Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gold Stars

Remember them? Gummy backed and glimmering, they rested in small boxes the teacher kept in the top middle drawer of her desk. They waited for you to do something good, better, or best. If you were lucky enough to have a box of them of your own for crafts at home, you knew the delicious rustling sound they made as you shuffled them in the box with your fingertips. The sound of success. Books read at the library, a constellation on the summer reading chart for the community to see. Shake the box by your ear. Hear it? The sound of self worth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Tonight's presentation is darkness,
uncountable stars under clouds,
squinting at the Christmas tree lights,
boxing on television.

Memory is a little bit of a conspiracy
between your head and your heart.

Days diary into years,
years edit themselves
into a box with photographs.

This is the shortest day
of the year, the longest night.

There's the Julian calendar,
but you have to wait four centuries
to gain those three days from
the surplus of eleven minute bundles.

Chances are, you won't make it that long.

The person who says, "Too many years"
"Too many daisies" or "Too many stars"
hasn't made mayonnaise from scratch,
read a poem that made her cry or scream,
or stacked the perfect pile of firewood.

It is a cloak, all right.
You feel it. The darkness.
Then in the morning,
nothing but precise light.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Such Witty Party Talk

At a party recently I heard a man bemoan the fact that he's tired of answering the same insipid questions people ask about his profession. "How did you get to be an actor?" He said he didn't have the energy to answer the question anymore. His witty friends offered up some potential glib replies: "Just say you were inspired by a dream Dali had." Imagine everyone tossing their heads back and laughing (proudly, because they all got the Dali reference), drinks in hand, the sparkling holiday decor winking in the windows as if in on the joke.

Ok, it didn't exactly happen that way. I haven't been invited to any parties recently. But something I ran across this week made me think about this attitude. It's out there, and I'm going to call it out as High-Falutin' Snobbery in the Arts.

I think people who ask "How do you make a living in the arts?" do so because they have an unrealized dream. Some might just find it amusing and they are curious, but most genuinely want to know how to make it work. Maybe they've had a comfortable job most of their lives and dreamed about being a novelist. Maybe their life circumstances put them in a position where they had to hold down a job sealing envelopes from home, but they've always loved to sing.

When someone asks me "How did you become a poet?" I always pause. Well, I usually gape like a fool, struggle with some words (wow, she MUST be a poet!), and then gurgle out a reply. I'm happy to answer the question, but it is a tough one to answer. I talk about where I grew up, how I grew up, and the word games we played as kids. Being alone in the woods meant tinkering around with sticks, turning my closet into a little writing room, jumping into cold streams, picking huckleberries, inspecting salamanders, plenty of thinking, long walks, and making up plays and performing them. This, plus the people who mentored and inspired me along the way led up to my love of language and my desire to write. I had a childhood of creativity that led me into an adulthood of the same sense of curiosity about the world. I realize I am lucky. Not everyone gets that.

Geez, it's a tough question to answer, but such a great question to be asked. It's an honor, even if it's a struggle every time to explain how huckleberry picking made me want to write poetry. I'm not even sure that's the correct answer, and isn't that just like a life in poetry? No answers, only more questions.

When the fan mail starts arriving from my Poetry/Hooping/Nose and Ear Wiggling/Musical Typewriter Theatrical Extravaganza (ha ha ha!), I'll answer that too, and won't complain about being weary of it. Ever. I'll be grateful, and humbled that anyone cared to inquire at all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Holiday Strap On

We're wondering when the borough truck will make its slow crawl up Main Street to adorn the streetlights with the same tatty candy canes and dusty wreaths they've used for half a century. It's way past Halloween. In previous years, the O, O, O's and upside down J's were up right after the trick-or-treaters stopped ringing our doorbells. Maybe it's all this rain. Who wants to stand in a cherry picker and strap on holiday decor in this drear? Oh dear.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure

Yesterday morning I sat on the sofa with my phone and checked my email. Projectnotices had an unpaid role for me, the Writer's Almanac served up the poem of the day, Dollhouse Bettie wanted to sell me a thirty dollar thong. Nothing spoke to me. However, a whisper of a desire to take a walk overcame my spirit, and I answered the message. The blue sky smiled behind the sheer curtains of the living room windows. I put on a pair of boots, announced to a still snoozing husband that I'd be taking a walk, and off I marched out the door.

From the sidewalk in front of our home, a wanderer has three choices: go to the left, go to the right, or head straight back and up the driveway of an abandoned church property.

A friend of mine reminded of the the Choose Your Own Adventure series the other day. She said she would read each of the choices to ensure her adventure lasted the longest and kept her reading. No one wants to get from the first page to the last page in two steps, right? I stood on the sidewalk and considered my options with her childhood theory in mind. I chose the path that rose behind me -- a river of black asphalt.

The air was lively as it pushed branches of tender birches, and drew its thready windfingers through my hair. As I rounded the corner by the old church, two cars made their way along the road, their passengers ready for church. I reconsidered my outfit of plaid pants and leopard print gloves, and then the insecurity floated away with the exhaust fumes of their cars.

I like to keep my head up when it's breezy. The wind jostles even fading leaves awake. I walked past the 1970's split level that has been for sale for the past ten years (there used to be a baby grand piano visible through the bay window), beyond the row of hedges that fence the house with an in-ground pool. The sky stayed the stillest of blues. A few leaves rattled on the branches. Half of a double-wide home wore the faux green garland of Christmas on its windows, the other half anticipated Thanksgiving with handmade paper turkeys.

I walked the woods of the suburbs -- gumdrop and crew cut hedges, flea-combed lawns, SUVs parked squarely under the carport. Choose your own limited adventure.

I stopped by a birch tree in front of a house with wooden pilgrims stabbed into drying flowerbeds. The wind tickled the remaining leaves and turned them into delicate chimes. In the suburbs, the tree is someone else's property. In the woods, it would be mine to close my eyes and listen to freely and without worry. I closed my eyes for a few musical moments and it sang to me from the its forest of symphonies. I didn't need permission from the tree's owner. It freely gave. Near the end of my walk, another tree released its leaves onto the road, while the wind tumbled them across the asphalt. Their canto rose and fell in reds and yellows toward me, and I caught every note, hungry to keep the pages turning.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What I Learned from Directing

1. You will read the play many times and you will see/hear something new every single time you read it.

You know the play really well at the first read-through if you've done due diligence. This allows you to go into that first read-through with confidence. Take the time during the read-through to discuss the story afterward. Ask basic questions, then talk it out. There's nothing wrong with table work mid-rehearsal schedule, either. Returning to the book can be very helpful and throw up new insights. I was consistently surprised throughout the process about what fresh thoughts/ideas appeared during rehearsals and even in performances.

2. Not everyone is going to like you, agree with your vision, or your process for directing. This is ok.

You can't please everyone, and shouldn't. If you worry about this, you will fail. You have a responsibility as a director to stage a play well, and you have the authority to make it happen. Not everyone is going to agree with how you do it, or with all of your decisions. Allow for grexing. It's not about you anyway, it's about serving the play and serving the playwright, the audience, and the actors. You don't need to be everyone's friend. What a relief. On the flipside, don't be a jerk, either. Just because you're the director doesn't mean you get to swell with power and be all, well, jerksome.

3. Casting is important.

Holy smokes is this important. It is fine to hold extra auditions and callbacks. Get it right. Ask questions, do a little research on those who audition. Has he or she played roles like this before? If not, what interests them in the role and the play? Take your time and get it right. There is no decision you will make that is more important than this one.

4. Directing is a lot like teaching.

Every actor has a different style, a unique process toward finding their character, understanding the story of the play, learning blocking. Some respond well to written notes, some work better with spoken notes. Some need extra encouragement. Some need to move as they say their lines in order to learn them. Work with their different learning styles. This is not extra work for you. It's a bonus, really. I gave notes two ways. After rehearsals actors were handed notes that were written on index cards, and I also spoke directly to the actors. Visual and auditory.

5. Rehearsals need structure and discipline.

This is like teaching, too. An unruly class leads to little getting accomplished and a frustrated teacher. Begin on time and end on time. Don't allow people to be habitually late. It's a waste of time and is disrespectful. I began rehearsals with warm-ups. It's asking a lot for someone in community theatre (an unpaid position) to show up at 7 p.m. after a long day at work and expect them to just "get into character" and be ready to go. We started with physical warm ups, then vocal, added more movement, and then we began what was on the rehearsal schedule. Don't keep working when actors are tired, and end rehearsals happily.

6. Be kind to your Stage Manager. Praise her often. Be kind to the Technical Director. Praise him often. Include the crew.

Your SM is there for you during rehearsals, she answers questions about props from actors, takes phone calls about rehearsal schedules, she deciphers your written notes to actors, makes sure that everything is in the proper place during later rehearsals and performances. She will know the text of the play like you do, and will keep track of your blocking choices. My SM was like an angel, and I hope I reminded her enough of how helpful and wonderful she was. My TD helped me to overcome my fear of ladders, orchestrated the crew in the construction of the set, and turned the house into a home. I did my best to include the crew in the creative process, and asked their advice on things where they had the knowledge base I lack.

7. Say yes or no. Avoid maybe.

You have a vision. Stick to it. Actors do not want to hear, "Well, maybe this will change." Or a "Maybe ..." from the director when they ask a question about whether or not what they are doing looks right. It either does, or doesn't, is or isn't. Shit or get off the pot, as my father used to say.

8. Praise actors early and often, and listen to them.

Rather than saying "Your entrance was good at the beginning of the scene, but you need to be a little slower." Say, "Your entrance was good at the beginning of the scene, and it really looks terrific when you move slower." In very early rehearsals I gave little direction and just watched and took notes. Most of what came naturally to them worked. As they got comfortable with their characters and their lines were learned, there was lots of room for them to play and improvise. Some of it worked magically and I said so. Some of it didn't, and we tweaked. When an actor says "This blocking doesn't feel right," I listened and asked questions like "What do you think will work better?" Often they knew what worked. If not, we worked on it together. I know this isn't how every director works. Theatre is a collaborative process. I don't have all the answers.

9. Don't apologize when you don't have to.

Sure, admit when you're wrong, but when you're not, don't apologize. The older I get, the less I appreciate self-deprecating, sort-of-humorous apologizing. It rots confidence in yourself, and in everyone around you. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn from your mistakes, laugh them off when appropriate, and move on.

10. Challenges are learning experiences.

Has something not quite worked out the way you thought it would? Good. What can you make from the pieces? What did you learn? My biggest challenge was the first tech rehearsal. I had no idea how much cacophony would happen the night the lighting and sound technicians arrived. More instruments in the symphony!

11. You can't control everything, and you shouldn't.

Sometimes the most incredible moments are the ones that aren't orchestrated. In the end, when you're sitting in the dark in the back of the house, and the audience is completely engaged in the story, you have zero control over what happens. It's up to the actors and the crew. If you've done your job, it's beautiful.

Monday, October 17, 2011


There's a pocket of unspoken wants
at the corner of Loud and Quick.
Traffic accidents accrue
in a rich metallic grin.

No passerby dares to thrust a hand
inside it without its helpmeet coat.
No one offers to launder.
Is this humor, some nutty bulb,
or is it a completed transaction?

The pocket is silent, foolish pouch,
a discard ballooning in the wind.
Oooh, I typed this on the Royal this morning. The delicious tick, tack of the keys!

Friday, September 30, 2011

One Tree

I'm thinking about joy today,
and how it attaches itself
like a soap bubble
to a blade of grass
or something as dirtied
and weathered as a fence post.

This reminds me
of milkweed pods,
their little canoe prisons
that release such fluff
and nonsense into the air
you just have to giggle.

The seeds are a shower of laughter
for the dark, purpled woods.

They may stick and root.
They may fall on deaf dirt.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Two Trees

The light drips
into dusk. Then,

It's obvious
that day sips
from the tankard
of night. Leaves
blush, wind staggers
drunk across the field,
through your hair.

Happy St. Michaelmas. Count your animals.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Three Trees (in the breezy breeze blew)

And did I mention the door
smashed against the porch,
the screen left dangling
like an exposed nerve?
There was one outlet.
I unplugged the bubbler
in the fishtank to switch
on the coffeepot.
The landlord was a sticky
and turbulent man,
an inventor of emergencies.

And there was the thick
lead paint, third floor,
layered cake carpeting
apartment. Bad romantic
choices. Vodka my father
left after a visit.
A miniature piano
that smelled of old oak.

That was a time ago.

Before that, the woods.
A childhood of craft.
Huckleberry excess,
thimbles of violets,
a canoe to float
like a dash on the lake.
The chop of an ax,
learning to stack logs
between two trees.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Four Trees (Cuatro árboles)

for European Day of Languages

Amanecia --
en la flor azul,
la canta abejita.

Daybreak --
in the blue flower,
a bee sings.


Una hoja de oro
en el aire blanco --
capturado en una cuchilla de telaraña.

A gold leaf
in the white air -
captured in a blade of spider web.


Tristeza --
asesinado por una mariposa.

Sadness --
cut down by a butterfly.


que los paraguas de la pasión!
Mantequilla. Sí.

you umbrellas of passion!
Butter. Yes.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Five Trees

Do not deviate:
pencil in the folder,
glue dotted on the edge
of the paper. Don't smear.
Remove the patch and watch
the water stream, then tender
grass, an apron of green.
Collect it all in a basket,
dandelion seeds, mud,
the strong, the weary,
the careless hazards of the day.
Do not deviate: they are yours.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Six Trees

Bricks eddy into a chimney,
a few domino a garden wall.
Everyday grit. Tetris.
One is beached in the center of the road:
it causes every car to slow, veer.
So alone, it commands respect
in its solitude,
has built its own house.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Seven Trees

Fog krumps into the valley,
a coordinated pop-locked logic.
It isn't easy being weather,
open to the bitterest
of criticisms.

It takes force and atomic fractalature
to create snowflakes, it takes
the purest of cautions to make
raindrops. They are as beautiful
as death.

Broadcasts about thunder,
wind, the shaking of the earth
are a mosh pit of terror
over what we feel we can't manage
with an umbrella, or even aspire
to be. We wish to be so free.

Let the weather
express itself through stomps
and arm swings, let it battle
in a kingdom of radical, uplifting, mighty praise.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Warning: I can't write well about this now because I'm still too giddy. There will be many future rewrites. Consider this a happy, but hackneyed sketch.

There's a list of "100 Dreams" in the back of a notebook I've misplaced. The list isn't a bunch of dreams I've had while sleeping (I've got a longer record of those!). It's a list of things I'd like to do in my lifetime. Not only did I misplace the notebook (In the cubby of my desk? In a purse in the closet?) I've actually forgotten some of the things I wrote in it. I remember "sing" was on there, and I meant sing in public in a non-squeaky way, not "sing in the shower." Performing. I like it. It's nice to step out of your skin and be someone else for awhile.

I think "get a part on a television show or in a film" was on my list, but I don't remember. Apparently my list of dreams is forgettable and/or ever-changing.

Well, whether or not it was on my list is insignificant now, because I will appear in an episode of the new CBS series "Unforgettable," which airs next month. The best part of all of this is that I had a totally new life experience.

A few months ago a fellow hooper friend encouraged me to call her agent about an upcoming shoot for a show called "Girls." They needed extras who were hoop dancers. I called, sent photos, then missed the callback because, well, I was hooping and the ringer was turned off on my phone so I could use it in my iPod dock for music. Lesson learned.

Last week I got a call from the same agent, and she said she "sent my pictures along" and I was wanted for a shoot. Was I available next Friday? Sure. She said she'd call back next Thursday with details. Helen was present for this phone call. It was hard not to be absurdly giddy. They saw my photos and liked them? Wow!

I spent the week with the ringer on, and the volume turned up to unbearable. With the exception of Helen and Dan, I kept the news to myself just in case it didn't happen.

Thursday afternoon, the phone rang, and it was the agent. Was I still available for Friday for the shoot? Yes. She said she'd call again later with details. At 6 p.m. she called again, and said I'd be AFTRA waivered (a paid gig!), and I had the part of "the artist's girlfriend" on a show called "Unforgettable." I needed to give her my social security number, and then call an 800 number after midnight for the call times and details.

I set my alarm, and called the number to have a recording tell me that the call times for the show were not released yet, and I'd have to call back between 7 and 8 a.m. I went back to bed thinking that might be a game-changer for me, since a trip to New York is a three and a half hour journey. If the call was at 9 a.m., I wouldn't make it. Luckily, when I called at 7:45, I learned that my call time was 12:30 (I had to leave now!), where the addresses for the shoots were, what to bring, what to wear, and that there would not be time for everyone to have makeup and hair done. I was on my own, unless I needed a touch-up.

I threw on a vintage dress, Helen's belt, leggings, my character shoes (sandals would be eyed by wardrobe suspiciously, I feared), and I did a really quick make-up application and hair arrangement while Dan took the car to fill the gas tank. We were on our way in less than a half an hour.

We almost missed the train, but thanks to a helpful conductor, we were on the way, and it was looking like I'd be on time. One expensive cab ride later over the bridge, a little confusion over the address (I met a fellow hooper who was also there for the shoot and looking for the holding place), and I was finally there. In the basement of a church.

If I'd had time to eat, I could have had an omelet, fresh fruit, cereal, a croissant, juice. A catering truck waited outside for anyone who needed anything, but there were several tables laid out with food in the holding area. The production assistant sat at a table and handed out voucher forms to everyone as they arrived. Everyone working behind the scenes wore an earbud that was their line of communication with the rest of the crew. I didn't have to tell her my name, which was a surprise. Kyle handed me my form and said "Jenny Hill. I recognize you from your headshot." Amazeballs! A good memory, unlike mine.

Everyone milled about with their forms. I filled mine out with the help of the hooper friend I met outside. I also learned from her that sometimes shoots can be long, which was a bit worrisome since Dan was with me and wandering around the city.

I could guess what parts the other extras might be playing by how they were dressed: hipsters in skinny jeans, homeless men with shaggy hair and torn sweatshirts, moms with floppy hats. There were a few kids too. The shoot was in a park. After my wardrobe was checked, I tried my hand at having a small bowl of Cheerios, but Kyle needed me on the set and I still needed to change. The Cheerios were doomed to sog on the table by my purse as I changed and ran. Kyle ate her omelet as we crossed the street. She asked how I was doing, and if I was in Men In Black, because I reminded her of someone from a recent shoot.

When we reached the entrance to the park, she motioned to a man and said, "See that guy there with the grey shirt? Go to him." I walked in, and he high-fived me. "Jenny Hill! Let's do this!" "This" was drawing me. John (I think that was his name?) asked me to sit on a bench and he got a drawing pad out and started to sketch. Behind him, the sunny park was filled with lighting rigs, cameras, sound equipment, and crew. I kept my eye on a bolt in the back of John's easel so my gaze was the same for his sketch. The director came over and gave him some tips. "The tree needs to be key here - I mean, it's not a drawing of a tree, but it needs to be prominent." John did some erasing. He apologized for drawing me poorly since the "real" artist was supposed to be a hack. The director returned with a coffee in his hand and smiled at me. "I'm sorry, I didn't introduce myself. I'm John, the director." I was really impressed by this. It was a kindness I didn't expect.

Other extras started arriving on the set and were given direction from another crew member, Sal. Hipsters sat on benches or stood, kids and their "moms" played on the playground equipment or tossed a ball, chess players sat behind their chess boards. I watched a real park turn into a set of a real park. The lighting crew tinkered with the lights in the park, switching them off and on for effect. Extending filters blocked or changed the quality of the sunlight. The trees, free agents, blew in the breeze however they wanted. I kept my gaze on the bolt of the easel until the drawing was done, and then I sat until it was my turn to be placed in the scene.

I met a guy who was a medic. He does stunt work and gets called to strangle people "the right way" or preside over violent scenes that might need the help of a medical professional. He wore a cross around his neck. The night before he saved a baby's life. For real, not a stunt.

I was introduced to my boyfriend for the scene, another Jim. He was playing the part of the artist, and I was the artist's girlfriend. He would get all the credit for John's sketch of me. We were placed near the chess players for a rehearsal.

Each group of extras had a number. Moms and kids were Group One, and hipsters, chess players, Jim and me were Group Two. I learned some new vocabulary. "Eye line." Crew needs to be out of eye line during rehearsals and shoots, or an eye line can not work in terms of where an actor needs to look. A tall blonde woman rehearsed in place of the star of the show (Poppy Montgomery) before she arrived on the set. Jim and I were told to watch for Sal's cue, and when Jim motioned to me, I was to stand up to look at the drawing and we could "chat" about it. When Poppy arrived and ran through the scene, her eye line was wrong for looking at the drawing, which meant we needed to be moved. Since the scene was going to get edited anyway, she shrewdly requested a spot to look at and they shot the scene without us. Jim and I stood on the sidewalk and watched. I could see the monitors capture what the camera saw.

We were called in again to do our background scene, and the director worked with us closely this time, giving notes to us to flirt a little, then to gesture to the drawing, chat, smile. The moms and kids were more prominent in this scene. A couple of well-behaved kids got to run around. A ball was tossed. I was so keyed in on what I had to do with Jim, and that I was getting direction from the director (!!) that I don't remember exact placement. A member of the lighting crew blocked the sun from shining on the drawing. We rehearsed two or three times, then shot the scene, and it was over.

I returned to the holding area to gather my things, exchanged emails with Jim who took a photo of the drawing, and said goodbye to others I met. I thanked Kyle, and I said goodbye to John.

I called my mom from the sidewalk by the catering truck. Our phone connection was weird, so it was a short conversation, but I had to tell her. Dan met me and was eager to show me all the rental trailers on a parallel street for the actors and crew. An entire block was devoted just to them. We walked past the park where my shoot was and everything was already packed up and gone. Only one coiled electrical cord rested on a bench. The crew was kind and fun to work with, and very efficient and organized.

It was an unforgettable experience. I don't know when the episode will air, but as soon as I do, I'll share it with everyone. I'll be watching the entire season!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eight Trees

The game always works this way -- one person has all the answers
and the rest are in the dark, left to interpret questions,

It's summer, and I'm at a table of teenage girls
who can still eat grilled cheeses and wear sarcasm like a scarf.

The Umbrella is the game we play. Yesterday we all sat in a circle
as one girl murdered each of us one by one with her eyes.

Can I bring my solar powered furnace
under your umbrella?

No, you cannot, the lead girl says with a smile.

May I bring my hate under your umbrella?

No, you most certainly cannot bring your hate.

Can I bring my dull shed under your umbrella?

Nope. No dull sheds, sorry.

Um, can I bring my alcoholism under your umbrella then?

Yes, yes you may. Please do.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Nine Trees

Everything has significance --
the laziest of raincoats, slack
on their hooks.

This is a series, maybe,
or at least you hope to bank
the words like rain in a jar,
full to the cleanest threads.
That can take days, an army
of them, for the drops to meet
and greet each other. Weeks
of pouring. If you're lucky,
months of damp confinement.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ten Trees

Stars snap their fingers,
refuel, then slam a palm
of light onto fronds and pines.
The moon's no crown of the sky,
its contribution blown
out of proportion through poems --
but stars glaze a reader over too.
They drip with sterility,
so efficient,
so ready.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eleven Trees

Eleven pine trees, resinous and fine, were left to live in the center of a strip mall parking lot. Shopping center planners surrounded them with a ring of concrete, creating a long island in the center of a sea of tarmac. In the nighttime quiet, when the only people out were the drunks smoking at the 24-hour Donut Delite, the trees whispered poetry to one another. One line at a time, they passed the short phrases from branch to branch. The sixth tree, named Volta, had a very crooked trunk. She leaned into the seventh tree, who disliked her controlling voice. During the day, the pines presided over people in their rush to get to the ATM machine, Foodtown, or the Suds-n-Duds. Filmy wrapper discards from a nearby McDonald's tumbleweeded onto the island, then rolled away on another breeze to skitter across the parking lot. The sun rose and set, the stars snapped their fingers of light, the traffic streamed in a time-lapse blur, and the trees continued to whisper unheard sonnets.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Spot of Honesty with Your Tea, or Perhaps Pee in Your Tea?

Warning: These are not words of encouragement.

If we ever moved, we'd have to fold up the bookstore and take it with us for a whole other community of literary types to snub. I'm tired of the word "grateful." How about honest?

People don't want to shop local. They want quick and easy, shrink-wrapped and shipped to their doors from a warehouse. People don't want to read poetry. Even poets don't read poetry! Well, that's not fair. Some do. A few, I guess. Then there are those who just read their own poetry. Writers around here are "grateful" to have a literary community to sustain them, then never visit their local independent bookstore. Most don't even approach to ask if they can give a reading. I'd be thrilled to have a poet come in and ask to give a reading. Do I want to chase them all down to offer them readings so they can feel extra good and puffy-bloat that they are now published? No. No, I don't. Your poems have been published. Great. Now go find places to read them.

Do I want to carry your book? I don't know. Have you ever been in the store before to see what we carry? No? Then no, I probably don't want to carry your book.

This is nasty, I know, but it's honest. Sometimes I sit in this store and wonder why I'm here at all, in the same way I sometimes sit at my desk and wonder why I ever bother to write poems. No one cares about any of it, because they are all too busy caring about themselves.

I know the grass isn't greener. It's just other grass. Other grass that will still be a pain in the ass to mow. And I don't know why I titled this post with tea, honesty and pee, and then ended it on a cliché. It's not a metaphor. It's just tea with pee in it.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Deliberate Progress

purpose, or nothing

the bright path of rain
through green

water hunting power

desire's forest
(musk of mushroom)

the flat blizzard
of leaving a lover,
or the updraft

anger like a whalebone
stays at the ribcage

a blank page yawn
into a new alphabet

a ladder
for the victim

the dog
at your doorstep

essence of lilac
or first day
of journey

the skylight
or the whole meadow
of tiny suns
others called weeds

oh into the humming
dawn, stumblebeast

with handfuls of butterflies,
go on living.

- JH.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jennifer. Jenny. Jenn. Never, ever, ever Jen. Here's why: I need all the consonants I can get. As I age, I want all my letters intact, thanks. There's enough of me heading south for the winter, I don't need the letters of my name packing up as well.

Enter Any Language

Be silent.

Dip your hand
into the pool.

Rub the paper off
to reveal the image.
Be silent.

Cut up your credit card.

Let the breeze blow
through your hair.
Be silent.

Graze your fingers
on a brick wall.
Be silent.

Take the rose apart
petal by petal.
Be silent.

Eat all alone
and light a candle.

Try to describe
the color yellow.
Be silent.

Don't be too serious.

Be alone sometimes.

Join the party.
Be silent.

Fill up someone else's bowl.

Trip on your own toe.
Be silent.

Be silent.

Friday, July 01, 2011

What's Tucked Inside

After writing in my journal this morning, I flipped through the book "In Pieces: an Anthology of Fragmentary Writing," edited by Olivia Dresher. I've sung the praises of this collection before, and it's one I return to often for the reminder it offers: all those little bits of writing you do are worthwhile. The collection is a diverse sampling of fragments by 37 writers. Some of the fragments come from diaries, some are postcards, notebooks, letters, aphorisms, short prose, vignettes, and lists. There are writers I know in the collection, or rather, I don't know them so much as I've had brief "writer interactions" with them. One is a mail artist and writer, Roy Arenella, who regularly exchanged postcards with my husband. The copy of the book is inscribed to Dan from Roy, but I've hoarded the book in the same way I've laid claim to Dan's copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. It's mine because I use it more. Rights by usage!

I found some interesting fragments in the book this morning, but they weren't part of the collection. They were temporary bookmarks and placeholders during my tenure as the book's "owner." (I guess no one ever really owns a book - the same way you can't really say you own land -- it's an odd concept.) There was a postcard from the mail artist whose writing is part of the book, a post-it note with a woman's phone number on it and a plea to call, a florescent orange "Riverside High School VISITOR" badge from my visit as a resident poet a few years ago, a blue post-it with the note "1st, 4th, 5th" written as a list, and my favorite, which gave me pause this morning: an origami puzzle folded from school notebook paper by a boy who lived next door to us for a couple of years.

The puzzle is simple and intricate at the same time. When folded tightly it resembles a throwing star. If you pull on the top right and bottom left points simultaneously, the star slides into more of an oval shape and an hole appears in the center. You can continue to turn and pull on the remaining points gently until the opening in the center becomes larger and larger and the end result is close to a circle. The boy was about eight or nine when he made this for me. He used to sneak over to our house to make origami -- his father disapproved of his "habit." He struggled in school. He told me his teacher found origami in his desk and threw it away. I made sure we always had some papers around for his folding because he had a gift, and was learning from it. Then he just vanished. I saw him at a bookstore recently, a teen out for a trip with what seemed to be kids from a group home. We exchanged glances. No words. They were all tucked inside. I can't help but think of this origami star as a metaphor for the boy himself - either tightly closed and pointed, or a gaping hole. Maybe this applies to any human being.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A long grey sedan is parked in front of the bookstore this morning. In the passenger seat, a boy of about 14 or 15 sits and stares up the street. The fifteen minute parking space allows customers to the television repair shop a chance to dash in and drop off whatever electronic device is on the fritz. The boy waits for his father to return. He looks sullen. Maybe there was an argument. It's an early June morning, and he's in his father's car in front of a bookstore. The boy's nose is a little to large for his face. Some body parts race to fit the growing frame, others tortoise to the finish. Pubescent torture. The only time the boy changes his gaze is when my husband unrolls the awning. Yellow and white stripes cheer, we say, but our bookstore is just a brief part of the landscape of this boy's mind.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Writing is hard. If you care about it and want to do it well, it's difficult. If anyone tells you that writing is easy, they are trying to sell you something, and it's probably software that "smooths" the writing process.

The lack of pre-ground cinnamon in the cupboard for your coffee means that you'll go to the trouble of grating it from cinnamon sticks. Why not? You've got the time. You're only writing. Instead of squishing the carpenter ant that is mapping out your writing space, you watch it bumble over the berber toward the snoozing cat. There's a lot of hair twirling and mosquito bite scritching (I draw little x's in the center of the bumps with my fingernail) involved with writing, and plenty of staring out into the sunny yard. Then finally, if you're lucky, something clicks, and off you go, smashing through letters. It's almost enjoyable, until your neighbor cranks up his plaid music and coughs like he caught a hornet's nest in his lung. You shut the door. The coffee is too strong.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Too Much Freedom

In a day and a half:

• I read two books
• Ate three kinds of fish (mollusks, shellfish, crustacean)
• Took note of shell shapes and seagull markings
• Watched the sunrise over the ocean
• Got a ridiculous, spotty sunburn in spite of the reapplication of SPF 50 lotion
• Caught someone's beach umbrella tumbling in the wind
• Took a Chardonnap
• Wrote nothing

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Bonanza

This weekend we visited another independent bookstore with the intent to buy a few (or more) books to add to our inventory. I love to see how differently bookstores are designed. We visited one in Philadelphia a couple of months ago that was very orderly -- the shelves were handmade wooden boxes stacked up to the ceiling and most of the inventory faced out. The grid-like structure was pleasing and tidy, if not a little Brady Bunch. The seller knew the worth of his books. We spent about $160 there, and left with a bag full of books for our store (and ourselves ... not everything makes it to the shelves here!). We didn't feel like we'd received any kind of bargain, but were happy to get the books we did.

Saturday's bookstore was inside half of a house. The door had a hand-written note taped to it that read, "I'm out, but come on in and browse. I'll be back in a minute." When we walked inside the owner was there, and had just forgotten to take the note off the door. "Hey, hi, welcome. There are books in all four rooms here, if you have any questions, just ask."

I hit the fiction first, and had an armload of books before I could get to the section marked "Affordable Shakespeare." The poetry section spanned two entire cases. We talked a lot with the owner of the store, and he invited us to have a look at the books upstairs that "just didn't fit on the downstairs shelves yet." He let us have first crack at what was up there, which was generous of him. In our conversations, we realized we were both not making any money in the bookstore business and our intents were similar - to get books moving and get people reading. I found some old Edward Albee paperbacks, a huge selection of John Updike paperbacks, some Kurt Vonnegut, a really old and yellowing pulp-ish edition of "Cannery Row" by Steinbeck, and several New Directions paperbacks. I get excited about old book cover design as well as content.

This morning I sat on the floor of the bookstore and priced the new books and stacked them according to genre so they can be shelved this afternoon. I found an unfinished crossword puzzle inside a children's book (all about teddy bears and kangaroos who start a circus), and the copy of the Vonnegut was well-loved by the original owners. They carefully "preserved" the cover by coating it with clear tape. There's so much to stocking an independent bookstore that I love - the smell of acid-ridden paperbacks, the Ex Libris stamp variety of book ownership, the little notes written in margins, the ephemera left between pages. I really enjoy finding books that I know customers who frequent the store will be interested in, too.

We spent about $140 in the independent bookstore we visited on Saturday, and we left a box of encouragements (Want one? Email me! They are free.), and sold the owner some used DVDs. "Oooh, the money is just flowing all over the place!" he said. We laughed, all in on the joke.

I'm working on the unfinished crossword, and filled out the "co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons" (Gary Gygax) and "Old NYC club birthplace of Punk" (CBGB). Harvesting for fodder? Six letters. _ _ Y I N G.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Money Suck Week!

The culprits: The vet's office with two cats (a duet of mrowls for the entire trip), and two trips to the chiropractor* for an injured back (a solo of howls for each ride).

Non-money related, less sucky details: At the vet's office an inflatable tick toy twirled above the examination table, little plastic-haired legs twittering under the air-ducts. A fun reminder of the dangers of parasites bobbing over our heads. The vet had a small white feather stuck in the scruff of his beard from the parrot he examined before he called my cats into the room.

The chiropractor keeps a water feature placed at the head of the patient table, so when you can't stand the pressure of the face-plant pose sqwooshing your skin into a forced grin, you can turn your head and watch water trickle. The feature is a series of plateaued stones, one layer shorter than the next up to the top where the water bubbles out from a tube that is hidden behind everything, but which circulates the pooled water into new cascades. Relaxing, until your neck starts to stiffen, and you notice the Magic 93 office radio music and start to think about how it's a pity money doesn't work like this simple water feature - flow in, flow out, flow in. Or is that how laundering money** works? I'm not sure.

Pain makes you think short, jabby thoughts.

*Yep, I am scratching "acrobat" off my mid-life career change list.
**Also any jobs in crime.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

I had heard the birds are in the Middle East, wondrously important ... I see!

The pale cover of her bird notebook was laced with a network of wrinkles from sharing space in her purse with a buckled wallet. A red bookmark skimmed between the pages in a spot she didn't intend to mark. She'd kept track of all the birds she'd seen in her lifetime since she was eleven. This was one of many of her travel notebooks, and every year on New Year's Eve while everyone else was toasting and kissing, she was transferring bird names into the lifetime list she kept in a hardcover journal. The barometer of her year was not how many birds she'd spotted, but which varieties. In 2007 she spotted two cactus wrens in Tuscon, and added a common nighthawk, Chordeiles minor, too, when she'd nearly tripped over it during an evening walk. It looked a lot like bark, and blended in well, perhaps too well, with its surroundings. Next year, she was sure, would be the best. A trip to Uzbekistan promised the Blue-Cheeked Bee-eating Hawk, larks, Clamorous Reed Warblers. This year felt like an abbreviation of her twelfth year. She'd not strayed far from home. Her list was a series of brown finchy burns across a suburban sky when what she wanted was wonder and importance, a riot of colors.
Sketch #4 in the Visitor's Book at an Art Gallery Series. The titles of the sketches are the notes left by the visitors.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I walked around and around alone waiting for shape and then this flew into my skull: the ecstasy of yesterday's plans?

He forgot yesterday's plans while he watched the arrangement of sunlight and waves. Molecules. Atoms. Chemical bonds. The light looked like it was frozen on the surface of the water. Yesterday's plans were displaced by today's thoughts. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small notebook and pencil. The pencil was one of those golf sorts, stubby with a worn off gilt message, and decorated by a chew mark on the end. He wrote "a gull oscillates above the water," in the solid capital letters of an architect or a draftsman. The ideas halted. A mist of sea spray shied across his face and made him think of sex. He couldn't write about her. Study the gull, the sand, the waves, he thought. So much wonder, flight and feathers to cram into a skull in a lifetime.
Sketch #3 in the Visitor's Book at an Art Gallery Series. The titles of the sketches are the notes left by the visitors.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Really scary, especially at night ... what is she eating?

A radish. In the echelon of shadows that formed since dusk it looked more like the head of a mouse. Possibly a rat. Is she eating a rat? No. She bent over the wire that kept the riff raff out of her garden, and probed the dirt to release another radish. The day's sun had baked the ground to a hardness that created a light crust on top. It flaked under her nails. An earthworm, repeat customer to the garden, whorled near the strawberries. The garden was suitable. Nothing fancy, but she was proud of its healthy rows, its ready order. The shrubbery had its own language. It spoke in wagging tongues, lapped languid, lazy branches to the lawn. It needed to be punished. She tossed the radish greens, then slid on a pair of dark gloves. The hedge trimmers were oiled, glistening. She held them up, opened the blades. Her neighbor across the street only saw an elongated V cast against the fence. She liked the authority of gardening at night. She was the scheduler, the pruner, the cruncher of hairy root vegetables. Soon the rabbits would have nowhere to hide.
Sketch #2 in the Visitor's Book at an Art Gallery Series. The titles of the sketches are the notes left by the visitors.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Effectively Grotesque, Fascinating. Eliminate the Sound.

There were birds in the walled garden. They perched on the thorny branches of a wood rose, and whirled and chittered among leafy cover. The stones in the wall were cold, the dark grey color of thunder. She pressed her hand against the wall to borrow the strength, then dragged her knuckles across to feel them bump and thud. The air was humid and soupy with pollen. Felled buds and leaf whirligigs laced the sidewalk; the cars parked in the street wore a patina of pale green. There was a tiredness in her head. A hum. Her knuckles were bloodied from their trip along the wall. She raised her fist to her mouth and licked the stinging skin. Honeysuckle? Yes. It sent out its inquiries from the garden. There was no gate, just an opening in the wall near the church where she entered. Drowsy bees. A cellophane wrapper flapped against the base of a butterfly bush. A robin popped around the oak in the center of the garden. The oak was old, and some inspired handyman built a bench that wrapped around it. Honeysuckle spilled out from behind a fuschia filled rosebush. She pulled a trumpeted bloom off, reached in for the filament in the center, sucked on the end. Sweetness. A slight itch down her arm.
This is the first in a series of short sketches I'm writing based on the notes I read (and copied into my own notebook!) in a visitor's book at an art gallery. The titles of the sketches are the notes left by the visitors.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Well, no Rapture. My neighbor still hasn't mowed her grass.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I spoke about the friend who died, the one I thought was a lifetime friend. I remember thinking "forever!" when I asked him in the hallway, "Do you ever feel like you just don't fit in?" and he answered without hesitation, "Yes." We were 39, teetering on the cliff of 40 together, holding hands and hoping the fall wasn't as steep as it seemed. I forgot that some forevers are really short, shorter than a season. He didn't get to fall into 40 with me after all.

His classroom was a safe place to share yourself, your thoughts, your ideas. Kids knew he wasn't a phony. He listened. He threw his arms out wide and laughed. He challenged. There were rules. He took no shit, and rearranged the room if there were any jokers. He was respected.

I spoke about what an honor it was to have known him, and how I wouldn't have met him if it weren't for my work in the schools. I was there for his parents, not myself, not really for any award. Oh, it felt right, but damn it, I still miss him.

Monday, May 16, 2011


I've won the "Teaching Artist of the Year" award for our region's Arts-In-Education program. Today I receive the honor, and I get to read two poems during the luncheon. The award is lovely, but it's the opportunity to do the work before it that matters the most to me. I have many incredible memories from teaching poetry, I've written poems I never would have written otherwise, I've met some wonderful people, I've encouraged others.

While digging around for appropriate poems to read today, I ran across some fragmented notes. I don't remember writing them, or where I was heading with them (if anywhere at all). So, I've decided to post them here. Maybe they'll inspire someone else to write something. Please don't try to eat your own belt, and be careful around large bakery equipment.

They tried to eat their belts. Soaked them in boiling water, then cut them into tiny pieces.

His brother was killed in a bakery accident.

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.

Model of the week:

If you were invisible for a day?
Celebrity you think you look like?
Reality TV Show Title?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Achoo Haiku!

Some of us want Spring to die. Some of us like me and my friend Matt. Instead of cursing the darkness of pollen, we lit a haiku candle via text messages this morning. We also shared some remedies. Bread, tic-tacs, tea, staying in the shower until Summer. Anyway, these hanky haiku woke me up and took my mind off my snarflesnuffle:

Cherry blossomed air
sun nudges the world awake
Kimberly Clark wins

- JH

Green covered windows
A film I cannot clear off
Lick me, Mother Tree

- MH

Sinus cavity
clicks like a garden of crickets
Fuck you, Springtime's sigh

- JH

Mucous, viscous green
Bondo plugging my face hole
Get my nose drill, love!

- MH

Bird shit drip on car
reminiscent of sneeze
Spring's allergic thoughts

- JH

My car sits, lifeless
rag top bitch-slapped by ragweed
Eat a dick, Springtime

- MH

Oh wintry world
you vanish into a sneeze,
ripe snot, puffed eyelids

- JH

Nose, raw and runny
My stock in Kleenex goes up
Cheap 1-ply bastards

- MH

Sinus drains, drip, drip
I pop five tic-tacs, why not?
Ah, minty relief!

- JH

Drip drip drip drip drip
snot soup slips down throaty hill
A cold lunch. Serves one.

- MH

Roof of mouth itchy
Insert finger, violent scritch
Hope no one saw that!

- JH

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Teeny Type Story

There's coffee, the usual cat on the lap, the pile of books I never tidied. A train of allergy sneezes followed by snarfles and a trip to the bathroom to unroll several squares of toilet paper. I don't know, I think I should stop reading the letters of writers I love. It's ruining their writing for me. My glasses don't work anymore. The prescription is just too old. I don't like squinting, but I squint, tilt my head down to peer at menus ... if I get the angle just right ...

She gets the angle just right and the door opens. Several messy letters schlorp past, leaving a trail of messy messiness. Consonants. They are so sloppy. Mannerless. The entire room is filled with giggles and chortles as the letter U tries to call everyone to order. There's a boy in the center of the room, and she wants to talk with him, but the consonants took all her confidence away with their power moves through the door. She wipes the mud and tittle (that j!) from her skirt, and walks over anyway. The boy works a thread through a needle. The thread wriggles, and she notices it isn't a thread at all but a word. The letters are silent in anticipation. U spreads his arms and conducts them as if they are an orchestra, but the word the boy is threading won't stay put and the letters stay quiet. The type is tiny on the thready word. Probably eight point, maybe six, the girl guesses. She hands the boy her glasses. He threads the word, aria, through the needle. The r grumbles. R is such a jerkoff. She never wants to play. Tough doodley-doo, r. You have to play with only vowels today. The word needle is threaded, and the music swells. An aria, of course. The girl puts on her glasses to read all the assembled letters. That's better. Sublime, even. Musical.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Unfinished Sampler

Last night I went to bed after watching about an hour or so of Avatar, after declaring it Pocahontas with tall, blue aliens. The bio-luminescent landscape was the most interesting part, and as my daughter said, it made me wish it existed. (The element that the humans wanted from the alien landscape was called "Unobtainium." Who wrote this?) None of it made me want to stay awake, so I went to bed and read a chapter of a book where a man has his suitcase riffled through while he's sleeping on a train. This is unsettling, but he finds no answers. All of the sentences were short and it reminded me of some writing advice for beginning writers -- write in short sentences.

The short sentences, the recovered suitcase without a culprit, the computer generated blue people battling it out on the television downstairs, it all put me to sleep. It was humid in the bedroom. At 4 a.m. lightning broiled the sky, and rain shot through the window and into the laundry basket on the floor. I felt it against the exposed part of my back, the rejected lump of covers at the foot of the bed. Outside was angry, and it invited itself inside.

I fell asleep and had dreams of of crying and yelling, "This is not the shit house!" This morning from my writing desk, the Q-tip of pear tree sways back and forth. The lilac nods in the breeze. All the furious rain that pelted the house is captured in the needlepoint grid of the screen like an unfinished sampler.

This is not the shit house.

The rain worked with a spiderweb stretched over the seat of a chair on the patio to knit a sequined chair cover. The tensile strength of the web is impressive. As the wind pushes through the open weave of the seat, the web waves and each captured drop glitters.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Eskmo and Beats Antique

Philadelphia evening. Oh glow sky dandelion bloom, brick building dryer scent exhalation, fried peppers and onions, concrete dusk stoop song!

"I love new experiences," Susan said. I agreed. We parked on the sidewalk near a fenced lot with "No Dumping" signs, the sidewalk sprayed with constellations of broken glass. The bar was a block away. Young women with feathers in their ears and black lace stockings waited near the entrance. The bouncer checked our IDs, stamped the inside of our arms with the word "Important." We found a table in the back room of the North Star bar, ordered some dinner, and talked as our food was prepared in what the menu stated was "a very small kitchen." The menu pleaded for patience. The servers looked exhausted but kept their humor as people ordered drinks and dinners.

A woman seated next to us leaned in to ask, "Are you here for Beats Antique? How did you hear of them?"

"Hooping!" I shouted over the din of one of the opening acts already going on in the stage area in the neighboring room.

"What?" she asked.

"Hooping! Hula hooping! We hoop to Beats Antique sometimes!"

"Ooooh!" and she told us about her three workshops at Burning Man where she laughed and laughed while re-learning to hoop. Would we be interested in doing something with the Sustainable Living Roadshow? She gave us a card. She told us about the origins of the band, and that she is the mother of one of the members. A man who I imagined was her husband offered us some of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream that he brought into the bar. "They don't have dessert here!" He had extra spoons to share.

The opening act was Brendan Angelides, a DJ known as Eskmo. The floor throbbed with people. We nudged our way to the middle. Scent of sweat and beer, sweet fading perfumes. Dreadlocked hair, feathers, Tristan Tzara faces. I felt like I was waiting for a train with my purse in my hand.

Eskmo crinkled plastic water bottles, shook strings of shells, banged rhythmically on pot lids, and looped it all over a bone humming bass. Fractalled images of feathers, water, and a double helix flashed on a screen behind his tabletop set-up of electronic equipment. Images were sometimes joined by phrases like "you have invisible friends watching, guiding," and "little sister, little brother, big sister, big brother." The Brave New World-ian text made me wish for more poetry. Brendan swayed, cracked open a beer into the mic to capture the "pop" of the tab, then leaned forward and bobbed a bit with his mouth open in a semi-hypnotized state. He looked like a technological Linus in his striped shirt and maroon short pants, weaving the sound of torn up paper into a melody with the twist of a knob. There is a joy from watching someone do what they love when they do it well. Virtuosity.

The crowd didn't dance so much as sway in a trance. A hand popped up here and there to limply wave. Bubbles floated. It wasn't the mosh pit of my youth. When Eskmo packed up his gear and Beats Antique took the stage, the space was packed and I tried to hold my ground close to the front. Instead of being shoved out of the way, I was shoved out of the way with a phony "Hi!" from a short woman with curly hair adorned with a peacock feather. I prefer just being shoved. Is it now concert etiquette to pretend we know each other? If we're going to be polite, say "Excuse me," but don't be fake. Just shove or nudge your way past me.

Beats Antique started their first set after 11 p.m. Zoe Jakes took center stage in what seems to be her trademark leopard bodysuit. Harnessed to her shoulders was a large high school bass drum. Gold on her cheeks glinted under the lights, and the heavy beats and sub bass swelled into a full-on whirlchurn. Susan and I moved to the back of the room when the bodies made us claustrophobic. Stage presence is a big part of the Beats Antique show, variously parts high school band, performance art, and burlesque bellydance. A woman in the back shook and rattled the coin-beaded scarf wrapped around her hips as Zoe danced around the stage with a Sally Rand fan.

It was midnight. We had a two hour drive home. We are middle-aged. This morning I'm feeling a titch on the puny side. The coffee isn't strong enough.

The Lone Star bar was so close to the zoo. I kept thinking of the animals with their thrumming, caged heartbeats, so near. I love a new experience colored with forever.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Poetry Mines

Why doesn't anyone buy poetry? Geezamarooni! If I knew why, I'd fix it. Maybe it's because poets use words like "geezamarooni."

My husband and I turned our art gallery/poetry studio/theatre into an independent bookstore at the beginning of the year. (Now the money will really come rolling in!) We've published collections of poetry for the past seven years. Poetry titles don't exactly fly off the shelves. We've witnessed the trend, and continue to see it in the teensy checks we chase from distributors (sales there aren't all that brisk either and they like to keep the money for as long as they can), the few times a month we see a sale online, and the once or twice someone stops by to pick up a title. What sells poetry? When poets give readings from their books. I'm pretty sure the audience feels obligated to buy. The poet is right in front of them. Buying a book is their way to get out the door and on to a dirty martini.

The entire left wall of our store is dedicated to poetry. There is a series of four shelves mounted on the wall right when you walk in that feature poetry books, and in the middle of the left wall is a large, wooden shelving unit from a school library with a magazine rack below that holds all of the Paper Kite titles. We are loaded with poetry here. The visual, the lexical, the Ijustdon'tgetitacal. Bern Porter's Found Poems, Improvisations by Vernon Fraser, the tender collection of Kristin Prevallet that appears to be sold upon inspection, but I later find mis-shelved, of course. Kenneth Patchen. Denise Duhamel. I spend my days gazing at spines that stand as straight as capital I's. Maybe that's the problem. Poetry just feels too self-centered, too prone to introspection. Novels transport the reader.

We have a few regular customers in our store. There's a man who always asks about 19th century diaries. Another wants books about world religions. When prompted to check out some poetry, he said, "I don't know what it is about poetry. I just don't like having to read things more than once." He never finishes the hot chocolate he makes for himself either.

Books facing out sell first. Most people don't like to paw through books, squint to read the mouseprint titles of the spines, or disrupt the 64-crayons-in-the-box order of things. However, poetry books facing out don't sell. Their cover designs just plead.

I'm pretty sure you become stupider for not reading poetry. That's right, you become downright dumber if you don't at least pepper your gluttonous meal of autobiographies, fashion magazines, and novels with poems. I owe thanks to many poets not just for the garniture of their writing (I've been wanting to use that word!), but for the empathy that comes from their poems, the delicious word pairings, the sensory delights, the new ways of seeing. For me, long stretches of reading poetry feel like philosophical dumpster dives. I come up breathless, with hands full of treasures no one else wanted. Fools! Remember Hector the Collector by Shel Silverstein? I think Hector was a poet.

Mine, mine, mine!

I mean that as a verb. Read poetry.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Girl Out

of step again, ribald rhythm plays
its tricks from Hell. Right leg kicks, left leg
stays put. Oh, vile muscles, memory's betrayal!
Swallow that pill as you smile. No one likes vague.

The audience can't see your “Oh, shit!” thoughts,
but be expressive. They'll forgive your flubs
if you shake your fringe and wink as you were taught.
Glitter toss! Now count to eight, Beelzebub.

Blow a kiss, shiftslideturn, all the applause
comes from hips and gaze, your electric hands.
You do not ask, you earn. Empress of Awe,
your screw-ups erase with the lift of a fan.

Feathers pillow your skin as you lean,
tassels twirl, light licks silver sequins.

- Jennifer Hill

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Birthday Girl

You forgot it was your birthday
when the alarm went off
in its submarine deep bloop,
and you rose from a dream
where your right hand
was trapped in a tangle of fabric.
The cat rubbed her furry cheek
on your elbow, up your arm,
against your chin. Another day
of being alive. Purrr.

The day before, you forgot
it was almost your birthday,
and the day before that you forgot
it was almost, almost your birthday.
You count the week as birthday week,
share it with your sister and daughter.
You march as a triumvirate,
you ram the world.

Now as you get older, the day before
the day you were born is quiet as a long
stretch of field covered with snow,
or the fist of a peony bud.
Regular mail.
Skim milk.

It's so quiet, you almost don't exist
as you pour coffee, seal an envelope,
read an advertisement for soap
with those eyes your mother and father created.
You prefer it now, the day before your birthday.
The power of invisibility.

Today is your birthday,
and as your outline
fills with color and confetti,
you bop around
the landscape you painted
and see how little
of life is ever still,
how much is thrown,
how little you own.
Birthday girl,
even your eyes
are loaners.

- Jennifer Hill

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pep Talk

This is the place and you are here,
scratched up desk, no chandelier.

Old glasses jabbed into a pot
with dried out pens and fusty thought.
You twist and wind dreams into knots –
This is the place and you are here.

So get it out, good God, be done!
The coffee’s black, your timeline thrums –
this whingy-whine is overdone.

This is the place and you are here –
so suck it up, you chanticleer!

This is the place and you are here.

- Jennifer Hill

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Morass of Self-Doubt

Self-doubt spreads like kudzu. Let it in and it will cover and take over every corner of your body. It will invade your gestures, and control how you view your environment.

I used to think that if I was genuinely having fun, others would want to play too. I'll be 42 next month, and I'm not so sure that's always true now. (I spent a lot of time alone on the playground as a kid, making up stories in a dirt pile. It was genuine fun for me.)

Sometimes I'm just having fun alone. It's just me, and that's ok. This is as true for the writing parts of my life as it is for the hoop dance parts. What makes me giggle as I write it might not make the reader giggle, but I write it anyway. I have to remind myself over and over that it's alright to wear shorts with fringe on them, bleach my hair, go to a burlesque class, sing a sound poem on the elevator, wear a top hat to the grocery store, leave a painting in the woods for a stranger or a bear to find, and that it isn't some sort of mid-life crises.

Do enough people "like" what I'm doing? That smile on my husband's face - does he think I've lost my mind, or is he enjoying the show? Oh that horrible little voice inside me that says that people are laughing at me behind my back! It feels like all the worst parts of education.

Am I sorry I didn't discover that I have a body that dances earlier in my life? Yes. When I was younger my muscles were suppler and I had more energy, but when I was younger I was also wrapped in kudzu.

Right now, I'm happy that I discovered that I have a body that works with my mind at any point in my life. My forays into hoop dance have inspired others to try it. This is good.

So this post is a big screw you to strangling vines of self-doubt. If I feel like wearing shorts with fringe on them and hooping it up on the dance floor, I'm going to do it, with relish and abandon.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I praise the beast who gave me boots,
spirit strong,
eyes that thawed winter with absolute,
fenced-in song.
Together we stamped the damp ground
with our names. I am astounded.
So stable,
to hide the animal I’ve found.

- Jennifer Hill

This is a Ronsardian Ode. It's a French stanza form, syllabic (decasyllabic and tetrasyllabic lines), rhyming, with nine line stanzas. Mine is short. I realize this poem isn't going to win me any vegan friends.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Praise for What Floats to the Surface

I don't care that your poem was published in Huckleberry Pie Review, or that you've won that prestigious award that turns every other writer's eyes into thumbtacks. I don't care that you live with your four cats and husband on an island. It doesn't matter that someone once described your writing as "the deft hand of minimalism." What matters is that you wrote a phrase in a poem that still floats to the surface of my memory as I press my foot into the ground of my backyard to check for 60 foot sinkholes. I don't own any of this land, this bland madness of snows.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Chillmonster Rhymes with Truck

It's not that I resort to unprofessional tones when it's only nine degrees outside. Really. It's only nine degrees outside and I feel the dread hand of a ghost brush along my back in the quiet of the bookstore. The cold slips under the backdoor, or from the basement, or is wheezed through a window gap.

I did not just use a word that rhymes with truck as I felt the chillmonster grasp the wedge of skin exposed from my sweater's lazy rumple. Yesterday I had a fruit salad for breakfast (not made by me, what luxury on a weekday!) and the chunk of real peach I bit into sent a spineshiver tone of summer through my body. Lawnchairs, sun on skin, dirty feet -- the parade that marches out slush and stagnacy. I'm ready.

Friday, February 04, 2011

A Pleasant Cure

A friend replied to a recent email of mine: "The list of authors I have not read never ceases to embarrass and amaze me. However, there is a very pleasant cure for such things."

I agree. At fancy and not-so-fancy dinner parties with literary, intellectual, highly-educated types, I find myself struggling to remember the plots of novels I've read, the names of the authors who wrote them, and the titles of poems that moved me. I remember a phrase, but I can't quote it perfectly. I remember the feeling or color I got from reading a poem, novel, story, or excellent phrase, which is much harder to quote. I can recall whether what made me laugh or cry was on a right-facing or left-facing page, at the top or the bottom, in the book where I read it (my husband also has this quirk of memory).

I'm not totally ashamed by my shortcomings in reading. There is a very pleasant cure for such things, as my friend said. One of my favorite writers is E.B. White.

Books of E.B. White I have not yet read:

The Lady is Cold - Poems by E.B.W. (1929)
The Trumpet of the Swan (1970)

Books of E.B. White I have partially read:

Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do (1929, with James Thurber)
Here Is New York (1949)

Books of E.B. White I have read completely:

Essays of E.B. White (1977)
One Man's Meat (1942)
Stuart Little (1945)
Charlotte's Web (1952)
The Second Tree From The Corner (1954)
The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.) (1959, republished 1972, 1979, 1999, 2005)

I have a biography of E.B. White that I haven't even touched. There's a collection of his essays and poems that I didn't cite in my partial list because I can't remember the title of it. I've read a short piece of his simply titled "Note" in a 1950 New Yorker magazine (upper right of right-facing page) that reflects on a forgotten actor in a restaurant.

In Charlotte's Web, Wilbur says:

"What do you mean less than nothing? I don't think there is any such thing as less than nothing. Nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness. It's the lowest you can go. It's the end of the line. How can something be less than nothing? If there were something that was less than nothing, then nothing would not be nothing, it would be something - even though it's just a very little bit of something. But if nothing is nothing, then nothing has nothing that is less than it is."

This appears on the lower portion of a right-facing page in the edition that I own. In fancy conversations about books I admit I feel like nothing, but I do know that my combined reading experiences account for something. I consider myself lucky to have days filled with books that I can pull from shelves and sink into, or lazily peruse. I hope it is alright that I can't quote verbatim, that I forget author names, plots, and titles. When a writer makes me laugh out loud, or connects me to another writer, or gives me an "aha!" moment that connects me to the larger world (not just the world of letters), I feel appreciative and warmed by the light of genius.