November 30, 2019

Odd & Ends & Giblets

Remember when a blog post would just be a round-up of whatever one happened to be experiencing at the moment? I miss those "everything and the kitchen sink" posts. They're a big part of why I still feel so close to a cohort of poets who came up together, posting to blogs en route to their first and second books, in the mid-2000s. So here are the odds, the ends, and (as a nod to the holiday) the giblets. 


Mayor Bowser has forged a truce with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in regards to the Art Bank. But it remains to be seen if the newly minted "Creative Affairs Office" will try to take up what has traditionally been DCCAH responsibilities, and DC is approaching the end of 2019 with still no poet laureate. That makes me sad. 


Our Thanksgiving break started off with a drive as far as Savannah, stopping off with my husband's old friends--a photographer and a plant designer who does work for Mashama Bailey. We had good food at The Grey Market, the chef's new lunch-counter spot, which serves okra-tomato stew and hand-bottled Bloody Marys. We bought a pack of Benton's bacon to fix in Jacksonville, and a bag of Sea Island red peas for a January 1 hoppin' John.

Our week on Amelia Island has been quiet. A long walk by the sea, during which we found four perfectly whole sand dollars. A day trip to see Jacksonville's museums, the MOCA collection and the Cummer, which had a special exhibition of Tiffany glass. Thanksgiving with four generations of Taylors. A trip to Fernandina Beach, which included taking a chance on a junk shop that turned out to have a treasure trove of stuff--including unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards, circa 1987, complete with the stick of gum inside. We sat down to the bar of Peppers and ordered a round of mezcal just in time to see UVA beat VA Tech in a reasonably epic football game. Then we walked down to the water and watched the pelicans feed off the scraps cast off by fisherman, cleaning their day's catch. 


This is the most intense academic fall of my past five years, which is saying something: I've taught in five different spaces in the past three months. But the method behind that madness is always being open to new modes, new audiences. The dark horse that turned out to be a delight was a four-week online course for 24 Pearl Street, which drew on my growing interest in "Essaying in Unconventional Forms"; they use a Blogger platform not unlike this one. The quality of the student work and the ability to organize my time caused me to turn around and immediately pitch a class for the new year. This one will be "Mapping Your Memoir from Start to Finish," and it'll run for eight weeks rather than four. The details are here. I'm really excited about it.


I need a new official author photo. I'm not wearing an engagement or wedding ring in the one that gets used now, taken in 2011, which Milly West was kind enough to grant permission for me to use in tandem with publishing Count the Waves in 2015. I hadn't met my future husband yet; you can't tell by looking at the photo, but I can. I'm ready for a photo that shows off the silver streak in my hair. 


Will we ever go somewhere "on vacation" that isn't tied to a residency or a conference? That's a legitimate question for a two-artist household with no kids. I'm used to working, even when the ostensible mission is to relax, and on a family trip like this one that transforms into cooking dinners for all. So far I've made a pearled couscous pilaf, several salads, fruit curry, and posole verde with tons of green pepper, savoy cabbage, and cilantro, plus a side of black beans with radish greens. My prep generates far too many bowls to be cleaned, a glut of mise en place, but I'm soothed by the process of chopping and sorting. Fortunately my in-laws seem to enjoy the results, and they're patient when a pot of broth unexpectedly takes an extra twenty minutes to come to a boil. In anticipation of making posole, we packed a can of hominy from home, but I'd forgotten just how many ingredients there were to be assembled. My husband saved the day when he found tomatillos at a local supermarket. 


My friend Leslie Holt makes amazing art centered on disability, and she just opened an online shop to support her "Neuro Blooms" project. Check it out here. 

A few years back, I met someone whose profession involved maximizing impact across social media platforms. He'd taken a particular interest in poets and so when I introduced myself, he immediately observed, familiar with my handles--oh, yeah, you're a "burst" person. Apparently that refers to my tendency to post to Twitter seven times in one day, but then go quiet for two weeks; or the way that I post long, substantive posts to this blog of unique content, but I only post them once a month. I suspect that's one of the patterns where return on investment is lowest, but it's what feels right (or at least necessary) for now. 


John Churchill has passed away. He was my first boss, and he seemed eternally youthful. Not the most auspicious "how I got my first job story," but: I turned up to my spring 2002 Phi Beta Kappa induction at the University of Virginia an hour late, because the clocks had spring forward that morning. John, the newly minted Secretary of national headquarters, was making the rounds to every chapter in the country to lead ceremonies in person. I was so apoplectic with apology that I offered to volunteer time to PBK in the coming year, when I'd be back at home and attending graduate school at American University. I knew they'd just begun offering a poetry award, and I thought they might need help running it. 

That turned into an internship, which became the job of Awards Administrator--not just the poetry award, soon defunct, but book awards for writing about humanities, sciences, and literary criticism; a fellowship in philosophy; a scholarship in Greek studies. When John's executive assistant was on maternity leave, I sat at her desk. When the PBK Senate met, I took elaborate meeting minutes that were later, he told me, entirely too editorial for public use (though greatly entertaining on initial read). He modeled a genuine love for the liberal arts that was inspiring, and he made sure The American Scholar got the funding it needed. He was a gentle soul with a big laugh. Nonprofits are odd, often highly stratified places to work, where the shadow of fundraising needs looms constantly. Later, I'd look back and realize that creating a humane environment, under those circumstances, was no small feat. 

My MFA program's literary journalism class required an extensive interview-turned-profile. I asked John to sit and talk with me, which he did, his Arkansas drawl unfurling over a Bass ale that he nursed for two hours. My questions were...boring, polite, perhaps overly mindful that he was my boss. I wish I could re-do that interview. I'd ask about traveling to Oxford. I'd ask how to make great pickled okra. 


In Fernandina Beach, we took a place on a junk shop that turned out to have box after box of sealed collectible cards from the 1980s and 1990s. I couldn't resist a pack of Garbage Pail Kids. I carefully pried open the wax packet, originally priced at 25 cents, complete with stick of gum. They are just as beautifully horrible as I remembered. 

October 31, 2019

World Series Champions

My Dad and I have been going to baseball games together for a long time. Long enough that my early memories are of driving up to Baltimore, parking on the other side of the train tracks and walking to Camden Yards, and coming back to find the pennies we'd left smushed by the passing trains. I saw three Ripkens on the field at once. I was there when Cal tied Lou Gehrig's streak of playing in 2,130 games straight. 

When the Nationals first came around in 2005, I didn't know how to calibrate my loyalties. They won me over one game at a time--even the ones they lost. My husband and I watched forlorn in a Memphis bar, surrounded by cheering Redbird fans, as the Cardinals took Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

In 2015, when we moved to Southwest, going to a game became a quick walk over to the stadium. Baseball became embedded in the texture of getting to know our new neighborhood. Sometimes I headed over for just a few sunny innings, and sometimes I settled in for the long haul on a breezy night. Ryan Zimmerman! Denard Span! Gio González! Wilson Ramos! Even Jason Werth, who wears the beard of an artisanal soap-maker! Max Scherzer seemed to ignite us. I'd never seen so many strikeouts. The day my husband took his friend to see a game, Max pitched a no-hitter. 

All of this is to say: I love baseball. I love baseball for the very specific place it holds in the otherwise relentless life of someone who is not very good at slowing down or relaxing. I love the indulgence of getting a beer and french fries with barbecue sauce. I love the talking with my dad or the not-talking. I love singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I love that Anthony Rendon sits on our liquor shelf in a garden-gnome incarnation. I love the season seats we've had for some years now in Section 314, and their view of the field. I love that we're a dorky city with a (slightly) dorky team that runs the presidents midway through the fourth inning. When I think of moving, it's one of the utterly irreplaceable things that has kept me in DC. 

When my dad surprised me with the news that he'd been able to snag tickets for Game 3 of the National League Championship, I didn't know what say other than "Yes yes yes thank you yes." We raised our rally towels high. And when Zimmerman, our guy since 2005 (and in many ways, before that, since he's of UVA and Virginia-Beach born), hit a home run in his first at-bat of the World Series, the first home run for any National in the Series, it felt (for the briefest of moments) like all was right and just in the universe. 

Watching Games 3, 4, and 5 from the road was agonizing--I was in Mississippi, my dad was in Hawaii. One loss, we could handle; two we got nervous. Then having to pull Scherzer took the wind out of us. But Game 6 fanned a spark of hope. Not knowing whether we'd win or lose, I shared this poem with my students at American University last night~


for John Limon

The game of baseball is not a metaphor   
and I know it’s not really life.   
The chalky green diamond, the lovely   
dusty brown lanes I see from airplanes   
multiplying around the cities   
are only neat playing fields.   
Their structure is not the frame   
of history carved out of forest,   
that is not what I see on my ascent.

And down in the stadium,
the veteran catcher guiding the young   
pitcher through the innings, the line   
of concentration between them,   
that delicate filament is not   
like the way you are helping me,   
only it reminds me when I strain   
for analogies, the way a rookie strains   
for perfection, and the veteran,   
in his wisdom, seems to promise it,   
it glows from his upheld glove,

and the man in front of me
in the grandstand, drinking banana   
daiquiris from a thermos,
continuing through a whole dinner
to the aromatic cigar even as our team
is shut out, nearly hitless, he is
not like the farmer that Auden speaks   
of in Breughel’s Icarus,
or the four inevitable woman-hating   
drunkards, yelling, hugging
each other and moving up and down   
continuously for more beer

and the young wife trying to understand   
what a full count could be
to please her husband happy in   
his old dreams, or the little boy
in the Yankees cap already nodding   
off to sleep against his father,
program and popcorn memories   
sliding into the future,
and the old woman from Lincoln, Maine,   
screaming at the Yankee slugger   
with wounded knees to break his leg

this is not a microcosm,   
not even a slice of life

and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously   
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician all last month,   
or the days when our guys look
like Sennett cops, slipping, bumping   
each other, then suddenly, the play
that wasn’t humanly possible, the Kid   
we know isn’t ready for the big leagues,   
leaps into the air to catch a ball
that should have gone downtown,   
and coming off the field is hugged   
and bottom-slapped by the sudden   
sorcerers, the winning team

the question of what makes a man   
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t   
like the bad luck that hounds us,   
and his frustration in the games   
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

the ball park is an artifact,
manicured, safe, “scene in an Easter egg,”   
and the order of the ball game,   
the firm structure with the mystery   
of accidents always contained,   
not the wild field we wander in,   
where I’m trying to recite the rules,   
to repeat the statistics of the game,
and the wind keeps carrying my words away.

~Gail Mazur

In class, we discussed apophasis, the ancient rhetorical technique with which Mazur convinces us of the very thing she's denying: "this is not a microcosm, / not even a slice of life...." But it is, of course. Right down to the slumps and those left stranded on base. I walked out of Kerwin Hall just as the first pitch of Game 7 was being thrown, and I drove home as fast as I could, listening anxiously on the radio as the Astros homered. We reheated the Ethiopian take-out that I'd gotten on campus and settled in.

My team won. We won a series no one expected us to win, a series that one that no one even expected us to be in, and we won in an incredible & improbable four games on the road. We won after a May low of being 19-31, 12 games below .500. We stayed in the fight, and we baby sharked our way through our embarrassment, and we hustled the bases, and we danced--yes, even Stephen Strasburg--and here we are. And dammit it, that's a slice of the life I'm here for. What a beautiful game.