sunk in entirely. I read this in conjunction with several plays by Neil LaBute, and all of the story lines deal with body-image. This book put me in strange mood whenever I read it, but I enjoyed it. My friend Chad has it now, since I put it in the book box at the studio. He snapped it up when he saw the title.

Falling Sideways, by Tom Holt

Holt has a quirky, twisted, and funny writing style. This gist is this: humanity's ascent to civilization has been ruthlessly guided by a small gang of devious frogs. I'm not done with this book yet. I'm a slow reader of "quick-read" fiction for some reason. This one was loaned to me by Dan, who I think got it from Dave.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

Helen was reading it for school, so I read it too, since I've never read it before. I cried, cried, cried at the ending.

Non-Fiction


Not Quite What I Was Planning - Six Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers, edited by Smith Magazine


Smith Magazine launched a call to their readers based on Hemingway's famous super-short story: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn." The concept was deceptively simple - distill your life down to six words. The result is a collection with entries that span from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. Since reading the book, I've used this concept in various writing workshops, and have written a few myself. A great lesson in reflection. Another Anthology purchase.

Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose

Loved it, and now have a collection of books that I love for their sentence structures, musicality, and meaning on a shelf next to my writing desk - a tip I took from reading this book. I can't remember where this book came from...might have been an impulsive Barnes and Noble purchase.

A People's History of the American Empire, a Graphic Adaptation, by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle

After slowly reading A People's History of the United States, I picked this book up and read it swiftly. Every high school history teacher should use both books. From the prologue:

"We can all fell a terrible anger at whoever, in their insane idea that this would help their cause, killed thousands of people. But what do we do with that anger? Do we react with panic, strike out violently and blindly just to show how tough we are?"

Zinn reflects on 9/11 in the prologue and then begins in Chapter One with the Massacre at Wounded Knee. The graphics include drawings, photos, and snippets of newspaper headlines, and all throughout Zinn is silhouetted as if he is giving a lecture, or writing at his desk. I enjoyed this book so much I tried to get Helen to read it. Maybe she will someday. Sadly, this was a B&N purchase as well. I probably had a Scubrats coffee with it too. *sigh*

Literary Journals

Opium Magazine, edited by Todd Zuniga

Subscribed last year, I think. Opium Magazine is a fun combination of the visual and the literary, and the editors add "approximate reading times" to entries, which makes it perfect reading for the bathroom, doctor's office waiting room, or, well, anywhere really. I always find something I really like in the issue.

Short Fiction, edited by Anthony Caleshu

Issue 2 of Short Fiction showed up in my mailbox, and I don't remember ordering it, but I'm glad I did. Margaret Irish's story "The Searcher," grabbed me and wouldn't let go, so I wrote a letter to the editor thanking him, and subscribed for a year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sprinkles

Yesterday I needed a pick-me-up while helping my husband with his Christmas shopping, so we stopped in at a local ice cream shop called Sprinkles. It's at the end of a local shopping plaza (a.k.a. "the strip mall"), past a store called Tuesday Morning, that does not sell mornings, but sells all sorts of off-loaded junk from stores like TJ Maxx. I wanted ice cream, probably because I saw the ice cream parlor. Forty minutes earlier I wanted hot chocolate because I saw a sign for it. I was already deep in the "must have what I want now" spirit of holiday shopping, weakened by every advertising scheme. I was fatigued. I NEEDED a dusty road sundae.

Sprinkles is owned and run by a friendly retired couple, who I like to imagine always liked ice cream and wanted to share their love of frozen treats with the public. It's a small shop, with some hand painted murals of giant slobbery ice cream cones on the walls that seem so happy they have shivered all their sprinkles off into confetti. The signs for specials are all hand-lettered with sharpie marker, they sell juice in cans, and a few lonely hot dogs spin on a warmer. A small TV sits on top of the soda cooler and lazes out a Sunday football game. A Christmas tree takes up valuable real estate at a four person table near the window.

I ordered a dusty road sundae, with no nuts, and Dan had some chocolate peanut butter ice cream while he read the local arts paper. The malt reminded me of Farmer's Dairy Ice Cream Store. Dan was done with his ice cream. "You ready?" he asked.

"Don't you like it in here? Don't you want to stay?" The hot dogs continued their spin to nowhere behind me.

I wanted to stay. Sprinkles and the malt in my dusty road reminded me of Farmer's Dairy Ice Cream Parlor in Hazleton. When my dad first got his job in Pennsylvania, and we were still living in New Jersey, he stayed at Genetti's Best Western on Rt. 309 in Hazleton. I remember visiting him, eating at Genetti's restaurant, playing a few rounds of Asteroids on the game in the lobby, and then going across the highway to the ice cream parlor together.

I can't find a photo of it on the internet, or I'd post one here. It's design was a tribute to the orange kitchens of the 1970's. I remember orange and white rectangular tiles on the front underneath a wall of windows, and a large sign that said "Farmer's Dairy Store" in a script that no Postscript typeface matches. Was there a cow head? I think so. It was a brown and white one. Through the windows you could see the counter with spinning stools and the giant white globe lights that hovered above all of it like eerie spacecraft. Ah, I see my sister and her braids. My dad and his hornrimmed glasses. My mother in her turtleneck and Sassoon haircut. Me, still waiting for two front teeth. Dusty roads.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Sudden Bedtime Story

There was a wind. It was a pushy gust of a wind that plowed through the trees. This wind made the sky rattle and the trees all pray to the ground that held them. The mushrooms, once snugged in dead leaves, were stripped of their blankets and left with their pale legs showing. Twigs crackled. Birds were tossed on the whims of this sudden air, and squirrels chattered and barked. There was a wind that forced its way through a forest, and as if it had a really good cry, it swallowed and gulped, then slipped away. The trees stopped praying to their mother, the mushrooms went on trumpeting, and the story ended with a whisperwoosh.

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Open Letter of Warning for My Beloved

Love keeps a detailed record of being wronged, because love loves making lists and always being correct, spot-on and in the right. Love is irritable after long drives alone, when love likes to get into her own head and stew on the immeasurable universe of being alive. Love occasionally rejoices at injustices – little ones of course, like when the kid she didn’t like much got yelled at by the third grade teacher even though he wasn’t chewing paper. I think you already know that love is NOT patient. Love can’t wait for you to come home even as she watches your heel lift off the last step, love wakes up at 6 a.m. and expects you to have a long conversation about her strange dreams, love nicks mushrooms as you are cooking them. Love will give up if she’s dehydrated and overheated. Keep her temperature level, please. Love is kind and also bitter, love likes to boast about her waist size, her score at Scrabble, and her ability to guess who is going to call the house next. Love is rude for writing this, and demanding for making you read it, and because it is getting late into the night and love has an early bedtime, love is now irritable. Love just wants to wake up early and tell you everything she saw in her dreams.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Shoeboxes Under My Bed

I've been on some kind of weird organizational wave lately. First it was the kitchen pantry, then the studio closets. Last week I tore down the curtains that hid all the old craft items in the guestroom and cleaned off those shelves to make way for books. Yesterday I really tucked into that project, and one cleaned area opened up an entire other cluttered area - shelves led to closet, closet led to under the bed, under the bed pointed to the bedroom, bedroom cried out living room. What better time to sit in the middle of the guest room floor and sift through a thick strata of old photographs, cat-chewed artwork, notes from second grade, and computer parts? I mean, my wedding is only two weeks away.

I have always had odd timing when it comes to projects like these. If it's 90 degrees outside, I get a wild weed to rip up all the carpeting in the hallway and paint the floor. Wedding soon? Major events to host in the studio coming up? Phoo. Rearrange the furniture, fill up trashbags and reorganize all your books according to the Dewey Decimal system.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Man With an Infallible Memory

No, I don't remember the walls of the womb that carried me. But the cut of her hair, the way it looks like rainy pavement today, and how in 1978 it was autumn birch leaves - I remember that. On February 20th, the kitchen floor had a sticky spot near the refrigerator. My wool sock picked it up through its fibers and played tacky tacky all day as I walked. The scent of vanilla on Wednesday, May 6th 1984. I sat behind a girl wearing a red t-shirt. She drew spirals and cubes in the margins of her notebook and chewed on the end of her pencil. When she turned around to ask me for my notes, she half-smiled in a way that made her look like a sagging jack-o-lantern. I told her I don't take notes. The room was humid and the teacher's chalk squealed on the board. September 17th, 1998. I remember what you said, the timbre of your voice, tilt of your hip. The door sealed shut with a fwip, didn't slam like in all the novels. It was autumn so many times, spring, summer, winter's empty page for everyone else, but I remember everything.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Winning the Race

For awhile I was running on a treadmill at the local recreation center, paying $7 a day ($5 on lunch hour). The room was grey, the cleanliness was questionable, and there were only a few working treadmills. At lunch, that often set me up for some frustration.

I recently joined a local gym for $20 a month. There are fifty treadmills, a circuit of strength training equipment, and plenty of spray bottles for keeping things clean. The only drawback is the arsenal of televisions that are lined up above all the equipment. They are all on, all of time, and set to various channels. There is no way to not look at them while I run, unless I close my eyes. Most people put on headphones and key into whatever channel their television is set to for that moment. I listen to music and watch the infomercial for Tempupedic, the infomercial for LifeLift, the smiling faces of the models who nod in agreement about how improved the 63 year old woman looks after her LifeLift, Obama's last burst of speeches in Florida, the local news, the Phillies players piling on top of one another in a victorious heap.

I run and run but I can't get away from America. I check for jowls in the locker room mirror. Not yet, but I know that's a race I can't win.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Heat Is On

I'm the sort of writer who likes the feeling of having written something, anything. I don't like writing. It's work. I do it though because I like the post-writing elation.

The house was below fifty when I returned from the studio today. I lumbered into the basement, blew the cobwebs off the furnace, filled up the reservoir with water and turned on the heat. The house has that "the heat just kicked on" toasty scent now and I don't want to leave.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

An Ordinary Day

This is a mostly complete photojournal of my Saturday. An ordinary day, but I missed out on a few photos toward the end because it got busier and I was getting tired. It's an idea snagged from Jodi, who tried it out after reading the idea on Mrs. G's blog.

6 a.m. - feed the cats. They bansheemeow until the dishes are filled, snarf it all down in a couple of minutes and then lick themselves in content or barf it up on a rug. Cats add so much joy to one's life.

6:15 a.m. - Writing in journal with coffee companion. This was after I also fed the bird. I didn't take a photo of him because they never come out very well using my iPhone, but here's one of him in one of his favorite perches, the pasta dish on the kitchen cabinet.


8 a.m. After coffee and writing, it was time to drive to work.

Driving. It's the only thing I don't like about this particular teaching gig, which is twice a semester (not too bad). The college is about an hour's drive from my house. At least the weather was bluesky perfect and we're at the peak of autumn leaf season.

9 a.m.: Arrival at the college, marked with a photo of the sign where I parked, which is right next to the "art barn" where I teach. Now you can stalk me twice a semester. The weekender class was a good one yesterday - we wrote self-portraits.

Noon: The drive home on Interstate 81. This is a pretty accurate photo of what it is like driving on this road, which is filled with construction, trucks and impatient drivers. Yesterday PennDot crews were painting lines and adding the glass beads to the paint. When I drove to work, the sun hit the glass and it looked like fallen stars. Distractingly beautiful. A sure accident starter.

1 p.m.: I picked up a small movie screen that we needed for an event in the studio later in the evening. It's an old-school screen, the sort you probably had in your elementary classroom. The whole thing folds up, but as you're walking with it the birdlike support legs like to fold out, making it impossible to continue. We did a little dance together before I got it into the trunk of the car.

2:30 p.m.: Our contractor friend who fixed the sidewalk came over for a bit to check out the bathroom cabinet I want replaced. He measured and we discussed what I wanted it to look like and then Dan and I went out to get weather proofing for the windows and we found this sink. It was on clearance for $24. The bowl will sit on top of the cabinet. We also got a faucet. Not $24.

3:30 p.m.: Weather stripping the front door while wearing green shoes. There is always a draft from that door, and I hope this will help cure that this winter.

7 p.m.: Pre-performance with Michael at the studio. You can see that old-school screen in action on the stage. Michael gave a multimedia performance of poetry, photography and stories from a trip along the coast of Maine. I took notes as he spoke and then drew a mushroom that was featured in one of his photographs. After the performance, people stuck around to look at art, buy some of Michael's notecards, and talk.

10 p.m. - 12:30 p.m.: I have no photos of this part of my day, and I neglected to get a photo of the dinner Dan made at the house for all of us when Michael arrived (which was a delicious Pollo con Arroz dish). After the performance we went upstairs to visit with some friends who are staying in the Paper Kite "Summer Home." They are visiting family with their newborn girl. I held the baby twice during the evening, and remembered how little of understanding a newborn's needs is instinctive. You're either good at understanding the little coos, grexings and whirps, or you're not. Let's just say I'm glad my daughter is sixteen.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Writing Exercise Part Four

If you followed all the previous prompts, you have a lot of writing. Here's how I approach a large chunk of freewriting:

  1. Read it all.
  2. Underline phrases/words that stand out as interesting.
  3. Choose one line to start the first draft.
  4. Write the first draft, incorporating the bits you liked from the freewriting, if they work. Sometimes they don't, and the piece takes on a whole new life. That's ok.
  5. When you feel comfortable with the first draft, share it with a reader you trust for comments and suggestions.
An interesting post at Diane Lockward's blog today about Billy Collins and his tips toward writing a good poem here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Part Three of the Writing Exercise

This is the heftier part of the exercise, which comes from a book on writing that features exercises by well-known writers (title and link below)and will help you to generate a lot of good ideas. I had a woman in my recent workshop ask about whether or not it was ok to write negatively about her name. She didn't want the name she had, so all of her comparisons were negative ones. She ended up writing a very honest and free piece, which was seemed to be pretty cathartic for her. Who knows what you'll get when you freewrite? From the freewrite, you can glean the parts you like and toss the ones you don't - in other words, rework and revise. For now, just allow yourself to write and enjoy the process.

from Norma E. Cantu in “Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer” edited by Bret Anthony Johnston:

As you read the following questions, you may jot down notes of just relax and let your mind wander as you answer them in your mind. Take your time; read each question and give yourself a minute or so to reflect. Let your imagination fly and you will be surprised to see what comes to you.

1. If your name were a flower, what kind of flower would it be? A rose? A hibiscus? A dandelion? A blossom of the prickly pear cactus or of the gigantic magnolia? What flower would signify your childhood? What about now?

2. If your name were a color, what color would it be? The yellow of the sunflower? The pastel blues of the evening sky? The deep purple of the eggplant? Close your eyes and focus on your name. See it in your mind’s eye. What color is it written in and on what color background?

3. If your name were a musical instrument, what instrument would it be? A blaring trumpet? A soft violin? A piccolo? A recorder? A tuba>? A drum? Close your eyes and say your name aloud. What instrument does your name remind you of? Does it sound like the soft ding of the triangle? The deep notes of the saxophone?

4. If your name were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would it be? Pistachio? Plain vanilla? Mango? Close your eyes and imagine your name in your mouth. What was your favorite ice cream flavor in childhood? What is it now?

5. If your name were a fabric, what would it be? Denim? Silk? Nylon? Rayon? Duct tape? Moire? Taffeta? Take a mental inventory of the clothes you own. Are they mostly cotton? Or synthetics? Do you prefer the feel of wool or of silk? Cloth is very sensual and your name is what clothes your identity/ What fabric is your name?

6. If your name were a city anywhere in the world, what city would it be? Paris? San Antonio? London? Chicago? Hong Kong? Laredo, Texas? Would it be the city or town of your birth? The place where you had your first kiss? What city are you attracted to? You may never have visited Madrid or Helsinki or Boca Raton, Florida, yet it may have a strange attraction for you. Are there any cities that hold that fascination for you?

7. If your name were a street or a highway n your town or city, what street would it be? Pick a highway or a street that you enjoy driving or walking on. Is the one your chose a quiet, secluded road or a busy, much-travelled street? Is it rural or urban? The path that we take often reflect the roads we prefer to travel on. I rarely take the interstate if I can get where I’m going on back roads or city streets.

8. If your name were a food, what food would it be? Italian? Chinese? Mexican? Midwestern? Be specific. Is it pasta? Or is it pork fried rice? Is it enchildas? Or is it roast beef? What dessert is your favorite? What dessert would say your name? After all, we are what we eat!

Freewrite for about fifteen or twenty minutes just letting go and using the answers you jotted down as a springboard for the writing. (Freewriting sounds like what it means: write anything that comes to your mind. The goal is to get down as much language as possible, so try not to lift your pen from the page or your fingers from the keys.) Don’t stop to edit, and don’t worry about commas in the right place or finding the exact word at this point. Just get your thoughts down. This first draft will yield the kernels that will become the finished piece.

Part Four tomorrow...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Highway of the Damned (and the second part of our writing exercise)

I'm on a short residency trip this week to give a workshop and reading in a town about two hours southwest from home. On my drive yesterday afternoon I took note of how different the Susquehanna River looks here. It's wider, flatter (is that possible?) and far more rocky. The water is low here. When I commented on this at the workshop someone said that the river is "younger" where I am, but I don't understand that logic.

Aside from the pleasant view of the river, the rest of the drive was like I was on the Highway of the Damned. I was given the finger for only doing 75 in the overtaking lane while trying to pass a truck. The woman flipping me off was in an SUV with a wheel cover that was custom painted with her pride at being the mother of someone in the Army.

My directions here were horrible. I went west then east then west again looking for the right exit, which was blocked or something, but the hotel I booked is snuggled down in an industrial park just off the highway. When I finally found it, I was given a room key that didn't work. It's a Residence Inn - a series of low buildings that house four to six mini-apartments. My room has a kitchen. Perfect for microwaving a Lean Cuisine at 10 p.m. and watching Cosby re-runs until you fall asleep. Which is NOT what I did.

The workshop was terrific. There were about fifteen people, and they all wrote and laughed and seemed to have a good time. I forgot that many of the people in the area also submitted poems to a contest that I juried this spring. One was chosen to be poet laureate. Attending the workshop were those whose poems didn't make the cut, and also the winner, which was fine, but it made it a little awkward when someone said at the table pre-workshop, "I don't like you. You didn't pick my poems." She was joking (I think), and after the workshop told me that she enjoyed it. Everyone wrote and they all wrote diversely, and the freewrite part of the workshop seemed to crack the inner-critics of some of the writers. I hope I see them all tonight at the reading and they read some of their work. I enjoyed their personalities and what they all shared.

Writing Exercise Part 2

What is the meaning of your name? Jennifer has Welsh origins and means “fair.” If you don’t know the meaning of your name, look it up in a baby name book. How were you named? Who chose your name? Is there a family story associated with your name? What is the historical context of your name – who shares your name? Do you have a nickname? If so, what is it and how did you get it? Jot down any ideas you have for these questions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Autumn Writing Exercise Part One

I'm off to teach a workshop and then give a reading in Newport today. It will be nice to get out and explore a new area, meet some people and share poetry.

If you're up for writing, I'm going to post a multi-part exercise here over the next few days. Feel free to post your writing in the comments if you like, or just read the exercise, complain about how writing exercises never get you anywhere and then don't write anything at all.

What's in a Name - Part One

One of my new-found favorite games is called “Bananagrams.” It’s a sort of cross between Scrabble and crossword puzzles. Players are given a random assortment of letters and the first person to use all their letters up by spelling out words that connect, wins. Let’s start by anagramming your name. Come up with as many words as you can just by rearranging the letters in your full name. For instance, my name is Jennifer Hill-Kaucher , and that yields the words carefree/hell/refinance /jerk/chafe/injurer/facile/hijacker/funnier/fern/fine. You get the idea. Write your full name down and then play with the letters to see how many words you can find. Post your word list in the comments, or keep it to yourself for later.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Hug (or professional versus unprofessional)

There are a lot of books out there about living the writer's life. There are some well written ones, filled with excellent advice. I've read a few. There are ways to better yourself and your writing and to make the most of your energies, but I'm not sure about the value of teaching someone how to live in a writerly way. You're either a writer because you are writing, or you are not.

Which brings me to something I've been thinking about recently. Many friends of mine keep professional writer's blogs. That is to say they post only about things that are writing-related like book reviews, snippets of their own writing, entries about readings they have given or are about to give, and book announcements. Their sidebars are filled with links to other writers, literary journals and magazines and places where their own work has been published. It's a networking tactic, and a smart one.

Hm. My slip is showing a little. Let me adjust.

A few months ago I worked in a a high school with a teacher I met the summer before. I visited all of his senior classes, and one tenth grade class. We kept a professional relationship, but we were also fast friends. He was smart and funny and made his students feel comfortable asking questions and having long discussions. The last day of my residency, I resisted the urge to give him a hug. A few weeks later, I regretted that decision. He died in his sleep. He was only 39.

So how does this relate? I'm a writer and I am living. And a living writer has things to say other than that she had a poem published, or that she had thoughts about a book she read. Sometimes she has to feel helpless at the dentist, cake dirt under her fingernails, pay bills and feed a family. That's part of the writer's life too. The mundane and the germ-ridden sponge of the domestic.

I don't want to be that person who only writes about the writerly things in her life, and omits the rest as if it never happened because it is somehow unprofessional. I want to lean in and give a hug when I feel like it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

all the little yellow leaves fall

I love love, leaves leaving.

A few days ago while on a walk I was reminded of Dan's "Fall Leaves Variations" and how much I enjoyed that project. When I was a little girl (which I still am...in my mind), and I was staying with my grandparents, my Pampal (grandfather) decided that it was time for me to learn about the seasons. We studied for the week - in spring the flowers grow, in summer it's sunny and hot, in fall all the leaves turn pretty colors then fall off the trees and then winter blows it's gusty snow everywhere. I'm sure he made those lessons fun. I remember most of this from being told about it by my parents. It's a favorite Jenny story. I was never one for leaving home, although I enjoyed my grandparents house a lot - the candy dish, hiding behind the couch, trips to the five and dime, sugary cereals and squirrel watching. Even with all of this I looked forward to the return of mom and dad. My Pampal knew this, and he asked me the day before my parents returned, "What happens tomorrow Jenny?" and I replied, ever eager to please..."All the leaves fall off the trees?"

These synesthete's leaves are for Dan, Pampal, Dad - three men who give/gave me so much.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Journaling in 2008 and Beyond

My friend David pointed out a new Apple product to me this morning - MacJournal 5.1 (released 8/21/08) : Mac journaling and blog software. I read through the product description, and it's another software that promises to make my life easier, everything synched and in place and organized. It's appealing to think that everything can be tidy like that, and you'll have all the time to update, link, post and record all those moments through video, photo and blog entries. For $50 I'm tempted. But I have other software to learn - Final Draft - which I've had since March and am still cludging around with like the most hamhanded of newbs.

The product description for the journaling software included a fascinating little tidbit though - a fact that makes me wonder where they came up with it - "They say that the average human being has 10-20 memorable events that take place a day."

So far this morning I've bolted up out of bed at a lightning crash and tripped over a bag. Two down, eighteen to go!

As a writer, I agree that you should keep track. Should you be totally religious about it to the point of missing out on those 20 opportunities because you spent all your time at your computer synching and linking? I think I just answered myself. I'll keep writing in the old paper journals and occassionally posting so I can live my life.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

At the Light

In September the middle schoolers move in packs, run along the sidewalks. They aim for the local park, where they spend their Friday evening sprinting and training for upcoming track meets. Three ponytailed girls pant at the corner traffic light. One bends over to stretch, places her hands on her knees, her ponytail a sudden divining rod. She will always take the lead. The other girls follow - bend, knee touch, stretch – one after the other, reeds in the wind.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Recently Read/Written

Fiction:

Until I Find You, by John Irving
Took me two months to complete. Retitled in my head as "Until I Finish You." It was worth the time. I can't imagine how long it took him to craft this. Beautiful, lush sentences.

Every story in the recent issue of Quick Fiction.

Currently reading in fiction: Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
I thought it was going to be about computer geeks. I was wrong. YAY!

Plays:

Fat Pig, by Neil LaBute
Great dialogue. One of three plays by the playwright all on the theme of body image.

Reasons to Be Pretty, by Neil LaBute
Not as good as Fat Pig.

Kimberly Akimbo, by David Lindsay-Abaire
I loved "Fuddy Meers" which a friend gave to me. This one is just as brilliant. I really like the absurb/real in his writing.

The Faculty Room, by Bridget Carpenter
Hilarious description of setting, funny characters, heavy ending. A little expected, actually. I enjoyed the characters a lot though.

Crave, by Sarah Kane
Like reading poems that are all cut up and thrown up into the air. Wherever the lines land, that's the dialogue. Disconnect, but also some places where there was narrative going on - an intention. I have a collection of her plays to finish now.

The Mistakes Madeline Made, by Elizabeth Meriwether.
I read this over and over. Memorized lines. Played a part in a production of it this summer, which was just what I needed. It's a play that is wildly open to directorial interpretation and I'm glad our direction had good vision.

Currently reading in plays:
The Shape of Things, by Neil LaBute

Poetry:

Sleeping on the Wing, an Anthology of Modern Poetry edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell

Almost Grown, by Jack DeWitt

circumnavigation, by Tara Shoemaker Holdren

Currently reading in poetry:
Nothing.
And it's kind of relaxing, actually, because I'm currently fed up with the poetry world. Not poetry. Poets. I'll come back. Just a little snit, if you will. A tiff. Not the first one I've had and it won't be the last.

Writing and/or Recently Written:

Inner Critic, a series of short plays.
Futzed around with Final Draft, the new software I got for my birthday. Edited some of the scene transitions. Just gave them all to a friend to read. Ack!

Some poems.
Thanks to my friend H., who recommended Sleeping on the Wing. It's the text that she was going to use in the class I was taking from her this summer, but the class was canceled. I've been working on my own. A few I like, a few I don't, all need revision.

Fiction.
A project that's been in the works for two years. The character just lived in my head for awhile, poking his cane at my dendrites. Now there are words.

Dreams.
I have a lot of them, they are weird, and I write them all down.

Letters.
Not enough of these. I need to get back to it.















Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sans Sequins

There was a dance school performing on the main stage in the park at the farmer's market today. I worked my way around the outside of the market, hit up all the veggie/flower stands, and had my hands full of goodies (lots of green!) by the time I got to the edge of the bandstand. A little girl, maybe 7 years old, was performing some kind of grindy hip hop to "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. She was all twiggy spangles and pinkness. Her classmates, who were all costumed as highly-sequined versions of the Andrews Sisters, cheered her on as she twisted and twirled.

I walked off the square in synch with the music. There's nothing better than a private theatrical moment, sans sequins.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Two steps to the kitchen

You built a reality and then you tore it down to build a new one in your head. You spent so long driving the nails into the first reality so it was sound and sturdy and now it's tough to wiggle them out with the pliers. You just don't want to, but you must. So you fold up all the windows and doors, smooth the curtains, sweep the floors clean of your footprints, pack up the props. You put the script up on the shelf with all the other scripts where it will become a green stripe of words that you used to know by heart. Characters are rendered one dimensional again, pressed flat against their facing pages.

It's depressing to leave a project that brought so much joy and growth. This week is a litany of stain scrubbing catch-up. Not bad. Just preparing the way for the next project. Because isn't that what life is, really? A series of projects that you work on, doing your level best to get a bright red A.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Becoming Beth - a Diary in Bullets


  • We all gathered in Sean's backyard to do a read-through of the play today. Most of the cast members are new to me - a couple of people I almost worked with in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor last year. I think we'll all get along. Lots of laughs. While we're all sitting under the gazebo talking about rehearsals, I realize I'm the oldest one there. How is this possible?
  • Did I get the part of the passive-aggressive, overbearing, overly-cheery boss because I FIT that part? Note to self: Don't ever tell anyone that if they just take a bath and come into work it will all be ok.
  • Cast day at the lake today. Dei instructed us to all bring music that we thought our characters would dance to when no one was looking. I chose "Dreamweaver" and "Sexy Thing." We spent the morning doing all sorts of theatre improv on the lawn, then all danced to our various musical choices. Tim brought some great jazz from the 1920's. Anne brought a song called "I Hate Everyone." Perfect. Now that song is on my computer. We all swam (floated!) in the lake and then had grill food and watched people buzz around the lake on their jetskis. Good bonding time.
  • We're trying to get the first scene down so we can do a "teaser" at the studio for Third Friday. I'm wondering if the stage will work - it's a small space. In the end, it does. We all cram into the tiny office/library and use it as a green room. The audience laughs during the performance. Whew!
  • I've been told to watch "Scrubs" and think about the blonde character's delivery of her lines. My character is big, absurd, and delivers many of her lines directly to the audience. Everything Beth does reminds me of some of the bosses I've had in the past. The woman who taught me how to wash lettuce properly. "Don't tear it! You'll bruise it." I quit that job the next day. That's when I was Edna. Now I'm old enough to be Beth, and well, I am becoming her, slowly, with direction.
  • Rehearsals are getting rigorous. Set pieces are added. The performance space is really cool - rugged and concrete - a space between two factory buildings that's been framed in with a new concrete block wall with huge windows. There's a ton of dust. Marissa and Dei try to get everything swept before we start every night, but when I come home I wash my feet - they are black with dust.
  • Drink water. Get sleep. Don't strain our voices.
  • Energy was a little low to start today, so Dei had us play a game of hide n' seek. Inside the building was off-limits, outside was fine, and a base was decided. Halfway into the game, I remembered why I suck at it - I get lonely in my hiding place and eventually peek out and get caught. Wow - David can run! He was a blur as Anne and I tried to nab him. Energy level picked right up after our game.
  • Dei is taking great pains to help us polish our scenes and characters. Today Tim nailed one of his most dramatic scenes. I was sitting on a paint can in what will become backstage as he performed. He made me cry. I looked at Dei and nodded yes.
  • Ok, feeling a little anxiety today. Am I the cast member who is weak? Blar. It'll get better. It's just hard being the character everyone "loves" to hate. What if they all hate to hate me?
  • Enough reading of the script and hearing it, and I'm getting some of the craft the playwright put into this piece. Repeated lines carry over ideas from scene to scene.
  • There are bats in the space. Rehearsals are getting later and later, and the bats swoop around over our heads starting around 10. We duck and laugh, but they have to be "taken care of" before performance time. I hope this doesn't mean death for them.
  • The clothing company that is housed in the building donated some clothes to us as costumes, so we had a little fashion show today - Anne and I. I don't think I've ever tried on so many clothes. Plenty of great pieces for Beth Breath. I've noticed myself eyeing my own closet suspiciously. Is this a piece Beth would wear? Purge! In the end, the costumes are perfect. When I put them on, it helps me get into character.
  • I love theatre people.
  • Helen's been making props like mad. New pieces get added as Dei gets ideas - a pirate hat, a sword, plenty of handiwipes. She's really rallied with all this work, and done an excellent job. Plus she's liking the rehearsals, cast fun.
  • Photos today. Program will be made soon. I wrote a short two or three line bio on a sheet of legal paper. Program already? This means the performances are coming up soon. The set is shaping up now too - Mark has been driving in from Philly to paint and rehearse - he should set up a cot. He must be exhausted.
  • Dei's choice of music for the transitions is brilliant. We started blocking all of those transitions. My brain has a hard time with jumping around from scene to scene and making sense of where things happen. I know when we do a run-through it will all fall into place.
  • Warm-ups before rehearsals include some of the funniest tongue twisters I've ever heard, among other focus and physical activities:
I am a mother pheasant plucker -
I pluck mother pheasants.
I am the best mother pheasant plucker
to ever pluck a mother pheasant.

and I really like this one that Chad taught us:

She stood on her balcony, nimbly mimicking him hiccuping
and amicably welcoming him in.


  • I've learned to take afternoon naps.
  • Last night, during a exit, I had a great idea for a scene for my book. This isn't the first time working in the theatre has informed my writing. Woo hoo!
  • I love love love the improv, the opening, the ending, and everything in-between.
  • We create these little realities, live in them for a month, and then tear them all down in a day or less.
  • I've given up on modesty. People are just going to have to see my white fleshy flesh during costume changes.
  • Opening night. Tim asks in the green room if I'm nervous. I say I have caged animal energy. I explain that it starts as a chipmunk, then it becomes a weasel, a racoon, a monkey...you get the picture. We all put on makeup and costumes and pace around the room like panthers.
  • There are flowers for Helen and me, from Dan. They are gorgeous pink roses.
  • We all go out to celebrate after at a local bar - lots of good feedback from the audience. Some are coming back this weekend to see the show again. That's a great review.
  • Pick up rehearsal. Warm ups. We read through the Q & A that was in The Weekender this week - Anne was interviewed about the play. She was pretty mortified by the whole reading out loud of her words, but she did a really terrific job promoting the play and just being her wonderful self in the interview. We ran transitions for lighting/music cues and then did a speed-through of the play. Hysterical. The play on, well, speed.
  • Only three more performances.

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Short List of Things I Like To Do

Watching people hug, then guessing from the type of hug the relationship and/or situation. Airports are good places for this. Bus stations, bus stops, cafes.

Eavesdropping on conversations. Delicious.

Cloud watching, naming them, renaming them as they morph.

Pouring cream into coffee just for the explosion of swirls.

Playing with smoke. Incense works great for writing words in the air.

Spacing out. Just kinda staring, middle-distance, not thinking much.

Sticking fingertips into melted candle wax.

Listening. Closely.

Stopping lists short, then returning to them later. Or not.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Where She Takes It All Back and Rambles on a Bit about Humanity

I admit, I've been wrong. I've unfairly judged a book by it's first two hundred and fifty pages, and now I'm in the throes of not being able to put it down. This realization means that I now get to go back and give those other books I put away another shot. When I had this epiphany, it was closely followed by a sinking feeling that what judgment I place on books I might also place on people. I'm pretty sure I don't, but I'm keeping a keen awareness about it.

There aren't many people I don't find completely compelling, so why are some characters in books so flat? It seems unfair to humanity to write a character that seems like a cardboard cutout.

Being in any public space that you frequent, and really watching the people in it - how many have you seen before? Probably none, possibly one. Ok, now think about that. You live in this neighborhood, and you are often in that establishment...and it's filled on a regular basis with people you don't know. People who have personalities and stories. A whole new cast, every time you go there. Variety!

Yesterday I watched a woman at the grocery store browse the paperbacks. She already had two romances in the cart (I almost leaned in and told her to come by the studio for a couple of freebie books that were left in the door slot recently), along with a frozen TV dinner. Maybe she's lonely, or maybe she's a guerilla artist who takes apart the seedier parts of the novels and superimposes them on top of pages of the Bible, then projects the resulting text onto buildings and sidewalks. Maybe that's her way of getting back at the severe aunt who raised her because she never had the opportunity in her teens. Who knows - but I like to think about it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why We're Fat

A former student who is heading to college this fall told me today that she picked up a copy of the "College 08" catalog from Target. Inside were these mouth-watering recipes:

Need: 1 milky way, 2 reeses cups, 1 3 musketeers, 5 sticks of 5 gum

Directions: Place candy bars in a sealable plastic bag. Mash candy bars into a thick, delicious clay. Lay the gum down onto a hardback book, covered with something to protect it.
Using a can of Coca-Cola, roll out gum into one big, flat sheet. Fill the sheet with the chocolate gooeyness. Roll flattened gummy sheet up. Slice the roll in 1/2-inch servings. Serve!

Delicious. Gum as a sticky rind for a solid mass of chocolate goo. Imagine, pink rind, brown goo inside. They should call these "Anus Tidbits."

It gets better:

Hip Chex

Directions: In a large bowl, mix Coke Zero with Chex Mix, let stand for a few minutes. Mix thoroughly until it becomes a buttery blended paste. Top with cheese and a pinch of shredded beef jerky. Microwave for 15 seconds, then again and again until hot and melted. Carefully remove from microwave and serve with crackers to your finest friends.

Your finest friends, or your worst enemies?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Good Book, Bad Book

The other night over dinner with some friends we were discussing our reading habits. L. mentioned that a family member instilled in him the sense that "life is too short to read a bad book." I laughed at that, and agreed. If I'm not enjoying a book, I tend to put it down and move on to something I do like. M. and Dan are both the type of readers who will finish a book, no matter what.

Then I brought up the gift book. What do you do when a friend gives you a book and they say "I think you'll love this one," and two chapters into it you're wondering why they thought so? I'm in the center of a long book like that. I can tell you why I'm going to finish it though - I want to find the part that made the friend connect with me while they were reading it. It may be one sentence. Maybe a phrase? In the meantime, I am really wondering why they thought this was a good book for me. It's sort of like a mystery, without the compelling plot.

Do you finish books whether you like them or not, or is life too short to read a bad book?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Whee!

I love it when I go for a long drive with just my own thoughts and I come home all flush with ideas. There's something about the white noise of tires on pavement that really works at the subconscious, or it warms my creative neurons. Whatever it is, today I spent about four and a half hours in the car and the last two I was ready to be home at the computer, typing. Which I just did.

This is the first time I've been really excited about writing anything in a long time. It's a big project, and one I've been simmering on the back burner for about three years when the character name came to me during a walk in the Lower East Side after my dad's death. And it did just that - appeared in my mind like someone spoke it to me.

This summer it seems like I've got the right stew of images/words/activities going on in order to get the writing underway. Energy comes from knowing what to do, my friend Susan says. She's right. I'm not totally sure I know exactly what I'm doing and that's ok. The energy is there and the page isn't blank.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Notes from the Studio


I think we'll have to start giving our volunteers and interns very specific instructions as to what they might be expected to do around here.

In the course of the past week, I've had to call out a con-artist, (attempting to fill bags with free books from the "take a book/leave a book" box to sell later) recite one of my own poems from memory (guy who stopped in today to talk about his art collection), haul cardboard, explain every single day what it is we're doing here to visitors off the street, listen to a poem that was published on poetry.com and smile and nod politely, explain to the mailman that we aren't moving we're just changing the art in the gallery, etc.

It's nice to have poems in the head. Handy brainmatter. Wish I had more memorized, actually. I'll have to work on that.

Bored?

Don't be. Summer fun at the Idea Factory.

Yeats and Playing the Building

I read some Yeats this morning. Heroic, formal, conversational. I like the poems that are character and dialogue driven - where each stanza is part of a dialogue. Crazy Jane on Judgment Day is a good example of this structure. This is not the type of poetry I normally read or am drawn to read, so it's a good education for me this week. One thing I've noticed is that not much has changed - as humans we seek to say the unsayable and find a fresh point of view in a world that is less than fresh.

I've been reading David Byrne's blog, and really enjoying it a lot. He's an excellent writer, and writes often about art experiences around the NYC area. I found Creative Time through one of his entries, and really want to make a trip to NYC soon to see (and play!) his installation at the Battery Maritime Building. It's titled "Playing the Building."

Found this Boing Boing interview of David Byrne by Xeni Jardin that shows how the installation works. Who wants to go with me to play?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sleeping and Waking

I'm reading two books right now. One is Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell. The other book is Until I Find You, by John Irving.

A couple of days ago, Kristy Bowen mentioned on her blog about how she reads poetry to study it, but fiction is something she reads for pleasure, and she gobbles it up on the subway, on buses, during every free moment. There are times when I do this too. Like now. Sleeping on the Wing is really an educational text, and the novel is not, so my reading choices appear pretty clear cut. In the morning, I read a chapter of Sleeping on the Wing, and then I write, but it's a sort of gluttonous pleasure that I don't get from the novel reading. And on the flipside, I learn as I read from the novel too and have thoughts like - aha - that's the third time Irving has hinted at the boy's future - a device -or - that is one of the greatest sentence structures - I wonder if I'll ever write one like that? So far, the first 150 pages of the novel are compelling. I want to know what happens to the boy. There's been a lot of tattooing, prostitutes, church organs and interesting characters throughout the European travels he's taken with his mother. I keep turning the pages. A good sign.

This morning I read several poems by Arthur Rimbaud. He wrote all of his poetry between the ages of 15 and 20, and only lived into his forties. He stopped writing poetry, but wrote letters later in his life. I was amazed at his ability to create dreamlike scenes from the sort of moments that are so simple they seem to defy words - lush and beautiful imagery. Kenneth Koch follows the chapter with a short essay on translation, that ends with his admission to learning French just so he could read Rimbaud and Appollinaire. I'm enjoying this book so much, it made me cry to think I can't thank Kenneth Koch for the Rimbaud translations, and the inspiring essay. Too late to thank him, other than by continuing to read and write.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Deep Well

Don't feel compelled to read or post a comment to the Assessment entry below. I'm just keeping track of what I feel will become something that I should have a record of, if only to reveal it for the slobbermonster that it is.

The poetry here this morning is this:

I've been writing with a pink pen to throw myself off-balance a little, or to chart a straighter course with my writing. The change in color, a color I wouldn't wear or paint my walls, brings a strange joy back to the page that has helped me get back into a regular schedule.

I've been reading some poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins recently. He was a Jesuit priest whose poems showed his reverence for and love of God. He looked at nature as particular, single tributes to God. I don't get into Godly poetry, but what I like so much about Hopkins was his play with language. He invented words, combined words, used sounds in a way that made his poems beg to be read aloud. I really like his poem The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, for the sound and meaning - how despair leads to spare, how the repetition makes you imagine the deep well.

Your Local Government at Work

Notes on a Property Assessment

Arrival Time for meeting: 3:15 p.m.
Departure from office: 5:30 p.m.
Actual Meeting Time: 15 minutes

The county I live in is in the process of reassessing everyone's property values. I received my notice in the mail a few months ago, showing an increase in property taxes of about 300 percent. The notice gave a number to call for an "informal hearing" where I was encouraged to come in and appeal the new assessment. I called. Three hundred percent is quite a hike in price, and it seemed to me that they got the lot size wrong.

My meeting was yesterday afternoon at 3:15 p.m. No big deal, I thought. I'll go into an airless office with blue, low-grade carpeting, meet with a dry-humored man, and explain the mistakes they've made. A few years ago I had the house appraised, so I took along that packet of photos and information. I figured Helen and I would be out of there in time for us to make it to her hair appointment.

The building and location? Think quonset hut set up on a tract of land behind an industrial park. No cheer for miles. Weeds aplenty. A parking lot filled with cars, the sidewalk outside peppered with people carrying binders thick with proof that their houses aren't worth what the county thinks they are.

When we walked through the doors we were greeted by a security guard who asked us to open our purses. "Just checking for handguns and knives." Once cleared, we entered the waiting area and reception. To the right were three or four rows of chairs, all filled. In the corner to the right, a small television set sat on a chair, blinking an afternoon game show. The receptionist was a boy in his teens, who told me that their system was down today, and that they were backed up and behind schedule by about an hour. I laughed. He said we could go out and come back, or wait, or reschedule. From the looks of all the waiting people, I opted to wait since rescheduling would be more of a pain. I asked the boy if there was a place to get a soda or snack. He replied that he didn't know of anything nearby, and admitted to being an out-of-towner. Good to know the local government is hiring kids from 40 miles away - still in our county, but so far that he must pay $20 in gas to get to work everyday.

Helen called her salon to reschedule her hair. We found our place on the concrete outside, and leaned against the building in the blaring sun. First we ran lines for the play I'm in, and when that became dull, we listened to the other people making fast friends of one another, inextricably connected by the government morass they found themselves in for the afternoon. A man with a bluetooth headset stopped by us and asked "Informal?" "Pardon?" I asked. "Oh, informal or formal hearing for you today?" The clarification helped, but I wondered why he cared. "Informal." "This is the third time I've been here with a friend. Formal's the way to go, believe me. You won't get anywhere today. You'll need a lawyer."

A lawyer? That's when I really started paying attention to what or who people had with them. Large, overstuffed binders with tabs and stuffed pockets. Photos. Rolled up maps of land. Crikey. I had one folder, my old appraisal, and the letter they sent me. Still, I felt like I could explain the mistakes they made. I have a small lot, not a huge one.

When Helen and I stood up to stretch, we realized that our backs were covered with a fine chalky silt from the side of the building. It wouldn't brush off.

Every now and again a woman receptionist would pop out of the office to bleakly call out a name, and sometimes she'd reel a person in, sometimes not. Our name was never called. We were waiting about an hour when we got thirsty and decided to try out the soda machine inside.

The machine was located near the waiting area. Right next to the chairs. Enough room to walk between the last row of people if you scooted sideways. So scoot we did, with our dollar and fifty cents scraped up from the bottoms of our combined purses. Who knows how much a government soda could cost?

$1.3o. The most arbitrary amount for a soda we'd ever seen. I apologized for whacking the poor guy seated next to the machine with my purse when I turned to put my $1.50 into the slots. The soda thunked out, and a thin dime came out as change. Let's to the math, shall we? Oh yes, lets:

1.50 - 1.30 = .20

Even the soda machine gets the math wrong.

We took our soda outside and waited. The security guard came out and picked up a couple of signs for parking as if they were closing up for the evening. When someone sitting on the curb inquired, he said "Just my department is leaving. You'll be here awhile still." Another 45 minutes or so passed before we talked to a man who asked when our appointment was. He said we ought to go in and check - they were calling names for people who had similar appointment times.

Inside, the receptionist claimed she called our name, but not outside. Why not outside? Why call names outside only sometimes? Even chain restaurants keep better tabs on their customers. She led us down a hall to another waiting area - a small makeshift hallway created by two rows of facing chairs with an aisle down the middle. To the back of one row was a series of temporary partitions, and behind them were county desks and computers, each with a cheerless employee. The receptionist slapped a yellow post-it to the wall while we took our seats. Two suited men were talking about their land in the seats near to us, an elderly woman wheeled past us with her oxygen tank in tow, and an elderly man walked by with his blue-suited lawyer. The chairs were filled. The game was on. We had made it past the moat, over the alligators and to level two.

The open partition offices gave the air of freedom to speak, but really they were to keep you from creating a scene in front of everyone, since the waiting are was so near. When one of the appointments was finished up, the employee would approach the post-it, cross off a name and call a new one. There was a short lady who did this, and barely called the name out. She whispered it. She repeated it, in a whisper, and didn't bother to walk down the line of waiting people to repeat it, then she moved on to the next name.

The man with the appointment in the office in front of us had three properties. His government employee had trotted off somewhere to check a number and he turned to us and said "This isn't where I want to spend my Friday afternoon. You know, a hot dog vendor would do well outside today."

Our name was finally mispronounced from the post-it note on the wall by a man who introduced himself as Joe. We went into our office on the opposite side of the partitions - a real office with windows and light, and an L-shaped desk. On the short end of the L, a gavel rested. On the long side, Joe's computer and paperwork.

First, he called up our property file on the computer. It was complete with lot size, room information, and a photo taken in Dec. of 2004. The Christmas decorations were on the porch. He went over the numbers briefly, I corrected the half bath information he didn't have. Then I showed him my appraisal, which he sniffed at, since it was old.

"Let me do these numbers for you," he said as he clapped his keypad. "Ok, now this number might surprise you, or not...but this is your current fair market value of your house."

He turned the face of the calculator to us. It's digital numbers called out absurdity. Ninety seven thousand dollars.

"Can you tell me what this number is based on?" I asked. Joe explained that it was current fair market value set in January of 2008. Not much of an explanation. Where do they come up with this math - considering the housing market right now, my brain was racing.

"So you mean to tell me that if I were to slap up a For Sale sign today, I could ask 97 thousand dollars for my house that's built over an abandoned mineshaft, has had 60 foot deep subsidences in the backyard, and is crooked?"

I signed a paper that said I was not in agreement with the assessment, and Joe gave me a list of items I would need to bring to my formal hearing:

mine maps
photos of subsidences
photos of house and land
copy of the deed (for lot size determination)

At no point during my phone call to set up this 15 minute interview was I told what I might need to bring. Joe added with a condescending tone to his list, "Make sure you bring everything. I'll be here for that hearing, and if you don't have it all, you won't get anywhere."

On my way out, I filled out the request for a formal hearing form, which didn't match up with the intial form I received in the mail at all. Then I was told there was a five dollar filing fee.

Not being told what to bring to the intial meeting meant that they were pretty much sure people would get nowhere with an informal hearing, and would need the formal hearing. Five bucks per person adds up quickly. I thought of the first man who stopped and asked "Informal?" He was right.

I'll be contacted about a date for my formal hearing in Sept. I'll have all my ducks in a row by then. Once I have the hearing, I won't hear from them on a decision until October.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Pure Ego

It won't last much longer, that stunned, mouth agape look I get sometimes when I announce that Helen is my daughter. Once the new friend is breathing again, the following comments are usually made:

You could be sisters!
You don't look old enough to have a child.
I'll bet you get this all the time, but you really look young.

I smile, reply with "It's genetic," or "I love what I do, and it keeps me young."

This assumption is irritating and pleasurable, like scratching the sole of an itchy foot. For Helen, it's just irritating. Sure, I'm flattered that people think I look so young, but I've also spent the past 17 years (I count gestation) wrapped up in the careful and delicate needlework of being a mother and raising a decent human being. Give me some credit.

How will I feel when the comments wane? I'll whine then too, because that's what I do best. Maybe that's why I seem so young.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Life imitates life

There is a young robin that has fallen in love with my pet cockatiel, Bananafish. Every morning when I do my yoga I let Bananafish out of his cage. He flies around the room, stretches his wings when I do the Sun Salutation, and lands on my head or shoulders when I'm in quieter poses. He imitates the sounds I make, a few household machinery rings, dings and chugs, and can say a few key phrases for bird networking (Who's a pretty bird? Bananafish. I'm a peepy peeper. Love you!) I've noticed that he also imitates other bird chirps. Apparently he does a really good impression of a robin. This morning he lured one right into the window and it hit with a dull thwack and landed in the lemon balm in the garden below. The poor robin just sat there, regrouping, it's little beak downturned like half of a staple. Scruffy. Perhaps pissed. Plotting a sweet, lemony revenge.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Yesterday, This Morning, and into the Foreverafter

A woman with bright cobalt blue hair. 

As Dave and I stood on the sidewalk outside the studio, a man driving by leaned out his car window to say "Hey you, Fuck you." It was a very intimate and targeted Fuck You.

The proof for a poem of mine that will be on the bus soon (I hope the #12) is up in the window of the studio. Come over and read it. Or take the bus in the coming  months - Poetry In Transit!

Two good emails - one from an editor kindly responding to work I submitted to an anthology, and another from a woman who wants me to teach a workshop in the fall.

A few days ago I got an email from Franz Wright, but it wasn't really for me, it was for another poet. I passed it along. Then I ordered one of his books.

This is a week of creative collaboration with the love of my life. 

Helen started her new job this morning. She's working for a local magazine - writing, making sales calls, doing office work. One of the greatest sounding "first jobs" ever. She's excited. 

Learning lines. My brain likes to twist words and substitute. Bad.

The firemen said hello this morning as I opened the studio. They stand in the truck bays and hold their coffees and stare into the studio all day. They have yet to set foot in here, but they'll eat the cookies I take over to them. Maybe I need to leave a trail of crumbs.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Read Through

Well, I got the part of Beth in "The Mistakes Madeline Made," a play written by Elizabeth Merriwether. She's 25. I'm not. Beth is in "her late 30's or early 40's." I am. This weekend I tried on some clothes and lamented that my body looked like cottage cheese piled into a pair of underpants. How is this fair when I bike and yoga every single day? Note: Mid-life crises.

Everyone at the read-through was great. Funny. I think we'll all get along well. Am I the oldest one? Likely. We sat under Sean's new gazebo and read through the whole play without any breaks. There was a lot of laughter. The play has moments of hilarity that are interrupted by deep sadness, like a punch in the gut.

Theatre work always makes me key in on conversations and dialogue, and I want to write everything down. Last night I overheard some people I worked with a few years ago talking at a restaurant. God, they were pretentious. They deserved to be eavesdropped on, notated. Who calls women "chicks?" Chicks dig it, he said. Cripes.

I have lines to learn. Many of them, but I know I can do it. It's been done before. What makes me sad is this - all these characters, any character that any actor has played, dies the moment the lines vanish from memory. That particular way that character was portrayed, I mean. Sure the character still lives on the page, but it won't have the same life played through another actor. Which is interesting to me. My Beth gets six shows worth of life, and two years from now, I won't be able to recall a word she said.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Morning

Morning is my best time of the day. These are the few months where I get to spend mornings outside, walking around the yard with my coffee cup, inspecting the insides of bee balm, writing and waiting for hummingbirds to appear above the trumpet vine. Yesterday I was helping a friend with some of her poems, and we discussed our morning rituals - we both consider the early hours well-spent in moodling.

Is my domesticity showing in my poems? Yes. Like a loose slip.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Meals from the Poet’s Paltry Pantry

There ought to be poetry here, or something poetic, but instead there are lentils. My food pantry is empty, but the word pantry is filling. I've been writing. Better to have a fat notebook than a fat, er, rump.

Laziness kept me from biking to the grocery store at 6 p.m. This is what I made last night from what was both inside and outside of the house.

Lentil & Cucumber Salad

1 c. lentils
2 c. water
1 tbsp. vegetable broth (powdered kind)
1 sm. onion (from the garden)
1 sprig rosemary (from the garden)
1 sprig tarragon (from the garden)
some sprigs of chives
1 small cucumber
1/2 c. frozen corn

dressing
2-4 tbsp. olive oil
1 clover garlic
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 blot dijon mustard

Mince herbs. Bring water with broth to boil, add lentils and herbs and cook for 20-25 minutes or until the lentils are just soft – not mealy. At the halfway mark (10 mins?) add the corn. While this mixture is cooking, make the dressing. Set it aside. Seed and cube the cucumber, and mince the onion. When the lentils are done, drain in a colander. Toss and drain, toss and drain. Allow the lentils to cool for at least 15 minutes. Since I’m impatient, I put the colander in the refrigerator for a bit. When they are cool, toss in a bowl, add the cukes and onion, and drizzle on the dressing. Mix it all up and serve on a bed of greens.