Friday, March 13, 2015

A book response (not a review)

I hesitated to check that mammoth prize-winning novel out of the library for a year despite professional reviews that said such things as, “The novel is … eloquent and assured, with memorable characters…,” despite the rave reviews several of my friends gave it, despite my curiosity. It’s just so long at nearly 800 pages, and I’m getting old enough to fear feeling obliged to finish a long, long book when life is too short and so many other books call to me. “Eeliizaabeeth!!! You want me. You need me. Come, open me up like I’m an innocent flower.”

During one of my frequent trips to our public library, I finally approached this book’s fat spine, timidly tipped it off the shelf, shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s time, boo, it’s time to read this.”

And the first 250 pages or so were electric, magic, a reality built with a meticulous and beautiful attention to the kinds of details that sing a character to life (especially the dead one). Even the initial heartbreak and horror was composed with stunning beauty, and I was proud of myself for sticking with the lengthy descriptions and what could be considered excessive internal monologue. Maybe, I thought, I’m not too stupid for this book after all.

But another 100 pages in, and I felt trapped and claustrophobic, felt like someone was holding me hostage. Too much neglect, drug use, violence against “innocents,” the same scenes over and over, the drinking, the bad food, dirty clothes, the threats, the exploitation. I also started finding editing errors: a spot where “she” should have been “he,” where an exact line of dialogue appeared twice in a row as though a copyeditor had forgotten to delete a line after she moved it, a grammar error here and there, an inconsistency in the color of a bad guy’s sunglasses or eyes, something amiss with a plot point.

Because I’m trained as a copyeditor, and am attempting to make a bit of a living doing this wonderful work, I always find errors in the books I read. If the story is working for me, I read around or through the errors. In this case, I used the errors as an excuse to give myself permission to quit nearly halfway through the book. I just couldn’t do it.

I’m not going to name names because I’m not a book reviewer and don’t feel like giving even the vaguest negative press to an author who spent a decade writing this incredibly intricate and often beautiful tale. It just wasn’t for me, and I suppose this entry is a way for me to forgive myself for giving up, for being too shallow or too dumb to keep going.

I’ve already started reading another novel (lighter, shorter), and I’m reading Mary Oliver’s The Leaf and the Cloud, so I’m keeping my hungry reading brain sated.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Unsolicited Advice to One's Melancholy Self on a Rainy Day before the next Snowy Day in Ohio

1. Only leave the house to run errands meant to prevent fines or late fees.

2. Remember to pull up the hood on your coat so that your fat, gray braid doesn't soak up too much water and drench the back of your sweater later when you're in from the cold.

3. Avoid stepping in the puddles that are more like ponds or swamps with your right foot since that boot has sprung a leak, and you'll find your right sock drenched and your right toes cold when you remove said boot later after you're in from the cold.

4. Enter and exit the detached garage through the side door instead of through the main garage door to avoid drowning in the deep, deep sea the sidewalk between the walkway and the driveway has become.

7. Don't worry about convoluted sentences when the world is this wet. The rain will wash away all the excess.

8. Stop chipping away at the ice at the end of your driveway. It's defeated you. And that's okay. It's going to snow again tomorrow, anyway, and you'll have to start all over.

9. Go ahead and bury your face in the cat's fur, listen to him purr, forgive him for barfing on the carpet after he got into something on top of the refrigerator not designed for middle-aged kitties' bellies.

10. Change your wet sock, if you didn't manage to avoid the puddles that are more like ponds with that right boot; your foot is cold.

Monday, March 2, 2015

I am not a poet

The essay I read today that my former mentor wrote partly about her creative nonfiction student who keeps claiming not to be a poet broke me down today.

I am not a poet.

I am a writer, and I'm doing the work that proves I'm a working writer by writing every day, putting some of the work out into the world, revising, working as an editor, which improves my own writing.

But I am not a poet.

I'm a prose writer who likes the structure of poetry, likes the line and image and push of metaphor. I like tropes and caesura, couplets and persona.

I like point of view and leaping and frogs and lizards and black house spiders and my father's skunk hair and my brother's use of the word "dolt."

But I am not a poet.

I'm a prose writer, a story writer, who likes to use elements of poetry.

This is perfectly all right, you know, that I'm not really a poet. And if someday I get poems published or even a chapbook or full-length manuscript published, well, that's peachy.

But I am not a poet.

I am, simply, a writer.

I'll continue to read poems and study poems and write poems, but I think I'll feel much freer if I stop thinking of myself as a poet.

What a relief!

What a relief.

I tried to conquer the ice on my driveway, but my body wore out and hurt for the second day in a row of an entire winter of not hurting while shoveling snow.

Ice is different. It requires violence and a pissed-offness that I feel lately but can't translate into my muscles and skeleton.

I like the skeleton of poems, like the way they look on the page even when the lines are long or the poem is a prose poem.

I like looping back through a stanza and revisiting an earlier stanza but secretly so no one but me knows what I'm doing.

I like my personal symbols and my memories that I pretend are metaphors.

The chalk house in "Marching Band Lullaby" is not a metaphor. It's a memory.

Or can memories be metaphors? Is that what memories are?

When I remember a conversation I had once with my mother telling me I was a garrulous 5 year old, is that a metaphor for a sparrow who won't stop chirping?

When I remember a conversation I had with my mother telling me she feared her outgoing nature perhaps silenced me and she regretted that, is that a metaphor for a mute, badly paved driveway?

What do I know?

I studied and studied and read and emulated and reviewed and practiced and revised and critiqued and wrote new and rewrote completely and dissected and read some more and tried to understand but I'm not really that bright so that MFA? I don't think it really belongs to me. I think it belongs to my 20-year-old self who graduated with a bachelor's in English and German and should have gone on to study comparative literature.

If I'd stayed in the habit of literary criticism, I would probably be a better poet.

But maybe it doesn't matter if I'm a better poet. Maybe what matters is that I keep writing and shifting, growing into work that right now puzzles me because I don't know what it is, stories that whisper beginnings in my ear while I sleep but elude me when I wake up, hung over from watching too much Netflix or reading until 4 a.m., eyes small and cloudy when I look in my bathroom mirror in the morning.

All I am is writing and words. I'm commas, semicolons, parentheses; I'm image and wildness, but only on the page, never in life. No wild impulses except the one that hits me now and then and demands I strip off my clothes, reveal my flab and run barefoot and naked up the street at 4 a.m. just after I finish reading. I would run and run until I found a jungle, maybe crossed an ocean, which would mean I would have to swim naked in salt water, and the salt would exfoliate my skin. On the shore I would stand up naked, still full of blubber but not as much, hungry for pasta but limited to leaves and coconuts, which I despise. My blubber and muscles would shiver in the sand, and I would decide to find a freshwater pond on the land and risk some kind of poisoning because the thirst would enrage me so.

I once wrote about an enraged thirst in a poem that was a lyric poem before I had any ambition to write lyric poems or essays.

Do I need to define what I'm writing before I write it?

This is my current struggle.

I think the answer needs to be “no.”

It would be better if I went back to fiction, genre fiction where no one thinks about tropes and symbols and lyricism but maybe allows for the occasional metaphor.

I am thinking too much about what I am writing and not spending enough time writing it, though I write it all the time, every day, something new, even just a line or a scene or a stanza or a paragraph toward something. Or a journal entry.

Mini-ice boulders and a lack of the lyric

(note: this is not a blog post, nor is it an essay; it's a journal entry that I just feel like sharing due to my terrible habit of excessive self-disclosure when I'm feeling blue.)

The snow plow driver cocked his blade toward the curb, screeched down Verneva and – yes he did – added a few mini-ice boulders to the end of my short driveway. My body hurts from shoveling yesterday, the first snow pain of this long, ugly season. Sun shines, and eggs boil on my stove. I need the protein, and a half-cooked meatball that landed on an order of spaghetti last Friday when I went to dinner with a friend turned me away from any kind of meat again.

No, no, this is not how I want to play today’s game, writing about meatballs and snow plows. But listen, the eggs roiling in the pot sound like the mini-ice boulders at the end of my tiny driveway when I loosen them with my shovel and toss them into my beleaguered yard.

This is too fancy for me, using words like “beleaguered” and trying to compare boiling eggs to iced snow blobs. “Blobs” is a better word for me. I’m a blobby sort of person, especially lately, moody, still (as in sedentary), a bit shrill when I open my mouth to complain about things that don’t matter.

The boiling egg pot whistles almost as if I set the eggs in my whistling tea kettle, which I did use this morning to make coffee.

I’m not sorry my fancy, but old coffee maker died. It’s so much easier to clean my porcelain cone dripper, and I’m so lazy lately that the thought of washing even a spoon rest makes me need a nap.

I’m reading a Kathy Winograd essay ( that’s killing me because I suddenly feel like I didn’t learn anything during my MFA program. (She was one of my mentors, though only for a week, and she helped me think about shedding some bad habits born of being a journalist and an editor.)

This is nothing new, of course, this feeling of ignorance, this certainty that I am and always will be a fraud. I went into a program knowing nothing and came out knowing less because I realized how much I didn’t know about poetry, writing, process.

Is this why I feel the need for a nap when I contemplate washing even a spoon rest?

There was a point during the two years I was studying poetry for that MFA when I decided that I loved the process of making whatever it was I was making so much that I didn’t need to label it either prose or poetry; I just needed to write what needed writing. For a few weeks, I felt confident this was the way to go so I could get through the program with a book-length manuscript of something that didn’t reek.

I’m scrambling in my head to fight off this notion that because I love narrative I can’t also be a poet, worry that I don’t have enough lyric elements in my work.

If this were a real essay instead of a journal entry I’ve chosen to share semi-publicly, I’d do some research to help myself through this little glitch in my armor, but I’m too lazy (see spoon-rest-washing dilemma above) and have “real” work to do and no time or heart to read writing that will pound that nail in the coffin of my definition of Self as Poet.

(Despite time constraints and my nearly debilitating blues regarding my self-definition, I am reading a David Baker essay as I type and skip through this entry, and I just muttered, “Oh my God, this is awesome” (which means I have to plank for thirty seconds since I muttered the overused word “awesome”), which leads me to believe I’m not as inwardly depressed about this labeling dilemma as I might think.)

That’s it for now. No resolution. If this were a real blog, and this were meant to be a real blog post rather than a journal entry, I’d try harder for resolution or elucidation.

I will put on warmish clothes soon and go out to conquer the mini-ice boulders blocking the end of my driveway. Maybe sweating and pain will shake loose something lyric in my narrative soul.

Friday, February 27, 2015

What I remember may not be true

Leonard Nimoy was born the same year my father was born, but a couple of months sooner. Nineteen thirty-one. Neither of them made it to 84.

Maybe it's ridiculous for me to mourn someone I never knew in person, but it's more than the person I mourn; it's what he represents. 

Maybe it's ridiculous that I feel like part of my childhood died when what's really happened is that a memory hit me, fresh and bright, of a time in the mid- to late-1960s, my three siblings and I piled up on pillows or old sofas, I can't quite see, in the basement rec room at 2206 Forest Glen Road. We watched a black and white television at the end of the room, my view of it like looking down a tunnel because I was going myopic, squabbling, all of us; I whined, I'm sure because that's still one of my main character traits.

We were 6, 8, almost 14 and 15. Everything we saw on that tiny screen was magical, even the papier mâché boulders Captain Kirk could lift and throw, though maybe he never did that, maybe they just wobbled.

For me, from what I remember, Spock was like the straight, strong spine of the crew, never frantic or upset (unless he was rutting), rarely violent. His voice soothed, and I wanted his tilted, flying eyebrows, though not his ears.

I had a minor crush on him, so logical, though at 8, I probably didn't really understand logic. He seemed so sturdy, so at home wherever the Enterprise took him, and I suppose, though I'm probably making this up as I go, I wished I could be as at home wherever our Army life took us. Always part aliens, especially me.

I also had minor crushes on Sulu and Uhura (I thought she was so beautiful, and I wanted to kiss her when Kirk did).

Leonard Nimoy was more than Spock, of course; he was more than all the characters he played from Star Trek the show to all the films to Mission Impossible, Fringe. I didn't know until today that he wrote poetry, that he was a photographer. We are all more than one thing or another.

He leaves enough behind that it will be hard to forget him, unless I reach a point in my aging where I forget even myself. I'm grateful for the jolt of memory, for returning to the rec room, to my siblings all together in one place doing and loving something in common.

I imagine that room had an orange carpet, though I know the orange carpet came later, after we left Maryland and moved to El Paso. But it all blends together, the houses, the carpets, the television shows, my siblings, Spock.

there, there

Friday, February 20, 2015

Snow doom

When I try to enter the store through the “entrance only” automatic doors, a horde of exiting customers nearly tramples me going the wrong way out as I go the right way in.

I pick a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel, not on purpose, but because it is close and doesn’t have a leftover sanitizing paper in the bowl of it.

Fresh lettuce, fresh mushrooms, fresh tiny tomatoes. I attempt to grab a couple of gala apples, but too many people urge me away from produce.

Each turn in the store is like peering around the corner of a death star; I expect a collision with someone angry and far bigger than I.

I am not angry or even desperate for supplies, though my wheat bread has gone stale and parts of my leaf lettuce molder in the refrigerator. Still, it seems a good idea to stock up on a few things before the damned snow, the malevolent snow, the symptom of Mother Nature’s angry, alcoholic bender (tequila again, just like last year, but this year, she eats the worm at the bottom of each bottle), arrives again overnight. Another 3 to 5 inches. Or is it 5 to 8? Somewhere I read maybe up to 15 inches, and resigned dread fills my bones. A Texan stranded in cold, white Ohio.

I grab Picante sauce to go with the avocado I hope is still good, a bag of low-fat chips, a cheap bottle of wine I should have consumed before I braved the store when I had lunch with friends to celebrate Laura’s birthday.

I can’t get to the roasted red peppers or olives because of the couple caravanning with two carts packed with enough food to get them through till June.

I lose patience in the yogurt section. I know yogurt is good for the gut, but my gut will have to wait until the big thaw.

The shoppers all seem either in too much of a hurry or disinclined to move at all. They park their carts crossways in the aisles as if they're reality TV stars with cameras trailing them and don’t need to deal with the rest of us.

Because I’m not fond of crowds, even though I grow fatter and fatter, I feel small and old and anxious to the point where I nearly crash into a smiling, bearded man who has the right of way (is there such a thing in a Walmart?).

“Whoa. You’re in a hurry!” he says, and waves me by.

“Thank you! And yes, I’m so sorry. I just have to get out here.”

In the express lane, it takes the 106-year-old man in front of me three days to count out his cash and to tuck his change into his wallet. I think he’s trying to stall death. 

The cashier glances at my face, and I see such kindness in her cheeks. I smile and shrug. I’m near the end, no longer in a hurry.

After she checks me out, and I snag my receipt, I call over my shoulder, “Good luck! Good luck!” 

“Oh, thank you!” she says.

I try to go the right way out, but a horde of new shoppers nearly tramples me as they pour the wrong way in.

“Lordy, lordy, lordy,” I say, aloud, my wobbly wheel flicking slush.   

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Parentheticals: an excessively long entry (with a long title) about the books currently seducing me

Today in an email to my friend Alison, I got off topic (we were talking about travel and leaving home) and gave her my current and to be read reading list, though I can’t think why except that we’re building a new friendship and seem to share things that matter to each of us in the moment. Our budding friendship is a labor of love.

I set my list of books inside parentheses and within the parentheses had further parentheses, as if I were going deeper and deeper into why I needed to be reading what I'm reading now, what I will read next and what I will read again (there are all sorts of cold weather noises assaulting my poor, messy house. I will not startle).

I’ll take the list of books out of the parentheses for this bit of writing, but I will let myself climb inside those safe curves when I have more to say, when I want to indulge in excessive self-disclosure, when I need to pause to drink water or pet the cat.

(What a ridiculous set up. As an editor, I would advise myself to cut this lead in. But tonight I’m the writer, not the editor.)

I’m 64 pages from the end of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings and I can hardly stand that I'm almost finished, so I’ve slowed down, taken a break to write this and reflect on things (the continued dissection of my role in the world/community/life). This book is one of deep love, friendship, courage, rage, disappointment, slavery (of the body and mind), obligation, faith, overcoming. I love the main characters and the ones they love so much I start to cry each time they find themselves cornered and discouraged and in pain (physical and mental). It’s gorgeous. I can’t remember reading Kidd’s first book, The Secret Life of Bees, but I did read The Mermaid Chair and hated the main character with a deep, contemptuous heat. I think it’s because of what I was experiencing in my life at the time I read that book. Jessie did not represent me; she represented someone … else, and I couldn't forgive her. But my dear friend Cat recommended Wings to me, and I trust her and her taste. So grateful.

Next in novels (perhaps I’ll start it tonight after I finish Wings but still can’t sleep) will be Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I’m also in the middle of reading her book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I find that I read nonfiction and poetry while I’m reading other things. It doesn’t confuse me. I guess this is sort of like literary multi-tasking or something. I started to read Bel Canto many, many years ago, but must have gotten stuck in a project or something and had to put it down. I loaned it to a friend who did have time to read it and never saw it again (can’t remember who now, but s/he is welcome to it). My current copy is a library book. It’s such a strange premise, and I remember the characters being those that might fit into a novel of magical realism. I’m excited to start it again, though I don’t want Wings to end.

What should go after The Invention of Wings is a book my brilliant librarian-poet-musician (plus other stuff) friend Scott recommended to me during a sort of “Facebook call-in show.” He invited his friends to give him a situation (some people chose a fictional scenario; others, like me, chose a personal situation), and he would recommend the ideal book. For me in my current mood of desperate winter blues, self-flagellation and the embarrassment of excessive self-disclosure, he recommended Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend (I've read several of Moore's books and find them intelligently funny and irreverent). I tell myself I should read Lamb before Bel Canto because I’m experiencing the wretched blues now and may not be next week.

(I lie to myself all the time. These blues will take a couple of months still to conquer (car on the road outside my house. Sign of life, tires on cold pavement a warm sound, though the temperature will drop to -8 tonight, so cold my dreams might freeze. (beware, here cometh a long tangent) This early morning, in dream, I found myself at a combination wedding-funeral at the Greek Orthodox Church where my uncle’s family held his funeral late in December).)

Since Bel Canto is a library book, I’ll devour it next, then I’ll read Lamb.

After Lamb will come Paula Hawkins' Girl on a Train, a novel that fell off the shelf into my hands at Walmart of all places unless I can’t wait to read Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, a favorite book of my dear friend Laura (happy birthday).

Concurrently, I’m reading a book on the beat poets, doing a rereading of Larry Levis’s poetry collection Winter Stars, and slowly reading Steve Harvey’s devastating and lovely memoir about his mother, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder. Steve teaches creative nonfiction at Ashland University where I fudged my way through an MFA in poetry in 2013 (geez. here comes the self-deprecation again. I could come up with a drinking game related to this bad habit, but everyone I know would be drunk constantly).

Thus endeth my dull listing of things I must read or bust except I’m also reading a client’s manuscript, bits and pieces of things friends share with me and my own bilge (have some wine).

I am writing, too, scraps of poetry, lines of dialogue, dreams (there is a church theme going on in my dreams lately), dreadful journal entries that are less dreadful than I claim (take half a drink)….

Winter “work”? I don’t know. All this read is comforting. The authors and their characters become part of me, and I start to view the world (when I actually leave my house – take a sip) through their eyes, real and fictional.

I don’t know how to get out of this post. I’ve always been bad at endings (chug a beer), but this is ridiculously long (shot of tequila), so I’ll end it here.