Author Archives: Julie Larios

Brevity: Short and Sweet

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A poetry group I belong to thought it might be a good idea to write one poem a day for April 2015 – National Poetry Month – so we gave it a try.  I managed to do it without missing a day, but doing so caused a few muscle cramps along the way. The unexpected result – at least for me – was that we produced some interesting poems on demand, and we all enjoyed it enough to do it again during the current month. Again, a few muscle cramps, but the process is feeling less strenuous now – any exercise feels better if you do it daily instead of sporadically. Of course, I’m not writing the same kind of poetry I usually write, the kind with what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, complications. Instead, I’m going for short, accepting the fact that a lot of what I produce will be chaff instead of wheat, and I’m learning a few things about the sweet joys of brevity.  The essence of a poem’s inspiration – similar to photography’s decisive moment – comes through with more clarity.  Brevity can feel clean and uncluttered.

For example, the other day I saw a good friend who went through my MFA program with me, and for the first time I met his daughter, who is now four. She was shy at first, but when she got more comfortable, she began to tell stories and giggle and chat and do what four-year old girls normally do – steal the limelight. The more my friend wanted to catch up with me, the more his daughter wanted to bring the light back to her own observations. She’s a natural sharer, and so is my grandson – both of them delightful and both of them with a lot to say.  At a certain point, she began to pat her dad’s cheeks and say, “Look, Daddy. Look, Daddy. Daddy, look!”  and I thought about my own kids, grown now and no longer in need of my attention that way – no one patting my cheeks, no one thrilled by my attention. And I thought of my husband, and how I used to watch him be a father, which I get to see only once in awhile now, since it’s just the two of us at home.

I knew what I was feeling would be a good opportunity for a poem – not an expansive poem but a zen moment kind of a poem – a small observation meant to capture a large and bittersweet longing, kind of like the image of the small goldfish in the large bowl which I put at the top of this post – something small floating in an expansive space. My poem for the day was this:

She Was Thinking All Night

…about the things she missed most, like
the way a little girl says daddy look
look daddy and then the way a daddy
turns and looks

Twenty-five words. It captures what I was thinking about for the rest of the night, after my friend and I said goodbye. For all I know, it will be too long before I see him again. If so, his daughter will be more independent and need his attention less. We’ll probably catch up more, but I won’t get that moment when she pats his cheeks and says “Look, Daddy.” Moments, poems, observations, feelings – there’s a lot out there that comes and goes quickly. For those of us who, in their writing, tend to go on a bit, and then a bit more, I recommend brevity on occasion.

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Kimberly Moran is the host for this week’s Poetry Friday. Head over there to see what other people have posted.

A Puzzle

sarah-ruhl-100-essays-i-didnt-have-time-to-writeI’ve been reading an interesting book by playwright Sarah Ruhl titled 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas, and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Children and Theater. Great title. And great little essays, with subject matter ranging all over, as you can tell from the subtitle. In the book, Ruhl examines paintings, participles, interruptions, Andy Goldsworthy, writing as reform school, smallness, Ovid, Italo Calvino, satyrs, secrets, neologisms, privacy, bad poetry, rhyme on stage – and that’s only in Part One of a four-part, six-page Table of Contents. If you’re picturing a book better suited for flower-pressing, picture again – the book is only 218-pages long, with essays coming in at 1-3 pages.

In the first essay of the book, Ruhl says something that stopped me in my tracks: “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, in not an intrusion.”

I certainly prefer that take on things to the often-quoted line from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: ““A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Examining those two opposing views – “life” intruding on creativity vs. “life” sustaining creativity – would have made a great essay assignment for my students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. “Think this through and tell me what conclusions you come to” I would have suggested. I suspect most students would have agreed with Woolf.

RozChast2Implied in Woolf’s quotation is the idea that 1) writers must have money and 2) the room must have a door and the door must be lockable (figuratively if not literally) against “intrusions.” Is that what we long for as writers? Or do we simply use the absence of such a room as an excuse for not writing?

Of course, the best student essay would have told me that the truth lies somewhere in the middle (oh, that was interesting, typing the phrase “the truth lies”!) and that I skewed the assignment to get interesting results; in reality, the two views are not really diametrically opposed.  As in many areas of activity, balance makes more sense or – at the least – has more appeal, is more calming and leaves us less exhausted. Our “room” as artists probably should be neither all locked against the outside world nor all porous.

What I’m trying to sort out is the question of attitudes and how an attitude can affect creativity. One attitude implies that creativity owes its life to interruptions, since what’s interrupting is life (from which all creativity springs…?) The other attitude asks, “How can I sustain my creativity if I’m constantly interrupted?” The New Yorker this week had an interesting article about a writers’ “space,” whether that space is a dedicated room of one’s own, a counter at Starbucks, or the kitchen table. [Searching the New Yorker’s archives for past articles about writing spaces, I found this brilliant report by Ben McGrath about a project called Flux Factory where architects designed three rooms for three writers to live in for 30 days.]

Reading Ruhl’s book, I lean towards letting life intrude. I know many things intrude on my creative life. I’ve not only come to terms with that, I kind of like it that way. In fact, the longer I live, the more I like it that way, and the result is I write less. But look at how Ruhl smiles in that author photo. She looks supremely satisfied. Amused. Energized. And I’ve always been worried about portraits of Virginia Woolf:

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Virginia Woolf

Obviously, not a good way to judge happiness – by a photo. Bipolarity was Woolf’s demon. And Ruhl’s youthful good health could be reason enough for the smile. But I do wonder. Meanwhile, I let family, friends, good books, walks, laundry, washing dishes, random moments of daydreaming intrude all they like. Should I circle the wagons and develop some kind of writer’s space? Come to think of it, a circle of wagons is pretty porous. Well then, should I find a door with a lock on it at this late date? Maybe I should focus on writing 1-3 page essays – absolutely do-able. Or maybe I should answer the question at hand: Which is it, intrusion or sustenance, this thing called life? Intrusion and sustenance? It’s a puzzle.

Lilacs! Roller Coasters! Mothers!

white lilacsThis coming Sunday is Mothers’ Day, and the white lilacs by my front porch are more than ready.  So am I.  I’ve always loved Mother’s Day, especially coming on the heels of Easter and May Day, when my sister and I passed out homemade baskets of flowers to all the neighbors. A triptych of floral holidays – what could be more perfect? Daffodils! Lilies-of-the-Valley! Forget-me-nots! Apple blossoms! Bluebells! Lilacs! Cards with crayoned hearts and tulips all over them, surrounding a stick-figure mom.

May Day Basket

Despite how much I loved being a daughter with an easy-to love mom, when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I burst out crying. Should I admit that publicly? I loved my husband, I wanted a family…shouldn’t I have been thrilled?

I guess I was thrilled – kind of. But for me, it was the type of thrill you feel on a roller coaster, with that little voice in your head saying, “What are you doing?????” You get into that little car, the attendant brings the bar down so you don’t fall out, you know it’s going to be a scary ride, you know there’s going to be a long climb up and a terrifying dip down and screaming and laughing and several jerky rounding of corners. And you know that if you are unlucky or unblessed you could fly off the rails at any point – I don’t think it’s possible just to be thrilled by news like that, is it?  Besides, I was a wise-cracking, cynical, semi-hippie, barely past my hitchhiking days. Barefoot. Torn jeans. What kind of role model would I be? Oh, there were a million things to worry about, and I worried about them all.

Of course, I came to love being a mom, and I had fun and did pretty well….the proof is in the pudding, as they say. I have three great grown-up kids.

Josh with His Fiddle

Mike 2011

mary-1And my daughter is now a mother herself. Amazing.

Mother’s Day — such an undeniably justified holiday, no? It’s so basically the right thing to do, celebrating and honoring our mothers. What culture on the face of the planet doesn’t do that? For the Italians, it’s practically operatic.

This year my mother will turn 89; she’s been a mother since my older brother was born in 1945. That’s seventy years ago. A mother for seventy years…that’s a sobering thought, because motherhood isn’t easy. And my mother became a mom while my dad was still serving his tour of duty in WWII. When he came home she proceeded to give him two more kids, both girls, within four years, so she had three kids under five years old when she herself was not quite 23.

My mother is a creative, complicated, generous, hard-working woman with a bright mind and high standards. She was a classroom teacher and a school librarian/reading specialist for all the years we were growing up, and she read aloud to us until we were teenagers. And I read to my kids. And my daughter reads to my grandson.

Reading Time - Jackson and Mary 01-02-15

Last week here at Books Around the Table, Laura Kvasnosky shared thoughts about her new grandson, Emmett. Over the last few weeks, Laura’s daughter has begun experiencing what it feels like to be a mom – the sleep deprivation combined with the giddy joy. Laura talked about the books Emmett will grow up with. Reading aloud together at bedtime is a wonderful way to build memories – the quiet time at night when the busy day sloughs off and stories float out into the dark.

I vividly remember my mom reading The Wind in the Willows to us. This Sunday, May 10th, is not only Mother’s Day, it’s the 108th anniversary of Kenneth Grahame sending his son Alistair a birthday letter in which the characters of Rat, Mole and Toad are first imagined. Thanks, Mr. Grahame for that – you’ve been part of the pleasure of bedtime stories between mothers and kids now for more than a century.

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This Mother’s Day, I’m taking my mom a bouquet of lilacs. Then we’re going out to lunch in Bow, Washington, and we’ll head down to Mount Vernon to see Julie Paschkis’s show at the Bitters Co. barn.

paschkis

A sunny day in the tulip fields of the Skagit Flats. Fun! It’s one way to say thanks to my mom for being a good mother. And for reading to us.  And for going on that roller coaster ride of motherhood, hanging on and having fun, even while terrified.

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone this Sunday! If you don’t live close to your mom, give her a call.

Mom - 2009

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Strange and Wonderful Connections

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Eugene Atget – Window, Paris

A writer in Russia recently got in touch with me via the email address she found at my personal blog, The Drift Record, to ask a favor. She needed a poem sent to her, one I was not actually familiar with, though I had written about the author of the poem, Nelson Bentley, in one of my previous blog posts.  The Russian writer had been unable to find a copy of the book which the poem she wanted appeared in, but she knew I had a copy because the poem I had written about – “Zero Tide” – is in the same book. She asked if I would be willing to send her the poem “Atget’s Lens”?

What a thrill, to get a request like that from someone I didn’t know in a part of the world I’ve never been to. Such an unexpected, lovely connection! I had met Nelson Bentley decades earlier when he taught at the University of Washington – he let me sit in on a few of his classes while I was deciding whether or not to finish my B.A. in Creative Writing. He was a kind and popular professor, a colleague of Theodore Roethke, and much loved. His death not long after that, at the relatively young age of 72, meant I never got to study with him, but I admired his work. So I found the book – Sea Lion Caves – and typed “Atget’s Lens” out and sent it on across the miles to be translated by this new Russian acquaintance.

Nelson Bentley

Nelson Bentley in his office at the University of Washington

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Portrait of Eugene Atget by Berenice Abbott

“Atget’s Lens” is a complicated poem that I hadn’t remembered, but after finding it again and typing it out, I was startled by how lovely it is, how beautifully Bentley handled the formal restrictions, and by how difficult it would be to translate, due to its compressed syntax.

Not only was I drawn to the poem, I was drawn to its subject. Atget was a French photographer who pioneered the new field of documentary photography in the early years of the 20th century. I have several postcards of his work, which focused primarily on street scenes in a Paris that Atget felt was slipping from view.  His work was not well received while he was alive; it was only after his death, when the New York photographer Berenice Abbott championed it, that the value of his photographic documentation of a bygone Paris was recognized.

Eugène_Atget,_Street_Musicians,_1898–99

Eugene Atget – Street Musicians

Atget lived and worked at the turn of the century; half a century later, an English professor in Seattle wrote a poem about him;  decades after that, I wrote about that professor; and a year after that, a Russian writer wrote to me about the professor. From Atget to Bentley to me to Russia – like depot stops on a strange and wonderful train ride.

Atget - Church of St. Gervais

Eugene Atget – Church of St. Gervais

So if you’re feeling a little burnt out on blog posts, as we all do at times, I’m writing this to encourage you to keep it up. Someone might get in touch with you years from now and say “I just read you blog post, and I’m wondering if you could do me a favor….” And you’ll become another stop on a journey that connects one artist to another and another.  Meanwhile, here is the poem I sent across the sea. In it, Bentley mentions many of the subjects of Atget’s photographs. Hope you enjoy it:

Atget’s Lens

Final turning of a place to poem,
A lone vision to a textured home,
And look to book;
Who’d think to find you in a photograph,
Perfectly quiet in the arrested chaff :
A love that took?

A lettered wagon tired in early light,
A snarling knocker that will never bite,
Transformed tokens,
Answer for an old brown grateful Paris
That entered intact the rare, knowing iris
Of Atget’s lens.

A peddler sedate on steep-slanted bricks,
Trees waving in twenty great gold clocks,
Dummies proud stance :
All waited for James’ pen or Atget’s mounts.
It’s the selection of which love counts,
The surest glance.

City and heart sings this humble realm,
An ardor that clears away the film.
Order is all;
Its constant surprise is where it will appear,
Implying the search that makes an atmosphere
Or a total.

– Nelson Bentley

Atget - Door Knocker

Eugene Atget – Door Knocker

Atget - Street Peddler

Eugene Atget – Street Peddler

Bits and Pieces

Empty House

Oof. Empty house.

For the last two weeks, my husband and I have been prepping the house for a floor refinishing: a crew will come in on Monday and begin to bring the tired red-oak hardwood floors back to their former glory. Clearing the books, furniture and tchotchkes out (oh, my God, so many books, so many tchotchkes) has helped me organize a few things, it’s true. But the empty main floor rooms now echo when we speak, and the effect is strange.  It’s eerie, emptying out a house without actually moving out –  a little like having a family member suddenly go berzerk and start running around naked. I feel both amused by it and embarrassed for it…

[…funny how typing out the word “embarrassed” makes me see how similar it is to “bare assed”….]

Sorry – what was I saying? It’s easy to fall right off a cliff when it comes to thinking about how strange words are, isn’t it? Ah, yes, I was talking about an empty house.

When a house gets down to only walls, floors, ceilings and windows, all the flaws of the poor creature show. The little buckles in the wallboard underneath the bedroom windowsills where condensation dripped before we could afford to replace the old windows – we’ve been meaning to fix those for so long. Then there’s the dust on the very top of the tall dining room hutch – you know, where I haven’t dusted since we moved it in twenty-eight years ago. There’s the newly exposed place behind the bookcases that’s a different color than the rest of the room – we got lazy and didn’t move the bookcases when we repainted. Time to unlaze.

On and on it goes, the list of little neglected things about an old house – bedraggled, rumpled, familiar. Both sweet and destitute. It’s as if our house over the years became an old hooker with a heart of gold. Or a featured structure on the  Abandoned NYC blog.

The-Turbine-Room_New-York_Untapped-Cities_Will-Ellis11

This is the point in my post where I might normally turn the whole “empty house” thing into a metaphor for the writing process, but honestly, the hard work of emptying each room has left me feeling singularly uncreative, mentally. Hard work can do that –  which is obvious if you think about how few coal miners or restaurant dish-washers or factory-line workers have enough energy left to be creative. And this hard labor moment of mine is temporary – I’m not going down any mine shafts day after day.

For example, I took time out for the Oscars (even the red-carpet silliness.)  And I took a walk around Greenlake because February sunshine in Seattle cannot be ignored. And even with all I’ve had to do, I’ve been conscientiously reading the headlines from all the newsletters and posts I get in my email each morning via the New Yorker, The New York Times, Bill Moyers, Facebook, The Guardian, ad infinitum. When I’m tired, I save up the reading of the whole articles/essays for “later.”

I’m going to share half-a-dozen links from my last list of Things-to-Read-Later, which I’ve just managed to go back and read now that the rooms echo. Each bit and piece has something to do with creative endeavors, which is what Books Around the Table is all about, and which I hope to get back to more fully once the rooms of the house are full again, and which (in a perfect world) everyone would have the time and energy for.

Robert Frank's "Miners"

Robert Frank’s “Miners”

You can follow these links at your own convenience, depending on the state of your house, state of your head, state of your free time, and/or your comfort level with disorganized browsing. My comfort level with that activity lately has been high.

1. Click here for a gorgeous piece of writing by George Szirtes for the latest issue of Poetry: “Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza and Pattern.” It’s an essay for those of us interested in poetry’s musicality and mystery. Here’s a teaser: “Sure, rhyme can be predictable. The good poet’s job is to make it less so. On the other hand rhyme is also a mnemonic and an early pleasure. Rhyme is an extraordinary and surprising coincidence….I would contend that the constraints of form are spurs to the imagination: that they are in fact the chief producers of imagination.” 

2. Click here and here to see the paper-sculpture work of Patti Grazini, who has a new show currently at Seattle’s Curtis Steiner Gallery. Grazini never fails to amaze.

3. Click here for some thoughts of my own over at Write At Your Own Risk, about what to keep, what to throw out, what you own, what owns you, how random news clippings can become sources of inspiration, and how basements come in handy.

4. Click here for a look at a N.Y. Times article about the National Gallery of Art’s new Robert Frank online archive.  One of the photos in Frank’s book The Americans  provided the inspiration for my first published poem. That article, by the way, is part of a wonderful series at the New York Times called LENS: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism. Articles from it often end up on my Read-It-Later list.  Click here to see the most current posts.

robert-frank-drugstore-detroit-1955

From Robert Frank’s The Americans – Drugstore, Detroit, 1955

5. Click here to read an interview in which the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who made Birdman) talks about reading Raymond Carver and Tolstoy.

6. I’ll share one of my poems with you because it’s about seizing the day and about Time with a capital T, as in never having enough.

Carpe Something

Before we can sneeze,
it’s another day.
In some accelerated way
it’s now impossible to seize
the day. Instead, let’s seize
things sideways, let’s side-step days,
let’s seize things month-wise.
Let’s give that a try, please.
Or thirty tries. Or thirty-one tries.

And that’s it for my post today. Bits and pieces this time around, while my muscles ache and my creativity recovers.

Who We Write For

I have a very simple post for you today. It’s a scan of a letter written by my grandson to his mother, my daughter. All I want to say about it is that my grandson is like so many kids we write for – whole-hearted, loving, passionate, living in the moment, a little tremulous. Kids throw themselves at their wishes  -large and small – with terrifying force. They’re vulnerable. They’re courageous. They’re scared. They’re willing to work hard for what they want. They dream big, they beg big, and they imagine big. We can’t give a cute black Dutch bunny to everyone who wants one.  After all, some families (like my daughter’s) already have one bird, one dog, and several fish, not to mention wild deer and wild turkeys wandering through their gardens. So no, the bunny might not be ours to give.  But as writers, we can give kids stories. And stories, too, change lives.

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On the Writing of Essays (Don’t Groan)

UKLGSteering

Essays by Ursula Le Guin…

This last week I’ve been reviewing final versions of several lectures I delivered to students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts during the seven years I taught there. Seven years means fourteen semesters, with a few semesters “off duty” when I was excused from delivering a full-blown lecture.

One semester I helped organize a Good vs. Evil Day – Tim Wynne-Jones and I asked students to think about villains and heroes, and about writing characters who were either flawed good guys or appealing bad guys – the theory being that no person is either completely good or completely bad. Villains are more interesting if they see themselves as heroes (in the style of Inspector Jauvert of Les Miserables, who believes that his love of law and order means he is always “keeping watch in the night” against chaos and corruption) and heroes are definitely more interesting if they’re three-dimensional, if they’re good but at the same time flawed or complicated (“The self is always under construction…” says Peter Turchi, and “…the multiplicity of selves is what allows change.” ) Or, as Walt Whitman put it, “I contain multitudes.” Students had fun with that presentation, but it seemed a given – “Deepen your characters” is not exactly new advice – and I didn’t ever consider repeating it.

Katherine Paterson

Essays by Katherine Paterson…

Another semester I worked to put together a workshop (later repeated with students of the regular MFA writing program) about the need for play in works of poetry and fiction, and how artificial “constraints” allow for a game-playing mind-set. We looked at the rules of poetic forms – a sonnet, a villanelle, a sestina, a double abecedarian. Trying to stay “inside the lines” counter-intuitively frees us up, that’s what I was trying to say. We end up producing work that surprises us, and everyone knows that “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” So we played and wrote  responses to “challenges” with devilishly hard constraints (Ever try a “syntax map”? If not, count yourself lucky. Ever translate work without knowing the original language at all?) I had high hopes for that presentation – but it didn’t come together the way I expected it to. If the students had all been writing poetry, it might have worked. But it was hard to convince fiction writers that constraints would improve their fiction. Win some, lose some.

celebrating children's books

Essays by Paula Fox, Jill Paton Walsh, Virginia Hamilton, Susan Cooper, E. L. Konigsburg, Arnold Lobel, Myra Cohn Livingston, David Macaulay….

Most semesters I delivered a straight-forward lecture from a podium. I started my first semester at VCFA with a lecture about poetry, since that was my “specialty.” Later I moved on to a lecture about the need to be a “flaneur” and wander the neighborhood/city/world with every observational skill on the alert, eavesdropping, following people (a la Maira Kalman), taking photos. That lecture was well-received, but I realized I couldn’t ever quite predict what the students were hungry to hear or learn about. My solution to that was to choose my topics based only on whatever interested me at the time. I had just read Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, so the art of the flaneur was what my students got.

One of my most successful lectures – that is, the one students responded to with the most enthusiasm – was about maps in works of fiction. It seemed to me that quite a lot of student work I had been reading had forgotten that stories and the characters who inhabit them take place in real space, and if you don’t give your characters a landscape and a place to stand in that landscape, then they are literally not “grounded.” Students brought maps of the locales in which their stories were unfolding. What a treat! My favorite was a completely black map with “aromas” attached (kind of scratch-and-sniff-ish) because the student’s story involved anthropomorphized insects with great charm and personality and a well-developed sense of smell.  The result of that lecture was published in The Horn Book, though the magazine couldn’t publish the maps I showed on a large screen to students – maps from Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Ramona Quimby’s neighborhood, the 100-acre wood of Winnie-the-Pooh, Narnia. and many others.

I delivered one lecture that I thought would go over like a lead balloon, about the “artful sentence,” because I’d been reading Virginia Tufte’s wonderful book of the same name.

tufte

I pulled examples from the work of M.T. Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavion Nothing, Traitor to the Nation), Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels), and Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street.) I beat my usual drum about how sentences actually have rhythm the way music does; somehow, the students just lit up and loved it. What a surprise that was. If students tripped consistently over a single stumbling block, it was the sound quality of their sentences. I assumed, going in to that lecture, that they weren’t interested. But apparently what I said sparked a little flame.  For beginning writers, so much effort goes into moving forward with plot that the quality of the language gets shoved aside. So I talked about flow and fluidity, and about the effect of hard stresses, and accented syllables that echoed the action itself.

My favorite lecture, though – the one I had the most fun working on and the one that reflected a years-long obsession of my own – was titled “Who Am I? What the Lowly Riddle Reveals.” Students read the packet description and expected “What’s black and white and read all over?” puzzles, and instead I wanted to help them consider metaphorical thinking – the art of understanding sub-surface connections between one thing (an object?)  and another (a state of mind or emotion?) I talked about metaphors being the equivalent of riddles, and about how to keep metaphor-making fresh so that our writing will be exciting. That lecture was later published in Numero Cinq magazine.

My last lecture before retiring was about flash fiction. I was interested, and it was a lot of fun, since it was a plea once again to play with form. But I relied heavily on excerpts from other people’s work, and though the fun showed up, my own imaginative thinking was tamped down.

Just today I sent two of those lectures in, polished up into essay form (drop the jokes, forget the slideshow) for a possible presentation to editors of a book anthologizing craft lectures from the faculty of VCFA. My creative interest really has been in essays lately rather than in stories. I can feel a soft wind pushing my boat that direction.

And here at Books Around the Table I want to encourage readers who feel that same wind to take a look at putting on the hat of an essayist. It’s through essay writing that I learn more and more about writing – by having to articulate a specific aspect of craft, I make myself more aware of what’s at work in not only other people’s writing, but in my own.

a muse and a maze

Next time you read a book of essays about writing (not the how-to kind but the why-to) see how the author is doing what he or she does. What makes it more interesting than a textbook? What might you say about the same topic? I just finished a glorious craft book – absolutely delightful – called A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic by Peter Turchi (author of Maps of the Imagination. ) It’s a perfect model. Read it. Dissect Turchi’s technique. Think about the obsession that drove him to write a whole book about how writing is similar to (but not the same as) the work of a magician like Houdini or a puzzle-maker like Will Shortz. Then think about your own obsessions. What do you want to figure out?

It’s not the essay writing that you had to do in college which, at the time, might have resembled a trip to the dentist – you  groaned and got it done, but it didn’t fill you with pleasure.  Instead, see the art of essay-writing as an opportunity for growth as a creative writer. The research, the re-reading of favorite books (reading to understand how a certain effect is achieved), the organizing of thoughts, the actual writing, all of it is pleasurable now. Something about good old prose is similar to a Shaker chair, if you know what I mean – unfussy, direct, clean, spare, useful, graceful. It’s been good for me. It might be good for you, too.

Even More on Lines, Architectural and Musical

Speaking of lines (Julie Paschkis’s post of two weeks ago and Laura Kvasnosky’s post last week) I’ve been thinking a little about narrative lines (which accumulate into stories) and lyrical lines (which accumulate into poems.) What got me started on all this, in relation to those most recent posts, was this video (if the embedded video doesn’t play, just click here.) I wrote a little about it in my own blog, The Drift Record, last week, but I want to share it here on Books Around the Table:

I have no idea what that song says. But the woman enlivens it in a way that suggests both revelry (the woman’s full-throated delivery, her delight) and sorrow (the waver, the dip at times into a quieter voice, the frown.) Someone told me “It could be a drinking song.” Yes, it could be, though not many drinking songs fall into a minor key.  Could be a love song? Doesn’t feel quite dreamy or tender enough – I don’t hear betrayal or devotion in it.  I watch and listen to it all again and again, to hear her voice, to watch her eyebrows and eyes and smile, to see the way her hands move, to hear the phrasing of the words in combination with the melody.  I let the nonsense (that is, the non-sense of it) into me.

Music (poetic line) vs. Meaning (narrative line.) I like thinking about those terms. They’re a little combative, and the longer I contemplate them, the more sparks they send off.

I have a knee-jerk reaction to poems where I can find no hint of music – meter, rhyme, alliteration, repetition, consonance, assonance, discernible patterns…all those tricky and beautiful tools poets can use to make their work memorable, word by word. My eye scans over a poem looking for them – they can hide! –  and if I don’t find them on first scan, I have to cut the poem some slack in order to like it.  Once in awhile, the slack allows me to discover a poem with a compelling narrative line or a way of looking at the world which is interesting even if non-musical. But usually, the lack of craftsmanship (which is what knowing how to use those tools is all about) leaves me cold. Confess what you want to confess in prose, fine, but if you’re going to write a poem, craft it and let it sing the way the woman in that video sings. Think about structure. Think about melody.

Structure? What’s that have to do with poetry? Certainly both stories and poems have structures. Fiction isn’t built on air, no matter how short (microfiction) or long (oof – 784 pages – The Goldfinch, anyone?) nor is poetry, despite the fact that a poem can feel light as air. Look hard enough (that’s our job as careful readers, and as writers, right?) and you’ll find a structure. But the narrative lines of poetry and fiction seem architectural – they determine, often, whether the story or poem stands or falls. The overriding metaphor when thinking of literature this way is in how relates to physics – what weight will the wall ( the story / the poem) bear before it collapses? Literary work can be mathematical in the same way architecture can be – you want it to stand up.

moving-wall-diagrams

But the words of a poetic line also involve song (fiction sentences not as much, unless readers and critics call it “poetic” writing.) The poetic line involves breath, syllables fall on a musical scale; they involve both meter and patterns of vocalization. The lines of a lyric poem can play out as musical notes, which is why poems and songs so often convey emotion and meaning even if untranslated.

steppe

If I hum that, will I get the tonal register of it…?  Obviously, providing us with meaning and music  is why lines of great poetry remain memorable. But I find it fascinating that a song or a poem can transfix us without any translation provided.  That’s what Archibald MacLeish means in his poem “Ars Poetica,” when he tells us that “a poem should not mean but be.”

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.

Archibald MacLeish

I used to think the last two lines of that poem were non-sensical – they irritated me. But the more I read poetry, the more I can make room for it. Ideally, I’d like a poem to both mean AND be. But I can let go of meaning – I can enjoy the experience of a poem just washing over me or – in the case of that video – filling me up.

By the way if you know what that song says, don’t tell me yet. I’m savoring not knowing!!

On Angels and Hankies and the Plague

IMG_1194Noticing cobblestones – the wonderful patterns, a few stones missing….

When I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to begin their semester with me by telling me where their attention had come to rest recently. This usually produced blank stares, and I had to further explain: I was asking them to tell me what turned their heads, what had they been looking at and noticing recently, what pulled at them so hard that they couldn’t walk past it, what bit of information had come in randomly which they couldn’t let go of, what compelled them to pause and wonder, what made them investigate further.

IMG_1548Began noticing clouds, began looking up photos of terrifying clouds.

I didn’t want anything philosophical, at least not at the surface level, and I didn’t want to hear about anything they were using for a current creative project. I just wanted to hear about physical objects or facts about the real world – where their “attention came to rest” that had little to do with anything else they were involved with. This would help me as a teacher, not only to see how well they could articulate their quirks and idiosyncrasies (and tangentially, to see if they could handle prose) but to open up a conversation about obsessions – my having come to the conclusion early on that artists are, in general, obsessive about unusual things.

IMG_0878  Began to collect old photos of long-gone orchards.

Cherry Orchard, San JoseSigh. Another ghost orchard.

I also thought that once students noticed what they were noticing, they would begin to see patterns emerge, and patterns could tell them a lot about who they were as artists in the world.

IMG_1038Patterns everywhere, even in stacks of firewood…

If my students remained confused, I offered examples of my own: I once bought an old postcard of handkerchiefs in a store window. I found the postcard at a Paper Ephemera fair and couldn’t put it down. A whole storefront window full of handkerchiefs on display: so unusual, so marvelous! Even thinking of it now fills me with pleasure. That was something I could not just “walk past” – I bought that postcard.

Another example: the Plague.

Black DeathThe Plague – I couldn’t get enough of it. The more gruesome, the better.

I developed a fascination with the Black Death  – how it spread across Europe in the 14th century. I had a whole stack of books checked out of the library. I looked up primary documents from the time, I researched art work – simple woodcuts sometimes, or complicated images of it in religious iconography and architectural decoration. My obsession with it was feverish – I needed to learn more about something horrible and mysterious, something that I had only a marginal interest in until it suddenly grabbed hold of me and would not let go.

IMG_1127Shiny jars and lids turned my head…

That kind of thing – that was what I was asking students about. Once explained, the writing exercise took off – most students provided me with fine descriptions of all kinds of unusual things, and they were glad to be reflecting on the question. But for some students – quite a few more than I anticipated – even the explanation and the examples were not enough.

IMG_1164as did a small man on a large vase…

It seemed impossible to me that they were not stopped in their tracks by anything – that their unique perspective on gazing (from which place “voice” comes) never made them catch their breath and STOP. So I looked for a more plausible explanation: was it possible that they were unaware of what caught and held them – were they not paying attention to what they paid attention to?

IMG_1185and the twenty days of the Zapotec calendar: crocodile, lightning, shredded meat, deer, water, knot, monkey, loofah, heart, cornstalk, eye, thunder, humid, drip, lord…plus a few question marks.

I think that’s dangerous territory for someone who wants to write – a lack of attention to your own physical responses to the things of this world, and an inability to list (inarticulate as that list might prove to be) what you’ve been noticing.

IMG_1229Couldn’t get enough of this camel, either. Especially those lips. Looked up “camel” in the encyclopedia.  Lots to know.

The photos I’m inserting into this post are of things that caught and held my attention this year. I might not be able to articulate the “why” behind my fascination – sometimes it seems to be a simple aesthetic response, sometimes my gaze turns to an object at an instinctive level, sometimes it’s quite clearly intellectual. But I do like to try to ponder the puzzle of what caught me in the first place.

IMG_1343Looked up “fireflies,” too.

If you haven’t been noticing what you notice, try taking a simple digital camera with you (or use the camera on your phone)  whenever you go out, and make a record of anything that turns your head and makes you pause.

IMG_1582Patterns, even in popsicles.

Reflect on it, think through what the fascination is. With those handkerchiefs, so beautifully displayed in that vintage photo, the effect was one of tremendous grace, similar to the effect on me recently of an organ played in the great cathedral of Mexico City.  Angels sang, and up the song rose, up into the domed ceiling, echoing around, filling me up.

IMG_1898What is it about watercolor paint tins? So messy. So gorgeous.

That sounds absurd. Or maybe not. Maybe someday that window full of hankies will make their way into a poem. For now, I’m only grateful for getting swept off my feet by that photo. Linen hankies – a whole huge window full. Angels sang.

Window Display - HankiesAbraham & Straus Department Store, Brooklyn, circa 1895.

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It’s Poetry Friday again, and I have some thoughts about wandering and coming home (as a follow-up to my post here on August 29th about a planned trip to Oaxaca) plus a favorite poem by Nelson Bentley, over at The Drift Record today.  To head over there, click here.

Writing with All Six Senses

photoEscudo_Tianguis_de_Tlacolula_Tlacolula_Header

In just a few days my husband and I leave home once again for Oaxaca, having visited just last year and decided it’s the kind of place we want to spend more time. Slow time, slow food, slow reading, slow walking…time to slow down in general. Oaxaca has many plazas with many benches – great places for slow listening (to very fast music, sometimes) and quiet watching. Last year we had just over a week at a nice B&B, and we experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations; this time around, we’re renting an apartment of our own (with kitchen!) and staying for a month, outside the real tourist season in order to get a better feel for what the town is like for the locals. When we go to the market now and see all that delicious fresh fruit, bread, vegetables – we can buy what we want and cook it up back at the apartment. Time to give different moles a try.

A friend asked me whether I would be doing any writing while in Oaxaca, and I wasn’t sure what to answer – yes, no, maybe? One thing I do know: I’m going to open myself, Diane Ackerman-style, to all the sensory input I can – sights, smells, textures, sounds and tastes (especially tastes – yes!)

Sights – the colors in the markets: flowers, fruit, vegetables, bread…

marchande_de_fleurs_a_oaxaca

fruit market

market021Oaxaca-Bread-01

 and the spectacular sky, whether stormy or bright…like this view from Monte Alban…

Mount-Ablan-Oaxaca-Mexico14-1024x685

 Smells – a cup of hot champurrado, especially sipped from a clay or greenware cup made in Atzompa (close your eyes and think steaming milk, corn flour, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, anise seed, plus the wet ceramic smell of the cup) and the ripe guavas in the markets(so sweet and pervasive, it can make you giddy)…

Oaxacas hot-chocolate

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Textures – the soft cotton weavings, the hard rock walls, the delicate petals of a squash blossom…

huipiles

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squash-blossoms3

Tastes – so many! Moles of every color (coloradito, negro, verde, chichilo, amarillo  – here’s a recipe from Rick Bayless), tlayudas, tamales, jugos, pan dulce, pipian, and tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes…

7-moles-8 

MexicoMainlandOaxacaFoodMoles

tlayudajugos

 Sounds – birds in the trees, danzon music at the Zocalo every Wednesday

Watch this wonderful video of a midnight concert in Tlacochahuaya

and this video of the amazing organ in the church there)….

organ

Seems to me that writing which is not grounded in the senses is writing that becomes slack, abstract and dull. So I’ll let my five senses push me to write in Oaxaca. Plus one more: the sense of wonder. Can’t write without that.

Maybe I’ll be able to put those six senses together on a metate and work them, work them, work them…into a story.

metate