Monday, March 30, 2009

“It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.” (Anne Lamott...

...on character, Bird by Bird, p. 53). I’m listening. Mining about ten years worth of writing. Struck a few nerves in my inner calm. I call Barbara Robinette Moss (from my Iowa City writing group). I ask Barbara (author of the two memoirs Change Me Into Zeus’ Daughter and Fierce)... “Do I steer clear of topics that might upset my family? Do I consider my children, who they might one day be (or have become) reading what I’ve written, wondering what to make of their mother?”

In her sweet Southern drawl but firmly, Barbara says: “Kids care about hugs, cute shoes, a sandwich. The person you are day after day after day to them. Shelter. They don’t care what you did in 7th grade...or in college... Use the fear...Use your fears to help you write truthfully.”

Which I’m trying to do against the anxiety stirred up by having “Sheila’s Vine” come out in the anthology, Labor Pains and Birth Stories this month. Which means I’ve had to appear at a bookstore for my first official book-signing. Mary Allen (author of The Rooms of Heaven: A Story of Love, Death, Grief, and the Afterlife as well as my indispensable Iowa monastery, sauna, and midnight shopper cohort) advised me to wear comfortable shoes. She reminded me of the time I came to one of her first readings in San Francisco for The Rooms of Heaven, how she was wearing a new suit and new shoes and felt her insides didn’t match her outsides.

I took Mary’s advice and wore an old pair of beater clogs I’ve had for about ten years and managed mostly to feel like myself except for forgetting Rachel’s name—Rachel my mom friend from the bookclub I’ve had to abandon for a couple of years now in favor of writing time. Kind to a fault, she didn’t bat an eye and told me her own birth story—one of those frighteningly rapid “freight train” births for which she barely had time to make the hospital, and yes, she had to kiss her epidural goodbye.

Surrounded by savvy friends with clearer heads than mine, I’m back in the cabin with a two-story mug from Coffee Catz full of Lady Grey. All the dolls are talking at once, but that’s ok, at least until the bergamot and the caffeine kick in. Then they’ll have to take turns.

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: