Charles Wright poem on Poetry Daily today

I love the work of poet Charles Wright, and I loved the two poems from his book Caribou, reprinted on Poetry Daily today.

Enjoy!

——-

My Old Clinch Mountain Home

I keep on hoping a theme will bite me,
                                                       and leave its two wounds
In my upper arm and in my heart.
A story line of great destiny,
                                         or fate at least.
It’s got to be serious, as my poor flesh is serious.
So, dog, show me your teeth and bite me.
                                                            Show me some love.

Such little consequence, our desires.
Better to be the last chronicler of twilight, and its aftermath.
Better to let your hair swing loose, and dust up the earth.
I’d like to be a prophet,
                                  with animals at my heels.
I’d like to have a staff, and issue out water wherever it fell.

Lord, how time does alter us,
                                          it goes without saying.
There is an afterlight that follows us,
                                                     and fades as clockticks fade.
Eventually we stand on it puddled under our shoes.
The darkness that huddles there
Is like the dew that settles upon the flowers,
                                                               invisible, cold, and everywhere.

When the wind comes, and the snow repeats us,
                                                                     how like our warped lives it is,
Melting objects, disappearing sounds
Like lichen on gnarled rocks.
For we have lived in the wind, and loosened ourselves like ice melt.
Nothing can hold us, I’ve come to know.
                                                           Nothing, I say.

–Charles Wright, from Caribou, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

 

Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

photo-11I recently finished Maria Semple’s fun novel This One is Mine, and it threw me for a bit of a loop. At first it read like typical plot-driven fiction, with blow jobs and heroin-shooting and infidelity jam-packed into the first few pages. You know, the kind of book you can’t put down. The plot moves quickly, the vapid LA landscape is perfectly rendered–but I kept thinking to myself, do I actually like any of these characters? And the answer was: no.

Ah, but the loop: by the end, I did. Semple somehow casually inserted enough humanizing details that she began to make us like and pity the self-professed asshole, the valley girl, the cheating wife, the drug-addicted lover. I felt like I’d somehow gotten the wrong first impression and, sheepish, had decided to look again.

Tricky, maybe, but a welcome and refreshing change to what I’ve been thinking of as the Anti-Hero Problem. Lately it feels like everything I read–and certainly, everything I watch–is filled with anti-heroes. My hubs B and I are talking about it. He couldn’t stomach the entire season of Breaking Bad because he despised everyone too much after a while (I didn’t even try). We’re onto House of Cards now, and, while I have to confess I’m pretty into it, there’s a part of me that’s wondering which characters I’m rooting for. I’ve felt this way about so many TV series I’ve tried to get into, and so many books, too. I read a Carl Hiaasen novel a while back and disliked everyone. And I’ve talked before about my issues with excellent writers like Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen, writers whose work I so admire but whose characters I have trouble respecting. It seems to me it’s become very cool to be…unlikeable.

Am I crazy? Is anyone else noticing this penchant for the anti-hero?

Back to Semple; I did really admire the subtle way she shifted the landscape in This One is Mine. I don’t know her work very well (though Susan Szafir interviewed her over on Popcorn a while back, which you should read!), but I think I’d like to read more.

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

I got a rejection from a literary magazine the other day. It was simply awful. It was awful because they’d had my essay for eight months, and because the assistant had emailed me three times to tell me that she was grateful for my patience and was passing my work on to the editors and would get back to me soon. For those not in the know, that kind of language usually means, “I have read and liked your piece, so I’m passing it on to the big guns, and I hope they agree with me that we should publish it, but of course we’re all disorganized and the meeting keeps getting postponed.” Sure, the waiting was tedious. But mostly, the rejection was awful because—well, here, read it:

So, I touched base with our assistant editors and they decided it wouldn’t be a good fit at this point for our magazine. After reading it, I tend to agree. You can take this or leave this, but I do want to encourage you to keep writing, and perhaps even put this piece away for a while, and come back to edit it after you’ve written other things. The challenge with this piece is making something that didn’t happen become just as climatic as what ends up happening. Writers that seem to know how to do that well— Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” and pretty much anything written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Thank you for your patience, and good luck on your endeavors.

Dude. I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years. And in one small paragraph I was reduced to….eighteen. Inexperienced. As if I hadn’t heard the whole “put it in a drawer and come back to it later” thing before. As if Kerouac was news to me. As if I hadn’t already “written other things.” But thank God she encouraged me to keep writing, because in that moment I did have the thought that if I can’t fool someone into thinking I have an iota of experience and talent, I probably should just

stop

writing

right

now.

But as my new philosophy for 2014 is to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided that instead of strangling with the desire to write back that if she didn’t think the essay was any good herself, likely she should not have wasted all of our time by passing it on to the editors in the first place, I’d share that rejection here on my blog. There it is, folks. Eat your heart out.

And I got to thinking about rejection.

I have a folder in a file cabinet labeled “Rejections,” and I pulled it out this morning and sifted through it. There are 282 rejections in the folder, which predates electronic submissions and thus represents a small fraction of those I have actually received in my lifetime (now I keep track on an Excel spreadsheet). In that folder I found form slips; form slips with a human signature or a brief quip; and longer, typed, personal letters telling me how close I had gotten. There are rejections from lit mags, from literary contests, from writing fellowships, and from famous magazines that actually gave me the time of day before telling me I just didn’t quite cut it. There were rejections that it was very hard to see again—like the one from 2004 telling me I’d been a runner-up in a prestigious book contest but that ultimately, the judge had chosen the other poet over me. And of course, The Fulbright committee telling me that even though I’d made it to the last stage of the process, they couldn’t fund my year studying poetry in England.

And there were quite a few little gems.

This one, from a famous literary agent, cracked me up not because she said no—I’d expected as much—but because of the dangling participle in the third line:

photo-11

“While interesting, Ms. X did not have enough enthusiasm to take on your book.”

I’m bummed Ms. X is not enthusiastic about my memoir, but I’m sure glad to learn that she’s interesting.

And I loved this one, so chatty, so kind, about an essay I’d written (and forgotten about entirely!) on the poet Louise Bogan:

Bogan

And then there was this one, from a tiny literary mag I am quite sure does not exist anymore. I felt sad that the man’s wife was “gravely ill,” but I thought the gesture of returning my stamp entirely human and kind:

FreeLunch

Thank you, editor. You can see I used the stamp. Probably to send out more poems.

This trip down rejection memory lane has brought home a couple of things for me. The most surprising was the wistfulness I felt, not about having been rejected so many times, but for the period in my life when I felt so optimistic as to send out hundreds of poems every year. For a time when editors wrote sweet notes about moving offices and sick wives. It reminded me that my poetry seemed to get close a lot—many of the rejections are kind, handwritten ones—and it makes me wonder if I gave it up too soon. On the other hand, it reminds me why I did: poetry, with all its rejection, and a readership the size of a rejection slip, was beginning to feel like a dead end.

And I thought about how much better it is to know than to not know. One thing that folder gives me is—I hate this word, but—closure. Nowadays you’re as likely to hear anything at all as you are to hear that you’re being published (which is to say, not likely at all). The radio silence is the worst.

Of course I ruminated on the part that rejection plays in my work and in all writers’ work. In order to get published, you have to send out, and usually, you get rejected. It’s depressing, it’s demoralizing, it’s sometimes soul-crushing, but at the end of the day, it’s also the only way. Some days, I have better luck remaining dispassionate.

And, of course, I thought about the rejection slip as metaphor for life: how many things we fail at, every day. How many times each of us is told no—by a boss, a boyfriend, a crush, an editor, a publisher, a friend, a bureaucrat, a teacher, a student, a kid, a parent, a loan officer, a landlord, a blood test.

I’ll close with one last rejection, that I read and remembered fondly. It’s from a poet who’s pretty well known, who worked for a journal that was also pretty well known, and I recall approaching him at a reading a few months after I got this note. He remembered me, and I thought how cool he was. Though his journal didn’t take my poems, it helped me to hear that at least he thought I was writing “very sweet, very good lyric poems” that he happened to like.

NiceRejection

Here’s to rejections. And lemonade!

The 2013 Literary Gift Guide

This post originally appeared over on popcorntheblog.

Sleigh bells ring…are you listening? I am. The temperatures have plummeted in California, leaving me in a mind of Christmas. I’m all geared up for eggnog, bourbon balls, and reading a good book by the fire. If you don’t celebrate Christmas—and you missed Hannukah—there’s always Solstice, Kwanzaa, and the new year. So what’s on the wishlist for your favorite writer, reader, and lover of all things literary this holiday season?

Read on, my friend.

photo-81. Her very own teapot. Or French press. My cousin gave me this delicious little stacking teapot for my birthday a couple of years ago, and I adore it. While I don’t have a writing study at home, if I did you can bet this little number would be ensconced on the desk. Because I have yet to meet a writer or reader who doesn’t like a little caffeine with her words. You can find a similar one at etsy.

2. That good book. My fave reads in 2013 included Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, Katie Williams’s Absent, Augusten Burrough’s Dry, Nancy Bachrach’s The Center of the Universe, and Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. On my wishlist for 2014: our very own Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, as well as Full by Kimber Simpkins and Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. For more ideas, check out my post “Twenty Novels I’m Grateful For,” The Barnes and Noble Best Books of 2013, and the Goodreads Best Books of 2013.

Image used with permission of full-spectrum apparel.

Image used with permission of full-spectrum apparel.

3. While you’re over at etsy trolling for stacking teapots, also check out the amazing “Freedom of Speech” T shirt. Love it!

4. Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist. This idea comes from the great blog Yummy Books and its “Food & Literature Gift Guide,” which has some more wonderful ideas. My favorite of the Tequila Mockingbird recipes? “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margarita.”

5. While you’re at it, how about a bottle of booze? St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, makes some beautiful, if expensive, bottles.

6. A notebook, of course! Etsy is a great source for journals, as is your local bookstore, where I found these fun Decomposition Books.

photo-77. A book light. I never use these, but when I saw some on display at my local bookstore, I snapped a pic. Might be less cumbersome than a flashlight for late-night, clandestine reading. And you could take it camping!

8. Time. Offer to watch the kids for an afternoon, or buy her some time at a local co-working space.

9. Vintage bookends. I bought the brass horse heads for my sister-in-law from etsy a few years back, and have been coveting them for myself since.

IMG_050610. A donation in her name to a worthy literary organization like 826 Valencia, A Chance through Literacy, or her local library.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Also see:

2012 Literary Gift Guide

Food & Literature Gift Guide

Christmas Literary Gift Guide from So Many Books, So Little Time

Twenty Novels I’m Grateful For

I had this idea to choose twenty books I was thankful for as an homage to one of my favorite holidays, Thanksgiving. But then I realized I couldn’t choose only twenty, or decide which to include. So welcome to my multi-part series, Books I’m Grateful For, with today’s installment: novels. (Still to come: poetry! And more.)

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. I’m thankful for so much this year, and I hope you are, too.

Twenty Novels I’m Grateful For:

1. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

2. The Longest Journey, E.M. Forster

3. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

photo-44. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

5. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

6. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

7. Room, Emma Donoghue

8. The White Bone, Barbara Gowdy

9. Spartina, John Casey

10. The Color Purple, Alice Walker

11. The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Thank you google images

Thank you google images

12. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

13. Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson

14. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

15. Possession, A.S. Byatt

16. Disgrace, JM Coetzee

17. Another Country, James Baldwin

18. American Pastoral, Philip Roth

19. My Antonia, Willa Cather

20. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

I could go on, and on, and on…but I will stop there.

What novels are YOU grateful for?

Plug: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland

I was asked to join a book group, and the first selection was the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. I had read her Pulitzer-Prize winning book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, last year, and liked it well enough—but I don’t recall feeling that it was the best choice for the Pulitzer or that she was soon to become one of my favorite writers. But, wow, The Lowland—this is a beautiful book.

Novel, rubber tree, fancy new iPhone filter

Novel, rubber tree, fancy new iPhone filter

The novel follows the lives of two brothers raised in Calcutta, one of whom stays in India while the other goes off to the States to study. Their paths diverge in stark ways, until one brother’s choices throw his wife into the life of the other. Back in Rhode Island, basically estranged from their families, Subhash and Gauri live with their daughter Bela carrying deep secrets that threaten everything: their relationship with each other, with their daughter, with their careers.

The novel spans about seventy years, and Lahiri deals with this by playing with time. Some passages snail along; then, there will be a ten-year gap between chapters. She compresses three—no, four—generations into under four hundred pages. At the end of those 340 pages, I felt sure I could have read another hundred.

In the book group, reactions were somewhat mixed. Some felt Lahiri had not developed certain characters or scenes well enough. But for me the book was almost perfect. It managed to be technically excellent—so I was reading it thinking, wow, that sentence is exactly what it should be—and also emotionally knifing. I kept rereading passages not because I was confused about what had happened but because I wanted to feel, again, the immense pain and tragedy she manages to render in a few short sentences. The book’s themes are relevant and important to me: it’s about motherhood and parenting, about being a parent—and a child; and about career and women’s difficult choices around career. It’s a book about revolution and tradition and the bonds of family.

Here’s a teaser:

He was never invited into the room. For some months he received no indication of Bela’s progress. Sitting in the waiting area, with a view of the door Bela and Dr. Grant were on the other side of, made him feel worse. He used the hour to buy groceries for the week. He timed the appointments, and waited for her in the parking lot, in the car. When it was over she sat beside him, shutting the door.

How did it go today, Bela?

Fine.

It’s still a help to you?

She shrugged.

Would you like to go to a restaurant for dinner?

I’m not hungry.

Would you like to write her a letter? Try to speak to her on the phone?

She shook her head. It was lowered, her brow furrowed. Her shoulders were hunched, pressed toward one another, as tears fell.

See also:

Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Lowland on Fresh Air

Review of The Lowland on NY Times

Review on The Guardian (spoiler alert!)

Journey to Getting Published Part Four: Course Correct (Or: Learning a Thing or Two from Project Runway)

This post is the fourth in a series. You might be interested in Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Thanks!

—–

Boat in Oslo Harbor, Norway

Boats in Oslo Harbor, Norway

I teach writing to art students, who, like me, are concerned with something I nebulously call The Artistic Process (how we make art). In class every semester, we watch Project Runway, the show where fashion designers compete for the chance to win a bunch of dough, a design contract, and other juicy industry contacts. I show them the first-ever episode, “Innovation,” when the designers are asked to make a fancy dress for a night out on the town—out of materials they find at the supermarket.

After we watch, I ask the students to decide who had the best artistic process. This semester, they chose a designer named Daniel, who was confident and focused and above all, stayed the course. He chose materials that were easy to work with: a garbage bag, some tinfoil, and some butcher paper. He had a clear vision, they said, and he always stuck to it, no matter what. That, they said, was good process.

But when I asked them to decide who had the best final design, they chose everyone but Daniel. They chose the guy who’d made the dress out of corn husks, who adapted gracefully when the husks all shriveled up overnight. They chose the woman who made a dress that looked like netting, with a flouncy skirt–she’d planned to tuck crayfish into the nets but decided at the last minute that it would be too stinky. A few of them even chose the guy who’d had a blunt moment of inspiration, wrapped his model up in a shower curtain and sent her down the runway.

So, I asked them, how is it possible that the guy who had the best process ended up with the worst design? Dumb luck, or—was his process not so great after all? After a while, we agreed that maybe the best process is not about (blindly) staying true to your vision, but about being adaptable, being fluid, being open to suggestion—and above all, knowing when it’s time to start over.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

Jellyfish.

Jellyfish.

Over the weekend, at a party, I ended up deep in conversation with my friend Greg. The details don’t matter, but suffice it to say that Greg is both a fantastic writer and a psychology student, and he’s one to dig—he gets you to think about things, like, say, your book, deeply. And after he left I spent the rest of the weekend with the nagging sensation that I needed to change something. One voice said, “No! It’s done; stop tinkering. Stay the course.” The other said, “Maybe you should take a risk and try something different.” So I sent my cover letter to Greg, and he and I talked about it yesterday. He had a whole new idea for me, and somehow, in the conversation, I ended up feeling like I understood my book better than I had in years. I understood why this book ever felt worth writing. I understood why it could be a good book. And above all, I understood that I could breathe new life into this whole querying process if I totally rewrote the pitch.

So I took a deep breath and did it.

Now, I’ve always found other people’s suggestions helpful; I’m someone who thrives on advice. But I also get deeply attached to things, and I’m terrible at change, so when I decide to do something different it comes with a predictable feeling of horrible dread and fear, followed, ultimately, by relief; but it’s relief tempered with regret (e.g. “Why did I send out the cover letter with the old pitch to all the GOOD agents? What if they’re all taken by the time I polish up a new letter?”). This sensation isn’t just reserved for writing. I notice when I decide to shift something about my parenting style I go through a period of anxiety that whatever I was doing before was terrible and I’ve probably screwed up L. for life. But that’s no reason to keep blindly sticking to the same course, right? Taking risks is hard, but I’m realizing that probably the best way to do your best work is to know when it’s time to try something different.

So, part four: course correct. Change it up. Take a risk. Be responsive. Write a new pitch.

Oh, in case you’re wondering? Daniel and his butcher-paper-and-garbage-bag dress lost. He was eliminated in that first episode. The delightful Corn-husk man won.

What’s Up…Friday?

I’ve been wanting to do a What’s Up Wednesday post for a while. For the uninitiated, What’s Up Wednesday was an idea for a weekly blog post started by YA author Jaime Morrow, who blogs here. I love the simple check in on a busy week. Every Wednesday, you write about….

  1. WHAT I’M READING
  2. WHAT I’M WRITING
  3. WHAT INSPIRES ME RIGHT NOW
  4. WHAT ELSE I’VE BEEN UP TO

Alas, I guess I’ve been up to other stuff on Wednesdays, because I keep missing it. So, what the hell–it’s a What’s Up Friday kind of day.

1. WHAT I’M READING….

I just picked up Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, after having inched my way through his novel Nature Girl. I hadn’t heard of Carl Hiaasen until a month or two ago, when my father-in-law gave a soliloquy about how funny he is.

photo-4Turns out ye olde FIL was right; Hiaasen’s pretty funny. He satirizes all facets of American society with a not-so-subtle environmental bent that really appeals to me. I’m not sure I’m up for a Carl Hiaasen bender, but I do enjoy reading him–and other “commercial” fiction, which I find to be very ambitious. In fact, Hiaasen has inspired me to write a blog post called “In Praise of Commercial Fiction”–stay tuned.

This morning, I went to my local independent bookstore and purchased the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. This book is up for the National Book Award and I believe the Booker Prize, too, and I’m reading it for a new book club, three.

2. WHAT I’M WRITING…

Sadly, not much. I’m still very much in professional development mode, e.g., querying my book to agents. I don’t like this as well as writing, but it has its moments. A week or so ago, after a nice exchange with novelist Tara Conklin (who’s also part of Popcorn), I started being a little more, well, bold. Yesterday I found myself writing a query letter that began “I’m sure twenty writers have claimed they have the next X, but in my case, it’s true…” Because, of course, why not? I got this fortune-cookie fortune last week and tucked it into my wallet:

photo-4You never know.

Oh, and–I should also mention my postcard poem project! My friend Mike Dockins and I are sending poems to each other on postcards. He writes one, I respond; vice versa. His handwriting, it turns out, is more legible than mine.

3. WHAT INSPIRES ME RIGHT NOW…

Fall; postcard poems; the women in my new creative women’s group; Buddhism/meditation; my garden; my son; Project Runway.

4. WHAT ELSE I’VE BEEN UP TO….

Strictly the usz: grading papers, parenting, tending house, playing a little music, enjoying family and friends. Oh and trying to make my son a dragon costume for Halloween, while simultaneously trying to get him to stop being afraid that dragons are in his room at night trying to kill him. Maybe the kid understands something about psychology that I don’t: face your fears by dressing up as them for Halloween?

Should I dress up as an unpublished memoir?

Have a great weekend, folks.