February 2009 Archives
In thinking about my background, I have usually tried to steer my thoughts away from alternative endings, from what might have happened if I hadn't run away from the trailer. But sometimes I've wondered. If I hadn't run away, if the courts and police hadn't helped remove my little brother--what would have happened to us out there in the woods of West Virginia? Our mother wasn't defending us, and our stepfather's rage-fueled acts of violence, even towards her, were becoming more frequent and more intense. The Witnesses knew and took no action; the teachers at my brother's school knew (they knew he was being neglected, at least, if not physically abused) and took no action. How would the story have ended? An imaginative person, I have sometimes had the bleak vision of three graves, covered with leaves, out by the creek. Uninvestigated. While our stepfather took off for parts unknown, to start again with a new single mother and her children, which was his M.O.
And then I tell myself to buck up and quit the brooding.
So I was interested and saddened to read about this case, in which a Jehovah's Witness triple-murderer came up recently for parole. He had killed his Jehovah's Witness wife and her young son and daughter in 1985, not long after I ran away from my mother and stepfather in 1982. He has only just recently confessed that he had "repeatedly sexually assaulted the two children prior to killing them."
It's a case I had never heard about until today, but there are a number of other parallels to our own situation, including the fact that the culprit stalked the woman when she left him and that Jehovah's Witnesses authority figures told the wife that she was "'scripturally obligated' to take him back."
I'm just thinking about the two eight-year-olds, Lindsay and Juri Kostelniuk, shot to death after being repeatedly sexually abused, and their mother, Kim, shot point-blank in the face. And the children's real father, James Kostelniuk, who still grieves, and who testified at the parole hearing. My heart goes out to them.
If you live in Lincoln, Nebraska or its environs, please consider clicking to a local bank's Community Choice Challenge, where you can vote for the charity you prefer. The bank will donate $5,000 to the top 5 organizations most voted for.
Because I'm crazy about my "Little Sister" Amara and the great work that Big Brothers, Big Sisters does for kids, I voted for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, naturalmente. If you don't have a preference, please do me & Amara and all the other kids they serve a favor and vote for them. But there are 33 other very worthy causes listed, too. So take your pick!
You don't have to give the bank any information to participate. Just go here and click your choice. It takes about 20 seconds, max. (I don't know if it will work if you live far away, but you can try!)
NOW is especially pleased that, under Solis, the Women's Bureau will once again collect and disseminate data on women workers and promote policies and programs that will provide women the tools to be successful, earn what they're worth and be treated as equals on the job. Having a champion in Secretary Solis will ease the challenges that workers face as they balance the demands of caring for their families and contributing in the workplace.¡Saludos, Hilda!
Hilda Solis is a child of immigrant parents and comes from a union family. She knows what it is like to juggle the daunting task of raising a family and working to support that family. In her roles as a state and national legislator, Solis has fought hard for working women. She has stood up for poor women, battered women, underpaid women, women maintaining families as single mothers, and women with inadequate childcare and few workplace benefits.
Solis has helped raise the minimum wage, fought race and sex discrimination, worked to improve worker safety, and promoted job and retirement security for workers. She has marched with janitors and cleaning women, investigated sweatshops, fought to prosecute unethical employers and helped to pass California's landmark anti-sweatshop law. President Obama named exactly the right person for this pivotal position. NOW salutes his choice and knows that Hilda Solis will bring about the positive change that was promised during the campaign.
But why avoid naming these categories of analysis? To do so would give the essay more specificity and bite. Is it too 60s, too academic, to name these factors that still hold powerful sway?
His unexamined use of inclusive pronouns gives him away. "What then do we assume greatness looks like?" he asks, referring to "our unconscious assumptions" and "the style we have in mind," which "tends to be grand, sober, sweeping," "an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, an apostate, a mad-eyed genius" (or, implicitly: white, male, bardic, Shelley, Whitman, Ted Hughes). Um, I'm not part of your "we," pal. I don't share your vision of what a "great" poet looks like, and I never have. But you must move in circles where you can assume agreement like that without flinching.
I do, however, agree with Orr's larger point, and here's an example that foregrounds both gender and race and ethnicity. I once saw Robert Pinsky and Natasha Trethewey share a stage. Pinsky, who went first, was all bluster and pomp. He shared a couple of adorable anecdotes, starring himself, that made the crowd chuckle, but the actual poems he read were fairly slight. He was all persona, riding on the reputation of his earlier work; his energy had gone into his performance of himself as Poet, not onto the page.
Trethewey walked out to the podium without fanfare, read her poems, and blew him out of the water. (Not that it's a competition. I'm just sayin'.)
But afterwards, I heard people talking about how amazing Pinsky was. Just as Orr describes, they'd bought the image.
For more, see the original mini-interview on Paper Cuts.
I like the assumption of this question, that I am sitting between other poets on a shelf. That I am my book – or if it’s a really good bookstore – books. Because this is pitifully true. Sometimes I go to look for myself in inferior bookstores – at airports, say – and I find I don’t exist. Sometimes my entire people does not exist. From the condition of not existing, I have no way of mustering the self importance necessary to bring myself into some future being by asking to speak with the book buyer. I am unpersoned. I can barely buy gum.
And in latest wondrous news, I am very proud to say that one of our star graduate students here at UNL has just won big. The talented young poet John Chávez has snagged the Letras Latinas Residency Fellowship, which includes one large (I can't help saying one large--I've been watching The Wire on DVD) and a one-month stay at the Anderson Center in Minnesota. Check out John's chapbook, Heterotopia, at Noemi Press (where you can read an excerpt). I got to work with John a little last fall in ENGL 852A: Writing Literary Nonfiction, and it was always a pleasure to read and think about his complex and ambitious work. I wish him well in Red Wing!
As for me, I'm working on two things simultaneously right now, my keynote lecture for the Conference on the Americas next month and a personal essay for a collection on Latina mothering forthcoming from Demeter Press and edited by Dorsía Smith Silva and Janine Santiago, who both teach at the University of Puerto Rico. The keynote's a lock, but Silva and Santiago, though they liked the proposal, could decline the essay if it's not a good fit (i.e., if it sucks).
I started writing yesterday morning at 8:00 a.m. and now have rough drafts of both pieces--about 50 pages longhand. The rumors are true: I am a machine. (Well, I + vast vats of caffeine = a machine. Of sorts.)
So I've made the marble. Now comes the lovely, complicated process of chipping away until some sort of coherent form emerges cleanly from what is currently a big, shapeless block. For the sake of Silva and Santiago, and for the sake of the conference attendees in Grand Rapids next month, here's hoping I can wield the chisel.
Okay, that's just about enough of that metaphor. Forgive the grandiosity. Most days, I can barely buy gum.
Last but not least, I forgot to mention one of the unexpected highlights of the AWP conference for me: running into the very charming Naca, whose poetry manuscript Bird Eating Bird won the National Poetry Series mtvU Prize and will be out from Harper Perennial this year.
If you go here, you can click to a clip of Naca interviewing the judge who selected her manuscript, Yusef Komunyaaka (whose very slick autobiographical poetry collection Magic City we just finished reading in ENGL 258B, by the way, and which sports on its cover one of the wonderful Harlem Renaissance murals of Aaron Douglas, who turns out to have been--who knew?--a UNL alumnus).
Anyway, check out the video: it's a weird mix of The Literary with the conventions of reality-TV. Naca's as giddy as I would be.
While I am proud to say that she's slept in my living room, Naca has gone onto significantly finer things and is now teaching at Macalester. It was great to relax and catch up with her in the snazzy Normandie Lounge in Chicago. Respect.
Our panel about trauma, memoir, and invention went beautifully, with a packed room and great papers by all. My favorite was one by Kelly Grey Carlisle about the high cost to the writer of inventing material, which I basically want to get put on a t-shirt and wear around all the time. She managed to articulate what I could only mutter inchoately to my husband and finally give up on. As soon as it's published--and I'm sure it will be--I'll link to it on here so you can see the shiny brilliant clarity of her thought.
I also went to a panel called "Women of a Certain Age" (figuring that I'll get there all too soon, and thus might as well be prepared), about writing and publishing after, I don't know, 55? 60? It was hard to tell; they all looked pretty fresh up there, but maybe it was the glow of the multiple chandeliers. I'd gone to see my UNL colleague Hilda Raz, who was great, and I came away enchanted by the wry, moving poetry of Linda Pastan, which I had not known before, and fired up by the position paper of Janet Burroway. Two of the several bracing things she said were these:
In a totalitarian society it's easy to see how writers are silenced. They are jailed, tortured, killed. In a capitalist or "free" society it is not easy to see how writers are silenced. But they are silenced, under the shadow of the slogan, "If it's any good, it will sell." Such a society promotes celebrity, stardom, schlock, and a great deal of money. It does no favors for literature.
We need all the writers we can get. . . . When the 9/11 commission produced its report, its first and overarching conclusion was that the terrorist attacks had occurred because of a--their words--"major failure of imagination." The neocons in their suits in the Oval office could not imagine that a mission of this magnitude could be carried out by a bunch of bearded guys living in caves. For a generation and a half now we have stripped our schools of music, drama, art, and all such "soft subjects," so we have not just failed to train our children in reading and writing, we have failed to train their imaginations.
Go, Janet! She also talked about how getting older has made her less concerned about being a "good girl" or being liked and/or approved by men. She's more willing to speak her mind. Hurray for age!
It was a lovely, fruitful, semi-exhausting conference all around. Now I'm back and breathlessly playing catch-up. (Brilliant students everywhere, stop applying to the graduate creative writing program at UNL! Reading all these application files is killing me!)
We had a wonderful time in Latina/o Studies today analyzing Junot Diaz's "Edison, New Jersey" (from Drown) and connecting it to census statistics about patterns among the Dominican-American population. It's a beautiful, subtle, intricately patterned, heartbreaking story, and it was great to hear how different students reacted to it. (When I asked them what Diaz was doing with the ducks, they looked at me like I'd lost my mind. English teachers. They see symbols everywhere, they seemed to be thinking pityingly.) Some really identified with the working-class narrator, while others sided more with the wealthy homeowners reluctant to leave him and his partner alone in their houses. Discussion was just starting to get truly lively when the class ended--I only wish we had more than an hour and fifteen minutes!
For everyone who's looking forward to meeting up with old friends, and for everyone who, like me, can't wait to get back home, here's your Rumi du jour:
Bonfire at Midnight
A shout comes out of my room
where I've been cooped up.
After all my lust and dead living I can still live with you.
You want me to.
You fix and bring me food.
You forget the way I've been.
The ocean moves and surges in the heat
of the middle of the day,
in the heat of this thought I'm having.
Why aren't all human resistances burning up with this thought?
It's a drum and arms waving.
It's a bonfire at midnight on the top edge of a hill,
this meeting again with you.
You know who you are.
I've also found that, for me, a short story is what gets written in one sitting. I sit down and draft from start to finish. The notion, or the opening image, or a line, or the controlling metaphor, or the ending might have been rolling around, inchoate, in my psyche for a while, but once I sit down, I have to write until it's done. Otherwise, the mood, tone, everything shifts. And once the trance of that "vivid and continuous dream," in John Gardner's words, is ruptured for me, alas, I lose interest. (I know Gardner's talking about what we writers are supposed to create for readers, but it also works on the composition end, at least in the first draft stage. At least for me.) If I don't have time to write the whole first draft in one sitting, that story just doesn't happen.
Lately, though, life's been wild. Working evenings and weekends on work-stuff (oh, those graduate applications!), it's been difficult to find two or three hours to rub together. But the impulse to write doesn't care about my schedule; it won't shut up just for my convenience. And something new and strange has been happening.
While I'm brushing my teeth or showering, stuff has been coming to me--just little bits, fragments: the character's name, maybe, or what she did in college, or what someone said to her at work that day. A possible title. So I've begun keeping a notebook outside the bathroom door (the way paper gets wrinkly when it's exposed to moisture bugs me), and when I emerge with some new nugget, I jot it down. Just three minutes, five minutes at a time.
It's adding up. Now I've got fourteen pages of little fragments, all toward the same story, and I'm really pleased and excited. There's texture there, layers and resonances, that I might never have gotten if I'd drafted it all out on the day the first image occurred to me. My brain keeps coming at it from different angles, adding things I wouldn't have thought of if I'd done my usual start-to-finish process.
In the past, I've tended to write short-shorts: 4 pages, 6 pages. I've got a couple of 25-pagers--one's coming out soon from Texas Review--but honestly, they always feel labored when I reread them, and I always suspect myself of having written them just to prove I could: that I could write real, fat, plot-driven stories like grown-ups do, instead of my compressed little allusive epiphanic nothings.
Now something's coming together that feels both effortless and substantive. Interesting.
I'm looking forward to making a nice, long, leisurely first-draft date with it--maybe after AWP?--and spending five hours or so romancing and getting to know it. I hope I'm not jinxing anything by saying that I feel kind of sanguine.
So if you find yourself with a crazy-busy job, or a toddler, or a blitzkrieg of responsibilities, don't despair. Just put that notebook somewhere you can grab it easily. Trust the process. Let things accumulate. When you finally get time to make that date, they'll be there.
Here's hoping the conference turns out to be a good, warm, real time for everyone involved--even the folks who think they're only intending to schmooze.
Imagine 7,000-7,500 enthusiastic, neurotic writers descending upon a few square blocks of a city and eating, drinking, and gabbing for four days. Imagine a book exhibit as big as your local Target. Imagine meeting writers you've admired for years. It's great, overwhelming fun--and then, once you're utterly wrung out, you get the pleasure of going home.
Shameless plug: The panel I'm on is about memoir, invention, and trauma. Here's how the clever organizers, Madeline Wiseman and Kelly Gray Carlisle, describe it:
Czeslaw Milosz said, "It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds." Our panel investigates the role of factual accuracy in memoir, why memoirists invent to improve the facts, and the difficulty in telling traumatic memory. What if research reveals conflicting truths? What is the cost of invention to the story? How do the psychological and physiological workings of memory, the act of writing, and the influence of the world outside the writer hinder or enrich the truth?I was really interested in the neurobiological aspects of trauma, so I did some research. My paper has actual science in it--shocking! (I get to say amygdala.)
It's on Thursday, February 12th at noon in the Lake Ontario room in the snazzy Hilton Chicago. If you're going to be at the conference, drop in and hear us hash this over. And stick around afterwards to say hello!
Tonight, I'm going to my first kirtan, and I'm excited about that, too. Over this weekend, I'll be reading and ranking an insane number of graduate application files to UNL's Ph.D. program in creative writing--we got even more apps this year, and they're terrific--and revising a new essay for Fourth Genre, so I'll need all the ojas I can get!
--Oh, almost forgot! If you will be at AWP and would like a party favor, drop by Fourth Genre's table in the book exhibit: booth 491 in the NW Hall, lower level. Apparently (I'm trying not to count my chickens), Fourth Genre has selected my micro-essay "Grip" to feature on their brochure (something like those ones The Sun sends out, I was told), and there'll be a thousand copies available for free. Woo-hoo!
Happy Valentine's Day! No gold, chocolate, or conflict diamonds, please. A nice book will do.
Are you a doctor? Are you a lawyer? Are you a writer with something to say about doctors or lawyers? Well, this could be your chance to get your voice heard and your writing published (and win $2500 while you're at it). The important details: 1) The deadline is March 15, 2009, and 2) $2500 will be awarded for the best essay. The finer points follow:
For a collection to be published by Southern Methodist University Press, Creative Nonfiction is seeking new essays written by or about doctors and lawyers, exploring the two professions' similarities as well as their divisions and points of conflict. What intrigues, interests, or annoys doctors and lawyers--and, potentially, others--about each other? The objective of this project is to capture the complex relationship between these two professions.
Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with a significant element of research or information. We're looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice.
Creative Nonfiction editors will award $2,500 for Best Essay
Guidelines: Essays must be: unpublished, 5,000 words or less, postmarked by March 15, 2009, and clearly marked "Doctors and Lawyers" on both the essay and the outside of the envelope. There is a $20 reading fee; $25 includes a 4-issue CNF subscription. Multiple entries are welcome ($20/essay) as are entries from outside the U.S. (though additional subscription postage costs do apply). Please send manuscript, accompanied by a cover letter with complete contact information, SASE and payment to:
Attn: Doctors and Lawyers
5501 Walnut Street, Suite 202
Pittsburgh, PA 15232
Please share this announcement with anyone who might be interested in submitting work. Please email any questions to information[at]creativenonfiction.org.
Information is also posted on our website.