December 29, 2009

Like a Cat

Today is both bright and mercilessly cold here in DC. I want to curl up in a sunny spot on the bedspread, tuck my head under my arm, and sleep like a cat. Like most of you, I'm drifting along in the post-holiday daze, during which 2010 blinks like a beacon of hope. There will be better eating, a cleaner house, and disciplined productivity. There will be freelancing that feels less like a crapshoot and more like a career. There will be computer-printed labels on my file folders.

How strange to be typing this only a few feet from the dining room table where, on Inauguration Day in January 2009, as my sister sipped soup in a desperate attempt to warm up following a disastrous pilgrimage to the National Mall, I glanced down at my laptop and found an email that knocked over the first in a series of dominoes. One book sold. Another book won. I quit my job. I ran away to Wyoming for a month. I heard from translators of my work in Mexico, Bangladesh, and Iraq.

I say all this not to brag, but to admit that the last twelve months have been pretty damn surreal. Things that once seemed far out of reach are, suddenly, within the realm of possibility. But with that agency comes responsibility. This has been a year of promises made. 2010 has to be a year of promises delivered. And to be perfectly honest, dear readers, that's a little terrifying.

The holiday decorations are still up. The volume of emails is still down. Because my family is local, I don't have to spend these days in transit. So this feels like a stolen time. At best, a chance to square away enough work to enter the new year feeling good instead of guilty. At worst, that sunny spot on the bed awaits.

The cover of my first book, inspired by the title poem, shows a cat going through the helical stages of falling. In 2010, may I be so clever in my acrobatics and alignments. In 2010, may the ground rise to meet me.

December 20, 2009

Fearless Leaders, Snow, & Whatnot

DC folks know that I'm proud to be on the Board for the Writer's Center. I joined the Board soon after Charles Jensen came on as the Director. I feel a kinship with Charlie because we are both younger poets; when I learned he was the new director, I knew that signaled the onset of long-overdue growth and change.

So it's no surprise--but still merits a hearty YEAH!--to announce that Charlie has just been elected to the Emerging Leader Council of Americans for the Arts, which is now in its 10th year. He is one of seven new members and the only representative of the literary arts. ELC members engage the field of arts leadership on the national level, learn firsthand about new programs and resources (courtesy of Americans for the Arts), and are charged with designing and implementing programs for their peers.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Charlie is awesome, and has jump-started the Writer's Center's activities and goals. Because of his service he is being asked to share his leadership principles on a national level, and in return will receive some much-merited attention and support for his own professional career.

...Which is a roundabout way of saying I'm glad to be along for the ride. If you're a writer who has not volunteered, think about doing so in 2010. I'm not a do-gooder. I'm infamous for not recycling. I hate to admit it, but I've never ladled soup in a community kitchen. But I do support my local writing community, at all skills levels, from all backgrounds, and people like Charlie inspire me to do more.


So, we've had some snow. We've had a lot of snow. 16 inches, best as I can tell from what is piled up on our balcony--an unusually deep snowfall for downtown. Fun to walk in on the first day, when pedestrians took over and the snow was still falling; not so fun on the second day, when cars reclaimed roads and we had to jump slushy curb-moats four inches deep. Why do people panic over grocery supplies in a city? The local bakeries sold out on Friday night. Seriously, people, there are five grocery stores and umpteen restaurants within a five-block radius. Take snow for what its worth: an excuse to stay in with soup, or venture out for a snowball fight. Don't buy six loaves of whole wheat as if the apocalypse is nigh.


Another snow pastime: Breaking Bad. I'd pitched Netflix-ing this series a few times over the past year, based on my love for Bryan Cranston courtesy of Malcolm in the Middle, the early years. But it wasn't until the wrap of Mad Men and Top Chef that we were driven to give this show a shot. The verdict, based on Season One: Love it. The pace is a little wobbly and the premise is fundamentally grim, but the acting is spot-on. (This is something I also could have also said about X-Files, and sure enough the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, worked on that show as well.) I like Weeds, but this is the anti-Weeds--no broad humor, no perky set design, no pretending the drug world is run by sexy MILFs. Season Two awaits!


Below is a call for submissions from Persea, a truly wonderful independent press that (always a bonus) distributes its books through W. W. Norton. They have decided to begin sponsoring another prize in the name of Lexi Rudnitsky, a wonderful poet who died too young. Through these tragic circumstances comes something promising--a post first-book award, which is a precious commodity in the poetry world. Check it out....

December 16, 2009

Small Ways to Survive the Holidays

-Pet a puppy.

-Find a can or jar of something past its expiration date in your kitchen, and throw it away. Don't try to convince yourself of its use. Junk it. Don't look back.

-Read Donald Hall's Life Work. 

-Buy a new scarf in a ridiculous pattern.

-Apple cider + Leopold's Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur + low heat + espresso-sized mug.

-Bring a live flower into your home whose shape and color scheme has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. A yellow rose. A spray of purple tulips.

-Pick one calendar day between now and the end of the year and book yourself a cheap, comfort-food dinner out. Soup, bagel, happy-hour sushi, whatever. Every other day can get booked to the gills, but keep that dinner clear. Take a trashy magazine to read. Talk to no one.

-In DC? Go visit the trains at the U.S. Botanic Gardens.

-Select a large Ritz cracker. Smother with chunky peanut butter. Drizzle with honey, ideally issued from a bear-shaped container. Eat. Repeat.

-Two words: duckpin bowling.

December 10, 2009

Verse Daily

Somewhere around the time I was crossing my t's and dotting my i's on the report from Pittsburgh, my poem "Antietam" (featured in the new issue of Gulf Coast) went up on Verse Daily. Hooray!

O City (My Trip)

First, a poem by Jack Gilbert:


We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.


This is one of my favorites by Jack Gilbert, and I found myself thinking of it during this weekend in Pittsburgh. Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.


You know what bodes well? When you roll into town after five draining hours on the road, and the place that you stop in, a block away from your host's house--determined to regain your sanity through food, before meeting people--turns out to be vegan, tasty, and cheap. Meet Quiet Storm coffeehouse, where I feasted on ginger-lemonade, vegetable curry, and a poppyseed slaw that was so tasty I had it for breakfast with my bagel when we returned on Sunday morning.

Dave English, my host, is a formally trained artist/puppeteer and a creative force behind the Schmutz Company.  Knowing I was slated to take part in the Typewriter Girls show on Sunday, he invited me up a couple of days early to make a cameo appearance at his Burned! house party, which was part of the Penn Avenue Arts' unBlurred monthly first-Friday open-studio night. Frankly, I'd have driven up from DC just to see Dave's house. Top to bottom, it is curated in a way that shows Dave is an artist: hand-hewn and asymmetric woodwork, cork figures jumping out from the living room walls (the puppet in the above image has taken up new residence in a Christmas wreath), display nooks cut into the drywall, a paper mache skeleton on a stretcher hoisted high into the peaked ceiling.

The party kicked ass. It began quietly, with a few of us drawn to the craft table (raffia, glue guns, foam and glitter) like moths to the flame, amped up with a series of sets from The 4 Roses (a blend of country, rock and originals: "Music to drink, cry, and kill to and/or over"), progressed into "El Paso," a heartbreaking silhouette play from the brilliant Flora Shepherd and the tuneful Missy Rateman, and culminating in some fire juggling in the backyard by Dave Doyle.

Did I mention there was a fire pit in the backyard? A heart-shaped firepit? A place to stand, until 2 in the morning, ignoring that the fact that my whole coat was being infused with raw woodsmoke, sipping from my flask of scotch? Oh, and that somewhere in the middle of all that, we had an improvised one-act involving much kvetching and moaning over broken hearts, a trio of poems, and luring Dave out from the bathroom even after his head had transmogrified into an oversized skull-monster?

Just another Friday on the road.


I did nothing poetic on Saturday. Instead I went to Fallingwater... the snow. Not so much to make the drive truly treacherous, thank goodness, but enough so that they had a fire going on in the Frank-Lloyd-Wright-designed living room. Which maybe was a little poetic, now that I think about it. We slipped through narrow hallways. We stuck our heads out of windowed corners. We listened to the water falling. I can see why people becomes pilgrims for the great architects.

After trekking back to town, Dave and I went out for an early dinner to a neighborhood place (sports on TV, flannel-shirted men at the bar) that also happened to have 1) amazing Christmas microbrews on draft, 2) sweet potato fries, and 3) an electronic darts game (which we were lousy at...but lousy with great enthusiasm!).

We came back. We each tried to work on our respective projects. We each failed to work. We watched Fantasia as the buzz from beer and darts wore off, and then we were done. By midnight, I was dreaming of dancing hippos, invading brooms, and Toots, the resident evil cat.


Having been part of a previous Typewriter Girls show, I knew what to expect: funny skits (this time centering on a series of surreal and ill-advised schemes to raise the money needed to "save the libraries"); sideshow-style entertainment (this time involving a 83 oddly-shaped items, balanced on one chin, in the space of 10 minutes); fellow writers (once again, the wonderful Nancy Krygowski). And, of course, a round of Exquisite Corpse on an antique typewriter.

But there were also some big differences this time around. The setting was much for more formal (the auditorium of the main Carnegie library) with no whiskey on hand to warm us up. The audience was a bit scattered, folks drifting in mopey from a Steelers' game lost earlier in the day. I was nervous to be slated to perform at the front of the show--and after NAKA Entertainment, a hip-hop/dance group. What would their energy be like?

Um. How about devastatingly beautiful? The first few numbers were the bouncy step-clap routines I was expecting, but then they broke out an amazing solo set to "Hide and Seek," one of my favorite Imogen Heap songs (that has been shamelessly appropriated, as of late, in a sample for a Jason Derulo track). There's no posted video from Sunday, but I found this video of an earlier performance of the number:

If this is his version WITH A BUM KNEE, can you imagine Sunday's show? Tears came to my eyes. That was the upside.

The downside: then I had to follow this guy.

Probably not my best set ever. I changed my poem selection at the last minute--inspired by NAKA, I wanted to read some older, more personal poems--and one of the NAKA dancers had an asthma attack, which generated a heckuva distraction at the back of the hall. But between the silent auction (to which I contributed a book) and the door fees, they raised $900! A successful night in terms of what matters. & I was honored to be part of a line-up of otherwise local artists and to be granted, for just one evening, honorary residence in the Iron City.

It's such a great creative community. I've been to other places that exhibited a flagrant & quirky hometown pride: Austin comes to mind. But what I love about Pittsburgh is the fellowship across genres, the scrappy willingness to fight for better infrastructure, better funding, bigger dreams. Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.

December 07, 2009

I'll Never Tell

First: Thanks, Barrelhouse, for the Pushcart Prize nomination! I was honored to have "Antiquity" appear in Issue 7, otherwise known as "The Future" issue. Now I look forward to getting my t-shirt (shown right).

While I gather my thoughts for an ode to Pittsburgh, I wanted to direct your attention to the blog for No Tell Motel, which has been posting 2009 book recommendations. My picks can be found here. I also want to share Nicole Steinberg's list, because 1) she's a cool chick and 2) I like her taste in books...

Best Poetry Books of 2009 - Nicole Steinberg

Saint Nobody by Amy Lemmon (Red Hen Press)

A Plate of Chicken by Matthew Rohrer (Ugly Ducking Press)

Apocalyptic Swing by Gabrielle Calvocoressi (Persea Books)

The Dance of No Hard Feelings by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon)

Advanced Elvis Course by CAConrad (Soft Skull Press)

Ka-Ching! by Denise Duhamel (University of Pittsburgh Press)

[[Nicole Steinberg is an editor-at-large of LIT, contributing editor to BOMB, and the founder, curator, and host of Earshot (, a reading series dedicated to emerging writers. Her work appears in Coconut, BOMB, Barrow Street, Wheelhouse, No Tell Motel and elsewhere, and she’s the author of the forthcoming chapbooks Undressing (Scantily Clad Press) and Gamblers (Taiga Press). She lives in Queens, NY.]]

See what more No Tell poets are reading by visiting the blog.

December 04, 2009

On the Road

I've been quiet for the last two days because I've been working on the nonfiction and, frankly, because nothing tops my anticipation of Pittsburgh. One of the commenters has pointed out it may not be the "Emerald City"; that title might belong to Seattle. He suggests "Iron City" instead. Hmmmm. Okay, I can believe that, but tonight we're bending iron into rainbows.

More specifically, I'll be making a cameo in the Scmutz Company's BURNED! show, as part of (or anti- to) Unblurred.

Off I go!

December 01, 2009

If this Shark Ain't Swimming, It's Dying

First: Thanks, The Normal School, for the Pushcart Prize nomination! How cool to be up there with Beth Ann Fennelly. I can't wait to see the issue.

Second: Thanks, Steve! As part of an ongoing project, poet Steve Schroeder took a line from a poem in Theories of Falling ("My Los Alamos") and as the title of his own draft. Very cool. You can find my poem here.

I've spent the last few days hacking through the thorny underbrush of writer's block. I've invoked the nuclear option: getting ready as if I'm going to pull an all-nighter, pretending to ignore the doubting demons who from each shoulder. Pouring a glass. Eating a snack. Then...falling asleep on the couch fully clothed, contacts in, lights on.

I wake up feeling so guilty at the lost potential of the previous night that I go straight to the laptop (or bring it back to the couch) and start typing. Being only half-awake myself, the demons sleep in for a few precious hours, leaving me alone with my thoughts. It's a short-term option, best used when single or in the isolation of a writer's colony (someone explained to me tonight the phenomenon of assuming "geographic bachelor" status, though I think that had shadier connotations).

The downsides of this tactic: unnecessary midnight rounds of peanut butter, tumblers of scotch poured and then wasted, a general feeling of grunginess.

The upside: Words.

I have a particularly rich incentive to get some work done in the next few days, because next weekend I am going to Pittsburgh. As you might remember from earlier posts, I have a bit of a crush on the Emerald City. When Typewriter Girls were kind enough to invite me back up for their fundraiser reading in support of the Carnegie Libraries on Sunday, December 6, I couldn't say no. I was a proud card-carrier of Tysons Pimmit Regional Library, growing up. Public libraries changed my life.

Then when I looked at the calendar and saw that December 4 was the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative's "Unblurred," a beefier version of the open-artist-studio nights known as First Fridays here in DC, I couldn't resist the chance to get to know Pittsbugh's visual arts scene a little better. In for a penny, in for a pound, at least when it comes to road trips. That means I'll have all Saturday to get lost in the Andy Warhol Museum and, per my mother's long-running wishes, walk the grounds of Fallingwater.

But all that fun is fun I've got to earn. So, to bed! Lights out! the couch. Lights...on.

Whatever it takes.