Wednesday, September 30, 2009

maxine hong kingston

While this semester is certainly proving to be the most stressful of any semester I've experienced, as high school student or teacher or undergraduate, M.Ed student or MFA student, it is also is perhaps the most satisfying. Gone, though nowhere near fully, is that heavy question: What am I doing here? Present, now, is a sense of belonging, of fitting into the grooves, of finding a rhythm, and look: last night's reading was a blessing, truly, and tonight's event was no less so.

I've been in love with Kingston's use of language since the eleventh grade when my mother's AP Language class (indeed, I was a student of my mother's in high school, and no matter what troubles we may have had in the past, I will always be able to say this: she's a damn good teacher) had Woman Warrior as optional summer reading. Oh, such magic!

Easily, she's been in my top ten, fifteen favorite writers of all time based on that book. I've met a few of the others on that list (Sharon Olds and Margaret Atwood and Maxine Kumin and Kimiko Hahn come to mind).

Meeting authors, too, can be such a precarious experience. We risk becoming disappointed with those we have been star-struck with. Some are stand-offish, not interested in their audience, in budding writers, in participating with universities and the public but have strangely arrived, zipping through a reading with hand outstretched, but Kingston was truly not a writer in this category. One needn't have the experience of shaking her hand to know this; one only needed to sit in the audience tonight at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, where she actually lectured (oh my! a lecture for the Esther Freier Lecture series! a novelty!) about peace and achieving peace through art. I could feel it too, that intense calm enter the concert hall, that goodness which has followed me home, has mingled with the atmosphere of last night, and has left me happy to face this overwhelming semester, able, just a little, to whisper: bring it on.

(Side note: in case you cannot tell, I do event photography for the English department.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

micawber's | kate greenstreet + norma cole

There's something about this time of year, the swift switch from sweltering in bed to that collar tuggingly cold that is autumn, that makes sitting in one of the sweetest bookstores on the planet (we believe gnomes must live in the floorboards, truly) an incredibly cozy event. Top that with two of my favorite people, white holiday lights, the color of pumpkins, a stack of new books, and listening to two mind blowing poets read and with their own unique styles--it was a good night, a good end to a long day on campus.

I was first introduced to Kate Greenstreet's work via her first book interviews blog. Only tonight have I read one of her books, the now out-of-print chapbook Learning the Language, and I also picked up a copy of her first book case sensitive.

Her reading style was remarkable--she's so tiny and so quiet, the microphone needs to huddle up next to her, and the creaking of the music stand sounded like the creak of stairs late at night, only adding to that cozy ambiance I wish I could bottle up and return to when I need that happy-heart feeling.

Eric Lorberer introduced the second reader, Norma Cole, by talking about the blessing poetry has in small audiences (a sentiment with excellent timing for me as I spend my Monday evenings in memoir class being reminded that no one reads poetry, something I certainly struggle with as do all / most writers of poetry) because it "feels as if she is writing just for you." He was speaking of Cole, but I think this also wholly applies to Greenstreet's relationship with her audience; she read the poems as if they were a conversation and she knew we were speaking back, even if it wasn't out loud.

Norma Cole is both a poet and a translator, a combination which I've always admired, and she came to us with a selected works spanning 1988 to 2008, an amount of time I cannot imagine what might do to my own work. She had a stroke, which has affected her speech and stance, but not the power of her words.

Cole online: This poem reminds me a bit of the stairway installation at The Loft, and you can read some commentary over on Lemon Hound.

Here is a video of her reading. The sound is not wonderful, but you can get an idea of her work:

Monday, September 28, 2009

It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. -- Herman Melville (Moby-Dick)

Ordinarily, I would prefer to not cross-post, but I couldn't help but truncate this post with two from my everyday blog. Apologies to readers of both.

A tattoo is a true poetic creation, and is always more than meets the eye. As a tattoo is grounded on living skin, so its essence emotes a poignancy unique to the mortal human condition.
~V. Vale and Andrea Juno, Modern Primitives

While I was at Bread Loaf, I met this girl, whose name I can no longer recall, who had the most beautiful tattoo--a pair of poems twined together on her arm. I marveled at the tattoo from a distance, and snuck this shot during the Robert Frost talk at his cabin in the woods.I already knew of Shawn through Meryl, one of my fellow poets in the program, and we'd been emailing, discussing a tattoo Kelly and I have been considering for much too long. It takes a while for two people to settle into something permanent such as this, though I think the friendship took a bit less time.But when I saw the above tattoo, my lack of patience went into hyperdrive, and I began a dialogue with the ever patient Shawn on how to do something like this on my own arm.First: settling on the poem. It had to be something I loved, and though some, who I've told I'm getting a poem tattoo, have asked if it would be one of my own, I cringed--it seems narcissistic, and somehow, I don't believe my own words are at a place that could claim that kind of permanence. Not on my own body, especially.

Sharon Olds has always been my favorite poet. Since I was a junior in high school. And this poem speaks to me on so many levels, and that last line, oh, that last line:

I Go Back to May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

It felt so right. Which led to contemplation: what shape would this poem take? The above tattoo seems to be based on a flower, and I'd been hoping the poem I'd select would lend itself to something obvious--but no pillars, no paper dolls. Instead, Shawn suggested two of something, for the two figures in the poem, and if I weren't already talking birds with my friend Kelly, he'd suggest that one, which led me to wings--the poem in the end seems to be about a kind of freedom, a revenge to bad memories. Also, I read this from an interview with Sharon Olds:

What did you mean when you once said that your poetry comes out of your lungs?

[Laughs] Well, you know, it's curious where different people think their mind is. I guess a lot of people believe that their mind is in their brain, in their head. To me, the mind seems to be spread out in the whole body -- the senses are part of the brain. I guess they're not where the thinking is done. But poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought. Maybe we can use a metaphor for it, out of dance. I think for many years I was aware of the need, in dance and in life, to breathe deeply and to take in more air than we usually take in. I find a tendency in myself not to breathe very much. And certainly I have noticed, over the years, when dancing or when running, that ideas will come to my mind with the oxygen. Suddenly you're remembering something that you haven't thought of for years.

Wings, lungs. The senses, which are so important to both her work and my own.

So he sketched this for me:

Shawn has a special knack, I must add, for what he calls "illustrative realism." He creates these amazing creatures with such imagination.

Here are some of my favorites he has put up on his blog: book birdhouse and the opposite arm's bird as well as these shoulder doilies. Some other clever designs: the bird/swine flu, this crazed penguin, this brainwashed sheep, airline safety, the drag king and queen, and many others.

He added the words, and from a distance (hence, my keeping it thumbnail size), you can see the wings still:

But I also wanted to include the larger draft, so you could see the way all the words interact. My favorite about the top tattoo is the way the words interact, overlap, mingle.

Thank you, Shawn: for doing this in trade, for being so patient with me as I "line edited" the wings, for doing this on your day off, for being so encouraging, for having an awesome wife who was my own cheering section and reminds me how cool poetry is, for being so good at PhotoShop, for making art for all the world to see. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

(Need a tattoo and live in the area? Shawn's your man. Seriously.)

PS: All images, save the top one, and the one of him actually tattooing me, which was taken by Meryl, are copyright Shawn Hebrank. You can read Shawn's post about the not-to-be-repeated tattoo.

And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.
~Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

yesterday with jim shepard

The creative writing program hosts a number of visiting writers through the Edelstein-Keller fund, and fiction writer Jim Shepard was our first.

Images: (top: department head Ray Gonzalez; bottom: Professor Charles Baxter)

As events intern in the office, it fell upon me to drive Shepard to his interview at MPR--my first visit to the swanky St Paul offices. I sat in the green room, leaning into the old Sony radio, listening to the interview on Midmorning. He was sandwiched between a nurse practitioner at the Children's Hospital talking about H1N1 and a university doctor who does regular medical commentary, which, no doubt, returned to H1N1.

His day was completely packed: on Monday, he had manuscript conferences and dinner with second and third year fiction MFAs along with the creative writing faculty at former-director Julie Schumacher's house, and today, after the interview, he had lunch with MFAs along with more manuscript conferences, visits to thesis seminars, an interview with dislocate, and, of course, his reading and Q&A and reception, where he signed my copy: For Molly, in honor of her dogs and her love of non-fiction--All best, Jim Shepard. Given my ridiculous level of gullibility, I decided his note of my non-fiction love was tongue-in-cheek and not that he forgot I was the only poetry MFA to attend all events. (After all, I never mentioned that I do prose writing as well. Best to keep it simple.) The dogs, of course, is in reference to my car's console, which collapsed when he elbowed it, as one of the dogs destroyed it in an anxious leap from one end of the car to another one summer long ago. I didn't point out the hamster-chewed spot he was covering as we drove around. Or the stain from the hot wings from the M.Ed party I attended one winter so many years ago.

Right now, I'm reading his National Book Award-nominated Like You'd Understand, Anyway, which is incredibly research-heavy, setting stories in the Chernobyl disaster, on planes with geologists in Alaska, amongst Roman battles, and as I read, I'm sussing out the essentials of the stories and wondering how imperative it is, this wonderful research and dramatic backdrop, to the story itself: if the characters were redressed and placed in a contemporary setting, as some of these stories are (in a teenager's home, on the football field), would the poignancy be lost?

Side note: As a kindness, please ask permission before you use any photos of mine. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

what is found there

It is not for lack of topics or lack of movement and thought that this blog has so many gaping moments of quiet. It is from sheer exhaustion, from pulling myself along by inches, from one day to the next. Today's was no exception--starting with chauffeuring visiting writer Jim Shepard to his MPR interview and ending with handing out ziploc baggies to graduate students so they could take the leftover hors d'oeuvres home. (Hey, we haven't been paid since the beginning of June.)

I do want to show pictures I took from tonight's reading, want to share some thoughts about teaching freshmen writing, want to transcribe my notes from Trish's first two memoir classes, but tonight, before I stumble up to bed, confused at just how those stairs got to be so steep anyway, I want to share this: I have a little collective, a collection of four other women poets, and I am grateful for them. Tonight, we took a look at my haphazard chapbook draft and despite the clear indications of my eyelids that I am, indeed, very very tired, I also feel this strange sense of energy and purpose and excitement at sitting down and shuffling and clipping and tidying and generating and slicing and injecting. The work of revising terrifies me, mostly because I don't want to destroy a good thing or conflate a bad, but I'm gaining confidence, and with these four voices behind me, I feel almost brave, almost ready to polish and push this thing out into the world. A knock from the nest, so to speak.

Monday, September 14, 2009

While at Bread Loaf, I eased myself into Dickinson studies by reading The Poet and the Murderer, which is deceptive with its Dickinson cover and double billing in the title, but I learned more on how to counterfeit rare documents and coins and the rejection of Mormonism by said murderer than anything else.

Despite this, I culled two quotes to keep in mind as I read that brick that is her collected poems over the next few weeks, the second being particularly significant as I am studying Bishop later in the semester:

[Dickinson's nephew Ned] lived next door to hear at the Evergreens, and Dickinson, who never had children of her own, adored him. The feeling seems to have been reciprocated. Ned frequently ran across from the Evergreens to visit his brilliant, eccentric aunt. On one occasion he left his rubber boots behind. Dickinson sent them back on a silver tray, their tops stuffed with flowers.
- Simon Worrall, The Poet and the Murderer, pg. 6

[Harvard scholar Thomas] Johnson's edition also plucked a shy girl from Massachusetts out of her self-chosen seclusion and turned her into the It girl of modern American Poetry. "I like, or at least I admire, her a great deal more now," the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell in 1956, "probably because of that good new edition, really. I spent another stretch absorbed in that, and think... that she's about the best we have."
- pg. 25

Sunday, September 13, 2009

mfa launch party

(Ray Gonzalez, current department head)

(Julie Shumacher, previous department head)

(Josh + Colleen, managing editor and editor-in-chief of dislocate)
(Colleen is also a member of the == collective)

second Colleen, also ==

At a space deeply ensconced in F. Scott Fitzgerald mythology, the MFAs of the 2009-2010 school year gathered for a bit of schmoozing. There was a bit of bobbing up-and-down as we introduced ourselves to the group, explaining our roles within this institution, and I tried to remember if I'd had caviar before this night.

Our first week is behind us and I'm still a bit worn at the edges, a weekend spent away with family and friends and a return to rigor, to three fully formed days on campus a week. Tomorrow: a four hour block of time as the creative writing office intern, a meeting with fellow MFAers to discuss the possibility of a joint critical essay which could take us to NYC, and an evening course on the memoir with Trish Hampl.