Hear Me on WBHM!

I think I wanted to give language to the kinds of experiences that women rarely talk about and the kind of introspection that I think is necessary to, I suppose, find the life that you really want rather than the life that other people tell you you should want. Maybe there’s somebody out here that’s experiencing what I experienced and if they pick up this book they won’t have to go through it and feel as lonely as I did.

WBHM Pic

As long as I can remember living, public radio has been part of my life. I grew up listening to WBHM 90.3, our local NPR station. I always dreamed of some day, one day, talking about my writing on WBHM. That dream came true last week, when I sat down with Andrew Yeager, a remarkably kind, patient, and brilliant reader and interviewer, to talk about my new book, House Is an Enigma

If you missed the story today or you’re not in the ‘Ham, the interview’s now up on their website. You can hear me read and talk about two poems in the collection, “House Is the Word My Doctors Used For My Body” and “Beyond Love.”

And I wouldn’t be a public radio nerd if I didn’t mention that you should definitely donate to your local NPR station. I’ve always appreciated public radio — at this point in my life, I listen to NPR more than I watch television — but, after being in the studio, I realized that I never quite appreciated it as much as I should have. Andrew’s a brilliant interviewer and editor, and watching the team in motion in the midst of a fundraiser was beyond inspiring. These people are doing the real work, y’all, and it’s really important — now more than ever — that listeners support it.

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Summer Reading List

This is an entry about my Summer Reading List, which is part of my effort to stop having these strange little camps of books wandering all around my apartment.

This is an entry about my Summer Reading List, which is part of my effort to stop having these strange little camps of books wandering all around my apartment.

I’m still totally jazzed about reading and books and stuff, despite the seemingly endless continued continuation of Circumstances.  I’m also jazzed about talking about reading and books and stuff.  I’m also also jazzed about finding new books to read and stuff.  Therefore, I’m posting the recently-or-close-enough-to-recently released books on my As Of Right Now (Meaning 6:58 PM On Sunday, June 30th) Summer Reading List (Subject To Shift, Change, And/Or Especially Probably Expand As Soon As 6:59 PM On Sunday, June 30th).  I’m posting this in the hope that you, Gentle Blog Visitor, will also be jazzed about reading one or more of the books on this As Of Right Now List, and that you would also be jazzed and willing to talk about them.  I’m also posting this in the hope that you, Gentle Blog Visitor, can help this list expand — I’m always looking for new reads, especially ones that others are totally jazzed about.

My As Of Right Now (Meaning 6:58 PM On Sunday, June 30th) Summer Reading List (Subject To Shift, Change, And/Or Especially Probably Expand As Soon As 6:59 PM On Sunday, June 30th)

Fuse by Julianna Baggott: Okay, I’m kind of cheating with this one, so I figured I’d put it first as a warning: this blog entry, as a whole, is probably going to be a disappointment.  Sorry.  But I do have my reasons for posting this, which are mostly related to a heartfelt desire to find other fans of the Pure trilogy willing to FREAK OUT EXTREMELY about how amazing these books are.  I mean, SERIOUSLY.  I can’t even LANGUAGE.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris: I’m cheating here, too.  Sorry.  I’m a little more than halfway through this book, though I must admit that I’m making my way through it very, very slowly.  It just doesn’t seem as Sedarisish as other Sedaris books, and I love some Sedarisishness.  Still, it has been a very educational read.  For instance, I just finished one essay (which did seem to have some relatively Sedarisish moments) called “Laugh, Kookaburra,” through which I discovered that a kookaburra looks like this:

This is an actual kookaburra.

This is an actual kookaburra.

Which was a good lesson, since I though a kookaburra looked like this:

This is not an actual kookaburra.  Should it be?  I'll leave that to you to decide.

This is not an actual kookaburra. Should it be? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Also, my dad says there’s an essay about how good colonoscopy drugs are, which seems both ultimately Sedarishish and very, very accurate.

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee:  The cheating, as you may have guessed, is a running theme.  I’ve read the main story in this sure-to-be-too-awesome-to-language collection in the single-story-book from Madras Press.  Actually, you should follow that link and buy all of their books.  I’ll wait.  Are you back?  Good.  Anyway, it’s basically the most beautifully written story ever, and I want everyone to read it so we can talk about the sentence about supping.  And because Rebecca Lee is the kind of writer who defines brilliance.  Also, Oprah wants you to read it, and are you going to disobey Oprah?  I didn’t think so.

Clearly Now, the Rain: A Memoir of Love and Other Trips by Eli Hastings: I actually haven’t cheated when it comes to this item, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.  From what I’ve seen, it’s an eloquent exploration of Hastings’ friendship with a woman named Serala, who’s painted in layered strokes in all of her complexity.  If it’s anything like Hastings’ Falling Room, we’re in for a gorgeously constructed trip.

Safe in Your Head by Laura Valeri:  I have been lucky enough to hear Valeri read from this collection, so I guess I have cheated here, too.  But it’s a good kind of cheating because it means I can say this: if you can hear Valeri read, do it.  She brings new life to already-jumping-off-the-page-with-life stories.  I can’t wait to crack open this collection, about an Italian family who emigrates to America to escape the Red Brigades’ movement.

We Come Elemental by Tamiko Beyer: I’m stoked-beyond-stoked for this and the next book on the list.  Pick up any literary journal, and you’ll find Tamiko Beyer just freaking killing it with her poems.  Every single time, she shows language who’s boss, and language is glad to be bossed.  A masterful poet whose work is finally gathered in a collection.

Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann: Take what I said about the stoked and the literary journals and the freaking killing it with poems above, and repeat, with Matthew Olzmann’s name.  Olzmann’s poems feel more traditional in form, but they also feel as though Olzmann shows traditional form that he is the boss and traditional form is thanking him.  As it should.

Red Doc by Anne Carson: So, I’ve actually had this book for a long time, I just haven’t read it.  Or, well, I’ve read bits and pieces of it, and those bits and pieces are crazy.  Like, Anne Carson crazy, which means crazy in an oh-no-she-didn’t-holy-crap-she-DID-and-it-was-AWESOME kind of way.  Let’s all just be honest and admit that none of us understand Anne Carson, and we probably won’t.  And that’s okay.  I remember reading an interview in which Carson says that none of us will ever understand God, and that’s okay, because the fact that none of us will understand God is one of the things that makes God God.  Think about that for a minute.  I mean, RIGHT?  And that’s how I feel about Anne Carson.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed: No, I haven’t read Dear Sugar’s book yet.  And no, I’m not caught up when it comes to the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus.  I’m not even caught up on The Rumpus.  I don’t have one of those Write Like An [Expletive Deleted] mugs like all the cool kids do.  I’ve had things to do, okay?  Important things.  Really important things.  Like, educating the youth of America and writing books and learning how to crochet granny squares.  Okay, maybe not that last part.  I’ll read Dear Sugar’s book, okay?  God.  Thanks for the peer pressure.

There is no Frigate like Book

There are a few small but appreciable benefits from dealing with Circumstances, and all stem from the fact that Circumstances tend to make one re-evaluate and re-think — and Circumstances often give one the time one needs to re-evaluate and re-think.

That sentence was hella awkward.

In less vague and oddly formal third-person terms, I guess I could say that, every so often, it seems like I go through Circumstances that require me to sit back and think about what I’m doing with and in my life, about what really matters to me and on/with what I need to spend the precious-beyond-precious time I have.  And for me, time and time again, the answer is always the same answer: words.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

I think that most, if not all, writers come to write because they love words, which means they love to read.  Most, if not all, of us have a moment tucked inside of us, a moment when words suddenly became more than words, when words unfurled inside the mind into something as enormous and wonderful and even slightly frightening as Jack’s beanstalk, and with its power to transport.

That’s the frightening part — the power — and also the tremendously beautiful part.  It’s what every writer, I think, is, in the end, chasing: the power to transport herself and someone else, in the same was as she herself has been transported, through words.  When I was a little girl, my father took me to the library every weekend, and I remember walking from shelf to shelf, pulling books off the shelves and opening them into Vs, reading random paragraphs to find which ones I wanted to take home.  I always knew when I found the right one: the shelves vanished, the library vanished, the entire state of Alabama vanished, and I vanished with them.  It was just the words, the world that they made.

The Circumstances through which I’m currently moving and living have given me, wondrously, the quiet time I needed to spend with words — both with my own and with others’.  It’s the kind of quiet time I need, from time to time, to recharge.  I think it’s very easy, especially if you’re a person who’s trying to get published or whose job related to words, to get discouraged, to let the rejections overtake you, to lose faith in your own language.  Or, at least, that’s what happens to me, and it happens far more easily and frequently than I often admit.  It’s also very easy to get so wrapped up in publishing and competition and ego (or lack thereof) to the point where your own words aren’t necessarily your own.  It’s easy to forget the small miracle that happens every time a pen hits a page.  It’s easy to forget that more often than not, the writer isn’t the one in control.  The words are.  A writer’s place isn’t in speaking.  It’s in listening.

Reading — living, for a few hundred pages or so, in another’s world, living and listening and loving through and in their words — is the way I remember this.  It’s the way I return, again and again, to the sense of awe that made me begin writing myself.  I mean this in several senses of the word: amazement, yes, but also fear, and the sense of reverence that comes from wonder and terror.  I mean this in the sense of respect of language itself, of how letters and words and sentences build upon themselves, seemingly of their own volition and power.

Though the Circumstances I’m dealing with this summer aren’t necessarily the most pleasant Circumstances, I’m very grateful for them.  They’ve given me the space I need to sit and be quiet and read.  They’ve given me the space I need to remember: I’m still the girl standing somewhere in the vacuum of vanished space and time, a book an open bird in my hand.  I’m still there, in awe of the words, of the world they make.

Home, Where My Love Lies Waiting, Silently For Me

I’m about to write something I never thought I would write.

First, some background: I love Lia Purpura. Like, LOVE. Her On Looking is on the list of Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read And I Mean Seriously. It’s the book that led me to write nonfiction. It’s the book that taught me what nonfiction could and should be, that gave me a glimpse at all of its gorgeous, glimmering possibilities. It’s a book that changed my life and the way I look at it, and therefore changed my very world. I won’t say how many times I’ve read it by now because the number is probably not healthy. I will say that I mention her in my classes at least once a week. I will also say that when I found out she had a new book coming out, I put it on my Advanced Creative Nonfiction syllabus immediately, no questions asked, done.

And then I read it.

There’s no question that Rough Likeness is a gorgeous book, full of the kinds of lyric twists and turns that make you know, and deeply, exactly what Dickinson meant when she wrote that good writing makes her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.” It’s the type of writing that changes the way you think. I was overjoyed to dwell in Purpura’s world again, to be given the gift of it, to see the world as she sees.

And then I got to the center of the book, to an essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here.” And this is exactly where things, for me, went awry. It’s then that the world Purpura looks at is my world, the world I grew up in, or at least a highway’s short stretch away: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s the world where I ate lasagna and banana pudding on holidays, where I learned to call the adults I loved deeply Miss or Mister and then their first name just so they’d know, every time I saw them, how dearly I loved them. It’s the world where I learned when to wear summer white and winter white, where I had so many aunts and uncles that it was sometimes hard to know who I was actually related to, since family went beyond that. It’s the world of my family, of all the love and struggle that word contains, a world of hills ever-tinted green and mountains sliced open to reveal their ribs of iron ore. It’s the world I’ve seen for all of my nearly thirty-three years, and now, it was the world I was seeing as Purpura saw it, and all I could think was no, oh no, no Lia, not you too.

Here’s how it began:

Here is a farmer entering a black field.  He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm.  But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can [….] He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun.  His hat’s a tattered, red, GO BAMA cap.

I won’t go on.

God knows I don’t need to: the image of the Southerner as field-hand is common enough, though I’m not sure why it’s derogatory.  It takes a great deal of education and intelligence to work a field, though that matters little, anyway: why should any person’s life turn into an insult? Why can’t a field-hand be smart and kind and generous enough? And why is any person seen somehow as not enough, based on what they do or where they are from?

I read quickly through the rest of the essay, hoping she would transform it, hoping she would give to my home the same kind of miracle her writing had so often given to me, hoping she wouldn’t instead add insult to a town that has so strongly and gracefully dealt with very literal injury (see: the tornadoes of April 2011, almost exactly two years ago now).

Here is how the essay ends:

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.
Now I know.
People learn to fly through it.  And then they go home.

Is it too much to say my heart broke?  And more than a little?

On my first reading, I told myself her work had done its trick. I told myself she had turned this place into a metaphor for all places, for the transformative power that could be found every- and anywhere. But on my second read, I was unsettled. I could no longer shake from the language its implication: that the place I call home has worth only as a way-station, not as an end but as a means to teach visitors what they need to know and how not to be — she mentions again, near the end, the man working with fertilizer, her “farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose).” And if the worth of the place is as a means to teach outsiders, well, then what about insiders?  What about the people who fly in it, and stay there, as home?

The thing about implications like those are that they, simply stated, hurt. They imply that Southerners are unintelligent, are somehow lesser because of where they were born.

I’m not here to deny that the South has a cruel and terrible and terrifying history, which is often not history, in a way that grieves and hurts me.  I’m not here to say the South isn’t complicated, isn’t often a boiling mix of hate and love of appearances.  I’m also not saying that my own relationship with the South isn’t complicated.  I do write as someone who flew away, but also as someone who flew home.  I write as someone who believed that she wasn’t good enough because of where she came from, and wouldn’t be any good unless she moved away. Even as a little girl, I swore that as soon as I turned eighteen, I’d move away. And I did, to New York, where I went to school and found a lot of people who were very kind, but also a lot of people who were very willing to back up all I’d believed.

Take my roommate, who, on day three of my first week as a freshman, admitted she’d cried for weeks when she found out her roommate was from Alabama.

Take the fellow student in my American Social History class who said I didn’t have the right to talk about ethnic groups because I was from the South and therefore had to be prejudiced against them.  We were discussing Irish and Italian immigrants.  My mother’s maiden name is Lanza.

Take all of the professors who asked how I’d learned to read so well and what my people farmed. And take the fact that this was the school I went to after my disastrous interview at another New England school, which began with the admissions director asking if I had had any contact with people of other races or who were part of other ethnic groups, because New England College X prized diversity and worried about admitting a Southerner, since they worried a Southerner wouldn’t – and couldn’t — value diversity.

You might say I’m being oversensitive. Fine. I’m being oversensitive.

But imagine this: you’re at orientation for your first academic job, back in your home state. You spend all day with people who ask if their students will be able to read, and if so, if any of them can read above a grade-school level. They ask if students chew tobacco in the classrooms. They ask if they know how to speak, really, since most people don’t really speak English down here, do they? They sigh and say that they just have to do what they can, and not expect too much. Sit in a room and have everyone joke about how, in Alabama, you have to set your watch back a century instead of an hour. Then, have to tell them you’re from Alabama. Deal with the questions: how can you do this job? I mean, how did you learn to read?

Or go out for a drink with a group of friends. Get pulled into a corner conversation where someone has gotten wine-weepy. She’s crying, she says, because she has to wait until she moves to have children. She doesn’t want her child to be a Southerner. She wants her child to be educated and tolerant and smart, which — it isn’t even implied, it’s said — can’t happen in the South. She doesn’t want a slack-jawed idiot.

Repeat these situations. A lot. As in, on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily. Exchange the players, the sayers. Add some of the men who have said they’re in love with you. Add your dearest, closest friend. Add the writer who changed your life.

Tell me I am oversensitive.

Tell me it doesn’t hurt.

In the end, I think, perhaps Purpura’s essay did transform me.  Perhaps it did teach an important lesson, showing me something new about looking, how once you’ve lived inside something, it’s never easy to look at in one way.  The story becomes multi-faceted, complicated.  Or, perhaps, the story becomes something larger, becomes something that has so little to do with you.

When I think of Tuscaloosa, I look at parts of my own story, parts which, once looked at, become large.  It’s the place where my grandmother spoke her last words to me, where my mother and father watched her die in one of the country’s best Hospice centers, where we were taught about that terrible and beautiful moment when we all must leave our home, this earth, and where it was calm and peaceful and she was allowed to die with dignity. That’s what this place has taught me, and I will fly to it, again and again, as my home.

 

“And on the radio you hear ‘November Rain;’ that solo’s awful long, but it’s got a good refrain.”*

People of the Interwebs:

Listen.

It’s April fourth.  I live in south Georgia.  Like, coastal south Georgia.  And it’s cold.  It’s cold and awful and rainy and generally so terrible weather-wise that Gertrude Stein has been inspired to spend all day and night singing her “Cold and Awful and Rainy and Generally So Terrible

This is a picture of Gertrude Stein, taken as I type.  She's this close to my face.  And singing.  It's a lot to deal with.

This is a picture of Gertrude Stein, taken as I type. She’s this close to my face. And singing. It’s a lot to deal with.

Weather” aria, which is the saddest song in Gertrude Stein’s entire repertoire, besides the “You Didn’t Set You Alarm and I Realize You Want to Sleep In But Hey, Treats?” aria.

However, it’s April.  It’s National Poetry Month, and if poetry celebrates anything, it’s anything that’s cold and awful.  Therefore, I’m making the best of the weather and looking for the best in today — and one of the best things is this announcement: I’m going to be on the radio tomorrow.

No, really.  Someone is actually going to let me talk on the radio without the FCC present.

That someone is the wonderful and talented and generally amazing Katrina Murphy, who’s invited me to join her on her wonderful and talent-filled and generally amazing radio show, Questions That Bother Me So.  The show will stream live tomorrow from 1:00 – 3:00 Eastern time (I think — Eastern time, right?  Like the one that the East coast is on?  Time zones are confusing and I can’t think about them too much because I start thinking about how time is just a construct and then I get confused).  You can listen along here (go to “shows,” then “Questions That Bother Me So”), and I’ll be live-Tweeting the experience from my Twitter feed.  There will also be a chat room.  It’s going to be totally meta.  Topics to be discussed may or may not include poetry, National Poetry Month, Maleficae, witches, witch trials, witch burnings, writing poetry about witch trials and burnings, cats, velociraptors, sloths, and more poetry.  It’s going to be awesome.  The last time I was on the radio, I had pink eye and a kidney stone, and I still managed not to drop an F-bomb, which was a major triumph, as you know if you’ve ever had a kidney stone or, like, been in a room with me.  This time, I probably also have a kidney stone, but hey, no pink eye.  Let the F-bombless awesome commence.

And there are other exciting things afoot, so please keep your eyes on this small section of the Intertubes.  In the meantime, here are some pictures of how I tried to make the best out of this gray and cold and awful day.

If there's one thing I'm very good at, it's losing my reading glasses. I had a gorgeous green pair that I left somewhere in the Charlotte airport, or possibly on an airplane.  Or somehow in the sky.  I still miss them.  I was thrilled when I came into my classroom today and found that my glasses were still where I apparently left them on Tuesday.  Rainy day triumph number ONE.

If there’s one thing I’m very good at, it’s losing my reading glasses. I had a gorgeous green pair that I left somewhere in the Charlotte airport, or possibly on an airplane. Or somehow in the sky. I still miss them. I was thrilled when I came into my classroom today and found that my glasses were still where I apparently left them on Tuesday. Rainy day triumph number ONE.

Seriously, the weather today? TERRIBLE.  I decided to make the best of it by making it into an exercise.  My students had to complete this sentence -- "The weather was ____" -- fifteen times.  If they used weather words, like cold and rainy and awful, they had to use a simile.  I did the exercise along with them and ended up with my poem for today.  RAINY DAY TRIUMPH TWO.

Seriously, the weather today? TERRIBLE. I decided to make the best of it by making it into an exercise. My students had to complete this sentence — “The weather was ____” — fifteen times. If they used weather words, like cold and rainy and awful, they had to use a simile. I did the exercise along with them and ended up with my poem for today. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH TWO.

A few months ago, Alice took this Purr Pad out of a chair and pushed it across the room, right next to the front door. Today I found out why: she sits here to wait for me to get home from work. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH THREE.  CUTENESS TRIUMPH INFINITY.

A few months ago, Alice took this Purr Pad out of a chair and pushed it across the room, right next to the front door. Today I found out why: she sits here to wait for me to get home from work. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH THREE. CUTENESS TRIUMPH INFINITY.

Chinese take-out once again proves it's the best boyfriend ever.  RAINY DAY TRIUMPH FOUR. Well, plus Chinese food in general, and food that's delivered to the door, both of which are always triumphs.

Chinese take-out once again proves it’s the best boyfriend ever. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH FOUR. Well, plus Chinese food in general, and food that’s delivered to the door, both of which are always triumphs.

* Bonus points to anyone who catches the reference in this post’s title!