Monday, December 13, 2010

The View from the Window

Last weekend was Emily Dickinson's birthday, and the Emily Dickinson Museum hosted a party where visitors were given bright pink and orange-yellow roses, hot cider, and cake and cookies made from Dickinson's recipes. The atmosphere was festive and crowded as guests of all ages wandered through the parlors and sitting rooms to the sound of live fiddle and hammered dulcimer music. Upstairs, volunteers led children and adults in making ornaments out of paper reproductions of Dickinson's manuscripts.

The poet's bedroom maintained a peaceful atmosphere despite the bustle. Yellow winter light washed through the large windows and the white walls and bedding gave it all back. In a corner near the front windows stood Dickinson's writing table and lamp. Although the poet would have seen fields instead of buildings across the street, the street itself has been there for centuries and she watched everything and everyone that passed there. "Twice she saw the circus pass by," a volunteer told me. "The Barnum circus with all the elephants and everything. They got off the train and came up Main Street on their way to the Amherst Common."

In contrast, the house across town (no longer standing) where Dickinson spent a portion of her childhood faced a cemetery, which must have brought different musings than her view of Main Street. I've been lucky in my house and in my last apartment to have a writing room of my own, and my last one looked down Pleasant Street, one of the main streets in Easthampton, and across at a funeral home. I valued seeing people gather in mourning or celebration of life. It was a reminder of what is often ignored in daily life, the edge and moment that are always hovering invisibly nearby all of us.

Now my writing window shows me a tiny sliver of Mount Tom visible between houses and trees. More prominent is the plain white siding of the neighbor's house and the inside of our 6-foot wooden fence. The fence is old enough that most of it is patched, tied, or staked in some way, waiting for spring to allow us to replace it. The post in front of my window is ingloriously wrapped with a large amount of white rope, holding the fence pickets haphazardly in place. It reminds me of all that is imperfect in life, the jerry-rigging and the compromises, that I have to accept, at least on some level, in order to keep moving forward.

What do you see out of your window?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The NaNoWriMo Finish Line

I successfully concluded my first National Novel Writing Month with 50,000-plus words of Greek goddesses frolicking in Northampton (and copulating with mortals), lovers dealing with memory loss, and other adventures. Thanks to friends and family members, I also raised $182 for the Office of Letters and Light. A huge thank-you to everyone who cheered me on! My first novel is now well underway.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Boston Business Litigation Haiku

That's right, you just read the words "litigation" and "haiku" in the same headline. A friend of my mine who is a lawyer forwarded me a weekly email that summarizes newly filed business law complaints in the Boston area. This week the summaries were written as haiku. Those clever lawyers!

Judge Woodlock orders
Patent case filed as new action.
Facebook, Inc. complies.

Shareholders complain
One billion from Oracle
Not nearly enough.

Sexual comments from boss.
One-Fifty-One B.

Bank's money flies off
Because of check kiting scheme.
Suit on policy.

Busted bottle caps
Customer cancels contract
Is Hood's claim covered?

Fast food franchisee
Defaults and leaves guarantors
Liable for rent.

Corporate raiders
Who cause contract terminus
Must the piper pay.

Junk facsimiles
So Twentieth Century
And illegal too.

Welch loses big trial
Ads for juice found misleading.
Coverage denied.

Planet Fitness gyms
Owe millions to their lender.
Repossession sought.

In the actual email (meant for actual lawyers) there was additional information (useful to lawyers) such as the attorney's name and a link to the complaint. But we're just concerned with the words here at Dragon's Meow. Thanks to the folks at Yurko, Salvesen & Remz, PC for writing these.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Calculus Notebooks and Baby Clothes

My grandmother's house has an attic full of memories: boxes of innumerable letters, notebooks, photographs, and baby clothes from three generations. Watching my mother go through these items over the past few months has been an education in memory and attachment. With each box, she relives a moment or a year or a decade. Everything that gets thrown away must first be exclaimed over and/or mourned. Some things, like the letters Gram wrote to my parents before I was born, Mom has passed on to me, so now I've started my own memory collection in my attic.

Going through old things has weird effects on the space/time continuum. It's hard for me to imagine my mother as a teenager struggling through chemistry and calculus, yet there are the notebooks to prove it. Actually, it's not that I can't imagine her as a teenager--I can't really believe she was once a teenager.

It's different for her--she can't imagine not being that teenager anymore, alive in the pages of those old notebooks. As she tears the pages from their spiral bindings and adds them to the recycling bin, she says, "I feel like I'm tearing apart my life." And yet it needs to be done.

My baby clothes--most of which are musty and stained and not worth giving to a thrift store--are still vivid and colorful in her mind as she holds them up, saying, "I loved you in this dress ... you looked so beautiful in this color." Me? She can't be talking about me, 5'10" tall and 31 years old. I was never small enough to fit into that. And how could I have lain on that embroidered blanket or worn that handmade flannel nightgown if I don't remember it? How was that me?

In the boxes of the baby clothes--most of which were either bought at Sears or sewn by my grandmother (who was quite talented, although her designs were essentially practical, and usually made of flannel since as a baby I lived in Maine)--were a few items from an earlier era: finely worked crocheted bibs with colorful decorations, and dresses with lace collars and hems. These, according to my mother, must have been made by my great-grandmother. A professional dressmaker, she took the concept of handmade to an entirely different level.

My idea of a thoughtful baby gift is taking the time to go to Target and pick out something in a color the kid (or parent) likes. Handmade dresses or clothes like the ones my great-grandmother made would probably cost a hundred dollars--more than I'd spend on a dress for myself! So much has shifted in how we spend our time, money, and labors--individually and globally as well. My idea of green or budget conscious involves shopping at a thrift store, recycling someone else's best guess at a good buy from Target.

There were many more baby-girl pink items in the baby clothes boxes than I've worn in the 30 years since then. By the time I was old enough to verbalize my desires, I tended more toward red and blue. We also found among the baby clothes my first-ever pair of shoes (these resulted in many exclamations). For some reason I was relieved that they were cute and maroon. I'd wear them now, if only they were the right size.

Monday, November 1, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

This November, the nonprofit Office of Letters and Light will host National Novel Writing Month. It's a global writing challenge for which I'll spend November (and portions of my sanity!) writing a 50,000-word book in just 30 days.

In addition to my writerly duties, I'm raising money to help the Office of Letters and Light continue to put on free creative writing programs for kids and adults in classrooms, communities, and libraries around the world.

Every dollar I raise will keep my spirits high as I write my way towards the realization of my creative dreams. More importantly, contributions will help National Novel Writing Month and its Young Writers Program build a more engaged and inspiring world.

Thank you so much for your support of my writing! Support in spirit from my fellow low-income writers is much appreciated as well.


Some things I'll be keeping in mind this month:

"Every word on your blog is a word not in your book." - Sherman Alexie

"You do, or you do not. There is no 'try'." - Yoda

"Our ability to achieve is proportionate to our inner will, and we never know what is possible until we experience the impossible!" - Heidi Thomson

Monday, October 25, 2010

Joyce Carol Oates Kicks Interview Butt

From the pulpit of a downtown church during the recent Boston Book Festival, keynote presenter Joyce Carol Oates read a soft, complex story of loneliness and violence. In contrast, the interview that followed was comedic and farcical. The audience gasped and laughed and nearly booed as the interviewer asked one ridiculous question after another. Oates gracefully sidestepped the too-personal ones and boldly confronted the too-simple ones.

Even though she wasn’t the greatest reader, the piece Oates read from her recent book, Sourland, was gorgeous and chilling in its emotional subtlety. Especially compared to her interviewer, who seemed to have been selected as a foil to Oates’ intelligent and nuanced speech, she presented compassionate, transcendent perceptions of the human condition. What follows are selected quotes and summaries based on notes.

Your stories have a lot of violence in them. Why do you write so much about violence?

“Writers don’t write about violence. Writers write about people.” A work of art has its own trajectory, Oates said, its own inevitable ending. She added that writers don’t think in terms of happy endings but in terms of the integrity of the piece of writing.

Have you experienced violence in your own life?

“Why is there this tendency to ask women writers this question? … It’s not like I invented violence.”

Do you believe in God?

“Do you?”

Are you a Catholic? An atheist?

“I don’t call myself anything … Calling oneself an atheist would be too aggressive … Most people have a sense of religion that honors their family and community, and they just follow that … It’s not fruitful to discuss whether I believe in God.”

Do you know when you sit down to write if you’re working on a short story or a novel?

“Of course! I wouldn’t be a good writer if I didn’t.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sign Language: Maine

"Tread Carefully"

"Lilliputian Landscape"

"No, It Didn't Say That"

"Neighborhood Effort"

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Author's Books and Author's Jobs

I had a "driveway moment" yesterday while listening to a story on NPR about a new book in which authors reminisce about various jobs they've held and how those experiences inform their writing. "Don't quit your day job" is both the title of the book and the facetious advice that the experienced novelist gave to the interviewer, an aspiring novelist. An aspiring novelist myself, I always appreciate hearing from those who have "been there, done that," and the reference to Truman Capote's maxim Write something true (and then start lying) was a good reminder.

While searching for the link to that story on NPR's website, I found another interesting book-related story about a reader discovering an author's personal library for sale in a used bookstore. How could she tell the book belonged to a writer? Because the book's previous owner had filled it with margin notes, conversing with the printed text in a close and thoughtful interaction.

Last night I was at a party and someone asked me how, as a writer, I decide what books to buy. My criteria for buying a new book is whether I might want to read it more than once. If I'm not sure that's the case, I will borrow it from a friend or the library. Used books, however, are not always held to the same standard, which is why I have a revolving-door relationship with Cherry Picked Books and Raven. I do love the idea of an author's library going out into the world, posthumously and diffusely, through the venue of a used bookstore. The books and their conversations could stay alive that way.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sign Language: Desire

Continuing with my collection of sign photographs inspired by Signs of Our Times, this month's theme is Desire.

"New Heart Attack" outside Hartford, CT

"Desperate to Sell" Miller Place, NY

"It Really Was" Seattle, WA

"Saving Space" Skinner State Park, South Hadley, MA

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Playground Pastoral

merry-go-round circles
under the trees

swing set, push, smile,
grasping hand

merrily tossed
gentle shadows

Monday, September 6, 2010

Reading List

Arthur Schopenhauer said, "Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents." How true this is! So many times I have bought books (usually nonfiction books) because they "looked good" (or better yet, like something I "should read") only to have them sit primly on my bookshelves for years unopened. Every so often I gather these books and sell them to a used bookstore, where I get a credit with which to buy books I have a slightly higher chance of reading (usually novels).

Now that I have committed to buying a book a month (ideally from a small publisher), I want to follow that up by actually reading said books. So far I am halfway through July's book (Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord) and have not opened August's (Granta's sex issue: not a book per se, but book-like enough in shape and heft), although I did get a head start when I heard its opening essay at a reading. September's book, which I just ordered, is Dear Al-Qaeda by Scott Creney (Black Ocean).

As if I didn't already have enough to read, I just subscribed to Writer's Digest (I also read Poets & Writers). The latest issue included many "top 10" lists including advice from bestselling authors. One of Sherman Alexie's tips was to "subscribe to as many literary journals as you can afford." I noted that he did not say, subscribe to as many literary journals as you can possibly read in your lifetime, because that would be a much smaller number for most of us.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sign Language: Humor

Signs of Our Times is "an online study of signs, especially as means of language or miscommunication." It is an amusing and thought-provoking collection of accidental profundity, laughable bloopers, and odd juxtapositions. (Find mine at #55.)

When I saw the call for works inviting people to submit pictures of signs, I realized that I have been photographing signs for a while now and have amassed quite a collection of them. It was tough to choose just three to send in, so I figured I'd gradually post more of them here. I decided to go the humorous route for this week's selection.

"Troll Ave." Seattle, WA

"Warning Sign" Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ

"Dry Cleaning" St. James, NY

"Through the Window" Seattle, WA

Monday, August 2, 2010

Portraits of Donuts

Written after visiting "Luscious," paintings by Emily Eveleth, at the Smith College Art Museum.

Why donuts? Well, they're donuts. They're also flesh and blood, shape and color, and whatever else you need them to be.

The canvases are huge, rendering the donuts surreal and completely out of context. Given their size, the paintings are simultaneously representational and abstract.

Sometimes, it's the mess inside that's most interesting. When the donuts appear broken, they're as dramatic as torn flesh. Yet, when intact, they are curvy and sweet as a Classical nude. Dark backgrounds make the donuts glow. One is painted bright white as if the painting is a photograph taken with too much flash by donut paparazzi.

Are these paintings poking fun at traditional figure painting? Some seem to be. Some, with their round, red holes are pretty damn sexual, with donuts pressing on and draping over one another. Other are simply playful. In all, this exhibit feels serious and lighthearted simultaneously. It is fun but not pointless, thoughtful but not heavy.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Library as Lifeline

Continuing the spirit of celebrating books and bookstores and small presses, one should not neglect the equally important need to support libraries. So in that spirit, Dragon's Meow is reprinting this post by KL Pereira from her blog Dead Disciples. (This is the first in an occasional series of posts by guests.)

Reading is Sexy. Yeah, You Heard Me.

So I was on my dear friend Sue Williams' blog a few days ago, catching up on her fabulous posts when another friend commented that financial constraints make them an avid library user and I thought: Damn straight. Libraries are sexy.

What do I mean by "sexy"? Well, not only are public libraries economical, they are revolutionary (two of my favorite things). The idea on which they are based posits this: that reading is crucial to our human growth and that everyone should be able to read (and have access to knowledge) FOR FREE.

I don't know about you, but when I was growing up, reading was my saving grace, keeping me sane in a world that was more about survival than about enjoyment.

Not interested in the Clueless age of the early 90s (and being without MTV and extra money for the local Waldenbooks), the library opened up a universe of possibility for me; reading Anais Nin's diaries, Stephen King's tales of grey matter and the macabre, Neil Gaiman's dreamy and dark worlds, and Sylvia Plath's and Anne Sexton's verse kept me sane when I couldn't make sense of what was around me, showed me that there was more to EVERYTHING than what I could see on the surface.

Reading made me question, contemplate, challenge, and DREAM: important skills that have made me the person I am today. I owe all these skills (at least in part) to my library (and the kick-ass librarians who showed me the way).

So yeah. My point: Reading is a revolutionary, sexy act, one that is made possible by libraries. Go support your local library and the awesome people who work to bring you the books.

Also: if you know a young person, give them books. Take them to get their library card. Show them how cool it is to be in control of what knowledge they receive and to be contemplative of how they respond.

Comment on this and let me know which books changed your life and you're reading this summer!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Spending Money

I don't like to spend money. Both the environmentalist and the cheapskate in me like to buy used whenever possible. Many of the books I read are from the library. But I also know that as a writer who cherishes books as objects, not just as text, I should support the book industry (and small, independent booksellers and small presses) as much as possible.

Someone once said it's worth thinking about how much one spends on clothing versus books, if you want to think about how spending reflects personal values. I haven't spend money on clothing in several months, so I guess it's ok that I also hadn't bought any books recently, either, until last week. (Side note: Tin House Books has a new submission policy, where authors submitting manuscripts must also include a copy of a receipt of a book purchase. Now that's doing something for the community.)

So in the spirit of supporting what I believe in, I've resolved to buy one book a month (more if possible, but at least one). I know this is not a radical idea to many of you (and probably would be like a crash diet for certain people), but there you have it. I pledge to buy one book a month for the rest of 2010. I'm excited about the possibilities this will open up.

By the way, this month's book is Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Truest Affair

I got lost on the way to the reading, wandered the deserted UMass campus, staring at cement walls in sunset light. Finally I found a security guard who walked me to the auditorium door, whistling. I found a seat, said "Is anybody sitting here?" before I realized I was surrounded by teenage boys and wondered what kind of audience they'd be. Anyway. I was there in time for the introductions.

Noy Holland read first: an unpublished story both meandering and hurtling, with beautifully wrought details and horrifying events. It was a quiet story, in which much of the violence happened offstage, or was told with a child's matter-of-factness. I wondered what the teenage boys got out of it. They doodled. I tried to read their scribbles before reminding myself again to pay adult attention to the unassuming figure on stage. Because her particular reading on this particular night would pass my ears just this once, and it was worth following.

Mark Doty read a few new poems, including "Pescadero," which had not wowed me when I read it in The New Yorker, but in the poet's voice, the words came alive with smile-inducing wonder. I was reminded of Mary Oliver's prayerful celebrations.

Then he read an essay from Granta's Spring 2010 Issue. This was the "you must change your life" (as Rilke wrote) portion of the evening. Not that one should live in a particular way but that one should write with such brutal and beautiful honesty. Doty did say that he was able to publish this essay only because its main characters are now dead-- but dead people or no, few could write of romantic misfortune and sexual awakening with more candor, pathos, and gratitude.

The essay's narrative was punctuated with reflective pauses. As good as he is at saying something, Doty is aware that some things cannot be said, and his story made room for that unknowing, admitted its own incompleteness.

The teenage boys were clearly amazed by Doty's frank, anatomically correct sex scenes. What lucky, summer-program-going kids. They'll never read something like that in high school, but now they know what's possible. It was the good kind of shocking.

Both Holland's story and Doty's memoir portrayed affairs. While it was hard to tell the role of the lover in the first, in the second, the lover was clearly a liberator. "His body was one of the doors through which I entered my actual life," were Doty's final words from behind the podium.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Time With The Poets

I am blessed with a great group of fellow poets that meets every Thursday night to critique each other's work. This spring we decided to take it a step further and go on a three-nights-four-days retreat in nearby Vermont. We rented a cabin, ate, drank, wrote, and were merry - despite an afternoon of plumbing problems (not our fault). Here's a photo essay of my reflections.

Lessons for Poets
When you're a poet, it's important to eat well. Feed the muse and all that.

Write alone, but don't drink alone.

It's important to find a nice place to work.

We're creating order (or something) from life's chaos.

In order to draft a poem, you have to let go and let things flow. Save your love of order for the editing process.

Sometimes, things flow too much ... then you must reach for a mop.

Writing poetry can be tough ... but really, if you're eating well and drinking among friends, it's not that bad.

When all else fails, quote yourself. "In the end is the beginning." When all else fails, burn your poem and start again.

"Think small." - Richard Hugo

A poet's job is to go to dark places and bring back light.

Can you spot the poet in this picture? No - she's behind the camera. So step away from your work and let it speak for itself.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

With Apologies to Keats

Keats' poem "To Autumn" has always been one of my favorites. I've never found a more evocative description of a September morning than his "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." While walking to work last month, passing apple and cherry trees laden with blossoms, I tried to think of a spring equivalent to Keats' ode. Here's what I came up with.

To Spring

Season of buds and mellow ruddiness
Close BFF of the awakening earth
Contriving with her how to gild and drape
With noisy color all the plants in town;
To grace with red wings the maple trees
And smother the lawn with violets small and bright;
To trumpet the daffodil, and raise the pansy’s face
To meet the sun; to set budding more,
And still more, purple azaleas for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease—
For you've whispered sweet nothings to them all.

Who hasn't seen you wearing your petals,
throwing hues about, carelessly trying
them all to see which part of a rainbow
suits you best? They all do, beautiful girl.
You've painted the town with weightless colors,
the air itself held between branches, caught
by sunlight, refracted sumptuously.
And your odors—sweet blanket of cherries,
sharp fume of white pear, lilac's silken scent—
lure all who breathe into the spell of your
department store collection of perfumes.

Who hasn't heard you barking from behind
the glass, or on the street as you promote
you wares? Enough for everyone to buy!
You've so much richness, but its twin, loss, lurks
within each colorful piece of jewelry.
Wind plucks petals by handfuls, tosses them
in torrents on the ground, snows white and pink.
Spring, you vixen, you’re too harsh to last long.
Summer will smooth your rough edges with green,
closing in the view of mountain and cloud
with sheltering shade, the soothe of leaf.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

From Now to the Far Away

Our interaction didn't last long. He wasn't someone I'd imagined getting to know. I remember his first name and I have two letters from him without dates, without envelopes (no return address). The only thing I have from him is our one creation, and whenever I look at it, I wonder where he is.

I'm not talking about a missing father or a lost lover. I'm remembering my one-time collaborator, known only as Chris, who was a counselor the same summer as me at an arts camp in Connecticut. I worked in publications, he worked in book arts. He made all kinds of wonderful books and book-like objects: book with drawers, fold-out books, collaged picture books. The last I heard from him, he was going to teach somewhere in Central America.

Despite the wonders of the Internet, it's still pretty hard to find someone when all you have to go on is a commonly used first name. If I knew how to contact him, I'd say, "Hey Chris, I had so much fun working on that book with you. Want to do another one?" And he'd say yes, and we'd collaborate on a whole series of books that would tour art galleries and museums across the country, ending up in both public and private collections, inspiring the next generation of artists and writers.

Until that happens, though, I'll just share the one book we did make, which is titled (appropriately enough, if Chris is still in Central America) From Now, to the Faraway.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letters Aren’t Dead Yet (Nor Are Books)

Sunday night, I find myself catching up on things and getting to the final few items on the weekend’s to-do list. This time, the list includes writing cards—two “welcome baby” cards (for a pair of friends who’ve had their second child and for a pair of friends who just had twins) and also a card for a friend whose mammogram turned up positive for early stage breast cancer. I don’t see any of these friends too often anymore, but when you hear about something like this—cancer or babies being born—you send a card. At least, that’s the way I was raised.

My grandmother was a committed card-sender. She bought birthday cards months in advance, wrote dates on the upper right corner of the envelopes (where the stamp would later cover up the numbers), and kept them organized chronologically in a box. She sent cards to all her friend’s children and grandchildren, no matter how physically distant they’d become. I haven’t been nearly as vigilant with birthday cards as she was, but I did get the gist of her example: that, as much as possible, it’s important to keep in touch.

Incidentally, Gram also taught me to send thank-you notes by threatening that if I didn’t send thank-you notes for birthday or Christmas gifts, she’d tell the person not to give me anything the next year. That was a high-stakes lesson for a kid, so if you ever give me anything, you’re sure to get a card in the mail if I have your address or can find it on

This weekend I stopped by the Independent Journal & Book Fair at UMass, Amherst, which was put on by the MFA program there. It was great to be in a room full of people who believe not only in texts but also in books and literary journals as art objects made with care.

A book is more than the text it contains—it is an object, it has a presence and a body. The space it occupies on a shelf or the weight it adds to your bag gives it significance. Also, books can stimulate 80% of the five senses (100% if you snack on them, but I never have). I’m not saying I wouldn’t use an e-reader if someone gave me one; they have their practicalities and I’m not a purist when it comes to technology. As author and editor Gian Lombardo wrote in his blog, "I guess I’m bi in this case." But even if I needed or chose to go digital with most of my books, I’m sure I’d still keep my favorite books in physical form.

I send plenty of emails for all sorts of occasions and I read lots of things online—but I do like to hold the things I care about. Similarly, life’s major events still call for the time and care of putting pen to paper and stamp to envelope. Thanks for the lesson, Gram. Your Mother’s Day card will be in the mail soon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wandering Genius

Yesterday I went for a walk with a friend at lunchtime. It was a great day for a walk - sunny, warm - but not a great day for getting writing done after work. My friend invited me to a seder, and I declined, saying I had too much to do around the house. This was a lie. I didn't have too much to do around the house, and I love seders, but I planned to spend the evening writing, even though the sunshine and sweet air gave me the sinking feeling that I wouldn't get much done.

So, last night I indeed "wrote." I thought about writing, worried about writing, and felt bad about not physically writing, even though the machinations of writing were grinding away inside my head as I walked my dog, sent a few emails, and watched a video online.

One of my writing teachers at Hampshire College, Michael Lesy, gave fewer assignments than many professors because he said we needed time to think and plan. That was the first time I'd heard reverie acknowledged as being just as essential to creation as the actual creating. Sometimes I'm OK with the reverie, but often I'm impatient. Although I want to see results, I must put up with the inertia and unruliness of my own mind. It just insists on daydreaming and wandering. In that way it's like my dog - trainable, but so much.

As I walked said dog along on a wooded trail, I wasn't consciously thinking about the order of the poems in my chapbook manuscript, but when I got back to the house I'd decided to move one of the poems from the end of the book back to the beginning of the second section, where it had been originally. "Great," I thought sarcastically when my "writing time" was up. "Three hours later and all I have done is shuffle some papers around." I was reminded of the quote from William Wordsworth (is that who it was?) about working on a poem all morning, taking out one comma, and then putting it back in that afternoon.

"You've chosen a vocation in which the rewards come very infrequently," my wife said that night as we watched the NCAA championship game at the local bar, a good venue for me to bemoan my temporary and non-life-threatening misery at not conjuring the willpower to sit down and add copious amounts to my scribbled word collection that night. I thanked her for pointing out the obvious and told her about the video I'd watched.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, was talking about "genius," but not as you might expect. She says that instead of a person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius, which to the ancient Romans was a daemon or spiritual being, kind of like a personal muse. It makes sense when you hear her say it. (Thanks to poet Adam Rubinstein for sharing the link.) My wife, however, immediately thought of my cat, who usually sits on my lap while I write. "Don't ask me to call him your genius now," she said. "I just can't do that."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Poetry Obscura

Confessions of a bibliophile: sometimes when I shelve or re-shelve my books of poetry, I imagine the authors talking to each other, like they're all shoulder-to-shoulder at a cocktail party. What would Rita Dove say to Carol Ann Duffy? Would Martin Espada and T.S. Eliot have anything to say to each other? It's an event when someone new comes along. All of a sudden, Sylvia Plath is no longer talking to Adrienne Rich, and they're both talking to Claudia Rankine instead.

I also introduce poets to each other by selecting one or two to take to my annual trip to Anne Sexton's grave in Forest Hills Cemetery. I think that doing something three times assures that it is becoming a tradition, and this was the third year that I and fellow poet KL Pereira (you can read her account of this year's trip here) picnicked in Forest Hills and read poems aloud there. This year we actually became part of the main attraction when a walking tour of people visiting "wondrous, curious, and esoteric places" happened to pass by (apparently March 20, 2010, was Obscura Day - who knew?).

My method for choosing this year's "read to Anne" poet was simple - the most recently purchased, unread book of poetry on my shelf: Elena Georgiou's Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants (Harbor Mountain Press, Sept. 2009), which I had not purchased from Amazon (see Elena's blog to find out why) but had instead ordered through my local independent bookseller, who got it from the publisher. So, I read aloud two poems: "Immigrant #18: Prayer for an Alien with Extraordinary Ability in the Arts" (and nearly wept) and "In Case of Emergency" (what a love poem that is).

KL read two poems from Dearest Creature by Amy Gerstler. Her method of choosing this year's "read to Anne" poet was also simple - the most recently purchased, never-heard-of-before-but-immediately-loved book of poetry in her bag. In his review of this book, David Kirby writes that "a poem either sends you a bill or writes you a check." On Sunday in the cemetery, we were rich, and the dead people joyfully rattled their coins as well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Interview with Fiona Robyn

Fiona Robyn is a writer and blogger living in Hampshire, UK. Her three novels, The Letters, The Blue Handbag, and Thaw, have been published by Snowbooks. She recently decided to also blog the entirety of Thaw. Dragon's Meow was one of over 260 blogs around the world that joined Fiona in posting the first few paragraphs of Thaw on March 1. Here is a brief interview with the author about the process of writing & publishing online as well as in print.

What is a blogsplash?

As I’m publishing my novel Thaw online over the next few months, I wanted to let as many people as possible know about it as we begun – it’ll take longer to catch up as time goes on. I turned to the blogging community, who have always been supportive and lovely in the past, and asked them to publish the first page of the novel on the same day as me.

What inspired you to blog this book?

I’m still at the beginning of my career as a writer, and I want as many people as possible to get a chance to read my work. I’m hoping that some of those readers might buy the book version of Thaw, or one of my previous novels, but we’ll see if that happens or not!

Is the book already written and you're just posting it, or are you composing as you go?

Yes – the book also has a physical form and was published by Snowbooks in February. Making up as I went along wouldn’t make for a very good book – my novels go through at least 6 drafts!

How is this experience different than with previous books you've written?

It has been interesting to see Thaw on a blog, and to have people commenting on it as pages are posted. It makes me feel quite vulnerable – usually people read my books "behind closed doors!" It’s also been lovely to get lots of positive feedback.

What makes you excited about writing in the era of blogs and online social media?

There are huge opportunities available to writers these days through blogs and social media – we can find ourselves an audience without waiting for a publisher, and market our own books. For me, it’s all about building authentic relationships, and enjoying it. Any book sales are a bonus!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tribute to Lucille Clifton

After a long battle with cancer, Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010, at the age of 73.

Rita Dove, quoted on Poets.Org, wrote: "Her revelations ... resemble the epiphanies of childhood and early adolescence, when one's lack of preconceptions about the self allowed for brilliant slippage into the metaphysical, a glimpse into an egoless, utterly thingful and serene world."

Yesterday, Delirious Hem began posting writers' reflections and tributes to Clifton. In Naomi Nye's poem, she calls Clifton one of the people "...who remind us / more of ourselves than our own selves do."

Thank you, Lucille Clifton, for your words, your poems, and your life.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Ruth's diary is the new novel by Fiona Robyn, called Thaw. She has decided to blog the novel in its entirety over the next few months, so you can read it for free.

Ruth's first entry is below, and you can continue reading tomorrow here.


These hands are ninety-three years old. They belong to Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. She was so frail that her grand-daughter had to carry her onto the set to take this photo. It's a close-up. Her emaciated arms emerge from the top corners of the photo and the background is black, maybe velvet, as if we're being protected from seeing the strings. One wrist rests on the other, and her fingers hang loose, close together, a pair of folded wings. And you can see her insides.

The bones of her knuckles bulge out of the skin, which sags like plastic that has melted in the sun and is dripping off her, wrinkling and folding. Her veins look as though they're stuck to the outside of her hands. They're a colour that's difficult to describe: blue, but also silver, green; her blood runs through them, close to the surface. The book says she died shortly after they took this picture. Did she even get to see it? Maybe it was the last beautiful thing she left in the world.

I'm trying to decide whether or not I want to carry on living. I'm giving myself three months of this journal to decide. You might think that sounds melodramatic, but I don't think I'm alone in wondering whether it's all worth it. I've seen the look in people's eyes. Stiff suits travelling to work, morning after morning, on the cramped and humid tube. Tarted-up girls and gangs of boys reeking of aftershave, reeling on the pavements on a Friday night, trying to mop up the dreariness of their week with one desperate, fake-happy night. I've heard the weary grief in my dad's voice.

So where do I start with all this? What do you want to know about me? I'm Ruth White, thirty-two years old, going on a hundred. I live alone with no boyfriend and no cat in a tiny flat in central London. In fact, I had a non-relationship with a man at work, Dan, for seven years. I'm sitting in my bedroom-cum-living room right now, looking up every so often at the thin rain slanting across a flat grey sky. I work in a city hospital lab as a microbiologist. My dad is an accountant and lives with his sensible second wife Julie, in a sensible second home. Mother finished dying when I was fourteen, three years after her first diagnosis. What else? What else is there?

Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. I looked at her hands for twelve minutes. It was odd describing what I was seeing in words. Usually the picture just sits inside my head and I swish it around like tasting wine. I have huge books all over my flat; books you have to take in both hands to lift. I've had the photo habit for years. Mother bought me my first book, black and white landscapes by Ansel Adams. When she got really ill, I used to take it to bed with me and look at it for hours, concentrating on the huge trees, the still water, the never-ending skies. I suppose it helped me think about something other than what was happening. I learned to focus on one photo at a time rather than flicking from scene to scene in search of something to hold me. If I concentrate, then everything stands still. Although I use them to escape the world, I also think they bring me closer to it. I've still got that book. When I take it out, I handle the pages as though they might flake into dust.

Mother used to write a journal. When I was small, I sat by her bed in the early mornings on a hard chair and looked at her face as her pen spat out sentences in short bursts. I imagined what she might have been writing about; princesses dressed in star-patterned silk, talking horses, adventures with pirates. More likely she was writing about what she was going to cook for dinner and how irritating Dad's snoring was.

I've always wanted to write my own journal, and this is my chance. Maybe my last chance. The idea is that every night for three months, I'll take one of these heavy sheets of pure white paper, rough under my fingertips, and fill it up on both sides. If my suicide note is nearly a hundred pages long, then no-one can accuse me of not thinking it through. No-one can say; 'It makes no sense; she was a polite, cheerful girl, had everything to live for', before adding that I did keep myself to myself. It'll all be here. I'm using a silver fountain pen with purple ink. A bit flamboyant for me, I know. I need these idiosyncratic rituals; they hold things in place. Like the way I make tea, squeezing the tea-bag three times, the exact amount of milk, seven stirs. My writing is small and neat; I'm striping the paper. I'm near the bottom of the page now. Only ninety-one more days to go before I'm allowed to make my decision. That's it for today. It's begun.

Continue reading tomorrow here...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Those Timeless Greeks

I can't review this book (Greek by Theo Dorgan) since I haven't read it yet, but I can say that it appears to be worth reading, given these two poems reprinted today by Poetry Daily, in which Artemis, talking on her cell phone, "stalks past, imperious and aloof, / radiant in her first flush of immortality."

What is it about the Greek myths that is so endlessly fascinating to so many of us? I think it's the fact that they were (correct me if I'm wrong) the last Western pagans - at least the last Western pagans who left an extensive enough written record that we can revisit them and their myths and stories again and again. Their deities were so human in their divinity, so petty and powerful and imperfect. That's why I like them, anyway.

When I was in grad school, I wrote my fair share of Greek-myth-inspired poems. One of my advisors said, "Why is everyone writing about Persephone now?" I won't try to psychoanalyze my generation of writers. All I know is that, as a writer who grew up hearing those myths, they are a starting place, a framework, a location where we can hang meaning. A theme with endless possible variations.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fail Better

Writers always need reminders and encouragement to keep going through the challenges, vagaries, and doubt that is an inevitable part of creating and also of sharing one's work. This is why so many of us have encouraging quotes taped to the walls near our desks or bed or mirrors or anywhere else we frequent while lost in thought, why so many of us benefit from supportive peer groups.

In this essay, author Rebecca Brown makes another thoughtful contribution to the body of literature addressing the need to keep going despite difficulties.

Brown begins: "I often need to remind myself that I need to hear failure out, because by failing at doing an easy thing, a groupthink thing, a thing one has been taught to do for one's career, one might be encouraged to make or do or be something more original and true. Because failing as an artist is a necessary thing, a thing I wish I could more easily accept."

Brown is a scholar well attuned to the world, and in this essay she doesn't stop with encouraging individual artists & writers to follow our dreams but also reminds us that the point of creating something beautiful or useful is to "give it away" to our community. This service aspect of art can widen our view of the context of our work, and provide deeper motivation for us to work through our own fears, insecurities, and failures.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reinventing Publishing Again

Some thoughts on the new and evolving world of online & Internet-influenced publishing, a topic that came up when I recently signed up to be part of a "blogsplash." What's that, you ask? Well, check back on March 1.

In the meantime, I read this recent essay by Ted Genoways of the Virginia Quarterly Review about the supposed death of literary fiction. Similar to essays about the death of poetry that seem to crop up every few years, this one was in a way a justifiable lament, but on the other hand was limited by the author's point of view.

The fact that some publishers and literary journals are moving to a nonprofit model is intriguing. And I think it could make sense to ask people to "pay" for their literature after they read it, by making a donation. I almost never buy new books - they're just not in my budget. I get books from the library, and if I like them and can justify their taking up space on my bookshelf, then I buy them.

Narrative Magazine seems to have come up with one solution to the changing (virtual) landscape of publishing. Their magazine is free to read but they charge a fee for submissions and for special access to certain content. This could addresses the issue described by Ted Genoways of over-worked editors drowning in "navel-gazing" submissions.

Small Beer Press, publisher of "good, weird, interesting" books, has this to say about making books available online for free: "We love books. We want to keep on publishing good books... If everyone downloads books straight to the Kindlenub in their head, we might be in trouble. But if there are still people who like to read books on paper, maybe some of them will read some of these downloads and then decide they would like the actual books... In other words: as with any book, if you want to read it for free, you can. We’ve just made it easier for this book to reach the 6 billion readers out there!"

Friday, January 29, 2010

Poetry for Haiti

Tonight in Northampton, MA, local poet and poetry advocate Lori Desrosiers will host a poetry fundraiser for Haiti at Green Street Cafe, with 25% of the dinner proceeds being generously donated by the restaurant to Partners in Health. The event begins at 7 p.m.

Tomorrow, across the pond, UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy will host Poetry Live for Haiti. In describing the event, Duffy said:

"We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives...And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Writing About Work

A few days ago I heard this piece of philosophy about art and work in which author Alain de Botton states:

"We need an art that can proclaim the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, along with love, despite current economic mayhem, with the principal source of life's meaning."

I've written a lot about the two years I spent working on organic farms while taking time off from college. Those years were valuable to me personally and also politically in that they made me much more aware of where food comes from and how much effort is needed to produce and consume healthy food.

I've written a lot less about the several years I've spent working in offices. Perhaps the office environment is better suited to satire than lyric? Anyway, here's a white collar poem.

The Secretary (or) A Turn Not Taken

The secretary chooses
her clothes from a palette
of khaki, charcoal, maroon.
Her job is to blend with the walls.
She tips herself forward, a cup and saucer
clinking. Ready.

Purple girl shapes walk into the water.
Girls in purple Spandex form a pyramid
on water skis.
Against the blue-green-yellow day
the cut of the wind
they don their sleek skins.

Their skis swivel—
            her chair swivels—
                        where did she go wrong?
How I wish I were a part
            of that pyramid
                        taking off into the sky.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Humorous Links

Humor can be such a relief during challenging times. I've recently been getting a good laugh out of these sites.

This caught my attention because I just watched Sunshine Cleaning, which stars Alan Arkin as a grumpy old man (he also played a grumpy old man in Little Miss Sunshine), so I was in the mood to laugh at the exclamations of another foul-mouthed older man.

Petty Petitions
From a "petition to set politics aside long enough to agree on a catchy, non-partisan nickname for Sarah Palin" to a "petition to live every day like it’s your second to last," this blog offers satire at its best.

Stuff White People Like
This blog pokes hilarious, though not mean-spirited, fun at my tribe: the class (more than the race) of folks who listen to NPR, own Apple computers, eat hummus, and attend yoga classes on a regular basis.

Amusing Ourselves to Death
More serious than funny, here's something of a different stripe to make you think twice about too much distraction.