Hunting Hidden Treasure

Jonathan Waldman has written a prize-winning book called Rust: The Longest War. Waldman is a journalist and true to his profession he did plenty of first hand research about the problems of corrosion. Odd, you say, who cares, you say? We all should care. Waldman found that we almost lost the Statue of Liberty to corrosion. He went to “can school” in Boulder to learn about the joys and sorrows of canned products. He went to Alaska to hang out with the workers who inspect and maintain the oil pipeline. And when he spoke to writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Waldman dissed our beloved Friday 500 acronym BICHOK–“butt in chair, hands on keyboard.”

His advice was to get off your duff and go look, really look, at the world beyond your desk. It’s a version of the mythic hero’s journey: the hero leaves home alone, risks his or her own safety, and brings back treasure for the community. I think Waldman’s right, but so is BICHOK. As a writer, I need to do both, balance the investigation of the world with the time spent making marks on screen or paper.

So, today I’ll spend hours and hours in the company of other poets, digging with my pen for treasures to bring back to fellow writers. And I’ll try hard to keep a wide focus. Who are these people I’ll be with? What are their quirks and talents? What space will we occupy? What might I witness en route? We don’t have to go to can school or to Alaska or to NYC to find treasure. It’s everywhere if we take the time to look. So, BICHOK later, treasure hunt now.

Faith, Hope, Clarity and Sweetgrass

SweetgrassSome books earn my respect, even affection. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one. The subtitle tells a lot: “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” I am not a gardener nor a farmer, so anything that explains plant life feels fresh to me. Kimmerer is “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation . . .” so I was persuaded to trust her knowledge. What I was not prepared for was the stunning prose that kept me reading. Somewhere I’ve heard that writing well requires “faith, hope, and clarity.” She gives us all three in abundance.

In addition to her style and content, Kimmerer is a story teller. She takes on the role in a personal and personable way. Her first-person accounts of her work as mother and scientist, indigenous person and skilled teacher wooed me. I felt that I was standing in the rain with her, noticing the various sizes of rain drops as they fell from the leaves and mosses. I was with her and her daughters as they went out in the dark to escort salamanders across blacktop to keep them from becoming roadkill. I listened like a child to native stories of Skywoman and Windigo. Her voice is clear and sweet as maple sap, but never syrupy, never wheedling. Rather she shows the ways that natural science and writing and daily life are braided together like the wild sweetgrass she uses for ceremonies of thanksgiving.

Here, then, is a lesson on writing about the potentially esoteric skills and knowledge of a scientist and the emotional life of a single mother and the history of people dismissed and under appreciated despite their centuries old knowledge of the world. Read it and learn.

Off to the Races

Recently I wrote about my top shelf favorite books. This week I reread Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. The first time I read that book, I was angry, awakened and stunned by turns. For the first time I understood my history as daughter and mother in a new/old way and the gender inequality that, after three decades, still exists and has spread beyond the male/female heterosexual world to emerge as LGBTQ issues. Even our current political rhetoric mirrors these issues: the woman card, the bully in the schoolyard–which we call the presidential race.

And, as I often do, I had another book going, Because You Asked, edited by Katrina Roberts. These essays on writing include one by Elizabeth Bradfield, in which I noted this: “Write into a world that is strange and particular with your own experiences and associations. Don’t leave anything out” (180). My strange, particular experience involves harness racing. For several years I was first a barn rat and then a race judge and finally a horse owner. Track lingo is my secret second language.

Words spilled onto my journal page and clicked like magnets to the issues of gender: hobbles and women in high heels and pencil skirts, blinders and limited views, off stride, scratched, qualifying races, win-place-show. There are more correspondences between the breeding, selection and training of a young racehorse and the roles of women in society. I’ll let your imagination take the reins at this point. But before I close, let me encourage you to read  widely in many genres in order to open your mind and let creative thinking make connections that sizzle and snap. That’s what real writers do.

Top Twenty Shelf

Recently, I had a discussion with four other women writers in which we talked about Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of Ones Own. My copy is marked with the little dots I put at key points, a few underlines, and some modest wear on the dust jacket. But to me it’s a valuable book. And that made me think of other books that I keep because reading them was a memorable experience. A few are signed, more than a few are from years ago. But I’m about to move them to a place of honor, my mentors, teachers, exemplars. Slight apology to men, but these are my select twenty women writers. I’ve made some tough decisions, because many of them have multiple titles that I treasure, but I’m making myself evaluate what matters most. Here they are:

Addonizio, Kim. Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions of a Writing Life

Allende, Isabelle. Paula

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale

Chodron, Pema. The Pema Chodron Collection

Cisneros, Sandra. My Wicked Wicked Ways

Conway, Jill Kerr. The Road from Coorain

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Forche, Carolyn. Against Forgetting

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones

Greer, Germaine. Female Eunuch

Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder

Levertov, Denise. The Complete Poems

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born

Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions

Tan, Amy. The Opposite of Fate

Wakoski, Diane. The Butcher’s Apron

Williams, Terry Tempest. When Women Were Birds

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of Ones Own

If you have such a list, I’d like to see it. Let me hear from you.

Poetry, Music & Theater, Oh, My

Poet and critic Dana Gioia advised in Can Poetry Matter that poets Scanshare the stage with musicians and offer the audience work by other poets, more than the single focus drone of a conventional reading. Last evening the Denver Puppet Theater hosted a significant event featuring live poetry and music. The poets performed original material, as well as selections from Shakespeare, Sandburg, Williams, and other well-known writers. The musicians played and sang soulful blues and provided musical commentary and reflection to the poetry. Because there is no such thing as bare stage at Denver Puppet Theater, the audience had hand puppets to hold, play with, cuddle if they wanted. So our senses were well served: eyes, ears, touch, taste (there were refreshments available at the adjacent Zook’s Ice Cream and Coffee).

This presentation served up poetry in a way that was more than palatable. It was delicious, designed to woo an audience with well-directed, well rehearsed art that connected us like a web, a tapestry, a hand-knit sweater: music to poetry to performance to audience. Ah! And what’s more, it was a gift. There was no commercial agenda, no one promoting a new book or an upcoming event. No solitary, outsized ego being touted. No admission fee. The performers and director gave us the hours they had spent rehearsing, Zook’s gave us a unique venue with ample seating, and we gave back our attention and applause. Bravo, let’s do it again.

Merci to musicians Dave Greenwald, Mark Lane, John Rasmussen, director SETH, and poets Cyndeth Allison, Kathleen Cain, Cathy Casper, James Steel (aka The Man of Steel), Jacqueline St. Joan, June Shurrock, Roz Taylor and Marleine Yarnish. Applause, applause!

Writing Violence: Yes/No?

How is it that Nevada Barr could invent the violence that drives her novel Winter Study? Barr has put her main character, Anna Pigeon, through horrific misadventures over the long course of her park ranger mysteries. In this one Anna nearly freezes to death, very nearly drowns and witnesses scenes that ravage her mind and her memory. How can a writer do that to someone she has created as surely as if born of her body? I have written violent scenes, and can only say that the story demanded it and I delivered. I suspect that is what drives Barr. The story is often larger than the lead character. But real violence has become an international pass time. As a writer, I struggle with where to put it in my heart and in my work.

Recently I heard a writer whom I admire say that he felt the need to write more violence into his work, because another writer had said that any American (read U. S.) writer not writing about violence is not being truthful to our culture of killing. I won’t do it. This is a limited and limiting world view. During this wretched stretch of news, for solace I turned to Barbara Kingsolver’s essays, Small Miracle. She wrote the title essay in response to 9-11, but what she had to say is fresh again. And in one of the essays she says that she reads the news, listens to the news but rarely watches the news. I’m with her in this. Life has more to offer than live-stream murder, and as visual creatures, human beings imprint on the gore. How do young minds distinguish real death from fiction?

I’m not naive. I spent almost two decades as a nurse, and as horrific as some of the work was, violence was not and is not the only truth. Conflict between people or fictional characters is more nuanced than a gut-shot cadaver. The emotional response to grief and rage is a coat of many colors and textures. If violence erupts in my writing, I hope the scene rises from within the circumstances rather than painted on like graffiti in a toilet stall, all shock and no awe.

Finding Words that Matter

Like many people I know, I was  struck dumb by recent national news. Words could not say what I felt, so I just sat with that sadness for days. Yesterday two friends came to my house for a writing session and today I feel better. We did what we usually do, let the conversation wander where it wanted to go, and then we set a timer and wrote about whatever had substance in that moment. I wrote the words “accomplishment, what does that mean and how do we measure it?” Bingo! Synapses resumed their little sparks of electricity and I thought about the way culture works (no, not opera and ballet or big books and art films). Every talent matters, whether it’s one singer, one poet, one essayist. Collectively, we enlighten each other and mostly we do this locally. As Lewis Hyde wrote, the gift must move on.

Sorry to say, I cannot heal the wounds of the people saddened or killed by guns. I cannot wrest progress from a government that cares more about business and power than about the people they were elected to serve. What I can do is be open to opportunities to treat others with respect, share whatever skills I have and “keep the faith.” Not faith in a distant god or a strict regimen of prayer. Keep the faith that we are not all bad, meaning none of us is worthless, but then, none of us is saintly. There’s a line in the Tao Te Ching  that I lean on (# 9 in the Stephen Mitchell translation). It’s impact changes depending on where I put the stress: “Do your work, then step back.” If I come down firmly on your, it’s a clue to pay attention to whatever I have to offer. And then get out of the way. And expect others to do their work.