May 30, 2009

Hell! (& June 12)

Last night I saw Drag Me to Hell. I don't usually go for horror movies, and admittedly I spent a significant portion of screentime scrutinizing the lower right corner of the screen, where my eyes were unlikely to catch any explosions of blood, embalming fluid, or festering maggots. But I liked the actors (particularly Alison Lohman and Dileep Rao). Sam Raimi, as director and writer, took a few real risks with audience sympathy that paid off. And I laughed out loud. Twice. Overall, worth the big-screen experience.

I went through an important period when I read nothing but horror fiction--Stephen King, Christopher Pike--so it's not the conventions of plot and character that keep me away from horror movies. It's the trend of graphic violence and torture-porn (Saw, Hostel). The way I look at it, my mind has room for only so many images. I don't want the image of someone sawing their own leg off to crowd out something a little more useful. A sophisticated horror movie (I also loved The Others) doesn't need an endless parade of money shots.

Just confirmed that I will be part of a kickass (technical term) evening of poetry on Friday, June 12, as part of a reading sponsored by Barrelhouse. The reading will take place from 8ish to 10ish in the Poetry Lounge of Art-O-Matic, a massive annual multigenre arts festival staged here in DC. This year's location is 55 M Street SE, on top of the Navy Yard Metro (Green Line). The other readers will include David Keplinger, Rebekah Sankey, Elizabeth Arnold, Terence Winch, and Eric Pankey (is that an incredible line-up, or what?). Co-sponsored by Smartish Pace.

You should come! This will be my last reading before I get out of town for a month; I'm running away with the gypsies, as my dad used to say. Leaving my job, my tailored pants, and my worries behind.

May 26, 2009

Strangely Perfect, Perfectly Strange

I'm caught off-guard, but pleased, to find myself on this list. Thanks! And welcome, to new readers who come courtesy of that link.

At 3:47 A.M. last night, if you'd been looking for me, I could be found puttering around my apartment. I had things to do: watching an episode of The West Wing. Plucking yellow leaves off a peace lily. Pouring a dollop of Bluecoat gin, pulled from the freezer, into an already full martini ("martini" = redeeming olive).

So help me God, I am a perfectionist. If you've escaped that fate, it may not be obvious how all of these pursuits (each obviously inferior to, um, sleep) are spokes on the perfectionist wheel. I'll explain.

Some time ago I discovered that if you happen to be up at 3 A.M. on a given weeknight, you can probably find a re-run of the West Wing on Bravo. Ever since then, once it's 2:56 I become a lost cause. Even if my eyes are already half-shut, I will pry them open to stay up and tune in. My love for the show can be traced directly to Aaron Sorkin's dialogue. Every damn character is meticulous--whether it be in their politics, their ethics, their addiction to witty banter, or their martyrdom. Every sentence is polished to a golden glow; if you are right you will be perfectly right, if you are wrong you will be perfectly wrong, and if you are vague it will be a mists of vaguedom so thick and diffractively glorious as to spawn rainbows.

Realistic? No. But West Wing dialogue is crack to a perfectionist.

Exhibit B: To a perfectionist's eye, a room-temperature martini is a fatally flawed martini. So even though I'd stopped actually drinking a good hour before, I freshened it up with cold gin from the freezer, so that the glass once more assumed its glaze of frost. That was the last time I touched it until I dumped it in the sink before bed.

Besides being wasteful with reasonably expensive liquor, perfectionists adopt sadistic attitudes toward innocent plants. Take the peace lily, which was completely wilted to the floor upon my return from a holiday-weekend road trip. The moment I'd noticed it, I got out a trash bag and picked it up to pitch it. Give it a cup of water, pled my boyfriend. It could come back. I looked at him suspiciously. Clearly this plant was broken. Not only that, it's presence in the living room was raising the big red flag of bad housewifery--I hadn't even thought about watering it before leaving town. I couldn't take the reminder of my failure. Give it a day, he said.

Come around 3:20 A.M. (as Josh is worrying over Stackhouse's third-party candidacy), I hear a rustling sound. I look over, and--lo and behold, the peace lily is visibly perking up.

Do I sit back, bless my boyfriend's patience, and enjoy the Lazarus show? Nope. I become fixated on the dozen or so irreversibly yellow leaves. I stalk over, hunker down, and start stripping them off with my bare hands. It's not easy. They're wilty, but still kin-flesh to the plant. I'm become some barbarian, dragging maidens off by their long, soft hair even as they try to cling to their families.

Once I'm done, what remains is a plant free of any but the most perfect, glossy green leaves. And, probably, severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a writer, perfectionism offers a lot of benefits. I am dedicated to pushing ahead on revisions. I don't lose things. I meet deadlines. But the next time someone says I wish I had your drive I'm going to be honest and say, Seriously, dude, you wouldn't wish for it at 4 A.M.

May 21, 2009

Sun, Sea & Miles of Traffic

In this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine you can find my latest in the series of "XX Files" columns. This one is about the prides and perils of highschool talent shows:

"Blue skies," I warbled. "Smiling at me ... " Except no one was smiling. My classmates' faces were glazed with boredom as they waited to rehearse. It was just hours before the talent show, and my voice was shaky, my tempo off. My choreography consisted of pacing the stage and gesturing with a waist-level sweep of my hand I hoped would look jazzy. It looked as though I was cleaning crumbs off an invisible table.

Today I am headed up to Connecticut, to celebrate one of my favorite couples ever on the occasion of their wedding. The traffic will be ugly but sometimes, the motive justifies even the most onerous means. Enjoy the holiday weekend!

May 18, 2009


With a nod to Kelli, whose "Confession Tuesdays" are one of my favorite blog pit-stops, I thought I'd offer up some confessions.

-I have never had a cigarette. I've had family members' whose health were greatly impacted by cigarettes. I have asthma, and allergies, that should rightfully preclude cigarette-smoking in a heartbeat.

That said, I have the gut instincts of a smoker. I like being around people while they smoke. I like the fussing, the ritual, the substitute for a snack of or a sip. One of my best friends, back in UVA days, used to give me one of her cigarettes at the beginning of any night out--I'd tuck it behind my ear and periodically sniff it, a vicarious fix. When I was at the Sewanee Writers' Conference I should have been turned off by all the smoke.

I wasn't turned off. I was tempted.

-Bacon is one of my favorite flavors. Pineapple is another. I have never actually had the charred-bacon/caramelized-pineapple flavor combination, partially because I am afraid I would like it SO much that I would never again be satisfied by either food by itself. I've been to Hawaii more than once! How did I leave Hawaii without experiencing that combo?

-If I had the right excuse, I would move to Hawaii. Otherwise it is feeling like DC or Bust. I love DC.

-My favorite emotion is anger. That's the most interesting emotion. Poems written from anger, even when they are sloppy, grip me. The ability to express anger effectively is devastating and enviable.

-Until last month I did not own a digital camera.

-One of the best jobs I can imagine is scanning HBO programming, sizing up the 2-second clips that offer parallel actions or expressions, then stitching together season promos set to hipster music. I love those promos.

Other jobs I'd like to have: Writing caption or catalogue copy for gallery exhibits. Working in a wine store. Writing children's books. Teaching swimming at the elementary-school level.

-When I was much younger I was obsessed with logic puzzles. Wooden sliding-panel mazes. Crosswords. A subscription to Games magazine. I hit a point, though, at which I rejected it all; oddly enough, I think it was when I went to a magnet school for science & tech, once I was finally surrounded by people with the same nerdy interests. What I'd loved about all of those pursuits, before, was their privacy. I couldn't stand to pursue them once I was afraid I might fail them in comparison to other kids.

-Millionaire Matchmaker? Yeah. I totally watch it.

...Looking for more confessions? Keep an eye out for this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine. In regards to this week's "XX Files," my mother said "Well, it could be worse. My whole family was prepared for it to run on Mother's Day."


May 12, 2009

Mark Your Calendars

There are fantastic FREE readings coming up for those in the DC area:

Thursday, MAY 21 - 7 PM

Reading with Michael Sragow and Brenda Wineapple
at the Arts Club of Washington (2017 I St. NW, DC)

Michael Sragow and Brenda Wineapple, joint winners of the National Award for Arts Writing, will give a public reading on Thursday, May 21 at 7:00 p.m. at the Arts Club of Washington. Sragow has won for Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon Books); Wineapple has won for White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Alfred A. Knopf).

The National Award for Arts Writing gives $15,000 to an outstanding nonfiction book about the arts. This year’s award was judged by critic David Kipen; Linda Pastan, former Poet Laureate of Maryland; and Reynolds Price, NBCC Award-winner and author of twenty-two novels. Kipen and Pastan will be on hand to introduce the winning authors. A reception and booksigning will follow.


Monday, JUNE 1 - 7 PM

Cafe Muse Literary Series with Wayne Miller and Eric Pankey
at the Friendship Heights Village Center (4433 South Park Avenue, Chevy Chase, MD)

Wayne Miller is the author of two collections of poems, The Book of Props (Milkweed) and Only the Senses Sleep (New Issues), translator of Moikom Zeqo’s I Don't Believe in Ghosts and co-editor of New European Poets. He teaches as the University of Central Missouri, where he co-edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

Eric Pankey is the author of eight books of poetry, including For the New Year, winner of the Walt Whitman Award, Cenotaph, Oracle Figures, Reliquaries, and most recently, The Pear As One Example (Ausable Press). He is professor of English at George Mason University.


And this last one, which I am hosting--and particularly excited about--

Wednesday, June 3 - 7 PM

"Flirting with the Masters": Poets on Emily Dickinson,
Featuring Jessica Garratt and Lisa Russ Spaar
at the Arts Club of Washington (2017 I St. NW, DC)

Jessica Garratt is the author of Fire Pond, which won the 2008 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, selected by Medbh McGuckian (University of Utah Press). Garratt is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she holds a Creative Writing Fellowship.

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of Satin Cash: Poems (Persea Books), Blue Venus: Poems (Persea Books) and Glass Town: Poems (Red Hen Press), for which she received a Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers in 2000. Spaar is the Director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing at the University of Virginia, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2009.


Spread the word! All of these programs deserve big crowds.

May 11, 2009

Turn, Turn, Turn

It is chaotic spring in DC--days swinging between rain and sun, every surface you can touch covered in oak pollen, and every person I know overwhelmed by the happenings of life. Maybe this is what comes with approaching one's third decade on earth: realizing how often deep sadness is paired with deep gratitude. Realizing that the best and the worse never follow a plan.

& so I share laughter on a Virginia balcony, with family I never thought I'd see outside of Texas. I set yellow roses on a new grave.

& so one friend prepares for a christening. One prays for a brother.

& so we trade scotch for gin. We trade smoke for citrus.

& so the clippings and notes for a job ahead form a larger and larger pile of paper, poised to spill across my dining room. The job I leave is reduced to skeletal to-dos and cleaned-out folders.

& so I am more than ever sure that DC is where I want to be. And more than ever sure that if I had to follow someone, I would.

All of this is just to say: if you're hanging on for dear life, you're not the only one. I'll make a deal with you. Let's keep going.

May 06, 2009

On Reincarnation

Most of the time when authors quit their blogs or scale back to major-announcements-only, they cite waning interest (or energy) as the cause. Makes sense to me--one of the reasons I don't use Twitter, and try to limit Facebook activity, is that the internet is such a huge and limitless timesuck. Most people don't define an exit strategy before launching a blog; it's not like a book MS that finally gets taken up for publication, or a class that you graduate. No one gives you permission to move on.

A blog just...waits. Like a plant waiting to be watered. Except if this plant dies, you can't just surreptitiously pitch it down your building's trash chute in the dead of night, swearing to yourself that you'll do better next time. It's a little more public.

Right now there is a glut of guides to "Being an Author in the Age of Web 2.0!" We're told to use blogs in the following ways:

-Test out drafts of what may be bigger projects (to develop your skill)
-Coordinate and promote book readings (to sustain your career)
-Post mini-reviews or interviews (to strengthen your community)
-Create a storehouse of helpful tips and links (to pull in Googlers)

Okay. Logical. And yet...those blog-posts aren't the ones I get excited to read. I'm not saying they aren't important--they are--but they have to be balanced with humor, revelation, a little bit of risk. Intimacy. The blog posts I get excited about feature the goofy thing someone's kid said, or wall colors for a new house, or a take on the last American Idol Episode, or a stream-of-conscious meditation on the moon, a violin, and fresh honeycomb. The best blogs are, at the end of the day, powered by a cult of personality.

Two of my favorite ladies in the poetry world have recently reincarnated their blogs. Five Feet Above Water became Miss Gin. Home-Schooled By a Cackling Jackal became (or rather, always was) Reb Livingston. In both cases, the original blogs had found a good mix of what the guides would call "compelling 2.0 content" and what I would call "crunchy, sticky, gossipy, snarky real-life anecdotes that make me come back for more."

In both cases, the author decided to change not only her theme but her URL. Oh no! moan the 2.0 Web Gurus. All those lost links! All that wasted traffic!

Part of me agrees--because if your blog is shaped primarily by your personality (versus a definite project), then it should be able to evolve with you. But part of me knows that sometimes you have to honor an impulse. It's like paying a bundle to maintain your same old hairstyle one week, and a week later admitting your profound need to look completely different. Purple hair dye: $70. Fresh start: priceless.

As I embark on a more substantial prose career, I've been wondering how much of that should be reflected on the blog. Maybe I could use this blog as the real diary of a freelancer. Not self-help tips, but the real stuff. Whether one should drink & draft. The critical misstep of downloading Snood. The awkwardness of networking with DC journalists when you don't give a damn about politics. The perils of researching for a book that relies on a medical term not even coined until 1906.

Part of me thinks that could be a fun blog. Part of me thinks that this blog is called "Chicks Dig Poetry" for a reason, and I should honor that. Part of me thinks the more empathetic readers for the blog, the better the readers for the book. Part of me thinks that a little bit of distance adds credibility and import.

If you're looking for a firm conclusion, sorry! Blogs aren't the place for firm conclusions, at least not for me. I see them as organic structures, plants with dirty, messy, unstoppable roots. You can feed them, or tear 'em out by those roots when the time comes.

May 04, 2009

Gist Street!

The best trips can start out under the worst conditions. Admittedly I took my sweet time getting out of DC on Friday morning. I wanted to come home to a stocked fridge and clean counters, not a desiccated orange and three vases of dead irises and mums. Besides, giving myself seven hours to make it to Pittsburgh? Plenty of time. Enough that I'd be able to camp out at a tea house before the reading, get a bite to eat, and absorb the town's atmosphere.

After losing an hour to the snail pace of the Washington suburbs during a hard rain, I realized I might be in trouble. By minute 47 of the total and inexplicable dead-stop on I-70, I knew I was in serious trouble. The A.M. station offered no accident-related revelation; truckers were listlessly working their CB radios, but they looked as clueless as the rest of us.

But let's fast forward. To...the bridges! The bridges of Pittsburgh! My mother had advised on the phone: "It's kind of like the Emerald City when you drive in, so take your time." Between the post-rain verdant hills, houses perched among them (much life the San Francisco of my imagination), and the iron swoops of the bridges, she had a good point. I set my bags down at the Quality Inn (not-so-quality, but convenient to the venue/highway) and before I knew it, Nancy Krygowski was picking me up and driving us to Gist Street.

Nancy: sweet and talented poet, awesome streak in her hair, a cacophony of strange dashboard ornaments. Gist Street: buzzer hanging by bare wire at the front door; huge, colorful sculpture courtesy of James Simon; ice and beer in the bathtub. The crew: Sherrie, who I'd not met before, chief mover and shaker; friendly bickering over the pizza supply, and whether a vegetarian-run fund could pay for a ham; the realization that we were competing with Denis Johnson and not only were these hosts not intimidated, they were talking smack about the poorly-designed CMU poster!

Holy hell, we packed the house. 85 seats and a responsive, friendly audience that laughed and "oohed" at all the right places. Apparently the policy is to BYOB and community food; people brought everything from a half-empty bottle of Planter's peanuts to some awfully tasty looking home-baked cookies; my favorite self-supplied gentleman brought a plastic cup of ice and a pint of scotch. I was simply blown away by Ron MacLean and his elegant, creepy fiction--Why the Long Face? is a book I'm dying to read--that featured an uncanny ear for the dialogue of an alienated teenage girl.

Afterwards it turned out a lot of books had been sold. Afterwards there was sipping of some crazy homebrewed lavender-based wine. Afterwards there was caravanning to the downtown Renaissance hotel, where there happened to be a local senior prom going on. The music! The glory! The gel-colored spotlights! Afterwards people who wanted soup had soup and people who wanted martinis had martinis. Afterwards there was a storytelling and a general agreement that this was the best reading we'd all been to in a while.

My only regret is that I had to leave the very next morning. I have a total love for Pittsburgh now.

Oh, and if you are a DC local, please root for James Simon's inspired idea for an artwork at the intersection of 18th & Columbia in Adams Morgan. The three proposed designs are here.

Oh, and for a gloriously non-objective corroborating opinion on our Gist Street evening, I stumbled across this blog.

P.S. - I can define and re-define my Desert Island Discs until I'm blue in the face, but the proof is probably in the ones that I always end up listening to on long car drives. XO by Elliott Smith. The Concert in Central Park by Simon & Garfunkel. Let's Get Lost (a best-of) by Chet Baker. Living with Ghosts by Patty Griffin. The complete Rolling Stones (Vol. 1). In the Dark (Live at Vicar Street) by Josh Ritter. August by Rose Polenzani.

P.S. part 2 - The prom was taking place in the hotel's "Jimmy Stewart Room." Sexy.

P.S. part 3 - Okay, so maybe with only a half-hour left from home, I noticed a hairline fracture in my windshield that had not been there before. What can I say? The Roadtrip Gods were just not with me. Next time, I'm sacrificing a golden ram before I get behind the wheel.