May 30, 2006

HardScrabble Life

"Hardscrabble" was the name that Ulysses S. Grant gave to his first homestead as a married man. That random fact aside, the last few days have included a little family time, a little poetry, and a lot of Scrabble. There's been a recent and welcome explosion of gaming with the boy (over bourbon) and my grandmother (over red wine). It's been far too long since I got to play regularly...The colony at VCCA had a Scrabble board, but 9 times out of 10 the visual artists would balk at playing with the writers. Apparently we took it way too seriously. (Look, seven letter words are a serious business.) Oddly enough, there was no such Pictionary embargo against the visual artists.

May 25, 2006

Damn the Ellipses, Full Speed Ahead

I spent Tuesday in a day-long seminar on disproportionate enjoyment of this kind of pedantry assures me that yep, I am meant to be in this writing business. Plural possessives! Initialisms versus acronyms! (Which was new to me, oddly, despite a military background.) Restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses! Hyphens and n-dashes and m-dashes, oh my.

Imagine the Hotel Monaco ballroom filled with 80 editors sipping a lot of coffee and giggling over this example of poor comma placement: "I'd like to thank my parents, Jesus and Ayn Rand."

During my lunch break I slipped away to Sushi-Go-Round in Chinatown. It's an odd variant on "fast food" where the sushi chefs continually fix dishes (2 pcs nigiri, 3 pcs maki, a scoop of seaweed salad) that are then sent out on a rotating counter the length of the room. The dishes are color-coded for price ($2 for spicy tuna, $4 for octopus nigiri), and you grab what you want to assemble a meal. Reminds me of picking plastic ducks out of a carnival pool, where the color of their bellies determined your prize. I suppose not-contracting salmonella is a good start, as prizes go.

Just in case you were wondering: It is the theory of the Editor of Copy Editor (and I tend to agree) that in the long run, "they" will become an acceptable way to refer back to the singular antecedents of "he or she." There is simply no singular general-neutral pronoun in American English, and the language is going to fill that hole whether we like it or not. We wince at it now because we're right in the middle of the transition--but Britain changed over long ago. After all, once upon a time we gave up "thou" for the singular "you," didn't we?

Last night: the Riverby Books reading series "A Space Inside," hosted by the lovely Miss Monica Jacobe, and starring another favorite, up-and-coming DC fiction writer Alex MacLennan. Alex has been all over the place lately, thanks to the fresh talent evident in THE ZOOKEEPER. His very fetching author headshot doesn't hurt either. Alyson Books did a great job with cover design, though the transformation of "Laurel," a main character, to "Lauren"--as misspelled on the back-- was a bit of a blow. Alex has taken it in stride. Back in yonder days, he was my Fiction Editor at Folio, so I'll get to say I Knew Him When. It's a fantastic reading series--the bookstore is an unknown treasure, authors pace themselves well, and there's plenty of wine and hobnobbing afterwards. Check it out in June, when the reader is friend and poet Natalie Illum.

May 22, 2006

Bees, Busboys, Burning Rubber

A somewhat sublime writing group on Sunday. The trains ran on time, everyone got substantive feedback, and the poems were good to begin with. What I gain from these sessions is not so much line edits, but finding out what major narrative/relationship details I just assumed were implicit in the poem turn out...not to be. It can be frustrating to sit in silence while your fellow poets workshop all the things the poem might be about (an old teacher called these "Killer Bee discussions"). But better to suck it up and clarify now, in the draft stages, before the poem is out fending for itself in the world.

After workshop I dashed down to Busboys and Poets for the launch of Tigertail, edited by Richard Blanco. Unfortunately I missed hearing my friend Deb Ager (damn alphabetical order!), but it was an all-star lineup, enjoyable nonetheless. Josh Weiner's long poem skewering the intersection of (racialized) politics and (little league) baseball was a true paean to D.C. "Play that funky music, white boy," he intoned. "Play that funky music."

Deb has a minor thread going on on her 32 Poems blog about "careerism" in poetry. I do think being career-minded and outgoing (yes, even "networking") in poetry gets a bad rap: more than once I've encountered the cult of moaning "oh, I never get around to sending out work..." or, worse yet, the poets that do send furiously to first book contests, yet never support small presses by buying contemporary poetry books. It's crucial, I think, that we take responsibility to vitalize and create our own poetry community--to communicate (yes, at places like AWP and colonies), to send congrats when they are due, to recommend poets to each other, to make it out to readings. And the funny thing is, when you do that, sending out is so much less intimidating. Really.

There is a flip side to "careerism" though, that causes me hesitation. It is easy, when navigating the social spaces of poetry, to get in the habit of automatically praising the work of friends/peers without really stopping to listen, deeply, and evaluate. If incestuous praise runs rampant, everyone's work suffers; the aesthetic settles, grows stale. I think we owe it to ourselves, as poets, to really think about what we admire on an aesthetics level--and to seek it out and specifically promote it, in fellow poets and our own work. I am not advocating this to the exclusion of other styles or schools, mind you--I rarely write "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" or Flarf poems, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a really fine example of the style when I see one. I just think a distinction ought to be made between those we respect for their contributions to the poetry community, and those we admire as poets. And if one person merits both praises, all the better.

My office is near the National Zoo here in D.C., and occasionally we can hear the more piercing animal sounds--especially hyenas. A motorcycle just burned rubber outside my building, but what my ear heard was: elephant. Ooooh! Elephant! And I instinctively scurried over to the window to look. For an elephant. On Connecticut Avenue.

There are worse problems to have in life.

May 18, 2006

Fear of Commitment

So, this blog thing...exists. Nagging at me, begging to be pulled and prodded. Somewhere in between a hangnail and a tumor on the scale of potency. Ideally less harmful than either one. Am I ready for the love affair with the virtual world that is blogging?

I was never one to keep a diary. I tried. I failed. I have a lot of gorgeous, colorful journals with approximately 4 1/2 pages written in them. How many of the poet-bloggers kept a journal when they were younger? And do they still, now that they have blogs? I write articles for a local paper, DC North--first food, then nightlife, now a regular column on the elusive "DC Scene." I may be slowly migrating toward the land of Carrie Bradshaw. The other afternoon, I took the time to seriously construct a pitch for a story to...Cosmopolitan. (Long-distance dating tip #2: ask him to give you a blanket as a gift, so you can think of him even while curling up on the couch with popcorn and a movie....) So, yes, clearly, I have excess writing energy that should be better spent. But if I'm going to do it, I'd like to do it right. Which means updating regularly, with purpose, and making it less about show-and-tell and more about a meaningful dialogue.

Blogs, I have noticed, have distinct personalities--and pulses. I was always told that I had to keep a houseplant alive for a year, then a pet, and only then was I ready for a "real" relationship. Where do blogs fit in on that hierarchy?