Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Matriarch we all know and love (or some of us) - Glenda Baggott

Oddly enough, my parents are born on back-to-back days, in the same year, so today is the birthday of my favorite matriarch (and a few of yours -- shout to my siblings, kids, nieces, nephews) -- the one and only Glenda Baggott.
In her Facebook photo, she's leaning against a baby grand piano; when she was 16, her father (who ran an oyster bar in Raleigh) won a bet (letting a lot of money ride on the NY Yankees). With his pay-out, he told my mother he'd buy her a car or a piano. She picked the piano -- this exact one -- because, by sixteen, she was a serious pianist, and she went onto study in college and then won a scholarship to study in Rome, but she'd met this handsome law student and married the guy, aka my Pops. 
A brilliant woman, her mind holds every detail of the past -- in particular any illness, who had it, how they got rid of it or how, exactly, it did them in -- as well as a meticulous memory for story -- who told her what, when, where, and why it was fascinating -- and catalog of all things -- I mean, where they are, what box, what label, what drawer -- and, most impressively -- a constantly shifting calendar of where all of her children, their partners, her thirteen grandchildren are at all times, which sometimes includes the entire globe. 
Before she sent me to school, she said, "One day, the teacher is going to ask for volunteers to bring in goodies for some kind of classroom party. As soon as she asks, you raise your hand and say, 'My mother will bring in the cups and napkins. Got it?" 
As I was her youngest and by 4th grade I took a bus to school and the bus driver wore fringed moccasins which indicated, to my mother, drug-use, I stayed home from school a lot. 
In fact, especially in 4th and 5th grade, she kept me home if it was raining or finally pretty out or even for her birthday. "You get off for the presidents' birthdays, but you wouldn't be alive without me!" 
In lieu of geography and chunks of math, I stayed learned how to play canasta, did some banking, and listened to my mother tell stories. She's a wonderful storyteller and taught me how stories should work in the most natural way possible -- by offering them and letting them unfold. 
She was the one who called up the head of the English department at Loyola University -- before I showed up for freshman year -- to ask if my education there would ruin my innate talent as a writer.
She was the one who dropped me off at grad school with the advice, "What ever you do don't fall in love with a poet." And when I told her a few weeks later that I wasn't dating an actor, she said, "Oh, dear Lord, you're dating a poet." (She also loves my husband as one of her own.)
My mother is the last person I'd have pegged as one day becoming Zen. She once shone a flashlight at me and my date parked in the driveway because, though she didn't want to interrupt, the car was running and she thought we might asphyxiate and die. (Note: We weren't in a garage. We didn't own a garage.) 
And we once passed another car on the highway while we were on vacation and noticed it was sparking. My father said, "Roll down your window and very calmly tell them to pull over."
My mother nodded, rolled down her window and screamed, "Your car's on FIRE! Your car's on fire!"
And yet, she's become very wise and all-accepting and she often takes the long view. She is the most loving person I know. 
Today, she and my dad are at noon yoga dance, which one has to pronounce VERY carefully or people think your parents are at NUDE yoga dance. 
I talked to her this morning and she said not to write about her. She told me I have too much on my plate, that I'd just written about my father. She may have even quoted her own mother who was forever telling me to rest my brain. No use. Here I am. 
She told me that my dad said, "Happy birthday" to her when she first woke up and she said, "I am happy." She told me that this felt true in a more meaningful way than ever, like such a gift. 
She is the gift.

On the Occasion of My Pops' 79th Birthday

It's my Pops birthday. I remember talking to a psychologist friend at a party who was explaining off-handedly the natural moment in becoming an adult when one realizes their parents don't really know everything. I was bewildered. What if your father actually knows an awful lot about so many things -- and fluidly guesses at what he doesn't know -- a brilliant, funny man with a gentle soul? What if you're lucky enough to have a father who's your chief adviser and primary counsel and foremost researcher and one of your best friends? 
My father is a man who still dances like Zorba the Greek in the kitchen, in fact, who dances almost daily at age 79, who was a corporate lawyer and engineer but most clearly valued my mother's role at home raising us. 
A man who would get home from work and start playing four-square with us in the street -- though, arguably, making more complex rules for the game -- who loves the theater and keeps a record of every play he's ever seen on stacks of index cards (how I could backtrack and figure out that he once took me to see TRUE WEST off-broadway with Malkovich and Sinise, when I was 13). 
A man who's so cheap he drove a car with no second gear for ages, used to have a canvas kind-of briefcase (that I once held out the window of that car -- holding it hostage until we could come to terms on radio stations), buys his Velcro shoes at Walmart -- and asks for his money back if they wear out too soon -- but who is incredibly generous about the things that matter to him the most -- education, travel, and his kids. 
A man who taught me how to argue, present my case, and stand my ground at the dining room table, who retired at 57 and, having talked about how much he valued my mother's work raising kids, actually walked the walk, driving carpools, making paper airplanes, playing every crazy made-up game my kids -- actually all 13 of his grandkids -- could come up with (and adding his own, again, rules to enrich the game), who offered to "build my wedding hat" -- he wasn't hired, but I appreciated the gesture. 
A man who chokes up when he sees heroism -- that pilot landing the plane in the Hudson -- a man who became a pilot himself after he retired. But who also chokes up in the same three scenes every time he watches THE PARENT TRAP with the grandkids. And now he writes books and writes his own mock-reviews -- which are the harshest and funniest reviews I've ever read. 
He's also clairvoyant -- but only in one area -- he dreams about his grandchildren before they're born. He once dreamed that his three daughters and one daughter in law were each holding a baby. It was highly unlikely that each of us would have a baby, for various reasons, but after three of us announced our pregnancies -- and one of my sisters who was finished having kids was getting very nervous -- my sister-in-law found out she was pregnant with twins. 
My father was also once visited by God in a dream. Not a hugely religious man -- though soulful -- it was a clear message -- and one that I try to teach -- that every person has a full and rich an interior life with dreams and fears and desires and we should meet each person with the understanding of their full humanity. He approaches his fellow humans this way, with great generosity. He's open-minded and kind and, if you sit close to him at a dinner party, you'll get the quippy side commentary, the wry Bill Baggott. 
Once when I was a freshman in college, I was getting off the phone with my father, and he'd said, "I like you," and I'd said, "I like you, too." It's different, at that age, than I love you -- you're just getting to know each other in a way... I didn't think much of it, but my roommate had overheard and said, "That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard." We hadn't meant to be sweet.
Happy Birthday to my Pops -- a man I like and love so very much. I'm so thankful to be your daughter, Snots.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

1/2 Dozen for R. Flowers Rivera

What a pleasure to introduce R. Flowers Rivera and her new collection Heathen. I love how she examines faith in this interview, as well as the day-to-day, multi-tasking, her perception of time and identity. 

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

My obsessions are quite consistent: Reading, writing, travel, yoga, perennial flower gardening, silence, sun, warmth, and open-ended time. Opening my calendar each morning always seems to cause a brief moment of panic. Therefore, I’d have to say I am more obsessed with open-ended time, which allows me to pursue all the others.

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?

Sometimes, the bolt of inspiration does strike me—but that was more my younger self—before children. However, now, usually it’s the concatenation of images and sounds that linger for days and weeks and months because my sons and their school administrators don’t look kindly upon parents who flake, so I attempt—to the best of my ability—to comply. Heathen started with the villanelle “A Siren Repents.” I liked the myth of the sirens as well as modern usage of the word. Then, poem-by-poem, I found other ways to re-enter the old myths, a means of re-interpreting them to reflect race, gender, class, orientation, and identity.

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

Being raised Catholic, I find solace in some of the traditions and rituals of the Church, but I also find it quite easy to reject doctrine I regard as offensive to my inherent sense of the interconnectedness of humanity. So, I consider myself a heathen soul. If you name some aspect of my identity—Catholic, Southern, mother, daughter, sister, spouse, parent, Black, bisexual—I know that questioning of dogma will arise in my reading and writing life. Still, it’s rare that I will abandon areas of my life where I’ve happened upon any glimmer of faith; I, as a result, am apt to expose, subvert, reconstruct as a means of survival.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

Balance? What’s that and where can I get some? I am the worst multi-tasker ever. Everything must be entered in our synced, family calendar—with alerts—because I have a tendency to lose myself in most whatever I’m doing, especially when that involves being with my family or reading or writing, and when I was teaching, the same issue presented itself. I slip into almost everything I’m doing, becoming lost in that flow. But I like operating that way, that ease of existing outside of time. The only exceptions I can think of involve the public side of being a spouse or a parent, for example, attempting to engage in small talk with other parents or attending business dinners with my husband. Then, if I haven’t found a place to hide or some other diversion, I can multi-task quite well as means of diverting my attention from the almost glacial slowing of time.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

My debut collection, Troubling Accents, felt organic. I’ve moved from the South to the northeast several times, in addition to living abroad in Singapore and traveling the Asia Pacific Rim. That moving back and forth has cemented my identity as an outsider, a perspective I find useful and alienating at once, yet it has solidified my identity as a Southerner who is willing to witness for as well as critique her homeplace. I’d have to say the flip-side would be the novel I’ve been sitting with and tinkering on for over a decade. At some point, I’m going to just have to slingshot that bear, not just excerpts, out into the world. And, no, I hadn’t a clue this beast would still be living with me all these years later.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

In terms of rejections, learn to embrace them—as much as you are able. Make literary journals and people, in general, tell you no, because each time you receive a rejection, each time someone says "not this time,” the no actually means you’ve taken a chance on your writing and, more importantly, on yourself.

R. Flowers Rivera is native of Mississippi, she completed a Ph.D. at Binghamton University and an M.A. at Hollins University. Xavier Review Press published her debut poetry collection, Troubling Accents (July 2013), which received a nomination from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and was selected by the Texas Authors Association as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. Rivera’s second collection, Heathen, has been selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2014 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press, March 2015). Her short story, “The Iron Bars,” won the 1999 Peregrine Prize, and she has been a finalist for the May Swenson Award, the Journal Intro Award, the Gary Snyder Memorial Award, the Paumanok Award, the Crab Orchard Series, and the Gival Poetry Prize as well as garnering nominations for Pushcarts. Currently, she lives in McKinney, Texas. 
View more of her work by visiting www.promethea.com.