Tuesday, August 30, 2016

two poems:



Hemingway floats,


            Now this old man
            has ripened sweetly.
                        Jane Munro, Blue Sonoma

A sextet tale of cats, domesticated. Sing: poly, poly. The sun sets and it rises, also. Made this day from earth. The body stands, like butter. Pounding, chest. Inside that loft, such Nobel composition. Studio, arranged. Head in hands in hands in hand. Tumbler, this knot of bone. Such contradiction: iron fireplace, this heat. Invention of the fur, the furl, paw telescopes. An extra claw. Sea-faring, doubtful mews. A line of craters, causes. Calm things, fathom. Christened. Pronoun, woman. Wife. A hard-back chair. Administers. What we might know of oracles. Penny function. His last red cent.




Arboretum


Every few days another moth appears.
Michael Lithgow, Waking in the Tree House

Meaning carries blood, an impact. Baby laughs. Her fingers lift a leaf, to mouth. Rose and Wren, entangled. Quoting: happenstance. Water, audience. The threat of rain. Angora: tension, pulled. Knelt down, sharpened. Gravity: a zero orbit. Tulips, disassemble. Sweep. Ornamental; tree-lined, narrative. An atmosphere. Sunrise. Flicker, fibre. Trembled. Somewhere, swings. The clouds were mountains. Woolen. My body is a conifer; my heart a sugar maple. As long as there are facts. Dappled, snow-stitched. Cut from whole cloth. Fly wheel, treadle, maidens. A wooden lift. Mother-of-all.


Monday, August 29, 2016

my Patreon patron-only blog : Tales of my father: creative non-fiction and on and on and on,

Since building myself a Patreon author page, I've also been posting to a password-protected patron-only blog. I thought it might be worth reprinting the occasional post here, for the sake of general interest. Perhaps it might be worth tossing a ducat or two towards?

Here's a post from June:

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking, again, about the literary memoir. I’ve been telling myself for months that, once my manuscript of short fiction, “On Beauty,” is completed and out of the house (this year, I keep telling myself; this year), I’m going to re-enter and rework my post-mother creative non-fiction project, “The Last Good Year” [a variety of work-in-progress sections are posted here] (and once that done, of course, returning to spend a year or two completing “Don Quixote,” a project I wrote of in this space a few weeks back). Prompted by my mother’s death in August, 2010, I’d spent the better part of three years attempting on a better understanding of her, her life and our relationship, composing a portrait of my mother, both as I knew her, and prior to me knowing her (when she was quite different, I’d learned). I wanted some clarity. And besides, I was getting too old to still carry certain things around with me.
Even as I worked on “The Last Good Year,” I was conscious of the fact that I was focusing on her over my father. Sure, it was the point of the memoir/portrait, but there was still the decision of writing one over the other; might I attempt one around him down the road? I was years away from that (and still am, really).
I was already aware of other writers who had worked on creative non-fiction, including those brilliant early titles by Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay, but it was really the anthology The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Penguin, 2009), edited by Jean Baird and George Bowering, that gave me a particular kind of permission to finally write after my mother had passed. The prose of Susan Howe’s That This (New Directions, 2011) was also an influence, as was, more abstractly, the memory of American poet Charles Olson’s The Post Office: A Memoir of His Father (Grey Fox Press, 1975), a slim volume I must have read some ten years prior. Since those days, of course, there are brilliant mother-memoirs from Jeanette Winterson and Priscila Uppal, both of which I’d highly recommend.
I’ve had my eye on creative non-fiction for some time, finally sitting down to focus on the form during my time in Alberta in 2007-8, after filing away numerous examples and considerations for years. I’ve an unpublished non-fiction manuscript from my time in Alberta, and a subsequent one around my time in Toronto (fragments of both appear as columns during those periods for Open Book: Ontario), both completed (or abandoned) before those few, dark days of August, 2010. It wasn’t until I began “The Last Good Year” that it felt as though the form was really starting to “click” with me; far too often I require a failed manuscript or two in any form before I manage to understand the possibilities of utilizing that form in a useful way, and creative non-fiction has been no different.
Otherwise, prompted by discovering the identity of my birth mother and opening an email contact (nothing else yet, for a variety of reasons) some two years ago, I’ve sketched out some scattered notes around some of that, but time (ie: babies) hasn’t really allowed me to focus on the project, let alone the knowledge that I might never be able to have the permission to do anything with it. Some of the stories are not mine to tell, and therefore, I must keep such to myself (but that doesn’t prevent me from writing on any of it, for the sake of attempting to wrap my head around what all of it is and means).
On the day our wee girl Aoife was born (April 16, 2016), I finished reading (with a couple hours to spare) Jean McKay’s first book, Gone to Grass (Coach House Books, 1983), a compelling and lively prose work composed around memories of her father. Might I ever write on mine? I certainly don’t want to be in a hurry; such projects are often prompted by death, which also reduces the possibility for certain questions. On Sunday, my father turns seventy-five years old (we’re having a surprise birthday party for him, so shush), so I’m sketching out some short notes this week, thinking I should probably say something. As a writer, I wonder if the responsibilities for speaking at such an event become a little bit more. Should I say anything? Or have I already said enough?
 
 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Megan Pugh

Megan Pugh is the author of America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk (Yale UP, 2015). Her criticism and poetry have appeared in The Believer, Better, Denver Quarterly, La Petite ZineThe New Republic, The Oxford American, The Village Voiceand other magazines. She grew up in Memphis, was educated at Yale and UC Berkeley, and currently lives in Portland, OR, where she teaches at Lewis and Clark College.


1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?


If I hadn't started writing America Dancing during my PhD program, I probably would have dropped out. I fantasized about leaving to get an MFA in poetry, or to head back South, get a job, and write. But I decided that it would be crazy not to stick around to take my oral exams—I'd get paid to read wonderful books for a whole year! While I was at it, I realized I wanted to write a book about dance and race in America, and that I could do it right where I was. It wasn't going to set me up for a tenure-line job teaching American literature, but that was fine with me—I cared more about writing. So, in a way, the book made me stay in California, where I was lucky to work with wonderful mentors and make some very dear friends it's hard to imagine my life without.

The book shaped my first years as a parent, too. I signed a contract with Yale UP after I'd earned my degree and become pregnant with my son; I turned in the final round of edits when he was nearly two. The first year of his life, we were still in San Francisco, and I only ever left his side to write. Taking any other time for myself seemed nuts. Then we moved to Portland so I could work full-time as a visiting assistant professor, high-tailing it to finish the manuscript nights and weekends. I remember thinking that I should have been overwhelmed, but didn't have time: I just needed to take care of my family, do right by my students, and write. And then, of course, the book came out, which felt great.

At first glance, the writing I'm doing now is pretty different. America Dancing was a big cultural history, told through the work of a handful of dancers across the twentieth century. Now I'm back to poetry, working with a lot of parataxis. But no matter what I write, I can't really shake a concern for details, for the past and its hold on us. There's a lot of cultural history in my poems.


2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?


I'm not entirely sure. My mother founded and directs a ballet company, and my father is a psychotherapist, so my sister and I grew up thinking about art and bodies and stories, about what falls into and out of expression. She paints, and I write. She used to proclaim that, when we were kids, our parents told us that while she was "creative," I was "concrete"; good big sister that she is, she knows how to make me squirm! But there may be something to that distinction: she'll make these beautiful paintings, plonking in colors that aren't necessarily "there" with tremendous confidence, while I will obsess over some particular word, trying to get it right. I find it hard to abandon sentences. Or nonfiction, for that matter.


3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?


I almost always move more slowly than I intend to. I take a lot of notes, and make a lot of drafts.


4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?


Poems begin in different ways: sometimes there's a phrase I can't shake, sometimes I have a sense that different images belong together, and that I need to figure out how.

The collection I'm working on now started out as short pieces that I eventually realized belonged together. But I'm also working, with my friend Gillian Osborne, on a collaborative project about baseball. My poems for it begin, in part, when it's my turn.


5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?


I like reading aloud, though I've only done it in public a handful of times. And I like hearing other people read, though I don't do it as much as I'd like: readings are usually at night, and I've been on bedtime duty for the past few years. That's changed just within the last month; lately I've been taking long evening walks while listening to recordings of poets reading, and it's been great. 


6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?


I tend to work from the detail up, which means that my theoretical concerns often aren't clear
to me until I'm well into the actual process of writing. Then I'll realize, "Oh, right, there I go again: place and displacement/race and performance/history and how it hurts/commodification of pasts" or whatever else has shown up again.


7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?


A writer should do good work. I realize this is vague. 


8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?


I like editors. How generous for someone to go to the trouble of thinking with you, and then to help you think better, and write better!


9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?


At my house we've been reading Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius a lot lately. The grandfather tells his granddaughter, "You must do something to make the world more beautiful." I love this children's book, but maybe I should temper it with some Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."


10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?


It's hard for me to work on multiple pieces of writing at the same time-- I work best if I can give myself over wholly to a single project. But I think my brain works similarly whether I'm writing nonfiction or poetry: making associations, figuring out why things feel important, figuring out how to communicate that to a reader.

           
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?


I usually wake up to my son saying "Huckle!" (He renamed me for the cat in the Richard Scarry book; this morning he asked me where my whiskers were. He calls my husband Lowly, after a very friendly worm.) Once he's out of bed, he wants to read, so we'll sit on the couch with a pile of picture books until he's ready for breakfast. After that, the days vary. I've been trying to write at nights more lately, when everyone else is asleep.


12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

The mere fact that Bernadette Mayer wrote Midwinter Day while caring for her children—let alone that it's a fabulous book—is a perpetual inspiration for me.  So are other parent-writers; I love what Mia You and Chloe Garcia-Roberts are doing over at a. bradstreet.

At a more pragmatic level, I read and listen. Or I'll turn back to notebooks I've kept about things I've read or heard, which often jogs something.


13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


Not a smell, but still in the air: humidity.


14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?


Dance and music are both big for me. 

           
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?


Lyn Hejinian, Greil Marcus, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Andy Horowitz, Gillian Osborne, and Tung-Hui Hu have all been various combinations of important teachers, inspirations, sounding boards, and friends. As for writers I know only through their work—I'll stick to poets in an effort to reign myself in, though this list is still going to be too short—Mayer, C. D. Wright, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, Edwin Denby, M. NourbeSe Philip, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Robyn Schiff, Elizabeth Bishop.


16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?


Tend a small orchard.


17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?


According to the Strong Interest Inventory, I have a lot in common with home economists. For a while, I schemed about opening a meat-and-three. I've also imagined working for a radio show, or a museum, or a historical society, or a library. I like public humanities projects.


18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?


Gut feelings. I like to write. Though I am doing "something else"—I teach.


19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?


I can't remember the order in which I recently read these great books: Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts, Teju Cole's Open City, Anne Boyer's Garments Against Women, and Robin Coste Lewis's Voyage of the Sable Venus. But it was just two weeks ago that I saw a great film: The Fits


20 - What are you currently working on?


The collaboration Gillian Osborne and I are working on, "The Perfect Game," follows the structure of a baseball series: she bats first, and then takes the field while I bat. We started the project after watching Matt Cain pitch a perfect game for the San Francisco Giants; in the ensuing years, we've both had babies and moved away from California, where neither of us was from to begin with. So there's a lot in there about place, spectatorship, teams, gender—as well as friendship and fellow feeling.

I'm also working on a collection of poems that explore overlapping regional and personal histories—sometimes I think of this work as a kind of chatty seance—and on a long piece that has to do, at least for now, with Roy Orbison, migraines, and women in the nineteenth century.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Announcing the winners of the 2016 Hillary Gravendyk Prize!



I recently judged the National Competition of the 2016 Hillary Gravendyk Prize (named after the late American poet; see my obituary for her here), counterbalancing the judge of the Regional Competition, Megan Gravendyk Estrella. As the Inlandia Institute posted recently on their Facebookpage, the winners have now been announced (I’ve included my selections in bold, although the list of finalists is a combination of lists by both judges). Congratulations to all! The two winning manuscripts (National and Regional) will be published next year. As I wrote of the winning (National) manuscript: “Traces of a Fifth Column,” the National winner of this year’s Hilary Gravendyk Prize, is a manuscript composed as of a series of dense, lively fragments across a wide canvas, each of which are more than capable of carrying the weight of the entire collection. “Traces of a Fifth Column” is a rich, meditative collage of essay-sketches that attempt to comprehend, through exploring meaning, language and being.


Thank you to all who entered. We are grateful for your words.

And thank you to our judges, rob mclennan and Megan Gravendyk Estrella, for choosing this year's books.

••••••••••

National

Winner:
Traces of a Fifth Column by Marco Maisto

First Runner Up:
Letdown by Sonia Greenfield

Second Runner Up:
In This Housing by Mary Wilson

Regional

Winner
Gods Will for Monsters by Rachelle Cruz

First Runner Up:
Eyelets Under Sun by Lauren Henley

Second Runner Up:
Wild Embrace by Tim Hatch

Finalists:
Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm by Elizabeth Acevedo
Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live by Monica Berlin
Maybe To Region by Monica Berlin
FIGHTING EXILE by Terry Brix
Palace of Conferences by Andrew Cantrell
Nimrod in Hell by James Capozzi
Pity the Lifeboat Poems by Colleen Carias
Us Mouth by Nikia Chaney
A Feeling For Good Water by Elizabeth Chapman
Talking to Yourself Is Fine by Sally Dawidoff
An Aperture MC Hyland
Little Yellow Father by Kiandra Jimenez
Light Into Bodies by Nancy Chen Long
Brother Bullet by Cassandra Lopez
Reaper’s Milonga by Lucian Mattison
Of All Places In This Place Of All Places by Joe Milazzo
Working With a First and Second Language by John Miller
Yesterday It Poured by Tim Perez
Lostness by Cindy Rinne
Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas and Other Poems by Jane Satterfield
Generating the Wild by Tyler Stallings
[addendum] by B.P. Sutton
Whales in the Water Tank by Micah Tasaka
Ghost Limnology by Lisken Van Pelt Dus
brightness this by Franciszca Voeltz


Friday, August 26, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Stephen Maher

Stephen Maher is a novelist and journalist based in Ottawa. In 2012, he published his first novel, Deadline, a political thriller. As an investigative journalist, he has received a National Newspaper Award, a Michener Award, a Canadian Hillman prize and two Canadian Association of Journalism awards. He is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow. Maher was born in France and raised in Nova Scotia. He has lived in Toronto, Newfoundland, Jamaica, Japan, France and the United States.  He lives in Ottawa with his partner, Camille, and his old sailboat, Free Spirit.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book, Deadline, didn't change my life hugely. It did change the way some people saw me in the world where I spend a lot of time: the political bubble in Ottawa. It's a Canadian political thriller, so that's where it had the most impact.

It was an attempt to do something that is really journalistic, to explain the world of politics, this world that often looks quite dark and cynical, full of power-grasping, ruthless people. I wrote it, in part, because I felt that I couldn't tell the whole truth through journalism.

My second book, Salvage, is more personal. It's set on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, a part of the world that I love. I have more mixed feelings about the political world here in Ottawa.  

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I had been poking away at fragments of fictional things since I was a child, but never stuck with anything long enough to finish it until I put myself on my old sailboat at anchor and started writing Salvage. I put myself in a situation where I would either write every day or waste my vacation sitting on a boat by myself. I had a gasoline generator, to power my laptop, and two uninterrupted weeks. I spend 14 to 16 hours a day writing by myself. By the end of my vacation, I had finished the first draft of Salvage.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I start by writing 75 pages or so, trying to feel my way through the material, then stop, set the work aside and think about the story, the characters, the structure. In my next burst, I design the plot, scene by scene, figuring out what should happen, making notes, structuring the story but not writing anything much. That feels odd, strangely unproductive, but I think it is a more productive process for me than trying to feel my way forward. Then, when the story is designed, I set it aside again. When I return to it, I might rewrite the first bit I wrote and then proceed, putting flesh on the skeleton story. Then, when that is done, I put it aside again, and begin the rewriting process, which is the hardest, least fun part.   

4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I am usually thinking about the next book while I am writing the current one. I will sometimes have a few ideas that I go back and forth to, trying to decide what would be more interesting. So far, I have finished everything I started. I don't write short stories or poetry or non-fiction, except for journalism. My writing has two modes: daily political journalism and fiction.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing them, but not hugely. It's nice to get the sense of how your words come alive to people, but I think public readings are fairly low on the scale of satisfying public performance. Compared to a play or a concert, they can be kind of flat. I've been to a fair number of readings, including some by great writers, and I find the reading part is often kind of flat. The question-and-answer part is usually better. The best I've attended was with David Sedaris, who just had everybody laughing and feeling good. 

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don't have theoretical concerns in my writing, I don't think, but I am working with themes. My first book, Deadline, was about power, its uses and abuses. Salvage is about love, death and community solidarity. My next book is about social media, the changing sense of self and narcissism, more current questions.   

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers are story tellers. Humans need stories as much as we need food. Stories allow us to order the chaotic world. The role of the writer is to tell stories that help people come to terms with the world, and themselves, by telling stories that feel right. Any other role is necessarily subordinate to that, and hugely less important. For instance, I enjoy Stephen King's political commentary, which seems to spring from the same passionate sense of decency that we see in his stories, but it not hugely significant. He is a writer. His stories matter. His commentary doesn't matter much. There are occasional figures -- like Andre Malraux -- who play a significant political role, but they are rare.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don't find it difficult. I welcome it and I have been fortunate to have good editors.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don't talk about what you're writing, because it will kill the impulse to tell the story and you will end up speaking it instead of writing it.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to journalism)? What do you see as the appeal?

Fiction is harder than journalism, because in journalism you are basically telling people stories you have learned about. If you have information people want, they need to read your stories. With fiction, you must invent stories that touch something in people. I am drawn to it, though, because it is deeper, more meaningful, and because of the creative high when the writing is going well.  

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I write fiction in spurts, in isolation, on my old sailboat or in a cabin or beach house. When I can set aside time for writing, it is all I want to do. Wake up, write. Go for the odd run. Write more. Eat a sandwich. Write. I like to be alone and I like to do it all day, for days at a time, so that I get into a different place. I can't do the thing that many writers do, where they get up early every day and write for an hour before they do some other job.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I sometimes like to float in the water, hanging onto my anchor line, with my ears in the water and my eyes closed, and will the story to reveal itself to me. Running can also be good.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

There's a distinct low-tide mud-flat smell that tells you you're in the Maritimes, and there are mussel beds nearby. 

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Movies. Gore Vidal wrote a piece for New York review of Books in 1973 where he showed how many bestselling novels can be thought of as warmed over movies. Cinema has had a huge influence on our thinking and reading, and it's as true for me as for anyone. These days, TV as well. I've been watching Better Call Saul, The Night Manager and other series that are, arguably, as good as anything you can read. Annie Proulx, in an essay about Brokeback Mountain, wrote that the movie is in a way a better, more complete version of the story than her original story. Film and TV have swallowed fiction. 

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1973/05/17/the-ashes-of-hollywood-i-the-bottom-4-of-the-top-1/

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Mordecai Richler. Margaret Atwood. John le Carré. Michel Houellebecq. John D MacDonald. Patricia Highsmith. Elmore Leonard. Gillian Flynn.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Sail my boat to the Caribbean.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I sometimes think that I would like to be a private detective. As an investigative journalist, you are always limited by ethical constraints -- the requirement to always be honest and forthcoming -- restraints that don't bind detectives. I imagine it makes it easier and more fun. On the other hand, you are pursuing private interests, and the great thing about journalism is that it's in the public interest.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have had the urge to write since I was small. It comes from the love of reading, I suppose, and the desire to be useful.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I don't know if it's great, but this week I reread The Deep Blue Good-by, the first novel in John D MacDonald's Travis McGee series of Florida thrillers. It's certainly really good. I find MacDonald a not-very-guilty pleasure. He writes so well that from time to time you think: this isn't really pulp. It is, I suppose, but it's really good.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm about to start rewriting a book with the working title Social, a thriller set in the world of social media marketing in New York City. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;