Still Life with Poets

Ever since I got home from April's travels, I have been living quietly--enjoying the calm before the storm of DKTBG's July publication. So it was a real treat to take a Tuesday afternoon and drive up to Silver Spring to visit my friend Hailey Leithauser's house. Well, okay, driving on the Beltway at 3 in the afternoon was not a treat. But everything that followed was--seeing her chic new bath (she's redoing the house a room at a time); assembling a light dinner of smoked salmon over seaweed, sides of antipasti (marinated elephant garlic and cherry peppers: who knew they were so good together?), and quick-grilled corn on the cob; splitting a lovely bottle of a chardonnay/viognier blend; chatting as we watched her hound dog, Folly, chase rabbits in the backyard. 


But Hailey's not just a friend--she's a poet. A really good one. As much as I love her for her Hawaiian shirts and vintage pin-up art collection, I love her more for her gift of wordplay. She's the kind of woman who riffs off obscure dictionary definitions, or gets interested in complex palindromes and goes "yep, I could do a book's worth of those." So we looked at a poem draft, traded Bread Loaf gossip, talked about places to send. This is such an isolated and isolating art sometimes. Having friends, local friends, who are writers strikes me as an incredible gift.


And the funny thing is, we kind of keep pace for each other. We were both in Best New Poets 2005, which for me felt like a big break--probably less so for Hailey, because she'd already won the Discovery/The Nation award the year before.  We end up as neighbors in a lot of journals (Meridian, Cave Wall, AGNI online).  Below is Hailey's poem from The Best American Poetry 2010, "The Old Woman Gets Drunk with the Moon," which first appeared in Pleiades. I also had a poem in this volume, "Unit of Measure," which was first published in a July/August 2009 issue of POETRY that had, yep, poems from Hailey too. We were both thrilled to be chosen for BAP by Amy Gerstler; I remember back to 2006, sitting on a couch in my studio at the Millay Colony and finding inspiration in the poems from Gerstler's Bitter Angel. This poem is part of a series of Hailey's that deserves to be published in a full-length collection. I wish I could wave a magic book-wand and make the right things happen for deserving people.


THE OLD WOMAN GETS DRUNK WITH THE MOON


The moon is rising everywhere--
The moon's my favorite rocking chair,
My tin pot-top, my green plum tree,
My brassy buttoned cavalry
Tap-dancing up a crystal stair.


O watch them pitch and take the air!
Like shoo fly pies and signal flares,
Like clotted cream and bumblebees,
The moons are rising.


How hits-the-spot, how debonair,
What swooned balloons of savoir faire,
What purrs of rain-blurred bright marquees
That linger late, that wait for me,
Who'll someday rest my cold bones there
In moons that rise up everywhere.


~Hailey Leithauser


For more info on her work, check out Hailey's page at the Poetry Foundation.

So what?

Gregory Donovan on Larry Levis's "Coda: Kind of Blue":
Of course you recognize Levis is taking his title from the famous jazz album by Miles Davis and the all-star band Davis assembled for two unforgettable recording sessions in 1959 in New York City. And if you wanted to understand the essential underlying compositional and structural approach in the poetry of Larry Levis, you could have no better instruction than a deep listen to that masterpiece of a jazz album, Kind of Blue, which would precisely prepare you to listen to Levis’s own poetry, including his poem by that same name. 
The opening of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue starts with Bill Evans dithering a bit on the piano, laying down a foundation of eerie chords, and then Paul Chambers comes in with the song’s signature opening refrain, answered antiphonally at first by the piano, and then joined by the horn section—Davis on trumpet, Cannonball Adderly on alto sax, and the great John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, all playing in harmony. 
And right after that, Davis takes off with the first solo, followed in turn by everyone in the group. The name of that opening song is “So What,” and it’s easy, then, to imagine that the repeated answer to the first musical statement is that very phrase—ba de ba da ba de, SO WHAT? ba de ba da ba de, SO WHAT?—a kind of musical self-critique and challenge as much as it is a philosophical one, and Levis’s poem picks up on that phrase and that challenge in particular, and he begins his own poem with it. In this poem, you’ll hear references to John Coltrane and Charlie “Bird” Parker and Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. And of course, like all of Larry’s poems, this one is in some sense an elegy, a coda not only for the end of a long and marvelous poem sequence, The Perfection of Solitude, but for the end of a poet, whose life was itself marvelous and long, yet not long enough.
_______



_______

Coda: Kind of Blue

And So what? said a trumpet; & I'll see you that & raise you five, said a kind
Of rippling laughter, gone now, on the keyboard; & Well just this once, the bass
Replied; Maybe again, maybe not, a brush stroke swore on a snare & high hat. Styles

As American as loss: I'm going to say what the snow says, falling on the tracks
Outside Chicago, & then I'll unsay that. I'll dissolve this city, wall by blackened
Wall, & Mr. Grief & Ms. Beauty, I'll build a new one from your names. Ashes,

My name is Mr. John Coltrane,
Sweet Insolence, & rain.
I don't come back again.

And Am I blue? So what? You think I didn't know what time it was? said the trumpet.
Take her hair, some smoke & snow, & give it all one name. Style it as you please.
Take someone who can't stop screaming, the el overhead, the sky, & give it a name.

Take Charlie Parker's grave all overgrown with weeds in Kansas City. Add nothing,
Except an ocher tint of shame. May all your Christmases be white & Bird be still
In L.A., gone, broken, insane. Take Beauty before her habit mutes & cripples her,

Then add some grief. But don't change a thing this time, not even a white gardenia
Pressed against her ear. Not even one syllable of her name. "In my solitude"
Is how the song began. All things you are, & briefly, as, in solitude, it ends.


Larry Levis
from The Widening Spell of the Leaves

Support presses, poets, and poetry. Click here to purchase The Widening Spell of the Leaves from the University of Pittsburgh Press.









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A Selection of other Levis poems @ Against Oblivion:

"Boy in Video Arcade"
"The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World"
"The Double"
"Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand"
"Whitman"
"Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It"
"Rhododendrons"
"Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967"

DKTBG Love on CNN.com

Thanks to Katia Hetter and CNN.com for publishing "Don't Kill the Birthday Guest," an article on hosting allergy-friendly parties that draws on tips and experiences I discuss in Don't Kill the Birthday Girl as well as this list on hosting allergy-friendly parties for kids and this one on hosting allergy-friendly gatherings for adults. I love that Katia's last article for CNN.com was on the rising-star "bedtime" book Got the F**k to Sleep. (What author doesn't dream of creeping up the bestseller list before the book is even out?) Anyway, here is the opening of "Don't Kill the Birthday Guest":

The job of a children's birthday party host seems straightforward: Thomas the Tank Engine or princess theme? Traditional yellow cake with icing or ice cream cake? Jelly beans or arts and crafts in the gift bags?
To which we suggest a modern twist: Don't kill any of your guests.
For the gracious host, it's simply good etiquette. Sandra Beasley, author of the upcoming "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life" (Crown Books, July 2011), had to refuse most childhood birthday cakes because they could have killed her.
She stood on the sidelines at her best friend's 10th pasta-making birthday party when she saw that the ingredients included eggs, which make her throat swell shut.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that people with food allergies want the whole event to accommodate their allergies," Beasley said.
"We will martyr ourselves rather than eat anything. A lot of people don't consider how socially embarrassing it can be. When I get hives around my eyes, people think they've made me start to cry. It doesn't make for a fun picnic."
You can read the complete article here.


In a related post on CNN's Eatocracy blog, I share the "Chocolate Love" recipe that made it possible for me to share in the cake experience at a friend's wedding despite my allergies to egg, dairy, and soy. This vegan recipe comes from Sticky Fingers Bakery, an amazing locally owned business here in DC. You can find them in Columbia Heights, around the corner from the plaza with jumping fountains. They catered my friend's wedding, and owner Doron Petersan (shown here) was super-helpful in sharing her recipe when CNN came calling; she even recalled the specific ceremony. You might know them from the season finale of the Food Network's Cupcake Wars--they won!

Review of Steven Schroeder's A DIM SUM OF THE DAY BEFORE

Steven Schroeder, A Dim Sum of the Day Before (Ink Brush Press, 2010).

            At this year’s Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, at East Central University, I had the great pleasure of meeting Steven Schroeder. Schroeder is a tremendously prolific poet and a constant supporter of poetry in his involvement with the “Virtual Artists Collective.” As much as I enjoyed meeting Professor Schroeder, it was perhaps an even greater pleasure getting to know his poetry, including one of his most recent works, A Dim Sum of the Day Before. The book seems to have been composed primarily during one of Schroeder’s sojourns in southern China. It is not, however, a “touristy” book of naïve wonder. Nor is it a book that presumes to speak on behalf of the Chinese people who inhabit its pages. Rather, it is the poetic record of a wanderer in a land that is both familiar and alien to him.
            This sensibility of the wandering outsider often leads Schroeder to compose poems focused on what one might call the “remainders”: that which is over-looked or left out. Stray cats, for instance, can be seeing scurrying about the peripherals of human society throughout the book, as in the opening poem “Mao’s Ghost Wandering,” which begins with “Gray tabby slips under a chair / at the empty table next to mine / silent, waits.” Stray dogs also seem to be frequent companions for Schroeder. In “another dance,” Schroeder says, “Black dog likes the sound / of my feet on paving stone, / picks up the pace,” an image which invites us to consider the stray poet and the stray dog as kindred spirits and temporary traveling companions. In fact, Schroeder often leads the reader to associate the almost invisible animal life of urban China with its human counterparts. Consider the first stanza of the first movement of the poem titled “year of the rat”:
                        Rat
                        scampers
                        across
                        the path
                        between
                        dogs who
                        take no
                        notice
                        and
                        walkers
                        so early
                        they have
                        no place
                        to go.
The effectiveness and ingenuity of this sentence/stanza is its union of movement of thought with movement of form. The stanza both mentally and typographically draws a line from rat, through dog, to human. This movement is more than a clever trick; it is an impressive act of the sympathetic imagination. As an outsider, Schroeder sees what the person busy with the insider’s business inevitably misses, and what he sees, and shares, invites the reader to enlarge her sensibilities and sympathies, to think about what it means to be a sentient being in the center or at the edge of things.
            These are, clearly, meditative poems, and it is in that reflective quality that they most resemble the great Chinese poetry that necessarily looms over a book project like A Dim Sum of the Day Before. To publish in the west a book of poems about China is to ask the reader to think about Chinese poetry, about Li Po and Tu Fu. Schroeder’s poems, however, rarely directly evoke these great Chinese poets. Rather it is in thematic focus that one hears the voice of literary tradition in this book. Traditional Chinese poetry, to my untutored mind, seems to derive much creative power from the tension between permanence and transience, between the Tao of the Confucians and the Tao of the Taoists. This same philosophical tension animates much of Schroeder’s work. In “a peculiar song” we are reminded of change, and perhaps industrial “progress,” though brief description of a drained pond which was once home to a flock of flamingos. Yet we are also reminded that change leaves ghosts, as a remaining “bird sings the absence / of a pink crowd / always present.” An even more powerful picture of permanence and transience is given in the image of Chinese men writing in water on the sidewalks, a trope used to beautiful effect in both “the calisthenics of rain” and “for the light.” In the former poem “Old men copy ancient poems / passerby know by heart.” The antiquity of the poems and the longevity of the men gives a sense of permanence, which culminates in the following line’s assurance that both the poems and the activity are permanently housed in the consciousness of the “passerby.” Yet in just a few lines we are reminded that the poems written in water “will last until water / turns to air under the influence / of time and sun.” Rather than resolves such a tension, Schroeder leaves it to linger in the mind of the reader, a reminder of the mysterious mixture of eternity and mutability in which we live.
            Similarly, the latter poem states, almost paradoxically, “This text will not last.” The text in question is ostensibly whatever bit of Li Po or Han Shan has been reproduced on the sidewalk, but it also asks us to consider the book we hold in hand, making the this self-referential.  Schroeder wisely and humbly does not consider his own work outside the bounds of time, which may just be one reason we can expect his poems to be with us for a long time to come.

Greenville, Tusculoosa, Reading, Joplin


If you can donate, please consider a donation to the American Red Cross. Visit www.redcross.org or call 1-800-RED-CROSS. You can also made a $10 donation by texting the word “REDCROSS” to 90999.


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Thanks to Edward Byrne for posting this timely poem at his blog, One Poet's Notes.


Tornado


       I

I think of that one word learned long ago
               on a humid summer night much like tonight,

though only spoken softly by old men,
               their voices wavering with a sense of reverence

or fear. Tornado, they would whisper
               to the children as if to avoid being overheard

betraying a confidence; again and again
               they repeated its three syllables, barely audible

above the torrent of rain, the trembling elms,
               or the rumbling approach of onrushing gusts.


       II

Tornado. I first read its definition in scrawls
               of gnarled branches scattered across lawns,

and in the snarl of live power lines hissing
               like nesting snakes. Its signature was written

in the language of loss—the concrete
               foundation for the town cinema suddenly

uncovered, the warehouse roof removed,
               the twisted twin tracks torn from the trestle

bridge and tossed into the river below,
               the classmate killed by a collapsing water tower.


       III

My sleepy three-year-old mouths tornado,
               this new weather word I have spent the evening

teaching him. But by midnight, wretched
               Midwest winds weaken, their mourning wails

reduced to just a murmur of rustling leaves.
               A bubble of white moon bulges through black

and blue patterns of cloud breaks,
               a vault-like canopy opening over everything

we value, and now my son naps in my lap,
               tired of this term he has not yet gotten to know.


Edward Byrne
from Tidal Air

In Memory of Sabrina Shannon

You probably don't know who Sabrina Shannon is, and I never had the pleasure of meeting her. Ten years ago this May, Sabrina was a precocious 10-year old girl who made a documentary for CBC Radio (Canadian Broadcasting) on life with severe allergies, called "Sabrina's Nutty Tale." Despite missing out on some basic pleasures--whether having a pet dog or sharing in the food set out at a Baptism party--Sabrina was clearly whip-smart and creative. In the radio broadcast, she has her friends "interview" her about her allergies. 


"Have you ever taken a Lactaid pill?" one friend asks.
"What's that?" Sabrina says.
"It's what helps you when you can eat, like, stuff with milk in it."
"Um...Life isn't like that," Sabrina replies, audibly irked. "You can't do that." 


How many times did I have similar conversations with well meaning friends who had heard about lactose intolerance and thought it the same thing as my allergies? Or friends who had heard Cool Whip was the "non-dairy" option (though it contains skim milk) and wanted me to try some, just a little? 


Yet despite all the inconveniences of her condition, Sabrina kept her sense of humor. Another friend asks what allergies she'd be willing to keep, if she could lose the other ones. Sabrina replies, "I'd prefer to be allergic to spinach, and broccoli. And cauliflower. And that's about it."


Later in the broadcast, a friend asks what she would do if she had a sleepover with only one other person--someone who knows nothing of handling anaphylaxis--and had a reaction. You can hear, in this question, the friend's own fears; I wonder how many sleepovers Sabrina was invited to?


"Oh, I wouldn't really care because I know all about allergies," Sabrina answers, going on to detail how she would get our her EpiPen, take off the safety cap, "stab it in my thigh, count to seven Mississippis, and phone 911" to report an anaphylactic reaction. 


The friend presses the point, asking what would happen if she didn't know how to operate the EpiPen, or if she didn't know the number 911.


"Well, I don't think about those kind of things, 'cause I know I know the number," Sabrina says confidently. 


In 2003, Sabrina died after eating french fries in her school cafeteria. She had been responsible as she always was--choosing a "safe" food, making sure the potatoes had not been fried in peanut oil. But she did not realize that the tongs used to serve her fries had also been used to serve poutine, in which the fries are topped with cheese curds and gravy. Soon after lunch she began to wheeze but, believing she had steered clear of any allergens, she mistakenly attributed it to her asthma. She collapsed with cardiac arrest before before the ambulance arrived, and before anyone thought to administer the EpiPen she had left in her locker.


When researching Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a tip from Maria Acebal at FAAN caused me to order the National Film Board of Canada documentary that introduced me to Sabrina's story. Though I've heard a lot of tragic stories associated with allergic reactions in children, this one stays with me. 


She was so ahead of her age. She was trying so hard. You can hear the household's love in the conversation she has with her mother while making Sabrina-safe french toast (er, pancakes) in the kitchen, the careful reinforcement of smart allergy practices. They had all the latest understanding of the issues. She had her medicines, she knew what questions to ask. This time, it just didn't save the day. 


So often I venture into the world assuming that because I trust myself, because I "know" my body after 31 years of living with these allergies, I'll be fine. But the truth is I just don't know. There's only so much you can plan for. 


Later, the Shannon family crusaded to improve anaphylaxis and cross-contamination allergen awareness in Ontario schools, resulting in "Sabrina's Law." Take a minute and listen to Sabrina's broadcast. In her short time on this earth, she lent us so much light. I wish I could have met her. 

Kenyon on Her Birthday

Today is the birthday of poet Jane Kenyon, and here are a couple of my favorites.

Kenyon died in 1995 from leukemia at the age of 47. She was married to Donald Hall and the two of them lived in rural New Hampshire. The rural landscape and their quiet lives at Eagle Pond certainly inform her work, as did her struggle with depression--you may know her poem "Having It Out with Melancholy."

To put it simply, my favorite poems of hers are those that articulate her struggle with faith and doubt. Oftentimes, Kenyon explores these by incorporating Biblical imagery and Christian tropes, and always turning over those stones to see what's on the dark side beneath them.

If you don't already own her new and selected poems, the collection titled Otherwise, I urge you to purchase it or check it out from your local library.

_______


Happiness

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
                   It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.


Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . . .

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .

I am food on the prisoner's plate. . . .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

I am the heart contracted by joy. . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .



Jane Kenyon
from Otherwise

Friday Still Life




When I mentioned on my Twitter feed (@SandraBeasley) I was breaking out this mug in celebration of getting work done on a Friday, I was asked for photographic proof that such a mug exists. As lovers of Dear Sugar at The Rumpus know, of course it does! You can read the column that inspired it here, which includes this great passage:

But the best possible thing you can do is get your ass down onto the floor. Write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed. Nobody is going to give you permission to write about your vagina, hon. Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.

Anyway, here's a still life from my writing desk (a.k.a. my kitchen table). May your Friday be similarly productive--and if you're in the area of DC, I hope to see you at Story/Stereo tonight, which the Washington Post's Going Out Guide just called "one of our favorite local events." That's right--they dared use the other f-word...

Cornel West at the Left Forum 2011 Opening Plenary

What We Have in Common


_______

And now for something related, but not about poetry:

I'm a big admirer of Cornel West. I've read most of his books. I watch every interview with him that I can find. When I taught some of his writings last summer, I found myself referring to him during my lecture as "a personal hero." He has become a major moral, theological, political model for me over the last, say, ten years. And this is why I find it so difficult to come down against him during the most recent kerfuffle.


Granted, I don't know all the parts and I'm not in any way a player in these conversations. I'm just reading what makes its way to me. But I don't have a problem with West being human in the Chris Hedges' interview. Vanity is human. Outrage is human. Jealousy is human. The response to West being human shouldn't be shock or indignation. It should be love and compassion. And the response certainly shouldn't be to dismiss West's opposition to the very government policies we should all at least question if not protest against.

There are valid points on all sides, I just hope that this conversation stays focused on the real issues at hand, and that it doesn't be come a soundbite-versation sensationalizing out of context rhetoric.

I think West lays out what the focus should be quite well: "When you look at a society you look at it through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable; you are committed to loving them first, not exclusively, but first, and therefore giving them priority."

Here are links to the hubbub with their respective excerpted first paragraphs:

     Chris Hedges @ TruthDig: "The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic"
The moral philosopher Cornel West, if Barack Obama’s ascent to power was a morality play, would be the voice of conscience. Rahm Emanuel, a cynical product of the Chicago political machine, would be Satan. Emanuel in the first scene of the play would dangle power, privilege, fame and money before Obama. West would warn Obama that the quality of a life is defined by its moral commitment, that his legacy will be determined by his willingness to defy the cruel assault by the corporate state and the financial elite against the poor and working men and women, and that justice must never be sacrificed on the altar of power.

     Melissa Harris-Perry @ The Nation: "Cornel West v. Barack Obama"
Professor Cornel West is President Obama’s silenced, disregarded, disrespected moral conscience, according to Chris Hedges’s recent Truthdig column, “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West went Ballistic.” In a self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness, Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years.

Meta

It's surreal to spend days writing about a book I've already written, proposing discussion questions for a readership that has yet to hold the book in its hand. I'm so impatient for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl to be out! Preparing a Reader's Guide for nonfiction is different from answering an MFA class's questions about a poem; the focus moves from technical craft to real-world impact. All of the sudden I find myself wondering: just how big a difference could reading this make to someone?


When you tell people you've written a memoir, it feels like talking about the book means talking about...me. But that's not the conversation I'm interested in, trust me. What I want to talk about are the quirky tangents through pop culture and food history, the medical mysteries and treatment quandaries, your own stories. I want to hear opinions about handling food allergies in today's world, knowing they might differ my own, knowing there might be better solutions found in the exchange. 


I am crazy about TED Talks--I link to them often--and I'll put it out there for the universe that I dream of being on the TED stage someday. Some authors get shy and modest about their dreams, whether it is winning the Pulitzer or being appointed Poet Laureate. It's true that these are honorariums, not accomplishments, and we have to focus on the page itself.  But there's nothing wrong with wanting your voice to be heard, not just by book-lovers who seek out literature in their everyday lives but smart people in other arts and sciences who are open to new ideas and approaches to creativity. 


That said, you also can't take yourself or your legacy too seriously. In this TED Talk, visual artist Vik Muniz takes us through his creations, from a found/assembled "clown skull" from his Relics series, to soft sculptures that evoke cotton and clouds in equal measure, to images rendered in chocolate. He's working with a sophisticated palette of influences--but it's not as if a velvet-cushioned chariot ferred him to the TED audience. Born in Brazil to a bartender father and a mother who operated switchboards at work, his opening anecdote talks about going into advertising...and getting shot. 




Muniz has said "I am a photographer when I photograph, and a draftsman when I draw, but an artist is what I am always becoming." Take 15 minutes out of your day and enjoy this video of someone in the prime of his career--curious, funny, ambitious yet modest, happy to try on different modes without losing faith in his voice. While you're at it, take a minute and let yourself dream about where you and your work can go. Dream big. Dream of changing someone else's world as well as your own.

Friday: Story/Stereo at the Writer's Center

This Friday I'll be hosting Story/Stereo 13 (lucky!) at The Writer's Center, which will feature Emerging Writer Fellows Merrill Feitell and Susanna Lang, and musical guest The Cornel West Theory. The show will start at 8 PM, and is free and open to the public. In celebration that this night will mark the close of our second full year of Story/Stereo (we do three events every fall, then three in the spring) afterwards there will be food and beer available for folks. 


Merrill Feitell is the author of Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, which won the 2004 Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in many publications, including the Best New American Voices series, and have been short-listed in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.




Susanna Lang’s first collection of poems, Even Now, was published by The Backwaters Press in 2008. In 2009, her poem “Condemned” won the Inkwell competition, judged by Major Jackson. Her poems have appeared in such journals as New Letters, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, Green Mountains Review, and jubilat. She lives in Chicago, where she develops curriculum for the public schools.



I have heard Merrill read before--smart, funny, excellent pacing--her book is on the shelf by my bed right now. And I'm always excited to learn about another poet in the world. The Emerging Writer Fellowships recognize those in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction who have 1 or 2 full-length single-author books published in a single genre, and no more than 3 books published to their credit in any genre. We take nominations twice a year on April 15 and September 15 (details here). A committee comprised of TWC board members, workshop leaders, and members then judge submissions on behalf of our community of writers. Thanks to the support of an NEA grant, we are able to give the Fellows an honorarium to cover the expenses of coming to Bethesda and reading in our Story/Stereo series. 


The theme of the series is about creating a dialogue between different art forms--so our "story" wouldn't be complete without our "stereo." We work with two renowned local musicians, Chad Clarke (Beauty Pill) and Matthew Byars (The Caribbean), who bring in locally based acts with a following and a talent that extends far beyond the geographic boundaries of Washington, DC. They never let us down, and Friday will be no exception.  


The Cornel West Theory is a Washington, D.C. based hip-hop band. With the blessing of Dr. West, the Princeton University professor, the band takes its name from his writings and philosophies. Their sound, filled with drums, bass, piano, and electronic sounds, contains elements of Go-Go, jazz, and rock--resulting in soulful music that entertains, informs, and provokes awareness. Winners of the 2008 Wammie for Best Hip-Hop duo or group, the Cornel West theory will release its debut album “Second Rome” this fall.


And afterwards...good craft beer! Things to nibble on! A chance to relax with friends on a Friday night! There's a reason why the Washington Post calls this series "consistently excellent," and why we regularly make the weekly Arts Calendar at the Washington City Paper. We have a good time. You should come. 


The Writer's Center is located at 4508 Walsh Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland--walking distance from the Bethesda metro (red line), and with a metered parking lot across the street. For questions you may call #301-654-8664 or visit our website

Brew. Slurp. Caffeinate. Repeat.

Rainy, foggy, dreary. This is the kind of day that demands coffee and more coffee; I might even break out the gingerbread variety of my K-cups (yes, I have a Keurig, which makes a lot of sense when you live alone). Since my brain is being slow to warm up to the notion of complete sentences today, let me offer up some links. 


"That Crazy Little Thing Called Disappointment" - This blog post from novelist Kim Wright, author of Love in Mid-Air, articulates the ambivalences of bringing a book into the world. "Publishing is one long exercise in learning to get over yourself," she writes. I loved this little essay for its honesty and its specificity, but also for its tough-love statement that, despite the exhaustions of the ups & downs, you have to find ways to always celebrate that you have gotten a seat on the rollercoaster in the first place. 


"'Don't Let That Man Eat Your Career,' and Other Preparations for Hitting the Road" - Another blog post from a great novelist, Tayari Jones, who is about to set out for a book tour in support of her third novel Silver Sparrow. She affirms the importance of learning to enjoy the ride but also has practical tips about practicing interview questions and trial suit-case packing. Note that this post is hosted on SheWrites, which is a fantastic resource for women writers looking for mentorship and networking. 


"Sandra Beasley and Food Allergy Awareness Week" - Now for something completely different! Thanks to The Recipe Club for recognizing Food Allergy Awareness Week by featuring my favorite allergy-friendly quinoa recipe. What makes something "allergy-friendly"? This vegetarian dish doesn't contain any of the Big Eight allergens--dairy, egg, fish, shellfish, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, or wheat. It's ideal for picnics, buffets, and big events where you are not familiar with everyone's dietary issues. 


The Recipe Club is hosted by Crown, which has done so much to lay the groundwork for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl's launch in July. It's a standard trope to bitch & moan about one's publicity team, but you won't hear it from me. They are awesome. 


That said, in order to hold up my part of the bargain as an author, I have to provide a lot of content--not just the book itself but Facebook chatter, guest blog posts, questions for a reader's guide. All week I've been working on chapter "takeaways," 1-3 sentence summaries for each chapter. You'd think it would be easy, right? I should know this material better than anyone. During the drafting of the book, I would routinely churn out 3,000-5,000 words in one day; 30 sentences should take no time at all. 


It has been slow going, and last night I realized why: I'm afraid to re-read my own galley. This is the limbo stage where it is too late for me to change anything--anything I find wrong or missing or underdeveloped--and yet I have not yet heard the world's reassurance that, even if the book isn't perfect, it is pretty damn good. Maybe I'm not supposed to admit this. Maybe I'm supposed to say I am nothing but confident & excited. Some days I am! But other days I wake up to thoughts already crowded by deadlines and worries and imagined criticisms. Some days I wake up and I need twice as much coffee as usual. Brew. Slurp. Caffeinate. Repeat.

826DC Love

If it has been a little quiet here at the blog, that's been in part because I'm tiptoeing into the world of Twitter and working on a Facebook "Author" page--and in part because I've been, well, living. This is such a great city, and I've missed it while I've been gone. 


On Saturday, my sister and I kicked off a lovely afternoon at the grand opening of the 826DC Cave, which is located at the Museum of Unnatural History--proud purveyor of such products as Koala Containment Units, Primordial Soup, Missing Links, and "Wood in Personal Crisis." The 826 empire started in San Francisco when author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Clements Calegari founded 826Valencia in 2002. These nonprofit 826 centers offer tutoring, writing, and publishing opportunities for kids 6-18 in eight cities around the country; DC is the newest addition. 826's signature elements include having a top-notch crew of local authors involved hands-on in the learning process, a lot of one-on-one attention to young writers, and a quirky sense of humor. 


While we waited for the crowd to gather, my sister took advantage of the $1-a-piece "build a creature" display. Here she is with her flying something-saurus.


The cave, which like our National Zoo's panda bears is "on loan from China," was introduced by famed and fearless explorer Montana Smith--or rather, by his slightly less-famed and less-fearless son, Toledo Smith (played by friend and humor writer Sean Carman). Though he was slated to read a letter from his father, with a dramatic flourish Cleveland tore the paper in two and spoke from the heart. Here's some of what he said:


My father told stories of the early days in his career, when he was bullied by other archeologists for his unorthodox sketches of pre-historic animals. Some of my father’s sketches were based on his practice of assembling fossils in ways that defied standard archeological methodologies. [[Ed note: He and my sister think alike, apparently. Great minds.]] Other sketches were of animals he envisioned first and discovered later, when he happened upon bones he could assemble into their imagined forms. None of my father’s sketches were particularly well received.

Ever since those early days, my father wanted explorers of all ages have a space to think creatively, a place where they could create a world that they imagined, where they could dream their own discoveries.

And he wanted that place to have a cave. The cave was very important to him. I cannot emphasize this enough. A cave would symbolize the constraints of some ways of thinking, and exemplify nature’s wonders. His dream was that the cave would hold exactly 12 children at one time, 13 if they squeezed.

Today that dream is a reality. The cave is perfect. It is just what my father would have wanted. Thank you all for making his dream come true.


A cute kid cut the ribbon with appropriately huge scissors. Inside: chalk for wall drawings, a to-do list with one column for Hunt and another column for Gather, a surprisingly chic chandelier, and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. One of the photographers (Diana Bowen, Nevin Martell) must have been in the cave, because here's a peekaboo shot of me with my trusty POETRY bag. 


If you're in Columbia Heights, be sure to drop by; they're open from noon to 6 PM every day of the week and the address is 3233 14th Street NW, smack dab in a thriving development of stores/restaurants/a fountained plaza. The Museum shop has all manner of unique artifacts and gifts--at reasonable prices--and all proceeds benefit the center's programs. You can also "Like" their page on Facebook for all the latest updates, or follow them on Twitter @826DC. They run some of the best readings and most fun fundraising events in town, not to mention the Mustache-a-thon. Congratulations to all at the Center for pulling off yet another feat of, well, amazingtude. 

Garrett Hongo on Slate + other recent work

If you haven't seen this already, click over to Slate and read Garrett Hongo's featured poem, "Pupukea Shell." And as an added bonus, you can hear Garrett read the poem. Beautiful.

I assume that the poem will appear in Garrett's forthcoming book, Coral Road, which will be a must-have purchase for any reader.

If you read literary journals, no doubt you've seen a lot of his work recently. Journals like Ploughshares, VQR, Raritan, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review. All the big ones.

Here's one of my favorites from the last few years. Cannot wait for the new collection.

_______


The Child's Ark

Hot Los Angeles summer days, late '50's, a seven-year-old
Shut in the tiny, midtown apartment on South Kingsley Drive,
I'd flip on the TV to the black-and-white game shows,
Rerun comedies, and half-hour detective dramas,
Seeking company, avoiding the soaps, news, and cartoons.

One of my favorites for a while was a show called Kideo Village,
In which kids would wend their way through the attractive curves
Of a game path spooling through the sound studio and its faux lampposts,
Small minimalist archways, doors, pushcarts, and streetstands
Set up and interspersed along the telegenic route--
A bakery, a toy shop, the ice cream parlor, etc.
The tragedies strewn in the way would be a bookstore or piggy bank--
For one you'd have to lose a turn and stay inside to read a book,
For the other, you'd give up spending for a certificate of virtue.

The glory was a pet store of fluffy animals--
Nose-twitching rabbits bearing sachets of cash around their necks,
A dog hitched to a wagon filled with sacks of stage gold.
Wealth was the message, the child contestants obliged
To exercise the right energy and enterprise
To run themselves briskly through the board's intricate arrangement
Of pleasure, danger, and delight without risk,
Their assignment to luck into opportunities
That would set off crescendos of bells ringing,
Video paradisos of lights flashing through the transparent lucite under their feet.

Yet it was splendor and the minute articulations of a fantasy village's architecture
That mesmerized me, that a child could skip along in a moment's time
Without having to be put in a car or be handled by adults,
To a candy store, movie house, or shop full of cream puffs.
Glee and surprise were everywhere just on the next luminous square
Around the looping turn on the glittering game board.
When the power went out one day, or perhaps when the show was cancelled,
I got out scissors, paper, and pens, Crayolas arranged in stick puddles
On the dingy, carpeted floor of the apartment's living room,
Mapping out a village of my own on wax paper from a kitchen drawer.
I found empty green stationery boxes my mother brought home from work,
Tore the labels off, drew on them, marked rectangles for doors;
I cut windows, made folding blinds, used the leftover cutouts
To make counters and tables, a long, folded cardboard flume
For water to run in a sluice . . . the tofu-maker, the rows of shacks,
A union hall where my uncles would gather, my aunt's gas station
On the highway, clear glass medicine bottles for pumps,
The peaked roof of Kahuku Betsu-In, the barber's, the butcher's,
The Chinese Association . . .

This was the village we left behind--
And our apartment, the scatter of debris on its floor, my child's ark of the lost world.


Garrett Hongo
from Ploughshares, Spring 2007


Other poems by Garrett Hongo @ Against Oblivion:

"Mendocino Rose"
"Under the Oaks at Holmes Hall, Overtaken by Rain"

Review in Books and Culture

You can click here to read the first part of a review of my book in the current edition of Books and Culture. Then subscribe to their fine publication and read the rest.

Once Upon a Time...

...I came into the world a very lucky baby--with a very unlucky set of food allergies. My mom became a quick study in all matter of ingredients and recipes. She taught me how to navigate the world safely, yet without fixating on my allergies as what defined me. She inspires me every day with her own artistry, not just on the canvas but in how she approaches everyday matters, with grace and balance. And when the time came for me to share my story, she gave her blessing so I could write what I needed to write. 


Happy Mother's Day, Mom! You're the best.