November 25, 2011

Miami Moments (2011 Book Fair Int'l)

Home. After a 17-hour drive from Florida to DC, which was broken up via an overnight with a friend's mother, a chips & salsa-fest at South of the Border during which I workshopped a friend's latest poetry manuscript, and listening to the memoirs of Roger Ebert as an audiobook read by George Herrmann (Grandpa Gilmore) that includes all you never needed to know about Ebert's sexual awakening. After the 1 AM Wednesday morning arrival when I hauled my suitcase out of the car, fell asleep for four hours, woke to take my shoes off, slept another five hours. After the shopping/cooking spree to prepare for Thanksgiving at my grandmother's house. Now I'm enjoying my post-turkey coma in my satin robe. Home.

Miami Book Fair International was all I could have dreamed of--and that's coming from a girl who has done every conceivable variety of reading, fest, and conference in these past few years. The atmosphere was energized without being frantic. The caliber of presenters was SO high. (I met Susan Orlean! And Chuck Palahniuk! And we actually talked like real people!) I signed books. I did a couple interviews. Here are some glimpses, some memories. They are not comprehensive. But they're all mine. 

I stayed at "Spa Ortega," my friends' house in Coral Gables. They are a family artists and the whole place has an overgrown beauty. I sat on this balcony outside my bedroom each day to eat a quiet lunch before plunging into the Fair maelstrom. 

My first event was Friday's Literary Death Match at Bardot. Here I am as host Todd Zuniga introduces me to my opponent: Jennifer Hayden, author/illustrator of Underwire. Jennifer rocks--great sense of humor--and Todd is a fellow relentless traveler with invaluable energy. 
(Photo credit Neil de la Flor) 

There are wonderful play-by-plays of the action up at the LDM website, the Knight Arts blog, and New Times Miami, so I won't belabor the point beyond saying three things... 

One: I was giddy to share a stage with T.M. Shine. I have been a fan since reading his essays in the Washington Post Magazine, where we were brought in by the editor (the legendary Tom Shroder or, as Gene Weingarten calls him, Tom the Butcher).

Two: The judges were excellent. Their job isn't an easy; it's delicate to come up with instant critiques--across the categories of "literary merit," "performance," and "intangibles"--that entertain the crowd, hold a smidgen of truth, and don't sacrifice the author. You can only see the tip of Justin Torres's (very expressive) fingers in this shot. The other judges are Jeff Newelt (left), and Dean Haspiel (right, dreaming of puppies). 

Three: If I'd made it to the Spelling Bee round, I'd have kicked Mat Johnson's ass. He gave the most electrifying reading of the night. But the man can't spell for beans.
(Photo credit x 4 Todd Zuniga)

On Saturday four blocks of NE Second Avenue filled with families out to enjoy the readings, the sunshine, numerous open-air events for kids, the sheer spectacle. I kept pinching myself, thinking, "This is taking place in November? Really?"

I was bummed that my own signing kept me from the Rock Bottom Remainders, so I made up for it by catching Chuck Palahniuk. What you see here did, in fact, feel more like a 9:30 Club show than a reading. A woman in a deviled-egg costume threw inflatable brains at the audience. CP read a story that first appeared in Playboy. And then a second story, the infamous "Guts," that caused not one but -two- people to pass out in the audience. (Not staged; I was sitting by them.) 

Later that night, I got to talk with CP at the Author's Party. He admitted he dreads being on display for hours in front of an audience, and I realized the histrionics--from the inflatables to candy bars to dancing eggs--is a buffer for a man who is genuinely overwhelmed by crowds, but at this point in his career cannot avoid them. He is sweet and frighteningly talented. The party at Cafeina was fun once you abandoned the front room for the outdoor patio. I was thrilled to reunite with Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Tayari Jones, and to talk more with Todd and Jennifer. We were in Wynwood, so like all the venues in that neighborhood there was art on display. At one point we feared a bucket o' gilded Kentucky Fried Chicken had gone missing via some drunk writer, but it turns out the owner just had the good sense to hide it. 

Some of us went around the corner to a late-night opening, complete with band and communal graffiti flats. And dancing! Dancing was a highlight. The DJ, Otto Von Schirach, is the fiance of Monica Lopez de Victoria, one-half of the TM Sisters, and a mini LegalArt reunion with Monica, Tasha, Jiae and Juan ensued. And later on...this. This is what happens when you run around with the comics & graphic artist crew. 
(Photo credit Jeff Newelt, which was his smart way of staying out of the picture)

Best craft services table ever. Look at those melons! Not to mention the red velvet cake. 

Sunday I was honored to share "The Poet's Voice" stage with Denise Duhamel (introducing), Michael Hettich (who I'd met when I read at Books & Books last year), Pablo Medina (I'm awed by his Neruda scholarship) and the incomparable Beth Ann, my Oxford guardian/host/goddess/inspiration/fellow Nortoneer/favorite. 
(Photo credit Neil de la Flor)

So glad I stuck around to catch Ravi Shankar, a Connecticut friend who I only get to see when we cross paths at conferences & such. One poem, "Oyster," he revealed is dedicated to me in his new book! I'd seen an earlier version in a chapbook and loved it. 

The one reading I was 100% determined to make this weekend was Neil de la Flor and Maureen Seaton sharing from their collaborative book, Sinéad O'Connor and Her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds. (So glad to finally meet and hear Emma Trelles, too.) Though I know from having bumped into them shortly beforehand that their prep time was minimal, you'd have never known it from the reading: funny, smart, unexpectedly poignant. 

Comic book break! I slipped away from "The Poet's Voice" to see some of my new LDM friends in a panel on Harvey Pekar's work and legacy. The rockstar panel consisted of Dean, Joyce Brabner (Pekar's widow), Joseph Remnant, and Jeff. A lot of substantive things discussed, including future publications and the Pekar Project, and some fun trivia too: the origin of American Splendor, Leonardo DiCaprio's onetime hope to play Robert Crumb and a (thankfully) failed attempt to recruit Pekar to write the script for Howard the Duck. 

(Photo credit Neil de la Flor)

I rejoined the poets and we escaped downtown, heading to Soyka for dinner. I had ceviche while others had Matzoh ball soup. That's Miami for you. I sat next to Maureen; we've tried to cross paths in Florida before, always failing, so this was our first chance in years to actually catch up. She was the first teacher I workshopped with after finishing my MFA when I went to the 2005 Indiana Writer's Conference on the Vesle Fenstermaker Scholarship. Time has flown! She said she was proud of me.

Later a few of the hardiest souls drove to Key Biscayne, where we pulled off to look black at the glittering downtown we'd called home for three days. We passed around the flask of scotch. How I have missed this city, its people, my sense of self when held within its arms. In this moment, standing on the shore, I knew: I will be back again and again. 

November 15, 2011

Miami, We Meet Again

Hey! This week's story up at REDUX ("Work Worth a Second Run") is "Driving in Snow" by Joseph M. Schuster. You can read it here.

Hey! (Part 2) We are now in the Seminfinals round at the Goodreads Choice Awards, so those who voted can vote all over again. Please, please support Don't Kill the Birthday Girl in the "Food and Cooking" category. Write-in votes from the first round determined that my competition now includes not only Gwyneth Paltrow and El Bulli but Paula Dean and Alton Brown. I don't know that I or anyone can take down the Fabulous Paula Deen, Butter Queen...but it would be really amazing if a girl who has never used butter in her life got to share the Finalist round with her. Voting it super-easy and fast; and after November 2o they'll tally votes to determine the Top 5 in each of the 18 categories. There have been over 320,000 votes cast! If you're interested in the slate of SheWriters, I've posted a round-up here. I'm rooting for Tayari Jones's Silver Sparrow in the "Fiction" category.

This week I am really excited to return to Miami, where I spent five weeks in the early part of the year as the inaugural writer-in-residence for LegalArt. I didn't fully appreciate the gift of that opportunity at the time: to step into an unfamiliar city (in a raw downtown neighborhood) and plunge into a community of eight visual artists, complete with avant garde sculpture installations in the sinks and 2 AM ping-pong matches in the shared kitchen. It was completely random and awesome but, of course, I was too damn worn out from my travels to enjoy that. I was missing home, missing a boy in Mississippi, and on deadline for a long reported piece. It had been a while since I'd enjoyed the night-owl rhythms of my 20s and I struggled to get work done. 

Here's a photo that the funny, acerbic, wonderful Miami poet Neil de la Flor took of me one night, when we went out so I could take notes on the Wynwood Art Walk...

I'd made the mistake of turning a gift into a job, thinking that was the Responsible thing to do. But since then, I've realized my time there broadened my understanding of being a working artist in the world. Though sometimes moody (and at one point suffering a beyond-bad allergy attack), I did get to know the real town and the people who make it special. There were great nights. I hope I get to catch a few songs at Luna Star Cafe, treat myself to the beet & heirloom tomato salad at Michael's Genuine and the chickpea panisse at Michy, see what new letterpress posters are up at Sweat Records. I hope I get to walk along the jetty and boardwalk at the south tip of the beach. 

I'm honored to have THREE events in conjunction with Miami Book Fair International. I'll be in the audience, too; on Saturday I hope to catch Gabrielle Hamilton (Blood, Bones and Butter), Karen Russell (Swamplandia!)--I missed her when we were both at the Decatur Book Festival--and I want to hear the Rock Bottom Remainders play (Dave Barry, Scott Turow...a whole lotta writers making a whole lotta noise). On Sunday I'll dash from my reading to hear Oxford friend Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter), and then there's an amazing afternoon panel on memoir featuring Bill Clegg, Jill Bialosky, and Kelle Groom. This is one of the biggest literary festivals in the country, and I urge you to come by: a gift to yourself pre-Thanksgiving hassle.  

Where I'll be reading, November 18-20~

Friday, November 18 - 8 PM - $10 at door
Bardot (3456 North Miami Avenue)

"All-star judges--Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), artist Dean Haspiel (the mastermind behind the Bored to Death intro), and novelist Justin Torres (We the Animals)--will pass judgment on a fierce foursome of diverse combatants, including Mat Johnson (Pym), T.M. Shine (Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You), comics mastermind Jennifer Hayden (the brain behind Underwire), and poet/non-fictionist Sandra Beasley (I Was the Jukebox)."

Saturday, November 19 - 5 PM - Free
Room 3410 (Building 3, 4th Floor)
at Miami Dade College (300 NE Second Ave.)

"Sandra Beasley on tales from an allergic life, Peter Selgin on his life as an artist, Mireya Mayor on her journey from NFL cheerleader to National Geographic explorer."

Sunday, November 20 - 12:30 PM - Free
Centre Gallery (Building 1, 3rd Fl, Rm 1365)
at Miami Dade College

"Readings by Michael Hettich, Beth Ann Fennelly, Sandra Beasley and Pablo Medina."

See you there. Yes, I'll have my flask. 

November 11, 2011

If You Don't Ask

The more I tour, the better I get at speaking up. No capricious demands; no all-red M&Ms in the green room or bottles of Fiji water. Sometimes it's a matter of asking for quiet moment to plan my book talk, or dinner at the Sandra-friendly restaurant instead of the pizza party. Sometimes it is a matter of wrestling over copyedits with editors--No, you can't cut that for fit--which I've also been doing from the road, for a freelance piece that will be out later this year. You haven't know frustration until you've tried to proof a PDF layout using an iPhone.

Sometimes it's a matter of saying Hey, I wrote that. Yesterday, walking down a sidewalk in Bronxville the morning after a Sarah Lawrence visit, I saw the local bookstore--Womrath Bookshop. I decided to stop in. 

Would they have Don't Kill the Birthday Girl? Yep, there it was (next to Molly Birnbaum's Season to Taste, one of my favorite and most frequent shelf-neighbors). 

 A year ago this would have been the part where I smiled and walked out quietly. But now I say Hey, I wrote that. Would you like me to sign it?

And that's how you get to leap above Saul Bellow. 

I'm typing this from Fuel, a Great Barrington coffeeshop, after reading at The Bookstore in Lenox last night. A year ago I'd have paid for a hotel room, cursing myself for again losing money on the road. This time I said to the bookstore owner Hey, can you help me? So he let me crash on his couch in Housatonic (and also, borrow his daughter's slippers--the floors of the Berkshires are freezing). We stayed up drinking whiskey, talking books.

I almost moved to Great Barrington once. Feels like a lifetime ago; my first big job search after grad school. I had a chance to become an editorial assistant at Orion: a glossy, creative, beautifully designed nature magazine that even runs poetry. I choked. I backed out. I'd never been to the Berkshires, I'd never even been to New York on my own, and I was scared. It would be a few more years before I'd come up here for the first time--to the Millay Colony--and discover the quirky, vibrant multi-town community that would have embraced me if I'd made the leap. Sometimes, on drives like this one, I feel a little twinge of regret for the adventure not taken. 

I wasn't ready. I didn't recognize my needs, nor did I know how to ask the world to honor them. So often we focus on cultivating voice on the page. We draft. We edit. We proof. Yet you haven't really found your voice until you use it to speak up for yourself. 

Someone told me the other day, You're so good at the self-promotion stuff. It wasn't clear to either one of us whether that was meant as a compliment. The thing is, you have to be ready to be your own best advocate. There's a world of people ready to be excited for you & your work. There's a world of people ready to lend a hand or a couch. But you have to ask. 

November 04, 2011

A Food-loving Night in Philly (& Goodreads!)

I signed on for some extensive touring in the latter half of October. But it didn't fully hit me until I drove back from Mississippi on Halloween Day, fell asleep fully clothed beside a still-packed suitcase, and woke up Tuesday morning needing to with only an hour to unpack, repack, and get to the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition by 9 AM. 

(FYI, their College Park facility isn't listed in the public directory if you happen to be stuck in Beltway traffic and trying to call. "It better exist," I told the 411 operator.)

What followed was a dozen meetings with scientists, regulatory experts, and high-ranking CFSAN officials, as well as an opportunity to read from Don't Kill the Birthday Girl as part of a talk simulcast to two other FDA facilities. We talked about peanut proteins, FALCPA labeling, the difficulty of determining allergen contamination thresholds, the need for more food challenge data. My favorite moment was when one director started to talk about the challenges his office faced, paused and said "Well, I don't need to tell you--[gesturing at my memoir]--you've got it all in there." 

I came away understanding of the scope of their powers; what they do, what they could do better, what they can't be held responsible for. Those folks are working so hard. I hope my visit put a face on the people they serve and protect. 

What's this got to do with a food-loving night in Philly? Well, I drove directly from the FDA to Union Station, and boarded a train north. On Wednesday I would speak at the Union League for an annual medical conference sponsored by Philadelphia's Children's Hospital. I was excited to see the city--a new one to me. My host, Dr. Joel Fiedler (who contacted me out of the blue after reading the book) picked me up at the station--greeting me with a glittery-wrapped gift. 

"I read your blog and saw you mention this," he said. 

We went to a restaurant called POD that features tables for two set into the walls and red vinyl couches that evoke The Jetsons. Dr. Fiedler is the best of the best allergists--experienced, reasonable, with a sense of humor and compassion. We talked over a meal that included silken Japanese eggplant with niku chicken miso and rich chicken with "Tokyo scallion," both cooked over the 1000-degree robata grill.

"That should kill any offending allergen proteins," Joel joked. 

I remembered my pathetic penny-pinched dinner in the Copley Square Hotel after the Boston Book Festival: sardines out of a tin over rice crackers left over from my Hockessin Book Shelf reading in Delaware. None of that, I decided. This was my final stop before coming home to invariably crash in DC after 22 days on the road. I was going to enjoy. This seemed to be a town friendly to writers, after all. How often do you pass public street art that serves to paint the concrete around it in light-language?

Over a later scotch at the Union League's bar, a tablemate recommended a gastropub called Dandelion housed in a townhouse down Sansom. (This was one of those random, magical conversations that happens when two strangers order the same pour of single malt...we also talked chess.) After the next day of conversations with research doctors, pediatricians, and nurses, I called my mother from beside the Liberty Bell to tell her I was going out for a great meal before coming home to an empty fridge.

"Just be sure it is safe," she said. She was nervous. The gods of irony had surely noted a morning spent talking about anaphylaxis. My book includes an account a bad biphasic reaction on Amtrak while coming back from a "great meal" in New York City. I promised her I'd be careful. 

Hmmm. The best way to be both indulgent and safe is sometimes to cherry-pick courses from multiple places. I had my reading: the Arkansas music edition of the Oxford American. I had my route: slowly working back from Independence Hall toward where my luggage waited at the Union League. I had my timeline: 3 hours to kill. 

Walking past Washington Square I spotted Talula's Garden. Local, organic, and quirky. Don't let this stock shot fool you; though it has only been open since April, the bar was packed. I went for cocktails--The Butcher (vodka, horseradish, tomato, and a dash of brown ale that added balance) and The Loner (rye, muddled apple and cranberry, and bitters). The Loner is usually made with Black Walnut bitters, but I explained to the bartender that I was worried about other nut extracts amidst the "natural flavors" (see, Mom? being cautious). He was happy to take up the challenge. Two potential bitter options, several exploratory licks--his, not mine--of his fingers and three dashes later, my Loner had a pleasing orange edge. 

Then I made my way along Jeweler's Row until Fat Salmon's neon blue wave decor lured me in. I ordered the Unabara roll (eel, tamago, avocado). It's usually pretty hard for me to find complex rolls; invariably there is random egg, shrimp, or cucumber amidst the hodgepodge. But this was perfectly designed as-is. The eel was sweet, skin crisped. Heaven. I ordered salmon sashimi. I was tempted to keep ordering. But my three hours was rapidly dwindling, and Dandelion waited. 

Picking up my bags took a bit longer than expected, and when I walked into the pub it was, again, packed. I said to the hostess "I'm from out of town, I've heard you all have a great scotch cocktail--but I have a train to catch." What followed was a welcome that had an almost comic urgency. I was going to get the best 25 minutes of service in town, damn it.  Within five minutes I was in a corner seat by a fireplace on the second floor. Within eight minutes I had the "Scotch Honeysuckle": a surprisingly delicate blend of Dewar's, dry vermouth, honey, lemon, and rosewater. Within ten minutes I had a half-dozen beautiful oysters served with a red wine mignonette. 

Some nights are naturally welcoming to the belly and soul. You click with a new city. Spying my family name emblazoned randomly on a building, I knew this was one of those nights. 

This is the same week that I found out my memoir is an official nominee for the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. The category? "Food & Cooking," which means I am up against paeans to veganism, a year in the life of El Bulli, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Compare the beautiful cover art of fresh tomato bruschetta skull-topped cupcake. I'm a dark horse to say the least. 

But if Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life does climb in the polls, what a great reinforcement that would be of what I've been saying all along: having food allergies doesn't mean you hate food. It shouldn't even mean you fear food. More than most you appreciate food in all of its spectrums, from nuances of taste to history to its power as social currency. I know I do. I travel with a need to eat, not in spite of it. Meals are part of how I explore the world. 

You can go to the Goodreads website to check out the other nominees & cast votes. Every vote counts! They'll narrow it to 10 finalists in each category on November 21.