Where to begin? On June 8 I hopped the bus from DC to New York, where I got to read in Bryant Park as part of the Word for Word series with David Eye, Maya Funaro, and Jack Lynch. We had a big crowd, easily 75 people, and the readings got written up here. (Favorite quote: "I got the impression that poets become defacto guardians of the strange and oddly compelling things of this world when Sandra confessed her long night of researching the role that the Capybara has played in all manner of religions and cultural practices the world over.")
All the poets were great; David identified himself as an actor who had done some Broadway work. I'm pretty sure, if I have my dates right, that I saw him star as Old Dueteronomy in Cats circa 1996, but it seemed rude to mention it.
Beforehand I got together with some of the folks from W. W. Norton, whose offices are around the corner from the Park, to toast I Was the Jukebox in the Algonquin Hotel's Blue Room. In my early 20s, on my first trip to New York for work, the Algonquin was the one place I pilgrimmed to--I am a huge Dorothy Parker fan, and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle had come out just a few years earlier. I remember sitting with my blank notepad and my impossibly large martini and thinking, Okay. Now what? Then scribbling nonsense, just to be scribbling something.
When I got back from New York I had only a few days to pack before making the long drive to Oxford, MS. I also had a book to finish. Even though I've been steadily accumulating chapters for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl over the past year, at a certain point outlines fall to the wayside. You have to make sure the interesting outweighs the obligatory; you have to make sure that two sequential chapters written months apart feel continuous in tone; you have to find an organic ending (not easy when you're trying to write a "memoir" at the age of 30). I've been careening down the track with no clear finish line.
Much as I wanted to hit Send before I got in the car, I knew the hours on the road would be useful time to mull and parse the MS. At times it was maddening--twice I dallied at stop lights, meriting a honk from the car behind me, because I was still jotting down notes. An incredibly productive night at the Aloft Hotel in Franklin, TN, moved things along. The hotel gave me a gift in the form of a desk that was pushed right up to a window overlooking trees. (Originally I'd thought I'd do an epic pit stop in Nashville--I'd even reserved a seat at the Bluebird Cafe--but then I realized I was trying to visit the same weekend as the Country Music Awards. Not meant to be. I bought a "dinner" of a to-go salad in the lobby and settled in to work.)
The plan had been to pick up poet Beth Ann Fennelly from the airport on Sunday afternoon, for a welcome dinner in Memphis and a guided tour into Oxford. But two cancelled flights later, Beth Ann was stranded in Atlanta and I was navigating on my own. Tom Franklin, Beth Ann's husband and a great novelist, met me at the Grisham House with two bottles of wine ("They don't sell on Sunday," he warned me) and kids in tow. Since Tom and Beth Ann were some of the first writers in residence at Grisham House--back when it was called Lawrence House--the kids were happy to gallop through familiar rooms.
Here's a glimpse of the Grisham House:
This house for years belonged to Seymour Lawrence, a renowned independent book publisher who was lured to Oxford from New York City by one of his authors, the inestimable Barry Hannah. Lawrence also edited Tim O'Brien, Jim Harrison, Katherine Anne Porter, and Kurt Vonnegut. He shared this house with his companion, Joan Williams...who had also been Faulkner's mistress once upon a time.
I love the layout of this kitchen, but I could tell it had been a bit of a bachelor's household before. I was left with three different kinds of toothpicks and grilling charcoal, but no cleaning supplies.
This is the dining room and the sitting room, where I'll be hosting a group of the Ole Miss MFA students later this week for a salon dinner. Not sure what I'll cook yet. Some whole-roasted animal is the alleged tradition, but given that the last Poet in Resident's brother Joe just happens to be the local barbeque expert (seriously; he's filmed whole documentaries on the subject!) I think I may stick to where my talents can better shine.
Here's where I'm spending most of my time--the best of the three bedrooms, with this gorgeous desk at the far end. It is where I am typing this now, having bought a 50-foot cable so I could bring the internet access in from another room. Those bookcases are stuffed with John Grisham titles, Encyclopedia Britannica's "Book of the Year" series from 1961-1969, and a hodgepodge of art books.
Hard to believe a week has flown by, mostly filled with cleaning and fridge-stocking and nesting. I'll file some impressions of Oxford in the coming days. And, oh, in case you were wondering--
I turned the book in. I. turned. the. book. in.
Fingers crossed that they, y'know, like it.
Either way, for the first time since June 1 I feel like I have permission to write things not book-related. So if you have wondered where I've been...I've been driving 900 miles, editing 60,000 words, facing the many question marks of my fall, and eating too much chips and salsa. All to come back to you. It's good to be home here, even if I'm vagabonding it in all other areas of my life these days.