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.”

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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.

of residencies, “home,” and Cancer

Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time.  I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.

While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.

summer descends

I recently saw a brief news story on “Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder.” The suggestion being that some people suffer on sunny days the way other suffer in the darker months. Although I love the sun and the warmth and long days at the beach, this summer is full of humid long afternoons and for anyone who is crowd-shy and not a fan of stench, Manhattan is no place to be in the summer. Yesterday I shut the windows, drew the drapes and spent the day reading (Eavan Boland’s essays) and writing. Writing about rain and wind and the darker days of fall and winter.  Recently while working my way through a massive stack of manuscripts to be read for one of my “extra” jobs, I began to feel: disheartened, disgusted, disenchanted with the whole process of writing and reading until I came across a manuscript that drew me in, kept me reading, editing as I went and – some two hours later – I looked up at the clock. And then I realized: it was my own work. It sounds weird I know but it’s a manuscript I’d written for NANOWriMO some years back and then just abandoned. Some important lessons I took away from this experience: I do like my own writing, editing is MUCH easier when time passes between the writing and the reading of work, no manuscript should ever truly be abandoned. Now that I have distance from this work, I can see the flaws: in plot construction, consistency of dialogue, logic of events, but I can also see the work that went into creating language that works and the important work yet to be done.  At the end of that day spent reading, I confessed to a writer friend that I felt I had “done nothing all day.”  She corrected me: “You HAVE been working all day. Doing what it is you are SUPPOSED to be doing.”  And that was: writing.  Writing is not just the creative act but the whole process: reading, editing, and taking stock of the work that’s been done.  While summer is marketed as a time to “get outdoors!” to “have fun!” it can also be a time for reflection, for reading, for writing, for editing and to remind ourselves that as writers, we must take the time to do the hard work of reading and editing in order to do that thing we are SUPPOSED to be doing: writing. Everything else is just what we’re doing to fill the hours when we’re not writing.

AWP or an ocean of words and no water

I just got back to NYC from AWP 2015 in lovely Minneapolis, MN. It was a great experience aside from the total lack of drinking water (the only options – the yellow water coming out of the drinking fountains or $3.50 small plastic bottles of water available if you had time to stand in a LONG line), the lack of decent food options (I ate a LOT of bananas and Cliff bars), the lack of reliable wireless either in the Book Fair or in the panel presentation rooms, and then of course, there were the immense lines for mediocre coffee. But all of these negatives are the fault of AWP and the Convention Center and not the attendees.  The hundreds of small journals and big magazines, small presses and big University presses, the many, many poets, writers, and editors all made it worthwhile. I attended both as an editor for Black Lawrence Press and Sapling and as a panelist.  My panel was Echoes of Displacement: Sound in Poetries of Diaspora. My fellow panelists presented on a diverse range of topics and most read their own work. Chris Santiago was the moderator and spoke about his own dissertation work on sound and the poetics of diaspora (it’s much more complex than that of course!); Shane McCrae (one of my favorite BLP poets) spoke about his own work and its evolution; Abdi Phenomenal Farah gave a gut-wrenching spoken word performance focused on his journey from the violence of Somalia to the U.S. And  I talked about the Irish Diaspora, the “government of the tongue” and the sound of Irish poetry (both in Irish and English).  I ended with an uncharacteristically (?) political poem about language loss and issues of identity.

BLP had a great off-site reading and party at Kieran’s Irish Pub where I was introduced to Two Gingers (yum!). Highlights for me were B.C. (Carter) Edwards, Bettina Judd, Shane McCrae, and Mark McKee. Of course, so many of the BLP writers and poets are wonderful that every one of the readings was stunningly good.

Overall, it was a great AWP and although I did miss seeing the sky and breathing outside air, Minneapolis has lots of intriguing skyways and some great Irish pubs.

best of 2014

Somehow it’s already a new year and I’m still convincing myself to get back in my regular rhythm of work and writing and socializing and sleeping 6-7 hrs/night instead of 8-10 hrs/night with extended naps in between. Having just come back “down south” to NYC and out of the cold, dark place that is New England in winter, I’d like to suggest we just skip over January and February.  As I made a concerted effort to stay offline, I neglected some year end chores like thinking about just what it was I consumed in 2014: words, music, film. I read very little new fiction and listened mostly to classical and friends’ music but here for good measure are lists of things I found worthwhile in 2014:

2014 books (no particular order):

  • Bark: Lorrie Moore
  • Can’t and Won’t: Lydia Davis
  • The Laughing Monsters: Denis Johnson
  • The Shell Collector: Anthony Doerr (I know…not released in 2014 but one of the best I read in 2014)
  • Remembering the Year of the French: (Guy Beiner, also not released in 2014)
  • Lila: Marilynne Robinson
  • The Beautiful Thing that Awaits us All: Laird Barron
  • This Side of Brightness: Colum McCann

2014 music (music released in 2014 or performances in 2014 – in no particular order)

  • Jack White: Lazaretto
  • The Black Keys: Turn Blue
  • St. Paul & Broken Bones: Half the City
  • Afghan Whigs: Do to the Beast
  • Mastodon: Once more round the sun
  • Nick Cave live at Town Hall
  • Bryan Ferry live at the Beacon Theater
  • Jessie Kilguss: Devastate Me
  • Peg Simone live at various

2014 movies (released in 2014 – no particular order)

  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Frank
  • Maleficent
  • The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Calvary