Friday, June 27, 2014

Announcing...

I'm happy to announce that I've accepted the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross. I'll start in the fall. It's a two-to-five year appointment that allows me to keep my close ties to Florida State University where I'll still be working with graduate students in the College of Motion Picture Arts.
I'm also inspired by Jenks himself. "Despite being stricken with severe polio at 19, which rendered him quadriplegic, Jenks was determined to continue his education and remain connected to the Holy Cross community. He learned to type on an electric typewriter with a clothespin between his teeth."
Jenks once said, "… A crippling disease is just one of fate's ways of undercutting muscular love. The able-bodied can be brought to truth through hurts that never show. I think it's likely I am not the most seriously wounded among us, only the most conspicuously bandaged. Sooner or later every one of us will be made to feel flawed, inadequate, powerless. And there's no defense against it … The alternative is to let yourself be loved." 

Click here for the full announcement.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Jen McClanaghan

Sometimes an interview turns into a glimpse of an entire life. This is one of those rare gems, and it's also full of wisdom, too. It's my pleasure to introduce Jen McClanaghan, whose debut collection, RIVER LEGS, has just been published. 

Here we go... 
 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book? 

When I was in grad school working on my PhD, I scraped together enough money to visit a friend living in Hawaii. She took me to all the requisite attractions where I amassed all the requisite souvenirs, including a hibiscus tattoo. But in the middle of this trip—this paradise, I received a phone call from my dad, telling me he had terminal lung cancer. The frivolity and the heat, the laziness of time, the lush coast, were replaced by new images when I visited him in Rhode Island a month later: the pink slippers his wife had me wear in their house, the cigarettes he still smoked, his copy of Moby Dick on the kitchen table, a broken window in the bedroom where I slept, a cold March beach. These experiences and the sense of disjunction, led to a series of poems in River Legs, and brought me as close to that feeling of inspiration—when a poem seems to write itself—as I ever felt over a sustained period of time. These elegies found their own rhythms, line breaks and syntax. I always have that one moment when writing, the inspired moment when a poem strikes out on its own and conjures an image or epiphany seemingly by itself. But the poems about my dad also came without the usual bewilderment preceding the others: How the hell does a person write a poem?

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

Having married a writer, I mostly think it’s great. Especially for me because my husband is such a good editor, and his strengths are my weaknesses. For instance, he’s a fabulous cook, he tracks our finances, he’s always disciplined. He’s the type who takes photos and uploads and shares them immediately following an event. I wear hard contact lenses that are so smudgy I have to squint over the computer like a ninety-year old. I put things off beyond the stages of guilt and shame, though not laundry, which I love wrangling under control. I’m also the one who dreams up new futures for us (homesteader bloggers, bluegrass family band). So they have my blessing, so long as they possess a complementary set of neuroses and bad habits.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, anything about that process from your perspective. 

I’ll share two stories. The first is about a rejection I received from the Paris Review. They returned my poems to me and accidentally included a sticky note between editors that said, “These have some nice moments and lovely concrete images but they are also a bit predictable at times. I might be fonder of them than I usually would because the pickings are so slim today.” At The Southern Review, we always wrote on the envelope the piece came in, so our confidential notes didn’t inadvertently get mailed to the writer. But I loved the chance, as we all would, to eavesdrop on someone else reading my poems. My students get a kick out of the note when we talk about sending out work.

My second story really belongs to my uncle Eddie. He has lived in the same building in Manhattan for twenty years. One Sunday he struck up a conversation with someone in the elevator who introduced himself as Paul. At some point Paul said that he was a poet and my uncle started rattling on about his niece who had recently had a poem in The New Yorker. “Really,” Paul said, “I’m the Poetry Editor of The New Yorker.” The man, of course, was Paul Muldoon. I remember that when he accepted my poem for the magazine he signed his email, “Warmly, Paul.” And for months I’d just walk around repeating the word warmly.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

Until I was about six years old, I had this really glorious middle-class, suburban childhood. I lived with my parents and three uncles, the world’s finest dog, and loads of benign trouble. My uncles—who were living with us because their mother, my grandmother, had died—were teenagers and took great care of me. One had a Good Humor truck from which he sold doobie, a word I remember loving as a kid. I would raid the truck for Charleston Chews and ice cream sandwiches. We lived in a large house in the valley of a steep driveway. My great grandfather would come out from Manhattan on Easter to trim the rhododendrons. Milk was delivered to our backdoor. Elvis was on TV and everyone drove wood-paneled station wagons. It was so middle class and so perfect, but only for a brief time.

And then the bank foreclosed, the drinking became alcoholism, the dog was hit by a car, my parents divorced, my uncles scattered, and Elvis was two years dead.  Until I graduated high school, my mom and I lived in an apartment next to a dentist’s office and upstairs from a psychiatrist’s. Our front yard had a sign that said, “Biofeedback Services,” which haunted me as a kid. My bedroom desk looked into the neighboring dentist’s office. I’d do my homework while watching teeth cleanings. I was an only child and alone quite a lot. I often write from that solitude.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer? 

I had a best friend who worked at a Gulf gas station. One day she left the nozzle in a BMW and when the car drove away, there was a great mess. She quit on the spot, just ran from the station to my house on the other side of town. A few weeks later I was hired in her position. I was in high school, smoking cigarettes and pumping gas. I was naïve and trying to act much older than I was. When I write, I find that sometimes I’ve daydreamed myself right back to that dirty counter and all those Snapple lemonades. There were many stories there, but it’s frozen time as in a diorama. I have other such places that I find myself in when writing or when reading stories—not jobs, per se. I am forever walking through the museum of my life and writing from very specific locations—odd places that have lodged in me—a childhood friend’s living room where her parents drank White Russians, a neighbor’s kitchen with her half-dozen poodles, my grandparents’ lawn, dotted with rabbits.  Sometimes I find myself standing in these images so completely that it takes me a minute to realize I’ve daydreamed them up again. Back to the gas station: After my family’s economic collapse, I was the outsider—a poor kid in a very affluent town. I embraced the role and looked for jobs and minor rebellions to support that image, including the choice to go to Antioch College for a creative writing degree. My mom never pressured me about school or career—she was often absent and by default consenting—but also remembering, I’m sure, how her mother forced her into secretarial school, preparing her for a career she despised.  She swore she’d cut off my fingers if I became a secretary, though I imagine I spend more time typing than she ever did.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process? 

I am not religious, but now I’m teaching at a Catholic University and I was raised Catholic, though we really just attended the high holy days at St. Aloysius. I do have great faith in the writing process—the fact that if I keep at it, a benevolent spirit beyond me will give me my lines. Also in the transformative power of literature—reading it, of course, but also how spiritual it feels to have articulated something exactly right. Now that I’m at Salve Regina, I want to write about the Sisters of Mercy who founded the school (they had loads of faith and patience), and in particular about the freedom offered by obedience. I’ve written about the great acts of disobedience from the women in my family—my great grandmother (her father’s favorite) climbing out her bedroom window and eloping, my grandmother moving to Las Vegas in the late forties to obtain a divorce. Even though I had my minor acts of rebellion, I was sensitive, easily frightened, and flooded with guilt for even small transgressions. I came by my own obedience very differently, and it didn’t give me the same freedom or the same backbone—though it did give me my poetry.

For more of Jen's words and work, click here to buy her book! 

Jen McClanaghan’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Poetry 2013, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and New England ReviewRiver Legs was selected by Nikky Finney for Kore Press’s First Book Award for Poetry. She is an assistant professor and writer in residence at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband and son. For more information, go to her website: www.jenmcclanaghan.com


Phoebe Scott's Portraits

 Phoebe Scott is now doing children's portraits. She likes to choose the photograph and expressiveness and lighting -- like this one with lipstick, one eyebrow raised, and a sailor-suit top.

If interested, email her directly at phscott@massart.edu.





Saturday, May 17, 2014

My husband sings in the mornings. Two Versions.

Version I. 
I married a morning person who sings pretty much all morning long. If he exercises, the singing continues into the afternoon. He tends to stick not just to one song but to one area of a song -- though there can be a bridge that gets whistled and occasionally a Fletch quote thrown in, for no reason. He also will sometimes break into dialogue while in a conversation -- meaning he starts acting out a scene that did or did not happen -- and it's kind of up to the listener to understand when it's what happened and then when he's riffing. Also he's a nomadic toothbrusher -- and tends to wander the house while brushing his teeth so as not to miss out on anything. He will join the conversation while brushing his teeth as well. He wasn't as much of a talker-about-his-feelings when we started dating, but now he loves this; he will talk and talk, feelings this and feelings that. When I'm teaching him dance moves (I was once a ballroom dance instructor), I sometimes have to say, "That was really good, but this time can you do it not like Robin Williams?" These things are ENDEARING. Endearing, endearing, endearing. So, there's marriage, approaching XX number of years.

Version II.
 oh and for the other people among my friends who thought that version was too sweet, too cloying? edit for that crowd: we buried our dead this year. we felt betrayed. we know too well what it is to lose friends to suicide. we mourn our miscarriages -- sometimes still after all these years -- we pace those kids among our living, watch them grow. we visit the nursing home. we kiss the one slack cheek of a stroke. we watch time pass and dread our deaths -- but first we fear our parents' deaths. we pace the house some nights. we worry over money and tally our losses and know that every joy hints at some immeasurable unknowable loss. we dig in. we dig a pit. when burying the dog, my husband realizes what a grave is and thinks of his own. we don't plant flowers. it's finally spring, but the winter was dark and it piled against the windows. we feel the rust of our corrosive souls. and for reasons beyond all reason, my husband sings in the mornings. 
better?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Laynie Browne



You're in for a fascinating read. There are parts of this Q and A that I'm holding onto. Laynie Browne offers wisdom and depth to bring back to your own page. 

Here you go, a half-dozen with novelist and poet Laynie Browne ... 


What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

This is very dangerous.  To be avoided at all costs.  I recommend instead, falling in love with an idea.  Seriously though, in such instances it is important to ask, have I fallen in love with a writer, or with what the writer has written?  Or, am I in love with the possibility of language, the erotic possibilities of language? Poet Lyn Hejinian writes in her essay “Continuing Against Closure, “I would argue that one of the functions of art is to bring dreams and other works of the imagination into the space of appearance.”  Here is the place where I would happily dwell with no end. My advice to someone who has fallen in love with bringing dreams and works of the imagination into appearance, through love, is very different.  No harm can come to you here. Or I should say, possibly the harm that can come to you here may be a useful form of alchemy. This is why writers write. This is why painters paint. You create, exist, within a permeable dwelling. One in which every aspect of life can reach you and also you find yourself within the presence of some unspeakable power. Of love. If it doesn’t feel like a choice, that you have no other choice, than to love someone, to love what they create, then possibly you have arrived at something stunning. You need no advice. You are now in a position to offer advice to others. So I ask you, what’s your advice to someone who has fallen in love with _______ ?

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I've  been surprised, that as I’ve become increasingly devoted to contemplative practices, particularly meditation, I’ve learned that contrary to common belief, these practices often lead to precipitous chasms, tumultuous epiphanies, and hazardous states of mind.  I was studying Jewish meditation. I kept asking my teacher, rabbi Avram Davis, what I should read to further my practice. Every time he said “read psalms.” Then I read an article about parkour, which seemed the perfect metaphor for what I experienced.  Parkour, or l'art du déplacement is an activity with the aim of moving from one point to another as efficiently and quickly as possible. As would a stunt person.  Stumbling across an urban landscape, above buildings with no net. That’s where this book began. With the question of risk involved in divining contemplative practice.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

My research for this book was of the experiential kind.  I wanted to write from inside an understanding of the form of the psalm.  Of form in general.  I was trying to find the limit or edges of the form, a range of possibilities, elasticity.  I read many translations of psalms.  I learned that psalms are not just praise, but that they contain every manner and mode of address. I found poet Norman Fischer’s translations of psalms, Opening to You: Zen Inspired Translations of Psalms to be very illuminating.  For one thing he does not choose to translate every psalm.  For another, he begins his book with an essay discussing his difficulty understanding the practice of reciting psalms- some very violent and brutal psalms.  He asks difficult questions.  I spent time studying Hebrew texts. Thus the line, in my book, about breaking one’s brain, in a foreign language.  But mostly I would say the research I did was in devoting myself to contemplative practice on a daily basis, meditation and prayer, and writing, and trying to note how these practices changed not my situation or circumstances, but how I perceived and reacted to them. I’d often felt that it is slightly taboo for a writer to delve into their own religion, the one we are born into. It always seemed more accepted, for instance for Jews to be Buddhists. This phenomenon was curious to me. I wanted to look at it carefully.  My research was to practice, not merely to study.  My research was to try, very humbly to extend that practice so that every act became part of that awareness. This research could also be called life. It isn’t limited to one book I have written.  But at the time I was writing this book I was in the midst of intensive study which encouraged me to see newly.  So I’d say, in one way, that altered perception was, and is, a research project, that goes on and on.
  
What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the Italian writer Elena Ferrante.  I especially loved her novel, The Lost Daughter.  Why?  She understands something about feminist identity, mothering, madness and despair.  She does not sanitize. There is a brutality in her writing. A brave honesty.  Also, reading all of the fairly new translations of Clarice Lispector, from New Directions.  No one is like Lispector.  The interior life of the word is a place I’d like to reside.  I mostly read poetry.  A few recent favorites include Hejinan’s The Book of A Thousand Eyes, and Cecilia Vicuña’s Spit Temple. I am usually reading one book at night, one by day when in transit, and several at my desk when I’m working.  Right now on my desk is a literary journal that just arrived, Music & Literature, with many essays on the work of Lispector, as well as books by Ponge, Carla Harryman, Lisa Robertson, CAConrad and Bernadette Mayer.  My reading life is also in attending many poetry readings, and receiving the live transmission of new writing. Talking to writers is a form of reading.  This past weekend I heard the Canadian poet and friend Lisa Robertson read.  She spoke about radical hospitality and I quote from one of the poems she read, “The body of the friend is commodious only.”  I’d say that friendship and hospitality play a large part in my life as a reader and a writer, and also that I aim to be commodious as a reader, to be always expanding my range and awareness.
  
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

I don’t believe there is any difference between my writing life and anything else.  All aspects of writing are life and all aspects of life lead me back to writing.  That does not mean I know anything at all about balance.  Just that I try to always live with an awareness that writing is not separate from life. But on a more practical note, I try to do some writing every day, regardless of whether I have only five minutes or several hours.  I attempt to guard this time, whatever and wherever it finds me. I am never without a notebook and reading material.  And I welcome the challenge of writing in unconducive circumstances, such as standing in line waiting for a train, or in the dark, during performances or when it generally feels impossible.  “Writing is a form of thinking” writes poet Bhanu Kapil.  Walking in the rain I might remember something overheard or an image or a sound.  Sometimes my best ideas come when walking, or talking with my children, or sleeping, dreaming.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

As a writer who has physically moved, to a new place, pretty much every five years of my adult life, I have to say that yes, place is a very alive character for me. I’m not a writer of place but I am a writer always wondering where I am, and wondering how various locations form my writing with or against my will.  One discovery that I’ve made is that place is always, dominantly for me, about people.  I used to believe that it would be wonderful to always live in the location that is the most hospitable, the place where I felt most welcomed and at home.  But I’ve learned much by existing also in locations where I am strange to the environment. This experience had me asking, not so much what I might receive, but what I might offer, as a writer in an unknown land. Ideas of exile and hibernation and concentration also connect, in my mind to the character of place.  I think of retreat, and also The Poetics of Space, and notions of what is retrievable, from Bachelard’s words: “Each one of us, then, should speak of his road, his crossroads, his roadside benches’ each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows.”
   


Laynie Browne is the author of ten collections of poetry and two novels. Her work appears in the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. Her newest collection Lost ParkourPs(alm)s was just published in France, in both French and English editions by Presses Universitaires de Rouen et Du Havre. Her honors include a National Poetry Series selection, a Contemporary Poetry Series selection and the Gertrude Stein Award of Innovative Writing.  She teaches at University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College.


Brief Introduction to the Book

Parkour, or l'art du déplacement is an activity with the aim of moving from one point to another as efficiently and quickly as possible. There is no list of “appropriate moves.” Lost Parkour Ps(alms) is an investigation of parkour, or the art of displacement, as a way to divine and interpret the risks involved in contemplative practice.  This text is also an exploration of the psalm in present tense, as method of ambulation,  and as a poetic form.

The “To” series, under the direction of Christophe Lamiot Enos, is devoted to contemporary poetry in English from the United States. The selected works have not been pre- viously published in any language. Each work is characterized by narrative-like length—100 pages or more—and breadth.
Each work appears in two volumes: the English version and its French translation. Each volume includes a postface, the author’s biography and a bibliography.

Other works in the series: 
Laynie Browne, Psaumes de parkour perdus, 2014 
Alice Notley, Negativity’s Kiss, 2014
Alice Notley, Le Baiser de la négativité, 2014 


1/2 Dozen for Therese Walsh

As we gear up for summer reading, it's my great pleasure to introduce Therese Walsh to all of you who may not know her.  AND ... if you're intrigued by THE MOON SISTERS as she talks about how her latest novel came to be -- a novel that Publisher's Weekly calls "Luminous... packed with invention and rich characterizations.." it's only $1.99 at Amazon and at BN.com on e-readers for the next ten days!

And now a 1/2 dozen with Therese Walsh...

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

There was, but it’s a bit of a story to get there.

As soon as I learned about synesthesia, I knew I wanted to write about it. Synesthesia is a condition characterized by sensory areas that are connected in unique ways; a person might taste music or see sound, for example.

Enter will-o’-the-wisps.

Will-o’-the-wisps are drifting lights that sometimes appear over bogs and are thought to lead those who follow to treasure or over a cliff’s edge, depending on the whim of the mischievous wisps. I had, once upon a time, included them in a draft of a different story, in a scene involving a blind girl on a bog in West Virginia. While that story was eventually abandoned, that scene never left my mind.

Something clicked when I realized that will-o’-the-wisp lights are also called “foolish fires.” Right away, I imagined a girl with synesthesia who would become legally blind while staring (foolishly) at the (fiery) sun, which smelled like her mother. All of the parts coalesced. That was my moment—when I knew this was the book I had to write.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

It’s complicated.

I love writing when I’m not overthinking the story and worrying every line. I love it when it erupts out of me, and delivers something pure and true and unchoreographed.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to shut off the part of my brain that wants to control the process and make no mistakes. That part? Makes writing a chore, because first drafts are not finished products and the gold needs permission, as it were, to come to us entangled in trash.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

Get used to repeating yourself. Writers often may seem to be paying attention to what’s said to them, but we’re often focused on how to get through the latest plot snag, move a story from Y to Z, or understand a difficult character.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Try not to be offended by critique of your work. Criticism is just someone taking the time to point out where things might be improved. Don’t take it personally. Take it professionally.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

In order to bring the world of train hopping to life in The Moon Sisters, I corresponded, through a go-between, with a modern-day train hopper. He relayed much about that world through tales and the manner of their telling. He was gruff and dark and honest and mouthy, and one of my favorite characters, Hobbs, came to life because of that experience.

Learning about train hopping became a point of fascination for me. I read a couple of books, including Hopping Freight Trains in America by Duffy Littlejohn. Train hoppers create names for themselves, and “Duffy Littlejohn” gets a mention in The Moon Sisters.

I traveled to West Virginia and rode the rails, too. And while I didn’t actually train hop, I spoke with the rail authority there about hopping, and learned how to do it.

Recently I met with a female train hopper in a book club. I asked her how that section of the book read to her, if descriptions of hopping were true to her experience, and she said that they were. That was really gratifying.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

I am. It is. Because where we are affects who we are.

In my debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, identical twin Maeve moves away from her hometown of Castine, Maine, to escape memories. She creates a new life for herself in upstate New York, but it’s overly insulated and sterile. It isn’t until she travels to Rome, Italy, that all she meant to suppress comes rushing back. Eventually, she returns to Castine for closure.

In my second novel, The Moon Sisters, Jazz and Olivia Moon grow up in a small, poor West Virginia town. They’re uniquely affected by their situation, with one sister feeling more constricted by home life than the other. It isn’t until they pull away from that town and journey to the Cranberry Glades to find a will-o’-the-wisp light that they realize freedom is a state of mind.


Therese Walsh is the author of two novels, including her latest, The Moon Sisters (Crown, Random House). She is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Writer Unboxed, listed on 101 Best Websites (Writer's Digest, '07, '08, '09, '10, '11, '12, '13).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In Praise of Mothers who were not Technically Mothers but Mothered All the Same...

Today, on Mother's Day, some praise for a few wonderful mothers in my family tree and beyond -- including women of monumental importance to my family -- who didn't have any children of their own.

My Aunt Ruth and Rosebud, her husband -- if you can't figure out why his Southern nickname was Rosebud, even for a man, you need to get your eyes checked. Here they are on their wedding day. "Ruth & Rosebud." On one side, it reads "December 25, 1928" and the other "Our Wedding Day." Rosebud is underlined. Ruth had fantastic taste, was a fascinating and strong woman. Here she is -- I so adore her.


And here is a photo of Aunt Ruth -- taken by Rosebud, most likely, at the beach:



I wish I had a picture of my Aunt Mary Jane -- a race car driver -- who married my Uncle Howard. When I visited them as a kid, they had 8 cats. It was kid-heaven. I loved Mary Jane. She and Howard sent me letters when I lived in Paris at 20 or so. A fantastic couple. She died of cancer too young. Uncle Howard -- or Uncle Powered as my kids call him -- is still alive and well and one of my favorite human beings.

And now onto one of the nuns who meant so much to my family -- Sister Jeanne d'Arc; she is the reason why my confirmation name is Joan of Arc. Beloved in our family, she was my mother's piano teacher and close friend throughout the years...



I wish I had a picture of Sister Rita Estelle who abandoned a family fortune -- her family owned rice plantations in Texas; Sister Rita Estelle wore the halo habit, which could stop taxis on a dime in a downpour in New York City. When my mother had to quit college because her father was sick, Sister Rita Estelle arranged for a sudden, specific scholarship. My mother was able to continue on...

I am thankful for my mother and for all of my mothers -- those who had children of their own and those who didn't.

Here is Glenda -- my actually mother -- circa Geraldine-Ferraro-Runs-for-VP.


Sending love out on this day to ALL of the ways in which we mother each other in this life -- literally, figuratively... to all of my mothers, to all of my kids...

Love,
jb