Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday and the job-free blues are hitting. We saw Grey Gardens last night, not the famous documentary, but the feature film, HBO version, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Incredible performances by both women. Chilling. Courageous on their parts to get so deeply under the skin of these disturbed women, and to do it without judgment.

I slept badly and dreamed of--I don't know what I dreamed, exactly. It doesn't take much to swamp my little canoe. The movie showed how the mother's agoraphobia and passivity infected her daughter, and how the two lived out their lives together in a folie a deux. Maybe, maybe, maybe if the daughter had been able to separate--if she had found some kind of magic combination of support and tough love--she might have been able to make a life for herself. But she didn't. And probably couldn't. Although interestingly, she lived a few decades after her mother died and she did finally travel a bit, and even performed, which had been her girlhood dream.

The scenes of the old crumbling decaying mansion were frightening. C started teasing me about my own tendencies to ignore mess and let things go. I am one of those women who can walk in a room and not see dirt--I know this trait is more common among guys, but there are some of us ladies who are like this. I've been living with a slightly cracked car windshield for months and months now, just haven't gotten around to getting it fixed. There are coats that need buttons sewn back on, and bags of books waiting to be donated to the Library, as well as other bags standing around waiting to go to Goodwill. But everyone's life is like this--isn't it? Where's the line between laxness and depression and total stinking madness with 3,000 feral cats and raccoons crawling in through the busted windows and pissing and shitting everywhere? Or, conversely, Between a need for order and OCD?

I remember my 90-year-old grandmother, when we finally moved her out of her apartment, the two-bedroom rent-controlled place in Brooklyn she had lived in for 60 years. The place was so full of antiques and bars of soap that had never been used, candlesticks still in their original boxes, gloves, ditto, frayed velvet couches, knick-knacks and keepsakes and trinkets and treasures. And she was crying and crying about it all, the crushing sense of overwhelm she felt at her incapacity to deal with all her useless precious possessions.

But really the place was stuffed to the brim with loneliness. even the air molecules were fat with it.

I never want to be like that.

I fear what isolation does to a person. Neither Big Edie nor Little Edie ever worked. They came from a class background where women didn't expect to. (Which makes Jackie Onassis' decision to get a job in the publishing industry all the more remarkable, when you think about it.) They were functionally helpless and hardly left that house.

I have worked--a lot--but haven't had a regular job in years. Since the economic downturn poets-in-the-schools work has virtually disappeared, except for some very little pools. It's sort of like that scene in the movie "Fantasia" where the drinking holes for the dinosaurs are drying up because the climate is changing, and then all the dinosaurs die. Except in this case I guess the weaker, more short-sighted dinosaurs die, and the smart dinosaurs figure out how to get day jobs or grants or some other gig that keeps them going.

I have always thought of myself as a resourceful person--I found my first apartment when i was eighteen, and I've had many different jobs, but lately this element of doubt has crept in--can I rise to the demands of our brave new tech-driven world? Do I even want to? Yes, I'm on Facebook and all that and here I am, blogging, but there's a part of me that just wants to go off in a mud hut and chant my poems to the wind. I understand the word "work" in such a literal, primitive way. "Work" to me is washing a sink full of dishes. Making a pot of chili to feed twenty people. Setting off in the morning with a satchel stuffed with lesson plans and driving for an hour and teaching four classes and returning with the same satchel stuffed with a hundred student poems.

I miss Fetzer right now. Not the food--although the food was wonderful--or the gracious grounds. But the being-together with a bunch of other people who do this crazy creative thing as a main thing in their lives. I miss that community of peers. We never really got down to talking economics--Fetzer wanted the creative conversations to be about love and compassion and suffering, trivial stuff like that. But a big question for an artist is how do you support yourself and/or find support? Not just financial--although that's a very big question--but also structural. How do you build a supportive structure into your own writing day?

I came back from Fetzer last week determined to work more on the play. Instead I was hijacked by some poems and spent hours and hours yesterday fussing over the arrangement and re-arrangement of thirty-five lines. I also wrote a short introduction for a book of essays. I also spent some hours weeding--the weeds are up to my hips, I swear, I've never seen anything like it. Grass is cracking the asphalt in the driveway and the porch steps and threatening to take over the house entirely. This wet wet wild weather has yielded a harvest of bunch-grass and wild-ass Mexican purple sage, peppermint and fig leaves and peach blossoms and guava branches and feral cats. Everything swaying and proliferating. C has his camera out constantly, trying to capture it all.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fetzer was extraordinary. I'm still not exactly sure how I got to be invited, but there I was with Lauren Artress, the Episcopalian priest of Grace Cathedral in SF and leader of labyrinth journeys in Chartres, and Jennifer Louden, the "comfort queen", and Naseem Rakha, author of The Crying Tree, a book about forgiveness and the death penalty, and Michael Jones, a wonderful Canadian pianist and philosopher, and Paulus Berensohn a potter/poet/philosopher/child of God--I kept wanting to call him "Bacchus" instead of Paulus, which he said was a great compliment; and Kurtis Lamkin the poet and kora player, and Diane Seuss a great poet and distant relative of Dr. Seuss, and and and...

And we didn't have to teach, we didn't have to lead anything. We just had to hang out and talk, have "creative conversations," with each other (Fetzer's term), and be wined and dined. oh! and write too (almost forgot.) Which I did, although not as much as I'd intended. I do feel like the time "seeded" me for future writing. There was tons o' wine flowing freely in the evenings--I thought it was a lot, and then someone from Wing It! pointed out that the Fetzer money comes from their wineries in California--doh!

I didn't drink much because the last time I really indulged--a glass and a half--was Passover, and I inflicted Me and Bobby McGee at top volume on a bunch of lovely Jewish lesbians who had done nothing, really nothing to deserve it. So I thought I'd spare my new friends that experience until they'd had more of a chance to become old(er) friends. Instead I tried to revise The Recruiter (more on that later), and hiked in the woods, and hung out with people, and drank in the beauty.

Michigan in the spring is lovely. Flowering ornamental cherry trees, so stuffed with deep pinkness they look like prom gowns with corsages pinned all over them. There was a lake with deer. Kalamazoo, who knew? there is a lively. close-knit community of poets and writers out there.

I came to the retreat with the intention of tearing The Recruiter down to its bones, disassembling it and putting it all together again--in three days. I had read Suzan-Lori Parks' account of how she wrote Topdog/Underdog in three days--at least a draft of it--and I was determined to follow her example. Didn't happen. I did get some work done on it that I think was good, but the thing feels now as if I'd taken a big greasy engine apart in my living room. I have all these screws and bolts and thingummies and do-hickeys rolling around underfoot and not a clue as to what I'm going to do with them, how I'm going to put the behemoth back together. (Kurtis did tell me a story just as he was about to leave which I think I can use in the piece. And I got the insight that I have to allow humor to be a part of this story. War isn't funny. But people are, and my other plays are funny. There's no reason for this not to be.)

It took me until the retreat was almost over to realize that the point of the week wasn't so much to produce--although I am so very very attached to production--but to have the experience . Okay, it took me a while to get it; I'm slow. Also insecure. What I appreciated most was the chance to make friends with whom I could talk about the writing process as a peer--as well as all the other processes that make our lives. We were also all interviewed on videotape, presumably for Fetzer's archives--and I think they will send me a copy of my interview which I'll share here or on my web site when I get it.

Got back Friday night and Saturday night performed with Wing It! in our show Big Fat Lies. It was a great show! What a rich and juicy topic, just rife with possibilities. Because of course all performing is a "lie" in some ways--performers routinely go on stage feeling tired, stressed, nervous, or whatever, and step into the limelight and become more than they were a minute ago, offstage. Is this a lie, or is it what we'd call "transformation?" How do the "lies" in art serve the purpose of larger truths?

Today--rain, again, surprising for this late in the season, but not unwelcome. Last night I went to read to Carla at bedtime. But first there was parrot-wrangling--her bird, Ronnie (sex indeterminate) was not in the mood to go to bed. Five peanuts and several arm-nips later I tricked him/her into the cage and got the door shut. Then went in and read Billy Collins' latest, Ballistics (Carla's choice). His quiet whimsical, undramatic, but poignant voice was just right for the occasion. How many of the words we poets write are worthy of this kind of purpose?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Packing for Michigan. Seems like I just did this. Wrapping hair conditioner bottle in plastic bag so it doesn't leak all over my clothes. Wrapping bottle of contact lens fluid, ditto. Yoga pants, grown-up pants, nice shirt, light shirt, T-shirt, warm shirt. A couple of copies of my books to give or trade. Big red journal, little black journal, plenty of pens, socks, underwear. I know I'm forgetting something. Earrings. Deodorant. Toothbrush. Socks. Something light to read on the plane...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Whoosh! Do you ever have those weeks of things coming together, times when you can actually see and feel confluence, synchronicity, the divine pattern in the way things constellate? I'm in one of those windows right now. Don't know how long it will last--my life has been like that song by Ferron "Ain't Life a Brook," whose chorus goes, "It comes together and it comes apart." Right now is a moment of it coming together. No doubt it will all come apart in another moment, only to reconfigure anew.

We've had house-guests for the last few days, my friend Suzanne and her youngest daughter who is entering U.C. Berkeley in the fall. They were here for a student-parent orientation, and stayed with us. Suzanne is married to my friend Ted who was a VISTA volunteer with me back in 1981-82. Ted worked with Cubans, I worked with Haitians; we lived in separate tiny stiflingly hot houses with roommates and shared (and still share) a kind of Conan the Barbarian sensibility. When he slept over my house we would drag a mattress into the backyard (this was hard-core inner city Miami) and sleep under the stars. When I slept over his house I would lay down a sleeping bag on the floor between him and his roommate Jeremy, while they played a furious game of catch with a small hard rubber ball which always landed perilously close to my head. This was done to help cure me of my insomnia, which Ted also felt would be ameliorated if only I would take up drinking.

Ted is a big bluff New Englander whose family settled Connecticut. I also remember skinny-dipping with him on Miami Beach, within sight of the big fancy tourist hotels, and I remember him doing cannon ball dives from the third floor balcony of another tiny stifling VISTA apartment. We all lived on $75.00 a week, and ate a lot of rice and beans. You can't afford much in the way of entertainment on that kind of salary, so we just hung out and talked for hours. He drove a VW bug that was held together with spit and chewing gum.

So now it's almost thirty years later and Ted married a wonderful grounded funny woman who can hold her own with him, and they have three amazing kids. Suzanne is a nurse, and their whole family has been raised with service work, building homes through Habitat for Humanity. Their oldest daughter has a relationship with an orphanage in Uganda where she has worked several different stints, and their youngest daughter wants to be a doctor with Doctors Without Borders.

I've been in communication with Whirlwind Wheelchairs, and after I dropped Suzanne and their daughter off at the airport I drove out to SFSU to meet with people there and see if I could find a way to go to Haiti with them. As the 8-all would say, "Signs are promising." I met some great people who work in the office, and we talked about how I could serve in several capacities, as interpreter, and as a journalist. I connected with a physical therapist who is planning on going over there this summer; she wants me to tutor her in Creole. It all felt very "meant to be", in the way things do sometimes, where you can just feel the door opening.

I had had a big crazy idea a little while back about bringing Interplayers to Haiti and doing some playing and dancing and healing with survivors, especially kids. When I met the founder of Whirlwind Wheelchairs, who has been in a chair himself, for decades, I felt embarrassed to even mention it to him, as the "office" where we met was filled with different wheelchairs, from every era, and smelled of axle grease like an auto shop. I thought his emphasis was all technical, and that my idea about dance was way too hippie fou-fou. But when I mentioned Axis dance Company and Megan, who is a member of Wing It! who has worked with Axis for years, his face lit up and he said, "She was my teacher." He himself danced with Axis for a year.

It was one of those great moments when I could feel the connections circling round. He hadn't been involved with Axis for years, but he still had a glow when he talked about it. And of course no one who ever meets Megan can help but be transformed by the experience. She is so radiant that everyone always falls in love with her. He and his assistant started talking about my diea as if it were feasible, as if it were going to happen. they said I should start thinking about some other Interplayers to bring. Immediately I thought of Masankho, who only sleeps four hours a night, lives on airplanes, eats whatever is put in front of him, communicates through dance and the drum, and is generally the most adaptable adept leader I know, and of Enver, my Turkman brother, who would be such a joy to work with.

I need physically hardy, low-maintenance colleagues who travel well, and can improvise in intense situations. Both those guys fit the bill. I'll see if there are any women who would like to go also; a French-speaker would be good. But I can share a room with either of those guys and feel as comfortable as with a girlfriend. We're family.

They asked me what I would charge for this and I felt abashed and said my plane fare over and food and board. Then afterward I thought, Wait a minute. I've hardly earned any money this year. I need to start figuring out how to get myself subsidized. I have to get some kind of sponsor or something.

Meanwhile the other thing that's happening is a very tiny theatre group in New York --not in the heart of the city but about half an hour outside of it--is interested in Glitter and Spew and Hot Water. Nothing's definite yet, but I think I'll get at least a staged reading and maybe a small production out of it. The artistic director loves both plays. Again, the financial end of it is liable to be slim to none. I'll be very lucky if I get plane fare out of it. But this is the way things start to happen.

I talked over all of this with Christopher, and his response was completely supportive: "Go for it! I'm happy for you." I was so touched, especially as, if the situation were reversed, I might be feeling clingy and scared in his shoes. And I know that if/when I go to Haiti he'll be concerned for me. But he'll also be excited and interested. Truthfully, one of our issues has been that he's much more independent than I am. I am, as my friend Susan says, "a recovering barnacle." Only I'm not sure that I'm actually in recovery or not. Sometimes I wished for a partner who was more barnacle-like himself so we could nest in and be all inseparable and joned at the hp the way Alan and I were during the first years of our relationship.

But Christopher's response shows me how good I've got it to be with a partner who can handle being on his own (with the cat of course), and who has his own interests and passions separate from me. That gives me so much freedom, and for the first time in a while I feel like I have a good project on which to exercise it. I'll need his help in becoming a better photographer before I go, and perhaps in future we can collaborate on photo-journalistic assignments--in places where the health and sanitary conditions are more stable. He has to be a little more careful about his health than I do.

"You're tough," he encouraged me as we lay on separate couches and talked. "You can handle yourself." Precious words. Exactly what I needed to hear.

And I hope he's right. Although if this trip to Haiti happens, it won't be because of any of my vaunted "toughness" or braggadocio. It will be in the spirit of something bigger than me that is drawing these disparate elements together through me for some larger purpose. I myself am a big frazzled marshmallow who was challenged finding the parking garage. But I do appreciate his vote of confidence. And I believe with all my heart in the power of improvisation.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

This is a photo of me and Lisa Jones, author of the wonderful book, Broken. (Buy it!! Buy ten copies!!) Note the matching hairstyles and glasses, the beautiful aging hippie look. This photo was taken by an Irish poet.

Now I'm back from Denver. Yes, it was fun. Yes, I brought too many clothes (but a girl has to have choices.) Yes, it was overwhelming just to be around so many writers and so many books and magazines.

I'm sure that all the writers there, including people more famous and connected than me, were all probably feeling some version of the same overwhelm. You can just imagine how much Prozac and Ambien run-off was being flushed down those public restroom toilets. Oh and don't forget the Xanax.

There was a huge room with tables and tables and tables and tables for all the litmags and publishers. It contained more reading material than a hundred compulsive print-aholics could consume in a hundred lifetimes. And yet and still the books and poems and essays and plays keep coming. More more more more more. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction (memoirs were HUGE this year, every other panel was about some aspect of memoir. Which makes me glad that I'm not writing one. It seems like there are enough out there. And there's so much more money to be made in poetry).

Unlike 2001, I managed to keep some sense of perspective about the whole thing. Okay, I'm a tiny puny drop in a gigantic ocean. It's a little ego-deflating to contemplate that fact, but also a relief. I stand back and watch all the young, beautiful, brilliant, anxious writers scrambling after university jobs and grants in this bad economy and struggling to balance career and family and-- I take a deep breath. I'm not going to get one of those university jobs. I hope one of these days, someone dumps a little grant money on my head, but that's not going to create or destroy my happiness either. I'm just here. I'll just keep writing and sending things out and living. Nobody owes me anything. I've already had tremendous luck to be published in The Sun, to have two books to my name. Even though I want more--and I always want more, it's my nature--my cup already runneth over.

The SUN reading on Saturday was well-attended considering it was the fourth day of the conference and everyone was pretty well saturated by that point. Ellen Bass, Frances Lefkowitz, Steve Almond, Krista Bremer and Sy Safransky, and I all read--and everyone was terrific! This is noteworthy because more often than not poetry readings can be dreadful, but in this one the audience was fully engaged the whole time, laughing and sighing and applauding. I didn't sell as many books as I would have liked--selling books at AWP is like trying to sell snow cones in Antarctica--but I sold a couple, and I managed to zip up my suitcase despite the swag I'd picked up in the form of free journals and newsletters.

Frances (author of the forthcoming memoir To Have Not) and I had a great time rooming together, very easy, like old friends, and I met some writers whom I had known only from afar and reconnected with some colleagues that I only see every few years, like Cheryl Strayed (author of a wonderful novel called Torch, and a forthcoming memoir, which I think is called Wild), and Leslea Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies and millions of other books.

I met Lisa Jones in person, the woman who wrote the wonderful memoir Broken, about her time on an Arapaho reservation in Wyoming, with a remarkable Native American healer. We hung out companionably, again like old friends. There is something about other writers (especially women writers) that feels instantly familiar and intimate to me. We share many of the same characteristics of strong self-will and assertion coupled with almost equally strong self-doubt and tendencies to despair. Those women also know the manic-depressive cycle that writing puts one through, from excitement to desolation and back again, and how the rhythm of the work itself sustains you while the dreams of grandeur predictably elate and then disappoint you. We can communicate in a quick shorthand about the process because we've all been through our own version of it.

The best workshop that I went to was one on the 10-minute play, which is apparently the play most likely to get produced these days (in festivals, along with other 10-minute plays). I have long resisted this form because ten minutes doesn't seem like enough time to do anything interesting or meaningful onstage, but this workshop/panel persuaded me otherwise, and now I have some good ideas for 10-minute plays to write.

At another panel, I heard a young successful woman writer explain that she had made a rule always to have thirty pieces out at all times. that meant either five stories at six different magazines each or thirty different stories at thirty different magazines, or--I don't know. But she was serious as a heart attack and she was making a living (and had two small children!) so i thouhgt, I could do better in terms of having things out. the only problem is that it takes so long for my poems to find their final right form--years and years sometimes.

Another good workshop was called "Scars on my Heart", a presentation by Milspeaks, an organization that helps military people do creative writing in order to express the experiences they've had and heal from PTSD as well as offer the non-military world a glimpse into their world. I'm not a crier, but during the reading of poems by children whose parents were serving (or in some cases had died), I found tears rolling down my cheeks uncontrollably. Also when a retired Vietnam veteran read about things that had happened forty years ago--his voice shaking and sometimes cracking in contrast to his erect military bearing. The more I read and listen, the more I realize how much I have to learn about the stories of men and women at war. And talking to Sy and Frances about what we are willing to reveal versus what feels unspeakable to us, helped me understand better my own connection to violence and why I feel so compelled to write about it.

The Sun people had dinner together--I saw my beloved Angela and her husband Brent--and caught up a little. It was chilly, for the record, and I decided in the end to go with my somewhat dorky Land's End jacket because it is both warm and lightweight, but unfortunately not very hip or stylish. However I don't think anyone but me gave a hoot about what I looked like which is another great consolation of getting older.

Now I'm home, we have had the Church of the New York Times this morning which we worship with coffee and eggs and toast. Out-of-town friends are staying in the guest room and other friends are coming to dinner; I've got a big pot of chili on. It's raining again, a big soaking rain. Good for the depleted reservoirs--they must be rising by now--and the happy green hills, not so much fun to drive around in. I'm grateful to stay home and read and write.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Okay, I'm still here on this site. In fact I'm packing for Denver tomorrow, for the AWP conference. Christopher thinks I am a cool calm and collected traveler but this is not true. It's a myth I have perpetrated on him which in his naivete he bought. Actually it's not so much the traveling I'm nervous about as the prospect of what awaits me when I get there--50,000 writers. An aquarium full of killer whales would be less anxiety provoking. I just printed out the schedule and there are fifteen pages a day of workshops, panels, readings, parties, keynote addresses, etc. That makes forty five pages for all three days I'm there, which is the length of a one-act play.

I am a Libra. Forty-five pages of choices is completely overwhelming to me. I would be much more comfortable with three choices a day. And to have someone assigned to lead me around by the hand and sit with me at meals, and tell me what I should do next.

Of course I am also obsessing about what to wear. It's freezing in Denver right now--literally. Snow and sleet and all that. So do I bring my huge puffy down coat? What happens the next day when the temperatures climb into the fities and then the sixties? Will it be too big and bulky to carry home? I am traveling with about 25 copies of my books. What if I don't sell any and I buy or people give me copies of their own books, and then I have no room in my suitcase for my coat?

I'll have to walk from the hotel to the conference center where the thing is being held. Will it be snowy and slushy out? Should I bring my boots? I can't walk around in boots all day with plantar fasciitis. I need to wear either my sneakers, which might make me feel like a pathetic dork, or my ortho-Merrill's, which might be too flimsy and cold.

I don't want to blow this opportunity, but I'm not sure exactly why I'm going either. I don't have an MFA. I'm not in contention for the academic jobs, which are getting cut now anyway. And I wouldn't leave my house or my husband to take an appointment in Kansas or wherever even if one were offered to me. I might get to sell some books at the SUN reading. And I'll be on a panel with other SUN writers. Which is a good thing professionally. I don't mind reading--I love reading. It's just the milling around in a place that would make Grand central Station look de-populated that scares me.

I like people. Just in manageable numbers. It seems crazy to me to get 50,000 highly sensitive writer-types in one area together at one time. has anyone thought this through? There could be emotional meltdowns, relapses into dangerous addictions, extra-marital affairs, suicide attempts, drunk dialing, and worse. This conference grows exponentially every year. I went nine years ago after my first book came out, and I thought it was too big then.

Christopher is on Spring break, and so we had a quick overnight getaway to a hot springs place that was the scene of our first weekend away when we were dating. The smell of sulphur, the lovely sight of relaxed naked people (I'm a voyeur, I admit it), hills lush as green velvet after the rains, trees on fire with spring--red-tipped, green-tipped, pink. Buds, branches, blossoms, and some still bare and witchy. We passed grazing sheep, goats, cows and horses, bare-twigged almond orchards, and walnit groves. Ate mlunch in a little hole in the wall place in a town of 3,000 people--Esparto. There was a boar's head--a real one--mounted high on the wall.

I started reading Lit by Mary Karr. It's good--of course it's good--but I confess I'm a little weary of addiction memoirs. She's one of the best writers around and if anyone can enliven this subject it's her, but I'm just tired of reading about people with their head in the toilet. I understand, I feel your pain, I too have wasted way too much time on destructive behavior. Now let's just say, okay, we did bad things, and get on to doing better things and write about that. Maybe I need to read Greg Mortensen's Three Cups of Tea instead right now.

Easter Sunday I went into the city, in a deep downpour, to attend a reading of Beckett by Jean Anouilh in my friend Stuart's apartment. I love being around all these drama nerds--and he has actor friends who are fantastic--and reading a piece of great literature together. When I got home, we put the movie Becket onto the Netflix queue along with Man for All Seasons and The Lion in Winter. I am getting my English history this way, in bits and pieces, through plays--a dubious way to get it, since playwrights are known for manipulating facts to suit their dramatic purposes.

As we hiked along a muddy lane at the hot springs place I told Christopher that the English countryside is magical. It's no coincidence that this is the country that has given birth to stories like Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia series and Harry Potter. You just expect a talking rabbit or something to pop up from behind a bush or a hedge. At the risk of sounding like some of the people I make fun of, there's an energy you can feel coming from the land itself.

"Yes," said Christopher. "And those talking rabbits are more attracted to some people than to others."


"Poets are known to be talking rabbit magnets. That's all."

He brought his camera, of which he is much enamored, and I brought my small one and we took a lot of pictures of trees, bushes, flowers, rocks, and each other. I hope at least some of them come out. It's real Ansel Adams country where we were--the trees were beautifully gnarled and twisted like that--but you need to be Ansel Adams in order to capture them.