Sunday, September 21, 2014

"To Own an Eland!": Antiques and Poetry in Columbia, Pennsylvania

At Burning Bridge Antiques in Columbia, Pennsylvania, Andre and I ran smack dab into this larger-than life fellow:


When I read his tag and realized he was an eland--the world's largest and slowest antelope--my heart skipped a beat.  I've long been fascinated by Randall Jarrell's "Seele Im Raum,"--German for "soul in space"--a moving and mysterious poem in which an eland stands for how what we imagine can feel far truer than any literal truth.  

For those who haven't had the pleasure, here it is:

Seele im Raum 

It sat between my husband and my children.
A place was set for it—a plate of greens.
It had been there: I had seen it
But not somehow—but this was like a dream—
Not seen it so that I knew I saw it.
It was as if I could not know I saw it
Because I had never once in all my life
Not seen it. It was an eland.
An eland! That is why the children
Would ask my husband, for a joke, at Christmas:
“Father, is it Donner?” He would say, “No, Blitzen.”
It had been there always. Now we put silver
At its place at meals, fed it the same food
We ourselves ate, and said nothing. Many times
When it breathed heavily (when it had tried
A long useless time to speak) and reached to me
So that I touched it—of a different size
And order of being, like the live hard side
Of a horse’s neck when you pat the horse—
And looked with its great melting tearless eyes
Fringed with a few coarse wire-like lashes
Into my eyes, and whispered to me
So that my eyes turned backward in their sockets
And they said nothing—
                                  many times
I have known, when they said nothing,
That it did not exist. If they had heard
They could not have been silent. And yet they heard;
Heard many times what I have spoken
When it could no longer speak, but only breathe—
When I could no longer speak, but only breathe.

And, after some years, the others came
And took it from me—it was ill, they told me—
And cured it, they wrote me: my whole city
Sent me cards lilac-branches, mourning
As I had mourned—
                           and I was standing
By a grave in flowers, by dyed rolls of turf,
And a canvas marquee the last brown of earth.

It is over.
It is over so long that I begin to think
That it did not exist, that I have never—
And my son says, one morning, from the paper:
“An eland. Look, an eland!”
                                           —It was so.

Today, in a German dictionary, I saw elend
And the heart in my breast turned over, it was—

It was a word one translates wretched.

It is as if someone remembered saying:
“This is an antimacassar that I grew from seed,”
And this were true.
                            And, truly,
One could not wish for anything more strange—
For anything more. And yet it wasn’t interesting...
—It was worse than impossible, it was a joke.

And yet when it was, I was
Even to think that I once thought
That I could see it to feel the sweat
Like needles at my hair-roots, I am blind

—It was not even a joke, not even a joke.
Yet how can I believe it? Or believe that I
Owned it, a husband, children? Is my voice the voice
Of that skin of being—of what owns, is owned
In honor or dishonor, that is borne and bears—
Or of that raw thing, the being inside it
That has neither a wife, a husband, nor a child
But goes at last as naked from this world
As it was born into it—

And the eland comes and grazes on its grave.

                                                      This is senseless?
Shall I make sense or shall I tell the truth?
Choose either—I cannot do both.

I tell myself that. And yet it is not so,
And what I say afterwards will not be so:
To be at all is to be wrong.
                                                 Being is being old
And saying, almost comfortably, across a table
              from what I don’t know—
                                                             in a voice
Rich with a kind of longing satisfaction:
“To own an eland! That’s what I call life!”

"This is an antimacassar that I grew from seed."


Lost In the Stacks: A Tour of Mullen Books, Inc.

After yesterday's book signing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Andre and I set off a little adventure with our son Eli and his girlfriend Samantha.  Our first stop was Mullen Books, Inc., in Columbia, Pennsylvania, a homey river town not far from Lancaster.

Old freight elevator
Mullen Books is owned by Kevin Mullen, the brother of an old college friend of ours, the brilliant representational painter James Mullen:

Thomas Bay MDI, 2009, oil on canvas

Though our visit was an impromptu one, Kevin welcomed us warmly and gave us a tour of his storefront and all that lies behind it.  Like Jim, Kevin is drawn to beautiful things.  His warehouse is full of surprises, like this antique safe:

And this wax cylinder phonograph, which he demonstrated for us:

But the main attraction at Mullen Books, Inc., is, of course, the books.  Kevin's stock is varied, but at its heart is the most enormous, enticing collection of art books imaginable.

Just one room of many
 Naturally, I couldn't help wandering off into the stacks to do a little browsing.

And just as naturally, we couldn't resist buying a book apiece: an enormous coffee table volume of Edward Hopper's paintings for Andre, a book of Egyptian art and mythology for Eli, a how-to manual on collecting fossilized shark teeth for Samantha.  And for me?  This gem:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Where It All Began (on the Bowery with DeeDee and Joey and Johnny and Tommy)

On my way in to the Ramones 40th Anniversary Show
In this season of many, many book signings, I set aside a night to step back from the Sharpies and the fortress of books:

...and took some time celebrate the spot on the map where Catherine began: the Bowery with its echoes of CBGB and bands like Patti Smith Group, Blondie and, most especially, the Ramones.

Photo by Ian Dickson
Last Sunday, Bowery Electric celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the Ramones' first concert on the Bowery with a show featuring some of their best friends and biggest fans, all stalwarts and survivors of the Lower East Side Music Scene.  The dazzling roster included Cheetah Chrome, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Willie Nile, Jesse Malin, and the amazing Michael T:

Michael T
There's nothing like a little live music to get the blood flowing.  Now that I'm energized and ready to rock, I'll be back at the book signing table tomorrow (September 18) from 2 to 4, at the Books-a-Million in Philadelphia's Galleria Mall.  And this coming Saturday, September 20, I'll be brandishing my pens at the Books-a-Million in Lancaster, Pennsylvania from 1 to 3.

So if you're in the neighborhood, please swing by and say hi!

photo by Michelle Rebar

Friday, September 12, 2014

Summer Saturday Signing

Someone's garden, Lambertville, NJ

With the paperback edition of Catherine on bookstore shelves, I've been scheduling all sorts of book signing in the weeks to come.  The first of these will be tomorrow (Saturday, September 13) from 1-3 at the Books-a-Million in Exton, Pennsylvania (298 Exton Square Parkway).

If you're in the neighborhood, please drop by and say hello.  And if Exton's not your neck of the woods, check out some of the other events I've got planned.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

(Late) Summer Salad: A Celebration of Literature and Food

photo by photon_de
Last Saturday the fabulous Politics and Prose bookstore hosted a celebration of Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal, a scrumptious new anthology of literary writings about food. 

The event featured readings of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction:

Karen Leona Anderson, E. J. Levy, Jennifer Cognard-Black, Howard Dinin, Melissa Goldthwaite, me,  and Paul Hanstedt.
Of course there was fabulous food on hand--all of it inspired by contributions to Books that Cook.  I was thrilled to taste Full Moon Soup, deliciously recreated by Lisa Kelley of Canards' Catering, from the recipe embedded in my own poem of the same title.  It isn't every day that a poet gets to eat her own lovingly recreated absorb them, in the words of volume co-editor Melissa Goldthwaite, "at the cellular level." But now I'm convinced every poet should get the chance at least once.

Some gorgeous baguettes, glimpsed at the Little Red Fox Market and Coffee Shop in Chevy Chase

So in celebration of a lovely late summer day, and of the last of summer's precious garden tomatoes, I'm sharing this tasty poem by Melissa:

Summer Salad

On this morning of neglected pruning,
lopped and tumbling apple branches,
tiny green fists of fruit falling
to my feet, I breathe the air

thick with moisture, the scent
of just-mowed timothy
and clover rising, the throng
of mud-common chores crowding

my thoughts: more pruning, watering,
mowing, hauling.  Last year's
wind-blown birch, cut and stacked,
still needs cover.  The woodshed

nearly empty whispers dark
warnings of winter's freeze
and crunch, as certain as these
heat and swelter days of ripe

tomatoes and the sweet first ears of
corn.  Skin sweat-slick, palms blister
red.  I drop the pole pruner,
drag branches to the burn pile,

ache for the kitchen tile
cool balm underfoot, imagine
trading this plodding and pruning
for a dish of summer's abundance:

avocados wedged, kernels from the cob,
black beans, dice of tomato
and red onion with chopped parsley,
mixed and drizzled with a dressing

of whisked vinegar and oil, minced garlic,
a touch of cumin, salt and pepper all to taste,
to taste this living season: labor and heat
transformed in a bowl, beautiful and blue.


Oh, and the next stop on the Books That Cook tour will be New York University!  If you happen to be nearby, please join us.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Books that Cook: An Interview with Melissa Goldthwaite

Photo by Howard Dinin

Anyone who has ever read a cookbook for sheer pleasure--or who appreciates creative writing about the sensuous joys of food--will love the new anthology Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal.  

Organized in menu sequence from starters to dessert, Books that Cook features an impressive range of contributors
from the culinary world—Julia Child, Fannie Merritt Farmer, James Beard, Alice Waters—and from the world of letters—Maya Angelou, Sherman Alexie, Nora Ephron...and many others.  Co-editors Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa Goldthwaite introduce each “course” with an essay putting it in historical context.  

I’d love to hear about the genesis of this project. 

In the late ‘90s, I started collecting books—novels, memoirs, essay collections—in which the authors had embedded recipes. One evening, I was standing in a bookstore in Ohio with Jennifer Cognard-Black, and I said, “Someday, I want to teach a class in which all the books include recipes.” That comment started a conversation that has lasted nearly fifteen years—and continues. Every time we talked or visited one another, we were sharing book recommendations and sometimes recipes. In autumn of 2003, Jennifer and I each taught our first versions of a class we called Books that Cook, and a couple years later, conversing in her kitchen in Maryland, we decided to work on a book together. We started sending the book proposal to potential publishers in April of 2007. Seven years later, the book is finally out.    

How does your teaching feed your writing and research?  And how do writing and research feed your teaching?

Books That Cook started with personal reading and conservation and moved to the classroom and then to a wider audience, and it will return to the classroom.

Much of my research is pedagogical, so there’s a direct link between my teaching and research. When I’m choosing readings for an anthology, for example, I always think not only about the particular piece but also how it will work in the classroom. I sometimes include readings I’m thinking about for a book in a course packet to see how students respond.

I try at least a couple times a year, though, to read a book that I have no intention of teaching or writing about because I read differently when I’m going to teach something or write about it in a scholarly way. There’s a different kind of joy that comes from reading just to read. I have to practice that kind of reading.

In terms of creative writing, when I give an exercise in class, I often write while students are writing and take my turn sharing what I wrote. And, of course, reading is a great inspiration for writing as well.   

All food photos are by Melissa Goldthwaite
What makes food such an attractive subject for creative writers?

It’s sensory: scents, textures, shapes, colors, tastes. People also often have powerful memories of and strong feelings about food—both positive and negative. Most people have some memory of being forced to eat something as a child, or they remember the excitement mixed with nervousness of a first dinner date or party or, perhaps, the embarrassment of spilling something. The foods and situations are different, but the feelings and experiences are similar, providing common ground.

What a character eats or doesn’t eat can also reveal something about that person or a relationship. For example, in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg shows Evelyn Couch’s sense of self and her developing friendship with Mrs. Threadgoode through food. Although Evelyn eats processed junk food alone early in the book, as her friendship with Mrs. Threadgoode develops, she begins to see herself differently and begins to eat and share more nourishing foods. 

Tables are also places of conversation, so they provide a perfect setting for dialogue and body language and description. If I’m working with a writer who has difficulty including sensory details, I can say, “Write about a holiday dinner,” and the details start to come. These ritual meals are often good starting places for writing about food.       

Books That Cook is impressively ambitious and wide-ranging.  What were some of the challenges of pulling it together? 

One of the biggest challenges of this book was permissions costs. Our first table of contents was organized historically, and it was much longer. Even once we changed the organization and cut drastically, there were pieces we couldn’t include because of high fees.

We also wanted at least one poem, essay, and piece of fiction in each chapter. It wasn’t difficult to find nonfiction—much literary writing about food is nonfiction. But there are fewer short stories that embed recipes. There are, however, many fine novels. Still, it’s difficult to excerpt from a novel, so that was definitely a challenge. 

I’m particularly intrigued that you included a selection from the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.  Toklas is such an interesting bridge between the literary and culinary worlds.  Can you say something about the choice to include her work here?

Toklas called her book a “mingling of recipe and reminiscence,” which is a fitting description. Jennifer and I were interested in including a range of literary writing about food that embedded recipes in different ways. Toklas moves from reminiscence to recipe and back again, sometimes introducing a fully formed recipe in the middle of writing about a particular memory. She’ll be in the middle of a sentence, then there will be a space, the dish title, then a recipe written in paragraph form. She had a writer’s eye for detail and description about food and culture (especially differences between French and American cultures). And she showed the connections among the life of the mind, the preparation and sharing of food, and the importance of spending time with friends.

I’m also wondering if you would say a bit about that selection’s final paragraph, in which a friend asks, “with no little alarm, But, Alice, have you ever tried to write.  As if a cook-book had anything to do with writing.”?  I’m tantalized by that last sentence. What do cookbooks have to do with writing?

Cookbooks have everything to do with writing. Cookbook writers have to be attentive to detail, extraordinarily precise—and simultaneously creative, even as they take into account histories and received practices.

Later this month, I’ll be doing a reading and cooking demonstration at the Baltimore Book Festival. In preparation (so samples can be made for the audience), I had to describe in detail how to make the dish I would be making. I had to put what comes somewhat naturally into words—with measurements and step-by-step instructions. And then I had to list exactly what I’ll need on stage. I’m terrible at this last part. I asked for—among other supplies—“a large, sharp chef’s knife” when I should have been far more specific. Who knows what I’ll end up with. . . . I just hope I come back with all my fingers.

Anyone who has written a cookbook knows the work and the inventiveness that goes into it—and the understanding of form and audience one must have. Toklas also had stories to tell: for example, she writes of preparing a fish for Picasso (and decorating it to amuse him!). She was surrounded by artists and writers. Surely she knew cooking and writing about it as art too.

Do you have a favorite cookbook, one that you return to again and again?  What do you love about it?

I didn’t start cooking until I was in graduate school, and the first book I really used was Carol Gelles’s 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes. It’s definitely not a fancy book. Perfect for beginners. But I loved that book because it taught me the basics—at least of vegetarian cooking. The ingredients lists were manageable, and I learned how to add to a recipe or change an ingredient or two without fear of ruining the entire dish.      

I’m sure I have at least a hundred cookbooks now, but I rarely follow recipes exactly. When I get a new cookbook, I sit down and look through the entire book, sometimes marking pages with Post-it flags. I go back to the books for inspiration—a reminder of dishes I’d like to try. But when I try something new, I look up as many versions as I can find of a similar dish to see what the common elements are, and then I experiment. I don’t think that I’ve ever followed a recipe exactly after the first or second time making a dish.

Have you tried any of the recipes in Books That Cook?  I’d love to hear about it. 

I’ve had versions of several dishes in the book, but I haven’t followed the recipes exactly. Even the recipe for Summer Salad, which I included in my poem in the book, is different from how I make that dish. Sometimes literary taste is different from taste in food!

But I have had Howard Dinin’s perfect fried egg sandwich, which is delicious. When I make my own egg sandwich, though, I add Piment d'Espelette and melt aged cheddar on the bread.  

Can you tell me about your most memorable meal ever?

I tend to remember “firsts” more than meals. I remember the fish and chips (wrapped in newspaper) I bought at a street cart in London when I was sixteen; it was the first time I had malt vinegar. I remember the potato croquettes I had this past summer at a truck stop in Germany. I remember my first Prosecco, my first Cerignola olive.

I’ve enjoyed multi-course meals at fine restaurants in France and Switzerland. But the meal I remember most was from an Indian restaurant in a strip mall in Columbus, Ohio. The dish was called “shubnub chicken.” It was only my second time in an Indian restaurant, and this dish was so good that I would later lie awake at night thinking about it, replaying the taste and texture in my imagination. For months, I went to Indian restaurants, looking for that dish, and I couldn’t find it on any other menu. Finally, I described the dish to an Indian friend. She said “Shubnub” was a girl’s name, so the dish was likely one-of-a-kind and named after a person, but as I described the taste, she concluded it was similar to chicken makhani (also known as butter chicken), which is widely available. It’s comparable to chicken tikka masala, too, but I’ve never had another “shubnub chicken.” Still, some version of this dish is my comfort food, the food I crave when I’m tired or cranky—one of the few foods that always makes me feel better.     


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Back to School Odds and Ends

Food meets literature at Politics and Prose
Now that the school year is seriously underway, it's officially prime time for book signings, poetry readings, and literary panel discussions.  Over the next few months, I've got quite a few of these lined up.  The first will be this Saturday, September 6, at one of the nation's finest bookstores, Washington D.C.'s Politics and Prose, in celebration of Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meala scrumptious melange of creative writing about food and creative food writing.  (I'll also be featuring an interview with one of the book's editors, my dear friend Melissa Goldthwaite.  So stay tuned.)

In the coming weeks, I'll also be doing a number of Pennsylvania events in Exton, Philadelphia, and Lancaster, plus some events in New York and New Jersey.  Click here for the specifics--and come by and say hi.

Also, there's still time to enter to win eight YA books, including the new paperback edition of Catherine.