November 19, 2013

Heart Land

I've enjoyed hunkering down in Iowa for these weeks. Teaching at Cornell College has been a revelation--the focus on creative nonfiction, with an emphasis on incorporating science on technology, has been a great change of pace. Some thoughts....

1) Meeting with students five days a week permits no room for procrastination. Each week takes on its own thematic shape and pace. The 10-11 AM "workshop hour," in which I divided my 15 students into groups of 3 and 4 for the sake of informal conversation, was both my single best decision (in terms of getting to know my students) and the worst decision (in terms of conserving my own work time).

2) I am still not a morning person.

3) This generation of students doesn't use email much. They don't send a confirming reply unless you explicitly request it, so it can feel like you're shouting into the void. On the upside, I was glad they so readily left behind their laptops in coming to class.

4) Lecturing on five books, a dozen articles, and the craft of nonfiction is a lot for one month. I used cards with abstract keyword prompts (e.g., for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: gender, class, race, identity) to guide discussion. Being a teacher requires an extraordinary vocabulary, one which you can and will flub from time to time, and then you must decide: do I correct myself in front of my students?

5) I still haven't figured out how to balance the needs of the students who get lost in class-wide silences, and the ones who use those silences to shape their answers. 

6) No matter how sophisticated your class, arts and crafts are a good thing. Every time I can work erasures onto a syllabus, I do, thanks in large part to Mary Ruefle's great craft essay. This time around, we're using outdated science textbooks courtesy of Cornell College's library to shape creative texts from "uncreative" sources. 

7) Never give back graded work at the beginning of class; always wait until the end. 

8) Students are comfortable reading beyond their level in an academic field, as long as they are regularly assured that it's okay to not "get" everything. I was delighted by how many gravitated to Leonard Susskind's The Black Hole War, opting to read it in its entirety, which I suspect is in part because he is so generous on this point. 

9) Strange that we ask students to spend four years offering up informal opinions--"Did you like it?"--and close analysis on the page, without offering practical experience with the intersection of the two: the 1,200-word book review. That's a real-world writing skill. We talked about what reviews are meant to do, reading examples from the New York Times Book Review and The American Scholar, and they wrote their own. 

10) You never know which readings students will love, and which will elicit a "Meh." You never know which personal details to share, or which questions to answer only with editing. You never know who dreams, deep down, of being a poet. 

Back in my own undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, I realize that I had no idea how hard it was to run a class. In recalling the things we harped on--spotting typos, expecting a 100% correct answer to every question, sulking when someone returned graded papers later than expected--I'm embarrassed. And newly grateful. 

Most nights I come home to Collin House and daze out with an infinite supply of SVU episodes. But I made it to Iowa City to see Hailey read from her new book, SWOOP, at Prairie Lights, and afterwards we sat by the fireplace at Sanctuary. In Cedar Rapids, I walked the Czech Village, then camped out at the NewBo Market to watch a juggler and snack on fresh falafel. On a tip from the gentleman who specialized in Eggenberg glass, I drove to Solon and found an oasis of entrepreneurship. The Salt Fork Kitchen is on one side of the street, with a bloody mary bar stocked with house-picked onions and four different pepper sauces. On the other side of the street, Big Grove Brewery sells six varieties of in-house beer--I recommend their seasonal IPA, the Redheaded Stranger--and serves dishes like this elaborate roasted cauliflower, with curry sauce and coppa ham. (That morning, the chef had also carved a duck from a whole pear, which then roamed the length of the bar. Not for sale.) These two places, staffed by enthusiastic 20- and 3o-somethings, have only been open a matter of months. I hope they thrive.

I came to Iowa with no expectations. I leave thinking I could live here.

November 06, 2013

News from Iowa

Since I've last posted here, I've been to New York City's Center for Book Arts, where I got to meet my chapbook for the first time and read in a line-up that included judges Sharon Dolin, Harryette Mullen, and the finalists. Before the reading, the poets stood around signing their books and broadsides; we ate family-style, a delivery of lamb and mushrooms and arugula salad from a place a few blocks away. The next morning, my family wandered through MOMA for a few hours--particularly loving the Dorothea Rockburne exhibit and Gerard Richter's "October 18, 1977" series. 

A week later, I headed down to Richmond for the inaugural presentation of Art in Writing: The Mary Lynn Kotz Award, which is cosponsored by the Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Mary Lynn is a longtime mentor and friend. The winner was Orhan Pamuk, for The Innocence of Objects--and to everyone's delight the Nobel laureate flew in to accept in person. 

That Tuesday, I set out for the long drive that would bring me way of a Nashville book club, a reunion with cousins, a beer at Doe's Eat Place in Paducah, Kentucky (which turned out to be run--and bartended--by the grandson of the original Doe's owners in Greenville, Mississippi), an abandoned plan to stay at the unexpectedly sketchy hotels out by the St. Louis airport, a 1 AM drive onwards to Hannibal, Missouri, a morning tour of Mark Twain's hometown, and a Friday afternoon arrival in Mount Vernon, from which I have since journeyed out to explore greater Iowa. Or, at least, Iowa City (Prairie Lights!) and Davenport. 

Wonderful. And exhausting. Here are a few snapshots from the long drive, and beyond.
Whenever leaving town on I-81 West, I stop at River City Grill in Radford. Every time, I sit at the bar and order beer, ribs, and green beans. They know me as a traveling poet. 

After stopping off in Harriman, TN, for the night, I saw the sign for "Ozone Falls Natural Area." I couldn't resist, and soon found myself traipsing (barefoot, since heels would have been more dangerous) to the top of a waterfall.

I'd show you the view straight down, but it was too scary to hold my phone out over it.

The rocks were laced with water and my feet were very, very chilly. But worth it.
Although I do not endorse smoking, I wholeheartedly endorse puffing out clouds of powdered sugar from a bubblegum cigarette, should you happen to find a pack being sold in a gas station outside of Harriman, TN.
When I got to Nashville my first stop was Parnassus, Ann Patchett's bookstore. It is in bourgeoise strip mall, but so what? Great energy, brimming with amazing books, and the friendly staff helped me pick out a quartet for the children of my hosts.

When I got to my friend's place, there were wild kittens in the driveway. Oh, I know I do not have a pet-friendly life. But in my heart, I wanted to sweep them into the car and name them Salt and Pepper.
Did I mention my friend has an amazingly purple house? Her book club was welcoming and engaged, and the conversation sparked by having scientists and scholars in the mix. Plus, she made Sandra-friendly cupcakes for everyone.
The next morning I bought a hat, from a shop where the owner's mother had made it.
Paducah--a scrappy little railroad town. I wish I could show you the Paducah Bridge, which takes Interstate 24 over the Ohio River to Metropolis, Illinois; the bridge is blue, and beautiful, and it rattles your car in its fist. But I had my hands full driving. 

After the St. Louis debacle (in which I bounced fruitlessly from airport hotel to airport hotel), I drove on to Hannibal, Missouri, for a room that advertised a jacuzzi. here it is. Keep in mind, this isn't in the bathroom--it is right next to the bed. That's a Kräftig Lager by the William K Busch Brewing Company, another gas station find.

The American Queen riverboat was loading passengers as I arrived in Hannibal.
Call me sentimental, but Mark Twain was one of the authors I loved most as a young writer, so it meant a lot to see where he grew up--from J.M. Clemens' Justice of the Peace Office, to the house of the girl who inspired Becky Thatcher, to the childhood home of Sam himself. Having walked those wooden floors, I'm pretty sure it's the house that is crooked, not my camera. Note the fence.

In the words of Dar Williams: Iowa, Iowa, I, Iowa

My house! Oh, not just mine: there's four of us from the Cornell College faculty living here, just yards from the President's House on campus. It is incredibly warm inside, which I'd probably be that much more grateful for in another month. For now, I have to carry an oscillating fan with me from room to room.
New neighbor, always grazing by the front door.'s a little more of the campus. Takes about 15 minutes to walk end-to-end.
...might be my imagination, but squirrels are a lot bigger & tawnier than in DC.
Mount Vernon's Lincoln Wine Bar is where I had my first restaurant pizza. Ever. For a woman allergic to dairy, eggs, and a zillion other things, this is no small feat. They call it "The Goodness"--red sauce, anchovies, basil--with extra chilies. Chef Matt is a funny, friendly guy who set my allergy fears at ease when his menu declared a traditional dough recipe (right down to flour sourced from "Naples, Italy, Caputo 00"). Aaron, who makes the dough, and I talked about George Saunders during his break.
I'm not eating out much, though--there's nothing like paying $2 a bag for peppers, that goes straight to the farmer while you're standing in her barn, to inspire home cooking.
At Abbe Hills Farm, a cat oversees all important transactions. I sautéed those green beans for dinner last night, and they were amazing.
There's a lot of quirky personalities that coexist in the Main Street community center, which everyone still calls "the old middle school." The farmer's market moves to their gym in the winters. Ruth Ipsan-Brown keeps a shop there year-round with her small sculptures, all hand-crafted from natural and found materials. The whimsy of her work reminds me of the annual Christmas display at the U.S. Botanical Gardens.
Some day, I'll be in the place where declaring "I bought chairs" means a new dining room set. But for now, I prefer these guys, Ruth's work. which have taken up residence on the fireplace mantle at Cornell College.
A little weekend stir-craziness took me to Davenport, one of the Quad cities, for a performance of the horror stage-play Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (Stephen King, John Mellencamp, and T. Bone Burnett). I got to town early to check out the Figge Museum, which cuts quite the silhouette along the waterfront.
The museum has Grant Woods's eyeglasses, and the brooch he bought for his mother that made a cameo in American Gothic. Now that I'm in Iowa, I appreciate his work. (Let it be said, Figge knows how to play to local interests. There was a whole exhibit devoted to the artwork and ad design of the John Deere tractor company.)
There was a temporary "Day of the Dead" exhibit  of statues throughout the museum that made for some wonderful, deeply weird juxtapositions.
Before the show, I walked out on the skybridge to look down the Mississippi River. 

Sometimes this life moves too fast for me. Photographs are a way of slowing it down. Since I sat down to cobble together this note to you, the passing trains have sounded their long howl five times. Class meets in just a few hours, and I have essays to mark up first. There are other things to tell you, but they can wait. 

Traveling can change you--by diluting your sense of self, or by concentrating it. Here's what I know: I love being in front of a crowd, whether for a class or reading, but fixate on errors they probably don't even notice. I'm always on the lookout for small creatures. I eat too many potatoes. I like wearing hats in winter. I have not gotten enough sleep. This life is frazzled right now, but it is deeply & utterly mine. How could I have guessed this is what it might mean, when I declared two decades ago I wanted to be a writer? 

Somehow, it all adds up to a life that I have to assume is what I was meant to do, and how I was meant to do it. This week, I got the news that I won a FY2014 Individual Artist Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. $10,000, my lord. The money comes when I needed it most. The universe smiles and says, Carry on.