Showing posts from September, 2013

Glamour Pup: Dispatch from the Dog Hospice

My friend Greg requested more pictures of Feefee on my blog.  Greg's wish is my command!  Yesterday, Feef and I had a glamour shot session.  While many dogs would flee from being dressed up in bandanas and squirted with perfume, Feef has always loved playing dressup. It sounds like I'm projecting, but I swear I'm not: she preens and grins and poses for the camera with a smile in her eyes just as Tyra Banks advises!
So yesterday I gussied her up for a photo session and then a little drive around town. (She helped me return my overdue library books.)  I think she appreciated the chance to see and be seen--and it was nice to take her on a trip that didn't end up at the vet's office.
Now I'm procrastinating, instead of attacking the ten remaining essays that need to be graded. Feef's lying at the foot of the bed, giving me moral support in my procrastination.  (The scarf had to be subtracted from her wardrobe after she started munching on it.)
Here are a few m…

Love, Lucy: The next phase

I took this photo in Florence's Mercato Centrale two summers ago, when I was researching the book that would become Love,  Lucy.  I'm posting it now because the latest draft of the manuscript just came back to me tonight, with line edits that need to be tackled.  Eight drafts in, it's hard to believe we've finally reached the stage where all that needs to be done is tinkering with sentences, cutting out redundancies, smoothing the prose.

Still, tinkering takes time, and my deadline isn't far in the future.  And there's a stack of essays near my bed, still waiting to be graded.  And a sick dog who needs attention.  Classes to be taught, errands to run, dinners to be cooked.  So I might be a bit more lax about posting here for a while.

Till I get back, here's another piece of Italian pop bliss.  This video is on the crude side--but charmingly so.  And the song it's attached to is pretty darned sweet.

To Tell You Ciao: My Italiopop Geekout

I have an intense love of Italian pop music.   When I was 22, just back from my first ever trip to Europe, I stumbled upon the international record section of Rizzoli's bookstore, and on impulse I bought a couple of albums because I liked the covers.   I brought them home and listened to them again and again, struggling to decipher the lyrics. It seemed as good a way as any to hold on to my rudimentary Italian and to keep the taste of Italy on my tongue just a bit longer.

Over the years, I grew very fond of that handful of Italian pop stars I'd discovered almost at random.  Now, thanks to the internet, I can listen to Italian radio stations at night as I fall asleep, letting that language with its flourishes and curlicues seep into my mind.  I can watch video after video, discovering new artists on an almost daily basis.  So this year I have stepped up my regimen of Italopop.  It certainly helped me to get in the mood while I was rewriting Love, Lucy, my third novel, half of wh…

Twenty-three Skidoo! With love from The Flatiron Building

Yesterday I popped into NYC for a meeting in the shadow of the Flatiron building.  I've got a special fondness for the Flatiron, in large part because of a cameo appearance it makes on my novel Catherine:

Cameos aside, though, the Flatiron is poetry in limestone (and glazed terracotta, according to Wikipedia).  Apart from being one of the world's most iconic buildings and one of lower Manhattan's first skyscrapers, it serves as home to Macmillan Publishers Ltd.  Its "point" offices have a killer view of the Empire State Building.  And the phrase "23 Skidoo" was apparently inspired by freakish air currents the building creates on 23rd Street.  Something to do with women's skirts getting blown unexpectedly up...again, according to Wikipedia.

Anyway, something really cool is going on right now inside the Flatiron, as I discovered yesterday.  If you should find yourself in the neighborhood, get right up close to the ground floor windows in the building…

Revenge of the Girl With a Red Hat

One summer when I was in grad school, I temped in a bank.  The work was repetitive--mostly typing addresses into contracts--but I didn't mind it.  I had a little cubicle, and I tried to make it mine by pinning up a few postcards that had meaning to me.  One day I pinned up Vermeer's Girl With a Red Hat, and one of my coworkers--probably my favorite among them all, come to think of it--looked at it, then at me, and said, "April, you are weird."

That day, I vowed that someday I would find a job where I could pin up my postcard and my coworkers would get Vermeer's girl--would understand why I'd want to look at her day in and day out...a place where neither she nor I would seem particularly weird.

In the many years since, I have carried that same postcard around with me.  She's hanging on my wall at work now, right next to The Black Madonna of Montserrat.  It took a long time, but I finally found a place where she, and I, can be welcome as we are.  

But why didn…

Viva South America!

These days I spend a little of every day dreaming of Chile, where I'll be teaching a poetry workshop next summer if all goes well and enough students enroll.  The pile of books beside my bed has gotten very Chile-intensive lately.  Right now, each night before I fall asleep, I read a little of Isabel Allende's My Invented Country.  
At the book's start, Allende thrillingly captures what's unique about her homeland's geography:
"This elongated country is like an island, separated on the north from the rest of the continent by the Atacama Desert--the driest in the world, its inhabitants like to say, although that must not be true, because in springtime parts of that lunar rubble tend to be covered with a mantle of flowers, like a wondrous painting by Monet.  To the east rises the cordillera of the Andes, a formidable mass of rock and eternal snows, and to the west the abrupt coastline of the Pacific Ocean.  Below, to the south, lie the solitudes of Antarctica.  Th…

In Which We Are Introduced to The Hooters

There's a brand new music venue in my part of the world: The Ardmore Music Hall.  Philly's western 'burbs are a fairly quiet place, so the addition of a real club just one town over makes us very happy. We decided to check it out last night.

The Hooters were headlining.  I confess: before yesterday I knew nothing about them, save for one hit from the Eighties.  You probably remember it too, if you were alive then:

The night started out inauspiciously, with cold rain and a long line in front of the building.  Andre was a good sport, but I was feeling fairly grumpy, wanting to be home in bed with my dogs and a good book.  

But then we started chatting with the people around us, and a hidden world was revealed.  Our music life tends to be centered in New York City and Asbury Park. But last night the clouds parted.  It turns out that all along there has been a similar music scene right under our noses.  Ardmore Music Hall is really a fresh new version of a club that's stood a…

The Spoils of Rock

Today Andre helped me put up the beginnings of a rock and roll memorabilia wall.  On the left we've got an autograph and two picks from Eric "Roscoe" Ambel of the Del Lords.  And on the right we've got a ticket from Fairleigh Dickinson University's 2010 WAMFest which featured a conversation/concert with Bruce Springsteen and poet laureate Robert Pinsky, moderated by John Wesley Harding, a.k.a. Wesley Stace.  If you squint, you'll see that my ticket was autographed by Wes and by Bruce.  Robert Pinsky remains the one that got away!

We've got a lot of concerts lined up for October, so I'm hoping my wall will get some new swag soon.

And though it's already hanging on a different wall (with my other favorite memorabilia--poetry broadsides by Charles Simic and Richard Wilbur) I have to share one of my very favorite souvenirs:

The day the Advanced Review Copies of my novel Catherine first reached me also happened to be the day Andre and I had tickets to see…

"Every Fiber of Awareness Sings" (a sonnet by Robert Lavett Smith)

This pinecone, found on a path near Saint Joseph's University's Bellarmine Hall, has a place of honor on my bookshelf. Why? Because it's one of those perfectly ordinary things I hardly ever think to look at closely.  Early each semester, I put it in a basket along with other random items: a safety pin, a rock, a candle.  I ask my students to bring in an ordinary item from their own lives, or to choose one from my basket.  Then I have each of them hold the item, look closely at it, listen to it, smell and maybe even taste it.  I have them write down what they discover and ask them to make a wild imaginative leap somewhere along the way.
One of the things I love most about poetry is when it seeks and finds significance in the humblest of places.

Here's a sonnet that looks at a perfectly ordinary scene, and finds the meaning and the magic therein.  It's by Robert Lavett Smith, an old friend of mine from the University of New Hampshire,where he was a grad student and I w…

An update and a morning song

Good news: I made my deadline; the latest revision of Love, Lucy is on my editor's desk.  Now I keep my fingers crossed that I've moved things in the right direction.

More good news: Feefee is hanging in there.  As you can see, she's giving me moral support while I grade an enormous stack of essays.

A little music helps take the edge off too.  Here's Marshall Crenshaw who has been busy being awesome since the 1980s.

A Deadline and a Song from Wesley Stace

The clock is ticking.  Tomorrow's the deadline for turning in my latest revision of Love, Lucy. I think I can make it, provided I don't get distracted by my nemesis, the internet.

While I struggle to and find synonyms for the word "ridiculous," which I seem to have used 97 times in 270 pages, here is a video from one of my musical heroes, the remarkable Wesley Stace.

Wes is both a novelist and a singer-songwriter.  Until now he has always recorded under the name John Wesley Harding.  His new album, Self Titled, comes out today. Congratulations, Wes!

Doing the E Street Shuffle

You know when you've got your iPod on shuffle and the song that comes up is exactly the one you need to hear?  That experience is why I prefer "shuffle" to choosing my own songs.  It's almost as though "random" has a kind of wisdom I don't possess; it knows what I need better than I do.

This weekend while I was cleaning and running errands, I had my player on shuffle.  It's not surprising that Bruce Springsteen popped up twice; between his studio output and my bootleg collection, Bruce makes up about a tenth of my entire playlist.  What was surprising was that the songs that came up were the ones I needed most to hear, the ones that spoke to me perfectly at that exact moment.

If you've been following my posts, you know this is a fairly rough time at my house, for reasons I've posted about and reasons I haven't.  Fate (in the form of the iPod shuffle) doled out "Jackson Cage" first, a song about people whose lives are harder th…

Sunday Doggy Sunday

On the home front, we're babying Ophelia, our sick old Labby girl, giving her all kinds of treats: scrambled eggs for breakfast, spaghetti Bolognese--hold the spaghetti--for dinner.  

Since I've got a revision deadline approaching, I dragged the dog beds out to the deck and spent much of the day writing out there with Feefee and her old buddy Reuben.  And now that night has fallen, we're on the porch, camped out by the screen windows, listening to the crickets.

As days go, it's been a pretty good one--if not dog heaven, as close as we could manage, given everything.  Thanks to my friend Barbara Crooker for writing this poem on the subject of dog heaven, and for sharing it with me:

If “Heaven is a lovely lake of beer,” as St. Bridget wrote, then dog heaven must be this tub of kibble, where you can push your muzzle all day long without getting bloat or bellyache. Where every toilet seat is raised, at the right level for slurping, and fire hydrants and saplings tell you…

Golden Retrievals: Dog hospice and a poem by Mark Doty

Thursday morning I learned that our old yellow lab mix Ophelia is sick and that any day now we will have to make the hard decision to put her down. Our kindhearted vet sent us home with instructions: we should cook Feefee steak and love on her as much as possible.

I'm grateful to my friends who have offered love and advice, and who have indulged my many Facebook updates on Ophelia's well being, including pictures of her Dog Hospice diet--so far, hamburger, Philly cheese steak, and Feef's all time favorite:

Here's the look on Feef's face when I said the magic word: Pizza.

And here's a poem spoken by a golden retriever--a device that could have been corny but that, in the hands of poet Mark Doty, cuts at the heart at what dogs bring to our lives:
Golden Retrievals
Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention seconds at a time. Catch?  I don't think so. Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who's--oh joy--actually scared.  Sniff the wind, then
I'm off again: muck, p…

Write poetry with me in Chile

This coming summer, if the creek don't rise and the good lord's willing, I am going to be teaching a poetry workshop in Chile through Saint Joseph's University.  This will be my first ever trip to South America and I'm already gearing up, listening to Spanish language tapes, reading Isabel Allende's memoir My Invented Country, and planning my class.

We'll read Chilean poets--and there are so many to choose from!  We'll visit Pablo Neruda's houses--all three of them.  We'll live for a month in Santiago and take a side trip to funky Valparaiso.  And we'll wander into evocative neighborhoods, write in our journals, then turn our fleeting impressions into poems to be shared, critiqued and revised.

By the way, I'm told the course will be open to undergraduates from other universities.  So if anybody would like to spend most of June and a little of July writing poetry in Chile, send me a message!

In a Larkin Mood

I've been a bit glum lately, what with the coming of Autumn and an elderly dog who is suddenly very ill. Which means I've been in the mood for the poems of Philip Larkin, a pessimist of a poet if ever there was one.  His poem "The Trees" purports to be about May, but at its heart it's about the inevitability of November.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread.
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old?  No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

I love how relentless that last line is.  Spring is temporary and yet we can't help falling for its promises.  All those tender new leaves and blossoms assert themselves and we believe in fresh beginnings.  We can't seem to help ourselves.…


This summer, Andre and I paid a visit to the 9/11 Memorial, to see the scars in the earth paved over, sculpted into something solemnly beautiful. I was grateful to see how the footprints of those massive towers had been respected, how the twin fountains manage to convey loss, immensity, mystery, and reverence for the many whose lives were taken that day.
The urge to turn pain and disaster into art is deeply human and, I think, necessary.  We want to make some kind of sense out of the senseless.  To come to terms.  But that act of paving over, puts us at a remove from the thing itself. The monument or photograph or poem can't help but obscure the event it commemorates, at least a little bit.  Maybe that's a blessing.  Or maybe it's a curse--the curse of distance.  Of time.  Of moving on. 

The Del Lords: A Musical Interlude

The semester has kicked into high gear, and, yes, I've fallen behind on my blogging.  Until I can catch up, here's a treat: the Del Lords circa 1984, covering Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?"

Come for the '80s MTV promo.  Stay for the awesome rock and roll.

By the way, the Del Lords have added some shows to their current comeback tour.  Maybe there's one at a venue near you?

Dreaming of Italy: yesterday's impulse buy

I saw this on the shelf of Main Point Books yesterday and had to have it.  It's a memoir about an American who falls in love with a Venetian and--of course!--with Venice itself.   I can't wait for a few spare hours of reading time, to immerse myself.  To be transported.
Until then, I've allowed myself a peek at the back, at a section entitled "How to Fall in Love with Venice." Here's entry number three:
"At crepuscolo (dusk) head for the terrace bar at the Hotel Monaco, housed in the seenteenth-century palazzo of the noble Vallaresso family.  It looks out on a particularly glorious section of the Grand Canal, proving that the Venice of one's dreams is the real Venice.  Best to tell the barman to concoct his own special aperetivo for you.  Just say, 'Ci pensi lei.  You decide.'" 
Oh, sigh.
Meanwhile, I'm still in my jammies, hammering away at the latest revision of Love, Lucy. Either way, still dreaming about Italy.  

Indie Rising

It's been a dispiriting few years for book lovers.  With Borders out of business and Barnes & Noble ailing, there are far fewer spots for the leisurely browsing sessions that let a reader stumble onto new books and authors to love.  

The upside?  A desert into which indie bookstores can bloom.  And one just burst into blossom on Philadelphia's Main Line.

Today was the grand opening of Main Point Books. We wandered in and were greeted by friendly staff members, cupcakes, sunshine, and the delicious smell of new books.

Yes: reading is the point.  But there's a bonus: Main Point Books happens to be standing on the site of THE Main Point, a name that will be familiar to Springsteen fans, as he played a legendary show there in 1975. Here's audio from what may be the best version ever of "Incident on 57th Street," from that very show.  Listen to the end for the serendipitous, perfectly timed siren.

Here's the store's Facebook page.  Maybe I'll bump int…

Dateline: Florence, Italy

Yesterday the official word went out.  My third novel now has a title--Love, Lucy--and a publication date--Fall 2014.  Inspired by A Room With a View, it centers on 17-year-old Lucy Sommersworth who, after falling for a street musician while backpacking in Florence faces the realities of her freshman year of college.

So much went into Love, Lucy.  Three years of writing and revision. Three research trips.  (I know, cry me a river!)  So much angst over whether or not it would gel into an actual novel.  As I wrote, I grew increasingly fond of Lucy, and more and more worried her story would wind up unfinished, slumbering forever on a zip drive.

Luckily throughout much of the process I've had the guidance of not one but two fantastic editors. Now I've mostly graduated from the big stuff--adding in and subtracting plot points--to the sentence-by- sentence work: cutting out the excess, smoothing what's left, trying to make the prose sing.

There are deadlines to keep and there's…

A Poetry Exercise: How To Stuff a Pepper

When school is in session, I do some of my own best writing in the classroom.  I give my students an exercise and we spend a few minutes writing side by side.  Sometimes the exercise grows out of a poem we've just read together.  With the poet's voice inside our heads, we open our journals and write, sowing seeds that might grow into something. Some of our most interesting poems--theirs and mine--start with other, more practiced voices ringing in our ears.

Last week I gave my poetry workshop one of my most-loved poems, one that never fails to make me see something perfectly ordinary in a radically new way:

How to Stuff a Pepper

Now, said the cook, I will teach you
how to stuff a pepper with rice.

Take your pepper green and gently,
for peppers are shy.  No matter which side
you approach, it's always the backside.
Perched on green buttocks, the pepper sleeps.
In its silk tights, it dreams
of somersaults and parsley,
of the days when the sexes were one.

Slash open the sleeve

Dad and the Trick Circus Horse

My sister has been sifting through all her possessions lately.  Going through boxes, she came across this picture of our father, taken when he was about eighteen.  His writing on the back identifies his ride as a trick horse of the circus.  I'll bet there's a story there, if only we'd thought to ask him about it.

Now that our Dad is gone, I often wish we'd asked more questions about his experiences as a soldier.  He was a man of remarkably few words, but now I wonder if we could have drawn him out more, if only we thought to try.  Old letters and photographs serve as a few tantalizing puzzle pieces. Here's a poem I wrote a while back about that never-to-be-finished puzzle:

Our Father in Company L
What we, his daughters, know we mostly garner from pawing through old boxes.Among pearls a pewter skull bares black-edged teeth.We’ve heard Dad guarded German prisoners in Hammelburg. One wanted cigarettes, offered a trade. How must it feel to hold an M1 Carbine, to pace the wall…

Good Dog/Bad Dog (and a poem in AMERICAN LIFE IN POETRY)

I'm a huge fan of former poet laureate Ted Kooser, so I'm beyond proud to report that he chose my poem "Dog Bite," for his American Life in Poetry column.  It's up today, with some kind words from Mr. Kooser himself.

For the record, the dog above is Reuben, and he's an absolute sweetheart.  He's not the dog in the poem.  While Reuben's sometimes guilty of going berserk with love on guests who come to our door, he wouldn't bite a soul.

"Dog Bite" appears in my new collection, This Bed Our Bodies Shaped. 

Labor Day 2013

Workers of the world, I hope you're getting a break today.

As for me, I'm working--but it's the kind of work that makes me happy: a  rainy day, a comfy chair, a manuscript in need of polishing.  And two good buddies to keep me company.

"All fiction is fan fiction."

This summer I devoured Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon's guide to the creative life.  It's a quick read, full of useful snippets of advice.  Here's my personal favorite:

"We make art because we like art. We're drawn to certain kinds of work because we're inspired by people doing that work.  All fiction is fan fiction."

He adds:

"Think about your favorite work and your creative heroes.  What did they miss?  What didn't they make?  What could've been better?  If they were still alive, what would they be making today?"

The idea of creation--making something out of nothing--can be daunting.  But is art ever really made out of nothing?  I'm with Kleon here: an artist's voice is forged from all the art she's ever consumed, filtered through her own experience/sensibility/imagination.  What fascinates her, what she's loved along the way, inevitably finds its way into her work.  Why not embrace that act of borrowing?