Friday, August 28, 2009

Cicadas, Workshop Blues, and Early Mentors

After all the kids are out and the only sound competing with their snoring comes via the open window, solace overtakes me: rings of thrumming, the hundred tree limbs in the dark lined with the night choir.

An offhand response to the question, “What do you not want in a submission?” made by Tin House editorial staff: “...For such a small insect, cicadas sure show up a lot in poetry and fiction. It sounds silly take issue with it, but the point is that it smacks of device, which in turn interrupts the dream... (Bullseye, Poets and Writers, Sept/Oct 09)” has me, of course, also musing in the dark... well, why? Why would so many writer’s minds gravitate to the image of a cicada? Tell me what you think...I have my own ethereal impressions—what a soothing antidote the sound provides for instance, to the high speed buzz of the internet (which I love as much as the next writer).

I (of course) have a cicada poem—well, two, but they came fifteen years apart. And don’t come near nailing cicada essence like Adrien Stoutenburg does in Cicada: he sang like a driven nail / and his skinless eyes looked out / wanting himself as he was. And later in stanza three: Some jewel work straining in his thigh / broke like a kindgom./ I let him go... (poem--originally published in The New Yorker in 1957--appears in its entirety a bit down the page here:

But I do have cicadas to thank for drop-kicking me into the gut of workshop blues when the opening lines to The Chanter’s Daughter were challenged for mixing metaphors...The poem opens, When she sings / she unearths the air-dance cicadas know; wings sear the dark with colors for your ears ... and the larger criticism had to do with the historical irresponsibility of referring to the holocaust, which I had not lived through myself. As a first year grad student, starry eyed from a year of studying astrology and tarot, busy believing writing emerges from some mythic place you cannot frame or limit, I took the comments personally, not yet having developed that protective husk you need to survive any creative writing program with your soul intact.

When the poem was published later that year in Kalliope (Vol. XVI. No. 2, 1994), already underway with the peculiar disassociation from joy that came to characterize my relationship with my writing then, I remember feeling like a mistake had been made—I’d pulled the wool over these editors’ eyes, they hadn’t seen as clearly as my instructor.

When, months later I actually sat down and read the magazine from cover to cover, I found I was in the company of poets I admired; in particular, Maureen Hurley—who came to Monte Rio School with a visiting poet program when I was in seventh grade. We’d recently left an Illinois commune and landed in the crazy midst of Starret Hill families (trying to survive the drug culture and poverty of the green, dripping winters under the redwoods), my parents on the verge of divorce. And Hurley walked in--a quiet unassuming woman who spoke to us about words and their resonance, taking down our associations and connecting them until the entire board was covered in a web and I lost some of the fear of my new classmates.

Back in the heartland as a graduate student, just the sight of Hurley’s name (as well as a phone call to my undergraduate writing teacher) rescued me from the feeling of alienation threatening to take over. As self-absorbed as I was, I did recognize the closing of a circle with gratitude.

That confrontation—experience of being shaken as a young writer—has its place—I see now. I do still believe writing comes from a mythic place you cannot limit or frame, but I’m grateful for having been challenged by the convictions of established, charismatic, intelligent writers. And, the saying goes, that which doesn’t kill you serves to make you stronger. Here’s to the magnificent cicada...And to the editors at Tin House, I'll consider waiting another fifteen years before I write about cicadas again...unless, of course, I master the art of using the image to propel my reader more deeply into the fictional dream.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Car tantrums, Non-Parental Observers, and the Cops

I was at a bridal shower when it happened. Mainly thrilled after eight years of either being pregnant or nursing to be headed for “something just for me” in sandals that matched my blouse and underneath that blouse a bra without those lumps at the top of the cups (from those hook snaps for a nurser's easy access). Even had a fresh layer of nailpolish over the months old toe-job to hide the chips.

My cell phone rang twice, the girls making fun of me for even thinking of answering it during the two hours away from my husband. “He can handle it,” they laughed and prodded me to set my phone down on a thumping speaker and then handed me a fresh mimosa. I ate the decorative m & ms on the table nervously as I listened to the other women, speaking of their jobs, their children launched, all the while I’m trying not to appear desperate for conversation, wondering if I too should be taking up triathlon when my youngest starts kindergarten except for that terror I have of swimming in open water while others mow over me, and the fact that my ovaries sting so much I puke when I run more than a quarter mile. So ok, I could maybe do a relay and ride the bike. If I can remember how to get my bike shoes out of those snazzy snap-on lollipop pedals without falling over and breaking a hip.

When I finally left the bridal shower tanked up on couscous with pomegranate seeds and tiny wedges of fig and called my husband, he sounded as panicked as I do every day at 5:02 when I call him to ask him why he’s not home yet, the kids in the background shrieking.

“You won’t believe it, T,” he said. “Some lady called the cops on me.”

“Didn’t you guys ride bikes?” I asked.

Yes, and no. Getting back into the truck after the bike ride, the middle son decided he wanted to sit next to his Dad in the front seat. My husband stood firm, no, and after five minutes of trying to explain why, and my son screaming irrationally, my husband did a fairly sane thing: he left the screamer in the truck and took the 3-year old and 8-year old and sat in the field next to the truck, about 20 feet away to wait it out. He could see my son and my son could see his father. Drawn by the sound of our crying child, a woman sallied over to the truck with her cell phone in hand and said, “Is that child crying?!” My husband said, “Yes, he’s having a tantrum.” She then walked over to the license plate and started punching in numbers. “You’re not calling the cops, are you?” my exasperated husband asked. She ignored him. “Do you have children?” he said, to her retreating back. She continued walking away.

So my husband waited—and sure enough, the cop car drove up ten minutes later. (Why drive off and get pulled over somewhere downtown? he told me). The lady cop asked to speak to our son who by then was no longer crying and asked him if he was ok, and then said, “Hey, do you know why your Dad wants you in the back seat? It’s the safest place for you to ride.” She gave all three kids junior cop stickers and went on her way.

What the cell-phone wielding non-parental observer didn’t realize or couldn’t possibly know was the kids were hot and thirsty. That if you put a three-year old, an eight-year old and a forty-two-year old father in a king cab with a screaming six-year old, things get real hairy real fast.

Two days later, I got my turn with passing judgment. I pulled up in a parking lot on my way to the bookstore, high noon, probably 92 degrees out. The windows of the car next to me were cracked a couple of inches and a large black dog crawled up to the passenger seat, with, I exaggerate not, at least a six incher of drool hanging off his tongue and some froth around his nose. I actually flashed on the woman who called the police on my husband and thought, I can’t jump to conclusions here. But as I locked up my car and started to walk away, I thought, shoot, I have a cup of water in the car, maybe I should just give it to the dog. I did a U-turn, but before I could open the door to my car, a woman walked over to me.

“Yes,” she said defensively before I could say anything, “that’s my dog and he’s only been alone in that car for three minutes. He’s fine.”

“Ok,” I said, “sure, I know things aren’t always what they seem...” and I tried to relay the story of my husband and our son, but I trailed off when I realized she was still standing there defensively. Sure, I thought, maybe that dog always drools like that. Who knows? You just can’t possibly know what transpired even two minutes before you come on any scene or know for sure the source of froth on a dog’s nose.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Feral Dreamer, or No Going Back

In April, I had one of those dreams without a single image, just a voice over: “You can either Be Here, or Be Here More Deeply...”

which reminded me of a dream I had during the post-grad days in Iowa City at the height of existential despair (working at the testing agency by day, teaching Interpretations of Literature by night, taking shifts at the Crystal Gem store on weekends, falling short of earning enough to cover student loans and living expenses--in the gap between failed relationships, wondering how to recoup sanity, find husband, children, etc). In which I asked, “WHY?” (as in what was the point of being here). I became aware of standing in a room with two other seekers, a massive cone-shaped sculpture of thin metal triangles and circles floating in front of us that we were composing and levitating playfully. The voice answered back, “Because You Were Bored.....”

As in remember?! You chose this life and its challenges, now stop the middle-class whining and get on with your life!

So I’m outing the the optomistic leg of this blog: Feral Dreamer—the “hidden balancer.” (Feral Mom—the “situation”. Feral Writer—the “opposing passion.”) I need all three to care enough to be here. Specifically on the subject of motherhood—I came across this enlightening passage this week:

The language in which we think about the relationship between motherhood and art making is inadequate. Unfortunately we enter into motherhood feeling like it is an oppositional struggle rather than focusing on the effort living fully takes. This is what C. D. Wright reminds us (Claudia Rankine, in an interview in jubilat (issue twelve, 2006) speaking about C.D. Wright’s book, Cooling Time, in which Wright discusses poetry and pregnancy: You get what you get—or, you lose some and you gain some, but there is no going back (Rankine again on Wright).

And another provoking bit of reflection came via Poetry (September 2009) “As If Nature Talked Back to Me: A Notebook” by Ange Mlinko: “I don’t want to read anthologies of mother poems. On the other hand I am always interested in what individual poets write about their children, in context with all the other things they write about” (p. 461). You have to read Mlinko’s rich essay in its entirety—and I admit I do see what she’s getting at regarding the limiting aspect of marketing oneself and one’s work to the “mothering genre” (less wholesome than having the entirety of one’s poetic work taken seriously, motherhood one aspect of many). But the line of Mlinko’s I underlined and will keep for now: “Women with young children still have a lifetime ahead of them.”

Taking to heart C.D. Wright’s observation regarding the depth of the “effort living fully takes,” I love seeing motherhood and writing as pushing one another to richer potential rather than seeing them as opposing trajectories.

Occasionally I wonder which plane of existence I occupied in that dream when I decided I was bored (asking the “why,” I suppose, out of the addictive context of dreams of flying, knitting bones, skimming other planets, breathing underwater and visiting the mythic mirror for whichever incarnation would show itself next)—but not for too long. While raising children, such disassociative adventures have lost their charm—I must be here on this planet (and more deeply here) since this is the one I continue to wake on morning after morning, the sweaty back of my three-year old against mine, the feral cats stacked on the deck trellises two stories high waiting to be fed.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Interruptions: Summer, Sex, and the Subconscious

I’m in some church parking lot off Highway 12, yanking away the plastic water bottle my son has been crinkling in his sister’s ear for the last 3 miles, telling them popsicles are off if we can’t make it the rest of the way to the store without fighting. The even, sweet mother I planned to be this morning when I stepped out on my deck under the redwoods for that one moment alone with the turkey vultures and the sun vanishes under the complications of...summer. And now, August, signalling summer’s end, with it’s turn towards the dreaded need to be somewhere by a certain time with shoes on...

To be fair to my children, it is 104 degrees and they’re all three crammed shoulder to shoulder in the middle van seat. We took out the back seat to bypass the fighting over who would sit where, only now they perch smack up against my ear with their altercations, feet and elbows ready weapons and effective. Definitely not worth the extra room to change out of wetsuits.

To be fair to me, I was up until 11:35 p.m., without the heart to boot my children into their own beds. Under the ever-present guilt of not paying enough attention to each of them individually, I’ve allowed bedtime to get out of control. My daughter stakes out ¾ of the bed with her stuffed animals; my youngest son has the other ¼. At 9:42, when I’m finally dozing off, there’s a complaint about sand in the sheets. At 9:50, a mosquitoe. At 9:57, a request for cream for an itchy toe. At 10:10, the mosquitoe returns. At 10:20, a call for a cup of tea with just Momma, please, because the boys are finally asleep, each request jarring me awake from that delicious slide into sleep. Where’s the tantric payoff for sleep interruptions, as there is for persistently interrupted sex? I have yet to have such a punctured night lead to a blissful high of sound sleep worth the ten wakings.

While the metaphor doesn’t hold for sleep, it holds for the writing of a poem, or the making of a sculpture. It has to. Or so I’m trying to convince my sculptor-mom friend on a stolen night out together. The boy Barrista at the coffee shop thinks we are hilarious...giddy with being out sans children, I’m telling him, “A vanilla latte, and make it decaff or I’ll be a bad mom tomorrow...” He thinks I’m joking. “I’m not kidding,” I reiterate, and he tells us to sit on the stools by the window so we’ll be within earshot. We acquiesce, and discuss: the strain of persevering with one’s work against the constant interruptions and demands of motherhood. Do you just not go as deep or as far in your work? Or when you do finally get the moment to drop within, grope around in the fertile subconscious and resurface with something in hand, is the work that much richer for all you’ve gone through as a parent, struggling, an uncomfortable god of the emotional tenor of your children’s lives? Or is it simply true, we joke, we too need wives so we can focus on our careers as artists?

Older friends, with adult children, remind me to covet this time with my children, for it will hurtle past, and whatever it is I so rigidly think I have to get done will get done just as well when they are grown. So I try to relish it all, sleepily listening to my daughter’s 10:49 p.m. skinny on her day, aware that I’ll be lucky if she’ll let me be in the same room with her when she is a teenager, as so poignantly expressed in Ellen Bass’s poem, “Dyeing Her Hair” : My daughter sits in the yard in my old nightgown/while I work the chemicals down to the roots, grateful to have an excuse to touch her./ In the last sun of the afternoon, her hair drinks in/the deep paprika hue. She’s safe.....” and several lines later,

She leaves tomorrow, returning/to a life so dangerous I have to exile my heart. (Missouri Review, Summer 2009)...a beautiful reminder aches of a more complicated kind await me as my children grow.

Further reading:

Poetry collection titles for Ellen Bass: The Human Line and Mules of Love. Nonfiction titles include The Courage to Heal and Free Your Mind. Her website address: