Book Review: Sven Birkerts' The Other Walk

The Other Walk: Essays
By Sven Birkerts

Birkerts’ collection of essays, The Other Walk, is a compendium of acts of contemplation and the digressions of the mind. Just reading it has inspired the last couple of posts here on Roaming Cowgirl, where I have allowed a memory or an associative moment to have free reign of the page.

The essays in TOW are deliberate and thoughtful, as they roam across the subjects of family, friendship, romance, writing, and teaching. I have to confess that I bought the book on impulse three years ago at AWP, and never read past the first page. I’m sure I asked whoever was staffing the Graywolf booth about “essay collections,” as I was prone to do three AWPs ago, and this was the one recommended. When I cracked it open later in my room, I felt instantly weary.  I was in my own (frenzied) action phase and I did not have the patience for the contemplation of others. My eyes fidgeted over pages that lacked dialogue or natural history, and I shelved the book to read “later.”

But then at the most recent conference in Minneapolis, I sat in on a hilarious and engaging panel that featured Birkerts (plus three of my favorite writer-friends). Two days later, and at the gate early for a plane that would end up delayed, I saw him sitting alone. As I am still, and I hope not always, prone to do, I subsequently accosted him with vulture stories. (He later favorited a tweet of mine, so I don’t think all the carrion/disease talk did any lasting damage.)

When I first sat down next to him, I had to say (because deliberate lying is hard for me), “I haven’t read your book yet, but it is in the stack.” There’s no way to make that sound good. So when I came home, I moved it up several spots.

I’m so glad I did.

My current frenzy is one of inaction. I am stuck in place; there’s sometimes a squealing sound, smoke coming from under the hood, and the smell of burning rubber. There are days when I feel my heart start to pound for no reason. It would be misstating at best to claim that this book is a cure for anxiety, but it has helped me put my spinning mind into perspective, and as a result, to use.

Take the essay, “Schimmelpenninck.” In it, he starts out looking for a dented tin on top of a bookshelf in his den, and then this happens:

I never found it, but my charged-up idle investigating brought me right up against all sorts of things—I mean literal things, bundled letters, peculiar artifacts of completely mysterious provenance, like a tiny elephant figurine, and an ancient cigarette lighter that I was clumsy in disassembling—that I broke—and that had my father confronting me in a fury.

And just like that, it becomes an essay about his father, then a trip to Latvia and his grandmother’s stories.

Since I move so often, I don’t have a treasure trove of objects collected over the years on top of a bookcase. Instead, my troves must be self-contained and portable. One such stash lives in a tin lunch box with Kali-ma’s face on one side and the many faces of Shiva on the other. Another lives in a simple wooden box I made in fifth grade woodshop. I know very well the steps from cigarette tin to elephant to lighter that Birkerts describes.

In the lunchbox, for example, I can move from mysterious Honduran paper money (who do I know who has been there?) to limpet shells from a failed DIY mobile attempted during my first year of marriage, to four wisdom teeth from a college friend. In the wooden box, lives my name tag from mandatory 6th grade “outdoor school,” a plastic green cap from an orange juice bottle cracked open during an LSD trip in 1988, and a pencil that my father gave me when I was around 12 embossed with his name above the phrase “Wisely Aggressive” (including quotation marks).

What I mean is, there are whole books in those boxes.

I’m getting off topic. In The Other Walk Birkerts privileges the art of thinking about things, and in so doing, he says a lot about the lived life of a writer. The moments are rich in detail and the revelations, sharp—that he carves them out of otherwise quiet moments sitting in a chair, walking a well-known path, or organizing files, is a testament to his skill as a writer and reader, and the breadth of his writing career. Does it do the book a disservice to call it a writer and readers’ book?

I am a writer, too, and I often find myself thinking about things. This is an act that can easily appear to outside observers as “doing nothing,” and which is complicated by my lack of employment or permanent residence of late. I feel terrible for staring out the window while long minutes elapse. Sometimes, if I sit for too long, the squealing tire sound manifests itself, especially if productive writing doesn’t immediately follow the staring. Or, if I’ve been doing my thinking on foot, I might hear the almost-admiring “I wish I had time to run every day," which is another way of saying, "Is that all you did today?"

But much more than simply or grandly a justification for my own sometimes plodding sometimes distracted process, I found a kindred spirit in the narrative voice of The Other Walk, if a tremendously calmer one. Before I'd ever read any of his essays, I wrote this in a forthcoming piece: “I felt how the steps made my spine twist back and forth like a chain might, in a light wind. My arms swept heavy from my shoulders, propelling me forward. By concentrating on just that act of walking, I kept something else from happening.”

In the last essay in The Other Walk, titled, “Walk,” Birkerts writes: “I can feel my own rhythm start to lift me up and tune me to the swing of walking, that growing catch-pull connection between the body’s exertion and whatever is passing through my head.”

We are writing about very different moments, at different stages of our lives and careers, but this echoing connection between mind and body, between thinking about action and writing it, was like a hand reaching out across an otherwise empty space, and I was grateful for it.

Verdict: RECOMMENDED

Boys don't cry, 1986

I usually listen to some wonderful/horrible "pop cardio" mix on Pandora when I run, but the last few weeks have been tough, even with running, even with eating right, even with picking up the phone and talking to people now and again. So on my last run, I decided to listen to one of my favorite Buddhist teachers talk through ways we can get stuck in unpleasant patterns of thinking and ways we can unstick ourselves from them.

As always, she said some profound, kind, and helpful things. But she also told this anecdote about being away at a retreat and thinking another participant there hated her. She tried all of her meditation techniques and nothing helped her to shake the crummy feeling of being unliked. So one night she went to the meditation room and just sat there with her hurt feelings, all night. She wasn't meditating exactly, just being present with her bad attitude and the longing it was creating. She says that she realized, then, that everything she does, from the way she smiles to the way she talks and works to make others happy and comfortable, all her behaviors, were in service to avoiding that feeling of someone deeply disliking her.

And of course, because I have always had trouble focusing and paying attention (which is the whole reason I have a favorite Buddhist teacher in the first place), my mind instantly stopped listening to her and teleported me back to the 7th and 8th grade and two boys who broke my heart. I still behave in ways that are designed to avoid feeling the way those boys made me feel. Two dumb boys who have certainly forgotten all about me!

I can't remember which one of them I met first. But I think it was Chris, and we met on the phone. I was at my best friend's house—remember how that used to happen? She had called a boy I liked, ostensibly for my benefit, but she was always doing that and then would somehow end up making out with him whenever we all next met, because who knows why? Life is weird! (We don't speak much anymore, but I digress.) So, Claire had called Matt, and at some point Matt handed the phone off to his buddy Chris, so Claire handed the phone to me—ah, that year between 7th and 8th grade!—and Chris and I started to talk. We had a great conversation and it was either then, or the next time Claire pretended to help me out with a guy (that she hardly even liked like that before at all! Life is SO weird!), that he and I exchanged our own numbers. 

We talked a lot, after that. He was funny and smart and he told me he thought I was funny and smart. And he was cool! I had never heard of The Cure until Chris told me that he bet they were my favorite band. By the end of the 8th grade they would be. I have no idea if it's because he'd planted that seed in my brain box, but I remembered that he'd predicted it. Since I'd gone to school with Matt and since Claire still went to school with them both (I'd had to move away to the suburbs the year before), I figured one or the other of them would've told Chris at least a little about what I looked like. It's possible, though, that Matt didn't care and I promised Claire not to. I knew what I was, and maybe I didn't want to ruin my excellent conversations with Chris. 

I knew what I was, and awkward was the nicest name for it.

I knew what I was, and awkward was the nicest name for it.

I "met" Michael in a nearly identical fashion, over at my friend Andrea's house. We were in her family room, dancing around to the radio and drinking Jolt. She called some guy she liked and at some point, his friend Michael and I ended up on the phone while the lovebirds took a breather. But just before Andrea handed me the receiver, she described me for Michael: long blonde hair, blue eyes, and smoking in my hot pink string bikini. She was being "funny" (read: cruel). I was understood to be a complete and total dork, a fatty, and a brainiac. All the worst possible things a junior high girl could be. I told Michael that she was lying and that first and foremost, I was not wearing a hot pink string bikini, nor would I, ever. It was my way of trying to tell him that I was fat and uncool. He took it to be modest humility. But what he said was, "I totally didn't think you were anyway." Which I thought meant he understood.

SIDE NOTE: We missed a million nuances before texting, too, everyone. Remember?

We had a great talk. I was still suspicious that he didn't have the right mental image of me, but I forged on. We exchanged numbers and talked all the time. Sometimes, he'd get a call and put me on hold (remember call waiting?!) and sometimes I would get a call and he'd wait for me. Once, he came back from the other line and I didn't hear the click because I was trying to teach myself the keyboard part to People Are People (I had an 80s songbook), and when I stopped, he said, "Don't stop; I love your voice!"

Were Chris and I, and later, Michael and I, flirting? I don't know. We must've been, but there was no overt talk of making out or going out or anything like that. I was a total prude until the end of the 8th grade. It could be that I missed all the innuendo (I'm still a champ at that, sometimes right up until the point where the dude is starting to undress). I know I liked them. I know I liked that they liked me back. I felt giddy at first, talking to them, and then confident and happy.

Back to Chris. I wanted to meet him. Was he reluctant? I don't remember. Maybe he wanted to meet me, and I was. Regardless, meeting a boy who lived across two suburbs and "town" when you're just barely an 8th grader is tricky business. I decided to "visit" my old school for a day. I don't remember how that worked, but I did it a few times in junior high and later high school. I brought a camera and took pictures of all of my friends and a few of my old teachers. I really missed the place and really hated my new school. But, that was not the reason I was there. I was nervous and excited to finally see Chris. The bell between classes had just rung and we were walking down the hall, and Claire pointed to an open locker door that someone was standing behind. 

"It's him!"  

I walked up behind the door and when he closed it, I took his picture. That picture exists somewhere, because I remember looking at it later. But I don't know where. I didn't put it in any photo albums or scrapbooks. At first he was laughing. He didn't know who I was (how could he? No FB back then to pre-stalk someone on) until I said so. Then he stopped laughing. He looked me up and down and then after some stammering and mumbling of excuses, he bolted for his next class and we never talked again, except for the few times that I called and he said he couldn't talk. 

And then Michael. We arranged to meet at the mall (it later became famous for housing an ice rink that Tonya Harding practiced on). I was going to bring my friend Jenny and he was going to bring a friend, too. Jenny and I said we'd be waiting on the couches on the ground floor of Nordstrom's, by the store entrance, at 2:00. We were. At 2:01 we saw two dark-haired boys walk by the entrance. They were wearing ridiculous brightly colored board shorts and pastel t-shirts. They were wearing deck shoes. Just like Michael had said he'd be wearing. They looked at us and never broke their stride. They didn't even walk in. Later on the phone, Michael would say that it wasn't him. And then, that they were there, but they didn't see us there. But also, that he had to go. And he was never able to talk after that. 

My god! If I could go back and hug me and tell me that I'm beautiful and they were just dumb jocks and that one day I'll grow into those eyebrows and another day, I'll get my teeth straightened out a bit and get lasik. I would tell sad and angry and sad me, that I'll learn how to cut my hair so that not knowing how to do my hair won't be quite the same liability, and I'll find a sense of style that actually works, even if it's never exactly on time or target. And I'd tell me that even at my fattest, I'll learn to swagger in four inch heels and turn down better boys than that at the bar every Friday night if I wanted. But despite all that, despite assurances of the beautiful I will eventually feel, I would tell me that I needed to learn right now (not at 40, good lord, don't wait until 40 to learn this!) that my self-worth does not depend on any boy's admiration of my looks. How did I never learn that? What book did I fail to read? Which class did I miss? Goddammit, to go back and tell myself just how fucking great I am inside and out. To learn to shake those shitty boys off like dust!

So here's where I get stuck, still. Here's the feeling I work so hard to avoid. I want to be wanted, and I will bend myself into crazy personality pretzels to make it so. I do this with men, but also women, also jobs. I just do this in life. Sometimes I don't do it, too. Sometimes I can say fuck it, this is me, and I'm cool with it whether you are or not. I'm getting better at that. I'm working on it. But other days, it only takes one denigrating or dismissive remark and I'm sitting on that couch at Nordstrom's all over again. 

But I guess that's why they call it work, right?

I am not sure what the terrible memory of these boys is trying to tell me that I don't already know. Maybe they just came back to haunt me because I'm feeling vulnerable and because I have some shit to figure out that might mean big changes in the way I live my life. Maybe the reason will be evident later. In the meantime, I'll try to sit with it until the sting fades a bit more, as stings do. 

Garage sale signs, junior high elections, and the sin of pride, maybe

Last Saturday I organized a garage sale for myself, my boyfriend, and his brother's wife. I have only a few things to sell, but since I have to move across the country again soon (and covering my own expenses on this one), every pound and inch of space needs to be important. 

SIDEBAR: it is worth noting that I have a lot of stuff that no one but me would ever consider important. I even have some whose importance I question. I'm just trying to get rid of a few things that have gone unused for several moves. And even that is hard: I've sold things at garage sales and later lamented their loss. 

My boyfriend is moving to North Carolina at some point in the next year and wants "everything gone." His sister-in-law recently lost her daughter and for her the sale was an opportunity to dispatch non-sentimental possessions and make a little bit of money for the granddaughter she's now raising. She made the most last weekend, and I'm glad about that. 

I made $1.25 in eight hours of sitting in the humidity and mosquitoes.

All told, I spent a little over $7 on signs, $3 on price stickers and markers, and a couple of hours making signs and hanging them. My boyfriend made $20, $8.75 of which I confiscated so as to at least break even on supplies, if not labor. 

Several folks who stopped by mentioned that they found us  because of my signs.

SIDEBAR 2: Which is nuts because the last couple of garage sales I've had were Craigslisted and virtually sign-free (and I made actual money and got rid of actual things at them).

Nonetheless, my signs were pretty easy to read and follow.

Sign-making is a skill I have that has become almost completely useless now that you can order slick photoshopped posters from online copy shops with overnight shipping for practically nothing. Hand drawn signs, though. The whole thing reminded me about this junior high race for class historian that I lost in 1987. 

In the 8th grade, I wanted to be on student council because I thought it meant I could have an impact on things that mattered to me and get a jumpstart on amassing important "extra curricular activities" for my transcript. I was fat, unpopular, and a known nerd, so I knew I couldn't get any of the sexy seats like president or treasurer, but class historian seemed like less of a long-shot than the others.  

I quickly learned that I'd be up against Grace Aguilar for the post. Grace was nice and smart and (unfortunately) a C-list popular girl. Her shaker sweater game was top-notch and she played some non-basketball sport, maybe volleyball. Once her candidacy was announced, I was secretly sure I'd never win, but publicly optimistic that the most qualified candidate would win and that was me. I was a great writer after all, and the job was to write down all the stuff the council did.  I was especially secretly sure deep, deep down, that we weren't that unevenly matched, and if I ran a strong campaign and wrote a good speech, I had a chance. 

My mother helped me make campaign posters for several hours one evening after she'd worked a full day at the phone company. My mother was wildly artistic and creative all through my childhood. She wrote my name in different shapes and fonts on my grade school lunch bags every day for a school year, she sewed and crocheted my Barbies a variety of dresses, she helped me make a set of far superior fashion plates that I could use to design my own clothes (after I was frustrated that the plastic Barbie set of fashion plates only let you mix and match already-designed outfits), she created at least three of her own greeting card lines, and even made her new husband love-note pillow cases once (the six-year old in me is still grossed out by that). Whenever I get a crazy idea for a craft (like  wallpapered light switchplates that coordinate with a room), I am pretty sure that is my mom shining through.

We worked hard on those posters. I only remember two of them. One featured a Statue of Liberty (I looked up what she looked like in my encyclopedia set for the sake of accuracy), though I don't remember the slogan, and another said "The AYES have it" and was covered with eyelashed eyes of different shapes and colors... There was probably one with a dolphin and maybe some presidents (historian, get it?), but that's wild speculation all these years later. All told, I think we made 8 or 10 of them, in addition to "buttons" that were probably meant to be affixed to lapels/oversized Esprit tshirts with tape.

I thought they were really good. Most of the other campaign signage consisted of die-cut construction paper letters or gloppy poster-painted banners that just said "VOTE FOR TODD" or whatever. It was all stuff someone had bought or thrown together with little thought. Mine demonstrated my writing skills, my creativity, my diligence and industriousness. I secretly thought that maybe they were good enough to get even me elected.

Some friends helped me hang them during the long mid-morning break between 2nd and 3rd period a few days before the elections and I fished for compliments about them all through fourth period, lunch and probably 5th and 6th period, too. I asked people which was their favorite and I probably got more than a few honest compliments from kids I didn't really know. 

When the final bell rang, I walked out of whatever classroom I had been in and noticed right away that a poster of mine was no longer where I'd hung it. I ran down the hall to check and that one was gone, too. My best friend Jenny came to tell me that others from the other side of the building were missing, too. Every single one was gone. There were still corners of tape with torn pieces of paper stuck to them in a few places, but otherwise there was no trace. They hadn't even just torn them up in some trash can so that I could salvage the pieces. The rumor was that Darcy Bass, one of the B-listers and a friend of Grace's, had torn them all down. Darcy never spoke a single word to me throughout all the six years we went to school together, though she was quick to sneer at me when I was forced to pass her in the hall. It was likely she did it, but it didn't really matter either way. Everyone understood that I was not to win. And since life isn't a John Hughes movie, that's what happened. I still tried to write a good speech and I still gave it with all the heart I could muster, but Grace won.  I am sure I cried on the busride home, further humiliating myself.  I vaguely remember Grace apologizing to me afterward, saying she didn't ask anyone to tear down my posters.

I know I shouldn't have bragged about those campaign signs. I was a pretty intolerable kid (I'm still an almost completely intolerable office mate). And I am sure that Grace did a fine job at the whatever tasks are required of an eighth grade class historian. It's the meanness of it that I can't get past. I tried to rise above my station and was pitilessly and brusquely put back in my place at a far table in the cafeteria. I don't think I've ever run for any kind of formal or informal office since. 

It is worth noting that Darcy briefly friended me on Facebook a few years ago, when everyone from high school was dog-piling on everyone else's feeds. I added her at first, but I deleted her not long after, because I'm petty, maybe, or maybe because we were obviously never friends to begin with and there's no sense in pretending otherwise now. 

 

Book Review: Dinah Lenney's The Object Parade

When Dinah Lenney says, on page 20 of The Object Parade that “Every home should have a piano” I thought, this narrator and I will have little in common. She says this at the end of a short essay about the baby grand piano that she’s been lugging from coast to coast, that takes special movers to move, that is covered in framed photos that her housekeeper dusts for her.

I have never lived in a house with a piano, and as I’ve been sitting here drafting this book review, I’ve racked my memories—and I don’t think I’ve ever even been in a single family home with a baby grand piano. But wait, that’s not true—there was a grand piano in the home of that distinguished ex-pat translator and chorister who put me up for a couple of nights on short notice in Vienna. Which is to say that anyone can sound a little terrible out of context.

The Object Parade spoke deeply to me before I’d even cracked the cover, and my hopes were high. A memoir told through objects, one person told me. A catalog of the literal stuff of life, I could sum up the dazzling blurbs. Things, stuff, and lived lives—via flash essays. I’ve dreamed and day-dreamed this book!

And then there came the piano(s—there’s the one she grew up with, too) and a broken Tiffany watch, and some jade earrings, and the supporting role on a famous TV show that maybe or maybe not meant “little” to the narrator, and I thought, this narrator and I have never lived with any of the same stuff, and by stuff I am not just thinking objects.

Though Lenney and I did both have a broken acoustic guitar for awhile, the material intersections, otherwise, were few. For me it would be the Casio SK-1 I outgrew and handed down to my sister, an old Tom Peterson watch, mismatched onyx earrings, and that one time my voice was played on NPR News for 45 seconds.

And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. And as I did, I found ways in, over and over again. No, I don’t know what it’s like to bum around the upper east side in the late 70s, trying to make it as an actress while waiting tables and shopping for old linens and ancient sheet music, which are the circumstances that Lenney describes in the essay, “Flight Jacket”—but I know about leather jackets.

In the late 80s, I spent several weekends dragging my mother to every pawn shop in the “deep eastside” of Portland, Oregon looking for the perfect goth motorcycle jacket for under $135. Most were all wrong. Some had uncool patches or zippers that weren’t quite right—or horrors, were cut from brown leather instead of black. Finally, I found it: a classic cut, no fringe or silly logos, and ten dollars under budget. The only problem was that it was just a little bit too small. I was a “hefty” kid who had grown into an XL teenager. In the late 80s, there was no Torrid or Lane Bryant. Wearing XL in the 80s meant shopping in the  “women’s” department or wearing men’s clothes. I didn’t want to admit that I was too fat for the jacket and so I bought it anyway. Spent all my meager savings on a coat I couldn’t zip up.  It was not the first or last time that I told myself I could diet into some garment.

That jacket never did fit me, and when I think of it, I remember the deep shame of being fatter than I was supposed to be so much more than the pride of a cool ass leather.  Lenney’s own jacket gives her a chance to think about the kind of parents she had, and the kind of parent she is—the jacket is more than just dinner and a show on 14th street, more than the seamstress who almost refuses to repair it.

Again and again, Lenney pinpoints and then examines all the ways that things decorate, populate, and demarcate the places and moments and pieces of a life. From a craft perspective, the concept of memoir as litany is (I can’t think of a better word for it) meaty. If you teach writing, this book might just inspire a handful of new prompts. And she has nailed the title, because all this stuff does roll past the mind’s eye just like a parade, once you get to musing on it.

Try it. Imagine the things that matter to you. First, the big stuff, they trundle past like be-flowered floats with their own dance tracks: the quilt my grandmother made, my old snowboarding jacket, a yarn winder and wooden swift, horse skull, clay sculpture of a seated woman, two teal lamps with black and white shades, mismatched dinner service for four, two red vinyl chairs and a chrome and melamine breakfast table. Then come troops of small things, like Shriners on ATVs, jugglers, or a clown on a unicycle: an old enameled pin shaped like a cockeyed dog, a small pink ceramic horse in the style of a Roman charger, a gray rock the size of two finger knuckles that is shaped exactly like a peanut, a green beetle carcass, two blue and white espresso cups, a ball point pen on which you can play a very tiny but accurate game of Operation, a bunny-shaped piggy bank painted all over with turquoise stars, a set of three palm-sized crocheted bears of the Mama, Papa, and Baby bear variety, a newspaper clipping with a picture of me pouring coffee at Fuller’s in 1991, plus one of the brown coffee cups that I’m filling in the photo. Then, after the floats and motorcades and rodeo princesses, come the books. Like the sudden crowd of a marching band, there are so many more of them than shelves in which to store them; files and boxes full of old letters, cards, pages torn from magazines, notes once passed in class. I’m sorry to say that I lost my own broken watch years ago, but even that’s still there in my mind’s parade, along with other lost items: a stable of Breyer horses, the foot-long taxidermied alligator dressed like a bride, a chunk of raw turquoise, stacks of rockabilly CDs, a tufted green side chair, Fugazi t-shirt: every damn thing, a story.

While The Object Parade is ostensibly about stuff and things, it is really about Lenney’s life: her relationships, her progress.  It is that narrative thread that hooked me and then led me through the book, giving me space to connect with Lenney. She has difficult moments as both a mother (“Flight jacket”) and a daughter (“Green earrings”); she wants people to like her and appreciate her efforts (“Chicken stew”); she has complicated relationships with her siblings (“Nests”). She gets obsessed over little things, like an old coffee scoop or the age limit for certain outfits (“Scoop,” “Little Black Dress”). And the whole parade culminates in a beautifully honest and reflective moment that I will not spoil here. When I finished, though I had read several concise and sharp essays about objects, what I was struck with most was Lenney’s accessible humanity. As it turns out, though she and share few things, we have a ton of stuff in common.

Verdict: RECOMMENDED (and the garage sale will be next Saturday, too, from 9-4)

Book review: Jill Talbot's The Way We Weren't

The Way We Weren't
By Jill Talbot

I mentioned this to Jill on Twitter, but one of the most amazing aspects of reading her memoir, The Way We Weren't, was how much I related to her daughter, Indie. Indie and I have not had particularly similar childhoods; I moved between houses when I was young, but they were all basically in the same part of Oregon.

My parents didn't even split up in similar fashions, or have a similar arrangement afterward. My mother left my father and took me with her after his controlling jealousy and alcoholism began to threaten our safety. After which, he sobered up and sent his check every month until I graduated from college. He came through town sometimes, and I went to stay with him a few times. All this to say, I wasn't exactly abandoned by my father. But he did move away, and he visited very rarely. I grew up believing that he would be around more if he could, but work prevented it. Once I was an adult, I realized that adults get to decide what limits "work" places upon them and what limits they are willing to accept.

My father doesn't like any person or thing he cannot control. He prefers "performance" vehicles when he can afford them, doesn't keep pets or longterm wives, has no other children that I'm aware of, and keeps a sailboat as proof that even the sea can be made to do his bidding. As a child, I was uncontrollable. So, I only stayed with him a few times, and only after age 14.

All that to say that every time the narrator in The Way We Weren't wondered about what effect Kenny's leaving might have on her daughter, I felt this hand in me raising high. I wanted to answer her. 

I had expected to relate most to Jill's narrator--the woman in her that once loved a man who left. But now I realize that that was silly on my part. I do the leaving, nearly always. To which Jill responded, "I think when you're left, the impulse to leave is strong--to beat people to the punch, to avoid being left again." And yep, I think. Yep.

But Indie will have two different models of leaving from which to build her own propensities. While Kenny left to (seemingly) avoid responsibility, Jill leaves over and over in thrall to it. She is trying to build a life for herself and daughter with some small level of security, even if it only comes in 9 month segments. I get this. Boy, do I, even if I'm responsible for little more than hundreds of books and a lemon tree (and a horse skull and some dishes and a box of artwork and boxes of letters, and mounds of clothes for every possible climate, and snowshoes in hopes of snow and a small beach chair in hopes of beach, etc etc etc--I always feel compelled to admit to my great pile of possessions). Nonetheless, I get reaching for that bit of security that still fosters the creative life, even if it means moving and moving and moving. 

This is turning into a terrible review. I've hardly talked about the book. Besides acting as an oracle into some of my deepest fears and desires, it is just a wonder of nonfiction. She plays with form, including lists, a syllabus, and redacted correspondence. She uses time and place as organizational elements, but manages to build on the narrative instead of just spinning her wheels after each move (as it feels I've begun to do myself). The essays flip between first and third person, which allows her to relate both raw emotion and a kind of "detached" reflection along with the moments of her and Indie's travels.

Because I'd read earlier versions of several chapters, I loved the insight into the craft of book-building that came from seeing them carefully refigured into the larger narrative.

This is not a light-hearted romp across America with a spunky mother-daughter team. It isn't that kind of book at all. But it is a book (in part) about how family and home is what you make it. Jill and Indie are forging a a relationship and a life together that has strength and character not in spite of their circumstances, but as a result of them. Which I hate saying, because if I had a quarter for every time my mother told me that some deprivation or unpleasantness "built character" I wouldn't need any character because I'd be totally loaded. (But here it is true in a way that makes me root for the pair, rather than roll my eyes at my mom.)

The voice of the narrator leads you into and out of some bleak and despairing shit, which I of course appreciate. But she also questions the "truthfulness" of her account. This is one reason I read nonfiction: I want to hear about the way in and the way out, even if "out" is happening somewhere out at the vanishing point. I want to read the story that someone else's life has told. For me, it's about marveling at the paths we each chart, the roads we walk, and the life we live in the meantime. But she also tells beautiful stories about falling into and out of love with people, places, and things. It's a wonderful, searing, and honest book about living with heartbreak on your heels, what that asks of a person and what it gives a person. I know this story, and am comforted to hear someone else sing it.

Verdict: RECOMMENDED (and I need to go on a long walk now)

Recommended reading / revelation

As we all know, anesthetizing ourselves from our overwhelm and anxiety with Netflix or ice cream or reading or sex rarely satiates for long. What satisfies and fulfills in a deep and lasting way is that which is hard: creating something from nothing, giving expression to that which we didn’t realize we knew, the arduous work of digging up and straightening out thoughts, setting them down still squirming and supple on the page. - Gila Lyons

Is this a revelation for anyone else, or did the universe just send it arrow-sharp right to my heart hole just when I needed it most? You can read the rest of Lyons' post at the Brevity blog

In related news, I'm staying off Facebook for at least one more week, I think. 

Reporting from P-town

Since Sunday evening, I've been in residence at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown MA, thanks to a generous scholarship. My class this week is being taught by Joanne Dugan and it's called "The Photograph and The Word: Showing what you can't always see."

I've been inspired by the the assignments and the examples that Joanne and my cohort have brought in to share, and have created a very small body of work that I'm both proud of and energized by. I have no idea what I can do with this work, but I'm thinking about it.

It's made me wonder what I could do if I was able to really straighten my shit out enough to have an actual daily practice where I write or make whatever comes to mind. But that's the thing, right? That's what separates the people who stand up at the podium each evening to talk to us about their bodies of work, and me, in the audience, thinking thinking thinking, but wasting most of the summer in paralyzed despair. I don't know how to get from here, this week of ideas and making, to a practice of making back there, wherever there might be in a few more weeks. I can't wait any longer for a home to materialize, because I don't know when that will come. And maybe it's a myth, this bosom of safety that a stable address might provide. So, how do I organize my caravan to foster production and a spirit of risk-taking in my work? 

These are rhetorical questions. I wish I'd brought paint and a folder of collage stuff, here. In the meantime, I'm hatching wild ideas and taking a lot of pictures of my feet, walking.

Today's run

On today's run, I was not bitten by a deerfly.

On today's run, I was briefly distracted early on by a variable oak leaf caterpillar.

On today's run, I saw a kingfisher and an American goldfinch and  possibly a scarlet tanager--but it was quite a bit ahead of me, so I can't be sure--and a gray catbird. I did not see any of the Canada geese that were raising their goslings in the small buggy lake I run past.

On today's run, dragonflies buzzed me while I ran past the lake, out and back. I like to think they are scaring off the deerflies and that they are curious about me. Usually one or more will fly alongside me for several steps. I also saw a turtle for just a moment before it slipped under the surface of the dark lake. Lake is probably an exaggeration.  

On today's run, three weimeraners barked at me from the end of their driveway on my way out, but they were inside when I came back by.

On today's run, I was again distracted, later, by a dead ruby-throated hummingbird in someone's driveway.

On today's run, I had to run past a house where a loose dog menaced me several months ago. My partner picked me up, two miles from the house because I was so shaken my knees were weak. He let the dog's owner know that the dog needed to be kept locked up. It didn't bite me, but was forcing me off the road, its hackles raised and head down. I didn't realize how much an incident with a dog I had while I still lived in Laramie had impacted me until these barking dogs made my heart race and my stomach knot up.

On today's run, Saturday's deerfly bit itched so bad I could feel it up my arm and into my shoulder. I finally gave in and dragged a fingernail across the welt to open it. 

On today's run, I ran as slow as I could, so that I wouldn't have to stop and walk after the hills during my run intervals, like the last run.

On today's run, I planned ahead for the turn in the road where the heat and humidity both crash into me for a quarter mile. I forgot about the large field that seems to always foster a breeze. 

On today's run, something else bit me on the wrist. It's much smaller than a deerfly bite.

On today's run, the humidity was under 50% and that seems to have made a world of difference. I was able to drink more water while I ran and I wasn't at all dizzy when I got home.

Today's run was the first run of my eleventh week of running. I'm supposed to be able to run 6 miles in 5 more runs. But today I only ran 4 and a half. I'm slow. I'm having a tough time focusing, these last couple of weeks, on any more than one, small thing at a time. Today it was today's run.

Anecdote/Antidote

In which our heroine bangs her head against the wall again and expects it not to hurt, again.

“Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives.” ~ Cheryl Strayed as Dear Sugar

I've been trying to really think hard on this one. What is the consciousness I bring to bear on my life? What story do I write, and to what end?

Of course, all the thinking is just another way of putting off the writing. When I write, I sit curled up upon myself, hunched over a notebook or a computer. I protect the words like they are my belly. When I finish, I'm convinced they are over-wrought or unimportant. I start calling lifelines, in the hopes that someone can read what I've written and tell me the truth. Sometimes, it feels like a kind of ripping when I hit save and close the file. Sometimes it's like the moment between the firecracker being launched and the explosion of sparks. Not always, of course. Sometimes, I'm just writing about walking. Sometimes ceci est un véritable pipe.

But it's hard. And when everything else is hard, too, I often give in to the murky middle distance and don't write.  

Banksy's "This is a pipe."

Banksy's "This is a pipe."

Fear has always been my great motivator. Fear of embarrassment, fear of falling, fear of being last, fear of being wrong or wronged, fear of being ignored or abandoned. Not all of these are fears which serve me, but they have almost all inspired action. My fear of failure, on the other hand keeps me stuck. I'm not unique in this. I have no useful insight.

I have failed a lot in the last two years. I have also succeeded some, but my book isn't written, despite having had a year in which to do it. I don't have a home, or job, or anything with long-term potential, despite being nearly two years out of my degree, despite pursuing long-term options, long-term goals. Even my car needs work before she can carry me wherever I'm headed next. It is hard to get up in the morning under the weight of all that, it is hard to fall asleep in its shadow. It is hard to write. 

There are so many things I want to write. I carry the stories of people, places, and things with me. My dreams feature boxes and bags I am not supposed to lose sight of, creatures and people I need to look after, a clock, always running down. This is one of the many anxieties I live with: that all of these birds and people are counting on me and I am letting them down every day that I don't write. I am so terrified of suffering that ripping in this temporary space that will disappear behind me in just a couple of months like so many other places, whether I'm whole or not. I pace around my notebook like it's a snapping turtle. 

Last spring was more difficult than this summer, for a few reasons. But it wasn't entirely different. And the spring before that. Those last two years I was saved in the eleventh hour and this spring, too, I was granted at least a few months reprieve. I'm still applying for residencies and fellowships, though more than a year has passed since I got anything other than a no (I am trying to keep going in the face of that, too). I want to teach, but I can't afford a move just to adjunct. I've been trying to make online teaching a viable option, but so far, it's still just a maybe. If I get some other job, how do I make myself a more attractive candidate for a tenure track job down the line? There are other ways to teach, am I being too short-sighted? Is going back to school the best answer? Is academia even the best place? Around and around. 

All this when it feels like my writing is on the verge of finding its audience. I tell myself to write now and worry about the rest later. But, come on. The rest isn't just bells and whistles. It's the horse and the buggy and the farm. It's not just me and a backpack; it's me and a 14 foot moving truck packed tight. It's me and 18 boxes of books and two beds (one for guests). It's me and 4 boxes of photos, drawing, notebooks, papers, ticket stubs, love notes, newspaper clippings, magazines. It's me and 4 giant space bags full of yarn. It's me and a horse skull, a turtle shell, rocks from all over the world. It's me and a lemon tree. I would never, ever claim to be without baggage. 

I miss so many things about living somewhere for more than a "stay." I miss learning the ins and outs of a town. I miss the inspiration of commuting by bus and the way a block or a neighborhood slowly changes from a cluster of anonymous houses to the homes of people I know. I miss watching gardens, buildings, and projects start small and then flourish. I miss having ties to the community (too much Law and Order). I miss being someone that people stop by to see. I miss stopping by. I miss planting actual roots. I miss tending to. 

Maybe if I reformat the table of contents once more or remove the epigrams?

Maybe if I reformat the table of contents once more or remove the epigrams?

Still and yet and now, I cannot envision a next step that is anything other than temporary. My boxes have four moves worth of notes on them. They've torn and been taped and torn again. Ceci n'est pas une métaphore. I have too much shit to keep packing packing packing and carrying over so many thresholds—but it's the only home I have, so I can't part with a damn thing. I'm beginning to wonder how much longer I can take it. How many more years of looming homelessness and joblessness? What is this thing I bring to bear that is so much more important than my comfort, my well-being, my mental health? What do I need to do?

It is too simple to say, just write. Or maybe it isn't and I'm just making it all too hard. I make most things harder than they need to be. But more and more I find that I need security and routine to do my best work. Is that a failure of character? How do I manifest those things? Am I supposed to find a way to produce without them? How do I carve a path forward without these answers?

New book reviews and an upcoming course on flash nonfiction in July!

I am not reading as much as I wanted to. I am not writing as much as I wanted to. What am I doing as much as I wanted to? Well, loving, running, cooking good food. I'm doing the best I can while I can.

That said, I did finish two books this week. I recommend them both for totally different reasons. More on that below.

I'm also teaching a workshop on flash nonfiction at ApiaryLit in July. I will be focusing on readings, discussions, and prompts that center around lyric, hybrid, and experimental forms of the essay, from numbered lists to webcomics to playable essays to borrowed forms. We will be using an independent press book as an optional text (and the press has offered a discount for students), and I am collecting guest-author prompts from several of the writers whose work we will be reading. These are some of my favorite kinds of essays, and also my favorite kind of generative work, so the class should be a lot of fun. If it sounds like your jam, or if you know someone who might enjoy this course, please send them to the course page for more info and to sign up: Flash Essays on the Edge: lyric, hybrid and experimental forms, July 2015

In other great news, my chapbook, Ologies, has been featured all week on Sundress Publications' blog feature "Best Dressed." You can read selections from the chapbook in the following posts: 

There will be one more post & excerpt tomorrow. If you liked what you read, you can buy the book at Etchings Press or for a little bit longer, from me. Details on the second option can be found here on the "News and About" page.

BOOK REVIEWS

Richard Siken's Crush was recommended to me by Javier Zamora. Javier is an amazing poet and smart as hell, and I tried to buy every book of poetry that he recommended to me. I haven't been sorry yet. Crush came out in 2005, and I am amazed it wasn't just last week. The frantic, desperate narrator of these poems is an intoxicating persona. Reading these poems, one is crushed by infatuation, crushed by disillusionment, crushed by love that is both unattainable and imperfect. These poems are breakneck and also stuck in stasis: like a bloodthirsty mosquito frozen in amber, but still impossibly able to bite. You will fall into a page or several pages and minutes, hours later, look up and the world you know will be slow (and steady)  by comparison. But something unhinged will linger; these lines linger like mosquito bites, itching away at repetitive days and reliable small talk with dreams of manic, frustrated, breathless passion and conviction.

From Crush: "Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out."

VERDICT: How do you not already have this book?

This collection of short stories and essay-like prose pieces served as part of my preparation for September's trip to Chile. I am going to Chile with a man I love and we will admire big heads, drink wine and eat ceviche and octopus, and travel to nearly the tip of the planet together. It is an adventure that shimmers in the middle distance like a star I'm moving toward. I've never traveled with a partner in crime. I'm trying not to have unrealistic expectations for how great it will be, but I have the sneaking suspicion that between the curiosity, wonder, and openness to new experiences that we both share and the curious wonder of Chile, it will be SO AMAZING. (Plus, I will get a chance to talk about Condors in Santiago.) 

But enough about me. I wanted to get to know Chile. We have two guidebooks that have been helpful, but I wanted to get to know more about Chile. Enter this collection. It probably isn't the best representative of the breadth of Chile's literary landscape, and the editors even lament that certain key writers couldn't be included because their works didn't fit the strict requirements they'd designed for the collection, but it's more than Neruda's love poems, which is where I was before. The collection seeks to "[evoke] the diversity of the country's landscape and the complexity of its recent history." The selected pieces speak to geography and politics, though both (often) with beautifully oblique references. I was especially drawn in because much of the writing in the book hadn't been published in English before. 

The ear of the curator is strong throughout the collection. This is good and bad, because it hints at a gigantic iceberg's worth of other works out there. But I am glad for (even) this rigid selection of works. I want to make the most of this trip in a number of ways. I don't want to miss a thing.

VERDICT: If you're going to Chile or if you are interested in Chile, this is a great place to start. But read Pablo Neruda's love letters, too. And (next up), Travels in a Thin Country. And a history book, and more collections. Start here, is what I'm saying, but don't stop here. 

The to-be-read stack, the to-be-lived life

First of all, I have several to-be-read stacks. There are two shelves in the bedroom, both over full (and that doesn't count the poetry books above them, mixed in with the ones I have read, that I need to read, like Richard Siken's Crush and that Mary Ruefle and Natalie Diaz). 

Downstairs, there is a half shelf (to the left of the plant) that I need to read, and a half shelf (to the right of it) that also needs reading. Or in the case of the Patchen, re-reading, always. 

And then I have some new books. Chilean wildlife, two books that I have been wishing for, some studying. And all of the books that I have set aside for my vulture book research. I've read several, but there are around 5 more I need to finish, including the Tibetan and the Egyptian Books of the Dead. Which might be excessive, but who's to say?

These, plus I still have two packed boxes and there are a lot in there, too.

These, plus I still have two packed boxes and there are a lot in there, too.

Most of the non-poetry books in my stacks are non-fiction, but there's plenty of fiction, too. A number of the books I want to read have been written by people I know. Many of the highest priority books are books I got at one of the last four AWPs I've attended. I don't think I'll be able to swing LA, so I'm considering this a catch-up yeartime to make good on all those prior purchases. 

Do you have more books than I do? I would love to see pictures... I'm feeling really self conscious about how many of my own books I haven't yet read and how many I refuse to relinquish, even though I've read them a million times, for example:

(I've been re-reading this book since before I knew how to read the word "watch" (because I remember stumbling over it while reading aloud) and I see these birds among all the birds, whenever I close my eyes and think bird.) I know I don't have too many books, but some days—packing and unpacking days chief among them—it feels like maybe too many. 

I've read six books in the last ten days. I've written effusively about four of them, either here or on Amazon. I can't keep that pace up, as several of the high priority books are lengthy and dense, but I have set a minimum goal of one in each genre per week for the summer. Only once (and this was a few weeks ago) did I start a book and get so annoyed with the author that I didn't finish it. I don't know that author (which is good, because I have no idea how I could ever look them in the eye again, especially since the first two chapters made my own eyes roll right out of their sockets).

I'm still having trouble making myself write all of the things I want to write. I am still on the edge of my life, not in the middle of it, and that is frustrating. All of the koans in the world tell me that I am in fact living my life, whether I like it or not and that to dwell on the future is to miss today... But I don't know where I will be living in five months or a year after that. I don't know what I'll be doing. I don't know who among my closest friends and loved ones will be within a day's drive. I should find some way to be comfortable and breathe, but it is mighty hard to do. Every day, at least once, I think How much further til we're home? I don't know the answer. 

The best I can do for now is love my people, read my books, teach my students, knit my sweaters, and run my miles. I am pretty damned lucky to have all that to do.

Two mini-reviews: Oliu and Olimpio

I love reading the writing of people I know. It's not just because I'm stoked to know what they care most about, there's the added dimension of camaraderie and a sense of community, like WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

Someone recently suggested, and not directly mind you, that writing positive book reviews all the time impugned the integrity of the reviewer. (I've loved the idea of "impugning someone's integrity" ever since a long-ago employee of mine, angry over being written up, claimed that my co-lead and I were doing just that to him.)

I don't always like all of the writing of people I know, but when I don't, I keep quiet about it. There are arguments for and against writing negative reviews of small press publishing, but I am in the firm camp of "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER & It is hard enough to rise above the din of all those bookfair books without lending sour notes to it. 

Is it easier to find things to like about the writing of people I like? Yeah. No doubt. But all this means is that the reviews I post here are (almost always) both positive AND truthful. And I ain't gonna lose any sleep over it.

/apologia

DAVID OLIMPIO - s/t from Awst Press

I don't actually think this book has a title, but I like the idea of it being "s/t" which is recording industry shorthand for "self titled"—used for albums like Led Zepplin's Led Zepplin and Van Halen's Van Halen.  It's almost always the debut album* (this is Olimpio's debut collection) that is the s/t album, as though as artists, we have to earn the right to a title other than our own names.

Olimpio claims a lot more than just his name in this brief, but powerful collection of three previously unpublished essays and one photo/poem assemblage. He stakes claims against his own super powers, his exigency, and his past. There are ghosts in there, and they drift through sentences that are trying to get at truth, that are trying to understand the why from the what happened. Olimpio asks a lot of questions in these works, and I look forward to reading more and more of the answers as he continues (I hope) to write essays.

I first met David on Twitter, and his sentence-level attention is apparent in these essays. He leaves plenty unsaid, and maybe there's room there, someday, for some longer philosophical/psychological delving, but in this collection, it's all about fast punches making slow arcs.

You can read more of his work here: Awst-press online and here: DavidOlimpio.com and the s/t collection is available in both hard and digital copies. I'm an analog girl, so I like having the hand sewn version. (Even if he didn't sign it. GRRR.)

*But not always, see also Beyoncé and The Beatles for post-success s/t albums.

BRIAN OLIU - Level End from Origami Zoo Press

Look, I am a total Oliu fangirl, so don't expect a lot of objectivity here. I dig the way his prose rambles in and out of a narrative, how it bobs and weaves around what you thought was the story. Whether he's writing Missed Connections or essays about basketball, he's never really just writing about someone in the crowd at a football game or a famous player's bank shot style. He's writing about love and home and family and what we want and need and get out of life. 

In Level End, a collection of essays ostensibly about video games, Oliu writes about longing and regret and the end of things. Each essay starts with the line, "When I arrived, the music changed—" and then it does. At the end of a level in a video game, the player starts out from a place where s/he has been racing and fighting and striving, and so, too, do these essays start out at a place of transition. But walking through the last doorway of a level also signals the beginning of the boss battle, when the worst the level has to offer comes stomping or slithering or looming up at you. It is these boss battles that make up the bulk of the essays in Level End.

Oliu battles a number of demons and ghosts here, quietly and with lyric reverence, from "Boss Battle: The Eye From Which We See Ourselves" to "Boss Battle: The Girl I Was Supposed to Save." Every few battles, he gives the reader a Save Point, which just like in the games, gives you a chance to go back, if you've lost your way, and try again to succeed. 

You can (and should) read more of Brian's work all over the internet. But you can read excerpts from Level End, specifically, at Diagram and Real Poetik

Book review, Megan Stielstra's Once I Was Cool & a reminder about upcoming workshop!

First, the reminder: My generative CNF workshop over at ApiaryLit starts in less than a week! I'd love to fill the last few seats with community-minded, shitty-draft-generating, enthusiastic writers. Is that you? Summer is a fantastic time to sharpen that writing saw, and I would love to read your work.

I don't think I'm the best at self-promoting this course, and it's a shame, because April's participants gave some great positive feedback. I'll keep getting better at it, which hopefully doesn't equate to "getting more annoying about it." Thank you all for your patience and support, is what I mean to say. (OH, and note: if CNF isn't your writing drug of choice, we are also running a workshop on fiction of place, prose poems, and magical realism.)

Now, the review.

Once I Was Cool (Curbside Splendor, 2014). This book came so highly recommended by people I know and admire, and they were all so right on, that I'm sad I hadn't checked it out sooner. 

Megan Stielstra does a lot of live storytelling, which is how many of these essays were first presented to the world--many through Chicago's 2nd Story series. While I've no doubt her performances kick much ass, I love love love reading this work at my own pace. She deftly captures the energy of spoken word and presents it airily on the page in short, punchy doses. 

She writes about seeing bands in the 90s, addiction, motherhood, growing up, friendship, true love and other kinds, loss, pain, and she does so in the voice of your best friend. Stielstra is not perfect, but she's trying her hardest to be a good person.

The whole damn thing is quotable, but here are a few of my favorite places: 

"Can we [women and girls] find a way to tell our stories, weigh our options, get advice and/or back-up and/or support when and if we need it without being told, every month, what we should or should not do, can or cannot say?"

"This is stupid, I decide. Even for me, and I've done some stupid shit; I did acid one time at the opera." 

"Recently, I heard an accountant say, "If you want to know what you value, look at your checkbook." Mine reads like this: Mortgage, property tax, assessments, back assessments, emergency assessments, listing fees, attorney fees. I'd like it to read: Darth Vader costume, size 5T, Princess Leia buns. Plastic Light Saber, blue. Plastic Light Saber, red."

"... and I'm like, Tipper, let's get real, okay? I did not learn how to masturbate from Cyndi Lauper. I learned to masturbate from a female stagehand in a community player's production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

"And you scream and you scream 'cause there's so much inside that needs to get out--anger and longing and no sleep and time moving too fast and sorrow and fear... And by the time the last [train] car passes, it's all been drained, like you're sponges squeezed dry. You sit on the ground, exhausted by the energy it takes to let go, and lay backwards in the grass. The sun shines on your faces. The backs of your eyelids glow red." [The rest of this passage is so great that the images and ideas have stuck with me for days. Get the book for just this essay, if you must: "How to Say the Right Thing".]

"This healing of the body begins with words."

So anyway. Highly recommended. Some books impart knowledge, and I love those books. But this book did something else entirely. This book made me feel less nuts for feeling so nuts lately. For wanting so much, and at such high cost to my own comfort. I felt like I was listening to a good friend, and she knew just what to say, even if I didn't always like hearing the truth of it. This is what I want my writing to do, someday for someone else.

Flash prose review: A Pocket Guide to North American Ghosts by Joe Kapitan

TL; DR verdict: RECOMMENDED

I will admit that it took me forever to read this book for very petty reasons. See also: Reading the winning poem of a contest I lost.

However, just as not reading that winning poem would be childish and wrong and a missed opportunity, so was not reading Joe Kapitan's A Pocket Guide to North American Ghosts (which actually won the year before I entered anyway, so double-reedick).

I write a lot of short essays, and it has so far proven difficult to get too many folks to seriously consider them for a collection. This summer I have committed to making some real and serious progress on my to-be-read pile, and I'm starting with the numerous prose chapbooks I've been collecting at previous AWPs and elsewhere. Hopefully, this scholarship will make my next round of chappy subs stronger.

So, back to the review: Kapitan's book is ostensibly fiction, autobiographically-shaped themes notwithstanding, but the attention to small details has an almost researched quality that I love. This collection also does one of the things that I like good nonfiction to do: it forges a connection between the reader and the writer.  

In these ghostly tales (which include ghosts of lost and stolen love, children, jobs and more), Kapitan is a deft editor: the reader is given exactly what she requires to paint the full picture, and nothing more. There seems to be an epidemic of overuse of the sentence fragment in a lot of flash prose (including a lot of my own, I'll freely admit), and Kapitan refreshingly bucks this trend with long, gamboling sentences rich in clauses. 

For example, in the opening piece, in which the sleepless narrator imagines all of his ex-girlfriends living together in a cabin in the woods, we learn so much about the narrator's text and subtext in his stream of conscious riff: "... they grow their own baconless food, and tend a sprawling flower garden, full of the varieties I never bought them occasionally, but mostly they are just "there for each other", "emotionally", which was always the point at which I jammed their signals and drifted down the dial to booze or strippers or coke, and that happens to be exactly what they're all talking about right now, around their campfire..."

Or in the piece titled, "What I'd Say to Your Tiny Miscarried Self" which consists of an imagined monologue that includes this: "my God, look at you, I'd marvel, you've got your mother's something and my something else, the details aren't important, which reminds me, we saved that black and white image of you, the glossy grainy one that shows a white lump, with a larger white lump they said was your head, although we would have believed the opposite, too, so ripe to trust whomever, whatever." If your heart is not yet broken, give it approximately ten more lines. 

The sting from a couple of these stories promises to linger much longer than the silly sting of losing a contest. 

Kapitan's short pieces have appeared in all of the usual best-short fiction suspect journals, including Wigleaf, decomP, PANK, elimae, SmokeLong and others. You can buy the book and read an excerpt here at Eastern Point Lit House Press: A Pocket Guide to North American Ghosts by Joe Kapitan.

Storyteller

It is nearly impossible to get through a conversation with me without hearing a number of tangential stories about people I (have) know(n), places I've been, things I've read or learned, or experiences I've had. Sometimes, I get back to the original story I was telling and sometimes I don't. Sometimes, the tangent becomes the thing. These people, places, moments--and their significance to me--have made me what I am. They inform what I care about and why. They explain how I love and the kind of friend I am. They are teletype dispatches from a frenetic mind. And while I edit and revise here, with my loved ones (I'm afraid) I don't.  

The first time a lover told me that my stories were not interesting to him, I defaulted to an apology. I was trying very hard to impress him after a whirlwind online romance that had lasted a few months. When we finally met in person, all that imagined infatuation was let loose in a fury, and we spent a couple of crazy-wild weekends together on our different corners of the country. Then, abruptly, he said he didn't want to be tied down. For a little while he was the kind of minor celebrity that gets photographed a lot for a small self-selecting fan base, and as I was, for a time, one of those fans, so I got to see what the alternative to "tied down" looked like. Here's something I know for sure: the kind of women who make a career of dating rich men will never have to worry about me as competition. I figured I could accept his main shortcoming as one of shallowness and move on.  

But then he came back. And back. I thought it was because he valued substance over glittering spray tans. I thought it signaled that I was more important than the nameless ring-girls. I knew some of it was that his minor celebrity had ended, but I also thought he valued me. But the on again off again was a drag. I asked him what his hang up was. He tried to explain, clearly frustrated, that back when we were just texting, I hadn't "bothered" him with all this talk of people and stuff that he didn't care about, but in person, I was different. He liked it better, he said, when I didn't tell him things about my life so much (and instead just responded to things he'd said to me).  

And you know what I did? I apologized! I said sorry for being "different" than I had been. I said sorry for being boring.

I tried, for a little while, to be more interesting to him. But, friends, it didn't work out. Luckily.

The second* time it happened, I thought it was the least of my worries. I thought I'd learned to value my voice and to gather strength from my own storytelling superpower, imperfect though its aim sometimes is. But I heard myself starting to talk and then... and then I stopped, because the dangerous, volatile man I'd made the terrible mistake of moving in with didn't like it when I "monopolized the conversation." I shut up and shut down.

I left not long after, so maybe that's a kind of improvement. But even then, I told myself that I valued my writing too much to stay in such a place (he hated my writing, too). There were a ton of reasons to get out of there, but it as my writing I wanted to protect, not my actual voice. Even then, even still!

Now as a grown ass adult, I carry many past hurts. I wish that I didn't, that I could let them go. I imagine them like a flock of noisy crows that will one day leave me like a tree at dusk, all at once and in a flurry, if I can just find the magic word to say.  Like: I remember so many ways that I've been silenced (I was once teased for swallowing too loud--swallowing? Can you believe that? I tried to swallow more quietly and still think about it whenever I imagine a lover can hear me drinking something). Why you're nothing but a flock of crows, I'd like to insist. But I digress.

I'm trying to write an essay right now about voice. How we get ours. How we learn what to say and what not to. And I realized while I was writing it that I still do this. I still apologize when someone else doesn't like what I've said or how I've said it. I apologize for my mind's relentlessness. I am so sorry to bother. I make it my problem to solve when someone finds me uninteresting. When I write, when I talk, when I take up any kind of space in the world at all, I still worry whether or not I am making good enough use of it. I still worry that someone will come and tell me that no, no I am not. 

*Both of these guys also demanded that I never write about them. Well, it's like they always said: NO.

AWP Saturday

It's all over but the long lines at hotel checkout, the cab stands, and the airport. 

On Saturday, I went to three panels. I rounded out the last of my (always) excessive book fair purchases. I said hello and tried to talk meaningfully with a few people I hadn't yet seen. That is so hard to do on Saturday. We are all hungover on Saturday. We are over-stimulated. We are full of AWP-love or AWP-sadness or AWP-apathy by Saturday.

First, I heard Dinty W. Moore, Sue Williams Silverman, Elena Passarello, and Michael Martone discuss the hows and whys of including famous people in one's nonfiction (and sometimes even fiction). It was a funny and informative panel, and at the end some guy shouted across the auditorium that he needed his question answered immediately about someone I'd never heard of soliciting him for sex a million years ago. I might have those details wrong. 

Next, four women writers on non-narrative nonfiction read from their work: Joni Tevis, Brenda Miller, Julie Patterson, and Kimberley Myers. The writing was personal and lyrical and the panel ran long, which is really something that should never happen, especially not at 4 on Saturday.

Finally, Sean Prentiss, Robin Hemley, and Nancer Ballard on speculation in nonfiction. Nancer handed out a list of 21 scenarios (several of which came with examples) wherein speculation was acceptable, and could be used without crossing into deception, deceit, or other criminal nonfiction acts. Sean read a Judith Kitchen essay on writing what you don't know. And I am sorry, but I forgot what Robin said, because by then, I was almost deliriously exhausted and my brain was too full for anymore information. Luckily, he read from his essay in Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, so when I get home, I can re-read it. 

I was so tired last night that I did not go out. I went to a quiet dinner alone, then, back in my room, I stacked up all of my book fair purchases and marveled at them. I thought on all the hard work and dedication and magic and sweat and tears each book represented, I thought of all of the amazing people I was fortunate enough to meet, or spend time with (again), or even just grin and hug in recognition/admiration as we passed like book-buying ships in the book fair aisles. I thought about how we are all trying so hard, about how grateful I am to be here, both figuratively and specifically. 

This weekend is such a drain, financially, emotionally, and physically. It is too much for some, and I completely understand that. But man, what an injection of writerly energy, community, and super human empathy. We are all trying so hard. How great is that? 

AWP Friday

Eight, eight... I forget what eight was for.

Today started off slowly with a mad dash through the bookfair, where I managed to still somehow spend $100 (and other ways the bookfair is exactly like Vegas AND Target), but I now own signed books by all the best people, like Sean H. Doyle and Myfawny Collins and Sandra Marchetti and Brandi Wells and even a pre-order for Wendy C. Ortiz' next.

THEN I went to an entertaining and informative panel on revision that included so lovely zingers such as: "It's boring to be accurate about a fact when you can be hesitant about a fact." (Sven Birkirts) On the subject of using multiple physical forms of a piece of writing, "Everyone go find a fax machine..." (Sarah Einstein via Sven) "You can't just drop in a reference to throwing sausages of a high rise like a scofflaw." (Alexis Paige) Penny Guisinger said to look for the bad verbs or the good verbs in stupid tenses, but then corrected herself with "There are no stupid tenses." And she also cautioned, toward the end of revision, "A little rabbit-holing, but not too much. Write that down. It's helpful." And Sven again, described drafting as sexy and revision as custodial, but then made scrubbing our epistolary toilets seem noble.

Then I went to lunch with some amazing folks and then I guess I wandered around the bookfair a bit more. I tried to network at a press party that was WAY too crowded, so I sat out on the sidewalk with some new and old friends and told jokes about Yacht Rock for a while before heading to a reading in a brick factory. After that a couple of us peeled off in search of burgers and some rock and roll history... and by then it was nearly midnight. Just like Vegas, man.

Yesterday was about finding my people all over again, but today I spent a bit of time getting to (re) know a few folks, spent a bit of time apart from the madness and fray talking about important and unimportant things. I also had a sandwich that was just a slab of Guiness soaked roast beef with spicy horseradish and now I'm ruined on hot roast beef sands for life. If you have an amazing early panel tomorrow, I'd like to apologize in advance for missing it.

AWP Thursday

All the people. All the hugging. All the books. All the walking in high heels. 

The thing about this weekend is that it reminds so many of us that though we might labor behind closed office doors, or headphoned away from the world for hours or days or weeks or months at a time, though we sit bent over our peculiar obsession until "the rope is cut or knotted," we do not labor alone. I saw so many people today who have changed my life for the better at one time or another. People who change my life daily. Teachers, mentors, editors, friends. 

OKAY. That is enough of the beer and exhaustion talking. The panel I was on seemed to be well-received—I really dug the other presentations, and would pretty much follow Colin Rafferty off a cliff if he wrote a rousing speech about why it was important to do so. The reading I did was lovely, such gratitude to Sheila Squillante for publishing me (first) and inviting me to read. And then there was an AWP dance party with such a density of internet friends dancing in a circle, I had to stand back and marvel at the crazy techmology of all the world.

I haven't had a Jucy Lucy yet. Do they serve them anywhere for breakfast? ONWARDS.

AWP Wednesday

So, first, my luggage was lost. Then I saw Sofi T (which was a BALM), It's still lost (the luggage), far as I can tell. My cute (new) shoes are in it—which is a whole 'nother story—plus my makeup and clothes and brush. Then I rapped with Alison Hawthorne Deming as we tried to find our hotels via the amazing/overwhelming sky bridge maze. So, makeup trauma, but then, Queen Katie Oh! rescued me with her fabulous lipsticks, I ran into Daniel Nester and got a good pep talk, and I made it in time (despite delays, detours, and the longest tarmack taxi, ever) for my first ever AWP reading.

Things that happened at the reading: I got the crowd to sing some Violent Femmes lyrics, I talked to Benjamin Percy like a boss, I creeped up on J Robert Lennon, Melissa Febos, and Justin L. Daughtery. I got to hang (briefly) with Oliu and Tasha, Sal Pane, and (for a second) Mr. Rafferty. I bet no one who left early realized the drummer was an editor for Graywolf—but The Complexes were good. Huge thanks to Daniel Hoyt for inviting me. Whoa. Day one: I like you. 

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Michael Mlekoday was the best emcee, not least because he said my last name correctly!  

 

  

Dreaming of spring and a mini poetry review of Carrie Fountain

I want it to be spring. Spring in the north is like fall in the desert: a cause for celebration.

#TBT I remember those first cool days... like I am salivating for the first warm ones, now.

#TBT I remember those first cool days... like I am salivating for the first warm ones, now.

There are only a couple of seats left in my ApiaryLit generative CNF workshop in April. If you're stuck (believe me, I know how that feels), or looking for new prompts and ideas, or just someone to give honest, pointed, and thoughtful feedback on some new writing, I'd love to work with you!

Carrie Fountain's Burn Lake

I'm so in love with Carrie Fountain, even though it is very much unrequited. Burn Lake is not a new book, nor is it new to me. But I re-read it last weekend and was just as enamored with it as I was when I first got it a few years ago. 

So, the book won the National Poetry Series back in 2009, judged by Natasha Trethewey. It is about New Mexico and New World histories of conquest and apathy, but also about sexuality and mothers and industry and ex-urban spaces and fire. 

When she writes, " "We are all alone," / they cry. And the sky answers back / by not moving an inch" I get a sense of the cruel sublime that operates against and upon the pent-up teenagers and construction workers and locals waiting in line at the first McDonald's in Fountain's Las Cruces. And then there are amazing moments like this:

Because this is what the dog
was made to do.
Because for some lucky animals

the space between the body
and what it wants
is all there is.
— from "Late Summer" by Carrie Fountain

I was very fortunate to take a class from Fountain in 2009, at Austin Community College. She was a generous reader of what were surely terrible poems of mine. The course was taught online and we only ever met face-to-face once, in an awkward and disappointing exchange.  But I don't hold that moment against this book. It is intelligent and the poet's hand here is sure and deft. I highly recommend it.