Of writing & islands; grief & Le Guin

This year started with a week at the ArtSmith residency on Orcas Island. I spent the week writing, reading, thinking about writing, talking about writing, walking in the rain (and the not-rain), and learning more about the work of the other fellows at the residency. It was surprisingly difficult for me to focus on my writing – maybe because I’m so used to having to write in the midst of NYC and all that quiet was daunting. Or maybe it’s because I was forced to confront the intense loss I feel whenever I return “home” to the PNW; even more so as January was one year since my father died. Much of my fiction contains elements of the PNW and its trees, air, water, and particular shades of darkness (and light) hold sway in my imagination in ways other places I’ve lived never will. Some of my work draws from my father’s stories, his family, the spaces and places he lived and it is difficult (if not impossible) for me to separate my nostalgia/longing for the PNW from my grief – both for my father and, always, for my brother whose death in the 1990s was part of the impetus of my family moving away from all those rain-dark days. With the recent death of Ursula K. Le Guin, I’ve been thinking more about her work – how much it meant to me in my earliest reading years and how I continue to come back to her words throughout my adult life. On a visit to Orcas Island Pottery I was struck by how much that place/space seemed to come out of one of Le Guin’s story-worlds. There’s a depth of beauty in her work that I found reflected on the island. How this week of trees and rain and quiet conversation will bleed into my writing this year will prove interesting and, hopefully, fruitful. I’m sending out an odd little short story I wrote one afternoon sitting in the library at ArtSmith’s Kangaroo House. I have no idea if it will find a home but sending it out into the world is a part of a promise I made to myself in January – to write more stories and to risk the sharing of those stories again. It is important to remember Le Guin’s words: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

of year’s end & ‘best-ofs’

It’s that time of year when everyone is publishing “best-of” and “top ten” and so on. For once I’m not either grading or writing final papers [oh…hello Dissertation] but I am “taking stock” a bit. So what have I accomplished, written, read, listened to, and seen this past year? January started with the death of my beloved dad (Jan. 12) and my beloved uncle (Jan. 5) and that’s all I’ll say about that.  Then there was the whole #NotMyPresident thing. I got angry. I marched. again. I swore at the TV. again. But still, Trump remains. In February I adopted a large black cat variously known as Mr. Remy, Mr. Kitty, and El Poco Diablo. As for accomplishments: I finished my PhD comp exams [one in FA16 and two in SP17]. I continued as Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press where I read a couple hundred manuscripts and curated, edited & produced BLP’s weekly newsletter Sapling (52 issues). I read a lot of books & wrote several reviews for The Brooklyn Rail.  I wrote a draft dissertation proposal, applied, and was accepted into the first cohort of the Early Career Workshop at the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society. I applied for and was granted a fellowship to attend ArtSmith – a one week artist’s retreat on Orcas Island.   I wrote another novel draft (60K words) for 2017 NanoWriMo. I published another chapbook w/Mary Ellen Sanger (maybe our last). I went back to the gym, did my PT, and went from barely being able to walk across the street in August to doing 7 “moderately strenuous” hikes this past fall. I met my GoodReads 2017 Reading Challenge goal of reading one hundred books (not counting manuscripts). I went to a few live shows/concerts. I also watched way too much Netflix & Amazon Prime & went to a ton of movies. Top 10-20 out of all that: sound: Nick Cave at the Beacon. NY Philharmonic Beethoven’s 9th. visual: City of Ghosts (dir. Matthew Heineman), Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun), Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan – Netflix), The Kettering Incident (Netflix), and of course Twin Peaks: the Return & Stranger Things. text: The Power/Naomi Alderman, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me/Sherman Alexie, Hunger/Roxanne Gay, Wait Till You See Me Dance/Deb Olin Unferth, Blaris Moore/Medbh McGuckian, Ph: a novel/Nancy Lord, An Unkindness of Magicians/Kat Howard, The Folly of Loving Life/Monica Drake & a re-read of Simone de Beauvoir. And so goes another year. Here’s hoping 2018 brings us a better President and a better world.

of Halloween, endings & beginnings

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday although there’s a certain amount of melancholy that comes with it. Although I live in a city that embraces Halloween, many of the people in my life seem to see it as “just for kids.” It’s not. Nor should it be. While I don’t celebrate as much as I used to [the parade is too crowded, Pernod & black & late nights during the week have lost their appeal]. I still love the costumes, the music, the films… This past weekend I went with friends to see a performance by Radio Theatre NYC of two HP Lovecraft tales. It was fun: there were wigs, silly hats, scary masks, lots of theatrical fog. Tonight we’ll go to the Merchant’s House Museum to hear more scary tales. And then Halloween will be over for another year. And that brings with it a certain sadness, a wistfulness – perhaps brought on from reading too much Poe or Carter or watching one too many vampire movies.

The end of Halloween is also a time for beginnings – November 1st means the start of NaNoWriMo and I’ll try again this year to write the bones of a novel. I’m not overly optimistic this time around. I work 40 hrs a week at a non-writing job, have a dissertation to work on, several book reviews due by mid-November, not to mention stacks of manuscripts to read for BLP. A fellow writer friend once said that our lives are mainly composed of all the many things we do to keep ourselves from writing. There is a truth to what she says: how many hours have I spent busily not writing? Or is it instead what another friend says, that everything we do – the way we live in the world, how we understand the world around us, everything we see, feel, taste, touch, hear, etc. – all of this makes up the act that is writing. Certainly now when I sit down to write, I feel that I have more “tools” to work with [and I’m not just talking about my sharp editorial skills] but does that make up for all the hours lost to everything else when I really could be, should be writing?

Another friend asked me to send her a list of my “favorite horror movies.” But there are also other lists that go with that: music, books, cocktails, shoes. As a (semi)retired Goth, getting spooky is serious business to me. Here are just a few films & books to wrap this up in a seasonal way:

Films: Dracula (1931) The Innocents (1961) Nosferatu (1922) Don’t Look Now (1973) Hellraiser (1987) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) The Shining (1980) The Others (2001) The Exorcist (1973) Horror of Dracula (1958) Nosferatu (1979) A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) Let the Right One In (2008) Carnival of Souls (1962) Shadow of the Vampire (2000) Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Books: The Bloody Chamber & other stories/Carter, Frankenstein/Wollstonecraft Shelley, Dracula/Stoker, Northanger Abbey/Austen, Carmilla/Le Fanu, Complete Poe, The Haunting of Hill House/Jackson, We Have always Live in the Castle/Jackson, The Call of Cthulhu/Lovecraft, In a glass Darkly/Le Fanu, Interview w/a Vampire/Rice, Lost Souls/Brite, Coldheart Canyon/Barker

of book reviews, summer’s end & the dissertation prospectus blues

This morning I opened my email to a notice from the DOE that my grad student loans, ALL of them, are going into repayment in TWO WEEKS. So instead of editing that past due book review on my break at the Day Job, I spent my time requesting the 17 different pieces of paper needed to remind the DOE that I am still enrolled in a University graduate program & still in a state of deferment. Said book review will somehow get written tonight and then on to the next one. Book reviews are an interesting form of writing. I have a good, kind editor who generally allows me to say what I want to say within the assigned word count. I find this short form of writing to be particularly helpful in reminding me how to write succinctly, critically, and with a degree of passion not generally allowed in my more “academic” work. I also get to (mostly) write about books I want to write about. I don’t end up loving all of them but when I don’t love a book, the review is also a great exercise in figuring out why: is it a craft issue? language choices? poorly executed themes? or do I just disagree with what’s being said? It’s also really nice to get paid for writing. Yesterday I walked to my bank and deposited THREE checks for reviews I’ve written. Small amounts of money in NYC terms but still, getting PAID for writing in a world that does not like to pay writers. And this leads me to what I’m calling the “dissertation prospectus blues.” I’m spending this semester of grad school supposedly putting together a formal prospectus (or proposal) for my dissertation. I’ve written one already – a sort of quick pass with an extended bibliography. It was good enough to get me accepted into the “Early Career (writing) Workshop” at The Center for Women’s History @ the New York Historical Society but I don’t even know if I want to stick with my topic (loosely based around female/gender identity, punk rock, Kathy Acker, and the EV in the 1980s/1990s). Can I really do a dissertation on women in punk? Should I? And of course, in tandem with these dissertation prospectus blues are my always ambivalent feelings at the end of another summer. A summer wherein I wrote very little beyond book reviews. A summer where I spent more time at a desk than in the ocean. A summer where I questioned every day this idea of being a writer, of the worth of writing, of whether or not I should finish my Ph.D. and what it would mean if I didn’t. This weekend I’ll spend with friends, seeking the sun, and somehow, finishing at least one book review. Because that is writing I can do right now & it’s writing that will eventually bring in some money, unlike the dissertation or the Ph.D. which seems only to create more debt & get in the way of the REAL writing I want to do.

on grief and writing

In her stunningly written memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes, “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be. … Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” I have not written much since my father died in January. A few book reviews, a few awkward poems, some academic essays, one very long comp exam/capstone paper. But blog entries, journal entries, and fiction have become not so much impossible but of no interest.

I’m currently in the topic/proposal/prospectus phase of a PhD dissertation. When I attempt to concentrate on this necessary work, my brain slips away, suggests TV, perhaps a walk, a dinner with a friend, Facebook. I have always been someone who makes lists, creates outlines, weekly (daily) goals, keeps working steadily. It’s how I hike, it’s how I walk, it’s how I balance a full-time job, a part-time job, have completed four Master’s degrees and am nearly ABD. I work. Every day. I write. Every day. But now, my writing is “unengaged.”  This summer I took two non-credit undergrad online courses to kick my brain back into gear. I just got an A-. On an essay on “to the lighthouse.” In an undergraduate course. I could blame the rigidness of the instructor’s views on Woolf (a valid complaint). I could blame a lack of time. I could blame a lack of agreement with the instructor’s view on Woolf. But really, it’s grief.

When I think about the shape of my grief, it seems a sort of unfathomably dark space, a kind of black hole inside me.   Some years back I took a writing workshop led by a particularly brilliant writer; he suggested in order to really write, we had to “go deep,” to find that “pit in your gut where bad things hide” and write from there.  And so I did, I have, it’s where I go when I write fiction, when I write poems, when I write personal essays. I don’t look away but instead straight at the toughest places, those places I do not want to go.  As someone who suffers from PTSD, this is not easy work; I doubt it’s easy work for any writer. But now, when I try to go there, to really write, there’s a sort of “slipping away,” a feeling of avoidance.

So how to write around or through? I’ve written grief before: many of my poems, essays, fictions focuses on my brother’s violent death and all that came after. But this is different. This feels different. When I was recently assigned to review Sherman Alexie’s new book, a memoir that is more a eulogy for his mother than “traditional memoir,” I thought maybe, this is a way through. Instead, I am blocked. I never have “writer’s block” and I don’t understand it. Life is too short to be blocked. Maybe this lack of writer’s block means I’m not a very good writer; maybe, like those women who take too long in the bathroom (something I’ve never understood) I’m missing something. But I don’t think so. I think when people say they have “writer’s block” it’s generally because they’re afraid: afraid of the pain of going deep, afraid of risking writing something that isn’t what or how they wanted to write. But that’s all cowardice, it’s all bullshit. I will write this review. It’s unthinkable to me to not do so.  And I will write my dissertation: topic, proposal, prospectus, and every damn page of it until I’m done. And I will go to ArtSmith in January on Orcas Island and use that fellowship to write stories again. Always. Because that’s what it means to be a writer: to push into those dark space, where it hurts, where the truth hides; and my father would expect nothing less.

AWP, activism, loss, and ugly monsters.

This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.

AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle).  But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.

Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.

I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.

When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.

do not tell me to “build a bridge”

In the days since last Tuesday’s election, I’ve heard and read exhortations to “build bridges,” to “start a dialogue,” and to “express ourselves through art.” I’ve also read and heard many people say “there’s no point” to the ongoing protests in many American cities. Most people who know me know that I am an intellectual, a critical thinker and abhor violence. Aside from a few Freedom of Choice or Anti-War gatherings, it’s been years since I’ve participated in a street protest. I’m painfully shy, loathe crowds and have found in the past that most protesters hold more extreme views than my own.

This time it’s different. I could argue the math: HRC won the popular vote (as the days pass, it appears, by a large margin). I could argue the political history: the Electoral College was created in a time when 75% of the current American population did not have the vote and it has become largely irrelevant and an impediment to Democracy – silencing the will of the people rather than aiding in any balance of power. But while there are those in the NYC protests whose signs reflect these views, there is a much more urgent reason we are marching. We are certainly not “professional protesters” (as Trump has claimed) but average New Yorkers of all genders, races, and age groups. These marches are not about “being sore losers” (as Trumpians claim), nor are they about “being unrealistic” (as pundits and politicians tell us). Instead, this is about drawing a line in the sand. Or to quote one of the signs I saw yesterday referencing Gandalf (LOTR), a line beyond which hate “shall not pass.”

As the days pass and the incidences of hate crimes increase while the Government does and says NOTHING, it has become important that we march, that we hold signs high that read “Muslim Rights are Human Rights,” “Trans Rights are Human Rights,” “Refugees Are Welcome Here,” “We are ALL Immigrants,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Nasty Women Fight Back.” I’ve read posts on Facebook and heard from otherwise relatively compassionate white friends that we all need to move on and to move forward together. No, we don’t. We ALL need to stand up against Fascism, against Racism and Misogyny and Homophobia and Anti-Refugee and Anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence. We ALL need to march in the streets in vast numbers until our Government hears us and says loud enough for Trump’s followers to hear: “We will NOT tolerate violence against our citizens and we WILL prosecute hate crimes and hate speech.” And until THAT happens, please do not ask any of us who are marching to “build bridges” with people who think gay-bashing and Muslim-bashing and assaulting women and spray painting swastikas in school dorms and chanting “build a wall” at kids in school cafeterias is “freedom of speech.”

We did not vote for hate. We did not elect Trump. And we MUST stand up against his followers. Hiding at home or “getting back to normal” or thinking posting photos of yourself on Facebook wearing a safety pin counts as activism, cannot be our collective response. Give to the ACLU, volunteer in your community, wear a safety pin but ALSO get out there and raise your voice. Because until we ALL march, until we are ALL loud in our condemnation of hate, they will do nothing. #notmypresident

of Halloween, The Clash & cold feet

Somehow it’s already October & as I watch deadlines fly by somewhat akin to the leaves blowing off trees, I realize it’s been weeks (months?) since I’ve written a blog post. I could blame the volume of reading I have to do for Grad School “comps” or the hundred manuscripts I have to read or the heavier workload at my “day job” this semester, but really, it’s this “non-writing” thing that’s been happening since August. I’ve gone from writing a “poem-a-day” to maybe one every couple of weeks. I haven’t written a word of fiction since August & the only non-fiction I’m writing is of the academic variety: dry and focused on exposition and argument, not image/character/plot/rhythm. For a while in September, I was creating “erasure” poems from various texts and that was fun but it didn’t stimulate my writing the way I’d hoped it would. Much of my energy these days is focused on keeping up with the workload(s) and getting my body moving again post-surgery. I’ve done a couple of hikes & I’m walking to/from work again most days (about 1.5 miles each way). A walk that can be both freeing and irritating (cars blasting through crosswalks, bicycles on sidewalks/blocking crosswalks/ignoring red lights, tourists, people glued to phones). My commute takes me from the West Village to the East Village and this time of year, everything is decorated for Halloween except the banks & that hideous IBM tower in the midst of Astor Place. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday & this year is no exception. I’ll be celebrating in various ways: a séance at the Merchant’s House Museum, two episodes of Radio Theatre NYC’s HP Lovecraft Festival, and maybe a spooky movie or two. I may even go see The Damned. Every few years I attend the Village Halloween Parade but last year it was such a crowded mess, I’ll likely skip it. There’s something about the season that brings on a certain post-Goth nostalgic-melancholy that is both uncomfortable and oddly pleasurable. I miss dressing up. I miss going to see “scary” bands with my scary Goth friends. But seeing the new Clash-inspired film London Town last night I was reminded of just how dirty, cold, and brutal London was under Thatcher. I lived there at the height of the London Goth scene and while it was a formative year for my very young self & rife with positive new experiences (Joyce’s Ulysses, punk rock/Goth boyfriends, Sisters of Mercy/Virgin Prunes/Nick Cave-Bad Seeds/Neubaten) I also have a strong memory of ALWAYS being cold. Freezing in fact. London was damp and everywhere I lived suffered from poor heating and terrible water pressure (when there was running water). It’s not much different in NYC.  Although I have a door that locks, a toilet that (mostly) flushes & a shower that (nearly always) has hot water, and at least an expectation of heat at home and work, I’m still cold. And maybe that’s a lesson I learned all those years ago living in my own version of Halloween Town, all the beautiful words & books & all the loud music in the world won’t keep me warm. Sometimes writing eases that deep, dark cold inside but sometimes it serves only to open another door into that well of nostalgia and melancholy from which much bad poetry emanates. Still, I’ll celebrate the best holiday of the year & maybe I’ll even write a line or two in celebration.