November 28, 2012


Last night, my wonderful and very cold-ridden boyfriend came over after getting off his late work shift. We talked over tea, he dosed himself with Nyquil, and we curled up in bed. After a couple of hours I woke up, restless in the too-hot apartment, the bright blue-fairy light of my computer speakers blazing from the distant wall. I tried to find a good arm position. That failed. I tried to balance my desire to snuggle with my desire to avoid his fevered, germ-laden breath. That failed too. 

When I'm trying to fall asleep, my mind wanders toward projects in progress; in this case, a book proposal I've been been considering since my January VCCA stint. Last night, I realized an idea for a narrative arc--one that resonated with life decisions I'm in the thick of right now. For the next 40 minutes, my mind poked and prodded. This could work. Episodes that had previously felt like nothing more than dissonant essays began to cohere in my mind as sequences, chapters, a braiding of memories with experiences that could be researched and reported. 

Well into my second hour of wakefulness, I jumped out of bed. It was 5 AM. I grabbed my notebook and used the last match in the box to light a votive, wary of the kitchen's fluorescent glow. I poured a small glass of carrot juice, and tipped into it a swallow of vodka leftover from earlier. I scribbled until the clouds began to lighten outside.

The spell was broken, energy vented. I crawled back into bed. He wrapped his arms around me and rested his lips on the nape of my neck. That's when it hit me: this man, who also came into my life during that January VCCA stint, is in the story going forward. He is both high spire and brick foundation. He is part of the adventure.

An adventure that I will, one way or another, commit to the page. The Author rejoices in having a witness, a trusted and funny voice in dialogue for the ride. The Girlfriend wonders: Is this something we talk about? Do I ask permission?

This is a memoirist's problem. I don't face this with poems. Though we sense the texture of inspiring truth, it's understood we talk about the poem as invention. In readings, even those most revealing poem is one among many. There are other things to talk about afterwards. 

I once had a man forbid me from writing about him in any form. It was stifling. It spooked me out of drafting for months. Another, an artist himself, would say "It's all material." I wonder if that maxim has ever been tested with him on the other end of the art. The first question I got after reading a personal essay at Frostburg State University this past summer was, "So, how much of that is true?" My flustered response--"um, all of it"--flip-flopped in my stomach as I considered the shady activities committed by a central (albeit unnamed) character. Right now, that essay is a finalist for a contest that offers a reading in the town where said "character" lives. It's one thing to write honestly about our weaker moments. It's another thing to deliver them to his doorstep. 

Sometimes students and aspiring memoirists ask me about the risk of writing about real people. I have no problem defending the ethics. There are very few cases where someone is at legitimate risk of lawsuit for libel or slander. What you are really worried about is making your dear ones mad at you. And I can't assure you that won't happen. 

"Isn't everyone flattered to see themselves in print, deep down?" No. Writers say things like that to each other, forgetting that we're writers. Our worldview is warped. My principle is that nothing is off limits, as long as 1) I've made my best effort at being truthful, and 2) I'm as hard on myself as anyone else in the scene. I stand by that. I remind myself of the revelatory nonfiction that I've read over the years, which meant so much to me, that may have been hard for that author's dear ones to see themselves in at the time. But principle is cold comfort when you lose someone over creative work.

If I could go back in time, are there pieces I'd spike, paragraphs I'd strike? No. That makes me feel selfish, but no. Second-guessing yourself as a memoirist is the worst pesticide. You don't just kill a weed; you contaminate the soil.

All of this is to say that when we woke up, puttering around the apartment and drinking orange juice, I did not ask.

Writers don't get a pass from the social pact. We have to give as good as we get--which might mean suspending judgment, cheering on a friend's decision that you'd never make for yourself, letting your own less-than-flattering moment go up on someone else's canvas. But when you surround yourself with the right people, those who go the distance of a lifetime, they recognize the capacities that you have to exercise to thrive. It is inseparable from their love of you. No permissions necessary. 

November 20, 2012


Spotted on one of my favorite blogs for visual innovation, Colossal: Arizona artist Ernie Button, is creating a series of photographs that show the bottom of tumblers after that last drop of single-malt scotch is drained. "It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results," he says. "I have used different color lights to add ‘life’ to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extraterrestrial." 

There is an ew factor--these are close-ups of dirty glassware--but I find the visual rhythms here beautiful, more so knowing how they're made. Above is "Macallan."

I've been thinking a lot about rhythm this week. It's only a month (!) until I take up residency at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and so I'm saying Yes to every RSVP. Most days include multiple destinations; in particular I've been on the circuit of the Writer's Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library (for both the Hardison Poetry Series and PEN/Faulkner), and the Arts Club of Washington. I see someone at a dinner party one night, and the two days later they grab a chair in front of me for a reading at Politics & Prose. The cumulative effect of these repetitions is that makes DC feel like a neighborhood instead of a city. It's ironic that the anticipation of leaving has reminded me what it's like to really live here. 

The poetry manuscript is still getting turned inside out, as every new draft seems to displace as many pages as it adds. A trusted reader pointed out, "You've got a series of series." Do you present those series in discrete sections, or braided together?  Unity is appealing; monotony is not. Can there be an emotional arc if the narrative is always changing hands? These are good questions, hard work worth doing, but good lordy. If I Was the Jukebox was composed in one-month sprints, this book is the marathon. 

Poetry made an unexpected cameo in the food coverage of the Washington Post today, when Jim Shahin posted Jake Adam York's wonderful BBQ poem "Grace" on the All-We-Can-Eat blog. Last fall, Jake and I talked poetry, food, and the rituals of the holidays in a four-part interview for Southern Spaces. It's worth a listen (I hope); the site is carefully edited, very search-friendly, and an invaluable resource for students.

I'll leave you with Ernie Button's "Dalwhinnie"...a bottle of which waits on my shelf, ready to be poured when I get home from tonight's Story League show.

November 14, 2012

On Narwhals

Lookee here!

I was delighted to spot a narwhal tusk on the wall of the Folger Shakespeare Library's Great Hall--part of their "Very Like a Whale" exhibit, on display through January 6. I am quite fond of narwhals; not on the scale of capybaras, maybe, but close. Like capybaras, they make a cameo in a poem of mine, "The Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything," which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review way back when, as part of the chapbook "Bitch and Brew: Sestinas."

In case you know little about this creature, let me introduce you...


Monodon monoceros


In recent years, narwhals have achieved the cultural ubiquity shared by penguins, pandas, and small vanity dogs. Key indicators include the founding of “Narwhal Vs. Narwhal,” a powerpop ensemble based in Portland, Oregon; foodie-blog buzz over the “bacon chicken narwhal," two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, fried, and detailed with pepperoni fins and a tusk carved from pepper jack cheese (recipe here); and the “Avenging Narwhal Play Set,” complete with baby seal and Koala bear figurines readied for impalement.


“It’s weird they have that one tooth,” he says. “Gross.” 

“What’s wrong with a tooth?” I ask. “We’ve got even more teeth. Are we ‘gross’?”

“No, but theirs is freaky long—and always on the same side, left incisor. Isn’t it just the males? I only remember because it’s freaky.” 


Nar is old Norse for corpse; Scandinavians named this arctic whale the “narwhal” because its gray, mottled body resembled that of a drowned sailor. Inuit myth claims the creature originated when a wicked woman, tricked into anchoring her son’s hunting line, was dragged into sea by a harpooned beluga. In her dying struggle, the harpoon’s shaft tangled in her hair and fused to her spirit-self, forming the narwhal. 

By Medieval times the narwhal tusk was thought magical, synonymous with the unicorn horn. The Vikings delightedly jacked up their export prices. Neighboring royalty took to drinking from cups made of hollowed-out tusk, believing the cups neutralized poisons. In 1638, the Danish scholar Ole Worm (a.k.a. “Olaus Wormius”) exposed unicorns as a scam. It took another century before British physicians stopped prescribing powdered tusk for everything from erectile dysfunction to the plague. 

Seafarers have long wondered why narwhals surface, rear up, and rub horns in a display known as “tusking.” Are they friendly? Conspiratorial? Jousting? Naturalist Charles Darwin decided their tusks were a secondary sex characteristic, akin to antlers—handy for showing off, not good for much else. His educated guess was soon accepted as fact.

Narwhals are exceptionally elusive to field study; none have survived in captivity. And so, there is no known record of narwhals feeding. Scientists theorize their diet from posthumous stomach dissections that yield halibut, cod, shrimp, squid, and rocks. The rocks are probably accidental. 


Narwhals frequent the waters of Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Each weighs between one and two tons, averaging 12 to 15 feet in body length. They dive deep and fast. Really deep: 2,400-4,500 feet. Really fast: they make the round trip in 25 minutes.

Around 75,000 narwhals live in the wild. Their predators are orcas, polar bears, and humans. The latter is under increasing regulation. In 2004 Greenland banned tusk exportation, setting hunting quotas to subsistence levels. Inuits prize raw narwhal flesh, mattak, sliced and dipped in soy sauce. The taste is termed “hazelnutty.”


The Narwhal tusk may spiral up to 10 feet and is usually found in the upper left jaw of the male narwhal. One in 500 males sport a second tusk. Only three percent of females ever grow a tusk. 

It was a 2005 study that revealed the tusk is really a pulped tooth, containing an astonishing 10 million nerve endings. Narwhals use their tooth to detect subtle shifts in salinity, temperature, and other environmental factors. This casts new light on the purpose of tusking. Perhaps it is collaborative form of tooth-brushing, scraping away algae and barnacles that block nerve tubules. 

In all likelihood, tusking also generates pleasure. In contrast, the human penis contains only 4,000 nerve endings—less than half as many as the narwhal tooth. If only humans could multitask in such spectacular fashion, gingivitis would soon be a thing of the past. 

Narwhals! And that is our Wednesday serving of awesome. 

These are busy days--I hope to see some folks at the VQR event tonight, and also at the Story League showcase next Tuesday, both at the Arts Club--not to mention that I'm fighting off a cold. But how could I not emerge from my hibernation to talk narwhals?