January 30, 2009

O Holy Weekend

There are nice tributes to John Updike making their way out into cyberspace: I particularly enjoyed this Slate roundtable, featuring Anne Fadiman talking about her days of editing Updike's poetry at The American Scholar. Strange to realize that only a couple months ago I was working on illustrating his short story, "Nessus at Noon," arguing for layout changes, and a couple of weeks later typing out the address label for his house in Beverly Farms. According to the L.A. Times, it was his last work published during his lifetime.

Got plans for tomorrow night? If not, I highly recommend this:


The Writer’s Center will celebrate its 32nd birthday with a reading by acclaimed memoirist, essayist, and film critic Phillip Lopate. Lopate, author or editor of more than a dozen books, including The Art of the Personal Essay, will read from his recent collection of novellas, Two Marriages, his first work of fiction since his 1987 novel The Rug Merchant. About Lopate, critic Sven Birkerts writes: “His fearlessness is tonic, his candor is straight gin.”

When: Saturday, January 31 (7:30 P.M.)
Where: The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
The cost of this event is $25;
a reception and book signing will follow the event.

Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a bachelor's degree at Columbia University in 1964, and a doctorate at Union Graduate School in 1979. He holds the John Cranford Adams Chair at Hofstra University, and teaches in the MFA graduate programs at Columbia, the New School, and Bennington. He can be found online at www.philliplopate.com

...and seriously, I love that Sven Birkerts quote. This will be fun. I'll see you there.

January 28, 2009

Everything Goes Down Better with a Hot Toddy in Hand

When it is snowing, I eat handfuls of saltines. When it is snowing I crave oranges. When it is snowing, I walk down the street with the umbrella's curve resting partially on the back of my head--the Hollywood umbrella technique. A posture that surely allows more snow into my face than necessary, and yet I can't resist.

When it is snowing each flake fizzes against the skylights in my apartment. When it is snowing it puts me in the mood for memoirs.


The Post Office is threatening to cut a day of mail service due to budgetary strains. On first read I was very disturbed. Most writers have had periods of living for that daily mail drop--opening the thin envelopes and occasionally, if you're lucky, finding a thicker one. It is an emotional ritual, and I frequently rail against the tardy mail service on our street (11 AM...nothing...3 PM...nothing; 4:45 PM...still nothing...5:30 PM...nope), much to the amusement of my boyfriend.

The last time I lived on this street, not only did the postman skip whole DAYS of service (I could tell by the postmark), but he pulled the utterly creepy move of taking outgoing mail from me one day by hand--and using said mail to find out my apartment number, then show up outside my door at 7 PM that night looking for a date. It took a half-hour of waiting (and hoping he did not test the deadbolt, which was set in rotting wood) for him to give up and leave.

Anyway. On first read this story was disheartening; on second read, not so bad. Most acceptances come by email nowadays (and big news, like prizes of fellowships, by phone). And I've always liked the sensation of getting mail after an "off day"--Sunday, or some Federal holiday--when there is the implicit promise you'll have twice as much good stuff.


A few months back I posted a call for submissions for a new literary journal, the White Whale Review. Issue 1.1 is up now featuring Liam Callanan, Jennifer Barber, George Kalogeris, Daniele Pantano, Rachel Coye, Stephanie Goehring, and Michael Lynch. Go check it out--admirable visual design. Witty, and yet the top nav bar's categories still make sense to a user. I like the display of multiple prose columns across the horizontal page.

January 24, 2009


I took down my post last night because I didn't want it to be seen as a comment on employers past, current, or future; it was more just me navel-gazing (Anais Nin being the patron saint of navel-gazing) about how an artist moves through the work world.

One thing I miss about being in school was being presented with discrete choices of programs, all timed on approximately the same application/notification/acceptance/initiation schedule. Each program becomes the node for a different life. Once you're in the world of full-time employment (including teaching, probably), you lose that sense of discrete choices. Everything becomes entangled and interdependent, especially as you no longer give yourself permission to live off loans. Each opportunity comes toward you organically, and if you take it you then reshape your life to absorb the shock. Stephanie was nice enough to comment on my post before I took it down, and one thing that she nailed was that it's not really a choice, though I like to think of it in those terms because it provides an illusion of control. You just do what you have to do, and then you do what you have to do to make what you've already done viable.

Today: theoretically, the only thing on my schedule is...writing. Specifically, working through a freelance profile I alluded to back in December. The sky is fortunately gray, so I won't even feel guilty about not leaving the house. Onward!

Oh, and since so many of my recent posts have included themes of "Grumping," Depressing News," etc....I leave you with this:

That's right. Pictures of baby animals. I'm like the wacky aunt who sends you socks for Christmas.

January 23, 2009

Decisions, Decisions


And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to blossom.

-Anaïs Nin


Because, after all, some things should stay private.

January 20, 2009

A Brief Time Out for Grumping

Yes, today marked a historic event. Yes, I am an Obama supporter. But was today a halcyon celebration for all in DC? I was so grateful to find this and this, and know that I was not the only one who witnessed a day of nightmarish logistics. It's a little odd to fixate and invest so many resources into the inauguration, when what really matters is the administration that follows. It's not about the wedding; it's about the marriage. But...people need the lift of a celebration. I get it! Me too. So we'll leave the grumping at that.

January 14, 2009

Depressing News about the Dodge Festival

(I don't usually reproduce something that's going to be seen elsewhere, but when this landed in my email box it truly elicted a shiver. These are tough times for the arts. -SB)

To: The Poets, Poetry Teachers and Poetry Lovers who have been part of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festivals

From: David Grant, President and CEO, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Greetings to you all at the beginning of a new year.

Some of you may know that we have reduced the Dodge Foundation's grantmaking budgets annually since 2002 in an effort to develop a sustainable approach to grantmaking and initiatives in relation to our assets. During that period, we have reduced all areas of our giving except for Poetry. The severity of the recent. financial downturn – a 30% decline in assets -- has meant that we must finally reduce that budget as well, at least for the near future.

I know how much Dodge’s work in Poetry means to so many of you, and I wanted to let you know the Foundation will remain committed to Poetry as a signature interest. But financial realities are forcing us to take a different approach to our Poetry activities in 2009 and 2010. Specifically, and most importantly, we know we will not be able to produce a Poetry Festival in September 2010 on the scale of past Festivals.

We will maintain much of our work with New Jersey teachers of poetry this spring, and we will actually expand our efforts to make the audio and video archives of past Festivals readily available via YouTube and other means for all who want to enjoy them. Yet we must at least take a cycle off from the biennial Festival as you have known it and, depending on how things turn out, we may need to “reinvent” the Festival on either a more affordable scale or in a more affordable venue. (Unfortunately, over the last three Festivals, the production costs have more than doubled, and a mere 20% of the Festival budget went toward hiring the poets at the very center of the event.)

Under these circumstances, our esteemed colleague Jim Haba will move this year from Poetry Director to Consultant to the Foundation. His longtime associate Martin Farawell will take on the role of Program Director for Poetry and lead our efforts with the Archive and other Poetry initiatives.

Neither you nor we have seen the last of Jim, but I wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate his remarkable achievements as the guiding spirit behind the Dodge Poetry Festivals since 1986. First as a consultant working with the Dodge Founding Executive Director Scott McVay, then later as our full-time Poetry Director, Jim strove tirelessly to create, in his own words, “a space in which poetry can assume its rightful place at the center of our imaginative and emotional lives.” The result has been a singular international poetry event, one which instead of featuring scholarly papers or professional advice always gave priority to the simple, direct and profound experience of coming together and listening to poets and poetry. The late Stanley Kunitz went to the heart of the matter, I think, when he praised the Festivals’ “great democratic spirit.”

Over the course of its twenty-two year history, the biennial Festivals drew approximately 140,000 people from 42 states ¾ including 17,000 teachers and 42,000 high school students who attended without charge and traveled from as far away as Florida, Maine, Minnesota and California. The Festivals also gave rise to several NPR radio programs and five PBS television series, including The Power of the Word, The Language of Life and Fooling with Words, all hosted by Bill Moyers and seen by a national audience of nearly 50 million.

From the outset, Jim strove to include poets and audiences from a wide base of the culture, and to invite unknown and unrecognized voices from those groups traditionally excluded from the Western canon. He recognized that America and American poetry could not thrive unless they had a deeper connection to the poets and poetries of other cultures, and so poetry-in-translation has been a central feature of every Festival. Under his leadership, the Festival spawned a complementary Poetry-in-the-Schools Program that has since sent poets into every county in New Jersey to work with thousands of teachers and students.

For me, Jim’s brief essay in the Dodge Foundation’s 2000 Annual Report, Slowing Down for Poetry, will always be the best rationale behind the Foundation’s significant (over $13 million since 1986) and ongoing investment in Poetry as an art form. He describes how “Poetry redeems our human possibilities,” and reminds us in this frantic modern world:

Image by image, thought by thought, feeling by feeling, poetry invites us to sink even more deeply into a kind of “before” time, at once achingly familiar and exhilaratingly new. Only by slowing down for poetry can we hope to accept its delicious invitation.

Perhaps the most lasting testimony to Jim’s achievement will be the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival Audio and Video Archive. Consisting of over 2,500 hours of audio and video recordings, recorded by industry professionals to the highest broadcast standards, the Archive is already one of the most extraordinary records of contemporary poetry and poets in the world. In the months and years ahead, the Dodge Poetry Program will work to make as much of this archive available to as wide an audience as possible, and we will be considering ways in which the Archive can continue to grow through newly designed events. The Festival experience itself cannot be duplicated, but we take heart that it can and will be shared by students, teachers, poets, and poetry lovers the world over. It is a remarkable legacy – not yet ended – but one for which Jim Haba has our everlasting gratitude, respect and affection.


January 13, 2009


Remember that chapbook's worth of sestinas in Black Warrior Review? Well, they are finally on the loose. Subscriber issues have gone out in the mail. I saw three copies up on the shelf at the Writer's Center here in town, and you can now find the issue on the Black Warrior Review website here. Hooray! Thanks again to the editors for including me in such a gorgeous and fun magazine.

January 09, 2009

Proseying Along

Nothing beats the exhiliration of completing a good poem. But there is something satisfying about scrolling through 18 pages of a documents, 5,000 words, that you have churned out in a matter of four days. The stack of printed pages has heft in your hand; if you needed to thwack a passing insect, you could do so (a poem draft would just waft ineffectually).

When my primary task is to write, I treat myself well as I do it. Balanced meals, tea rather than coffee, fuzzy slippers. (Exhibit A: January 1, 2, and 3.)

When I'm trying to jam my writing in between a day job, a social life, and other priorities (Exhibit B: January 6, 7, and 8), I'm a masochist. I purposefully fall asleep with my contacts in and my shoes on, upright, so that when I fitfully wake after three or four hours I'll be motivated to get up and start drafting again. I eat greasy and starchy things at off hours not because I'm hungry, but because I need to commit my body to burning off those calories by staying awake. My hair gets locked away in a permanent bun.

This puts my two primary 2009 resolutions (have a better balanced physical life; nourish the freelance writing) at unfortunate odds with each other, at least in a month with four deadlines, and until someone hurries up and delivers the big pile o'money that would allow me to write full-time.

Enough whining. I'm so excited to see a book forming before my eyes. Not sure it will ever see it into print; given all my investments into the poetry world of editor, presses, and contests, the additional commercial jockeying of the prose industry is not alluring. So I'm going to put this into the hands of a few trusted readers. If they believe in it, we'll see what happens.

But even if this never sees the light of day, the intellectual exercise of plotting and executing a long, coherent work is a good workout for any writer. I'm challenged by the necessary commitment to designing and maintaining a prose tone. I don't mean voice; that's so fundamental to my writing identity, I couldn't change it if I tried. By "tone" I mean the emotional pitch. In poetry collections, the organic variations in tone add diversity and strength to a collection. The poem I write after bad news has a different tone from the one I write after I fight with my boyfriend, which will differ from the one written after walking home on a sunny day.

But in a nonfiction book, you don't want that kind of variation going from paragraph to paragraph (or even section to section). It distracts the reader from the factual content. When I look at this first draft of the chapter, one of my duties is polish away the grumpy (or punchy) tone of a section written after I just woke up from napping for four hours with my contacts in.

Remember this (which I suspect really began with this), then this, and eventually (drumroll please) this? Paul Guest is my idol; I especially love that the memoir went from being on a back burner for a year and a half to selling in, oh, less than a month. May we all have such happy new years.

Hint: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl.

January 07, 2009

This is Why I'm Staying Quiet

I have now finished the book proposal, and have moved onto the sample chapter. Another 20 pages. Ooof!


January 03, 2009

Against Distraction

I am on word 3,511 of a non-fiction book proposal. With another twenty pages to go. And a Post column to draft. And a profile to write. And an article for Poets & Writers. My god. For the last three days I have woken up each morning with one, and only one, thing allowed on my to-do list. Kept my contacts out. Kept my pajamas on. Read at least forty pages of a book over my steel-cut oatmeal. Ignored worrisome work emails. And worked, worked, worked, until the need to turn on an overhead light in the dining room told me that some hours had passed.

It's the happiest and the most-grounded I have been in ages.

But tomorrow, is the Farmer's Market; then off to my grandmother's house; then to my mother's house; then to the Trader Joe's, for whatever I did not find at the market. On Monday I have a dental appointment. Then the office is waiting. The hours shake loose from each other, falling away in little dutiful fragments. Without conscious intention, the last three days are the closest I have been to a writer's-colony-like experience since Millay, and it makes me realize how desperately I need that uninterrupted time.

Some poet-friends have been circulating New Year's drafts, and I am both admiring and envious. But for now, it's all about prose in my house. One of the things Marilynne Robinson talked about was the great loss, in today's American literary culture, of undivided attention. We multitask. We caffeinate. We cram. I've always been a writer who thrived on deadline, who could read a book in two hours and pull the 2,000-word-piece off overnight, but you know what? The stakes are higher now, and that demands a higher degree of craft. Manic energy ain't gonna cut it. I want these words to count.

3,512. 3,513. 3,514...

Did I mention the gray scarf I am wearing? The background noise of a beloved playing Halo? The squid ink I can still taste on my lips?

3,515, 3,516...and, here, a favorite from Marie Howe:

What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living room windows because the heat's on too high in here, and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss--we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living, I remember you.

~Marie Howe

And so 2009 begins.