Writing as Gumbo

mask My week in New Orleans was mostly good, even though I walked too much the first day and very little the second. I often ate too much and not from the healthy menu. Of course, in NOLA a fried oyster poor boy and beignets are not only healthy, but also compulsory. I rode the street cars, went to museums and heard live jazz, annoyed as I was that one of the performers asked for requests but knew no lyrics by Irma Thomas. Shameful and chauvinistic. She is the only female musician who has a statue in Music Park. I stayed through three beignets anyway. I saw way too many beggars and homeless people on the streets of the Quarter. I stepped around too many deep potholes in the old sidewalks and passed too many gift shops with the same feathery gewgaws. At times I was hungry for something other than fried and sugary sustenance.

Other than walking too much on the very hard and often hazardous sidewalks of the Big Easy, I spent many hours writing or worrying about not writing. How did my retreat/vacation become a burden? I don’t know. I came home yesterday with good intentions of continuing the work and writing faithfully to the end of the novel in progress. The TO-DO list includes typing up all the handwritten pages I lugged home. But today the fussy child in me says, no, don’t want to. So maybe I’ll take a little stay-cation from that project and finish some of the non-writing things on my list: reading grant applications for the cultural council, submitting poems for publication, sending off a new poem (about NOLA) to my critique group, hearing about the family’s stay at the cabin, reuniting with my dog.

Then again, knowing me, I’ll sneak in a few ideas for the novel as I write my daily journal, and that long, challenging project will haunt me until I sigh, pick up the pen and get back to work. Long fiction offers more problems and puzzles than does poetry or short fiction. Solving these problems draws me in. I can use some of what I saw in NOLA to enrich a story that takes place in Providence, RI. People are people everywhere, and what I saw on those broken sidewalks will stay with me and become, as does so much experience, part of the gumbo that is fiction. And it will be delicious.

“Don’t Doggett”

Writer Jim Harrison in Brown Dog has done the highly improbable: he has me cheering for a hard-drinking loose cannon who will “poke” any woman who’ll have him, and plenty will, who prefers cold weather and a frequent dose of isolation, who is known and unknown. So far I don’t know his real name, BD being the initials for his childhood nickname, arrived at because he dogged a girl he had a crush on. He’s a loner, yet highly visible  for his outrageous opportunistic, illegal stunts, like trying to sell a corpse and stealing a refrigeration truck to transport it. The only physical description of note is that BD has hair that won’t behave any better than he does. He is not registered or recognized by any Native American tribe, although he “might” qualify, has no SSN, earns his living by hard labor, often dangerous, like diving in Lake Superior or cutting pulpwood alone. He doesn’t know much at all about his parents.

So why do I like this guy? For one thing, he’s not a whiner, hence his motto handed down from his grandfather: “Don’t Doggett”–don’t whine like a cousin who always complained. No, BD takes his lumps, which he generally creates for himself. He’s a strong worker,  inventive, quick-witted, kind to kids and animals, apparently attractive to women, whom he definitely appreciates. He’s literate in a mostly illiterate world. He’s one of those elusive characters we call well rounded. He believes, “There ought to be more open spaces between events.” Ah, there’s a credo to live by. He is, for all his emotional neediness, not greedy or acquisitive in a bureaucratic, consumerist society. This is a book I don’t want to end. But there is, in a sense, no end. Fictional characters, unlike fleshy ones, stay with us. Whether we know their names or not, their lives become part of our own. BD is an Everyman who’s no one at all, but for me, he’s immortal and very real.

Bags, Boxes, Bins

Vacation time–packing lists, new shoes to try out before I go, it’s all expensive and exciting. I can hardly contain myself. Say what? I had to go, so I told myself, to The Container Store, more exciting to me than any amusement park. I came away with a purse-sized planner to contain my appointments, a neon-green scratch pad to contain my random thoughts and to-do lists, a tiny bag that holds a bigger bag and a battery-operated toothbrush in the cutest little case. Things that I didn’t know I “needed” until I saw them. Poorer and no wiser, I have the new shoes on my feet and the other things inside what will be my shoulder bag en route to New Orleans. Within the next day or two I’ll take the small suitcase out of the large suitcase and fill that container, which must fit into the overhead luggage bin inside the big airborn tube.

Art, like my life, is often about containment. A book contains pages, a story contains detail and action and emotion–the contents. Content comes from the Latin contentus, satisfied. My how that word has morphed, sprouted legs and wings. So much depends on the accent: CONtent or conTENT. I’m rarely contented with the content of my early drafts. And lately I am aware of the containers within a piece of writing. Of course there are the parts that contain the contents, the chapters, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, nested like ubiquitous Russian dolls. And there are the scenes within a story that are contained. For example, in The Glass Castle (Jeanette Walls), the opening scene is narrated by a woman from inside a cab. She sees on the street her mother picking through the trash. That the narrator is contained within the cab limits her ability to describe her mother. She can only report the visual, not the sound, smell, or texture.

This containment interests me and I find myself wondering now how much of what I write is restricted by what contains the action. I would welcome other examples of this walling off of a scene and the effect of that containment on the story. Ideas? Anyone?

A Writer Monkeying w/Business

Even the words business plan give me hives. But I’ve just read most of an amazing book, which I plan to review on Goodreads when I finish it, and Pamela Fagan Hutchins (What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes? and can I be one, too?) has  convinced me that I need better organization to get on with indie publishing, which I believe in. So I have redone my project board. I use a piece of foam board, in which I punched two holes and added a ribbon (red because it’s important) and hung it on a wreath hanger on the door to the storage closet adjacent to my office space. I’ve been using stickies to remind me of the my projects, but this method did not keep me moving as well as I might have. So I stripped off those stickies and put up a big one for each of the next twelve months. Smaller stickies remind me to anticipate three months in advance of when I hope–no, I plan–to publish the next book.The blue ones remind me that there are projects that don’t yet have a deadline or are ongoing.

My project board

My project board

I took from Hutchins’ book permission to publish more than one book a year. I’ve got two novels “done” and a third in the works. That one in progress will get four hand-written pages a day in order to hit my goal of publishing it a year from now. Meanwhile, the other two will go public this year. And early next year I’ll publish a volume of poetry, new and selected. It’s time for that. With such a striking reminder in view every time I walk into my office, I have no excuse not to be more productive.

Cradled by Books

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The word incunabula refers to the earliest printed books and is often translated as cradle books. Some books cradle me. They feel familiar and steady, not like the cradle that falls out of the tree, but some of my early reading still rocks me, tips me one way and then the other, challenges my balance. Lately, several “coincidental” references to The Great Gatsby have made me a little rocky. One: I have a granddog named Gatsby the Flying Chocolate Lab, who is often on my mind. Two: at the 2014 Conference on World Affairs in Boulder I heard William Nack recite the last page of that book and was moved by it. Three, browsing through used books at a thrift store this week, I came across The Authorized Text. Okay, I don’t need to be hit by a brick. It was time to read this book. Or is it rereading?

This book is so familiar that I don’t know if I had read it before or inhaled it from the air. Books like this become part of our daily bread. But I did not recall/know that Daisy was married and had a child. How could I not know this, as it surely colors the whole affair with Jay? Nor did I recall the splendor of the language. Gatsby the book gets its greatness in sentences and paragraphs, those daunting elements of English class. In the hand and mind of one such as Fitzgerald, they become prismatic. Like crystals embedded in a geode. Crack the hard rock of an idea–bam! Light gets out and dazzles. Makes my scalp tingle. My brain gets itchy and I have to live with this disruption until I’ve finished the book. So excuse a short blog today, but I have an appointment in East Egg.

Slam Nuba–say what?

Slam Nuba is people, people who have won “National and World Poetry” competitions since 2007, so says the flyer on my desk. They want “to promote the creation and performance of poetry by cultivating literary activities and engaging in community.” Great mission statement. I might copy it, but I’d be a fraud if I tried. Because I am a page poet, my poems are meant to do their work on a page, although I certainly do read them aloud to anyone who cares to hear them.

This, my friends, is one of the major divisions in contemporary poetry. Slam poets hark back to the earliest use of the art form, the spoken word. And they do it with great energy and drama, and without the “script” in hand. They memorize their lines, like actors. And they perform on a stage.

The slogan of Slam Nuba is “We cut heads.” Say what? I have no idea what that means, but after I see them perform tonight (4/23/2014) at the Broomfield Auditorium, I’ll let you know, so by the time this post appears on Saturday morning, I will have crossed that great poetic continental divide, at least for a few hours.

Slam Nuba goes on my list of great things to see/hear/experience. Four poets, one hour, “not your grandma’s poetry,” rhythmic, confessional, topical, tender and angry by turns, what Jovan Mays calls a cross between AC/DC and Baptist revival. I would call it a vehicle that’s half heavy-duty dually pickup and half drag racer. It has power and moves very fast. It hauls racial issues, neglected children, working-folk blues and educational malaise. It’s all good. See more about them at http://www.slamnuba.net.

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Gabriel García Márquez is gone and his death feels like a personal loss. I never met him except on the page, but I treasure the gifts that he gave me: an understanding of another culture and land, lessons in how the web of family touches history, flights of imagination that created the genre of magical realism, and, of course, words and images arranged in the best order. Even in translation. The gift of that direct gaze from his photo on my much handled and well marked reading copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve been rereading it and it’s on the coffee table as I write. He left me the grand story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” and Love in a Time of Cholera. His autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. Over the years his books have come and gone through my hands. Now I want them all back to stay. Is there as much room for them on the shelf as there is desire in my hands to hold them?

This is a week of memorials. I will read publicly again tonight in memory of poet Mike Adams. I will remember my beloved friend and fellow poet Michael Macklin. Writers like these men have an afterlife. There is no sell-by date, no expiration on their genius and generosity. Marquez and my lost friends are still with me. The men may be gone but their words will live as long as I live. Well known or less well known, writers’ words stay for as long as we need them. Like enzymes in the mind, we feel their effect. Long may it be so.