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.

Let's write some words together!

I may have been struggling to write my science book, and suffering a bit from imposter syndrome there, but that is not what I want to share today. Regardless of how the last couple of months of bird writing has gone, I have really loved teaching my nonfiction workshop at Colgate these last two semesters. I am sad and a little freaked out now that the semester's almost over, because it means I will lose all of the inspiration and focus that my students impart to my own writing practice.

But! I have a plan.

Next month, I'll be teaching a virtual workshop over at apiarylit.org and I hope to make it a regular thing. I have so many ideas for workshops and lecture-series I'd like to give (how to find and write great applications for fellowships and residencies, new nature writing, incorporating research without sounding like an asshole (working title) and about a million more), and this is a way for me to keep teaching whether or not there's a brick and mortar job for me in Central New York.

My generative workshop will be focused on helping writers produce nearly 5k words in the month of April. I will give guidance and prompts, and then a ton of specific feedback on that work each week. Writers in the same workshop can optionally share and learn from one another as well. Apiary's platform is flexible enough to allow me to provide readings, feedback, and forum space for my workshop in an integrated and easily navigated space.

I'm still writing. I'd like to keep teaching, too. If you or someone you know could benefit from an Apiary workshop, I'd love to hear from you. I can answer questions here in the comments or over at chelsea@apiarylit.org

(PS, there are also still a few seats in the poetry workshop, if poetry is more of your bag. Kenzie Allen will be teaching that one and she is phenomenal. Meredith Luby's fiction workshop is already full, but Apiary hopes to offer more courses over the summer.)

Thoughts on the allure of giving up. Or, Maybe it's all the snow?

I'm still having a hard time writing this book. I wish most days that it weren't "this book," that I could just write without the obligation of "this book" hanging over my head. So many people have supported this book, have supported me in the writing of it. So many people have said encouraging words about how they can't wait for the book and the book will be so important. I feel a little bit like I've been trying to get pregnant for three years and there's still no plus on the stick. 

My inability to write the book I want (I'm writing, I'm just not writing enough to get past the writing I hate), is making me doubt my ability to write with any lengthiness at all. I think of all of the things that I have given up these past three, four, five years—like job (or really, any kind of long term) security, like reading or road trips for fun and exploration, not weighted down with the need to do double-duty, to be "productive" first, fun second. I can't justify visiting friends (unless they live near vultures), because every piece of spare change goes to funding these research trips that... I mean, I don't know what I'm doing, some days. You know?

Part of this frustration has come about because I'm having a hard time fact checking some of my earlier writing. I have become crippled by the fear that I'm going to write something and some expert (who never answered my emails; who I never found; who wouldn't let me record our conversation and now wants to clarify my "misunderstandings"; who won't give me the name of the person who knows because that means admitting not knowing) is going to say, "That's wrong. How could you write that?"

Right now, I'm working off a bunch of newspaper articles for this one piece, and no scientist or reliable source will confirm that the news is correct. But they won't tell me what IS correct, either.

When I asked a Forest Officer how many leopard attacks have happened in and around Mumbai since 2011, he replied, "SGNP Borivali have density at least one leopard per each 2 and half square kilometer. Means here is huge population of  leopards. As before discuss   encroachment  made by surrounding  population as well as increase in population of leopards is the main reason of clashes between leopard and human."

When I asked a biologist who studies leopards in India about the increase in attacks since 2011: "there was no "increase" in 2011, earlier there were about 30 attacks each year and 2011- 2012 had about 4-5 attacks and likely to be caused by one animal as it was very localised." But another expert said there were no attacks between 2009-2011. So what's up with "30 attacks each year"? Then, a Guardian article from November 2014 that quoted that same expert reported: "Yet, since November 2011 there have been six fatalities; the last three deaths were all reported in Aarey Milk Colony, to the south of the SGNP." Not all attacks are fatal. How many attacks? How may deaths?

I understand that it is risky (and at present, not especially scientifically rigorous) to tie the near extinction of one species (vulture) to the increase of another threatened creature (leopards), and it is especially unwelcomed to correlate the increase of a threatened species with an increase in human conflicts with that species (see also: wolves in the US). 

BUT FUCK. If it's true? How can more leopards not mean more attacks? How can more dogs not mean more leopards (when the leopards' bellies are more full of dog than any other animal)? The link between dogs and the vulture decline has been noted in several peer reviewed papers, but another leopard biologist wrote to me: "I think the link between vultures and increased dog numbers is total speculation and I do not believe in it at all. I think it is a really bad idea to emulate guardian or Indian papers which are absurdly sensationlizing the issue. I hope you will not join the bandwagon."

I don't want to be sensational. I don't want to be a part of the terrible group of "people who talk about science badly." I don't want to do leopards or vultures a disservice. But I believe they are connected, and I don't think it's a conspiracy-theory type belief. But if no one tells me the same story, what the hell am I supposed to do? Not tell any story? Risk discrediting all of my other experts by believing the wrong one? 

And this is just one little story in "this book." Most of my time in Europe was spent with experts who refused to speak on tape. They have sent me their papers and the papers of others to quote. How easy it is to create a rich, sympathetic character from the scholarly papers of others! These folks would say, "But I'm not the character! The birds are!" Because they don't understand that readers fall in love with people who love animals, not the animals themselves. We love our reflection in animal eyes. We love how they make us feel. 

(Which is where the risk is, right? I'm scared about writing a book about me. I'm scared that it will be full of doubt and fear and anxiety instead of vultures and beauty and wonder and the sublime. I thought I was writing a conservation book about vultures, and then I thought I was writing about death and scavengers and maybe myself a little, and then a travel memoir about caring enough about a type of bird and its place in the world to go to half a dozen countries trying to learn more about it, and now I don't even know. I have no clue how to make these last three years into an interesting story. Why me and why now? I have no clue.)

Anyway. I am trying, you guys. I am trying to find the story. But I just feel like I am failing at every step.

Now, I've written and re-written to a half dozen people trying to find an expert in Peru on vultures, and no one is responding. The kid in me who wasn't invited to the parties everyone went to, and who was picked last for every team ever (except in-class trivia games, heyyyy), is convinced that it's me. That I've asked the wrong questions of the wrong people and now everyone else knows not to answer, that not everyone wants a general book about vultures written by me, because it means writing about people as much as it does the birds.

So then I think, fine. Maybe I'll just go to Peru and have fun. Maybe I'll just be a tourist. Maybe I'll eat guinea pig and climb Macchu Picchu and take pictures and buy a clay pot and get a tan. And when someone points out a condor in the sky, I will look up like people who don't care about birds look up and just say, "Wow!" And who cares if it means nothing to anyone except me and my lover?  

I can't find the Peru story. It's a huge country, full of vultures, and ... nothing. I don't feel like any of this is any easier or that I have any more idea what I am doing now than I did when I mis-booked my first hotel room in Antwerp and let my first whole week of "research" go unrecorded. Like I'm going to write a book now about what I sort of remember happened, a book about all the stuff I still don't know. About the people who wouldn't answer my questions or who turned out to be racist or sexist jerks even though they have committed their lives to saving endangered species. (And too, the wonderful, kind people who can't get funding, who don't have corporate sponsored vans, who don't have a uniform, who are doing good work that some do and some don't consider "valid" based on whether or not there is a government logo on their front door.)

Which makes some stupid desk job and an essay or two a year maybe, about breakups and the places I've lived, so attractive. It would make many things easier, to just put this down. It wouldn't make me feel better, but if trying to write "this book" won't either, shouldn't life at least be easier? I am tired of scrambling every fall for a spring of defeat. I am tired of trying so hard and failing over and over. I am tired of pitching a story in the hopes of getting some exposure for an amazing project, and then watching the rejections roll in, or worse, the story never go to press. I am tired of not knowing how to work harder so I get it more right. I am letting people all over the world down by even considering this, I know. I know it every day and it is such a weight to hold up. All those people and all those birds. 

I know that the difference between people who succeed and those who fail is this exact moment. But for fuck's sake: it's just so huge. The whole world. All the vultures. I can't find the story that connects them all. I know that this is where everyone who is going to quit, quits. I have persevered and hung in there and done the hard things before. I just don't understand how to make this book the thing I can't give up. What I mean is: Why me and why now?

Poetry: three short reviews

It's spring break, and in addition to other things, I'm reading poetry. I don't really know how to talk about poetry properly, which is to say with a learned vocabulary, so I'm just going to tell you how the following collections made me feel. 

Bendorf's first book will make you hungry for his next. The Spectral Wilderness is about becoming and emerging, and about wildness and ghosts. I folded over the corners of the pages I liked best, and now it sits crooked on the table, all swelled up on one edge, like a board taking on water. 

I love this book. 

Get it, everyone. (Also available from The Kent State University Press)

Sorry, Tree
By Eileen Myles

I bought this book because Wave Books was having an amazing Holiday sale. It is a numbered and signed edition, and I'm kind of a nut for those when I can afford them. (Note: While I include Amazon links in my posts in the hopes of making a few books with which to buy more books, I prefer to buy books closer to the source whenever possible.)

Here's where I admit how uncool I am: It was a little tough to get into these poems at first.

I like rich imagery, and am drawn in by visions and reflection. But Myles is telling stories here, and after a few pages, I began to better hear her voice. There's bravado and performed bravado and love and sex and 9/11 and an amazing essay-like-piece at the end in which barf features heavily. Myles' short lines and long stacks of them conspire to take you, as if by stepping stone path, deep into the mind of the poet's poet. She's called a rockstar for a reason. She has this way of combining small, "trivial" details (like the time -- "Twenty three before 6.") and big things (like love, like sex, like some larger thing that looks like living).

After reading Sorry, Tree I felt like I'd watched a documentary and gone to the MoMA. She'd probably hate hearing that, so don't anyone tell her, but for me it was amazing. 

Verdict: recommended

I have been a fan of Curbside Splendor books ever since I became a fan of Amber Sparks' books. Specifically, some number of AWP's ago, I bought her collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, and then when it came out, her collaboration with Robert Kloss, The Desert Places.

What I love about CS books is that they are each specially designed objects. No detail is forgotten. Kloss' illustrations are printed like works of art, Sparks' collection of stories is as good inside as out, etc.

Kiss as many women as you can is another CS collaboration. This time between poet Franki Elliot and artist Shawn Stuckey. [I'm including the "thumbnail" for this book (which is really more like a ham-fist than a thumbnail, since my blog platform doesn't allow re-sizing), because it includes an example of one of Shawn Stucky's gorgeous collages.]

Elliot writes poetry/stories live, on an old typewriter, and photographs her favorites. This collection features several of them on the front sides of mailable postcards (with perforated edges, because CS gets it). The poem-images alternate with Stuckey's collages, some of which feature Elliot's typewritten lines as textural elements. 

Most of the poems feature the love or lovelorn, and Elliot is adept at concision. If I were to call these poems charming that might not adequately represent the weight they have on the page. Stuckey's surreal collages are a blend of someecard-style woodcuts with Portlandia-style birds on them, but these are not images from the Anthropologie stationery table: heads are cut off, birds fly upside-down—there are mysteries and chaos, simmering just behind the richly textured and vibrant backgrounds. 

There's a quality of performance between these pages. Even more so if you actually detach the postcards and mail them. Which you should do. Unlike me, who will probably horde them like I have the dead bugs

Score: Buy a copy for your favorite romantic artist. And then buy a copy for yourself and start writing to people with an actual pen instead of a keyboard.

On Jessica Bozek's The Tales

I just devoured Jessica Bozek's The Tales. It's available from Les Figues Press

I am not that great at writing off-the-cuff book reviews, so I will be brief (and hopefully galvanizing). The Tales is a slim volume full of prose poems/fragments/stories that speak in a number of voices about violence, victimization, and myth-making. It traces the songs, poems, stories that surround the aftermath of a terrible crime, committed as an act of war, in some dystopian perhaps-future.

The reader gets to hear from the Lone Survivor of the atrocity, but also the tailors, architects, engineers and claims adjusters who must attend to the life of the survivor. The dogs, birds, and a chorus of dead also speak on the before, during, and after. Bozek includes notes at the end of the book to trace some of the scholarship and artistic inspiration that has informed all of the tales that make up The Tales. She borrows from and is moved to create by works as disparate as critical analyses of war memorials, Ojibwa and Odawa tales, and a wide range of 20th century art and poetry. 

As the central narrative of the Lone Survivor becomes revealed through the mouths of various perspectives, Bozek investigates the language that victims and perpetrators alike use to make sense of (and attempt to forget) the aftermath of violence. From ordinary objects–family photographs, sweaters that unravel, old batteries, and lightbulbs–to the remnants of destroyed art and architecture, an annihilated nation is brought into reality, and the Lone Survivor’s story is simultaneously documented and invalidated, becoming “a memorial that will disintegrate over time, gray and fray as most of the dead did not have a chance to.”
— Les Figues Press

I committed a long time ago to working my way through the growing pile of friends' and recommended indie press books that I add to each AWP. This is the first of what I hope will be regular installments. 

Two days, sickly-gutly

There are a lot of great things about being in a foreign country. There are the glimpses of other cultures, through food, music, clothes, etc.—and the chance to connect that such glimpses offer. There is the way that foreignness, and one's response to it, can provide insight into the ways and direction one needs to grow. Even just getting around in a new place is a time to learn—about more than just how to read a timetable that's half in Hindi, but about how easily we can accommodate and adapt, if adaptation is the goal.

One thing that is not great, however, is being sick.  

By Friday evening, I had a definite sore throat and headache. But I wasn't sure much of that wasn't from the dust and fumes from the motorcycle.

My view for much of the last two days

My view for much of the last two days

When I woke up Saturday still feeling off, I stayed in bed for most of the day. I left my room only to get a late lunch at the proper restaurant across the street: butter chicken. It was my first non-veg since touch down, but I felt crummy and thought that the luxury of one of my favorite dishes might help.

This morning, I was to hike to the highest point in Sanjay Gandhi Nat'l Park, with staff and members of BNHS. But when I woke up, my cough and headache and aches had reached a point of more than just annoyance. On top of which was some revenge for the chicken. Nothing terrible, but all signs pointed to not spending a hot afternoon in the woods. I called the tour guide, so he wouldn't worry about whether or not Indiana Bridget Jones had gotten lost on the train, and crawled back in bed. 

Once the shops were open, I staggered around the neighborhood looking for a chemist. All of the 'green cross'ed shop fronts were shuttered ... Sunday. One shopkeeper directed me to the nearby hospital, which seemed excessive. I wandered back to the hotel, sweating and a bit woozy, and asked the kid at the desk. 

His boss said, "I am sending you to the hospital, then." To which I objected, weakly but clearly. I don't need a hospital, I said. Just cough syrup and some aspirin. Turns out the hospital has an open-to-the-public chemist's.  Even on Sunday. 

I stumbled back down the block and got a bottle of Ayurvedic cough syrup (which seems to have taken the rattle out of my cough) and, after trying many words related to pain and aspirin, a pain reliever and fever reducer: diclofenac. Of all the NSAIDs in all the gin-joints in the world, amiright? (In case you don't know what I'm talking about: http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2014/03/scientists-call-spain-ban-vulture-killing-drug )

Anyway, I've spent the rest of the day sipping a weird minty, cough syrupy syrup, popping deadly-to-vultures pills, coughing, sneezing, etc.  

And it's no fun. 

I wandered out later for some food and heard the singing in a nearby temple. Saw many men in white robes and ornate tilaka (red marks on the forehead in a U shape or lines). The vegetable sellers were out on their mats. 

But I got tired and overheated so fast. My guts are still unsteady, and I keep busting into sneezing fits. I've been trying to work, but I'm just drowsy as hell. So instead, I've slept off and on all day. 

There were some bright spots. One was the banana lassi, another was a bunch of attentive texts from a friend and the virtual hugs on FB. Thanks, y'all, really.  

So that is all the news today. I'm hoping to see or do something more interesting tomorrow. 

Mumbai to Alibaug

Today I went in search of critically endangered birds. The Asian White-backed vulture was once the most populous raptor in the world. Now less than 1% are left... All because of what amounts to a small aspirin taken for aches and pains. Many of you who know me already know this story, and I hope to tell it live soon, so I won't spoil the punchline here.

Suffice it to say that the birds are now rare. For just the slim chance of seeing one of the closest 19-20 individuals, I took a catamaran for an hour at dawn to Manwa and then a bus for another hour to Alibaug. I was (thankfully!) accompanied by a BNHS staff member and killer guide, Nandkishor. Once in Alibaug, we were met by Nilesh, a forest officer. After a breakfast of dosas, which I ate with my hands (once I could see how it's done), Nilesh put Nandkishor on a bus and me on the back of his Honda motorcycle and we wove through a few towns, over hill and dale, for a little more than another hour, to the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary gates. 

Were we there yet? OH NO, FRIENDS. There was still another hour of leapfrogging Nandkishor and I on the bike to get to the vulture restaurant deep inside the sanctuary. Occasionally, I'd be left somewhere with the instructions, "Watch out for scorpios, they have many nests," or, "If you see a wild boar, climb up onto this rocks, quickly." Here's where I mention that yes, I am still sick. Specifically aches, pains, sore throat, and headache. So. Dusty roads perched on the back of a bouncing bike, through clouds of petrol or midge flies. 

The restaurant was empty. We left Namdkishor behind (because Nilesh had been trying to ditch him for the last hour, which made me equally uncomfortable and resentful and frankly just fucking WEARY, you know? But I digress in a country with very different gender dynamics than what I would consider, say, optimal) and rode another 20 minutes in, disembarked, and clambered 750 feet or so down a steep hillside (full of dramatic parabolic spiderwebs—says Nilesh, "Ah yes, these are poisonous spiders—no, sorry, venomous") to a basalt rock outcropping with a fantastic view of a super steep and majestically wide valley. Nilesh, after lamenting the unsatisfactory matrimonial situation in which he finds himself, pointed out a tree that juts out from the hill, a couple hundred yards away. As if on cue, a white-backed vulture stepped out of the tree's foliage and sat on a branch in plain (though too far for my camera to capture) sight. 

Okay, I am trying to see the good in everyone now, if you catch me, when across the valley, Nilesh points out two more circling above the tree line. 

Three. Of the 19-20 observed individuals within 100 miles of Mumbai. Can you believe it? Yesterday was good too, there were monkeys and barking deer and butterflies—so my luck, as they say, is good. But yesterday has nothing on watching that bird sitting on that branch. 

But, my friends, that is not all. After the bumpiest, dustiest ride back to the gate, we were served a lunch full of many small scoops of various dals and curries by the park's cadre of women, which we ate with chapatis and our hands. I'm getting better at it. Then, Nilesh took Nandkishor back to the bus station before returning for me. My ass objected to getting back on the bike, I don't mind saying. 

Nilesh, the pinkest face in the world, and Nandkishor 

Nilesh, the pinkest face in the world, and Nandkishor 

We took off down the road (faster, trying to catch the last catamaran to Mumbai, spoiler: we failed), when I saw something slink off the road in front of us. I might have shrieked. 

You guys. It slinked its low, pale body and dragged its long FURRED tail across the road and into the trees and was gone. 

The rest of the ride back was a terrible, migraine-inducing sensory overload of two more hours on the back of that bike (how brave am I? let's take a moment to ponder), which meant two more hours of fumes, speed bumps, potholes, flashing headlights, honking horns, and ended with not a one hour catamaran trip, but a three or four (I lost count) hour overland bus ride... I hurt all over and I feel even more sick than when I left.

But who the hell cares, I saw the vultures and a leopard.

Lovely, but for all the venom, poison, fangs, and claws

Lovely, but for all the venom, poison, fangs, and claws

Christmas Eve in Mumbai

The first thing you should know is that few people care that it is Christmas Eve, and that's okay. The drivers honk just as loudly and as often at one another, the lines move with the same frustrating slowness and corruption (SIR NO CUTTING OKAY PLEASE), and the odds are still just as good that you will tip one man too much and another too little—and that the shame they make you feel will ruin your appetite.  

But, if you are lucky, you will be taken far across the city, down a tree-lined road that requires permission to enter, past the bright and hollow façades of Film City, to a small centre in the forest. There, a young woman in a beautiful wine -red salwar kameez and turquoise scarf will take you on a nature walk. You will see a dozen butterflies, macaques, spotted and barking deer (the latter, you will even, what luck! hear bark), a paradise flycatcher, a gray hornbill, drongos, tailor birds, a forest chelotis, and a skink. You will imagine leopards watching as you both move through the trees, up and down the stone steps, in and out of clearings. 

You will wake up the next morning, and it will be Christmas Day and you will be sick—not from last night's dinner, as you'd worried, but from people, your throat sore, head aching. It will feel like it does every Christmas that you are far away from however or wherever you make your home these days, which is to say, a bit sad and a bit adventurous. 

The skies at dusk are full of house crows and kites (both paper and avian). You've seen street dogs, and more rarely, cats. You've seen alleys literally filled to the windows with moldering garbage. You've seen an eight story building framed in hand-tied wooden scaffolding, men crawling across the poles with trowels, scrapers. You've seen the Arabian Sea and the dozens of young lovers perched on the low retaining wall along the edge of Back Bay.

The rooflines are full of only pigeons and house sparrows, now. You've been here for three days and haven't seen a single vulture. At the conservation headquarters, when asked how long it will take to bring them back to the city (from their own brink—such a word can describe so many modes of desperation—of extinction), a specialist in bird habitats will tell you, "I think it is impossible. They are gone for my lifetime, and maybe forever."  

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MUMBAI

In other news: what the hell was I thinking?! And also: omgomgogomgogo 

That's as eloquent as I can maybe be right now. I just wrote this whole post and lost it (thanks, terrible new squarespace app!)  I'm so weak and wobbled with exhaustion, I can't recreate it. 

Some thoughts: this is a city full of car horns, ceiling fans, and makeshift roofing materials. Also, plastic feed sacks full of everything from garbage to laundry to who knows what. Also cows tied to bike racks. Some mangy dogs. Crappy wifi. Insane I mean INSANE driving like you wouldn't believe. What does "Please OK Honk!" mean? It's on the back of all the trucks. Loud crows, brightly dressed women & drab men, soot stained stucco towering impossibly over narrow alleys. Such a haze. Such impossible navigation. What was I thinking? People have been kind. More later, after sleep. 

This city is like delirium come to life. 

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Brooklyn to Dubai

Taking advantage of a few moments of free wifi to send a dispatch from the gate. My last flight lasted 11 hours, but took almost exactly 24. 

It brings to mind a terrible movie AND a poem by Dylan Thomas. Don't worry, no spoilers here. 

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I slept a lot on the plane, I think. Or else the hours passed in half sleep. I read a bit about the teaching of poems. I knit an inch of sock ribbing. I drank a small bottle of terrible Australian white wine (I'd asked for red, but the emirates flight attendants are so polished, I was loathe to correct even this small mistake.) The frittata was terrible. The terminal glittered and stank of leather and perfume—duty free.

onward. 

Friends and a crush of humans

I love coming to New York City. I love seeing my friends and gushing and chattering and sharing—and I know some of the best, kindest, most generous souls on the planet. I'm rich with these people. 

I also love walking past the bright windows full of everything—you need buttons? large rolls of foam? owl-shaped candles? flip-flops in December? $300 ripped up jeans? necklaces made to look like Petri dish cultures? tacos next to bulgogi next to artisanal donuts next to lobster bisque? want it all topped with a star? I love walking and looking and overhearing conversations.  

"Lady, no. Real cashmere would cost you hunnerts of dollars.  This is ten. C'mon, whaddaya think?"

"My boyfriend's career counselor said he should go into taxidermy. I'm totally getting him this." 

But also, sometimes you turn a corner and for a whole block you only smell sewage. (Don't say Just wait. I know it's coming like gangbusters.) Sometimes some guy is flipping out waiting for a train, screaming obscenities, and no one notices. Sometimes a person has a whole campsite under some scaffolding and a cardboard sign taped up next to it. Sometimes the sidewalk is so dotted and over-dotted with black gum spots, I wonder if it's adding a bounce to my step, or if I should walk faster, lest I stick as  a dinosaur in tar. 

Sometimes all the shoulder checks weary me.  

But then look! Cupcakes shaped like that weird yellow cartoon thing with one eye. Look: Benetton half off! Uniqlo! Look! The Rockefeller tree! Look at the new silhouettes for winter! Look at how those dumb boots are back! Look, real chestnuts roasting over a... Well, over a food cart's electric burner, anyway.  

What a wonder. The city rooster woo-wooo-woo-wooos, the earth quakes every 7 minutes, steam slips out of grates as if sucked by invisible straws. There's always a saxophone playing somewhere underground. There's always a better deal around the corner on a "cashmere" scarf. 

Today, I ate pulled pork eggs Benedict, Korean ramen, and some fancy mini donuts. Tomorrow, the world.  I drank til I was buzzed. I laughed and walked and bought a book (of course*). 

Tomorrow, I depart for parts unknown (to me). Yes, I'm excited. Yes, I'm freaking out. Yes, in a good way.  

Restaurants at Chelsea Market 

Restaurants at Chelsea Market 

* Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: fragments

Hamilton to Albany to NYC

I'm watching the rusty blush of Hudson valley leaf cover and brush fly past the train window. I learned decades ago that sitting backwards is supposed to minimize motion sickness—is this even true? 

The russet is punctuated by straw yellow reeds, at the water's edge, with even paler pampas-looking feathery clumps. The muddy lake water reflects the slate sky. Ocassional geese paddle against the wind.  

Im going to have to pay $200 in parking fees to get my car back next month. I'm an idiot and didn't verify the myth of free parking that I'd heard from a colleague. Maybe she knows a guy. Maybe she delights in imagining our horrified faces pinching up in disbelief after the two hour drive. Maybe she's thinking of some other train station, somewhere else altogether. Two hundred. This is when I like to say, "If that's the worst thing that happens..."  

What color can best describe all these bare trees? It's a brownish grayish light umber, perhaps, bleached trunks stippling into the sky like a kind of fur. 

How could you not love taking the train?  The rattle, the sway, the three reports from the engine car at each crossing. My car is not the "quiet car," but I'm blissed out over its incidental hush.

The drive to Albany started out all freezing rain and slick roads. I was stuck behind a snow plow for some excruciating number of miles. The thruway was a vision of black, ice-free asphalt, when it appeared. I was never so happy to pay a toll. 

Poughkeepsie station. Few board, and we rumble away.  

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Tonight, I'll be among friends. I sure hope there will be somewhere in NYC to see Christmas lights. 

Just taking notes.