Category Archives: Writing and Reading

Entries about the art and craft of writing and commentaries or reviews of stuff I read

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: A Few Goodbyes, Reading with a Friend, Writing Some More, Going Home


I’m sitting in the airport in a beat up arm chair looking out over the tarmac through these gigantic windows. I’ve got three hours to kill because the ride from Mt. Holyoke dropped me off early. It’s an ugly, long flight clear across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut to Chicago and then home to Portland. I will get home tonight at 11, but it will feel to me like 1 in the morning. If I can keep from sleeping on planes, I’ll sleep well tonight after a little reunion with my family. As much fun as I’ve had, I miss them very much, my wife and boy. Dogs too. I can’t wait to see the place. It should be freshly painted when I get home, a project going on all through my absence.

I’m struck by how the Writer’s Camp has a way to linger on until the very last minutes. I slept in this morning so, missing breakfast, I was able to say goodbye to only a few of my writer buddies–my departure felt less like a closing and a little bit more like an opening. A little breakfast and coffee with Dave and Dawn, and then a road trip.

David gave me a ride to the airport from the college, and while he drove, for about 40 minutes, I read out loud to him from a novel that I’ve been jonesing to read for several years now, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. So we had ourselves a little experience. I suspected I would dig this novel, as it came with some super duper high recommendations from other writers I love, but I had no real idea what it would be like to read or what it would be about. It turned out to be about the most perfect book for a road-read one could possibly hope for. On every page there seemed to be some key thing that we wanted or needed to stop and discuss. And because the novel, at least in the first section, is broken up into these little vignettes, it lended itself perfectly to interruptions for driving conversations. From the opening epigraph from Evelyn Waugh, to the first chapter title (we couldn’t decide whether the single word title was a noun or a verb, decided it could be both, and then after reading for awhile decided it was indeed both, and that both interpretations worked equally well); each little piece we read, short, punchy, puzzling, enigmatic, surprising and funny, distinguished from the other vignettes by a double space between paragraphs, intrigued us, brought us together trying to puzzle it out, made us hunger for more, made me sorry David wasn’t driving me all the way to Oregon.

Reading out loud to another person, especially a friend, is a heavenly experience. I mean, I think David liked it, at least he said he did, but I loved it. Because the book was awesome, yes, but also because there’s something of constant discovery or surprise in it, and a phenomenal intimacy is forged as these funny shapes on paper turn into words spoken and sentences uttered and those utterances become a shared experience, a common or mutual understanding, constructed in partnership. What’s cooler than that?

So in the car with David I was giving a reading, taking a class, and here, at the airport, with a three hour window of waiting by a big window, I’m writing. I’m still camping. Oozing with gratitude and missing the tribe already. I’m reading, writing, napping, having a meal clear across the continent, getting on a plane again and again, going home.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: We Cried And Then We Danced

Yesterday was a day unlike any day I’ve ever had at a Warren Wilson Alumni Conference, and that’s saying something, because there have been lots of them, lots and lots of days. I want to say that maybe this is the sixth year in a  row and maybe my tenth attendance altogether for a whopping total of about 70 days at Writer’s Camp over the last 15 years or so.

Yesterday was a little bit of a perfect storm as conversations, classes, and our readings all reminded us about how this has been a year of losses. And while this conference has been for me (and I’m almost certain for others as well) life-affirming, intellectually inspiring, intensely productive, and just downright fun, those losses have been with us all along, coloring our conversations, sobering up some of our meal-time talk, darkening our discussions in classes. But worse than any of the ugliness in our body politic, as bad as that is, most all of us are still reeling from the loss of our dear friend and fellow alum Carlen Arnett, who died suddenly in January of this year. She was beloved by everyone who knew her and even by those whose interactions with her were brief. She was generous, kind, funny, lively, full of great stories, a gifted poet who in her last years had embarked on an ambitious novel inspired by “The Snow Queen.” Carlen’s main character was a friend of Gerda, the tale’s protagonist, a friend known simply as The Robber Girl. We’d been hearing her read from that novel in progress over the last several years at our conferences, so even though she was not able to finish it, that work of hers lives within us and we are lucky enough to glimpse its process and progress captured on a Facebook page Carlen set up for her work. I’m struck by how what she was doing in that fiction, bringing to a fully fleshed-out life a minor character from a German folk tale, is a lot like what she did for the real people she encountered. She brought people to life. She added vigor, and enthusiasm, and fire to every exchange. Hanging out with Carlen for any length of time, one felt infused with energy and lightness. I wish I had known her better. I can only imagine that those who did know her well have felt truly unmoored by her passing.

So our reading last night ended with a tribute to Carlen. We cried and then we danced. Our final ritual of Writer’s Camp is always the dance. And verily we danced. I wore my disco shorts. Carlen would want us to be joyful, to celebrate her life by living ours. I think she would have been proud of us.

Concluding Note: the audio at the top of this entry is an interview Carlen gave to her great friend Marcia. Marcia was kind enough to share that audio with me, and I superimposed it over the top of some music I had written with my wife René around the time of Carlen’s passing. It’s a beautiful little bit of storytelling about grocery shopping. I find it astounding and inspiring and beautifully representative of the kind of wonder Carlen had about the world. Produce is an extravaganza, she said. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Next Frontier

Look, a metaphor!

Remember that on July 3rd we campers were treated here at Mt. Holyoke College to a fireworks display of stupendous proportions. Yesterday, on the 4th of July, it was quiet. I’m not kidding. After the reading I sat on an Adirondack chair in the dark sipping whiskey in the middle of the lawn and I watched some stars shoot across the sky in relative silence. Not a single explosion. Well, maybe one or two, intermittently, distantly. Whoever was in charge of the display from the night before must have wanted to get all the pyrotechnic ya yas out early. That’s fine. It seemed to have worked swimmingly. I’ve become kind of a grump about fireworks. They are beautiful to watch if you can forget that they are, after all, mostly a gussied up reenactment of warfare. Not to mention the expense. Someday, perhaps, in a perfect world, in a new frontier, people will celebrate the fourth of July by blowing soap bubbles.

At the end of a class yesterday that described the literary history of American frontier exploration, both literal and symbolic, Alison asked us what we believed would be the next frontier. It was a brilliant, thought provoking question. And our responses were revelatory. We began, as you would expect us to do, with some more literal predictions. Well, there’s space, still, the infinite expanses of the universe. There’s quantum physics. My understanding is that there’s a boat load of stuff we still don’t know about the ocean. The human brain remains mysterious territory. Medicine. There will be technological advances every bit as revolutionary as the one’s we’ve experienced over just a few short years. That kind of stuff. Then the discussion got darker. As Alison’s talk had culminated in a description of Dystopia as the most recent literary “frontier,” we began to discuss the bleak, depressing, backwards, and absurd state of affairs in our country in the age of a Trump presidency. The new frontier seems dark, indeed. It was inevitable that we should land here, our first writer’s camp since the election. I can’t speak for everyone, but my guess is that as creatives, as artists, as makers, we are in this community nearly unanimous in our outrage over the current state of American politics. We are all still smarting and trying to figure out what role we have to play in these next months and years.

And then the conversation shifted.

Bookstores are inundated with readers looking for rigorous political satire. African women are writing science fiction novels. People like us are here, in this place, in this time, coming together to write, talk about writing, celebrate each other, learn from each other, lift each other up emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Literature matters still. Literature teaches us how to be human. Literature teaches us how to be more empathetic and compassionate. Literature teaches us how to love. It was decided: we have to keep writing. And there, in this conversation about the power our words might have to make substantive difference in the world, someone suggested that the new frontier is in relationship, deep understanding and connection, the way in which our behavior in the world and our way of relating might have a ripple effect louder and farther than any firepower ever could.

And then we moved from that wonderful, enlivening conversation to an experiment with receiving and giving feedback about writing. So accustomed, as we are, to “workshops” in which the writer cannot speak but must listen as others try to communicate, sometimes helpfully but often narcissistically, what the writer needs to do to improve their work, what if instead the writer spoke the entire time and in response to honest, open questions from peers and friends, the sole purpose of which would be to elicit inquiry, reflection, discernment, to inspire the writer’s inner teacher to speak?

We tried that. The results, I think, were stunning. I believe there is almost nothing in the world more affirming than to feel and be heard. I know from personal experience that almost every moment of conflict in my life with another human being was the result of my inability or unwillingness to listen or from the perception that someone I loved or cared about was not listening to me. But what’s especially phenomenal and important and potentially transformational about this idea, is that this same gift can be given to or received from relative strangers.

There were individuals who had never met before yesterday partnered up to have this kind of conversation around writing, where one writer described a dilemma in his or her practice and then the other asked only honest, open questions and allowed the writer to speak in response. No suggestions. No advice. No fixing. No judgement. We listen attentively to others, we listen to our own responses, later, we help each other hear  and see what we might not have been conscious of, and this listening then percolates its way into clarity–immediately in some cases, in a few hours sometimes, or after weeks or months of slow cooking.

So the new frontier might be a transformation that occurs when individuals, when groups, when cultures, when whole nations learn to listen. I’m no Polyanna. But I do sometimes tend toward rose-colored glasses, or glasses half full. I’m pretty disgusted with a lot of things, but I am also heartened and hopeful where I see sense, integrity, decency, kindness, compassion–and that stuff is all around us. Over the last four days I’ve been soaking in it, Palmolive-like. We start where we are. My friend Mark insisted that we begin with those in our immediate reach. It will ripple outward, like fireworks, only softer, like soap bubbles.

Try this at home.

 

 

 

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Resurrection of the Contest in Order to Exacerbate Feelings of Rejection, a Dongle Dilemma, When a Poem is Not a Poem, One Bad Dream, and More Blessedness.

 

This campus has a Hogwarts thing going on, don’t you think? I feel like I’m at Hogwarts.

Things started out kind of rowdy here at Mt. Holyoke. The microphone was wonky. There’s nothing worse than a wonky microphone. Better no microphone than a wonky one. One of our attendees was trapped in his room by tables of books. But he’s got the only refrigerator in the entire building in his room for some reason, so people keep going in there to refrigerate things or to steal ice cubes. Last night, July 3rd, a massive fireworks display lit up the sky and we had to yell at each other over the thunder.

We’ve been mixing it up. At reading number 2, the glorious, lovely and talented MC Thornburg resurrected the daily writing contest for silly prizes, despite controversies surrounding the last time this was done, concluding that the only way writers might thicken their skin against rejection would be to experience more rejection.  That’s not true. MC T actually suggested a kinder, gentler writing contest, one in which the winner would be randomly drawn from a hat, ultimately making sure that, like they do in California, every kid gets a trophy. No one was buying that. We require, as a group, more rejection, more suffering.

I had a question about dongles and many people misunderstood. Having arrived on campus with a computer that requires a unique kind of plumbing, I was just hoping to be able to make an appropriate and functional connection between the one thing and another thing in order to project some images on the screen during my class. People laughed and one of our Annies (we have three of them) thought I was being vulgar. She googled the word “dongle” and was satisfied. She still thinks it’s a dirty word, though, dictionary be damned.

The question has come up: just what exactly is a poem? It’s a relevant question for me, as I am writing poems now and have a manuscript on the cooker. Sheepish about my own poetry prowess, I think of my poems as extremely short prose pieces that I have broken into lines. But I call them poems. Because I can. Is a poem a poem because the person writing it says it’s a poem? Is it a poem when an audience that’s listening can’t “hear” the line breaks? Is it a poem if it’s not about pain and suffering and death and love? Is it a poem if it has no “music” in it? Is there a difference between a prose poem and a piece of flash fiction? If so, what is it? If it’s narrative, but it’s not a narrative poem, and it’s not an narrative essay, and it’s broken into lines, is it a poem? My friend Dave says that he spent his entire MFA program experience at Warren Wilson trying to define the poem. And when he graduated and they gave him a big stick he realized that the answer was not really all that interesting or important. The question is interesting, I think, but I’m with Dave: the answer is not. Rilke said: Learn to love the questions themselves.

I have lots of questions about the dream I had this morning, which was really more like a nightmare. I dreamt I was being anesthetized for a surgery just as my sleeping self was trying to wake up. I was afraid I would be awake during whatever it was they were about to do to me. Then my sleeping body woke and I was shivering. It was icky. Then I went to morning meditation. All better.

The short stay conference attendees arrive today. Some of them arrived yesterday. That’s exciting, partly because their presence adds to this sometimes overwhelming abundance, one of the hallmarks or gifts of Writer’s Camp. I’ve said this before, but I always walk around at these things feeling this incredible lightness, a palpable fish of gratitude just swimming around in my system–all the time. It could be the caffeine–but I don’t think so; it never wears off. And I’m just giddy when new friends arrive. When the short stay people show up, things get noisier, more rambunctious–and judging from the rowdy quality of our first three nights of consistently exquisite readings from alumni, it’s gonna get crazy ’round here. Crazy in the best, most blessed, sermon-on-the-Mount-Holyoke kind of way.

Dear Wally friends: if you are not here, know that you are missed.

 

 

 

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Sermon on the Mount Holyoke

collegebuild

Blessed are the writers who have arrived at Mount Holyoke College to participate in the 2017 Warren Wilson MFA Program Alumni Conference, for they are lucky bastards, and I feel truly blessed and lucky to be here among them.

Blessed is the writer who takes the red-eye flight out of Portland at midnight, sleeps through most of that four hour flight, is fortunate enough not to get completely lost in the chaos that is the Newark Liberty International Airport as he finds and takes a bus, yes, an actual bus, from one terminal to the next to catch a connecting flight, sleeps through most of that short little jumper, and lands safely at Bradley International at Hartford, Connecticut, where, unsure about which shuttle company he hired last time he was here, and loathe to pay almost $300 for a private shuttle, hires a damn taxi and sleeps through most of that ride and arrives safely but still wiped out on this beautiful 19th century campus of Mt. Holyoke College, home of Emily Dickinson, who may have been epileptic, some people say.

Blessed is the writer who takes what seems like the fourth and deepest nap over the course of a single ten hour stretch of clock-time in his dungeon-like dorm room, tucked away under a stairwell into the basement, where he will serve out his week as the resident conference troll.

Blessed is the writer who opens his suitcase to discover it’s full of a mysterious pile of black plastic shards, who, for many moments is in a panic about what he packed with him that is now utterly destroyed: glasses okay, cd jewel boxes okay, books bent somewhat but not alarmingly so, clothes okay but full of plastic shards. Everything must be shaken out, the suitcase overturned, and finally a pile of this debris accumulates on the second dorm bed. Blessed is this WTF moment that culminates finally with the conclusion that, holy crap, the plastic shell that allows one’s suitcase to maintain its general boxiness was somehow completely shattered into hundreds of pieces in the journey. Blessed is the writer who comes to Mount Holyoke with a hard case and will venture home in six days with a soft one.

Blessed is the writer who thought several months ago to start storing all of his creative work on an external hard drive, because, blessing of blessings, his computer dies a quite sudden death two days before coming to a writer’s conference.

Blessed was the first night of readings, morning meditation, and a first day free and clear of responsibilities. Blessed is the writer who reads tonight sporting his disco bowtie, who chose poetry this time, a first for this fiction writer, but following in the footsteps of dozens of fiction writers and poets who have chosen to cross that invisible genre boundary and did not die from it, but, on the contrary, were met by their readers and listeners with much rejoicing.

That’s my dorm room back there!

Another view of the dungeon.

The Holyoke Troll

Looks kind of like a Rorschach inkblot test

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As a Result of Maintaining a Regular Blog…

mandala-tree-of-life

I have found a book.  It just appeared there. I wasn’t intentionally writing a book. I was just blogging. One day I decided to look closely at a pattern I saw emerging (among many patterns), and there I found a book! I found a book of poems, needing revision, sure, but almost fully formed, a book of poems about teaching, written in partially shitty rough drafts over a four year stint of keeping up a regular blog and publishing those shitty rough drafts during the course of National Poetry Writing Month and beyond.

It strikes me as a bit unorthodox. Maybe I’ve mentioned this conundrum before, but I’m a fiction writer, a fiction writer who does not write fiction on his blog site, but instead, writes poems and essays. I know most serious poets, or at least, most serious poets that I know, do not write poems on their blog sites, do not publish poems in that realm as they occur to them. That’s just not what serious poets do (whatever that means). I guess it means that serious poets typically draft and revise and revise and revise until they are happy enough to send out a poem. They keep doing this. Eventually, a number of their poems are published in lit mags, and maybe simultaneously or concurrently or subsequently they discover they have enough poetry for a manuscript. They assemble a book and ship that baby off to poetry presses. Or they go through a similar process while knowing ahead of the game that they are working toward some conceptual continuity. I just kept writing and posting poems, and four years later, I look back and find this cache of poems about teaching, most of which I kind of like, and most of which form a nice little arch that will neatly work in collection together as a bonafide book!

One could read all of those poems here. But my feeling about this is that when they are together in sequence, and after they’ve been polished up, they’ll be better. I’m going to immediately go out and try to find homes for some of them, compile my favorites, and make a manuscript. Maybe by the time fall rolls around they will have found their way out into the world. I’ll see what bites. Wish me luck.

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#278: When I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been


I attended a writing workshop last weekend taught by the Oregon Poet Laureate Emeritus Paulann Petersen where I was asked to participate in a generative process very much unlike the process I am used to in my own creative work. It was a very particular kind of brainstorm activity she called “priming.” Now, as a teacher of writing, I ask my students to brainstorm often–but it typically takes a pretty simple or mundane form: freewriting, listing, word mapping, that sort of thing. And I will often do that with them to generate pieces of my own–right along with my students. But left to my own devices, (true confession) I most often skip the brainstorm/priming process altogether. I dive in feet or head first and swim. My brainstorming occurs simultaneously with composition; I storm as I create–in both fiction and in poetry.

So my contribution to day 26 is the result of the brainstorming or “priming” activity Paulanne led us through last Saturday. Different from conventional brainstorming in its specificity, we folded a single piece of paper into three equal columns, and, based on some guided instruction for each of those three columns, we primed ourselves for a poem. With no instructions about how we might tie these things together, we were asked to head each column with the specific name of a place we knew well, to record details of those places in their respective columns, and then add details about what might be happening in those places in our absence. Additionally, and quite discursively, we chose three concrete nouns from lists, a list of words from Szymborska, a list of words from Neruda, or a list of Nature words. We took further notes on what might be happening to or with those nouns, again, in our absence. So, to conclude the longest poem preample in the history of poem preambles, this is what I used for source material, the notes for which are in the photo above. It’s interesting to me what made the cut and what did not:

  • Lewis and Clark College
  • Champoeg State Park
  • The house I grew up in
  • Séance
  • Ancestors
  • Campfire

And here’s the poem:

While I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been

I
While I was away,
strangers moved into the house
I grew up in,
put a garage in the backyard
over the gaping hole where we
used to splash happily inside
the swimming pool. He’s there
now, this neighbor, inside his new garage,
a stranger to me, using a handsaw
to shape oak boards into
another new thing.
I walk by there, trying to
remember. I don’t wave.

II
Before I was born
my uncle Cecil graduated
from Lewis and Clark College
28 years before I would arrive there
on that transformed campus,
still bursting with old fir,
graced by the manor house,
the rose garden, views of the
Portland skyline and Mt. Hood,
but a different school nonetheless,
to be transformed again another
28 years later, and still later,
perhaps for my son, William
Stafford’s voice ringing on and on
inside the library.

III
I have never been
inside the circle at a séance,
whispering to the dead, burning
candles to light their way,
lavendar, or maybe vanilla,
because the dead like
the sweet stuff, are put off by
campfires, smoldering coals, ash—
the fires that burn
long after I’ve fallen asleep,
long after I’ve already gone.

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