October 30, 2009

Um, I'll Get Back to You on That (Fall Edition)

I confess, I've not made good use of the day; the doldrums of Autumn are upon me, the instinct to puff up and hibernate. Pumpkin/corn/black bean soup? Check. Project Runway? Check. Overdue work? Not so much. After a week that's included a good deal of frantic energy spent grading midterm papers, proofing my Washington Post article and the second pass of I Was the Jukebox, and sending applications out, I feel slightly numb.

If you are similarly looking for an excuse to procrastinate, here's the simple soup recipe:

Pumpkin, Black Bean and Corn Soup

2 slices bacon - slivered (optional)
1/2 onion - chopped
1/2 red pepper - chopped
1 clove garlic - minced
4 cups chicken broth or stock
1 can black beans - cooked and rinsed
1 can corn kernels
1 can pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon ground cumin (heaping)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger (heaping)
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (heaping)

1. Cook bacon in a pot until crisp. (If vegan, heat some olive oil.)
2. Add garlic, onion and pepper and sautee for 2 minutes.
3. Add remaining solids, spices, and broth, stirring to mix.
4. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer.
5. Simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

I've upped some quantities from the original recipe, because who wants to chop only a 1/3 of a pepper? Who needs 1/4 can pumpkin puree left over? A big part of the appeal is that I'm always looking for soup recipes that don't require a food processor or immersion blender. Those must be things acquired upon marriage.

Anyway, if I don't get a bit more done, then I won't be able to properly enjoy what the weekend holds: a drive to little ol' Scottsville, Virginia, for a "Haunted Trail Walk"--then visiting long-lost college friends in Richmond. That'll be a kind of abstract halloweeen celebration, yet it is enough for me. I've had two friends ask for advice on costumes this year. Eh. My sister was far more adventurous--zombie bride, man holding his own head in a box. I was always a simple kitty/witch/fairy kinda girl, more worried about looking cute than scary. Here's a photo of me from college days, living on the Lawn at the University of Virginia...

That's me with the looong hair. All the parents in Charlottesville would bring their kids to trick or treat at UVA, so the Lawnies were explicitly asked to host. (We were not explicitly asked to chalk the wall. That little bit of inadvertently catastrophic defacement was my bright idea.) 3 hours = 2,000 pieces of candy!

Have a happy all's hallows eve, folks. See you on the flipside of November. I'll have recovered my motivation by then, I promise.

October 27, 2009

The Muse Wore Orange

--> First, a bulletin for Virginia fiction-lovers: if you live in Charlottesville or Richmond, within the next 48 hours you have a chance to hear the amazing Dylan Landis read. (I have raved about her book Normal People Don't Live Like This on this blog on previous occasions.) She will be accompanied by the equally amazing New Yorker Joanna Smith Rakoff. Here's a fancy write-up, and here are the bare bones details...

Wed., Oct. 28, 5:30 p.m. / Dylan Landis & Joanna Smith Rakoff / New Dominion Bookshop / 404 East Main Street (Downtown Mall) / Charlottesville, VA 22902

Thu., Oct. 29, 7 p.m. / Dylan Landis & Joanna Smith Rakoff / Chop Suey Books / 2913 West Cary Street / Richmond, VA 23221

..okay, back to our regularly scheduled post.

I'm very excited to join the ranks of the Norton poets over at the blog Poems Out Loud. Don't worry--Chicks Dig Poetry isn't going anywhere. But this will be a venue for longer think-pieces. Here's the opening snippet from my first post, "The Muse Wore Orange." For those who followed my Jentel posts, this was an essay I wrote during my June-July residency in the hills of Wyoming....

She stands by our front door: a painted cutout of a winged woman, complete with red spirals of hair. Angel, muse, safety monitor, she models the bright orange vest that each of us must wear if we venture into the hills surrounding the Jentel Artist Residency Program.

“So that you don’t get shot by hunters,” was the friendly instruction. “Or run down by truckers.”

You'll find the whole post here.

October 25, 2009

From the Fever-World

Today I was back at the Writer's Center to hear the 2009 winners of the Washington Writers' Publishing House Prizes: Calvin by William Littlejohn and From the Fever-World by Jehanne Dubrow. I love the concept behind From the Fever-World, which is being published as Jehanne's second full-length collection. The conceit is that the book is actually a translation from Yiddish of the life's work of Ida Lewin, who lived and died in a pre-WWII Polish town of "AlwaysWinter." All a fiction, of course.

Here's a brief excerpt from a longer Q&A in which Jehanne reflects on the creation of AlwaysWinter and Ida:

Q: You’ve lived so many different places across the world. Is the town of AlwaysWinter based on any of the places you’ve lived or is it a product of your imagination?

JD: Poland is one of the central landscapes of my imagination. But the Poland that lives in my head is a mythologized version, not only of my childhood but also of my studies and scholarship in Jewish and Holocaust literature. From the Fever-World is set in AlwaysWinter (or Zawsze-Zima in Polish), a fictional town in the region of Galicia, which we would now call southern Poland. AlwaysWinter is modeled on the many small towns that existed in interwar Poland, places of incredible cultural, political, and religious diversity. When I was inventing AlwaysWinter, I relied both on recollections of the seven years I spent in Poland as a little girl and on my research of yizkor books, witness testimony, historiography, and Yiddish literature.

Q: How did you come up with the character of Ida Lewin. Was there any real life inspiration for her?

JD: In my “translator’s note,” at the end of From the Fever-World, I write that “Ida Lewin (or someone like her)” must have existed. I believe that to be true. Cynthia Ozick’s wonderful short story, “Envy; Or Yiddish in America,” describes the great sadness of being a Yiddish poet who writes in an exterminated mothertongue and is unable to find a translator. There are so many real Yiddish poets who have disappeared or been forgotten, simply because no one has been able to bring their work into a living language like English. I don’t know Yiddish but, through Ida Lewin, I found my poet and my job as a translator.


This is a daring premise for a book, and it allows Jehanne to do some bold things--things we don't always give ourselves permission to do with our own voice. She writes as a mother mourning a lost child, though she is not a mother. She articulates observations of prewar Polish culture drawn from her fellowship at the Holocaust Museum that might seem dry and academic if shoehorned into her own poems. Perhaps most enviable, she includes two or even three poems that echo an earlier poem--a retread, a re-approach to a metaphor or theme already used. As a poet and implied self-editor, we'd call this cheating; as a "translator" and curator of Ida's work, it's called respecting the organic attentions of Ida Lewin. This is a rangy, sensual, surreal book, and I can't wait to spend more time with it.

Want the chance to judge for yourself? Go hear Jehanne read at Politics & Prose, next Sunday at 1 PM. I'd be there if I could--but I'll be on the road, returning from Scottsville, Virginia, by way of Richmond. I decided to spend my Halloween on a Haunted Trail Walk. It'll be quite a change of pace from the usual glory of angels in assless chaps, trick-or-treating through Dupont Circle....

October 22, 2009

"Step into my parlor..."

There are little bits of styrofoam strewn throughout the apartment, packaging that came with the new shelves in my office. So much for the minimalist aesthetic; though I liked the oasis of cream wall above the chair rail, I had four stacks of books that had been living on the floor for far too long. The artwork is still off being framed, but here's the latest incarnation:

Yes, those are my poetry books. Yes, they are color-sorted. (There's a section for brown and flesh-toned books at the entrance to the room, and collected essays on craft and translation hidden by the couch.) The last time I wrote about this I used a stock shot, so I thought I'd show the reality. Should you attempt this, accept that there's not going to be any kind of perfect approximation of the color spectrum; you have to be playful in the way you interpret a binding's "shade."

But sometimes really lovely juxtapositions result. Kyle Dargan, meet Kim Addonizio. Mark Doty, meet Sharon Olds.

This is why I like sorting poetry books by color; instead of their familiar alphabetical neighborhoods, authors land in the exotic countries of ROYGBIV. I can only remember twice when this system slowed down finding a book. Plus, the rested eye is better able to enjoy non-book items on the shelf.

Some colors are easier to work with than others. Whites are easy; blues, not so much. There are such jarring differences in what's considered blue that I have to stage them as three palettes.

I also took the risk (we'll see if it lasts) of stacking a small cluster of books on the horizontal.

I'm not sure about this. I worry it discourages picking these books up for browsing. (I cringe when I see professionally designed rooms that reduce big art books to obelisks...admitting, essentially, that no one is EVER going to read the ones on the bottom.) On the other hand, how can I resist Rita Dove and Claribel Alegria? These are books that won't take such neglect lying down. So to speak.

Now if you want to see real heresy, check this out:

Yep. Bindings in. That's what happens to the books I won't re-read anytime soon, but can't let go of for sentimental or monetary reasons.

And with that, we return to our regularly scheduled (and un-photographed) programming.

October 17, 2009

On the horizon...

Thursday, October 22, 2009 @ 7:00pm &
Friday, October 23, 2009 @ 7:30pm

Where is contemporary poetry heading? Join us for this two-day poetry reading at the Mexican Cultural Institute and the Writer’s Center.


Mexico: Hernán Bravo and Alejandro Tarrab
USA: Reginald Dwayne Betts and Sandra Beasley

Day 1

Four young up-and-coming poets, two from Mexico and two from the United States will each read their original poetry in an exciting and illuminating back-and-forth of ideas, wordplay and creative expression.

Thursday, October 22, 2009 @ 7:00pm
Location: Mexican Cultural Institute
2829 16th Street, NW | Washington, D.C.
Blocks from Columbia Metro Station
Free entrance | Street parking available after 6:30 pm.
RSVP: icmdc@instituteofmexicodc.org

Day 2

Don’t miss this presentation of the latest bilingual edition of the Literary Magazine Reverso “15 newest young poets of México” (Guadalajara, México) with the editor Carlos López de Alba. Among others, the issue features the work of Bravo and Tarrab, who will read their selections from the magazine in Spanish, while Betts and Beasley will read the English translations.

Friday, October 23, 2009 @ 7:30pm
Location: The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
E-mail: postmaster@writer.org

October 11, 2009


Earlier today, DC hosted both the National Equality March and the Race for the Cure. I knew about the former but not the latter, for which the runners wear pink. So as I drove up Connecticut Avenue today en route to Politics and Prose, I encountered a cadre of people wearing--well, I know now they were pink bunny ears. But the ears were more flesh-colored than pink, and for many one of the ears had flopped down, leaving a proud...erect...um, bunny ear...Let's just say I thought the National Equality March was being a bit brassy.


For those interested in such things, Adventureland is a pretty good movie. Maybe its that I have a weak spot for anything that details the life of a carnival; maybe it's that some of the character roles (Martin Starr as Joel, Margarita Levieva as Lisa P.) were drawn with particular skill. The central characters are all older than I expected, post-college instead of post-high school. This was a big plus, as there wasn't a lot of time wasted on the troubles of obtaining alcohol or the perils of making curfew. Unfortunately, our Comcast On Demand system has some quirks that shift the viewing experience. Namely:

Adam: "I thought this was supposed to be a lighthearted comedy."

Me: "Maybe it's funnier when it's not in black and white."

Besides, if you wanted comedy you couldn't beat two SNL all-stars, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, in the roles of--oh, my god, amidst typing this I am reading that the actress playing Lisa P. was born in 1985. 1985!


I'm worried about October. My favorite month is slipping away from me. So many October rites of passage that I have not yet managed:

-Buying a pumpkin from the Farmer's Market;
-Spiking a cup of hot apple cider with spiced rum;
-Tromping through a pile of leaves in open-toe shoes;
-Road-tripping at least two hours away.

...Yet it's not a good sign when fun traditions become one more thing to stress over, right? That's the challenge of this fall. Finding a schedule of working at home that honors the pleasures of ritual without 1) turning them into routine or, 2) indulging to the point of counter-productivity. Good to have time to read a magazine; bad to feel guilty for being three issues behind on New York. Good to cook from scratch; bad to let one recipe daisy-chain to the next (I have half the cilantro left, washed, chopped...must not waste it) so that you end up with more food than you can (or should) comfortably eat this week. Good to sleep in a half-hour to suit your body's clock; bad to keep hitting the snooze button until it is 11 AM.

No, not expecting your sympathy. Just sayin', nothing is perfect.

October 04, 2009

This Thursday!

Join us on Thursday, October 8, as we welcome J. C. Hallman for a dual-genre evening that shows off the breadth of this versatile and acclaimed author. We will hear an excerpt from Hallman's short story collection THE HOSPITAL FOR BAD POETS*; we will also "flirt with the masters" of literary criticism in celebration of his just-released anthology THE STORY ABOUT THE STORY: Great Writers Explore Great Literature.

The reading will begin at 7 PM, and will be followed by our customary light reception and booksigning. It is free and open to all--come, bring a friend, and please help spread the word.

*Also, can we just recognize the sheer awesomeness of the cover design for The Hospital for Bad Poets?

To wit:

Thursday, October 8, 2009 - 7 p.m.
The Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I Street NW
Free and open to the public, reception to follow.

J. C. HALLMAN studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, and he has since taught widely. His nonfiction combines memoir, history, journalism, and travelogue; previous books include The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

THE HOSPITAL FOR BAD POETS (Milkweed Editions), considers the ways in which scholarship and pop culture inform ordinary lives. In the title story, an unnamed poet is taken to Nietzsche's hospital for bad poets after collapsing—and is given Rilke and oxygen to remedy his chronic acuteness. Publisher’s Weekly said “Hallman's clever debut collection … invites the reader into ordinary homes and heads before dropping sly twists of the surreal to examine contemporary culture.”

THE STORY ABOUT THE STORY (Tin House Books) anthologizes writer-on-writer reviews by such luminaries as Woolf and Nabokov in hopes of inspiring a school of “creative criticism.” As Michael Dirda observed, “We read books not from obligation but for pleasure, for mental excitement, for what A.E. Housman called the tingle at the back of the neck…. J. C. Hallman has gathered love letters, exuberant appreciations, confessions of envy and admiration. In these pages some of our finest writers stand up and testify to the power of literature to shake and shape our very souls.”

THE ARTS CLUB OF WASHINGTON is at 2017 I Street NW, near Foggy Bottom/GWU and Farragut West metro. Headquartered in the James Monroe House, a National Historic Landmark, the Club was founded in 1916 and is the oldest non-profit arts organization in the city. The Club’s mission is to foster public appreciation for the arts through educational programs that include literary events, art exhibitions, musical and theatrical performances.

Tear It Down

If I owe you something--an email, a call, a kidney for transplant--I am sorry. For the last two weeks I have been doing battle with an article that, for lack of better phrasing, has been kicking my ass. This will be the third rewrite, each time approaching the topic from a totally different angle that requires fresh research. The good news: if all goes well, it will be a chance to pay tribute to one of my favorite DC landmarks in the pages of the (newly revamped) Post Magazine. The bad news: my writerly ego has taken a hit. It's been a while since I heard that something written to order was, well, unusable.

Friends in journalism tell me that this is simply how it goes. Editors change their minds. Stories break that change your story, and can't be anticipated. You go into a real-world scenario thinking your reportage will give you one angle, only to have it bank in another direction entirely. You build it, you tear it down (or someone triggers the TNT for you), and you build it up again. I'd been sheltered from this because the XX Files were more in the vein of creative nonfiction that just happened to appear in a newspaper, versus newspaper writing.

When I was in graduate school at American University, we had an infamous incident in which a well-known Visiting Writer guest-led a workshop that was looking at, among other things, a chapter from the novel of a popular student in the program. Within the first three minutes of the workshop--atom bomb dropping--the Visiting Writer announced that the author simply had to change POV if the piece was ever going to work. This is not a short story we were talking about; this was 200 pages of polished thesis manuscript.

Once the workshop was over, everyone told the author that the Visiting Writer had been snobby and obnoxious, and that he should disregard her critique. We pointed to her sloppy handle on the story's details (keeping character's names straight, etc.) as evidence that she'd probably barely read it. The student kept his POV and, happy ending, the book was published a short while later.

We had good reason to respond the way we did. But, let's face it, we would have responded that way even if we HADN'T had good reason. We have an a perverse loyalty to our prose in the creative nonfiction world; we are quick to rationalize logical gaps or emotional ambiguities as part of honoring the "truth" of the experience, or as part of a stylistic tic. I am coming to realize that this defensive posture is not sustainable in journalism or freelancing. In that world you have to be willing to tear it down, even if that means wasting thousands of words.

Although I think the Visiting Writer probably did give the MS a too-cursory read, I don't see how that differs from the glance of most editors or agents sifting through a slush pile. Just because she was obnoxious didn't mean she was wrong. The harshest truth: just because the novel was published as it was doesn't mean it wouldn't have been a better novel if it had used another perspective.

Growing pains. They suck. But you get to stand a little taller afterwards.

Mark your calendars, if you live in the DC area: this THURSDAY (October 8) I am hosting a supercool reading at the Arts Club of Washington with J. C. Hallman. More tomorrow!