Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Writer Wanderer: Mary Morris Goes to Morroco

I first saw Mary Morris read in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was having a good time, you could tell. I had never been to a reading where the author was so prescient, so engaged with her audience, so alive. I was there because I had loved her book, Nothing to Declare, about a woman living alone in Mexico for a year. This was travel writing with an enormous difference because the focus was on Morris's interior journey as well as her location.

I've just discovered that Morris has a blog called The Writer and the Wanderer and that she is headed to Morocco, the country I most want to visit next. It has taken her a few tries to get there and so I am optimistic that I will make the journey someday, too. Meanwhile, I have found a wonderful link to her ideas and her travels. When I started this blog I promised to focus on the traveling life as well as the  writing life of a poet. I've been neglectful. This next year I will be traveling a good deal and so I'm looking forward to my poet-wanderer self re-emerging.

Meanwhile, may you enjoy the intelligence and beautiful prose of Morris's blog. And if the opportunity comes your way, I highly recommend seeing her read. And if you have favorite travel blogs, I would love to hear about them. Any would be great, but especially for Mexico, where I will be teaching in January.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Poem for Wednesday - Natasha Trethewey

I am a huge fan of Natasha Tretheway's poetry. I even like her prose. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississipi Gulf Coast.  Her book Bellocq's Ophelia was a great help to me when I was writing The Alchemist's Kitchen poems, especially the poems on the life of Myra Albert Wiggins. Here is a simple, yet not so simple poem from Trethewey care of Poets & Writers.

Vespertina Cognito
 Natasha Trethewey 

Overhead, pelicans glide in threes—
     their shadows across the sand
          dark thoughts crossing the mind.

Beyond the fringe of coast, shrimpers
     hoist their nets, weighing the harvest
          against the day's losses. Light waning,

concentration is a lone gull
     circling what's thrown back. Debris
          weights the trawl like stones.

All day, this dredging—beneath the tug
     of waves—rhythm of what goes out,
           comes back, comes back, comes back.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fear of Success? Fear of Failure?

This Friday night I am giving a reading for Humanities Washington as part of their Bedtimes Stories: Night Flight fundraising dinner. I should be trying to write new poems right now. This very minute. Instead I am merely writing out my fear of failure. I am the only poet in a group of fiction writers (and one non-fiction writer). I do not have a story, but a sequence of poems. Is this a problem or an advantage? Is the difference up to me?

Sometimes I try to remember back to the very early 1990's when I first began to publish my poems, and then later, in 1994, when I returned for a second graduate degree, an MFA in Poetry at the University of Oregon. My mother thought I had lost my mind. I was leaving a good job with Amnesty International to move across the country to Oregon (where exactly was Oregon?) to start a second graduate degree in my mid-30's. Who does that? I can see why she thought I was deranged.

I don't remember being afraid of failure then. Perhaps it's the fault of a faulty memory. Perhaps the adventure of moving West, of leaving my job, of claiming poetry in a public way-- perhaps that protected me from fear. By this Friday night I hope to be able to live in the present moment; I want to enjoy listening to the other writers of the evening: Garth Stein, Charles Johnson, Jenny Shortridge..., I want to be comfortable with myself as a writer in the world. Wish me luck!

Congratulations to Jason Moran - MacArthur Fellow

This is good news. I am utterly thrilled to see that Jason Moran, a musician and composer I met while at the Ucross Foundation, has been named as a MacArthur Fellow - or given a genius grant  as the award is often called. Jason gave our ragtag group (poets, visual artists, fiction writers) a concert his last night in residence. His work casually moved across genres from traditional jazz, to big band music, to spirituals and then the most experimental music I've ever head consisting of the sounds (not the words) from an array of world languages. The night was over five years ago, but I remember it vividly. Jason talked about "sampling" as a contribution that his generation has made to music --- he was 30 years old then, 35 now. To be honest, we were all a little in love with Jason --- in part, because it was so clear he was utterly in love with his wife. The morning he left, he gave us each a piece of music he'd written based on our names. Somewhere in my house I have a lovely note and original piece of Jason Moran music!

It's a pleasure to know that he's been recognized for his music and to know that he is as good a man as he is a musician.

You can read about Jason and all the other MacArthur Fellows right here. And while it's true that there are no poets this year and only one fiction writer, it can't take away the excitement I feel about knowing that Jason is the perfect choice. He is a poet at heart.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thankful Thursday - Before It Ends

Thank you for the last two days of working on poems. Maybe I can make my deadline after all

Thank you for 20 more minutes in which I will try to remember why I should be thankful

Thank you to Pilot Books for a memorable reading tonight

Thank you to my amazing South Grand Writing Poets whom  I also got to meet with tonight

Thank you Jack Straw Writers Program for choosing me as the 2011 Curator (more on this coming up)

Thank you everyone who made (and is making) Kelli's Virtual Book Party a success

And for a life with many more positive people in it than negative ones - Amen.

I'd like to thank the Academy :-)

And to Duende and Sarajevo, merci.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Are Invited! Virtual Release Party: Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room with Kelli Russell Agodon

Welcome to the book release party of 
Letters from The Emily Dickinson Room 
by Kelli Russell Agodon.

Kelli is here this afternoon (also on a 24 hour basis) to read poems, mingle with friends, eat well, and most of all celebrate the release of this important new book. You are invited to party with her. Bring a friend, a poem, and be sure to pick up a copy of her book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room.  Kelli has also graciously agreed to answer your questions this week. Just leave a question in comments and she will get back to you. To my mind, this interactive portion of the party is the best. Here is a nationally acclaimed poet ready to answer your questions.

Can you talk a bit about how Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room came about and why you chose this title? Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room is a collection of poems I’ve been working on since about 2004.  The manuscript was originally titled, An Alphabet Between Us, but as the work progressed, I realized that this collection had become more than what this title encompassed. The manuscript had evolved from its original subject of “the challenges we face when communicating” into more of quest for spirituality and this inner need I had in finding calmness in what I was viewing as a chaotic world.

In that respect, there was an autobiographical element I was dealing with when writing these poems.  After a group retreat to the Oregon Coast where I stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel (literally
in “the Emily Dickinson Room,” as the rooms were each decorated after a writer or poet), I realized that these poems were my letters to the world (à la Emily Dickinson). Since many of the poems were written at the Sylvia Beach Hotel and in certain way, my own life was slowly becoming my own version of Emily Dickinson’s Room (anxiety was making me retreat into my house and not want to leave), I knew what my title needed to be.

The whole process, which seems tidy in these two paragraphs, took about six years start to finish though.
Could you read a poem for us and then talk about it a bit? I'm always interested in where poems come from.

Believing Anagrams

                        —after being asked why I write so many poems about death and poetry

 There’s real fun in funeral,
and in the pearly gates—the pages relate.

You know, I fall prey to

have hated

 All my life,
            literature has been my ritual tree—
Shakespeare with his hearse speak,
Pablo Neruda, my adorable pun.

So when I write about death and poetry,
            it’s donated therapy
     where I converse with
Emily Dickinson, my inky misled icon.

And when my dream songs are demon’s rags,
             I dust my manuscript in a manic spurt            
hoping the reader will reread

because I want the world
to pray for poets as we are only a story of paper.

I chose this poem to share as I think it represents some of the wordplay and themes that appear in Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room.  This poem has quite a few subjects that weave in and out the collection—poetry, poets, death, ritual, books, prayer—plus in contains two cameos from favorite poets of mine, Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda. 

It was inspired by wanting to answer the question of why there was always so much reference to death as well as poets/poetry in my work.  I’m not sure it fully answers that question, but it was fun writing it.
What is the best part or one of your favorite things about being a poet?
Oh, so many things, where to begin?

I think in the sense of the greater community, a great reward of being a poet is the opportunity to connect with others, both readers and writers.  I am always thankful to hear from someone who happened upon one of my poems and connected with it, just as I appreciate being the reader who falls in love with someone’s poem.  I so enjoy finding new poets and new work I had never read before.

Personally though, in respect to the creation of poetry, my favorite thing would be that words are free and unlike most artistic endeavors, at any time I can write poems in my head without cost or need for materials—that’s kind of magical to me.

Of course, there’s the social aspect and friendship that can be deeper with other poets because they have so much—how shall I say it—“inside information” to the writing life.  Plus, my poet friends also tend to be “foodies” so when we get together, there’s always great food and drink—that’s definitely a favorite part.

More cake anyone?


Any new projects you can tell us about?

I am currently working on a non-fiction project on the experience (and challenges) of being at a writing retreat in this always-connected world.  It is very difficult to “get away” in this age of cellphones and internet access.  A year ago, I went on such a retreat and I realized how much the outside world (the constant news, the busywork of life, the nonstop flow of the internet and just bad habits we may have, but not even be aware of) can sabotage one’s writing life.  I’m exploring the challenges of going off to a writer’s retreat and then the return back into a noisy, busy world.  My return to “real life” was truly a small car-wreck emotionally and I’m interested in investigating why this homecoming was so hard.

I also have two other collaborative projects I’m working on, but they are still too early in their process to share with a larger audience, but as they progress, I’ll be mentioning more about them on my blog,
Book of Kells ( <> ).

Thank you, Susan.  It was so lovely to talk with you.

Thank you, Kelli. Thank you for giving of your time all week to answer readers' questions. And for being a poet of passion, community, heart and wit. May Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room find the wide array of readers it deserves. To hear Kelli read some of her poems aloud, go to Drunken Boat.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Opportunities and Events and Celebrations: Literarily Speaking

Kelli Russell Agodon's book Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room is out in the world and you can order an autographed copy from her by going to her website right here. I've read many of the poems and can't wait to get my own copy to have and to hold. I'll be holding a virtual party for her right here very soon -- I hope you will stop by.

And in other news: Jack Straw Writers Program

The Jack Straw Writers Program is accepting applications now until November 1st. If you are accepted into the program you will become part of a community of poets, fiction writers, and others who will learn about recording your work, handling interviews, reading at different venues and getting a chance to be on KUOW, the Seattle NPR affiliate.  Every writer I know in the greater Seattle area has been a Jack Straw Writer; my time was in 2004. It's a program for writers just starting to publish and those who have been publishing for awhile. The mixing of genres, cultures and ages is one of the things that makes this opportunity so dynamic. If you know a writer interested in creating community, learning about performance, and getting published send them to the Jack Straw website right here.

And last but not least, I am reading at Pilot Books in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood this coming Thursday @ 7:00 PM, September 23rd. If you haven't visited this little bookstore, this is your chance. It's not like any bookstore in the United States that I've visited and instead it reminds me of Eastern European bookshops in Slovenia and Bosnia where you know the shop is a labor of love -- and a chance for the employee (or more likely, the owner) to have employment where they can read on the job. Pictured here is Summer Robinson, the owner of Pilot Books. Another thing that makes this "pilot" project so interesting is that you will only find books here by independent publishers: Random House and McGraw Hill need not apply. There is also an emphasis on local writers -- as well as unannounced visits by national and international stars. Please come out and support this very cool space.

219 East Broadway in the Alley Building is the exact address.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Writer's Life: Pajamas Late Morning ~ Subscribe!

Pablo Neruda's Writing Desk
Today is week one, day three of my sabbatical and I am still in my pajamas. My goal of getting to my writing studio early in the morning, again unmet. Yet, yesterday I worked on two poems and made some headway on my current project. So why beat myself up?

Because I have, I bet most writers have, an image in our heads of the writing life. Unfortunately, my writing habits do not mesh with the pristine desk, the gorgeous beach view pictured in the photograph above. I write in a converted garage -- a gorgeous one to my mind -- but no ocean view.

One of my goals at the moment is to accept the way I write. Accept that I get things done in my own style, my own time frame. Yes, I have a deadline (for poems!) at the moment and that's bringing my fears into bas relief -- but I can get things done and sleep in. I hope.

Staying away from the internet is one thing that helps me write. And yet there are lots of resources on the internet that also help inspire me. One of these is the newsletter that my friend Midge Raymond, author of Forgetting English puts out every other month. I've excerpted it here and added a link. Midge reminds me that I am not alone, that sometimes simple ideas are best (choose a moment from the summer and write about it!) and that all writers struggle. Here's to a beautiful struggle -- one that I am glad to have in my life. What's the line from the movie "A League of Their Own"?  Tom Hanks tells the complaining all-women's baseball team "It's hard, it's supposed to be hard-- that's what makes it great."

From Midge Rayomond's September Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter for free and it will come to your inbox once every other month. Just click here.

Writing Tip: 1. Log off for awhile. I noticed this summer that, like many, I suffer from a slight addiction to my digital devices as well as to multitasking. In an effort to confront the problem, I began to spend more time offline and unplugged -- and was astonished by how positively this affected my writing. Take the little quiz on my blog to see if you have similar issues with busyness -- and then try logging out for a while and see how it affects your creativity. 

Writing Exercise of the Month: In the spirit of "what I did over my summer vacation," as well as generating new material for a new season, choose one moment from this summer and write about it. Whether it was a conversation you had or one you overheard, a party you attended or a party you missed, a day at the office or a night at the beach, choose a moment from your summer and write two pages. Let the moment evolve and become a story, essay, or poem that takes you wherever it wants to go. 
FOLLOW-UP: Over the summer, I offered the writing exercise "Choose one piece to polish up and submit in the fall." How'd it go? I'd love to hear about your writing successes, so do keep in touch about your accomplishments!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A New Poet: Where Can I Find One?


Finding a new poet
is like finding a new wildflower
out in the woods. You don't see

its name in the flower books, and
nobody you tell believes
in its odd color or the way

its leaves grow in splayed rows
down the whole length of the page. In fact
the very page smells of spilled

red wine and the mustiness of the sea
on a foggy day --the odor of truth
and of lying.

And the words are so familiar,
so strangely new, words
you almost wrote yourself, if only

in your dreams there had been a pencil
or a pen or even a paintbrush,
if only there had been a flower.

                      Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan was the first poet I ever saw read her work. She came to my high school and read in the library. She made writing poetry and reading it and talking about it a flesh and blood proposition. Later, much later, I worked with Linda Pastan at Breadloaf and she provided me with the confidence to quit my job, move all the way from Cambridge, MA to Eugene, OR to completely change my life. I doubt she knows how important her poems and her person have been to me. Here's to well-loved poets as well as new ones. I would love to hear of your favorite poets. I am looking for a little inspiration as I begin an intense time of writing. Deadline: October 1st.

Thanks to my dear friend, grand poet, Kelli Russell Agodon for bringing me this poem on my birthday. (The photo is Linda Pastan (not Kelli Agodon) circa 1974.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Poem for a Cloudy Monday: Far Away


When I answered that I came from "far away,"
The policeman at the roadblock snapped, "Where's that?"
He'd only half heard what I said and thought
It was the name of some place up the country.

And now it is-- both where I have been living
And where I left-- a distance still to go
Like star-light that is light-years on the go
From far away and takes light-years arriving.

                             ---- Seamus Heaney

This poem was published in December 1994 in The New Yorker. For over a decade I carried it with me, read it out before I read my own poems at readings. It was my touchstone for a life that had led me in a half dozen different geographies. The poem imbued me with a magical faith that I would someday arrive at home. I've now lived in Seattle for eleven years. Eleven! Somewhere in the last few years I lost my cutout New Yorker poem and although I own (I think) all of Heaney's books, this poem seems never to have been published in a collection. Now that the New Yorker offers their archives to all subscribers, I was able to reunite with this poem.

I love how the geography is both the border crossing that (was) between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as metaphorical. I love the music, the rhyme, the double-barreled words. I love that I now believe I've arrived where I was meant to be all along.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Heron Sighting: A Good Omen?

This morning I watched a great blue heron fly into the top Y branch of a tree just a few yards from my back garden. I'm hoping it's a positive omen for my life --- flight, beauty, and surprise. Here's hoping.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Naked Self Promotion - Letter to the End of the Year

I hope you will forgive this indulgence, but Verse Daily is a 24 hour gig. It's been a number of years since I've been up on their site. Today's poem is one of my favorite from The Alchemist's Kitchen and it feels good to see it there.

Today is also the open house at Hedgebrook from 1:00 - 4:00. I'll be reading along with the wonderful poet Elizabeth Austen. If you're in driving distance you should come --- the food is always amazing and the day calls for a road trip!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Discipline: Where Can I Get Some?

When I imagine the life of the writer, I picture her rising at dawn when the world is still at rest. A cup of warm coffee in her hand, she slowly moves (always with grace) to her desk and begins setting words on the beautiful, blank (and expensive) thick ivory page. I wonder where she lives because it's not in my house. Much as I want to be a morning writer, a disciplined writer, a prolific writer, I am not.

Instead of the early morning air (gorgeous sunrise, chic bathrobe) I'm usually just getting started about now. It's 1:11 pm (a good time, why not) and there is a cat biting her nails against my back, a dishwasher in the background, and piles of clutter everywhere I look. I know this is not ideal, but it is often me. Are there benefits to the messy, undisciplined life? Yes, I think so.

One example is that although I wrote that I'm just getting started, I've actually worked on a poem a good part of the morning -- walking away for a few moments and then heading back to the draft. I trick myself into writing by doing it in small bits. And in fact, this week's New York Times article, Forget What You Know About Study Habits explores how students learn. New studies (!) fly in the face of what most of us believe. My style of never writing at the same time of day, writing in small intervals rather than a sealed block, all go along with the new findings. Even when I make it out to my writing studio, I need to go out to the garden and prune rose bushes and weed flower beds in order to keep my mind supple. Turns out I'm not alone.

So although I want to be the writer that does her three hours of writing from 5 am to 8 am (I laugh even theorizing about this!) my guess is this will have to wait for my next lifetime. For now, my way is the only way I know. As long as I (or you) are writing does it matter if it's at midnight or afternoon? Would I feel more like a real writer if I had a writing schedule? Maybe it's something to experiment with -- like the August when I wrote a poem everyday and sent it off on a postcard to another writer. Perhaps the real message is to try new approaches. I'd love to learn how you, dear reader, set time aside -- or don't.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thankful Thursday - First Edition

Thanks to Kelli Agodon for the idea via Drew Myron of composing a thankfulness blog entry each week. I wonder if I am thankful enough to make it work? I hope so. Here is today's list in no particular order.

At the moment I am thankful for:

Writing poems after a month hiatus

Two healthy cats

The 10.5 years I had with Otis

Handfuls of homegrown tomatoes

Writing dates across the water

Fish tacos

Hot showers

Nw friends

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

HUMANITIES WASHINGTON: There's Nothing to Be Afraid Of

In preparation for my participation in the Bedtime Stories ~ Night Flight benefit reading on October 1st, at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, the talented Chris Thompson interviewed me a few weeks ago. Instead of the 20 minute time frame Chris mentioned, we talked for over an hour. It was a great conversation -- more than an interview. Both Chris and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Niger - but he came back five years ago and  for me, it's twenty-five.  You can read the interview here, but it is this section I want to emphasize.

Both Niger and Bosnia have large Muslim populations, what is your opinion of the anti-Muslim sentiment that seems to be growing in America since 9/11?

I feel stunned. I’ve been trying to follow the Ground Zero story. Usually I can follow an argument. I may not agree with it but at least I understand it. In this case, I can’t get to what that argument is. I don’t understand this kind of uproar over Muslim culture—I don’t understand why people can’t separate extremists from the mainstream. It’s the fear of the other.

During the 1990s, I also worked in Gaza and the West Bank. My dad wasn’t thrilled with me going—we were a Jewish family from Brookline, Massachusetts. But I went, and the day I left for Palestine, a young Christian man went into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline and killed everyone in the waiting room. He then went across town and did the same thing in another clinic. It would be absurd to say Christianity is promoting the killing of doctors and women over abortion, and for me, that’s the parallel.

I have this poem called “Mohamud at the Mosque.” Mohamud [a former student from Somalia] had just graduated from Highline and transferred to UW, and he had no family here. After September 11 happened, I became “teacher stalker” and started calling him each night, asking casually, “So how was your day” because I wanted him to know somebody was watching out for him, that somebody cared.

He told me of going to the mosque the Friday after September 11 and parking his beat-up Toyota and this woman coming out to the curb and saying go back to where you came from. While he’s standing there he sees all these people have started standing around and talking, including a cop. The cop asked what was going on and then said, “Go and pray and I’ll watch your car.”

I know Palestinians. I know Bosnians. I know Nigeriens, and we have a lot more in common than anything else. When I think Muslim, I think of Mohamud, my former student, who has become like my younger brother; I think of my students in Niger, I think of my friends in Sarajevo.

Muslims are the last people that America is allowed to hate. People like us, people who have lived in Islamic countries, should be finding venues to speak out and say, “I’ve lived in a Muslim country for two years, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Other writers participating in the annual benefit for HUMANITIES WASHINGTON are: Nancy Pearl, Garth Stein, Jennie Shortridge, Carol Cassela, and Charles Johnson.

For tickets, contact Kari Dasher at (206) 682-1770 ext. 103 or by email.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

LitFuse Lights Up Seattle This Tuesday, September 7th at Hugo House

It's not often I can claim the status of literary pioneer, but here's one time I can. In October, 2007, at the first LitFuse celebration, I gave a talk titled "The Alchemist's Kitchen: Food, Sex, and Citizenship." The keynote was scheduled for a late night Saturday dinner so it seemed appropriate --- and that title (the first part) later became the title for my recent book, The Alchemist's Kitchen. The building where I was supposed to stay wasn't finished yet and the house where I did stay, had a strange young man sleeping on the couch. And to hear what happened next, you'll just have to come out to the launch of LitFuse 2010.

When: 7:00 pm, Tuesday, September 7th
Where: Richard Hugo House, 11th Avenue, Seattle
Who: Elizabeth Austen, Tara Hardy, Dan Peters, Mimi Allen and me
Suggested donation: $5 -- but you won't be turned away ... please come!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

From the Computer Archives: Review of The Shadow of Sirius

For a short time I was a regular reviewer for the Library Journal. Somehow this review of Bill Merwin's recent book never made it into their esteemed pages. One of the fun things about reviewing is getting to rave about a book you love before it hits the bookshops. I was sorry this one got lost in the shuffle. Here it is in the ether (if not in print) for the first time.

Merwin, W.S., The Shadow of Sirius; Copper Canyon Press; 117 pages; 978-1-55659-284-3
Can wisdom be both searing and playful? Is it rooted in the specific dirt of memory or does it reside in a more universal view? The language in this collection responds with an all-embracing Yes! The poet startles us awake simultaneously in our bones and in a yearning that our bodies cannot hold. It is no secret that the author is a master craftsman of the written and unwritten word, producing some of his most startling work within the last few years, but this book seems even more precise, more profound. The reader travels seamlessly through ninety-three poems that switchback between myth, biography, and the blue heaven that is Merwin’s Hawaii. What one finds most pleasing in the reading of these poems is how time compresses into the past and future at once. See how the past is not finished / here in the present / it is awake the whole time. And this idea plays out in a mobius strip of content. Light and shadow lengthen into images of dog grief and love of coffee. Sails and wings, hands and stars operate as amulets within the collection, guiding us through history, both personal and eternal. Whether describing the roofer, Duporte, or the Chinese poet Li Po, Merwin imbues our world with elegance, and dare we say it, love.