Showing posts from August, 2013

On Jesse Malin (and My Personal Imaginary Soundtrack)

While I was writing my novel Catherine, I listened obsessively to the music of Jesse Malin.  At first, my interest in the guy was casual; I'd seen him play a couple of times at Light of Day, a yearly concert that benefits research against Parkinson's Disease.  Also, he had recorded a song--"Broken Radio"--with Bruce Springsteen, and as a huge Springsteen fan, I always pay at least passing attention to musicians who interest Bruce.

But over time, my appreciation of Jesse became more intense.  For one thing, he's a vibrant performer.  For another, he writes the kind of song that's all too rare these days--rock and roll that manages to be smart and edgy yet unironically, full-heartedly romantic.

And then there were the parallels between Jesse's life and that of Hence, one of the key characters in Catherine--Heathcliff in my retelling of Wuthering Heights.  Like Hence, Jesse Malin had a first act as a punk rocker, lead of the band D Generation.  And like Hence…

Rest in peace, Mr. Heaney

Here's a magnificent poem from Seamus Heaney, who left us today:
Digging Between my finger and my thumb    The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound    When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:    My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds    Bends low, comes up twenty years away    Stooping in rhythm through potato drills    Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft    Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.    Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For the go…

Because it's not quite September yet

As the days of August dwindle, there's still time to squeeze in one more gorgeous poem on the subject, this time by my friend Anne Higgins: 
Cherry Tomatoes
Suddenly it is August again, so hot,
breathless heat.
I sit on the ground
in the garden of Carmel,
picking ripe cherry tomatoes
and eating them.
They are so ripe that the skin is split,
so warm and sweet
from the attentions of the sun,
the juice bursts in my mouth,
an ecstatic taste,
and I feel that I am in the mouth of summer,
sloshing in the saliva of August.
Hummingbirds halo me there,
in the great green silence,
and my own bursting heart
splits me with life. This poem makes me taste summer and feel its heat permeate my skin.  And how can I not be ravished by a phrase like "the attentions of the sun," or the Virgin-Mary-meets-Frida-Kahlo image of a halo of hummingbirds?  

What's the story, morning glory?

Now that the school year has begun, I'm back to being a reluctant morning person.  (In my fantasy life, I start writing at about 9 at night in my garret overlooking Paris, and I go to bed just as the sun starts streaking the sky with magenta.)  But there's an upside to having to get up early, a cool, dewy morning beauty that somehow never fails to surprise me. Plus, if I drag myself outside early enough, I get to see the faces of the morning glories that have lately overtaken our yard.

Morning glories fascinate me because they're pretty in exactly that same fresh, dewy way that mornings are pretty.  But they're pushy little monsters, crowding out everything else in the garden, wrapping themselves around all the other plants, shouting hey, notice me, me, me!

A while back, I wrote a poem in which these greedy climbers played a prominent role, standing in for all those things I've desired that have turned out to be more complicated than expected:

What I Wanted The pear…

Tinkering with words

Last night my editor sent back notes on my third novel.  I love this part of the writing process.  I read through the manuscript, seeing how my editor has reacted to each page, and the process starts to feel more social, more collaborative.  Less lonely.

Best of all, the really difficult invention work is more or less done.  Now I get to play with sentences, cutting out all the extra, unnecessary words and phrases, polishing what's left behind.  The poet side of my personality loves this part of writing--this moment when every single word counts.

I also appreciate the chance to spend more time with my characters.  It's as though I've moved away to another state, and now I get to fly back for an extended visit.

Back to School (and the great indoors)

This corner of my office sums up my state of mind: half dreaming out the window at the still-summery world, half returning to my backpack and shelves full of poetry.

Luckily, a scheduling snafu sent my first two Freshman English classes outdoors.  There's nothing like teaching two back-to-back classes in the great outdoors--leaves in my hair, traffic cacaphony, bugs in my coffee--to make indoors look a whole lot more inviting.

"The party's almost over...."

On the very last day before my school year begins, here's a wistful poem by my friend Barbara Crooker:

Late August
So already, everything's starting to turn,
grackles crocheting their raggedy
scarves that trail for miles, snap beans
rusting and brown, tomatoes still pulsing
yellow stars in the hope that they'll swell
round and red before frost shuts down
their production lines.  Right now, we can still dry
them in the sun, pack them in oil, or slowly
roast them with garlic and thyme.
But nothing beats this sweetness in August,
hot and heavy with juice and seeds.  Slice
them in rounds, shuffle with mozzarella,
add basil's anise nip, drizzle with the kiss
of olio di oliva, a dark splash of balsamic,
the sprinkled grit of sea salt.  The circles ring the plate,
diminishing O's.  We know the party's almost over,
the sun's packing up its bags.  Listen to the crows
outside the cold window: gone gone gone.

I love this poem's music, and the precision with which …

Feed Your Head (NYC part two)

Feeding your head, the painter Jim Mullen used to call it back when we were in college together.  By "it" I mean the crucial down time all artists need.  It's not a good idea to spend all your spare time in a room alone making art.  Whether you're a writer, a painter, an actor, a guitar player, a crucial part of the process is feeding your head: reading, seeing art, being in the world.  Though the phrase has echoes of Jefferson Airplane's song White Rabbit and the sixties drug culture, I'm using it here the way Jim was using it back then--to describe those moments of down time that stimulate the artist, that give him or her ideas, refilling the fuel tank.

For me, the best way to feed my head is to wander around a city--preferably Manhattan, where art can be found in almost any direction, and where in the course of walking on almost any block you can hear overhear conversations in seven different languages.  The other best way is going to a club to hear live …

Jake Clemons Takes Center Stage

Jake Clemons had some big shoes to fill when Bruce Springsteen tapped him to play sax in the E Street Band after the 2011 death of Clarence Clemons (Jake's uncle).  Fans can be a cranky bunch, and some of Springsteen's longtime followers were skeptical that anyone could come close to taking Clarence's place as Springsteen's tenor sax player and onstage foil.

But it didn't take long before the skeptics came around.  For one thing, Jake can really do justice to songs like Thunder Road, Spirit in the Night, and even Jungleland, a song some fans thought should be retired after Clarence's death.  For another, Jake has a pleasing onstage presence, bringing out a warm and avuncular side of Bruce's personality.  Nobody will ever take the place of Clarence Clemons.  But Jake has quickly become a beloved member of the E Street Band in his own right.

So when my friend and fellow Bruce enthusiast Diane told me that Jake Clemons would be headlining at the Wonder Bar in…

Revisiting Imaginary Worlds

One of the most enticing things about writing fiction--especially a novel--is creating and inhabiting an imaginary world, walking its streets, and getting to know the characters that wander through it.  One of the most unexpectedly wrenching things about finishing a novel is saying goodbye to that world, those streets and characters.  
Last weekend, when my husband Andre and I took a brief vacation to New York City, it was a little like stepping back into the world of Catherine, my novel that was published last January.  Catherine is set on the Bowery and in Chelsea--in fact, one of its narrators is even named Chelsea, after the neighborhood her mother loved and left behind.  So going back there, peeking into the window of Chelsea Guitars and pausing in front of the Chelsea Hotel, feels like a homecoming. 
Here are a few random snapshots from this weekend:

Santorini or One Hundred Pages In

I took this picture three summers ago, on my first trip to the Greek island of Santorini.  As pictures go, it isn't all that artful; taken long before I had Instagram, it doesn't employ a nifty filter or an intriguingly-placed focal point.  But it does capture something of the electric blue of the sea, the crisp, sun-drenched white of the buildings, the dizzying black volcanic cliffs. And it almost captures the heat, the sea breeze, the scent of jasmine, the jingling and clip-clopping of the mule trains carrying tourists down to the old port and back again.

Yesterday I hit a milestone: I reached the hundredth page of my novel-in-progress. For one hundred pages now I've been living with this particular landscape made up of equal parts memory and imagination.  By this point, I've begun to see how the story could unfold, how the plot points could fit together.  I've begun to get caught up in the characters, to care about them, to get a sense of how they feel about each…

"The world's full bouquet"

Walking through Florence's Piazza della Signoria at dusk, I took the above picture.  I wonder if this bride would mind that she's become a permanent part of my photo album and my memories of Italy?
I share her with you now because she reminds me of this evocative poem by my friend Jane Satterfield:
On Valentine's Day I Pick Up My Wedding Dress
Dragged across a sculpted lawn, hem half undone, the Sophia Long Ivory Silk was smeared with August grass. A thrill to wear the Empire waist with shirring at the bust, complete crossover detail and tiny shoulder pleats— The bit of luxe I delayed for months putting into the cleaner’s hands—
I loved how it dangled amid the darker palette of my wardrobe with its tattered trail of stains— Prosecco, pollen, one niece’s sandal print, another’s cookie smears . . .
Any of my black slip dresses would have done the job. But my ’tween daughter said, It’s supposed to be a celebration, Mom, not a witch’s Halloween.
Several years ago she and I walked with you, old fri…

Portrait of the artist as a young Moonymouse

Does anyone beside me remember Moonymouse?  I loved this book when I was small, because I identified with its saucer-eyed hero, a little mouse who dreams of voyaging to the moon while he's eating cheese, and who dreams of eating cheese while he's voyaging to the moon.  I may be getting the details wrong; it's been a while since I've seen the dogeared copy that I put in a box for safe keeping--but that's the gist of Moonymouse's story; whatever he's doing he's dreaming of doing something else.

Like Moonymouse, I've never been one for living in the present.  My fantasy life has always felt almost more vivid and real to me than my actual life.  What happens between the covers of the books I read is at least as present to me as this thing we call real life.  Some people would consider this a sign of being maladjusted.  Luckily, for a novelist, it's part of the job description.

A writer of fiction has to invent people, places, conversations, events…

Walking in the woods with Ted Kooser

After a morning of putting together my syllabi for the coming semester, I went for a walk in the woods with poems and lesson plans swirling around in my thoughts.  It wasn't too surprising when the above ruin made me think of one of my favorite poems, by former poet laureate Ted Kooser:
Abandoned Farmhouse He was a big man, says the size of his shoes on a pile of broken dishes by the house; a tall man too, says the length of the bed in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man, says the Bible with a broken back on the floor below the window, dusty with sun; but not a man for farming, say the fields cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves covered with oilcloth, and they had a child, says the sandbox made from a tractor tire. Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole. And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames. It was lo…

A poem for late summer

Lightning Bugs

We used to keep our lightning bugs in jars
with holes punched through the lids so they'd have air.
They'd creep along the sides, their yellow stars
dimming to green in protest of our care.
To woo dark females hidden in the grass,
the bugs we failed to catch would gently rise
like champagne bubbles in a twilit glass,
filling the air with soft light and surprise.

Why did we want them if they couldn't give
the same delight when captured as when free?
We must have known they hadn't long to live,
yet, charmed by them, we couldn't let them be.

Beyond our grasp, erratic bats would weave
the spaces between maple crowns together
while clouds turned purple and the wind's long sleeve
swept our flushed cheeks, suggesting rougher weather.

                                                   --Kevin Durkin

I love how carefully observed this poem is, how it makes me see fireflies in twilight and feel the very precise delight they bring--how it critiques the urge to hold what can&#…

Asbury Pilgrimage

So yesterday was our 26th wedding anniversary.  These days my husband works some seriously long hours visiting customers in northern New Jersey.  Asbury Park—rock and roll mecca, home of the legendary Stone Pony nightclub, and spiritual home to all rabid fans of Bruce Springsteen—happens to be right smack dab in the middle of his territory.  So early yesterday morning I hitched a ride with him and spent the day in Asbury writing in a coffee shop, waiting for his workday to be done.

Andre and I have spent a lot of very happy hours at the Pony seeing some of our favorite musicians—Jesse Malin, Willie Nile, Butch Walker, among many others.  Last night, They Might Be Giants was on the bill.   We’ve long loved TMBG for their wild creativity, their sharp intelligence, and their sense of fun.  The Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) put on a fun, high-energy show, too.  Unlike some acts I could name, they're not too cool, artsy, or high-minded to throw themselves into entertaining the crowd.

The strivers

When it comes to music, I've got a special place in my heart for the strivers--artists who are just as talented as the acts on the Billboard charts, or possibly even way more talented, but who haven't yet caught their big break.  I always try to support gutsy musicians who give their all, who write and play and perform out of love and not for a whole lot of money--often not for any money at all!

Now when it's harder than ever to make a living in music, Kickstarter helps fund projects that might otherwise go unmade.  And today I'm telling you about one of those projects not just because I believe in strivers, but because the strivers in question are Drull, an electronic music trio in which my son is a driving force.  I can't pretend to be objective about Drull, and I won't even try. But I do hope you'll click on this link and check out their video-in-progress, which is already quite beautiful and professional looking, but which needs a little help to go the…

I've been called a pack rat

Yes, I probably am one.  But every artifact I've kept from my travels--maps, postcards, ferry ticket stubs, chunks of marble found near an ancient temple, postcards advertising DJ Flipper at a nightclub on Mykonos--has the power to zip me off to a memory that might otherwise remain unreachable.

These days, as I try to write about Athens, Delphi, Santorini and Crete--places I can't easily get back to--those tiny feats of teleportation are essential.

Are writers more prone to rack rat syndrome than most?  Writer friends, are you addicted to hanging on to everything, documenting each moment you might someday need to recall?

Speaking of Greece

Today my characters travel from Athens to Delphi--that is, if I can get myself to settle down and actually write.  (It's one of those jumpy, hyper-caffeinated days when I can't even seem to get started.) In the meantime, I thought I'd share one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, A. E. Stallings, an American expat in Athens:

An Ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During Construction of the Athens Metro
It is not the curled-up bones, nor even the grave
That stops me, but the blue beads on the collar
(Whose leather has long gone the way of hides),
The ones to ward off evil. A careful master
Even now protects a favorite, just so.
But what evil could she suffer after death?
I picture the loyal companion, bereaved of her master,
Trotting the long, dark way that slopes to the river,
Nearly trampled by all the nations marching down,
One war after another, flood or famine,
Her paws sucked by the thick, caliginous mud,
Deep as her dewclaws, near the riverbank.
In the press for the ferry,…

The Del-Lords: Because I promised to write about rock and roll..

In 1988, my husband Andre and I were living in Yonkers, N.Y. in an attic apartment that got hotter than hell in the summer.  We were newly married; I was in grad school, and we were dead broke.  We didn't have money back then to buy music, but we listened to the radio--a lot.  One day I stumbled onto something unusual; the deejay on a college station was so crazy about a new song he'd just heard that he couldn't stop playing it.  He played it at least ten times running--which might have sent me running for the dial.  But the song was captivating--the tune memorable, the lyrics biting and smart, the guitar solo blazing--and ten times running wasn't enough.  I called Andre into the the room so he could hear it too.

That song was "Judas Kiss" by a band I'd never heard of before, New York's own Del-Lords.

Like I said, we didn't buy CDs back then; we didn't go to concerts either.  Not long after that we had two kids, and signed on for more grad s…

Random sensory details--writing about Greece (or trying to)

Me, on the Greek island of Santorini, on the back of a mule.  In case you can't tell, I'm laughing hysterically, half delighted that I was able to force myself to get onto that mule in the first place, and half scared out of my skull.  I'm not a big fan of heights, and I was riding the mule up a very steep path.  If she'd wanted to buck me over the side of that white stone wall to my death, she probably could have.  Easily.  But she was patient and humble, and she took me where I wanted to go.

I'm posting this picture now, because my (theoretical) novel in progress is set in Greece.  I was there last summer and also three summers ago on study tours; I travelled with students. They wrote poetry and essays about their travels, and I wrote alongside them.  I scribbled notes and took thousands of pictures, trying to capture every possible random sensory detail in case I decided to write seriously about Greece one day.

Now that I actually am writing about Greece, or tr…

Just like starting over

Getting started is the hardest part--for me at least.   Midway through the summer, I turned in the latest draft of the book I've been struggling with for a few years now.  It may not be done yet, but while I wait for my editor to read it and let me know what she thinks, I have to do something--anything--else, just to keep from fretting.  Besides, I can't let my valuable summer writing time go to waste.  So I've started writing something new--a novel, I hope--and every day since I've struggled with some nagging questions:  Am I really ready to commit to this new project, to give the next few years to it?  Will anyone ever want to read it?  Can I make it work?  And why is it that I choose to spend my summer days in a chair, in a room, staring at a computer screen?

Some days the writing goes well, and the day flies.  Other days, not so much.  I'm 64 pages in now, with just a few precious weeks left before I go back to teaching and before I have to squeeze my writing …