A Sentence

Image

“This, too, is America: two middle-aged women, one North American and one Central American, eating cheese and apples in campsite #4 of the Mountain View Campground on Little Redfish Lake.”

I wrote this sentence in a notebook six years ago as I began a writing project that would become the soon-to-be-published Trout Frying in America: A Literary Pilgrimage (Ooligan Press, spring 2015). The sentence did not make it to the final manuscript. It did not even make it into the first draft because, by the time I sat down to write the scene in which Arline and I picnicked in the campsite where Richard Brautigan and his wife and baby stayed in 1961, the idea I was trying to express no longer fit the scene.

Still, I like that sentence. It has echoes, for me, of Adrienne Rich’s poem “North American Time,” with its call to write about our lives even as we don’t know how our words might be used against us. Too, the sentence responds to a line in Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America in which the narrator describes his search for that elusive idea: America.

Arline and I, as my memoir describes, are not easy travelers in rural places. We worry about being women alone and women together. Arline worries about reactions to her “otherness”: immigrant, woman of color. So the sentence took shape in my mind as we were walking the hills around Redfish Lake (the big one, not the little one) after lunch. The glory of the Sawtooth Mountains, just two days’ drive from our home in Seattle, made me grateful for living in the Pacific Northwest, but my anxiety about how others might react to us tempered my joy. I wanted to shout a defiant: We, too, are America! Back in our hotel, I wrote the sentence in my notebook.

We returned to Seattle a week later, and I began to get up early every morning to write for an hour. By December, I had forty-four short pieces related to Brautigan, our trip, my Idaho ancestry, and trout. The years went by, and I wrote some more, solicited feedback, and re-wrote. The sentence, “This, too, is America…..” was marooned in my notebook. Until the folks at Ooligan Press told me they wanted to publish my manuscript.

This week, I pulled the notebook out of a closet; I wanted to re-read my first tentative ideas for the project. There was the sentence. And even though it is a singular sentence, a sentence disconnected from other sentences, not destined to be part of a paragraph, let alone a book, I wanted to honor it in some way. Because it reminds me that most of my work as a writer is making sentences. A sentence, like a breath, keeps me alive in this moment. It may seem like something small, but without it, I wouldn’t be. And, really, it’s a good, sturdy sentence. It still flares with the spark of my defiance that afternoon. It still breathes.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Writing Process Blog Tour

Point Udall, St. Croix

Point Udall, St. Croix

Thanks to Ann Hedreen for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Ann is the author of the forthcoming Her Beautiful Brain; read her work at The Restless Nest.

What am I working on?

Island, 1969 describes a pivotal experience in my family’s life when, not long after we moved to St. Croix so my father could do research for his dissertation, someone broke into our house, threw rocks at my head, and fractured my skull. My mother, brother, and I left the island soon after to live with my grandparents in Spokane while my father spent almost two more years there. In 2013, I returned to St. Croix to see the place I had tried to remember for almost half a century.

This story is about my parents’ guilt and anguish; about race and class; about a little girl wondering at the scars on her head. It’s about a specific time in North America and two small cities, 3600 miles apart. It’s about wanting to understand how these places and these people made me.

How does my work differ from other writing in its genre?

I don’t write straightforward narrative memoir. I’m drawn to work that combines a narrative arc with excursions, fragments, and meanderings — books like Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians and Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. I also love (and emulate) essays that read like poetry. One of my favorite books is Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere.

Why do I write what I do?

Like many writers, I write to understand what disturbs and confuses me. Recently I attended a workshop with Caren Gussoff, who urged the participants to create personal mission statements to guide our decisions about how to write and live. This was what came to me: My mission is to create, out of the essentially meaningless chaos of life, pleasure and connection. Pleasure in language; connection through shared stories.

Also, writing gives me a dopamine high.

How does my writing process work?

Teaching at a community college keeps me busy during the school year. I write during the summer and on breaks when I can give myself over to a project, whether it’s an essay or a book-length manuscript. Then, I typically write three to four hours each morning.

Next on the Writing Process Blog Tour:

Katie Woodzick is a writer, actress, director, and External Relations Manager for Hedgebrook. She considers herself a smattering of Rogue from X-Men, Mae West and Tina Fey, among others. She is working on her first poetry manuscript: Theatrical Mustang.

Caren Gussoff calls herself a sci fi and literary fiction writer, geek, and bon vivant. Her latest book is The Birthday Problem.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bill Knott, 1940-2014

Knott1

What was it about those bad-boy poets that I loved so much at 16? Brautigan, Ferlinghetti. And Bill Knott, whose recent death made me think about him and how our paths crossed, twice.

The first time, I was a high school junior attending a week-long poetry workshop at the beautiful old army base Fort Worden, which sits on the tip of a peninsula jutting into Puget Sound. Every day, we students met in seminars with real, true poets. My teacher, Jim Heynen, set out a display of books and invited us to borrow them during the week. On the cover of one book was a cartoon girl, her arms doughy blobs, her eyes red hearts. When I picked it up, Jim told me that the author, Bill Knott, was in residence at the fort, and that if I wanted to, I could knock on his door and talk to him.

I took the book back to my dorm room. In the author photo, Knott seemed worried or distracted, his forehead creased. His hair was messy; it might have been sticky with sweat. Like the girl on the cover, he looked doughy.

Inside was a stream of surreal poems, like this one, in its entirety: “Just hope that when you lie down your toes are a firingsquad.” There was a lot of death, poems about the war in Vietnam, about his own death, like “Goodbye,” which made the Internet rounds after he died: “If you are still alive when you read this,/close your eyes. I am/under their lids, growing black.”

What stirred me most were poems of love and desire, often for a woman named Naomi. In one, he tells Naomi about the “summer fragrances green between your legs.” In another, Naomi’s face is the “altar where my/heart is solved.” In another, “I breathe your/heartbeat, Naomi.” I wanted to be loved like that, to love like that.

I was afraid to bother the famous poet, but I went anyway. I walked across the fort on a misty afternoon and knocked on the door of his cottage. Long pause. The door opened a few inches. Knott looked just as disheveled as in his author photo.

I told him I was at Fort Worden studying poetry, and that my teacher had suggested I come buy a book from him.

He asked my name and left the doorway. Through the crack in the door, I could see dozens of copies of the book I’d borrowed spread across the floor. When he returned, it was with a copy of his book, signed. He refused to take any money. I was delighted, when I got back to my room, to see that it had a list of poems on the inside flap, as if he had used this copy for a reading.

Almost a decade later, I started my first classes in Emerson College’s M.F.A. program as a fiction writer. Knott was the poetry professor there. Throughout my time at Emerson, he was a kind of apparition, wandering in a raincoat through the halls, not looking at anyone. Still, his presence reminded me of the poet girl I’d been once.

What I wanted then was to be one those bad-boy poets, striding through the world with all that passion and power. There were bad-girl poets, too, of course; Anne Sexton was one I read at the same age. She had the passion, but her power sometimes seemed compromised. I wanted more. It would be some time before I found Sandra Cisneros, Marilyn Hacker, Jessica Hagedorn. Women who could stride like that, burn as bright.

 

Posted in Literature, Writers | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Booktopia

Image

I took my empty book bag to the writing conference that was here in Seattle recently, and I wandered through the book fair and scooped up free tortilla chips at the receptions and waved at my friends across the crowded aisles, and by the time I came home, that bag was so heavy my shoulder hurt.

It all started at registration, where I tried to look like it meant nothing to me that Joy Harjo was a few people ahead. I chatted with a man named Ken, and later I ran into him, sitting in the Gival Press booth, and then we crossed paths on the sidewalk, and what was there to do the next time I saw him but buy Poetic Voices Without Borders? Guess who’s in it? Joy Harjo.

Richard Blanco (poet of Obama’s second inauguration) made me think of Arline, who loves Miami, so I asked him to sign Looking for the Gulf Motel to her.

Tom Spanbauer, that beautiful genius, has a new book out from Hawthorne Books. I took his “Dangerous Writing” class many years ago. I wish I could go back in time and watch him walk into that kindergarten classroom again. (We all got grown-up chairs, but the bathroom sinks were three feet off the ground.) Hawthorne had I Loved You More at their table.

Wednesday night, Arline came down and we celebrated Latino/a writers with Donna Miscolta and Alma García and new friends Ruben Quesada and Brian Kornell.

We were all three degrees of separation by then, and Ruben, it turned out, had organized Queertopia, a reading (12 readers! 120 minutes!) at the Barnes and Noble, which is where Arline and I spent Thursday night. There, I bought Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon, Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning, and Roxane Gay’s Ayiti. Why those? Because I already had Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians and Barrie Jean Borich’s Body Geographic. And because, while the authors were signing my books, I could stand really close to them without seeming creepy.

Did I mention lunch with Jennifer Munro, who talked me up to an editor at a really cool press? What kind of writer does that? We’re supposed to be stingy and self-absorbed.

One day – Friday? – I chatted with a professor and graduate student at Ooligan Press. From them I bought Oregon Stories and The Portland Red Guide, by Michael Munk. Next time Arline and I go to Portland, we can check out where radical Marie D. Equi lived in the late 1920s and early 1930s with her lover, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

I wasn’t the only one exhausted and overstimulated by the last day, but I managed to make it one more time through the book fair, where I picked up an anthology of craft essays and Frank Bidart’s latest, Metaphysical Dog. Many years ago, when Northwest Bookfest was down on the waterfront, I sat on a folding chair in a drafty pier warehouse and listened to Bidart read. Another beautiful genius.

After lunch at Le Pichet, I carted my books home on the bus. And now, dear Reader, I am reading them.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

Image

“I keep four notebooks, a black notebook, which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook, concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, in which I make stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary.”  –The Golden Notebook

The Black Notebook — Her guidance counselor, Ms. Fransson, took her aside one day. You’re bored in your language arts class, aren’t you? Ms. Fransson had an open face that looked and looked at her. How about we read some books together, Ms. Fransson said. She gave the girl a list. One of the books was The Summer Before the Dark. What did the girl have in common with a middle-aged woman who takes an escalator to madness (after a sexy summer in Spain)? Unfortunately, nothing.

The Red Notebook — The girl graduated early and spent the nine months before college earning minimum wage as a receptionist. On dead Sundays, she read the Children of Violence series: Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, The Four-Gated City. Each book was longer than the last, the sentences unspooling more and more deliriously. When the minimum wage rose from $3.10 to $3.35, the girl clipped a news article and left it on her boss’s desk. He grumbled but raised her pay.

The Yellow Notebook — She wanted to write. She wanted a wild, feverish affair with writing. She wanted wild, feverish true loves. She would take that escalator to madness if she could just feel and write and feel and write.

The Blue Notebook — The girl, now a young woman, wrote a paper on The Golden Notebook for a graduate theory class. She highlighted passages that still astonished and passages that now made her cringe: “There is only one real female orgasm and that is when a man, from the whole of his need and desire, takes a woman and wants all her response.” Oh no. No, no. Still. She remembered being the girl of sixteen, thirsting in her basement bedroom for an adventurous life. Lessing had showed her one.

The Golden Notebook — Maybe no books are as powerful as the ones read in youth at midnight. The ones that show us an adult world as terrifying as it is exciting. The ones that show us what we might feel, what we might create. What kind of wild, feverish life we might have.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ornaments

Mouse ornament

After my grandmother died in 1994, my girlfriend-at-the-time and I went to my grandfather’s house to help him decorate his Christmas tree. We brought the boxes of ornaments up from the basement and unwrapped the wads of tissue paper. There were ornaments from my grandparents’ trips to Hawaii and Mexico. There was a white satin ball studded with pink beads that I had coveted as a girl. And there were ancient glass balls so fragile that one crumbled into red dust in my hand.

One ornament struck us as hilarious, but, not wanting to offend my grandfather, we waited until he was in the kitchen making us cocoa to laugh. In their later years, my grandparents hadn’t kept up the maintenance on their house, and rats had moved into the basement. The poor little plastic mouse, a couple of inches high with grey velvety flocking, had lost its nose, hands, feet, and ears to a rat’s nibbling.

I tucked the mouse into my pocket. Now, every year when I get out our own box of Christmas decorations, I find the mouse in my stocking and laugh again at the poor thing, its beady eyes staring pathetically from its ravaged face.

It’s easy to laugh at someone else’s deteriorated ornament; I don’t know how my grandmother obtained the little mouse or what it meant to her. Perhaps it was part of a gift from a member of the gardening club. Perhaps it was a remnant of my father’s childhood, although he doesn’t remember it. For whatever reason, she kept it. Many of us who celebrate Christmas have, in our ornament boxes, strings of beads flaking paint, burned out lights, felt Santas missing eyes, nativity sets with two kings.

My parents kept my “stained glass” windows, made of glue and food coloring and decorated with popcorn kernels, long after they had drooped and the kernels had fallen off. For their first Christmas together, my parents had painted rectangles of styrofoam red and green. Those rectangles decorated their tree for several decades, though the glitter had flaked away.

Arline and I were in the beach town of Mazunte, Mexico, when my grandfather died just before Christmas in 2002. We took a taxi into a nearby town, Pochutla, to read our email and that’s when we got the news. He was 93. That night, we lay together in a hammock, looking out at the moon-drenched sea, and talked about my grandfather, who had not been lucid for some time. I had recently sat with him in the hospital while he told me that he had brought the horses over the hill that morning. Those horses would have been cresting an Idaho hill in the 1920s.

While we were in Pochutla to check our email, we had bought a cheap plastic Christmas tree, about a foot high. We set it up in our hotel room and decorated it with tin angels. I will forever associate that trip with my grandfather’s death and the little tree made of wire and green plastic needles.

This year, when I got out the Christmas ornaments, Arline said maybe it was time to get rid of the little tree. We have a fancy full-sized artificial tree now that, with a touch of the remote, blinks white or multicolored or both. And the wooden stand of the Pochutla tree has broken, so that the tree lists backwards, if I can get it to stand up at all.

But I can’t bear to get rid of it. I unfold the wire branches and tuck the tin ornaments inside. I fiddle with the stand until the tree at least stays upright, if at an angle. My thoughts turn to my grandfather bringing the horses over the hill while his blood slowed and his muscles weakened. Deterioration means more to me at fifty than it did at thirty, when the gnawed mouse first made me laugh. I’m more fragile than I used to be, too, but I’m still here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Singing in English

IMG_0672

I never doubted that English belonged to me. Even the most convoluted academic English, studded with the hegemonies, dichotomies, and Foucaultisms of my graduate literary theory seminars, seemed available for my use. I believed that, with practice, I could wield those words through the debates about literature, gender, and power.

Daughter of academics, I’ve been absorbing multiple registers of English since the crib. The first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a paleontologist, as much for the sound of the word as for the opportunity to dig fossils. One wine-soaked evening, my parents and their friends used the word “subtle” with such intonation that I wondered if it was a swear word. When I couldn’t find it in the dictionary, looking for “suttle,” I knew it was.

The languages of math and biology were less accessible. I didn’t play with numbers, didn’t wonder at the processes of cells. Somehow these bodies of knowledge didn’t translate.

In a recent essay in The New York Times, Eileen Pollack describes how, despite earning a bachelor’s in physics from Yale, she didn’t go to graduate school, mostly because no one told her she could do it, and she believed her advisor’s silence on the topic meant she couldn’t. Years later, she went back to talk to him, and he said her work had been “exceptional.” But she had come to believe that math and physics didn’t belong to her.

Her story reminds me that my social identity as a white, middle-class woman, the very stereotype of an English teacher, can impact my community college students’ perceptions of my discipline. I teach in a college whose population is about 70% students of color, about 25% immigrants and refugees. My students come from Somalia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, India, South Korea, Ukraine, and Mexico. Or their parents crossed borders, and they are growing up with English in school and other languages at home. Some were raised monolingually English, but unlike me, they have been surrounded by different tongues all their lives.

I try to keep in mind that my students’ positions as immigrants, English language learners, people of color, and working class folks may affect their feelings of competence in Dominant American English. To counteract anxiety, I put issues of language at the center of our discussions. We read and write about language and identity, language and prejudice, about self-expression. And I make explicit that English, in all its variations, belongs to them; it’s theirs to use — to tell their stories, report their research, communicate their ideas, and respond to the ideas of others.

One of my students recently posted an essay to her class blog about her multiple languages: Mexican and Puerto Rican Spanish, Tagalog, and English. Listening to English, she wrote, is like “listening to a new music genre for the first time. It can be difficult to understand the lyrics and find the rhythm.” What I hope is that my class will give her a chance to make sense of that music. We get out the lyric sheets and pore over them. We tap the rhythms on our desks. And then we open our mouths and sing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments