Friday, March 20, 2009

“I trapped my days for about 400 days, then I distilled them into this cross-genre book...

...[that is] partly imagination and partly the fabric of days,” said writer Nona Caspers, referring to her poetry collection: Little Book of Days, which she then proceeded to read from at the 2009 Women on Writing Conference in San Bruno. Basking in the pleasure of her turn of the phrase, I was once again reminded why I can’t do without the company of other poets. Not only were the poems witty and articulate, but the language Caspers used to discuss her work as well.

Like Liz Brennan, my own secret stash of poetry gold, driving to the conference with me. Who I get to see weekly, witnessing the unfolding of her Mother Theresa poems that chronicle the everyday, the ordinary struggle to be saint of the mundane. How does Elizabeth--principle wage earner for her family, mother to her son and herself a loving wife--stay connected to her work, and produce for me to read week after week yet another Mother Theresa poem. Each Wednesday I wonder where she’ll (MT) be next: perhaps surviving an exchange with a bad clerk at the post office, eating noodles from her take-out container while driving, or sprinting to intercept the meter maid.

A woman in the conference audience suggests carrying a talisman of one’s work in order to maintain the thread of the current project at hand. A good plan—though given life’s hectic pace, I’d probably lose such an object. Images work as talismans for me: the core image of the poem, story or essay gives off a certain alluring heat so I can’t put it too far out of mind anyway. I think of Jane Miller (in a 1994 Electronic Poetry Review interview conducted by Jocelyn Emerson): “I've always felt that poetry begins in a powerful emotional seed. Some artists are more inclined to bury this emotional energy than others; I prefer to bloody the back steps”(for context see entire interview transcript at: ).

And as a mother and a writer, I was particularly curious to hear the afternoon panelists respond to a question about how/when they write, given the demands of children and family, etc. Writer Yiyun Li answered closest to my heart when she said, “I write between midnight and 4 a.m. Then I try to catch up on sleep on the weekends. My husband knows I am happiest when I write.” I first met Li over ten years ago when she was an Immunology student who signed up for an evening writing course I was teaching through the Arts and Crafts Center at the University of Iowa—one of those students you don’t know how to help since their work already speaks for itself (inevitably headed for success). And here she was, two books under her belt, presenting, her two young boys the only children I saw at the conference. Inside I applauded her...writer, presenter, teacher, mother, going forward with her beautiful work, reading from her latest book, The Vagrants.

Floating around in my head for several weeks before the conference was an image from Li’s collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers of four 12-year old peasant girls purchased for a funeral: “The mercury killed them instantly, so their peachy complexions were preserved when they were paraded in sedan chairs before the coffin,” p. 47 from “Immortality.” I still can’t seem to get that image out of my head or heart, and thus must follow it’s heat to the next blank page...sitting on my desk.

(WOW on the web:

1 comment:

Ethel Rohan said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, and for bringing back so many wonderful memories from the recent WOW conference. I especially enjoyed reading about how you first met Yiyun Li. I'm a huge fan of hers. It's encouraging to remember that writing is a journey and that we must, to paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert, above all else love the work and let destiny do with us and that work whatever it will.