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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.