December 29, 2011

Some End-of-Year Poetry Picks, I won't claim these are "best of" anything; my travels were too peripatetic to read as much as I hoped, and what I read was equal parts poetry, fiction, and memoir. But these three 2011 collections made me stop, drop whatever else I was doing, and read from A to Z--in part to enjoy, in part to (selfishly) (strategically) (enviously) consider their poetics in light of my own projects. 

David Kirby 
(Louisiana State University Press)

Kirby is a born storyteller adept with dialogue, arc, and recurring cast; these ebullient, rangy poems channel the energy of rock and roll, the wry humor of middle adulthood, and the curiosities of an inveterate traveler.

Favorite lines: "...I have put a single raisin of doubt on the government's snowy / white cake of confidence."


Maureen Thorson 
(Ugly Duckling Presse)

This physically beautiful, intimate collection of Thorson's untitled lyrics cycles through a vocabulary of icons--oranges, stars, a Zenith TV's blue light--to hint at a story of loss and dislocation, both emotional and geographic.

Favorite lines: " love / follows you a little more slowly each day, / like a dog that wants to lie down, making signs with its tired eyes."


Matthew Guenette
(The University of Akron Press)

The most fun collection I read in 2011, Guenette focuses the frustration of America's working class via the lens of THE CLAM SHACK!, a veritable Dantean hell of dictatorial managers, forlorn waitresses, and yesterday's butter.

Favorite lines: "...the restaurant / never asked you to / imagine imaginary / things like the brittle / bones of onion rings."


Last night I met up with a a couple of brilliant NBCC folks for beers at the Black Squirrel. The Black Squirrel's basement is a DC dive right in the heart of Adams Morgan (great on a Wednesday, hell on a Saturday). The music was a little ridiculous, the duck rolls a little weird, the dessert menu MIA. But it's a quiet joint where you can chat, the brick walls are bright with graffiti that's not too hipstery, and I love that you can get 4 oz pours for $2-3, everything from IPAs to Porters, Bells to Stone. Anyway. I am not a NBCC member, and I admitted to these folks my reticence to step into the field of criticism. But I do dip a toe in, here and there, and there are theories of poetry I want to articulate when I have a few more books of my own under my belt. 

In the meantime, I'm a pushover for whatever Susan Settlemyre Williams at Blackbird asks me to do. So here I am in the latest issue reviewing Traci Brimhall's Rookery.
An excerpt:

On a formal level, Brimhall often uses an indented line in her stanzas. This device has been used to various ends over the last two centuries of American free verse, from William Carlos Williams’s triadic stanza (meant to cue pause and breath) and Marianne Moore’s syllabics (meant to signify parallel counts of beat), to the excesses of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Frank O’Hara, in which jumping from left-alignment toward the right-hand margin captured acrobatic shifts in attention or literal roaming through space. Contemporary poets such as Henri Cole and David Kirby have associated the indented line with a meditative mode that takes advantage of the traditional line break, plus the additional white space, to counterbalance a loping line of five to six stresses.

In many ways, Brimhall is an inheritor of all these influences. But I would add that her indented stanzas have a waterfall quality, as if the speaker is cascading toward a conclusion driven more by instinct or fate than intellect. The verbs that inhabit these indented poems tend to be passive—describing what is known, what is suffered, what is desired, with few fundamental changes in course—and in “Falling,” a tribute to the 146 garment workers killed in the fire at the Triangle Waist Company factory, the form visually and viscerally evokes their helpless plummet.

Onward to 2012. Three weeks at Virginia Center for Creative Arts beckon in January. I can't imagine a better way to start off the year than hiding away and poem-ing. 

December 23, 2011

Live from the Botanic Gardens in DC

I don't have a lot of winter traditions. I don't go caroling, or ice skating; mostly I trudge around cursing the cold. (I'm allergic to wool, damn it! It's no fun trying to dress up in scarves and sweaters when you have to be dodging wool at every turn.) 

But one thing I do love is my annual trek down to the United States Botanic Gardens to see their display of model trains, which are let loose in an incredible multi-level landscape (bridges, tunnels, a waterfall) made from plant elements that fills an entire gallery room. I go on a Thursday, when they stay open until 8 PM and there is music. I watch the kids run around, then stop in their tracks and gape in awe. I poke my head into the orchid parlor,  inhale that warm and sweet-scented air for a minute, and imagine I'm somewhere tropical and lush instead of slushy and gray. 

Walking through the Railway Garden is free. It's very DC. And each year, no matter where I am in life, it fills me with joy. 

The trains range from the recognizable Thomas the Tank Engine characters that make kids crow with joy to classic vintage silver bullets that are usually run on the above-head tracks, perhaps to keep them away from curious hands. 

2011's structures--it changes every year--are themed "Who Lives Here?" From "Fairy Flats" to "Critter Condos" to a peacock palace. An opossum house hangs upside down by a tail, while "Giraffe Garage" has a lonnngggg staircase up to the second floor. The cleverness and attention to detail of these buildings never fails to surprise me. And the designers are not afraid to be slightly weird. This year's Monkey Mansion made me think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom--I kept expecting it to reach out and gobble up the bumblebee train. 

In the central atrium of the Garden, the Russian folk band "Samovar" kept the crowd cheering through traditional songs. One guy was rocking out on a balalaika. Just last week I was writing a poem that included a random line about "common household balalaikas." This felt like a good omen, to see one live & in action within the week. 

You may notice what appears to be a scale version of the Washington Monument looming in back of the band. It is. They render many of DC's great structures--Capitol, Supreme Court--again in all-plant materials. You have not lived until you've seen the great dome of the Jefferson Memorial's rotunda reincarnated as the belly of a big gourd.

You can't go to the Botanic Gardens and not take in the plants as well. So my father, sister  and I got lost in the greenery for a while. Christina had a very fancy camera (as you can tell from these photos, I did not have a very fancy camera) and took a lot of close-ups. People sometimes forget that in the world of exotic plants, texture can be as much of a surprise as color. Here Christina is posing with a monkey-tail tree whose branches (fronds?) felt like lanyards braided from the thick plastic floss they'd give us as kids at camp. 

My dad and I in Hawai'i. Or at least the Hawai'i room. Later in the evening, it was raining hard and he made an elaborate show of using the one umbrella to protect my leather jacket. "You have on a leather jacket too," I pointed out. "Yes," he said, "but this one has been through three wars." Couldn't argue with that.

You know how goldfish, if they are not limited by the size of their bowl, continue to grow bigger and bigger and bigger? Poinsettias are the goldfish of the holiday plant world. They can easily reach six feet tall and keep growing. You have to admire their ambition. 

If you want to drop by the Botanic Gardens, it is not too late. They'll continue to have their extended hours on Tuesday, December 27 (Hot Club of DC, gypsy jazz and swing) and Thursday, December 29 (40 Thieves, Irish rock music). Tell 'em I sent ya. And for a grand finale, as promised, a little live action filmed by yours truly:

Happy holidays, folks!

December 21, 2011

Delivery o' Gratitude

Writers love the mail. Not email; old school, wait-by-the mailbox mail. For many of us still focused on print and/or freelance the mail brings our news, our wages, the physical evidence of our labors. So we keep an eye on the latest stamp series, shiver at the thought of suspending Saturday delivery, and curse when a new neighborhood turns out to have a late or lazy mailman (I once had one so bad he'd just skip days).

Here is a quartet of ways the last week's mail has reminded me of all I can be grateful for in this writing life. 

Out of nowhere, a noted European poet named Ron Winkler contacted me to ask if he could translate some of my poems into German. I said yes, and he jumped through all the hoops--securing permission from W. W. Norton and New Issues, working with Hochroth Press to release a chapbook, and going on to circulate individual poems to editors. So Lo and Behold, I get this gorgeous big glossy magazine in the mail...

In it, four poems:"Unit of Measure," "Theories of Falling," "The Field," and a somewhat obscure poem of mine, "She Falls Asleep in Strange Places," that never made it into a book. 

Seeing your work in another language (one you do not speak) is surreal and wonderful.

Also, they capitalized "Capybara" every gosh darn time, which made me laugh.

Then came the arrival of The Oxford American's annual music issue, this year dedicated to...Mississippi. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I keep a little piece of my heart there at all times. When the editors asked me if I'd take part by writing about one of the tracks for their sampler CD, I was beyond thrilled. (To give you a sense of the company I got to keep, David Kirby wrote about Bo Diddley; Yuzef Komunyakaa wrote about Howlin' Wolf). If you don't know about the OA, which calls itself "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing,"you should check it out. I've been reading it for a decade, long before I ever fathomed that one day my name could be on the cover. I picked up my first copy at the Olsson's that used to be south of Dupont Circle. 

I write about Mattie Delaney, a haunting 1920s/30s Delta songwriter and guitarist about whom we know very little--she recorded just two songs. The OA crew did such a gorgeous job laying this piece out (look at that art) I could cry. These music issues aren't magazines that feel dated after a month; they are rich, nuanced, highly collectible portraits of American music themed one state at a time. Anthology + CD for $10.95? It's a steal. It's not too late to go back and get ones from previous years as gifts--I can testify that the Arkansas one is a favorite, filled with excellent driving music. Excellent driving music was key to surviving 2011, in which I put 30,000 miles on my car. 

Freelancers have to be hustle forward as they look back. So I'm working toward sending out poems and essays. I just had a poem picked up by POETRY. (!) (!!!) In 2012 I have a travel piece coming out in the Washington Post Magazine. Postage-paid Point of Gratitude #3: there are still editors out there who send you pencil-marked hard copy. David Rowell is my editor. Years ago, just out of the MFA at American University, I submitted and he replied with a phone call and suggestions for edits--even though he was not taking it, but wanting to encourage a young writer. Just a really classy guy, and it means so much to work with him now. (Ahem. This photo is sideways to discourage you from trying to read it.)
All of these things to celebrate mean nothing without people I care about to celebrate them with. This week, every day has brought a card from a friend who is also a fellow writer. Every day. I've arrayed them in the decorative bramble-thing that sits by my fireplace; it's no sparkling and tinsled Christmas tree (for that I'll be going to my parents' house), but each time I look at it I smile. Thank you, guys. And thank you, United States Postal Service.

December 15, 2011

Just the Right Book

Today I was asked by the good folks at JUST THE RIGHT BOOK, which is a neat personalized book-of-the-month subscription service, to contribute to a series they are doing throughout December, in which they ask authors to tell a story of the best book they received for Christmas, Hanukkah, or any of the winter holidays. Other contributors include James Patterson, Gina Barreca, Nicholas Sparks. Here's how my piece opens~

The best book I ever received for Christmas is a first edition of W. S. Merwin's THE FOLDING CLIFFS, "a narrative of 19th-century Hawaii"--in other words, one of the great epic poems written in our time. In elegant, urgent verses Merwin tells the story of a family determined to stay together as they flee government capture during a quarantine effort on Kauai. Woven in amidst the action is an appreciation of the native culture, mythology, and landscape of this gorgeous island. The book is dedicated to Olivia Breitha (1916-2006); Breitha was known as an outspoken advocate of those discriminated against for leprosy, and her firsthand experience resonated with later generations affected by the AIDS epidemic. 

It would be enough to appreciate this gift in terms of its literary merit...but the real reason I share it with you is because of the spirit in which it was given. It was the first Christmas that I had chosen to spend away from home to be with a love, and I was on the eve of making a trip to Kauai myself--without him. He was a huge Merwin fan. The day after Christmas, after all the "official" gifts had been opened, I was packing to make the 15-hour drive back to see my family for a day and catch a plane to Hawaii. That was when took his own copy of this book, signed it to me, and told me I must read it. I carried this spontaneous gesture to Kauai's beaches....
And exclusive to the blog, here is a snapshot of the book with a second inscription--from Merwin himself. Read the full essay here to get that half of the story. For regular blog readers, you might recognize an intersection with this May entry, "Swoon.")

December 13, 2011

Introducing: Modern Alice @ TRIP CITY

A funny thing happened in Miami at the Book Fair. In addition to all the hijinks reported in an earlier post, I found myself thinking what has been missing from my professional life. (Damn poets! Never satisfied.) 

401K contributions, paid vacation, free office supplies? Sure. But not just that. While I love thinking in terms of assembling collections and pitching freelance, I'm like every writer--I came to this craft in stolen moments, drafting with the freedom of never expecting an audience. I've missed writing in some unlikely genre, untamed in theme, utterly un-monetizable. Writing as indulgence.

I also thrived on the camaraderie of the Book Fair, and thought about the need to rebuild my community. Everyone needs a home base. Though I have great friendships with writers in DC and Oxford, a recent spate of marriages and moves--not to mention my own tour schedule--set me a little adrift. If I were a journalist, I'd know which watering halls to haunt; if I taught in an MFA program, I'd share tired nods & chat by the coffeemaker. Hard to know where to steer without that kind of compass. 

Enter TRIP CITY: an old-school art circle in a new-school format. This Brooklyn-curated online journal offers a treasure trove of free, exclusive content ranging from comix to prose to interviews to podcasts to video. I've become particularly addicted to Seth Kushner's pop-as-personal essays (such as the great "Patrick Stewart and My Father") and the luminous, oddly gentle visual style of Nick Abadzis (as in "Perfect Imperfect").  The site launched in November of this year and has already garnered buzz in the comic world, the Los Angeles Times, and beyond. 

When I met several TC contributors through Literary Death Match (Dean Haspiel, Jeff Newelt, Jennifer Hayden), I recognized the glow of people who have a deep respect for one another's work--and also truly, deep down, like each other. It helps that a lot of them share a physical space via the HANG DAI studios in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood (next to famed indie store BookCourt). So when Dean asked if I might be interested in contributing a monthly feature, I thought, Hell yeah. 

But what to write for them? Ever since I first began tried my hand at the Washington Post Magazine's "XX Files," I have loved the musculature of the 700-900 word essay. What if I used that same length to explore...(deep breath)...fictions? And that's how MODERN ALICE was born. It's a space devoted to capturing both the realities and fantasies of the 21st Century Alice–a woman who is independent, curious, and ready to step through the looking glass.

So check out today's debut: HOT FOR SANTA. Yes, you read that title correctly. I hope it's fun to read; it sure was fun to write. 

While you're at it, check out TRIP CITY's Podcast #4, which features me alongside author/filmmaker Miranda July (!), sound artist Krista Dragomer, & Williamsburg music project Edison Woods. I had a great time being interviewed by Dean Haspiel, author/artist of the Billy Dogma series (e.g. "The Last Romantic Antihero") and Emmy-winning contributor to Bored to Death. You can stream the podcast or download it to iTunes. 

December 10, 2011

Catching Breath

What's happened since we last spoke? 
Food Allergy Ball at the Waldorf Astoria. Meetings with my editorial teams at Crown and W. W. Norton. A few hours spent wandering the Museum of Modern Art. A night watching Hugh Jackman sing his way through some Broadway tunes. (I accidentally walked in besides Donald Trump and Melania...I kinda wanted to reach out and touch his hair, but resisted.) A photo shoot at HANG DAI studio--more on that soon--then a delightful BookCourt reading by Joe Infurnari/Glenn Eichler (Mush! Sled Dogs with Issues), Nick Abadzis (Laika), and Dean Haspiel ("Billy Dogma: The Last Romantic Antihero").

I caught a 7 AM train from New York City back to DC. A slow taxi home from Union Station meant I barely had time to bring bags up to my apartment--and only seconds to register that my refrigerator has begun making suspicious noises--before hopping into my car and driving an hour to Mt Hebron High School in Ellicott City, where I had a 12:30 classroom visit (part of a series as the Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry & Literature Society). The "visit" turned out to be a full-out reading in the library for over 50 kids. I dashed in as the bell was ringing to start the period, and an uncharacteristic coughing spell racked its fingernails across the opening delivery of "Another Failed Poem about the Greeks." But I pushed through, and afterwards a girl who had sat in the front row introduced herself as a budding writer. She'd spent the night before looking up my work and YouTube clips; she had me sign her program; we took a photo. And in that moment I knew the hustle had been worth it.

Now I'm back in my noisy apartment (maybe the fridge's fan belt is the problem?), innards of my suitcase still spread on the floor, adjusting to the thought of being home for an entire month. Good music helps. At the moment, I'm listening to CEREMONIALS by Florence + The Machine; before that, it was the Beastie Boys.

Next up is the Brother Ali album US, which I bought after listening to it at Mother Fool's Coffeehouse in Madison, Wisconsin, the afternoon before my memoir reading. Hard to believe that is already one week (and two cities) back, but it was a wonderful day spent reading, wandering Williamson Street's co-op and art galleries, and getting to meet Christi Craig, a fellow blogger and mother to an allergic child.

Head over to Christi's WRITING UP AN APPETITE blog for my guest-post on the travails of eating on the road--and a chance to win a giveaway copy of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl

I'm grateful to be back in my DC community, and I won't be able to risk the siren call of hearing Matthea Harvey read from Of Lamb at 826DC this Tuesday, or seeing Much Ado About Nothing with my friend at the Shakespeare Theater later this week, or visiting my beloved holiday train display at the Botanical Gardens. But overall, this is going to be a working month. I have edits to turnaround for a major Washington Post piece, a new series I'll be launching with the good folks at TRIP CITY, notes toward several short craft essays and personal essays that I've been dying to turn into a reality, and a sestina simmering in the back of my mind. 2011's ridiculous amount of travel has been fun, but there's no way around it: if you want to make a living as a full-time writer, you need to write and write some more. Time to see if I can make that happen. 

December 02, 2011

A Monstrous Sigh of Relief

I just turned in a freelance piece that's been hanging over me for months. Months! The completion of this means more than I can bear to admit. Even if they don't run it, it won't be because I didn't *write* it. So here, now, on a Friday afternoon in Wisconsin, I share my all-time favorite happy dance song: "Shout" by the Isley Brothers.


I'm going to go for a walk down State Street and some celebratory sushi.

And tonight?

Tonight I'll be at this shindig.

It's gonna be incendiary. 

Pack your pitchforks, ye villagers of Madison.

See you there.