July 29, 2009

What I'm Up To

Oh my lordy, the comments section on my last post overflowed with great reading suggestions. If you're interested in the genres of food writing, or memoirs, check it out. Thanks, everyone, for chiming in.

I've already got a couple of books on order as a result. But in the meantime I have immersed myself in Kathleen Rooney's Oneiromance (an epithamalion). It is a physically lovely object, with an elegantly whimsical cover (evocative of a Chagall painting) and a unique trim size (appropriate to the long, columnlike poems). The poems are fun and surprising and rich, which is especially remarkable given that the thematic hubs--dreams, and a wedding--have been responsible for so much verse cliche over the years. Lots of internal rhyme and wordplay, flexing between male (groom) and female (bride) speakers, roaming everywhere from Brazil tot he midwest to over Niagara Falls. Rooney herself interests me, as someone who seems to migrate effortlessly between the genres of criticism, poetry, and nonfiction. Read it! Read it! It refreshed my love of what we do.

Part of the reason that book landed in my hands (it has been on my shelf since AWP) was that I was taking the metro for cocktails with a writer friend. I had not ridden the Red Line since the terrible crash that took place my first week in Wyoming. As the doors closed, there was an overly elaborate message that warned of a possible delay: "Riders should plan for an additional 30 minutes in their travel time, while Metro continues to investigate The Incident." Unnecessarily macabre, and similar to announcements they ran after the Madrid bombings, warning about unattended packages. Usually I protest the loss of institutional memory, but in this case I do not want to see a onetime tragedy turn into a tattoo of shame.

I am in hiding for the next few days, making some decisions about a few part-time gigs this fall and trying to fine tune three chapters to send to my editor at Crown. But the rumors are true: I will emerge from my cave long enough to serve as the Guest Judge for Week Seven of Project Verse. Onward!

July 25, 2009

Muddling Through

Elsewhere on the web:

-->Jehanne's post on settling in in Chestertown, combined with my time in Wyoming, fills me with a desire to try living in a smaller community. Not just a Charlottesville-sized burg, but something even more centralized. The only problem is that I'm not willing to give up my DC identity to do it. Hmmmm. I suspect that in New York City, people solve this issue by reducing their "town" to their borough or part of Manhattan.

-->A great little interview with Laurel Snyder, in which she gives an honest (really honest!) account of her workday.

-->Courtesy of Leslie's "Guests in Progress" feature, Kim Roberts of Beltway has announced a Summer 2009 Snail Mail Challenge. I agree with her central premise: that real, actual mail at an art colony is a mystical thing. Brother, can't you spare a stamp?

-->My friend Kevin Wilson is probably crazed right now with serving as Secretary for the Sewanee Writing Conference. If you go to Sewanee or any conference, never forget that the staff is all rock star writers/lovers of writing too. Exhibit A: Kevin's book, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, which got awesome reviews everywhere from The New York Times to BOMB.


I am struggling with an application that asks for a sample of my "best, finished work." The problem: this application is entirely focused on a nonfiction project, and uses nonfiction-writing recommenders. My strongest published work to date is probably from the poetry world. We're talking a substantial number of pages requested--too many to satisfy with just a handful of Washington Post columns. What to send? Do other cross-genre authors struggle with this?

In a similar vein, earlier in the Spring I sent out my first of these nonfiction-focused applications. I just found out I did not win the fellowship, but the person I lost to...is a onetime professor of mine. That's a loss I'm proud to take.


Shopping at Trader Joe's seems to be all about learning which fresh produce they handle well, and which is consistently meh. Bluberries? Yes. Stir-fry greens? No. Carrot juice? Past expiration. Daffodils? Yes. Dahlias? Dead by day 3. Sliced turkey breast? Absolutely. Avocado? Unripe as rocks.


I have not read a book since returning home. I miss reading! Does anyone have recommendations from the realms of 1) food writing, 2) memoir, or 3) funny or surreal short story collections?

(Reminder to self: must put up additional book shelving in my office.)

July 21, 2009

I Went to Wyoming & All I Got Was This Lousy Work Ethic

The simplest guacamole recipe, courtesy of Jentel (thanks Brittani!). One avocado--slice in half, use your knife to score the flesh into little cubes prior to loosening it from the rind with a spoon. Empty one half into a bowl and add salt, a handful of chopped cilantro, and a squeeze of one-quarter lime. Empty the other avocado half on top and mash lightly with a fork. Salt the top layer again. Include one-half a clove of garlic, finely chopped, if you are so inclined; or, add several dashes of dried chili pepper (the same kind you shake out over pizza).

If you are ambitious on the very relative scale...add two tablespoons of tomatillo salsa, or a handful of black beans, or 1/2 ear of corn kernels shaved raw off the cob. Mash and mix. If you have to store leftovers overnight, the lime juice is critical--that's what curbs browning--and tamp down a layer of Saran Wrap over the exact surface of the guacamole.

And that's how I spent my summer vacation.


A partial galley arrived today from Norton. A sneak peek at the handling of fonts, a look at the acknowledgments and dedication, a chance to object in the cases where they had to crowd the page with the last line or two of a poem. How scary and wonderful! It looks like a real book!


I found myself watching the Comedy Central pseudo-documentary / marketing tool Inside Funny People tonight. As a teenager who spent significant amounts of time watching Stand Up Stand Up and Comic Relief, I have a soft spot for the perils of live comedy. I really want Funny People to be good, though I know the jury is out. The jury is, in fact, playing mini-golf. Eating a cheese sandwich. Playing quarter pool. The jury will probably not come back in a happy mood, and is therefore taking its own sweet time at the local dive bar. But I have a little crush on Judd Apatow. And Leslie Mann! I like her for being so beautiful and, well, still marrying Judd Apatow.


Not sure, yet, about establishing my at-home writing rhythms. But if I write while sprawled out on my bed, I can look out three windows--one pointed toward the crazy traffic of Connecticut Avenue, one at the Embassy of Albania, one looking down S Street. I can shut the door and play music as loud as I like. I can draft without getting dressed. I'm working on it.

July 16, 2009

Slowly, Surely

It's not easy coming home from such a wondrous month, but there are some things to be excited about. On my first full day back in DC, I did things I could not do in Wyoming. I usurped the internet. (The Poetry Foundation has just posted their latest "Editor's Podcast," which features "The Piano Speaks.") I read the Sunday New York Times Magazine. I caught up on True Blood. I stopped in at the Japanese market to buy a little carton of freshly marinated baby octopus, and then I ate them like popcorn--with my fingers--as I continued down the sidewalk.

I am easing my arms back around city life.

July 12, 2009

Why I Love Wyoming

I'm writing this from an empty studio. This is the final time I'll be able to reach out over my desk and, with my left hand, flip the latch that opens a window; I will miss that in DC. I broke the colony code and used the public printer to print out the work I've done, just in this final week, on the allergy book. 43 pages--half revisions, half new drafting--warm to the touch.

It's time to go.

But yesterday, we had a perfect benediction to our time in Wyoming: an all day trip up into the Big Horn Mountains to go to Medicine Wheel, an ancient Indian shrine. A very holy place, where people tie prayers for their loved ones to a barbed wire fence that protects the centuries-old arrangements of stones, shells, and bone. Without further ado:

On the way up into the Big Horn Mountains, we made a quick trip to Tongue River Canyon.

At the entrance to the canyon, we found a clutch of trees filled with heron nests.

If you know the size of a typical heron, you'll recognize that the scale is mind-boggling.

After passing a very cute "$1.00 Lemonade by Chloe" stand (Chloe was making money hand over fist), we entered the canyon.

It had the feel of a local hangout, rather than a recognized landmark. Fishing. Hiking. Tailgating.

This was taken out the window of a moving car; in other words, I have made friends with my digital camera.

Around every turn of the long switchback route from Dayton to the Burgess Junction, we saw ancient formations like this one.

Once we'd entered the Big Horn parkland, we parked and hiked the mile and a half to Medicine Wheel. Awesome view. Merciless mosquitoes.

Just one texture of the landscape below us.

For contrast, another texture. This alpine duality reminded me a little bit of Mount Pilatus in Switzerland.

For example, that white patch in the dead center of the photo? That's ice. In July.

This is the breadth of Medicine Wheel, which sits on the hilltop. I loved the modesty of the display. No souvenir stands.

This shot offers a better sense of the Wheel's symbolic purpose and vibrance.

Flowers for my grandmother, bound with the hair elastic I'd worn on the way up.

On the central hub rested a huge bull skull. Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce would come here to fast.

That's me, in the moment of realizing that playing hooky from writing for a day has been utterly worth it.

Some of my fellow residents--note the sharp drop-off. We weren't really supposed to be this far out, but a generous ranger told us it was okay as long as we walked along the fenceline.

A close-up of the ground cover where we were sitting, which included some terrifically fragrant white flowers.

Yep, that's me again.

An actual, in-the-moment, bluebird of happiness was waiting for us back at our car. We had dinner at the Branding Iron Cafe in Dayton, which had perhaps the best waffle fries I have ever had.


Now it's time to go for a very long walk...all the way back home. Thanks for spending the month with me at the Jentel Artist Residency in these blog-posts!

July 09, 2009

From the Jentel Studio

I'm listening to Sam Cooke's Aint That Good News. When I leave for my walk in a few minutes, it will be The Drifters Best Of. There's something absolutely majestic about this era of R&B. Sentimental lyrics, sure, but sentiment grounded in sincerity is a gorgeous thing.


Earlier today we had our last group expedition into Sheridan. With no car, these weekly trips in a huuuge Suburban have been critical for obtaining 1) groceries, 2) Johnny Walker Red, 3) irises for the kitchen, and 4) fresh lemonade from Java Moon (somehow they make the slushy ice even extra lemony). Today I was shopping for a handful of souvenirs, which required some close examination. There's a lot of cowboy-themed things that, when you actually look, were made in Texas. I'd like my Wyoming kitsch to come from Wyoming.

As it turns out, taupe Chevy Suburbans are a dime a dozen around here. Twice I have finished my grocery shopping at Albertson's, approached the wrong car, and tapped on the window to ask a total stranger if they'll pop the trunk so I can put my bags away.

Even though it is always the same 20 mile drive to and fro, my eyes snag a different part of the landscape each time; with no significant intersections, I still feel like I could get lost in these rolling hills.


Just as I'm in the home stretch of writing, I'm in the home stretch of reading. I've sent the a flat-rate Priority Mail package home to DC, containing 16 or so books I'd read already. (An excellent trick for traveling writers, by the way--books are lethal weight in luggage, and $12.95 USPS boxes hold a fair amount.)

Today I curled up in one of the sprawling leather chairs, ate a ton of pretzels dipped in chipotle hummus (spicy!), and read Steven Millhauser's The Knife Thrower and Other Stories. One of those books I bought years ago and was embarrassed to have never read.

I didn't love the book--only a few days ago I read Haruki Murakami's Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which set a very high bar for that fine line between fantasy and literary fiction--but I did love one story, "Paradise Park," about an increasingly complex amusement park built in New York in the mid-1920s. The story first appeared in Grand Street, which must have been a bit of a coup, since Millhauser regularly publishes in The New Yorker. The line that stuck with me was this one:

"In the world of commercial amusement, success is measured in profit; but it is also measured in something less tangible, which may be called approval, or esteem, or fame, but which really is a measure of the world's compliance in permitting a private dream to become a public fact."

That's a perfect penetration of the mystery of pop culture, the way the most popular pleasures are also the most vulnerable to mocking. Just a matter of which way the wind if blowing. I'll donate this book to the mini-library in my studio. It's a good, fast read, and could easily inspire. Please forgive the teeny-tiny smear of hummus on page 225.


I also read a collection of Susan Orlean's profile pieces, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. I love the way she indulges her eye, following the moments of action that fascinate her (rather than the story's externally prescribed money shots). When editors of one magazine approached her to write a cover story on a then-10-year-old Macauley Culkin under the title "The American Man at Age 10," she responded by selling them a story on a real American kid--just a kid picked at random, living a few towns over. The result is a deeply charming portrait on life in the suburbs circa 1990.

That was a good thing for me to be reading as I work on Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, as I try to have faith that I'm not the only one who finds these stories interesting.


To the road! The evening walk is nigh.

July 05, 2009

Letting the Real World in for a Minute

Okay, okay, I can't resist poking beyond the Jentel bubble for a minute...Check out Poetry Daily for Monday, July 6. = ) And if you missed its appearance on July 4--busy with sparklers and apple pie, perhaps--Jehanne had a lovely poem featured, "Sea-Change," from the latest issue of Prairie Schooner.


Maureen points out a noticeable design echo between W. W. Norton and Big Game Books. Hmmm. Larceny is the highest compliment. But if Norton sends along the cover design for I Was the Jukebox and it looks mysteriously like this, I will speak up.


The new online issue of CUE is gorgeous. I really like how they adapted the design aesthetic of the print version to the virtual presentation; the name, by the way, is a clever reference to the editorial focus on prose poems. Poets & Writers made an unfortunate mistake in referring to it as "defunct" in the most recent issue. Behold the phoenix CUE! Congratulations to Morgan and all associated.


This Real Simple essay contest intrigued me...until I read the fine print and realized ALL submissions become property of Real Simple. Meaning that if it doesn't win, and/or they do not publish it, you can't then turn around and send the essay somewhere else. The creative material of "When did you first realize you became a grown-up" is awfully precious to surrender to a contest.


Programs like this one (courtesy of Charlie) make me really proud to be on the Board of the Writer's Center:

The Writer's Center Announces Fellowships for Emerging Writers

The Writer’s Center, metropolitan DC’s community gathering place for writers and readers, is currently accepting submissions for several competitive Emerging Writer Fellowships. Emerging Writer Fellows will be selected from applicants who have published up to 2 book-length works of prose and up to 3 book-length works of poetry. We welcome submissions from writers of any genre, background, or experience.

Emerging Writer Fellows will be featured at The Writer’s Center as part of their Emerging Writers Reading Series. The readings, held on Friday evenings, bring together writers in different genres with a backdrop of live music. The Writer’s Center book store will sell titles by the Emerging Writers throughout the season in which they appear in an effort to promote them and their work to a wide audience.

Selected Fellows are invited to lead a special Saturday workshop at The Writer’s Center, with compensation commensurate with standard Writer’s Center provisions.

Fellows receive an all-inclusive honorarium to help offset their travel costs in the amount of $250 or $500, depending on their place of departure.

Fellows for Fall 2009 include novelist Alexander Chee (Edinburgh), novelist Lisa Selin Davis (Belly), poet Suzanne Frischkorn (Lit Windowpane), poet Aaron Smith (Blue on Blue Ground), Canadian fiction writer Neal Smith (Bang Crunch), poet Srikanth Reddy (Facts for Visitors), and poet Nancy Krygowski (Velocity).

Their events will be held in September, October, and December. See our events calendar for more information.

Spring 2009 events will be held in February, March, and April/May.

To be considered, please send a letter of interest, a resume or CV that details publication history and familiarity facilitating group discussions, and a copy of your most recent book. Self-published or vanity press titles will not be accepted. A committee comprised of The Writer’s Center board members, staff, and members will evaluate submissions on behalf of our community of writers.

The deadline to submit is August 15, 2009.

Applicants are encouraged to call Charles Jensen, Director, for more information at 301-654-8664.

The Writer’s Center, established in 1976, is one of the nation’s oldest and largest literary centers. We provide over 60 free public events and more than 200 writing workshops each year, sell one of the largest selections of literary magazines in our on-site bookstore, and publish Poet Lore, America’s oldest continually published poetry journal.