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.

Book Launched

On Saturday a gaggle of friends and fellow writers helped me officially launch Invisible Juan. I talked a little bit about the inception of the book–it’s been lounging on the shelf far too long and needs to get out and earn its keep–and I read an excerpt, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Then signing books, I was winging it all the way. Because I knew these people well, it wasn’t hard to make each book unique.

An event like this one is definitely not a one-woman show. My heartiest thanks to Caribou Coffee on W. 120th in Westminster CO. The baristas were welcoming and efficient and the coffee, as always, delicious. Another grand thank you to my friend and writing partner Carolann Walters. She is my “handler” in these situations. By which I mean that she provided snacks and took care of book sales, even packed up my box when it was all done but the shouting.

Now a shout out to readers: the book is available on Amazon. The gift of a book is a wonderful thing. If you are not yet aware of Juan’s problems and adventures, I have a page on this website, Bookstore, where you’ll find a synopsis. And any writer these days is thankful forreviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Word Greed

Admit it, if you are like me, you collect words you’ll never need. I go further in this vice: I collect quotes, whole sentences, even paragraphs. These snippets are not necessarily related to what I’m working on; in fact, I may never use them. Like a crow with shiny objects, I carry them in my beak from a library book to my nest which is a journal and hide them from jealous eyes. It’s not just the words that shine so much as it is how they cling together, like the roots of a tree, hidden but intricate, nourishing resources.

Language is more than a list of words, isn’t it? It’s a harvest of phrases and sentences, images and sounds, some of them heard silently in my brain as I read. It’s a gathering, which like any other healthy community, welcomes immigrants. In fact, it needs strangers in its midst or it stiffens like rheumatic knees. A vast array of word groups from many sources brings news of other villages and cultures, news we need to grow on.

David George Haskell, in his wonderful book Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, repeatedly demonstrates the interconnectedness of life over time and place, whether in the canopy of the rain forest in Ecuador or the balsam firs of the frozen north. He listens and brings back what he hears. We who write must do the same or risk ignorance, a false understanding of the web of life which is so much bigger than we can imagine. But we might just grasp it through a web of words.

A Week of Weakness

My recent illness was not exotic, just an annoying head cold that required me to stay close to the tissue box and the herbal tea, and prevented me from leaving home in order not to offend or contaminate others. One of the several annoyances this week was the distraction of sneezing, coughing and dripping. My hands were busy with other things than the pen and notebook. Inactivity left large muscles sore and grumpy. Writing may begin in the brain but it is released into the world by the body, and my body was not cooperating.

While I was achy, frustrated, whiny, I read part of Helen Keller’s autobiography. Blind, deaf, and mute, Keller first learned finger spelling and finally speech. Her senses put her in touch with the world and the world in touch with her. Despite her long journey into literacy, her prose is clear, fresh, deliciously detailed, a lesson on the futility of self-pity and a beautiful reminder of the mind-body connection.

I remember a student who came often to the Writing Lab at LSU-S when I taught there. This woman had a spinal injury that left her immobilized with barely enough dexterity to manage the lever on her power wheelchair. But she wrote! She used a mouth stick to depress the keys on the computer keyboard. Given new voice-activated options, she is, I suspect, even more productive now than when I knew her. I’ve worried at times what I’d do if my right hand failed me and I could not write. I’d remember Kathy and find another way because I need the body to deliver what the mind invents.

Writing in a Stockpot or a Skillet

There are at least two ways to cook up a new story or poem: #One is the stockpot process. You take out the stockpot with the intent to make chicken soup. You go to the refrigerator, get the chicken and carrots and an onion, find in the pantry the rice, reach down the sage, salt, pepper and bay leaf. You know in advance the ingredients and the process. You boil the chicken till the meat is tender and falling off the bone, remove the chicken, strain the broth and shred the meat. Chop and add the veggies, measure in the rice and seasonings and there you have it, just what you intended.

If you’re writing a sonnet, a short story or a novel, you know the size of the pot you’ll put you ingredients into and you may know the ingredients ahead of time–characters, plot, theme, etc.

But another time you look around the kitchen and find one potato, a couple of eggs and two slices of bacon. What to make of this? Quiche? Or a traditional breakfast? You get out the skillet, cook the bacon, use the bacon grease to fry the potato and the egg. This time you began with no preconceived idea but the inspiration of ingredients.

I often do this when I see an image that triggers my imagination. The shadow of low-flying Canada geese, a phrase that seems loaded with mystery, or an interaction between strangers. The new novel that is coming to life started this way: I made a silly pun in my journal, “Dear Paige,” the way writers used to say Dear Diary. Well, turns out Paige is a fully rounded character and she gets into trouble without too much help from me. I go to work every morning not knowing what she’ll do next. So far it’s working. Spicy!

Please read for equality, see the list below:

The Bestselling Black Books, The Top 25 Black-Owned Websites, and More


https://aalbc.com/

Art Where the Heart Lives

Wow! Good week for poetry from where I sit. On Wednesday I attended a monthly writing group at the American Museum of Western Art in Denver. These events are co-sponsored by Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop, and I always begin the session with a nagging troll in my head who says, “You have nothing to say about visual art.” And that troll is mostly wrong. This month we focused on paintings featuring water and I came away with two pretty solid poems. They still need incubation and revision, but they’re satisfying. Thanks to the museum docents who know their art and share their knowledge. I particularly loved seeing a Rockwell Kent and an Edward Hopper.

Last evening I was part of a happening, happy to have judged a poetry contest for the City of Lafayette, Colorado. Each year this snappy little city hosts sculpture, visual art and poetry in a melange that almost defies description. The sculpture are installed as official Art On the Street and citizens are invited to respond interactively via photography, painting, and poetry. The process culminates in the local library with an evening of good food, good conversation and prizes. This year the city had funds to buy two of the sculpture pieces that were part of the competition. These will augment the growing public art collection of this progressive city.

And another thing: that meeting room was set up with 100 chairs and every chair was taken. Everyone stayed for the whole program, poets reading their work, visual artists being recognized and their work lauded on the big screen. It was a fine thing. Especially, given that we had diversity of age, of gender, and of color. Hooray for Lafayette.

Life Gets Busy, You Know?

I try to keep a schedule for the blog posts but some weeks it just doesn’t fit comfortably. And comfort becomes important as I juggle two writing projects. (Not to mention planning a launch party for the third novel.) One of the current projects is genealogy. It’s been years in the making, documenting the lives of my great grandparents, researching the times and places in which they lived, the ways in which they traveled. Not that it’s all fact. That’s not possible. I have to make it clear in the text where I draw my own conclusions. Otherwise, I can and will note my research sources, admit my suppositions, do my honest best to memorialize these people whom I’ve never met.

The other work in project is fiction and it grows daily. I hadn’t planned it, am surprised that all these words demand my attention. Or maybe it’s the characters who want me to recognize them, let them live on the page. Problem is, I don’t know where we’re going or where they’ve been. Fictional characters don’t leave a paper trail. And because I don’t plot early on in fiction, the characters do what they want. In less than 10,000 words so far, I have three strong characters and another two about to emerge. If the plot goes where I think it might, there will be others. It’s out of my hands despite my fingers on the keys.

In both of these projects, rewards spring up when I least expect them. A character whom I imagined as passive sticks out her hand, welcomes in a stranger, takes charge of the scene. Instead of a petite white woman, she’s a stately black woman. Who knew? Ancestors rarely show their faces but I find their lives in census records, city directories, immigration lists. Truth and fiction are not so different this week. It’s hard work keeping up with all these people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Polemic or Political?

For decades, no, for millennia, critics have debated the uses of poetry. Plato, remember him? He would have banned poets from his ideal republic. Trouble makers, dreamers, realists instead of idealists. All true. Then a while later along came the US Constitution and the idea of free speech. Wahoo! Poets could make as much trouble as they dared. They could write about whatever crossed their weird minds. This was a good idea even though it still broke hearts and rules in other, less open countries. No more hiding poems in the USA, no more need to memorize what could not be published. Remember Akhmatova having friends memorize her poems until it was again safe to print them them? My good fortune not to live under such pressure.

Poetry has long been a means to voice opposition to social injustice, pure meanness and discrimination. It certainly worked for W.B. Yeats in Ireland. When the Occupy Wall Street happened, I jumped right in to contribute poems, to add my voice to a movement that seemed likely to make a difference. I’m not sure that it worked, but it was better than sitting in frustrated silence. Now, again, I’ve answered the call for poems that connect craft and imagery to public issues, ideas and situations beyond  the lyric born from our private, individual lives.

It’s not that I no longer write the personal lyric, the narrative of experience, the observation of surroundings that amaze and instruct me. But at the invitation of the editor of The Colorado Independent, Susan Greene, I’m writing and publishing News Poetry. And it feels right to again respond to current events. The process involves two layers of editing, one being the poetry editor, Jackie St Joan, and the other being Susan, who makes the final decision to publish or not. She wants short, free verse, accessible poems. News Poetry is not just for English majors.

Writing about the news is a challenge. Not everyone approves. Poets rightly fear the danger of the polemic, the sermon, the demand that the reader share the writer’s belief, attitude or political persuasion. But the challenge to say something pertinent and still allow room for other attitudes is a healthy dare. I like it.

Please, READ FOR EQUALITY

Denver Talks is a partnership between Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the NEA’s Big Read, and the City & County of Denver. The upcoming program features poet Claudia Rankine and Mayor Michael B. Hancock in conversation on November 15. Rankine’s book is Citizen: An American Lyric.