Novelist. Poet. Professor.

Novelist.  Poet.  Professor.
Novelist, poet, professor, and mother of dogs.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

On Jesse Malin (and My Personal Imaginary Soundtrack)

Jesse Malin at Drew's

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, who goes on to own a Bowery nightclub called the Underground, Jesse owns The Bowery Electric--a truly great place to hear live music.

As I listened more and more to Jesse's albums, his songs came to feel as though they were written expressly for Catherine.   When I close my eyes and imagine Chelsea's bus ride to New York City to search for the mother who abandoned her, I hear "Tomorrow, Tonight."

And when I think of the book's ending, one song approaches the emotion I was hoping to create: "New York Nights."  By sheer accident, that song's lyrics seem ripped right out of the novel, though of course they weren't:

"From the desert to this love stained town,
I still find comfort in the underground.
It's written in my soul.  It's unconditional, baby...."

(Here is where I'd link to a "New York Nights" video if one existed, but--sadly--it doesn't.  It's on his Glitter in the Gutter album, though.)

These days Andre and I see Jesse every time he plays in driving distance.  He's recording a new album, so he hasn't been touring much, but we did drive out to see him last summer in Live at Drew's--not a club, but a concert series in a house on a lake belonging to a guy named Drew.  As always, we were blown away by Jesse's songs and his showmanship.  And as always, though we hoped he'd play "New York Nights," he didn't.  We'll keep chasing that song, following Jesse from show to show, until he finally breaks down and plays it.  And if the stars align, maybe we'll be in the front row.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Rest in peace, Mr. Heaney

Here's a magnificent poem from Seamus Heaney, who left us today:

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 good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Because it's not quite September yet

Rosemary in late August

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?  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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 tree I wanted
for its blossoms, its abundance,
bears long-necked odalisques in flimsy coats,
too hard all summer and then too soft,
a pulp that summons wasps. 
Nothing's left to arrange in a blue-glazed bowl. 

The morning glories we planted
for their tender faces, their genteel leaves,
lasso sunward up fenceposts, scale the swingset,
their tendrils rising overnight
to bind and strangle every upright thing
in this square plot.  Mowed down,
their numbers double.  I can't change
the morning glories, the pear tree;
can't banish the wasps, or learn to like
their dartlike bodies zeroing in,
their hunger so much simpler than my need
to trim each object into pretty shapes:
hedges squared, wildflowers tamed,
roses trained to the trellis,
and stripped of thorn.

This poem and more like it can be found in my first collection, Skin, just rereleased in paperback by Texas Tech University Press.



Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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.

Monday, August 26, 2013

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.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

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

Basil from the Lindner-St. Amant garden
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 it looks at the world--a cut up tomato as "diminishing O's," and sea salt as "sprinkled grit."  I also love how it celebrates the ebbing of summer's bounty and beauty, combining gusto with just a twinge of sadness.  Finally, I love that this poem is also a recipe.  If my own garden tomatoes hadn't been such a bust this summer, I'd be rounding up the last few and shuffling them with some mozzarella right this second.

To learn more about Barbara Crooker's poetry, check out her web page.  And here's a link to Gold, her new book.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Feed Your Head (NYC part two)

Imran Quereshi's roof garden installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

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 music--an exuberant act of creation that almost always makes me want to write.  And the third best way is to read and reread the classic novels that have so much to teach any writer.

My novel Catherine grew out of the place on the Venn diagram where my three favorite kinds of head-feeding overlap: it's a retelling of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, about the star-crossed passion between an aspiring punk rocker and a nightclub owner's beautiful but spoiled daughter.  And it's set in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Last weekend Andre and I revisited New York City in an effort to fill up both our tanks.  We visited museums and galleries, saw plays and just wandered the streets taking pictures.  You never know where the next idea will come from, but I came home feeling desperate to do some more writing--a definite sign that my head has just had an excellent meal.

For evidence that Jim (a.k.a. James) Mullen knows a thing or two about making art, check out one of his gorgeous paintings.  You can see more at his web page.

Quadro #13 by James Mullen

Friday, August 23, 2013

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 Asbury Park, New Jersey, it was pretty much a no brainer.  We needed to see the other side of Jake Clemons--the songwriter/front man side.  Neither of us expected him to play guitar and keyboard as well as sax, but he does, ably.  He's got a kick-ass band.  And he's quite the charismatic showman.

So far Jake and his band have only scheduled a couple of shows, but I hope there will be more, and I hope he'll win the following he deserves.  If you'd like to learn more about Jake Clemons, check out his webpage, complete with very spiffy logo.

Set list

Thursday, August 22, 2013

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:

Breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien

Quickie Mart flowers

Mural on the corner of Bowery and Houston, smack dab in The Underground territory

Friday, August 16, 2013

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 other.  There's so much left to be written...and rewritten.  But the project is starting to feel real to me.  As summer draws to a close, it's starting to feel like it could actually happen.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"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 friend, new love, along the Grand Canal.
A wedding party’s passing
stopped the swirling crowds.
In upraised arms the unveiled bride
held her baby girl. Noonday sun,
the streets still puddled with the morning’s tide.
But her dress! Cat said, just eight,
thinking of ruined fabric, the dirt and grime,
where I thought, The world’s full bouquet.

Today’s poems in class were sex,
not love; sex and Singles’
Awareness Week. My cynics
beyond their years didn’t even
Google Valentine, imprisoned bishop
who worked to keep lovers’ hope aflame.
I gave out chocolate, wishing for some

grand passion to sweep them away.

What I love most about Jane's poem is how the wedding dress feels all the more precious for the stains it has accumulated.  All that ivory silk is a canvas on which the events of the wedding day have been recorded, and all of them speak of celebration and familial love.   As passionately as a bride-to-be might wish and work for the perfect wedding, the inevitable imperfections are part of a wedding day's glorious fabric, part of "the world's full bouquet."

For more of Jane Satterfield's poetry, check out Her Familiars.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

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--and she has to believe in them, even though she knows they're spun of nothing but her own overactive imagination. How does a writer know a book is really taking off?  When her characters start to speak to her, start to resist doing what she intends for them to do because it just doesn't fit who they are are turning out to be.  Does this sound a teensy little bit like insanity?  I guess maybe it does.

Being a writer means spending hours, days, months, even years, seeing not what's right in front of you but something else entirely--and trying very hard to make what's in your head come to something resembling life...not just for yourself, but for those beings you hope will turn out to be more than imaginary--the readers you're envisioning as you write.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

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 lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm--a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

I teach this poem to my freshmen every year because it's so translucent, so invitingly spooky, but also because it provides such a great object lesson in how poetry works, presenting a string of vivid images that speak for themselves.  The poet gives his reader plenty of clues, but ultimately leaves her to do the work. Something went wrong.  But what?  We'll never know, exactly, but even so we know everything we need to know.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

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't really be held at the same time it makes me feel that same very human longing.

I'm looking forward to Kevin's new book, Los Angeles in Fog.

Friday, August 9, 2013

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.


Last night's big surprise (for me at least) occurred when the Johns brought their Triceratops Horns on stage and one of them was a dead ringer for Curt Ramm, who has been touring the world with Bruce Springsteen for his last few tours.  When this dude took a solo, he even sounded like Curt Ramm.

Okay, so it was in fact Curt Ramm.  

There's a pretty big musical gap between Springsteen and TMBG. Among my Springsteen-loving friends, there are some who turn up their noses at TMBG.  And I imagine a lot of TMBG followers would never be caught dead at a Springsteen show.  But last night Curt Ramm looked like he was having the time of his life, bridging the gap between sincerely romantic Asbury Park rock and roll and ironic, Brooklyn-hipster style indie rock.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

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 distance.

Thanks for indulging a proud mother.

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?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

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, who will lift her into the boat?
Will she cower under the pier and be forgotten,
Forever howling and whimpering, tail tucked under?
What stranger pays her passage? Perhaps she swims,
Dog-paddling the current of oblivion.
A shake as she scrambles ashore sets the beads jingling.
And then, that last, tense moment — touching noses
Once, twice, three times, with unleashed Cerberus.

Monday, August 5, 2013

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 school.  To this day, if a song or movie came out in the '90s, odds are we didn't experience it the first time around.  We went a long time without hearing the Del-Lords again, but "Judas Kiss" stuck with us both.

Years passed.  Our kids got bigger.  We finally put grad school behind us and got jobs. And we started making up for all those lost years, buying music, going to live shows.  Then one day I happened to see a musician named Scott Kempner play a gorgeous acoustic set at a conference in New Jersey.  (It was the Glory Days Bruce Springsteen Academic symposium--but that's a story for another day.)  And though I didn't recognize Kempner by name, he was, by sheer accident, one of the Del-Lords...a name I most definitely recognized.

After that, Andre and I bought up Kempner's solo work, and all the Del-Lords albums we could get our hands on.  By then, the Del-Lords had disbanded, and hadn't played or recorded together in many years.  But we followed them on the internet anyway, just in case.  And one day we saw on their website that they were recording again, and playing concerts in Spain.

Fast forward a little bit more, to a few weeks ago, when the Del-Lords played their first big New York City show in 23 years at the Bowery Electric--coincidentally one of our favorite clubs.  Of course we had to be the front row, if at all possible.  So we were.

And the show was every bit as great as we'd spent all these years dreaming it would be. All three of the original four Del-Lords, Scott Kempner, Eric Ambel and Frank Funaro, are still at the top of their game.  The new bassist, Steve Almaas, more than held his own.  The Del-Lords are enthusiastic performers, and they have the best kind of material--gritty rockers that manage to sweep and soar with emotion.  The crowd at the Bowery Electric fed off their energy, and the show passed, as the best shows do, in a flash.

Elvis Club, their new album is fantastic, too.  Check it out here.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

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 trying to, I find that my two notebooks full of scribblings aren't quite doing what I need them to do.  Like my shoebox full of postcards, receipts and pebbles picked up from beachs on Naxos and Andros, the notes and photos serve to jog my memory--a little.  But the random sensory details I thought to record aren't necessarily the ones I need.  I strain to remember how the air smells in a particular spot in Athens, what sort of flowers grow up out of the sidewalk cracks in Thira, what it feels like to turn a random corner and see the Acropolis for the first time.

For now, I'm working my way through the story, leaving gaps in the description, to be filled out as the memories trickle back to me, if they ever do.  Without being able to revisit Greece, I have to trust that my notes and photos, my shoebox booty and my not-too-reliable memory will be enough to take me back to where I need to go.

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 in around the margins of all the things that urgently must be done.  I'm determined to make these next few weeks really count, to get as deep into the novel as I can so that it keeps calling me back, even when the school year starts and I'm at my busiest and most that it refuses to stay unwritten.

Free the Mice!

  Thanks to Bearings Online , for publishing my poem about trying--and sometimes failing--to be kind to the mammals who only want to sha...