November 26, 2018

Six Posts I Didn't Write & Alex Guarnaschelli







I was going to tell you about being in Oxford, Mississippi, for the annual SFA symposium to launch Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. I was going to tell you about how Monique Truong rocks a lecture like no other. I was going to tell you about a meal inspired by the work of Zora Neale Hurston--Tabasco-braised pulled rabbit, collards with pork tails, whole roasted whitefish--courtesy Chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia. I was going to tell you about being brought to tears by the unexpected kindness of SFA staff conspiring with John Currence & City Grocery restaurant crew to make sure I could try the food being served, amidst the allergy minefield of creative catering for 200+ people. I was going to tell you about getting to read poems alongside Kevin Young, and recording for the Vinegar and Char-themed GRAVY podcast, seeing old haunts and old friends, buying a Blair Hobbs painting, and stealing an extra day to go buy records at The End of All Music






I was going to tell you about "Showrunner," one of my favorite in-class exercises that I've developed for teaching Writers in Print and Person at American University. This small-group project solves two problems at once--how to facilitate discussion of prose when students are midway through the book (in this case, Leslie Pietrzyk's terrific novel Silver Girl), and how to help students experience a variation on the agency of the writing process. We move the novel or nonfiction work to the medium of television and, from there, they pitch me the show they would create: from genre and format--to theme song--to casting, to key scenes, to cliffhangers. I love hearing the excitement in the students' voices as they collaborate and even bicker about the decisions to be made. The only challenge is having to calibrate my knowledge to their era of pop-culture references (having to remember on the fly, for example, how to spell "Cara Delevingne").

I was going to tell you about going to North Carolina for the West End Poetry Festival--where the Carrboro Poets Council partners with the town to produce four days of reading upon reading upon reading, inclusive of all styles and topics. (A 12-person council that hangs out in someone's living room once a month, and is trusted and given the resources to organize. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could so easily facilitate the DC government's relationship to poetry and the arts? Ahem.) I got to talk about poetry of food, I got to hear Ruth Awad, the Chief of Police volunteered to be on-site monitor so we could drink wine in the Century Center, and signs that would usually direct traffic instead directed "Slow Down for Poetry."  I was going to tell you about helping someone write an ode to barbecue, and watching that same gentleman (husband to our hosting Poets Council member) run the toy trains in the garage-loft where we'd been staying. I was going to tell you about buying hatch chiles and okra from the Farmer's Market. 

I was going to tell you about getting the best brunch of my recent memory at Crook's Corner on our way out of town. The one thing I was really hoping to have was black-eyed peas, and they delivered. With a side of bacon. Chef Bill Smith, who I'd met at the SFA symposium in Oxford, "saw" I was in the dining room courtesy of Twitter and, from afar, sent out a spicy sorbet. (Yes, that's what I meant to write--a spicy sorbet. He is generous enough to publicize the recipe, which you can find here: water, sugar, OJ, zest, and Red Hots. Legit.)





I was going to tell you that I then headed to Delaware's Seashore State Park, and for three nights shacked up in a cabin by the Indian River with Leslie, workshopping with eleven poets while she workshopped with eleven prose writers. The boats harbored in the marina rocked and squealed. We had morning seminars on topics such as working from autobiography, giving a good reading, and radical revision. We finished with an open mic. The students gave us each a brown paper bag full of thank-you notes. I was going to tell you that I made time for walking on the beach barefoot. 







I was going to tell you that I drove straight from Delaware to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I spent a very rainy but wonderful day and a half at Dickinson College. The last time I was in Carlisle was years ago, when my father was at the War College. My primary host was Adrienne Su, who I would choose to have lunches with every week--smart, funny, kind, and ridiculously talented at wielding the traditions of poetry. People like Adrienne are why people opt for jobs with colleagues. There was a cat in residence at the roadside farm en route, where I bought fresh cider and purple cauliflower and local mushrooms, and a cat in residence at Whistestop Bookshop. For good measure, I bought a copy of Doris Lessing's On Cats.  I also encountered no less than five horses (with Amish buggies) on the roads of rural Pennsylvania, but I couldn't stop the car to get a proper photograph. 




After my last classroom visit, I should have gotten on the road to drive home. But instead I improvised a two-hour detour into The ClothesVine. After eight years of being on the road more than I'd ever imagined, my wardrobe is tired. And too damn tight. I'm banishing a certain size pants. I'm investing in huge, soft sweaters. 

I wish I didn't feel insecure about that. I wish each new expenditure didn't feel like paying tax on lack of discipline. I have traveled thousands on thousands of miles since 2010. I've tested out myself as a teacher. I've written a books, with another in the hands of the editor right now, and edited an anthology. Am I going to romanticize back when the menu consisted of orange juice, twelve almonds, a banana, five Triscuits, another five Triscuits, spinach, tomatoes, one whole avocado, and maybe french fries, if craving something hot?

This brings me to Alex Guarnaschelli. Nothing particularly epic, except the realization that I find it tremendously soothing to watch talented female chefs like Guarnaschelli (or Amanda Freitag, pictured here as her competitor on "Next Iron Chef") do their thing. There's a centering here. There's palpable bad-ass-ery. If there is a distillation of my 2019 goals, it's to be found somewhere in this generous, stylish confidence.



I'm going to tell you that new red shoes were a gift worth giving to myself.


I'm going to tell you that even though chefs took great care of me while on the road, it feels good to cook from scratch again. 


I am also going to tell you that cooking is complicated by the revelation that my ten-year-old cat has a new proclivity for jumping on countertops. 



Pableaux Johnson took my photo in Oxford. I look a little older than the girl in the upper-right of this blog design. But I think I look a little more accomplished, too. 


October 07, 2018

Holding Space


English artist Rachel Whiteread uses plaster, rubber, and resin to cast spaces we take for granted--doors and bathtubs; the inside of hot water bottles; the undersides of chairs; the cardboard spools for toilet paper. She was the first woman to win the Turner Prize, in 1993, after casting a whole house that had been scheduled for demolition. Although I've recognized her work at various museums over the years, the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art provides a whole new level of breadth and context. If you come to DC between now and January 2019, be sure and visit. 



I've been waking up with my jaw already clenched, too many days in a row, in dread of each day's news. Sometimes fantastic things happen--the MacArthur "genius" grant recipients for this year include Natalie Diaz and Kelly Link--and sometimes someone shows me a video of a basket of baby sloths or a baby flamingo taking its first steps, and sometimes it's just enough to be in the same space as a friend, laughing. Sometimes solace lasts for the length of a poem. But all is a bulwark against the sense that our checks and balances no longer operate as they should. Perhaps they never did. The calls of "Remember on November 6!" ring a bit hollow when you're a resident of Washington, D.C.--almost 700,000 of us, and not one seat in the Senate. Imagine how differently the last few weeks might have gone, had we had voting representation.

Teju Cole visited American University this past week. My undergraduate students for "Writers in Print and Person" read Blind Spotphotographs juxtaposed with flash nonfiction texts. The book is physically gorgeous as an artifact and gave us means to discuss Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, "studium" and "punctum." Barthes developed this vocabulary to talk primarily about portraiture; in moving the approach to landscape photography, which Cole does--and largely devoid of people's faces--I'd argue that the explicit text teases a "punctum" to the surface that would otherwise stay invisible, but inherent to the impulse of the photographer. His lecture did the thing great art does, selfishly, which was that it made me want to hole up and think and write. 



Photographs had already been on my mind the weekend before, when my sister and I drove to Kinmundy, Illinois, for my grandmother's memorial service. We went to Evergreen Cemetery, walked through one of my grandfather's childhood homes, had lunch at the Methodist church, and looked through the historical society's archives of photographs and newspapers. We stayed in Salem, the closest nearby town with a hotel. The Pruetts are prevalent in the history of Kinmundy's thriving days, though my grandmother, seems important to note, was a Kepley by birth. We took a couple of hours to drive to nearby Louisville, searching out the cemetery where her parents were buried. However many years ago, it was probably my grandmother's hand that tipped the American flag within the framing of her father's mausoleum plot. Widowed early, remarried, my great-grandmother (and namesake) was laid to rest with her family, the Farrells. We left the last of the morning's red roses with their graves. Since the high school's homecoming weekend had crowded most of the restaurants that night, we went to the parking-lot Denny's for dinner. I ordered a bourbon-chicken-vegetable skillet thing and watched a table of teenage girls fuss with their corsages and sparkly dresses. 

The photograph I want is the one I don't have: a shot from behind of my mother, sitting in line with her brother and sister, facing the arrangement of my grandmother's ashes prior to the beginning of the service, and beyond them the cornfields that line the cemetery. We sat two rows behind and I thought I should capture this moment, these three siblings, but then I wasn't sure about camera etiquette at a funeral. Family sat down in the row between us and the moment was gone. I captured the moment after instead, as my aunt stood to face us and speak. Maybe Roland Barthes would say that the true punctum is in this second image, this motion, imperfect as it may be. 

September 19, 2018

Still Digging After All These Years


On Friday (September 14), I was gathered with a whole lot of DC-area folks at the downtown arena to hear Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" farewell tour. He was great. The opening reworking of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" had a haphazard rhythm that had me a little worried, but it turned out to just be a huge spread of musicians--including a self-contained chamber group, yMusic--getting used to the stage and to each other. Their collaboration on a reworking of "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War," which is on the new In the Blue Light album, was a highlight, as was all the Graceland material. Simon's vocals were by turns jaunty and weightless. We were on the floor, and it took real effort to train my eyes on the actual person versus the projected scene (compare the concert pic tableau on the left, above, to the detail of the actual Paul Simon below). 


In high school, I listened to "American Tune" over and over again--hitting the rewind button on my Walkman--but I never expected to hear Paul Simon sing it live. When he began, "Many's the time I've been mistaken, / and many times confused..." we had already been on our feet for the encore, and with eyes closed I didn't realize everyone around us had sat down. My husband had to tug on the back of my shirt. I'd be tempted to use a line from that song as an epigraph--for this very poetry collection in hand--but Stephen King got there first; he quotes "American Tune" at a section break in The Stand. 

All of which is to say that a month has passed since the last post. I'm weaning myself off daily listenings to the Hamilton soundtrack (which we saw on August 9; this was a good summer for tickets). I've left VCCA to return to our sweet little two-bedroom and the kitty, who is scowling at me lovingly as I type this. Whisky has discovered the glories of shredded chicken, and now expects to be fed a packet of it each morning and evening, which is going turn into an expensive habit. But given that only a couple of years ago I was agonizing over the very real possibility that she'd starve to death, I'll take it. 

Looming, humid skies and Flo-influenced rain have mostly kept the lid on any dramatic transition to autumn. But I'm working with U of Tampa MFA students on their thesis projects, and I've introduced American University undergrads to the first two of the six authors they'll get to meet this fall. Tonight we'll talk about Fatimah Ashgar's work in tandem with her visit to AU. So I suppose it's officially back-to-school time. I bought new pens (Pilot G2, .38 "fine" point). I changed out umbrellas. 


I'll miss out on going back to high school, though; my 20-year reunion for TJHSST is in October, but I'll be down in Oxford, Mississippi to launch Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. That's a fair trade--the symposium is chock-full of amazing programming, and I'm so excited for this book to come into the world--but I'm sorry to miss seeing folks. Two decades out is when you kind of forget whatever boundary lines existed before. You're just happy to see anyone and everyone in their current incarnations. 

Early this morning, I was thinking about how the utility of blogging has changed a little bit since we first began this process. If I want to tell you about my upcoming reading with Emily Jungmin Yoon and Lindsay Bernal (this Saturday! East City Book Shop, 9/22, 5 PM) or share my excitement about receiving a 2018 "Best of the Net" nomination from Split This Rock for "Customer Service Is," I'll probably use other forms of social media to do so. If I want to blunder my way through a draft of a poem or essay, I'll keep it offline to preserve the publishing options. So this space becomes a space for...what, exactly? But this blog can host thoughts that fill larger spaces than 200-odd characters or a link + hashtag, for sure. Maybe open-ended grist for discussion, like Iggy Pop (circa 1980) telling Tom Snyder about the difference between "Dionysian" and "Apollonian" art. I got to this snippet via thinking about Paul Simon--who a commenter argued was of the "Apollonian" school. I suspect I am too, though I'd like to think I'm capable of raising a little hell on stage now and again. 





August 19, 2018

Back to VCCA


I'm happy to hide out at Virginia Center for Creative Arts in these waning days of summer. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was how green it smells--I love DC, but you don't get layers of flower, grass, and pine, nor so many butterflies. A frog that lurks outside my studio. There's a magnificent spider that I'm pretty sure is a brown widow, not a black one. I'm staying clear just in case. 


Because this is my fourth time here, it's easier to slip into a rhythm: I enjoy being social at breakfast or at lunch but not both. I knew to bring my own orange juice, my own blanket, and a bottle of scotch. I'm trying to spend only an hour a day on email, isolated to the leather couch in the living room. I've got a stack of books and lit mags to devour, and W8 has a comfy reclining chair. I'm happy to see a number of friends listed as past occupants. 






The first night I arrived (9 PM, after stopping off for dinner in Charlottesville), everything was absolutely dead quiet. I worried I'd be the only night-owl. Turned out everyone was just over at the Amherst County Fair, the first time they've had one here in over forty years. The next night, we adventured to the lake on Sweet Briar's campus to see a fellow's installation art (a prototype); another fellow read a story he'd written while here, and a third opened up her studio for an impromptu look at her paintings. 








This, I thought. I've missed this. Although I've traveled quite a bit for poetry since I was last at VCCA, there's nothing like being here. Then, last night, I headed over to the fair. 







I wish I could say this time is all about recharging creative energy. I have over 1,500 pages to evaluate (literally) of work not mine, some of which requires line edits. Yet this is also my chance to push-pin the pages of the fourth collection to the walls, and live amongst them. There's a distinct type of edit that gets done when I look at pages casually, skipping around, and compare adjacent shapes of poems. I catch redundancies of phrase I did not see before. 







I'm still deciding three sections or four, and which poem will close the manuscript. But my resolve holds: this book is a book. I'm excited to tell you more about it soon.