Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Making Do for Now

Given this pandemic-enforced retreat, I’ve taken up a project that often surprises me. In the previous post I mentioned reading Let the Crazy Child Write. In this long quiet, I have challenged myself to do several of the exercises that author Clive Matson suggests, one of which directs me to interview someone. Well, that’s tricky during our sequestered lives. But Matson does say that one might interview herself. Hmm, could that work? As a matter of fact … it does. I came up with three questions that I imagine answering in an interview: 1. Tell me about your early experiences as a writer; 2. Which of your early experiences are most important or most memorable? and 3. What’s next for you?

Here then, is my answer to the first, understandably self-satisfying, but I am intrigued by the voice that responded to the prompt.

I remember writing bizarre and clumsy poems when I was in high school. And I wrote a theme every week for Hubert Clemons, my high-school English teacher at Potter Academy. Then I had a long hiatus in which I admired John Lennon’s poems but wrote none that I recall. I was drawn to visual art, took a mail-order drawing course and lessons from a local art teacher. But poetry still lurked in some mental back room. When I went to Yuba Community College, I took a creative writing course and a survey of English Lit, the latter with a wonderful teacher, Robert Mognis, and began writing again. From that point on I read and wrote plenty, but had no one to share the work with until several years later when I started grad school and published a poem in the Georgia Southern lit mag. And finally, a first acceptance from a stranger, a poem called “Last Supper.” Oddly, I don’t find a copy of that one in any of my notebooks.

Random Thoughts While Waiting

What I’m reading while I’m staying home:

The Moth, art and literature, Issue 40, Spring 2020

The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr

Let Your Crazy Child Write, Clive Matson–not about homeschooling, subtitle is “Finding and Freeing Your Creative Voice.”

Zoom Manual for Participants.pdf

Contributions by writing friends in what Wikipedia describes as “Exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis), is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled.”

Cover to cover of the latest New Yorker.

By the end of the day, when my eyes are tired, I watch several episodes of a British documentary series, Time Team, all about archeology. By now the cast feels like family, and since I cannot visit with my family other than those with whom I live, it’s a good thing to see familiar faces. (Familiar deriving from family.)

However long our sequestering lasts, I’m sure I have enough to entertain and distract me. But right now, the sun is shining, I live in suburbia, so we have wide sidewalks, and spring temps, so for a while I will put away words and see what the birds and the neighbors are up to.

Oh, yes, I’m writing.

“I Search”

When I was teaching writing, I sometimes suggested to students that they do, not a research paper, but an “I Search.” Look online for this term and I now get advice about buying cars. Not what I had in mind. My version involves a deep look at something I’m interested in. One time, for example, I researched the history of printing. I read books and articles, and I visited a printer in Denver who now heads a museum and teaches the fine art of printing.

Lately, I’ve been studying the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Irish, a Nobel Laureate in 1995. I’ve long admired his work and it seemed an omen when I found in a thrift shop a fat book, Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Their in-depth conversations range from Heaney’s early years in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, a hard era in which to be Catholic in that bloody land. Heaney not only survived, but as an outstanding student, won scholarships and graduated with honors from Queens University College Dublin. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, or should I say his-story.

Partly his enormous talent and depth of knowledge about literature and partly sharing a mostly Irish heritage has kept me reading. I’m  half way through the interviews, deep into a book of his essays about poetry, and a study by Helen Vendler, a noted literary critic. I’m keeping a notebook of whatever strikes me as useful. I’m reading again his poems.

If you look at the photo above, you’ll see what faces me on my coffee table. What you cannot see is the ink and pencil marks in the books that I own, nor the impact of his talent on my own writing. He is a poet of place and of the body. His ear is well tuned and helps me to hear the rhythms of the language.

But I remind myself that despite his huge talent, he’s male, through no fault of his own, and his artistic influences were male. So, the next round of deep study will, I think, take me back to Carolyn Forsché. Her newest collection, In the Lateness of the World: Poems, is even now creeping toward me and promises to enrich my understanding of this strange art called poetry.

#RedGoddessPoems #SeamusHeaney #CarolynForsché

My Tribe Increases

Almost thirteen years ago when I landed in Colorado, one of the first things I did was to seek out poets at Naropa University in Boulder. I spent a week writing under the guidance of Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. That experience led to my collection The Great Hunger. And standing in line to go to a reading, I fell into conversation with another woman. She and I are still good friends and Cyndeth Allison has led me to other writers.

During my years here I have joined and retired from a number of writers’ organizations–Colorado Independent Publishers Association, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Columbine Poets of Colorado, the continuing ed faculty at Front Range Community College, Boulder Bookstore’s Live Poets book club, and a good handful of less public venues, like the two critique groups I go to regularly, and readings at Book Bar in Denver, and open mics at The Firehouse in Longmont. My tribe has increased because even when a membership ends, I seem to carry along another good companion or two. My latest connection is the Spoken Word weekly event in Lafayette at East Simpson Coffee Company.

Recently, talking to a man who has mostly written in private, I was reminded how fortunate I am to have a community of writers. Of course, I value my quiet early mornings when I practice my evil arts, but once the sun is up and the car key is in my hand, I’m off to see what the writing world has to offer. It rarely disappoints.

#EastSimpsonCoffeeCompany #TheGreatHunger

Book Returns

Despite the title here, this post has nothing to do with a library. My good friend Anita Halvorssen is moving after many years in her house. Over quite a few of those years, she and I have shared our writing adventures and tips on how to get it done. We meet for coffee most Friday mornings, and recently she arrived with a book I had lent her who-knows how long ago, How to Write; Advice and Reflections by Richard Rhodes.

I’m impressed that she could single it out, but there are my initials on the small-title page. I had forgotten it, yet there are my familiar under linings. Of course, I started browsing to see what I had marked years ago, and now  I am once again a Rhodes scholar. This book still matters. So do my notes. I’m on page 155, headed to completion, again. Understand, this book was published in 1995, so it’s a little dated. The  writing-tools section is, but the deeper aspects still resonate. The art and act of writing remains.

It’s likely that Dante and Ovid and others from the past had challenges not unlike our own. I hope they had good friends who return borrowed books, and writing advice that never feels stale. Like these from Rhodes: “Imagination is compassionate” (p.4). Or, “…time and chance happen to us all” (p. 69). And this, “Words are the model, words are the tools, words are the boards, words are the nails (p. 166).

Being part of a writing community helps–whether it’s two or twenty or two hundred, whether it’s shared books, shared tips, shared smiles and tears. Thanks, Anita. Thanks Richard Rhodes.

#Accidental Child #Providence #Invisible Juan

In Praise of Index Cards

By now you know that I read a lot. But you probably don’t know how I struggle to retain some sense of what I’ve read. Sometimes I comment in my daily journal, sometimes add pages to a notebook dedicated to writing advice, sometimes I make a quasi library card and add it to my index file by topic. None of these are perfect.

A few weeks ago I started a reader’s diary, full of good intention and common questions: Did I finish it? Would I read another book by the same author? Would I recommend it to someone? Well, you know the cliche about hell and good intentions. Definitely not a path I recommend.

The first graduate course I had, decades ago, was library research, and I should have invested in an office supply store, I used so many index cards. Now I’ve reverted to 3×5 cards, but with a twist. Not only do I cite the author, title, year of publication, but now I add a comment about the plot line, the characters, the style or the pacing, whatever seems useful to have handy in the future.

As I gleaned from the failed diary, a few of the books noted there were damned with DNF–Did Not Finish. That’s good information for me to keep. And now I can briefly say what makes me slam the book shut, stuff it into the library return bag early or return it to Libby (a free digital library app accessed through my library card).

Index cards are cheap, non-threatening, and easily sorted. Those who are addicted to electronic screens can create the same sort of catalogue, but I take comfort in the physical presence of paper. I need not sweat a power outage or a cranky hard drive.

This record keeping will not change my life, but I like to know that if I want to recall a particular book, all I need is a card from the box. Sometimes simplicity is best. I recall seeing a photo of a successful novelist’s office with a dozen or more boxes filled with index cards. Beautiful, a thing to aspire to. And when I die, easy for my family to dump into the recycle bin.

Poets Behaving Badly–or Not

At a recent open mic, the audience was patient and attentive. Many of the poems were fine and presented with polish and forethought. But…as with so much of life, sometimes there’s a better way.

  1. Know something about poetry; it’s not a sermon, a diatribe, or an ego trip. If you write it, you should read it, often and with great variety. It’s even nice to include a poem by someone other than yourself.
  2. We give poetry a bad rap if we bore people or offend them. Accept that your audience is mixed and might not admire a rant full of cliché and loose talk.
  3. Reading from a small, unstable device like a phone, is asking for annoying glitches. Use a larger screen or print the poems. Read from a book only if you can handle it and the mic.
  4. Get friendly with the mic and the readers’ light. If people can’t hear you or you cannot see the work in front of you, why bother?
  5. Prepare. You probably didn’t stumble across the event five minutes before it started. If you read from a book, mark the pages with sticky notes or make a list so you don’t take up precious time shuffling pages. If you print individual poems, use a font that’s easy to read.
  6. Select pieces ahead of time and know how long it takes to read them at a slightly slower pace than you would use in conversation. Most open mics limit your time. Respect that. In fact, it’s better to leave ’em hungry rather than tired, bored, and ready to hit the bar or the bathroom.
  7. Don’t announce a form. The audience can hear it if you’ve made it work. And if you haven’t, why draw attention to your experiment?
  8. AND DO NOT GO TO THE MIC STONED, DRUNK, OR OTHERWISE ANNOYING TO THE AUDIENCE AND TO THE OTHER READERS WHO VALUE THIS OPPORTUNITY.

If people give you their time and attention, deliver the best you have. Poets need listeners. Respect the art form and the audience.

#OpenMic #PublicReadings