Monday, May 1, 2017

I've Moved

I'll say it again: I've moved.
Now blogging (still intermittently) at

It's a new all purpose all-in-one-blog - look for writing about writing, books, but also cooking. Pretty sure I'm going to cook and write things about that. No promises.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

You Never Know What You Need Until It No Longer Blooms In Your Backyard

If my husband hadn't had to chop this down last fall, this is what would be blooming in my back yard right now.

Unfortunately this nasty grape-vine thing has taken over the yard and the only way to get rid of it was to cut everything it was clinging to and wrapping itself around down to the ground. Forsythia is pretty hardy - I think it will come back, but I miss this bit of yellow spring which usually shows up this time of year.

And although it hasn't been much of a winter - very little snow, very little cold - I'm still looking forward to that release spring brings. I'm needing the surge of energy I get when the air turns warm and the daffodils are up.

Right now I'm in my little messy office with noise canceling earphones listening to The Decemberists and trying not to be annoyed by the family of squirrels who've taken residence in our attic. They are the most persistent squirrels the pest control guy has, apparently, ever come in contact with. He's been here 3 times to block the hole and create an "out" door (a door that lets them out but not back in). Each time the squirrels have managed to either rip out the door, or have chewed a new hole right next to the old one. On Thursday the pest guy came again, blocked the new hole and strengthened the door. All the rest of the day I heard them frantically skittering across the roof and over the gutters trying to figure out a way in. It was like a Hitchcock movie except squirrels, not birds. Kinda freaked me out. This morning they got back in, and now I'm trying not to hear them rustling through the insulation and cracking walnuts against the wall. I hope that when it's finally, thoroughly, warm they will leave and allow us to fix all the soft soffits and repair the bit of siding they ate through. I seriously need spring and forsythia and daffodils and wild animals outside where they belong.

For the first time in five years I had a full spring break. Since I started adjuncting, I have taught at at least two different schools (once three! - that was too much) But now that I'm only at one school I was able to take a full week off to think, and write and do a little grading catching up. It was amazing. I actually sent several stories out - got one picked up! - wrote and edited stories that have been sitting around since last summer. For one week the only stress I felt was the usual stress within my family - as opposed to that anxiety compounded by the anxiety I feel for students and my work with them. I didn't realize I needed this. I'm one of those people who do what I'm supposed to do - and if you ask me to do more, why then I'll do that too. My husband is always saying that my future time has no value to me and so I give it away for free. I think a lot of women do this. I have to fight my tendency to mother everyone - take care of everyone other than my self.

When I was a kid, my dad always said we should do the unpleasant tasks first, before moving on to something we want to do. This is a disastrous philosophy for people like me. Unpleasant (or less pleasant) tasks are never ending. They are like the tide, they ebb, but come back full force and without ceasing. I'm trying to learn that it isn't a zero sum game - that it's not that I can't do fun things until the unfun have been completed - rather, I have to make sure I alternate what I want to do with those things I have to do. I always want to write - therefore I don't write because it's what I want to do. Ridiculous.

So, this past week I put writing, thinking, reading first. I read short stories I hadn't read in years - Sonny's Blues by Baldwin, Everything Rises Must Converge by O'Connor - and flipped through The Leaves of Grass - which I return to whenever I'm feeling out of control. (Bless you Whitman.) Someone gave me this collection of poems by Han-Shan translated by Gary Snyder written in calligraphy and illustrated with simple line drawings reminiscent of Japanese ink paintings. I stink at memorizing, but this one four line poem, not quite a haiku has been rolling around my brain all week and I'm going to just set it down and leave it here for you. :

Spring-water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge - the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness*


*Cold Mountain Poems: Twenty four Poems by Han-Shan, Translated by Gary Snyder. Counterpoint Press, Berkeley 2012

Friday, February 20, 2015

Three Lives, NYC

Recently, I dashed up to NYC with my daughter and coerced her into a brief visit to my favorite bookstore. 

Three Lives does everything right.  It's small - so small that you almost always bump butts with some stranger who is, like you are, nose deep into a book and looking for a place to sit, or lean and read.  It's jam-packed with books - really well selected books - Art, novels, poetry, biography, history. It's low tech. If you want a book you ask the bookseller sitting behind the high counter. I'm assuming there's a big computer behind that counter - but I'm short, so it's hard to tell. And it's really, really friendly. Every chance I have, I go to that bookstore because I know I will discover something I want to read, or a writer I have never heard of, or, that a writer I love has a new book.

I know I should read the New York Review of Books, or the NYTimes Book Review, or the many blogs out there where new books are announced - but I don't have time. For instance, today, should grade papers, update the syllabi, and make a stab at vacuuming. That's what I have to do - what I want to do is write a bit, add to this and my other blog, give the dogs a good long walk. Read a good book. It's only 8:30am and already I feel guilty. And reading book reviews, like browsing Amazon, is not nearly as exciting as walking into a bookstore, poking around, picking books up, putting them down, reading half a chapter and tucking it under your arm or leaving it at the registrar to go hunt some more.

I came home with Someone by Alice McDermot, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (everyone has told me to read this) and How Music Works by David Byrne. Ok, I came home with more books than that - but these are the ones I'm reading right now. I'm not going to check email, I'm not going to grade papers and I'm certainly not going to vacuum. Nope. I'm happily sitting here, by my new fake fireplace, with the dog asleep on the couch listening to the gentle hiss of the gas (it's real fire, gas powered, fake logs, looks as cheesy as it sounds. I care not, it turns on and off with a clicker). This is my favorite kind of day: sitting and reading, writing, occasional napping. Listening to the Decemberists. Later, I guess I'll go to the grocery store - but I'm gonna take a detour through Bryn Mawr, because, as fate has it, there's a bookstore there calling my name.

By the way - if you want to read an excellent selection of short stories - purchase yourself Museum of the Americas by my fabulous friend Gary Lee Miller!!

UPDATE: Had a friend ask how Three Lives rates next to the Strand - also a great NYC Bookstore and institution. I have always preferred Three Lives over the Strand simply because Three Lives is cozy and edited. It is in no way overwhelming. The Strand has got EVERYTHING -  I love browsing the sidewalk carts - and there is a wonderful outpost right on the corner of 57th and 5th at the bottom of Central Park which reminds me of the booksellers along the Seine in Paris. If you are looking for something that's been out of print a while - go to the Strand. If you are looking for discounted books - the Strand is also your place. I love the Strand for it's sheer volume - but Three Lives is my place.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Highly Personal Art of a Professional Procrastinator

I'm having a difficult time getting started this morning. Actually, I have to amend that because it’s afternoon already. Damnit.

I got out of bed with excellent intentions – but because I couldn’t fall asleep last night, my alarm woke me out of the kind of dream that seemed so real it was as if I was in the middle of another life. These types of dreams are disorienting and I while I remember getting out of bed, and waking Emma up for school, I think I then stumbled back into bed and slept again because the next think I knew Smith was waking me up and handing me a cup of coffee (bless him). Every one else was out of bed by then, dogs fed, Maddy almost out the door for the bus, Emma was dressed and wearing shoes (a miracle), and I was still groggily drinking my coffee. Everyone left. I sat down to my laptop. Right here, in my crowded and messy office. But I couldn’t get anything going. I wrote one sentence. Here it is:

The other day I was my friend Nathan and I were having a working lunch – which means we brought work we were supposed to have rea

It’s not even a finished sentence. It’s not even grammatical. It sounds like a two-year-old wrote it. I don’t remember where I was going with it either.

I got up and went downstairs to the kitchen because the dogs were barking at the joggers and women walking along the sidewalk with baby carriages. This happens a lot. Dogs tend to take things personally. I checked for mail even though it was, at this point, only 9am. The mail carrier rarely shows before 3. I made more coffee and went outside to sit on my small deck. I brought a notebook and Lydia Davis’s novel The End of The Story, which I’m obsessed with right now. I’m also obsessed with her short stories, which are truly short and almost perfect. I read a few pages of The End of the Story but  my eyelids begin to tremble so I closed them and instantly I was dreaming because I believed myself to be baking bread with oatmeal raisins and apricots. I woke when I felt my jaw release and my mouth fall open. My notebook was on the table next to me so I made a list of all I wanted to do today. Here it is:
This is just a partial list. It goes on for a few pages and includes categories such as Teaching, Personal Hygiene and Do Immediately!

As you can see, up near the top of the page, no longer in the lines, is a note to make bread with raisins oatmeal and apricots – so that nap was not exactly a waste of time. So far, however, I have completed nothing on that list. Nor have I written or read much. After writing my list, I got up and lay down on the couch next to my dog and fell asleep. This time I didn’t even have useful dreams. I slept about twenty minutes with the dog curled beside me like a coda. A truck hitting the manhole sized pothole in front of my house shook me awake. At this point, I was even more groggy.

Part of the problem is that list. How many of us are taught as children that one must do the unpleasant things first before allowing oneself to do things that are fun? As you can see from that list above, there are fun and unpleasant things (fun=bake bread, buying geraniums. Unfun= doing the dishes, making doctor’s appointments, cleaning out the fridge.) But today I woke up with a groggy two-year-old’s frame of mind. (I don’t WANT to do the dishes!(stamps small foot) Well, ya can’t bake the bread if you don’t do the dishes. (fists on hips)) There are things I SHOULD do before I can undertake those things I WANT to do. Unfortunately for me, writing is both fun and unpleasant; it is both something I SHOULD DO and something I WANT TO DO (Stamps small foot again), and so on days like today I find myself in this weird limbo, caught between the stubborn child and the admonishing adult, almost completely paralyzed ,unable to do much more than write lists and fall asleep.

I have days like this more often than I want to truly acknowledge.

Back I went upstairs thinking getting dressed and dabbing some makeup on my face might succeed in tricking my brain to getting down to business. Feeling more awake, I opened my laptop. Feeling peckish, I went downstairs and made popcorn, which always makes the dogs happy. I don’t know why the air popper’s funnel doesn’t funnel all the popcorn into the bowl – there’s always popcorn flying around my messy kitchen. But this is what dogs are for, so at least my floor is clean. Came upstairs and re-woke the laptop. Opened a fresh page in Word. Decided to write on a yellow tablet instead. Couldn’t find a pen with a satisfying enough scratch to it. Returned to the laptop and the blank Word page. Wiped the popcorn oil and salt off my laptop keyboard.

Wrote: I'm having a difficult time getting started this morning. Actually, I have to amend that because it’s afternoon already. Damn-it.

(stamps small foot)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Form And Function

I’m thinking of completely abandoning some of my flash or micro fiction and rethinking them as poems. In the past I’ve tried to do this by dividing up work that has already been written and reconfiguring it. But this is a kind of cheating, particularly if I want to think about form and whether the form makes emotional sense when connected to words. So rethinking these stories is going to be important, because, according to my last post, the new work must somehow resonate for me in a way that it didn’t in story form.

The form needs to bring some emotion to the work and the work needs the form to be almost secondary to the meaning – yet crucial to the meaning – but in an effortless way. I’m not even sure I’m making sense here.

Let me try again: I have to live in the form before I can write the form –

Poetry forms such as villanelles, sestinas, ballads, were sung over and over again both by the person who made it up, and by singers who heard the songs and then started singing it themselves. Someone would make one up, another would hear it, memorize it and sing it somewhere else until the form, the rhythm the rules of the form, would become embedded, physically embedded, in the singer’s body. Sing something enough, you change it. Change it and it begins to become your own. And reading is not the same as singing. Which means, I guess, that I’ll need to memorize some poems – get them into my head in a permanent way, the way troubadours used to and sing them to myself. Quietly. So as not to embarrass my daughters. Sigh.

The problem, of course, is that I stink at memorizing. Always have. Well, except for my American Express Card number – I’ve got THAT down. (Also thanks to my daughters’ addictions to Etsy) (Ok, that’s a partial truth. I too am addicted to Etsy)

And the other problem is, which poem to memorize? Which form? After reading The Making of a Poem*, I’m kinda drawn to the sestina. 39 lines, though. THIRTY NINE LINES.

But I like the non-rhyming aspect of the sestina – because rhyming is hard – and if it’s not done well then the poem is a slave to the rhyme rather than the rhyme being a way of adding to the poem’s overall meaning and emotional strength. “The Raven” would not be “The Raven” without that building intensity of the rhyme scheme. It would lose that heart pounding quality. (Here’s my absolute most favorite reading of The Raven EVER – read by Christopher Walken.)

What I like about the sestina is the way words are repeated throughout the poem which gives the illusion of rhyme without actually having to look every third thing up in Webster’s Rhyming dictionary. And it also builds the intensity of meaning. Each time the words are repeated they change in meaning, building in meaning.

Which words though!? Which words??? See how these things can go? This is why I think the form needs to be embedded in the body and mind before one attempts to go writing in a poetical form.

Song writers do this. My older daughter is a singer/songwriter. But she doesn’t just make up songs, she sings other peoples songs. And while she is pretty discriminating in what she listens to, she isn’t discriminating at all in what she chooses to play and sing. Because she knows that even some of the worst songs (or the worst seeming songs) have an intricacy and rhythm that is useful to learn. (Here is her soundcloud account where she is singing Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus, just to prove my point. I think my daughter’s version is fantastic.)

So, in order to write, I need to memorize. I need to sing sestinas.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

According to The Making of A Poem, here is the sestina form:
1.     It is a poem of thirty-nine lines (THIRTY NINE LINES)
2.     It has six stanzas of six lines each
3.    This is followed by an envoi of three lines. (Gonna pause here for a minute and talk about the envoi. An envoi, according to The Poetry Foundation’s poetic terms is “The brief stanza that ends French poetic forms such as the ballade or sestina. It usually serves as a summation or a dedication to a particular person.” This is different from an envoy, a person sent by a government to represent that government but there are similarities I think – because the envoi at the end of the poem is the thing that sends it off – it’s the part that might get most stuck in your head because it is the last thing you hear and in this way it becomes the messenger or even the introduction. Here’s what Webster has to say about it:
a.     Definition of ENVOI:  the usually explanatory or commendatory concluding remarks to a poem, essay, or book; especially :  a short final stanza of a ballad serving as a summary or dedication. Middle English envoye, from Middle French envoi, literally, message, from Old French envei, from enveier to send on one's way, from Vulgar Latin *inviare, from Latin in- + via way
I like the way it comes from via – way, and that the envoi because it ends the poem, actually sends you on your way. It’s saying, ok, off you go, take this out into the world now. It’s yours – go on, take it!)

4.     All of these lines are unrhymed.
5.     The same six end-words must occur in every stanza but in a changing order that follows a set pattern
6.     This recurrent pattern of end words is known as  “lexical repetition”
7.     Each stanza must follow on the last by taking a reversed paring from the previous lines
8.     The first line of the second stanza must pair its end-words with the last line of the first. The second line of the second stanza must do this with the first line of the first and so on.
9.     The envoi or last three lines must gather up and deploy [another messenger word!] the six end words. *

Also, here is a very nifty blog post by Camilla Guthrie on the Poetry Foundation’s website called “Why Write Sesitnas?” in which she says what I’ve just said only better and more poetically.

* Strand, Mark and Eavan Boland. The Making of A Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Making of a Poet...?


My daughter claims I use an injudicious number of dashes and ellipses in my writing, but I say it’s because I’m a secret poet and I’m trying to create space. Or maybe I’m just a control freak and want to force people into acknowledging space… I don’t know. Either works.

The thing about poetry is that I  truly don’t know  how to write it. I love poetry, I read a lot of it, but when I write it, is it real? Is it actually poetry? My mother cut this out of the paper for me a while ago:

“Poetry is awareness heightened to the point of love,” Mr. [Paul] Roche wrote in 1970 in an essay for the reference work “Contemporary Poets.” “It is a way of apprehending the intensity of being. I try to recreate experience more intensely, reduce it to a luminous whole, render intuitive the meaning and metaphysics of the universe and so feed myself and others with the kernel of being.”

Quite a bit of hooey isn’t it? And yet…

I don’t know why some poetry works and some poetry doesn’t. I don’t know why I read highly acclaimed poetry and find it so enigmatic that I can’t, just, can’t. While other poetry, equally enigmatic, is thrilling. I think it is about heightened senses. Mr. Roche up there was quite the hedonist – apparently calling himself a satyr – and in that passage above, the “awareness heightened to the point of love” and “intensity of being” is possibly about poetry =orgasm.  It’s a burst (to push this metaphor beyond taste) of reality, pure and completely in the moment. Well, some of it is. Some is epic. Some poetry is about story, truth or language.

I’m reading the Mark Strand/Eavan Boland book, The Making of a Poem, * and in the first chapter “Verse Forms,” they write, “ Verse forms do not define poetic form: they simply express it…poetic form is not abstract, but human…To understand them fully it is necessary to see how distinct their histories are…And this distinction in turn is the reason that each poetic form has been rediscovered” (3). They go on to say that the sonnet hasn’t had the same resurgence in contemporary poetry as the villanelle because today’s poets like the way a villanelle refrain can shift from light to dark, something that speaks to the overall voice of poetry today. “This is the charm and power of poetic form,” Strand and Boland say, “It is not imposed; it is rooted.”

This may seem really obvious but rootedness is why I think some poems speak to me while others don’t. A poem has to take hold of me with a long tendril that may take root in my ear, but grow through brain and blood and finally set up in my heart. It has to be something that is reminiscent of something I understand almost bodily, as opposed to intellectually. The “meaning and metaphysics” of my universe. In the preface to The Making of a Poem, Boland writes that Blake’s poem, The Tyger had a particularly strong effect on her as a child because she first encountered it when her father read it to her. But not only that; when her father read it to her she was instantly transported to the summer earlier when she was separated from her father at the zoo and while searching for him ran past the pens of the lions and tigers. She was finally found when she heard her father calling for her using a stern almost angry voice. The same voice he used while reading Blake’s poem. Suddenly for Boland, there was a connection, “Form waited for me: waited for more than a hundred years on that page. Waited in cold print and cool and changing paper shapes. Waited to find the child, rather than the other way around.”

“Waited to find the child” – it’s metaphysical – but I do think there is that aspect of a poem lying in wait to find me. It’s crouching there, ready to spring in the perfect moment, that moment when past experience and present reading of the poem merge – no more than merge – recreate experience. And I’m back to Roche:

“Poetry is awareness heightened to the point of love … It is a way of apprehending the intensity of being. I try to recreate experience more intensely, reduce it to a luminous whole, render intuitive the meaning and metaphysics of the universe and so feed myself and others with the kernel of being.”

Without my own past, there is no poem. Without my experience of the world right now, there is no poem and even, at least according to Boland and Strand, no connection to form either.

I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding poetry today, or even how to write poetry. The only way for me to understand anything is to read and then write about what I’ve just read – and I hope that my understanding of how poetry was/is written will increase this way.

* Strand, Mark and Eavan Boland. The Making of A Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.