June 30, 2009

A Confusion of Cottonwood

One day past the half-way mark of our time at Jentel, the cottonwood tree behind the artists' studios has surrendered the majority of its blooms to the air. White fluff everywhere, alighting on the pines, gathering into puffy clumps, and it really does look like snow.

Some of the other residents went tubing today in the creek around our house, only to discover that with the water this high and running this fast, those who miss the very improvised "end of the ride" mark go headlong into a barbed wire fence. They regathered, got into cars, and headed out for the lake. I'm a little sorry to not be along for the ride (well, the non-barbed portion), but on these overcast days I find myself able to get a bit more work done than usual.

I've written a 2,000-word essay here, which feels like a useful bridge between a typical Post column (750 words) and the 5,000-word chapters that will make up the book. Funny to admit that when I consider places to send it, my mind goes immediately to mainstream venues. If I'd studied CNF as part of my MFA program I would be thinking about Witness and AGNI. Instead, I'm thinking about Slate and "Modern Love."

The difference is not just one of visibility, though that's a big factor; I'm still learning to accept the jaw-clenching exposure of the personal that comes with an "XX File." There's a difference in pacing, too. When I read Mark Doty's Firebird I was struck by the indulgences of "literary" nonfiction--the amount of time spent on constructed metaphors, analytical projections, background info worked in via artificial prompts (anyone who was ever told to "write in response to a family photo" in workshop recognizes these). On one hand I envy the beauty of the writing. On the other hand I think You've got these compelling events; you don't need all this embroidery.

I feel like one of my principle tasks, in writing nonfiction, is to get out of the story's way. Did I somehow turn into a journalist when I wasn't looking?


The good:

(This bunny lives on the grounds right by the house, and can be seen almost every dusk.)


The bad:

(One of four--update! five!--I've seen so far. I don't fear snakes, so it's not really a "bad" thing. Just causes the occasional double-take when I'm walking back to the main house in the dark.)


The Minty:

(We tried venturing into Sheridan one night to meet the locals, but it was a bit of a bust. Was it the skirt and high heels that screamed "carpetbagging citified writer"? Still, I'd like to go back...superb draft amber ales--Alaska, Fat Tire--for $3.15. That even beats Charlottesville.)


Even in a household full of women, it soon becomes clear that there are varying levels of domesticity. I'm shocked to find myself on the homemaker end of the spectrum. Buying flowers, closing cabinet doors, clucking over the misplaced cordless phone, cooking big pots of things and leaving them out for the taking. Of course, maybe it's not so much "domestic instinct" as "control freak." Hmmmm.


Valerie Loveland said...

The bunny should have a name!

Jenn said...

I think you might want to fear that particular snake!! Yikes.

So Chick's Dig Poetry, eh? - how well do you Haiku? ;) Come join me and we'll find out together!

"Silly Haiku Wednesday"!

Can't wait to see what you come up with!

Stephanie said...

Haha! I am a writer who grew up in Sheridan and so, am very familiar with the Mint Bar. Quite the cultural experience, to be sure. :)

Steve Rogers said...

I see you found the Mint Bar in Sheridan. I certainly have memories of that place, and great neon at night! Jeans and boots are dressing up in Wyoming.

Lisa said...


I think it's a good thing to understand what a story calls for--to know how to leave out the poetry when there's simply no need. I also think you're anything but a journalist (no offense, but I've read your poetry--you're a poet). It's likely, that as a multi-genre writer, you know better than to let your primary genre slobber all over every aspect of your writing. When it's natural, poetry will find its way in; when it's not, you'll detect it as the deadweight that it is.

Myself, I find that I can only work in one genre at a time, and when I try to work in both my poems are too narrative and my narrative too much like long poems. It's damn frustrating!

Keep on truckin'. I look forward to the NF.


Adam said...

Unique poem up at POETRY, but freshwater kelp does not exist and salamanders neither can live in saltwater nor would they crawl along the bottom in a body of salt water big enough to sustain kelp, even if they could survive it. A detail so specific perhaps should not defy natural history--even if imagined by a piano. This corruption begs the audience to question the writer, relegating the piano's voice and allowing disbelief to take root. If a piano knows these organic things, it would be well enough aware of the correct contexts.

Sandra said...

Hi Adam--

As luck would have it I was envisioning a tidewater marsh environment, where fresh- and salt-water creatures are both found. But I see your point, and I'm sorry if that ruined the poem for you! A shame, too, since I was so diligent with my capybara facts. = ) Thanks for reading.

Cheers, SB

Adam said...

Hi Sandra,

It didn't ruin the poem for me. I wouldn't have taken the time to comment if I didn't truly enjoy the poem. I think the poem has a wonderful playfulness reminiscent of successful poems by Moore, Young, Ashbery. The ending image is quite evocative and, on a second read, disturbing as well--the helicopter (machine,flight,inorganic)as a trope for the hovering and frantically moving fingers that in some ways molest the music from the piano, making the piano long for a freedom that its innate utility and art, because of the reliance on the human's imagination and aesthetic sensibilty, cannot provide. I am sold on the poem until the lines I mentioned, which create unnecessary pondering about something outside of the magic in which I was initially engaged. I like your poems because of your playful imagination grounded in a carefully-informed ethos. The salamander image caused me to wonder why you would defy natural history--unnecessary friction--which stopped me, instead of propelling me to suspend my disbelief even further and relish the piano's sadness and wonder with the world. If you are including this poem in your new collection, I thought you might want to consider how the image affects the reader, esp. since a salamander has no significant figurative resonances--unless you like the hybridity. By the way, salamanders, unlike redfish, crabs, sea turtles etc would not be in and could not survive the brackish water--they cannot stand any salinity--you describe in a tidewater swamp or estuary: I had already considered this intent before I wrote. Kelp beds would not be in a tidewater swamp either. Hydrilla or some freshwater plant would seem to work well with a salamander, or a shrimp or a fiddler or oyster crab or some kind of fry with kelp.

christina b. said...