Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Issue #32 of Rattle Inspires

The winter issue of Rattle was still in its plastic cover when I finally picked it up to read last night. I read plenty of journals, but not on a regular or steady basis. I'm not one of those poets who subscribes to every journal to pore over its contents and compare to her own writing to see if they are a "perfect fit." I subscribe to journals I like the most, and more often than not that means they won't be interested in my writing at all. That's okay. In fact, I think it's good. It's like surrounding yourself with people who don't think like you do.

My sporadic journal reading isn't a laziness so much as a gravitational pull toward other reading material. I go through memoir phases, essay phases, fragmentary writing phases, play phases, fiction, non-fiction -- and there's always poetry in my life. It's like my mind is made up of rooms, and each is filled with a different type of writing where the doors stay closed to each other for the most part. Theatre doesn't spill over into fragmentary until I read something by Suzan-Lori Parks. Poetry doesn't open its door to visual until I learn about Tom Phillips. I recognize that my door similie makes me sound closed-minded and unimaginative. However, I love and married a man who has spaces in his mind that are multi-dimensional, press up against one another, meld together, and sing. He doesn't just knock on my mind's doors, he knocks them down yelling, "Hey, did you see this yet?"

If left to my own devices, most of my life would spent in the fragmentary phase I guess. There are books on my shelves I haven't read at all, or read one page of, and it feels like I'm cheating on them if I read an entire issue of a poetry journal instead of putting forth the effort for someone's full-length collection of poems. Why is that? It's not as if the poetry journal took any less effort to put together than the book. In fact, it likely took more effort having to correspond with not just one poet but a long, alphabetized list of them. Imagine the proofing of poems, bios, and keeping in contact with everyone (poets move more often than checkers).

In the middle of no particular reading phase, in fact between them, I picked up issue #32 of Rattle, and now I am in love with poems again. So this is a long-winded way of saying that I am inspired by what I read in a poetry journal, which doesn't happen often. The issue has just the right amount of white space, the choice of typeface is elegant, and the cover artwork (a painting by Stacie Primeaux) is subtly supported by the flyleaf color. (Design is important to me as a reader, and I'm a designer too, so I notice.) The poem, "To a Child" in this issue by J.F. Quackenbush had me reading it over and over again, peeling it apart for its honesty. Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's poem "At the Office Holiday Party" glitters with humor and pain: "I don't know how to look like I'm not struggling." Michael Kreisel's brief poem, "Threesome," is theatre. There are other journals that are flashy and fun, filled with gimmicky contests and poetry comics, and I enjoy them, but they dissolve like cotton candy. Rattle resonates.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

VSA Acceptance ... and I Need Some Help!

Several months ago I applied to the Vermont Studio Center for a fellowship award. Right before Thanksgiving, I received a letter back. It was evening when I got the mail, and Dan and I stood in the kitchen as I went through it all. I held the envelope, noted the address, and said "Well, here's my rejection from VSA." Dan said the envelope was too fat for a rejection, and he was right. I've received a partial award to spend a month writing at the Vermont Studio Center in October of 2010. Exciting!

I've wanted to do something like this for years, but didn't have the opportunity. It just wasn't the right time in my life. I still had a daughter that needed me at home. I couldn't go away for a month and be a reasonably sane or caring parent. Helen graduates in June of 2010. With this in mind, I applied to the VSA.

A partial fellowship means I have to pay the other portion. I can't afford it on my own, and a deposit is due soon. If you have ever read any of my work and liked it, if you want to give me a Christmas present that will be really meaningful, if you have two dollars stuck to the bottom of your shoe and you don't know what to do with them, please donate to my fund. Help a writer accept an offer she's dreamed of getting. Please click on the donate button below. Every little bit helps!

Monday, November 30, 2009

November Opera

Which is more tiresome -- talking about the benefits of moving one's desk every so often, or actually moving the desk? I know I've written about this here before. Every year or so I move my desk. Ever since I was a kid I had a habit for rearranging the furniture in my room a couple of times a year. (Once I moved my little room all around, and then walked in my sleep downstairs to tell my father that I couldn't get out of bed because the desk was in the way.) I doubt I knew it then, but rearranging the furniture helps me to clear my head and think better. It's like a good game of Tetris. Everything fits into its proper place, clutter is removed or at least hidden, and I gain a new view when I'm writing.

Now I just move my desk all over the place. Occasionally it finds a home in our bedroom against the window that overlooks the neighbor's pile of concrete blocks. Most of the time it fits in the space between the bookcase and the library card catalog downstairs in the back library room. Today I moved it out from its nook and against the window that overlooks the patio, and I think I like it there. Right now it's dusk, and the branches of the bare lilac are black against a cornflower sky - a backdrop for a November opera.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A new book ... just in time for the holidays!

Naissance Chapbooks is pleased to announce the release of


by Jennifer Hill

Jennifer Hill has performed a tour de force of incomparable compactness. 36 Holiday Fictions (one for each of the possible plots in all of literature) in 140 characters each, in which the letter L never appears. Twisted and wrong and completely delightful all rolled together in red velvet trimmed in white. The perfect book for anyone who loves or hates the holidays. An excerpt:

Sacrifice of Loved Ones

The daughter recovered from her Christmas fever. “Nutter has to go,” her mother said as she washed the barf from the stuffed chipmunk’s ear.

—Jennifer Hill

NO L can be ordered through the Naissance Chapbooks site for $10 (includes standard shipping within the continental USA).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Eldest Cat

Our oldest cat, Edna, is somewhere near 16 years old. We adopted her from a cat rescue in the Reading area when Helen wasn’t quite two. She was the only female cat in the litter of kittens, and the only cream colored one among orange tabbies. We were just going to adopt one cat, but we left with two – Edna (named after Edna St. Vincent Millay) and Albrecht (named after Albrecht Durer). They were devoted to Helen and purred her to sleep, all snugged in among her stuffed animals. As she grew up and we moved, Edna became her helpmate and Albrecht moved on to other manlier pursuits like extended daytime sleeping and purring until he drooled.

Dan calls Edna “the sweet one,” and she is. She loves everyone who walks into the house, and will attempt to sit on their laps whether they are “cat people” or not. She’ll share her fur with anyone’s clothes. She’s not discriminating that way.

Last week she developed a neurological problem, and I caught her confused and weak at the top of the basement stairs. Helen and I wrapped her up in a towel and took her to the vet. She weighed in at less than five pounds. We sat with her on the floor because I couldn’t get her back into the towel and she was getting worse and couldn’t stand. She was suddenly a puppet with a very unskilled master.

The vet looked her over, drew a little blood, and attempted to get her to stand. Her head rolled in under her front feet and she tumbled. I cried. What makes me think I’m fit to have a pet? How did I get to be the adult who takes the pet “to the farm?” When the dog developed a brain tumor and could not longer eat or fend for himself, I drove him to the same vet to have him put to sleep. He was wrapped in a towel, shuddering, and I played Christmas music. It was September. I don’t know if this music was for him or for me. I doubt he could hear it.

When the vet said Edna wasn’t in pain, I opted to take her home, buy the meds, and see if she’d get better. So this week has been a regular schedule of applying the gel-based thyroid medicine in her right ear in the morning, making a small meal with crushed steroid in it, aiding in a trip to the litterbox, rest, another feeding, another aided trip to the litterbox, rest, another feeding, another application of thyroid medication (this time in the left ear), rest, litterbox.

Over the past couple of days, she’s regained strength, and is walking. It’s a wobbly start. It looks as if parts of her body are pulled by a large magnet while the rest of them are unaffected. But she’s managing, and trying, and eating well enough to “pile on the ounces,” as I said to Helen this morning.

This week she’ll travel with us to Nana’s for Thanksgiving. I’m thankful she’s still around, happy to have her weave her little furs into my black sweater.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Lingue Lounge

We haven't been everywhere so we can't say for sure, but hotel breakfast lounges must be universal in their sleepy feel. In our hotel, the beds are French (no snuggling allowed), the breakfast fare is decidedly German (fliesch und kase), and the radio station plays tinny 1980's pop in English. The walls in the hallways and the breakfast lounge are decorated with fuzzy murals that feature swans, domed buildings, and green scenes. Resin knick-knacks of squirrels and mice sit at each table. Our table this morning hosted a mouse sitting on top of a pinecone and the poor chap was missing an ear. People perform their sleepy ballets around the food stations and barely talk to one another. This seems true everywhere. It is strange for us to not strike up a conversation with the person next to us. We're used to that, but since our vocabulary is limited to the very basics, we're quiet. (This morning we think we said "you're welcome" when we should have said "sorry." Oops. We got our coffee anyway. Stupid, dream-hazed American.) English is a Germanic language. German should not be so difficult to figure out, but we find ourselves feeling like our tongue and brain are wrapped in rubberbands. In the morning it is an exciting challenge, and by evening even the simplest social transaction is frustrating.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inconceivable - Bum Genius 3.0

It’s inconceivable. Young parents now look like kids to us. We are speaking about the thirty-somethings you see in the park, pushing prams that look like Transformers (Optimus Primary Years!), sipping their soy lattes, carrying diaper bags full of eco-friendly Bum Genius 3.0 cloths*, and gathering in Mommy/Baby cliques by the swingsets. We’re envious, we admit it. Our baby-making years are over (we decided after one child we were done), but we sometimes wish for the child who still snuggles, coos, writes little misspelled notes, hugs our knees and says “I love you Mommy.” These days, we’re lucky if we get a grunt of acknowledgment from our “baby” as she emerges from the bathroom after one of her marathon makeup application sessions.

Lots of young parents are stay-at-home moms and dads who blog about their experiences in parenting like a guided adventure tour. Like the aging mother we are, we sometimes browse these sites to be reminded of what it’s like to have a small child, to be new at parenting, to have a sense of wonder and amazement at that gas-induced first smile. There are plenty of blogs out there to read, and each one reveals the personality of the blogger-parent. There’s the advice-giver who tags posts by topic “Discipline,” or “Making Your Own Baby Foods” to the funny dad who chronicles his life with twin daughters. Some parents start with the first positive pregnancy test and write about everything from morning sickness to ultrasounds. One young mother wrote all about her struggle to become pregnant, her miscarriages, a heartbreaking stillbirth, and then finally the joy of having a perfectly normal daughter. There’s a lot of honesty out there.

When we were pregnant, we wrote notes and bad poems to our daughter in one of those black and white composition notebooks, and continued to write in it off and on for about four years, tucking photographs and notes to the tooth fairy in-between the lined pages. An entry from December 31st 1994 recounts the amount of words she was able to say (over 100! wow!) , notes that she called caterpillars “nonnies,” and ends with a promise for a “really great” second birthday. It’s an entry resplendent with the lame fatigue of a new mother. The next entry is the day of her second birthday, which was described as a “toddler whirlwind.”

Maybe it’s the honesty and specificity of these parenting blogs that we’re envious of instead of the new parenthood. There is something to be said for being able to get in the car without all the Graco trappings, for engaging our 17 year old daughter in a philosophical conversation, and making the connections between who she was a child and who she is as a young adult. It’s cool, actually. We try not to dwell any poor parenting techniques we might have employed in the past (Did you know the “time out” is now frowned upon?). However, we sure do wonder about some of the benign phrasings being used these days. “You don’t have the freedom to ___________” is used to discourage negative behaviors. We can’t help but fill in the blank with "You don’t have the freedom to wear mommy’s bra as an aviator cap, put a saddle on the cat, and play ‘Pilot on the Prairie.’”

For now, we’re content with maybe getting a dachshund, visiting with our friend’s new babies (we like being an aunt!), and reading about the most elaborate, Star Wars themed first birthday party ever. It's delicious, vicarious living where we don’t have to clean the blobs of Bobba Fett cake off the floor.

* Since when do diapers have version numbers?


About two or three times a year someone in the household is sick, and the pace of our day slows. Our interests change from to-do list items like “wash all the laundry” to spontaneous rug squaring (we’ve noted our mild obsession with the 90 degree angle). The cats have stapled themselves to the bed of the sick one, there’s a candle burning in the kitchen, soup has been administered. The morning light feels like afternoon light washed through a dirty coffee filter. There isn’t much to enjoy on a day when someone you love is running a fever. We just want them to be well, to eat and laugh, and possibly help with the laundry. But there’s a hint of the past in a house that has nothing to offer other than broth and a gentle hug, which seems like enough for now.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Poem at Work


for Brian

"I have seen a substance excellently adapted to the purpose of wiping from paper the mark of black lead pencil."

- Joseph Priestley

The man who founded Unitarian Universalism,
a religion based on the art of listening and thought,
also discovered the eraser.

I often wonder
how much a soul weighs
and whether or not rocks
have them. Also, who
discovered invisible ink?

Even the seasons
give us a few months
of rubbed out landscape,
music rests for sustained
moments of contemplation,
poems swim in white space
like misunderstood kids
on the playground.

There is a thrill
in found notes in the margins
of a stranger’s book, some erased,
but the hand so heavy
that the words “allegory
sucks,” have embossed
the page. The writer wished
them to be impermanent.
So much for that.

I have a hard time with allegory too,
ever since a few weeks before my dad died
when he shared the first sentence
of the last book he ever read:
One day you wake up and realize
you know more dead than living.

Then he saw herons
all over his hospital room.

If you press hard enough
with a Pink Pearl you can erase
the ink from a hundred dollar bill
and encourage it to abandon
its life of currency for one
of art.

When I was eight
and philosophical
with a Hello Kitty pencil,
I wrote my name
over and over
just to erase it.
Pages and pages
of little births
and deaths to see
what it felt like
to be real
and then disappear.

I suggest to a friend
who has lost his mother
that he type all his feelings out
and then hit the delete key,
as if it is just that easy.

I still think every heron I see
is my father.

There is no way
to erase thought.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Power of Scent - a List

Inspired by my friend Mark's article "Scents My Sister Loved" in Sniffapalooza Magazine, I've made a list of my own evocative scents. For me, scent equals memory. I've always had a very strong sense of smell, which in some ways is a detriment, but mostly it's a gift. I get mocked for my descriptions of tastes because I correlate them to scent. The most recent instance of this was at a dinner with friends where I described the risotto as having a flavor "that reminds me of the smell of 1970's basement bar." No, this was not a good risotto, but I got to the heart of the flavor.

So here are some of the scents that resonate with me on many levels - some are universal in nature (like astrological "predictions" in StarScrolls at the supermarket), others are personal. This is the scent-stuff that tells my stories. I'll come back to this and add as I remember more. It's hard to make a finished, definitive list!

acid eaten paper of old books
pencil shavings
Country Cottage puffball curtains
lemon juice
driveway sealer
cat fur
a pile of fall leaves
chimney soot
pine tree sap
lychee fruit
olives and feta
basement mold
mint tea mist
toasty scent of a Carhart shirt
stuffed animals
warm baby skin, not baby powder
humid bathroom with hairspray
city street sewage sigh
wet sand
triple-layer college apartment carpet
first heat kicking in
rose oil
melting candle wax
acidic tomato vine
Sunday dinner Salisbury
birthday cake candle wish
snowman mittens
Grandmom & Pampal's attic warmth
onions frying in olive oil
Thanksgiving celery and onion
turpentine and oil paint
air right after rain
air right before snow
summer dusk air
envelope mint
the yellow center of a daisy
inside of a piano (felt, wood)

Thursday, October 01, 2009


It's a good thing I make a decent soup, because my writing sure isn't satisfying lately. With soup, you can toss in all sorts of ingredients from the fridge - spinach, carrot, onion, tiny meatballs. In writing, I over-think every choice until all I have is broth, and then I wonder if I should have just stuck with the water. One drop of it.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

It's Not Me It's You

Yesterday we took a trip to Philadelphia to see some live art at the Philly Fringe Festival. A lot of the shows we wanted to see had high ticket prices ($30), but we were able to find something on the schedule that looked interesting and was friendly to our wallets (free). It's Not Me It's You, by Mayumi Ishino was scheduled for 5 p.m. and was located "on the sidewalk of 3rd Street between Arch and Market," according to the website. So, after an afternoon of touring the Magic Gardens and buying too many pairs of shoes on South Street at Dude's, we found our way to the aforementioned sidewalk. It was one of those bright blue days that shoot through your veins, the air was cool, the bass was turned up in the music of passing cars, and our spirits were high.

At the end of 3rd Street near Arch, in a gated alcove was an installation titled "Emergence," by a potter named Dennis Ritter. A coil of white birds suspended on strings flew up from the ground and into the afternoon patches of light. We stopped to take some photos.

People were milling around to find the performance. Since the performance was described as fluxus and it was free, we thought out loud that maybe the performance was all of us showing up between Arch and Market on 3rd Street. We sat down our bags and were letting the mosquitoes feast on our ankles when we overheard someone with a Blackberry mention that the performance was closer to Church street. We walked up a block or so to find the performers getting ready and a small crowd forming.

Mayumi helped her darkly-clad partner on with his black hat and face covering, and then she placed a mirror in his hands and took out a bouquet of colored Sharpie markers. She started a drawing of a self-portrait on the mirror. Soul music poured from a nearby shop. A truck turning into the alley where the crowd stood, paused so the driver could have a peek and wonder. By the time the first drawing was complete, the woman with the banana in the audience had worked her way down to the empty peel. A man turning down the alley stopped his car, got out, and stood for a few moments to catch the scene before returning to his confused passenger.

Mayumi finished the drawing, tucked the Sharpies back into her fabric bag, and took out a hammer. The entire crowd took a couple of steps back. She swung the hammer back and thwacked the mirror while her partner still held it. The resulting crack in her careful portrait made a perfect web.

The two performers walked down the sidewalk and we followed, and they repeated the same performance - studied portraiture in Sharpie, sudden hammering, packing up and heading to a new destination on the sidewalk. Passerby stopped with their Chinese food containers. A murder of meatheads in football jerseys stopped farther down the sidewalk to say "just a bunch of magic markers." My brother made his presence known to them by saluting a subtle finger and they hulked away. A little girl and boy, breathless from a chase down 3rd Street, stopped near the alley where Mayumi had set up for her latest drawing, panted and watched, then continued their play.

The resulting broken portraits were as haunting as the crowds that formed to see them created. I saw in it the American fracture of self.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Nine Equilateral Triangles, You Think

Jury duty. The little card arrives in the mail stamped in red, its official dates and directions printed with what looks like an old dot matrix. Your partially planned vacation is now on hold, you dread the date, but off you go on the clear bright morning when the calendar matches the card. Of course the weather is bright and cheerful, because you will be spending the day indoors bathed under institutional lighting.

Over a hundred people are called with you, and you all sit in metal folding chairs in the little room with clipboards and forms, and a grey stack of magazines on the windowsill. The cross-section of humanity reminds you of the library; a truly democratic place. Everyone was called to served their civic duty, and here they all share in the joy -- the retired grandmother, the unemployed skater, the over-employed and inconvenienced banker with his fat briefcase, the guy you swear you know from somewhere but can’t place, the woman with four kids who works from home stuffing envelopes. After filling out a form, you are thanked by the judge, and given instructions on what will happen next. When he exits, the room settles into a collective anxiousness. A man in front of you seals envelopes and completes his correspondence. The banker taps at his electronic organizer. Everyone is without their cellphones, and seems adrift in a sea of what-to-do without them. The mother cracks open a romance novel. A few people who recognize each other form conversational cliques. You read. The man in front of you takes out a knitting project, and you watch as each stitch is perfectly executed. You decide he must be a Virgo. His t-shirt looks ironed. The morning passes from quiet anxiousness to lethargy. The grey magazines are perused. Windows are propped open with clipboards.

You are one of the first to be drawn in the random lottery that is the first judge’s panel, and are trooped upstairs into a lustrous courtroom, filled with polished hardwood and an energy you can’t place. The plaintiff and defendant sit in silence as the plaintiff’s lawyer takes two hours to ask questions of the numbered potential jurors. It reminds you of the worst parts of school. A sunny day when your mind wandered, the teacher called on you and your brain fell into a “fight or flight” response. You answer when called. You listen to others respond, and like them less and less. You like the defendant and plaintiff less and less even though they haven’t said a word. You like yourself less for not liking anyone. Where has your kindness gone? You spend the rest of the time figuring out the armature behind the giant painting of Justice on the wall behind the judge’s desk. It has nine equilateral triangles in it.

After the defendant’s lawyer asks a very brief set of general questions, the two sides deliberate on their choices. Papers are passed between them. Finally, jurors are called to their seats. You are not one of them. The rejected return to the waiting room. You spend some time at the window. The trimmed lawn with its tufts of intermittent plantings, linear hedges grown fat into embarrassed forms, remind you that Americans can’t garden. An announcement is made that all are excused for the rest of the week. You walk back to your car in the parking garage with afternoon returned to you like a beloved lost pet, as the plaintiff and defendant dissolve from your mind and into the sun.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Messages Are Written in Air

A man carves a message into the trunk of a tree for a woman he has never met. She finds it years later while on a walk with the dog. She runs her fingers into the hollows of bark, memorizes the rough script, and spends the rest of her life looking for messages in the margins of books.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Hold Steady

Driving through Lisle, New York on our way to Ithaca, we see a sign that reads “Father’s Day Cooked In Ground Beef.” The houses lean and sigh, look as if they’d like to exhale some of their incorrect geometry answers. Drying impatiens swing from flowerpots on sprawling porches, a backhoe digs up grass for next week’s “Mud Bog.” Trees flash by greengreengreen – a sign to drive faster and just go.

The music we hear that night in a cramped bar makes me want to get into a car and drive with the windows rolled down. I want to visit a place I love but don’t know yet. The lyrics remind me of postcards from a friend I don’t have, but whose words I crave in his or her scrawl.

At the door, my ID is checked (wow). The bouncer has taken the gauges out of his ears, and they speak a relaxed “O, O.” Most of the crowd is younger than we are, but not by much. Maybe five or ten years, and then there are a handful of really young music lovers whose hands are branded with big black Sharpie X’s, making them visible to the bartenders. I watch a skinny teen grin as he enters, then cross his arms to hide his brand from all the college girls. Castaways is packed by nine p.m. when the opening band starts to play. A few people sway, but most still talk and drink their beers. I watch the continual stream of people enter and get their wristbands Humanity is diverse. Where do all these people come from? Dreads, skinny jeans, grey hair, pink stockings with polka dot shoes, overweight, girls who remind me of all my sister’s college friends, purple hair, no hair, quiet, sad eyed.

During the performance of The Hold Steady, I jump, dance, clap and revel behind a frat boy and his friend who like to jump, clap and dance too, only with more vigor, elbows and heavy feet. A high school girl and her boyfriend who look like they’ve stepped out of a Hollister ad try to wriggle their way through the crowd but their charm doesn’t get them far and they get stuck just a few ahead of us. When the music starts and people scream and jump around, they become as still as frightened deer. A young man just in front of me stands for most of the show looking like a cross between a Dr. Seuss character and a 1950’s sitcom father until his favorite song is played and then he leaps and pumps his fist in the air. Beer is sprayed, confetti cheers and settles onto the sweaty breasts of young women. Jim goes into a ecstatic trance for most of the show and loses his voice. I feel the sweat drip off his arm. Matt swings his head and his hair sweeps like pages in a book. He whoops and raises his arms as if every song is a touchdown, which it is. Dan listens to every lyric, squeezes my hand. The Hold Steady hold steady with charisma. Feet peek above heads in front as a body is carried through the crowd. The encore is a half an hour long. The bar is sticky, packed, and full of positive energy. Joy. The music makes me want to visit a place I love but don’t know yet, because its rooms and landscapes are now a place I love and know. Oh to be 40 forever.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Very Rural Pennsylvania Haibun

chickens in the road
a barn cat slinks into grass
dandelions exhale

It takes me three days to settle into a place that should feel immediately like home. At night, the air is cool and smells like an uprooted carrot. Cowbirds imitate the calls of their neighbors and wait inside shrubbery to burgle nests. There is no mall for miles, no television where I sleep at night. I grew up this way – hours to wander and think, but I’ve forgotten it all, and find myself anxious without my family.

picking blackberries
fingers and lips stained blue
scent of sweetfern

It takes three days for the rhythm of this place to relax into a beat with my heart. Poppies bow their fuzzy, sleepy heads, a peony releases its sweetness into dusk. The donkey is the rude uncle of the pasture – he honks and heehaws toward all the magnificent horses as they graze. His ears are as soft and as big as slippers. I imagine slipping my feet into them, as if into two jewel cases, thanks to Neruda. Fences turn fields of clipped grass and turned dirt into geometry problems.

horse grinds down grass
strong jaw and grey muzzle
nuzzles the world’s body

At a small crossroads store where men stop for coffee, Sanka, and the news, a giant wheel of cheese sits on the counter. Every day the wheel shrinks a little as slices of its cheddarness bid farewell on rafts of sandwiches. Homemade sticky buns and Lepp cookies wait for a sweet tooth. I resist. I remember the comfort of our town’s little store, the aisles of dusty cans, the butcher’s bloody apron, racks of candybars, conversations and local gossip.

Flavors of comfort –
potato, yam, and coffee,
stories of hometown.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

J'aime la nature

I watch morning television and I fear the world I love. I imagine the people I pass on the sidewalk with subheadings under their faces – “Ex-wife of Suspect,” “Sister of Shooting Victim” or “Father of Missing Child.” The television blinks missives and stories simultaneously, one under another; a compost heap of stupidity and numbness. Its commercials try to sell us supplements, super-juices, sugar-packed cereals, face lifts, ideal green energy, politicians, mops that fit into the tightest of corners, orgasmic chocolates, hair products to smooth us into who we ought to look like. Breakfast news entertains us. Musical families compete with each other and news anchors surprise “drowsy” families at their doors to announce they are the chosen ones. The dire economy is addressed with the re-introduction of depression-era recipes, women are encouraged to dress like Michelle Obama and feed their children what the First Family eats. Everything is derivative.

A few mornings ago the top news story was “Death Comes to Reality TV.” Nothing is real until we see it on television. Even death. I have to hand it to death, because it doesn’t care about television at all. It does its job unsanctioned, unbidden, and often is horribly creative.

Last night I watched a movie called “Bande å Part” or “Band of Outsiders” by Jean-Luc Godard. There is a scene where one of the main characters, a young woman named Odile, is being questioned by her aunt. The aunt lists all of the conventional things a young girl might like, and Odile rejects them all. “I detest that,” she repeats. Then she leans against the wall and says, “J’aime la nature.”

Me too, Odile. I love the parts of the world that are not broadcast; the crocus that grows out of a crack in the sidewalk, the kid who rides his unicycle across the bridge every morning to get to school.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Some Rules for Living/A Credo for March 2009

This is a follow-up to a post I made awhile ago about writing credos. Here's a list of rules for myself. These are subject to change by the second. Maybe you have a few rules for yourself? Beliefs? It's a good idea to write them down occassionally - touch base with yourself, who you are, and see how you've changed over the years.

Some Rules for Living/A Credo for March 2009

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
~ E.E. Cummings

If you feel compelled to hug someone, do it
and put your whole self into that hug.

If you feel like punching someone, think about it.
Chances are, you won’t want to later. Maybe.

The same is true for shopping impulses –
do you really need that 24 pack of ShamWOWs?

Think, then think some more.

Turn off your television, your computer,
throw the phone in the hamper under
the stinky towels and think.

Allow your thoughts to drift into daydreams.
Write down what you dream.

When you see someone enjoy creating art,
or reading, cooking, throwing a ball –
encourage them.

Do not abuse squirrels, children, the elderly,
geese at the park (even though they will chase you).

Wear clothes you feel comfortable in –
they are your socially acceptable skin.
If they aren’t stylish by today’s standards,

Forgive yourself. You’ll do better next time.

Weave cloth, make paper, assemble a book,
milk a cow, help build a house –
at least once in your lifetime.

If crossword puzzles give you headaches,
stop doing them.

Make eye contact when someone
is speaking to you.

Don’t fake listening.
It will come back to haunt you.

It’s ok if you want to try to glue
ice together – just don’t count on it
making a good house.

Count your money. Keep what you need
to pay your bills and eat, then give
the rest away.

Get dirt under your fingernails.

Witness a birth.

Do something that scares you.

Lay out on the lawn in the summer at night
with a friend and look at the stars.

Write letter of praise and complaint
when they are due.

Attend the funeral.

Don’t cheat when you’re playing a game.

You will lose and you will win
and you should have fun with both.

Take walks in February
just to smell the ground thaw.

Do the laundry and don’t whine about it.

If you’re going to go to the trouble
to bake a birthday cake for someone
you love, make it from scratch.

Pay attention to the way
professionals do things –
a locksmith replacing a lock
is just as much a virtuoso
as an opera singer.

Talk to the cab driver.

Consider your own mortality,
but don’t dwell on it.

You have a talent
and a responsibility to find it.

Share your ideas!
They are not doing the world any good locked up
for safekeeping in the attic of your ego.

Travel to a place where you don’t understand the language
so you can remember what learning a language is like.

Don’t wear sandals or high heels on a hike.

Share the flowers from your garden
with your neighbors.

Sometimes it's hard to love your neighbor
especially when they are peeking into
your bedroom window. See Rule #2.

Do not develop strange, sentimental
attachments to things like cacti.

Get up early and write.

Not all of your ideas are original –
you have to learn from others first.

Kids say better what adults
struggle over.

It is possible to have too many
rules for yourself.

It is impossible to have too many chocolate chips.

- Jennifer Hill

Friday, March 06, 2009

At the Cafe

I ticky ticky type away during a break from teaching. Someone asks if I am working on homework. "No, I'm working on a book," I say.

I am reluctant to call it a novel. It scares me too much. Like I might jinx it.

She Saw Your Poems on the Internet

Yesterday, a winsome eighth grader breezed up to me after class and held out a sheet I had given her earlier with one of my poems on it. "Can you autograph this please? For my sister?" I was stunned, to say the least. "She says she knows you." I asked her name, and her age. Maybe I had her as a student somewhere. I didn't recognize her name, but I meet a lot of kids. "She said she saw some of your poems on the internet. She's always looking for poems."

I signed the poem, and wondered what poems of mine she's read - worried over it actually. I'm not exactly Shel Silverstein. Maybe she's mistaken me for someone else, or, maybe she just really wants the autograph of a poet. Either way, it makes me feel good about the future knowing there's a ten year old out there reading poems that are not assigned to her in school.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Thanks, Studs

When we read a book, we change our lives; we redesign the way we think by assimiliating certain parts of the writing into our own ideas, values, viewpoints. What power words have, and how glad I am that I grew up in a family of readers, writers, and lovers of words. Our home library was accessible to me all of the time (my father made shelves that lined the walls of the living room and guest room), and my mother took us weekly (and more!) to the local library.

Many of my close friends and several of my students know that I read Studs Terkel's "Working" when I was eight or nine years old. I can still imagine the red spine of the book peeking out of the shelves in the living room. It was a well-worked spine, with many wrinkles, and rightfully so. I think it was the heft of the book that appealed to me initially then. I was always wanting to read something that looked like a "big book." I found it to be easier to read that I'd imagined - the short sections of interviews, real people speaking in normal language. I became aware of colloquialisms (even though I didn't know what they were), dialects, and different speech patterns. I learned about all sorts of people and the lives they led, and found them all fascinating. I remember being surprised at the model talking about hauling a heavy wardrobe all over the city, and realizing how unglamorous being a model is.

I think "Working" found me at just the right time in my life. Reading it so early offered me the benefits of referring to its pages (and the memory of its contents when I am away from my copy), in a way that makes it feel like a parent to me. "Forget who you are and what your purpose is? Come here and read me," it whispers.

Studs Terkel understood the value in people sharing their life stories, and in writing them down. He honored that. Reading his book rearranged my pattern of thought, and made me part of who I am as a person and a writer today. "Working" is a book that has informed my values.

Friday, February 06, 2009


I am of those who believe
different things on different days

- Steve Kowit

I've been working with some middle schoolers recently, encouraging them to write what they believe. Cakewalk, right? This isn't an easy task for adults, and 12-14 year olds want to stand out from the crowd and shout out their beliefs about as much as a squirrel wants to wear pants.

This isn't my first stab at this assignment. I've written a few credos of my own, and tried various ways of cheering them on from others over the years. NPR has a great resource in their "This I Believe" segment, which has been a project in the works for over fifty years. Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio's book, "A Poet's Companion" has a writing exercise on beliefs that is pretty good as well. I've used and combined things from both of these sources, plus added a few ideas of my own into the mix. Eventually, something gets written, but the most important part of this assignment is that thought happens - long, sustained thought about what it is you really believe, and why. Some of us never really know what it is we believe until we are tested and pushed into thinking about it. In the best of situations, there are some really long, philosophical discussions. The bell rings and no one notices.

I've promised my group that I'll be writing my credo as well, since it is something that can and should be done on a semi-regular basis to see how you've grown and changed. The last one I wrote was about a year ago, and before that it was around 2004 I think. I'm due to check in with myself.

"The Poet's Companion" cites an example from the novel "Crooked Heart" by Robert Boswell. A character named Ask has a list of rules he carries in his wallet. These are a few of his rules:

1. Never make a complicated thing simple, or a simple thing complicated.
2. Wear white at night.
3. Take care of Tom. (Ask's brother.)
4. Eat from the four food groups.
5. Be consistent.
6. Never do anything with the sole intent of hurting someone.

This seems to be the direction I'm heading in with my own credo this time. When I've completed it, I'll post it here.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Statement of Intent

My goal as a writer is to create works that I would enjoy as a reader. I don't want to write anything formulaic, or anything that is so complex and dense that the reader feels like she's trapped in a bramble. I am interested in innovation, but not just for the sake of newness -- innovation that breaks new ground in order to unearth the nut of the writing. Whatever is discovered in that rooting should be written in an honest and genuine in manner, not forced. I want what I write to be true to it's self.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Big Box of Beige

Last night we tried out a new restaurant in town. It's another in what seems to be a long and well-worn, traditional line of upscale Italian restaurants in our area. Since we've been frozen under three inches of ice for the past two days, I was looking forward to not cooking or doing the dishes.

I'm not sure I'll ever get around to recounting the food we had, because the decor has left me with so much to review. How many types of beige can you imagine?

Honey beige (that's for Dad)
Organic Egg
Underside of Mole
Jersey Sand
Elementary School Tagboard

The entire interior of this restaurant is decorated in various types of tan, more numerous than the list I just jotted. Two large glass doors greet you into an open foyer with beige walls, cream wood trim, and a brown hostess station. The theme continues through the rooms of the restaurant: Beige walls. Sepia toned photographs. Cream tablecloths. Tan ceiling. Carmel swags. Ecru window blinds.

The three of us started to discuss what the designer might have been thinking. We decided that they were going for a "do-not-offend-or-excite" ambiance. Before the bread arrived, Helen already had the room we were sitting in newly designed with deep red walls, curtains made of paper, and some beaded light fixtures. Dan asked what I would do to redesign it. "Call Mark," I said.

On the upswing, this restaurant has no televisions, except for in the bar, which was gratefully out of our field of vision during our meal.

After our dinner, we were able to focus more on the brulee of shades going on in the artwork. Each sepia-toned photograph is double matted in two tones of beige, then framed with a light wood. That's some commitment to the Law of Beige.

I left feeling like I'd been in a sandstorm, my memory of the meal erased in a static of tan.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sing a Song of Self-Consciousness

When I’m awake early and writing at my desk I can catch a glimpse of myself in the reflective surface of the window. At five or six a.m. I look a mess. I tilt my head a little – what is that? A sagging jowl? This is not writerly. It is exactly who I am. Almost forty, taking notes on jowls.

How lucky I am to be just waking up, at all. I remind myself that I have friends who didn’t make it to forty, who left behind students who adored them, or their own children. So soon I will be forty, and then I will have to say that I am forty, not “nearly forty,” which sounds so much better than “forty,” which is definite, even, and very much in the middle of a long life if I’m lucky enough to have it.

I read a poem recently by a writer who I know has ego issues, and the poem was beautiful, and I wished I didn’t know anything about the poet. I figure that every writer has one issue or another, or multiple ones, or at least I hope they do so it is not just my aging face reflected in the glass but a whole chorus of us. Yes, this makes me selfish. Who wants to be alone, really? When the sun swings its magic wand and the morning hits that point where everything shimmers we will no longer be an image pressed onto the window, but part of the entire landscape. Just the words, not our faces. If we're lucky. It's something to strive for anyway. If I can stop thinking about my jowls long enough to write something with elegant virtuosity, or eloquent virtuosity. I can't remember the phrase -- not writerly, but written in a genuine and honest voice.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Unfinished Symphony of Augury

A mazurka of birds casts shadows on the snow. The cat’s tail swings in a half-hearted quarter time. I sink into the background, doing my best to disappear in the open score of January, to erase with the syncopation of bleak days. Yesterday, the word “peace” spelled itself out in shadow across the road. Who knows how long it will last – probably a few more days when the municipality decides that the holiday season has wrung out its final arpeggio. With yesterday’s events the word peace felt like augury. Our chimney smoke draws itself along the neighbor’s page of yard. I’m not sure if it’s God that makes a red barn cast a blue shadow in January, but it sure is a complex and beautiful symphony.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pop Quiz

My daughter and I discuss an upcoming trip, and I explain the itinerary and switchover at the airport. "We might have to run a little to catch the next plane. I'm not sure. I have to check. Hope we don't miss it." My insecurity is obvious. "Ha, ha! You're the one in charge. You have to get us there," she laughs. Many moons ago, I became a mother. I am the map, the guide, the latitude, the longitude, the compass, the clock, the necessitous, bulging, and often embarrassing luggage.

MapQuest does not get you to the right gate at the airport. It's a do-it-yourself operation. With any luck, you're not at O'Hare. Arriving at any destination for me is a combination of luck, pluck, intuition, and winging it. That is what I've been teaching. I should plan more, and pay attention to the details.

My daughter squeezes in a last minute study-session in the car on the way to school. "Mom, what's didactic?" I stumble around my morning brain. "Preachy. Well, poetry or stories that teach a lesson. Not necessarily negative, but sometimes. Like a speaker can be didactic. Yeah. I'm pretty sure that's it." I turn off the defroster, feeling pretty good about myself. "Ok, so what's a bildungsroman then?" Son of a. I haven't had coffee yet. "Sounds ancient, and faintly this a matching test? I hope for your sake it is."

As soon as I get home I check the dictionary and find this:

/ˈbɪldʊŋzroʊˌmɑn; Ger. ˈbildʊŋksrɔˌmɑn/ [bil-doongz-roh-mahn;
Ger. beel-doongks-raw-mahn]
–noun, plural -mans, German. -ma⋅ne  /-ˌmɑnə/ [-mah-nuh]

a type of novel concerned with the education, development, and maturing of a young protagonist.

So it is ancient and faintly poopy! Parenting.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Day of Sounding and Resounding

I've heard Paul Dutton perform once when we were invited to give a couple of readings in Toronto and Ottawa. We were in the Victory Cafe, and Paul stood behind me on a bench and began reading a poem which was filled with a series of sounds that I couldn't believe were being created by a human. His was the most memorable reading of the evening. I don't remember what anyone else read, including myself - I remember Paul's marvelous and surprising utterances.

Yesterday I participated in a Soundsinging and Sound Poetry workshop with Paul. We organized a reading and workshop with him for the community at the studio, and we partnered with Wilkes University so he could give another reading through the Creative Writing Program. (It's tonight at 7 p.m. in Kirby Hall - be there if you can!)

Our Third Friday reading series has a cast of regulars, but there are always a few new people to visit. There was a good energy with the people in Paul's audience on Friday, and surely a few who were unsure what was going on exactly. A young newcomer and her mother shifted uncomfortably in their seats with the first sound poem. One of Paul's poems, titled "Um," starts with him shifting through his papers and saying "um," in a way that makes you think he's forgotten something, or lost his place. The tension builds between the performer and the audience as he continues to shift papers about and say "um, er..." and then you realize that this is part of the poem. It's perfect. Friends I spoke with afterward said that they felt themselves tensing up at first in the reading and then finally relaxing into all of the sound.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the workshop, but I knew what I hoped to gain from it - a better sense of what type of house my body is for sound. Paul started us off with a short talk on the physicality and mechanics of sound in the body, and how the body holds tensions and memories in the muscles. He led us through a long relaxation and deep breathing session, where we were all supine on the floor, with heavy limbs and sleepy eyes. This was probably the longest deep breathing exercise I have ever done, and it was completely relaxing. We didn't make any sounds using the larynx yet, just inhalation and exhalation. From that relaxed state, he encouraged us to get up when we were ready, find a place to stand (and we could also move around the room), and begin making sounds. The group split up and found places - one in a corner, one in the bathroom, I stood in my little office for awhile, a few stood in the front near the door. My first sounds were windy, and reminded me of the howling wind of my childhood bedroom at night, which made me cry a little in the imitation of it, and the surety of the memory, which was not an unhappy or scary one, but a kind of comfort and connection with nature that I miss now as an adult. Paul walked around the room. Other workshoppers were making rhythmic noises, and he encouraged us at times to move the sounds we were creating into other parts of the mouth, throat and head (earlier, he gave us a great visual of the mouth as a cave). I was at times aware of the others in the room, and at other times unaware of their sounds. Some of the sounds I made were primal, gutteral, monsterous - and I couldn't keep myself from moving my hands as I made them. The total sound in the room (when I was aware of it) had peaks and valleys I think. There was some laughter, but it was experimental. None of this felt weird to me at all. Before we broke for a long lunch (enough time to digest), we shared our experiences of the session.

The afternoon session included a more improvisational group effort, where we were encouraged to listen to one another, move about the room and create sound. My experience at first was a little more self-aware and awkward, but I eased into it. We finished the day with some group exercises, and a chant. Everyone left feeling energized. And they didn't leave, actually. Most of them came to the house to join us for dinner with Paul.

My friend Mischelle always surprises me, and last night was no exception. She played the piano as soon as we got into the house - some Beethoven sheet music I had on the rest. She's been to the house many times before and never touched the piano. I sat with her and we played duets, and she is such a good sight-reader that I begged her to play some Sondheim, which she did. I sang. When Paul arrived with Dan (and the ingredients for our dinner!) he sat down at the piano and played improvisational boogie woogie and blues. Bananafish (our bird) sang along. Another friend danced. The whole house was sonorous songlorious.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Food Memory for Dan

It was the year of the recurring earache, the year of the pink fluoride tablets, the year of the rental A-Frame, the year of hiding under the stairs, the year of wheat germ sneaked into morning cereal. It was also the year of the Not-to-Be-Forgotten Liver Dinner. Liver and onions. My father and mother enjoyed liver, and my sister and I, both young (I was seven and she was ten), hadn’t really had the opportunity to try it yet. While I played post office under the stairs or tidied my box house in the loft, my mother was working her secret machinations with liver in the kitchen. I wasn’t aware of it, and didn’t recognize the smell. When my father got home from work, we all sat down at the dinner table. Dad was probably tired, and really looking forward to the not-meatloaf, not-spaghetti meal. My memory is a little hazy here, and the story has been told a bunch of times. It’s one of those perennial family favorites, told with joyful gusto to every newcomer to our clan. The meal was served. I think I winced. I must have made a face, or grunted. I was told to try it anyway. I balked. The liver smelled funny. It was covered with wormy onions. My father’s face reddened. All he wanted was to enjoy a good meal, and his shaggy-haired second grader was ruining it. “Enough, Jenny. Try it.” I pierced a piece with my fork and put the liver to my lips. My sister suggested the “hold your breath” technique, which fueled dad’s furor. Holding my breath didn’t work. I could still taste and smell the liver’s metallic tinge, and I gagged. Then I cried. My crying made my sister cry. The sight of us crying, her frustrated husband, and all the hard work and preparation that went into a meal all gone to hell in a handbasket, made my mother cry. There were all of my father’s girls, crying in front of plates full of cold liver. I don’t remember if dad finished his meal. I know I didn’t.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Word List

While looking at the all-forgiving snow floating in sun and onto the ground today, I wondered how many words I really know. What is my total vocabulary? I started to list the words beginning with the letter A in the notebook I keep in my pocketbook, then I realized I need the OED (which I have, thanks to Dan!), to make sure I don't miss any. Not that I expect to have a really impressive list by any means, but I want to make sure that I don't cheat myself either. I have a bad memory. Today I begin my list of words in my working vocabulary. There will be two parts to this list: words I know, and words I know and use. Who knows how long it will take - maybe two days - maybe two years? I'll let you know the outcome. I expect it to be humbling.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fortieth Birthday Parade

She closed her eyes, chewed on her fork, and imagined two small poodles walking on their hind legs. Each wore a pink sequined hat and a little matching bow tie. Walking on back legs made their front legs dangle like gloves on a clothesline. Would they be able to keep up if they led everything? Would it be humane? Probably not. Someone would have to whisk them away after the first few steps. What would follow after the poodles was harder to imagine, but the cast appeared -- 80’s hair bands. Duran Duran. Flock of Seagulls. The old guy who rode his aluminum foiled bike down Main Street every day to collect recycling should make an appearance, and also the one who wore a bike helmet to walk around town. No politicians, no clowns, no causes. Then her float, covered in middle-school dance tissue paper flowers, soap bubbles lifting from its cushioned surface. The parade would be over as quickly as it began, a metaphor for life’s pomp and circumstance. Perfect. She’d wear a tiara and those white patent leather shoes she always wanted as a kid. Her husband and teenage daughter would probably stay home. There would be no crowd. Any spectators would be the elderly neighbors who just happened to be sitting out on their porches that morning. It would take place in an alley, and pass by the backs of bars and their beer-stained carpets. The township wouldn’t notice, so there would be no reason to ask permission to close off a street. She’d wave and pop bubbles. She’d curl her toes in those shoes.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Flappy Gnu Rear! A List (ordered by whim) for 2009

1. Don't be a lazy writer, be a scrupulous one.
2. Take a class in something you're interested in that isn't related to writing.
3. Take a class in something that is writing related, but not poetry.
4. Collaborate with someone who scares you a little.
5. Take more walks in the woods.
6. Be honest in your writing.
7. Sing more.
8. Be more patient. This includes patience with your own writing/reading cycles. However, you need to finish two projects this year, and you know which two those are.*
9. Don't be afraid to say no. You can't do everything.
10. More risk taking. Don't be afraid to say yes, either.
11. Travel and visit far-flung relatives.
12. Work out a better submission/pub schedule.
13. Resume driving lessons with Helen.
14. Help Helen with her portfolio for college.
15. Blog when you feel like it, but not when you don't.
16. Write every single day, even if it's complete drek. The drek doesn't need to be shared.
17. Read more.
18. Do more work with seniors and memoir.
19. Exercise.
20. Put a door in the back room that leads out to the patio.
21. Spend more time with friends.
22. Work on the garden.

* I am not good at being patient.