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.

Revise and Let It Loose

Many hours this past week I prepared to keep a promise to my writing group from Wellfleet that I would be more proactive about submitting work for publication. I have a pretty hefty publications list already, but it’s stale. Prior to the workshop in June I had concentrated on writing new material and didn’t have the energy to attend to what already existed. Well, advice I heard in the workshop was to take risks, send the work out. Writing needs an audience. Yes, I know that. I believe that. So why would I hesitate?

Fear of rejection, fear of exposure and fear of inadequacy: all play a part in the urge to hide my writing under a big rock. But it is also true that offering work to the world makes me a better writer. Knowing that a reader, editor or publisher will cast a mean eye on my work leads me to question the piece before I hit send or drop the submission into the mail box. Have I done my best to make the writing clear, fresh, and worth the paper it might be printed on? Is the title intriguing, inviting, wacky enough to make someone read on? Does it have substance and endurance? This challenge keeps me polishing when it would be easier to stuff it in a notebook and let it rot.

Exposing my work to others can have a down side: I’m guilty of people pleasing and can be overly sensitive to the taste of other writers. One of Marge Piercy’s rules for groups is to respect each other’s style and substance. I know I’ve been writing under the influence–not of Irish whiskey, though that’s appealing–and I’m trying to be more confident that the work I produce, poems or fiction, has to be my choice, my responsibility. After listening and considering any advice I get, I have to trust my intuition and my intention when to call a piece done.

Do You Duotrope?

Having written poetry for decades, I have about 300 pieces that have not been published, some for good reason, some because I felt overwhelmed tracking and sorting them. In response to the promise I made to myself and the Wellfleet Dozen (twelve women in Marge Piercy’s recent poetry workshop), I spent hours this week updating my spread sheet on a site called Duotrope (Google it). This site will allow me to track where an individual poem has tried to worm its way into an editor’s heart, and when it succeeds, out there in poetry land, I can stuff it into the retired/published category, where it will rest until I choose to include it in a collection. The site does not keep the poem, just its title and its submission history.

This website costs $5.00 a month to maintain, and can be used for fiction, individual poems, manuscripts, etc. If you start early and maintain it on a regular basis, you will not have to replicate my process of hours on screen catching up. Furthermore, the site sends members a newsletter about potential markets with detailed info, like rejection rates, length of time until a reply, etc. If you return to a market you have previously tapped into, Duotrope keeps that information and reminds you which pieces have already been offered to a particular publication. No embarrassing comments like “We didn’t like this the first time we saw it.”

I looked at several other websites before going back to Duotrope, but none of the others that I found were as complete, and for the price, it’s a great help. So, I am better prepared now to keep my promise to be more proactive about submissions. Now if I can unclench my fingers from the keyboard, I’ll go get breakfast and then come back to my desk to send off a submission or two or five.