October 28, 2011

Chatting & Touring for DKTBG

On Tuesday I had the pleasure of participating in an online chat hosted at THE MOTHERHOOD on the topic of navigating food allergies around the holidays, particularly Halloween. My co-hosts included Lori Sandler, founder of Divvies Bakery (whose awesome ghost-chocolate is pictured here), Barbara Rosenstein from the Food Allergy Initiative, and Huffington Post writer/"Peanuts in Eden" blogger Susan Weissman. On the archive page you can view a transcript of the complete talk, but the folks at the site also put together a helpful summary that articulates seven primary tips:

-Take the Focus Off of Food 
i.e. emphasize costumes, house decorations, and games.

-Practice Allergy-Friendly Treating 
i.e. host parties or create treat routes entirely free of certain allergens.

-Empower Your Kids 
i.e. let kids be the ones to pick out of the basket, versus handing them candy.

-Think of New Uses for Candy 
i.e. focus on candy variety in terms of a scavenger hunt or Bingo card, instead of as food; or use as currency to trade in for safe prizes or even money, Tooth-Fairy style.

-Safety First 
i.e. guard against cross-contamination and unexpected sources of exposure, such as via masks and haunted houses.

-Be Available at Your Children’s Halloween Parties 
i.e. give the visual assurance that the party host is in on the food-allergy plan, from seeing them speak with parents to using color-coded serving ware.

-Take Care of Kids’ Emotional Needs 
i.e. pay attention to making kids feel not only secure, but included.

The conversation brought back memories of Halloweens past that I'd almost forgotten. My mother always let me put elaborate effort into my costumes, perhaps realizing that was the part of the holiday I could enjoy best. I remember one year my poster-board butterfly costume had a five-foot wingspan--and the tails unwisely extended below my waist, making for a rather comical effort to sit down at the cafeteria table when I got to school. I would ask my parents their favorite candies (Almond Joys, Mounds), so as to have something to hunt for in what were otherwise meaningless bowls full of chocolate treats. I was ecstatic at the sight of a Jolly Rancher or a mini-roll of Lifesavers. 

Helping run Haunted Houses, I'd tense up at the pumpkin "guts" or peeled grape "eyeballs" or squishy spaghetti bowls where people were asked to blindly plunge their hands. Even though none of those were allergens for me, it made me aware that food was on the loose. Cottage cheese "brains" didn't seem out of the realm of possibility. 

As venues go, I love The Motherhood. Everyone shares such a positive attitude--it is all about constructive volunteering of ideas--and the technical mode of chiming in couldn't have been easier or more user-friendly. I'll definitely return in the future. 

I logged in from a hotel room outside Birmingham, where the night before I had served as the inaugural guest of the Visiting Writer Series at Indian Springs School. So within 24 hours I connected with two very different audiences--the moms and the kids. It meant a lot to me to see teenagers buy Don't Kill the Birthday Girl not because they have allergies themselves, but because they were intrigued by the voice. Maybe it'll be the science that they remember, or maybe it'll be my goofy stories. Either way, maybe reading the book will foster a bit of compassion, too, even if they don't realize it...a serving of green vegetables hidden under the mashed potatoes.

These past few weeks have worn me out. Yesterday I woke up in Jackson; today in Greenwood; tomorrow, Oxford. Day 18 of life in a suitcase. Still, the conversations make it worthwhile. I never knew there were so many different kinds of readers in the world until I began touring for this book. 

October 18, 2011


My crazy drive from the Kripalu Yoga Center to Boston on Friday was a little crazier than I let on--or rather, crazy by choice. When I had arrived in the Berkshires on Wednesday, I'd experienced an incredible rush of nostalgia for my days at the Millay Colony in upstate New York--the September 2006 residency where I wrote many of the poems that would appear in Theories of Falling. Though I remembered daytripping to Great Barrington during my stay in Austerlitz, I hadn't put 2 + 2 together that Lenox, Lee, and all the other little Massachusetts towns are just minutes down the road.

I miss those days of blind energy. I wasn't on book tour, back then; I didn't have a book to tour with. I was just a girl getting lost in the mountains by day, writing poems by night, not sure where it was all going. So I decided to drive out to see MASS MoCA, one trip I'd never made in my Millay days (though some of the other artists had gone and loved it). And I promised myself that if I saw anywhere I wanted to stop along the way, I would. 

Random lake surrounded by fire-crowned trees? Yep. 

Random roadside truck full of fall produce? Yep. 

I talked with this guy for a bit; he happily elaborated on which gourds were for decoration, which for eating. I thought back to the pumpkins I've had over the years, from fat generic guys we'd pick out as a family--I'd hunt for perfect symmetry--to an albino "ghost" pumpkin I carved on the floor of my Brown College dorm (which smelled of pumpkin guts for the rest of the fall), to the mini guys my mother gave me when I had my first DC apartment and no doorstep to set a pumpkin out upon. One bright orange kind I would have gotten had he not told me it was actually a squash. He'd heard people who kept that particular variety on display for three, four weeks, then went ahead and cooked them. That sounded weird to him. 

The one thing he doesn't do, he told me, is travel. 

While the pumpkin farmer may not travel, his pumpkin got to ride with me all the way over to Boston, then back to DC. I'll be on the road on October 31 proper this year: making my back from Mississippi in time for a visit to the FDA on November 1, then hopping on a train to speak at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia on November 2. So when I saw my sister last night (she got us front & center tickets to hear David Sedaris read! he was funny! she is awesome!) I entrusted this guy to her care and safekeeping. 

When I got to MASS MoCa I discovered it was a quirky complex of 19th-century mill buildings. It opened in 1986 after having operated for 40 years as the home of the Sprague Electric Company, which did everything from design some of the early at-home music players to contribute technology to building the atom bomb in World War II. They've has done a nice job juxtaposing the original materials--exposed brick and iron--with surreal contemporary pieces such as this black-blob structure by Federico Diaz that crawls along the exterior. This is "Geometric Death Frequency-141."
I suspect the changing exhibitions are chosen in part for their ability to occupy the museum's vast spaces. This installation by German artist Katharina Grosse, "One Floor Up More Highly," fills a room the length of a football stadium. Since the piece comes down at the end of the month, I was lucky to catch it--it has been widely celebrated, and holds the distinction of having been pictured on the cover of both ArtForum and Sculpture Magazine. The porcelain surface glow of the carved styrofoam was great--as if icebergs, or a scene from the set of Superman. I thought the mixing in of cloth swathes among the rubble was intriguing. I'd be lying if I said I had an emotional response to the work. Still, I appreciated the spectacle. 
In contrast, I loved a series by Nari Ward exhibited as "Sub Mirage Lignum." "Sub," as in both "underneath" and "in substitution for"; "mirage," as in false or fleeting images produced by desire, refraction, a trick of the light; "lignum," which MASS MoCA pointed out is a shorthand for Lignum Vitae, "a tree whose bloom is the national flower of Jamaica." To put it another way: Ward is an alchemist of discarded objects.

Approached from the mouth, "Nu Collossus"--which takes its form from a traditional woven fishtrap--is a gaping maw, swallowing up bits of weathered furniture and farm equipment. It feels like a mid-turn tornado, laid upon its side. But from the other end you can appreciate the grace and even delicacy of the shape; in this way I found myself thinking of Martin Puryear, one of my favorite sculptors to work with wood. 

The other piece I connected with was in the "Memery" exhibit on "Imitation, Memory, and Internet Culture," which was housed in a space often given to up-and-coming artists. Penelope Umbrico, a Brooklyn artist, first assembled a matrix of photographs she calls "Suns From Flickr (2006-2007)." The piece quickly spawned a secondary phenomenon: people taking snapshots with the wall of irresistible sunsets, then posting those images on the web. So here you have it: "People with Suns From Flickr."

And, since the inspiring piece (I was going to write "original piece" but that isn't quite right) was on the adjacent wall, here is my contribution.

It wasn't until I was leaving that I registered that the blaze of orange leaves I'd taken for granted on my way in were not growing up from the ground but rather, suspended from the air. This is called "Tree Logic" by Natalie Jeremijenko.

I got back on the road and discovered Route 2, which I needed to connect to Boston, was closed. I'd have to go back the way I came. It started to rain. It started to rain harder. It had gotten late enough in the day that the mountain roads began to be crowded with school buses, which then stopped every 100 feet. That's the thing about sidetrips: you can turn the handle on the jack-in-the-box but you never know just how high he's gonna leap when the lid comes off. You just have to go with it. And I did.

October 15, 2011

Kicking Off the Boston Book Festival

Last night I made a drive from the Berkshires to Boston in the pouring rain, arriving just in time to grab a seat at "The Art of The Wire: A Discussion with the Cast and Creators."  The panel featured fellow DC writer George Pelecanos,  Donnie Andrews (the real "Omar"), Fran Boyd (Andrews's wife and the inspiration for The Corner, which in some ways was the prequel to The Wire), Tray Chaney (who played "Poot"), Robert Chew ("Prop Joe"), and Jamie Hector ("Marlo Stanfield").

That's them, seated left to right--I surreptitiously snapped a shot of the stage from Row D. Sorry about the quality but I was nervous the director of the festival, who happened to be sitting in the seat behind me, would tell me to put my damn phone away.

As someone who watched and loved all five seasons of The Wire, it was great to hear their insights. Three highlights:

-George Pelecanos's brave admission (in response to an audience question) that The Wire, though it did have women writers on staff, "could have done better" by its women characters in terms of complicating and/or illuminating their motivations.

-The "real Omar," in response to the suggestion that the show reinforced stereotypes, said "How can you stereotype reality? ... Back in the day, I'd be walking down the sidewalk with someone--just two of us--and a white woman coming up the other way would clutch her pocketbook to her chest. I don't snatch pocketbooks! I might put a gun in your face, but I won't snatch your pocketbook."

-Finding out Robert Chew, who had previously worked for years as a theater teacher, had been assigned to coach the kid actors featured in Season 4 (the one that focused on the schools). I love the mental image of Prop Joe running lines. Several people on stage said Season 4 was their favorite.

I feel really, really lucky to be here. Today, I get to read from I Was the Jukebox and speak with Stephen Burt and Jessica Bozek on persona poetry at 10:30 AM; then I join Ben Ryder Howe, Carlos Eire, and Maisie Houghton for a panel on the art of memoir at 4:15 PM. You can find the full schedule here.

October 06, 2011

Updates & Coming Up

Delaware-ans! Join us at the Lamborn Library on Wednesday, October 12 for an event supporting the local & independent Hockessin Book Shelf. I'll be sharing excerpts from Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, and we'll enjoy wine and food free of the Big 8 allergens (not to mention really tasty...I've seen the menu). If you have friends in the area affected by allergy--or fans of literary memoir--please spread the word. They are asking folks to secure tickets by Friday, October 7. You'll find more info on Hockessin Book Shelf's Facebook page

This will be the first event in a whirlwind week of book-tour for me. From Delaware it is on to Kripalu Yoga Center in the Berkshires (Thursday, Oct. 13); from there it is on to two panels (!) at the Boston Book Festival (Saturday, Oct. 15); from there it is on to Fairfield Public Library in Connecticut (Sunday, Oct. 16). Each venue should bring its own unique audience, and I suspect I'll be switching up my DKTBG selections to suit. 

While I'm beating the drum of self-promotion, I'll mention that I did a guest post over at the Lofty Ambitions site, which runs pieces on theme with "Aviation, Science, and Writing as a Couple." I don't have much to say on the latter (unless writing as both a poet and a memoirist counts as a "couple"), but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to share some backstory on my grandfather--who was a doctor assigned to NASA's Project Mercury flights--and how his influence shaped my approach to writing about medical matters in the memoir. A brief snippet:

My grandfather and his colleagues were charged with patients who, by definition, were adventurers of the greatest extreme. As doctors, they tracked the pulses. They counted the heartbeats. They took the temperatures. They had to constantly push the astronauts toward self-inspection. How do you feel? Can you continue? 
You can read the whole post here.

...Before we shimmy into October, I want to reach back for September highlight: while in Decatur for their book festival, I got to sit down with Jake Adam York and be intereviewed for the Southern Spaces "Poets in Place" series, which resulted in a quartet of short videos on everything from how my Virginia heritage surfaces in my poetry, to how food allergies intersect with culinary tradition, to the experience of making long and frequent drives from DC to Mississippi. I can't begin to say how honored I was to become a part of this interdisciplinary journal's site, which is an amazing resource for students looking at contemporary Southern literature. Other poets in the series include Dan Albergotti, Natasha Trethewey, Jericho Brown, and Claudia Emerson. 

These have been quiet days, which means these have been creative days. Sure, I've written things here and there in the past year--particularly on solicitation & on deadline--but this is the first month in ages that I have felt the organic hum of drafting, revising, sending out, making notes, drafting some more. I was trying to explain it to someone the other evening and I said "I thought it was enough to make time to write. But actually, I needed to make time to waste time. And then to write in the time after that." There will surely be some stumbles and rejections in the coming days, and false starts, and nights spent worrying over money, but I also have the fundamental security of knowing: whatever the next book will be, there will be a next book. 

Back on the horse. 

October 03, 2011

Writer's Market & Poet's Market 2012

I had the honor of being featured in both this year's 2012 Writer's Market and the 2012 Poet's Market (25th annual edition!), thanks to the good graces of editor Robert Lee Brewer and Writer's Digest. 

For WD I had a conversation with Robert on how I'd made the leap from poetry to memoir, the struggle to write and deal with my food allergies while on book tour ("a diet of French fries and limp house salads"), and what I value about keeping a blog. As the introduction notes, I was in Mississippi at the time. My host there was not thrilled that I was sinking hours into typing up answers to interview questions--that was time he thought I should be spending on poems--and I wondered if it was worth it. When I saw these books, I knew: absolutely. Not only in terms of the career recognition, which is thrilling, but because I get to contribute to a line of books that helped me out when I was getting started. 

I have strong memories of being a high school senior and hunting through the shelves of Fairfax County's Tysons Pimmit Regional Library. The year was 1997; the edition was pumpkin-orange. Later, in college, I asked for my own copy at Christmas so I could properly dog-ear and underline (2001; it had a broad black band on the cover that made "POET" jump out). That Poet's Market was where I found the submissions listing for Rosebud, the first journal publication of mine that ever felt "official" & national. The issue in question had a bare-breasted woman wearing a bunny mask on the cover; I can still remember my mother's quizzical expression. But they'd published Stephen King! And Ray Bradbury! I was walking among gods. 

Nowadays, the internet makes it easy to take for granted the availability of this kind of logistical data. But the truth is that the Writer's Market and Poet's Market databases still offer the best searchable, accurate, and specialized-by-genre information out there. 

For this year's Poet's Market, I contributed a craft essay  to dovetail with Collin Kelley's "Truth and Consequences in Poetry"; mine is "A Different Take on Truth & Poetry," and champions the acceptance of fiction into our voices. In the opening I define different approaches to using truth in poetry: the gardener-poets (for whom truth is the soil), the chef-poets (for whom truth is an ingredient), and folks like me..."I love to lie. And even when I'm telling the truth, I'd rather you assumed I was lying." When I saw I made the cover, my heart skipped a beat--especially being in a line-up with Sage Cohen and Taylor Mali. The second best surprise: my mother's hugely enthusiastic response to my essay. Maybe she liked that I used the metaphor of art, her realm: "Sometimes I wish poets were more like painters, who are reminded of the artificiality of their materials every time they prime a canvas or mix a palette. To paint in blood-red is not the same as to render in blood, no matter how nuanced your balance of sulfur and mercury." Maybe she liked that the essay adds to her arsenal of proofs that all my poems aren't really about our family. 

The infusion of interviews and essays into this most recent generation of Markets has really upped their value. This year's Poet's Market includes not only the headlining pieces from Taylor Mali ("10 Tips for the Perfect Reading") and Sage Cohen ("Why Poets Need Platforms: And How to Create One"), but also Q&As with Erika Meitner and Aaron Belz, as well as a compelling guide to offering private workshops as an alternative career path and reaching more readers through Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Writer's Market gets down to the brass tacks of publishing, including how to adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur, negotiating a contract, and figuring out how much to charge. One of the things that appeals to me about turning here for guidance is that we can be honest about how much we make, how much we want to make, and how much gets siphoned away by things like postage and printer ink. There's none of the artificial inflation that can happen when a bunch of freelancers belly up to the bar for shop talk. Sometimes people request to be my friend on Facebook purely to ask "How can I get a book published?" I don't mind helping, but I just wish they'd turn to these resources first. I think they'd find everything they need. 

Putting out these kinds of annual guides is a draining job, and so we all owe a huge thanks to Robert (who I had the pleasure of bumping into at this year's Decatur Book Festival--here we are) and his staff of tireless editors and proofers at Writer's Digest Books.  Thank you for taking some of the mystery out of the publishing process. Thank you for treating information on how, where, and to whom to submit our work not as the means to gatekeep or exclude but rather as practical matters, answers that should be made democratically available to all. Our poems find better homes, our essays get faster response times, and our stories get told. Thank you for nourishing the dreams of thousands of writers--including this particular Chick Who Digs Poetry. 

October 01, 2011

Weekend Food Edition

It is official: the autumn eating season is here. I told myself I was ordering the Chicken Noodle Soup at Teaism just to fend off the sniffles, but when I couldn't resist a bowl of miso broth & kale at the Modern Times Coffeehouse a few days later...I knew. 

This is actually a welcome time, because my favorite all-purpose dinner recipe feels perfectly apropos. All credit goes to Real Simple (including the pictures). Here's the secret...
-->Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
-->Use 2-3 lbs bone-in chicken (breasts, thighs, drumsticks, wings).
-->Pair with apples & leeks OR potatoes, fennel & bell peppers (quarter the fruits and slice the vegetables as appropriate).
-->Toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, and sprigs of rosemary or thyme. 
-->Spread in a single layer on a large rimmed baking pan.
-->Roast for about 40 minutes, or whenever the chicken is done.

Just that easy. The chicken's fat will soak into the sides, making for an unbelievable richness to the flavor. Serve with wild rice or a crusty whole grain bread. 

Browsing through the RS's October issue, this was the recipe I picked out to try next: Spaghetti Squash with Almonds. Here's the rundown...
-->Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
-->Halve a 3 lb spaghetti squash and seed it. Rub the exposed squash side with a tablespoon of olive oil and turn cut-side down to a baking pan. 
-->Mix together 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 1 tablespoon honey, 1/2 tsp cumin, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper. 
-->When the squash is done roasting (40-50 minutes), tease out the "spaghetti" strands from the hull with a fork. In a bowl, toss the squash with the lime mixture. Top with  1/4 cup of sliced almonds and 4 sliced scallions.

I've always loved to cook squash. When my mother went into the hospital to give birth to my sister, my 10-year old self took on household duties with four consecutive dinners of squash and bacon--the two things I knew how to make in the microwave. (Bless my dad, who complimented every meal.) Now my tastes tend toward the butternut variety simply quartered, brushed with olive oil & maple syrup, and roasted with cherries or cranberries. I'm intrigued to try something lighter, with crunch and cumin's spice.

One thing that gives me a twinge about this see-saw between book tour and living alone in DC is that I hardly ever get to cook for my favorite folks. But it is October, and with October comes a return trip to Mississippi. The heart lifts. The stomach growls.