Monday, November 29, 2010

Well it's been about 100 years

Maybe not quite that long, but I tend toward hyperbole. I often say things like, "I must have a million things to do today!" or "I will never get off this couch." Makes things interesting.

I've noticed a few shifts occurring in Pittsburgh with regard to poetry. First of all, Gist Street is closing it's doors this Friday. What a sad event; Gist is such an amazing reading series. I want to go but I fear I must get there hours early and wait in the cold. Maybe if I can find a lawn chair of some kind. And play UNO on the street.

But at least two reading series have popped up to fill the void (interestingly I typed "voice" there by accident...). There is the new reading series Speaking of...Pittsburgh and also the MFA folks at Chatham (gotta represent) have been doing a monthly reading in conjunction with Unblurred. Perhaps I'm too immersed, but I've felt at seismic shift in that people are talking about poetry and planning events. Stacey Waite's book release event is this Saturday it's sponsored by not one, but four Pittsburgh organizations. Terrance Hayes won the National Book Award for Lighthead (reviewed here on the Weave website).  It's just an excellent time to be in Pittsburgh and be a writer.

Speaking of Weave, our fifth issue is currently at the printer or possibly on its way to my front door. I'm just about bursting with excitement. I love when a new issue arrives and I get to open the boxes and hold the collective work of poets and writers from around the globe in my little hands. I have to say, the new Weave staff really outdid themselves. We have an amazing issue. You should buy one.

With all that is going on in Pittsburgh, I have to say it is bittersweet. Plans are in the making for my departure to another city with a huge literary history and community. Next summer I will be moving to San Francisco in the hopes of beginning my life there with my partner and establishing myself within that community, perhaps even creating some new ones. Pittsburgh will always be my home. Weave will stay here but also set up camp in the city by the bay. Weave will be a bi-coastal journal and hopefully I can plan an event with all our west coast contributors.

It's really an excellent time to be a writer; It's also an excellent time to be Laura. I'm working on my thesis and sending out my strongest work yet. I'm feeling like I'm narrowing in on this process of becoming something I always thought I was. Someone I always knew I had the potential to be. I'm sure I'll be constantly changing the goal, always in the process of becoming, but it feels good to be getting warmer each day.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Things I Do Instead of Writing

  • Watch television
  • Fool around online
  • Update Weave's financials
  • Talk on the phone
  • Eat
  • Organize my desk area
  • Laundry
  • Dishes
  • Watch movies
  • Rewatch television and movies
  • Chat with friends on Facebook
  • Read blogs
  • Read books
  • Read magazines
  • Read submissions
  • Check Weave's website statistics
  • Respond to email
  • Eat a meal with friends or family
  • Talk with writers about writing
  • Talk to my mother about writing
  • Talk to my boyfriend about writing
  • Talk to my professors about my writing
  • Edit other people's writing
  • Teach
  • Reorganize my linen closet
  • Take all the books off my bookshelf and 
  • Reorder them based on some strange categorical system
  • Think about writing
  • Update my calendar to make time for writing
  • Avoid shopping
  • Sleep
  • Eventually buy things online
  • Polish my fingernails
  • Decide I look silly with nail polish
  • Dust
  • Stare at my computer screen
  • Argue with people on Facebook
  • Make a list of things I do instead of writing

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm alive!

As evidenced from my lack of updates, I've been very busy. After having the summer off, I'm having a little bit of trouble getting back in my groove. I began teaching last week. It was nice to see the students again. The nature of my job lets me teach the same students each year. This system has its downfalls, but I mostly enjoy the benefits of knowing my students, their abilities and interests ahead of time. It makes my job easier. Especially compared to last year when I was so nervous to start teaching that I barely slept. Although, I'm still not getting enough sleep but that's ok.

I have been spending a lot of time with friends, more so than last year. I started to hole myself up in my apartment each weekend last year and avoid friends because I thought I didn't have time. I realized that spending time with people is a big part of getting work done. Especially if they are fellow writers and we can spend our time working together. Sundays have been a great day for working and hanging out at the Quiet Storm. I was there yesterday with Adrienne and Rebecca and we talked shop and worked through our pieces, while Rebecca's patient boyfriend Nate sat and listened. But it worked. All of us needed to talk through something and it helped us write later. Talking about it opened the flood gates, or the verbal explanation of a project idea helped us mold and shape this idea-blob in our heads. Before then, it didn't exist outside our heads.

We also talked about writing about our families. A new piece of mine is going to center around a family member and myself. I already have a handful of pages and a poem on the subject. That's also a fun new thing I'm trying: writing a poem AND an essay about something. I'm getting it out of my system on multiple levels. I'm hoping that the narrative will rub off on my poetry and the lyricism will show up in my prose.

Things that are getting me through my week: phone calls with Sal, Netflix streaming, coffee, Google Tasks and Quiet Storm breakfast burritos.

In other news, I'm preparing for the Weave After (SPF) Party and Issue 04 Launch on 9/25 at Remedy. The fun begins at 9pm with some pre-reading music and mingling. I'm so stoked.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Knitting on a Roller Coaster

It's all starting. I had my first class at Chatham last night: a poetry workshop entitled "Inventing Landscapes" and led by poet Joy Katz. I'm already generating some work just after one class. I think I missed being around poets on a regular basis.

The status of my hard drive is DOA. I am trying to piece together older versions of my writing and work from May, which was when I last backed up. That was only because my keyboard was broken all summer. Hopefully Sal will be able to recover work from the summer. I hate the feeling of having my writing in all corners of the earth, spread across multiple computers.

I'm planning and/or participating in four events for Weave. Three of them are in September. The other is in February at AWP. Weave is going to have a kick ass reading in DC this year. We are partnering with A cappella Zoo and Ampersand Books. But this week I'm just going to be attending a reading: I'm going to Gist Street on Friday. Woot.

My stress level is ratcheting up up up, but I'm working on some healthy ways to calm down (down down) that don't involve eating lots of food in front of the television. I want to take a yoga class and I'm pretty sure I'm going to get a massage at least twice this semester. I'm counting it as part of my costs for going to graduate school. I've also been knitting when I feel stressed. I haven't knitted in years, but I remembered the general knit and purl stitches. As you can see, I've made some headway on what will become a scarf. Each little loop helps my brain unloop. I hope I can still manage to knit once things get really crazy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What is Creativity?

Well, I'm still waiting for Outer Space to define creativity for me. I think I'll ask my students.

I haven't written about teaching in a while. Mostly because I've been off all summer. It was a much needed break as last year was probably the hardest I've ever worked in my life. My first year of teaching went really well though, much to my surprise. I managed to get through the whole year without much drama. And my students are incredible. I get the same students this year, as is the nature of special education. Teaching gifted kids comes with it's own difficulties. A lot of people don't understand the special needs gifted kids have and studies have shown they are the students schools most often fail. We just don't know what to do with them.

My boss recently sent me this article from Newsweek. Basically the subtitle says it all: "For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong—and how we can fix it." Last year in my pedagogy classes, we talked about creativity and discussed the role of the teacher. Can you teach creativity? Or is it inherent? Perhaps both? Can it be encouraged? Facilitated? Or is it an essential human quality that the current educational system discourages? These are all fascinating questions and I'm sure many people out there are writing their Phd thesis on the subject.

Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done some in-depth studies on the matter. I read parts of his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention last year. I was especially interest his description of the experience called "flow", which he defines as:

"being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." (link to Wired interview)


When I look at this chart I think about how much time my students must spend in the "boredom" category. I'm not sure I understand the "relaxation" one. That just seems like a breeding ground for anxiety when something does finally challenge you. But when things are too easy I get bored too. Although I do love to clean and organize and feel relaxed and accomplished afterward.

So back to my classroom. I've decided to create a theme this year. I'm working with this idea of creativity, the crisis in our schools. The Newsweek article suggests that project based learning and the development of problem solving skills is a great way to encourage creative thinking. Well, it just so happens that I can create my own curriculum and pretty much do whatever I want with my students. So that's what we're doing. We're going to learn about creativity. We're going to define it. Over and over. We're going to study what famous artists and scientists have said about creativity. We're going to research creative scientists and mathematicians. We're going to think about the problems in our lives and what skills we have to come up with creative solutions. Multiple solutions. We're going to answer these questions:


What is creativity? 
Is everyone creative?
How do you show your creativity?
How can your creativity help the world?

I'll keep you posted as the year progresses. I can't wait to hear some of the definitions the students come up with.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bragging Rights and Submission Strategies

So I'm not usually a good judge of my own abilities. It does not matter how well I've done before. Past experiences with success are often not satisfactory enough for my brain to accept that I might be good at something. "I succeeded before, but this time I might not!" my brain will shout. I tend to seek validation from outside sources to gauge my own success. Because of this, I tend to avoid bragging.

That's why I don't have too much of a problem discussing my own recent successes in getting published. This past week, I received acceptances of six poems from four different journals. Some of these poems I was sitting on because they were up for consideration at another journal I'd really like to see my work in. When that didn't work out, I sent them out to a number of journals and within a couple weeks I was hearing back. Here is what's been accepted and where:

dotdotdash - "From Scratch"
Pear Noir! - "Dear Outer Space"
OVS Magazine - "Blame" & Upon Realizing I Am Filled With One Million Poems"
Radioactive Moat - "On Rainy Nights I Dream I Am Pregnant" & "upon realizing men could see through my white skirt"

This is highly unusual based on what I've heard from other writers. It's also unusual based on my own past experiences. I have been occasionally submitting work since 2008, but I ramped up to submitting very aggressively in December 2009. I sent a ton of work out this summer. My first publication will be out this fall at Coal Hill Review, along with the others I've listed above.

With the competitiveness of the writing field, I've begun to approach submissions in a very practical, business-like manner. I got great advice from a former professor of mine at Chatham, Aubrey Hirsch. She primarily writes fiction, but has been successful in publishing nonfiction and poetry as well. When she has a story to submit, she keeps it out at five places at all times. If she gets a rejection, she tries somewhere else. No harm, no foul. It wasn't the right market. My feelings are rarely hurt anymore when I get a rejection. Aubrey also gave me advice about continuing to edit a piece, even after it's been submitted. Why not? If a journal accepts a previous version, well, great! I currently have at least 25 poems I'm trying to publish, so I've got about that many submissions out right now. I always appreciate a journal that accepts simultaneous submissions.

Other strategies I've picked up on my own is researching journals and targeting submissions, as well as tracking all my submissions and journal reading periods on an elaborate Excel spreadsheet. I did not set out for it to be so elaborate, but now I've got five worksheets for different kinds of information. Current submissions, Online, Postal, Contests and Responses. Each of those track which poems or stories I've sent where and also additional info about the journal, like their reading period dates, mode of submission, and contact info. I've also begun to research the various "tiers" of publications. I've found a few good lists that rank journals and now I've got a 1-5 ranking system. Soon I will begin to submit work in a system I've yet to develop based on these rankings. So far I've submitted (by accident) to ranks 4 & 5 and unranked journals. I've received personal rejections from two tier 5 journals, both encouraging me to resubmit. That's hopeful!

What I can't decide is, should I submit my work to the top tier journals first and then, as the rejections roll in (as they surely will), move down the list? Or should I submit to all levels simultaneously? Some people begin at the lesser competitive (but still competitive) markets first, gain a certain number of acceptances at that level, and then move to the next tier. But this seems like it will take more time. Why not try for the more competitive markets right away? Maybe you'll get lucky.

While this outside recognition of my work is nice, I can definitely see why it's happening. Looking back at the work I was sending out a couple years ago, I can see why the poems were not getting published. They weren't ready. The work I've created more recently is far better. I'm glad I am more capable of judging the quality of my writing. It sure does make the editing process a lot easier. Also, my skills as an editor have helped me with things like not feeling overwhelmed by submissions guidelines or being afraid of asking editors questions. I guess this is what confidence feels like. It's a strange, unfamiliar feeling. I hope I can hang on to it for a while.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Stop being so hard on yourself, Laura"

I can remember a particular week in my early 20's when at least five people said to me, "You should stop being so hard on yourself," or "Wow, you really put a lot of pressure on yourself!" At the time, it was the first synchronistic happening that lead me toward learning more about myself, my emotions and my personal motivators. I can't say I'm any less hard on myself now that I'm in my (very) late 20's, but I still use that familiar phrase as an indicator that I need to lighten up.

As writers, we often put pressure on ourselves to do more. I think this is because there is always more to do. Just today, I spent a few hours on an essay, another few hours doing management and business work for Weave, read blogs, books and emails. Socialized on my network. To an outsider, it would seem like I had a productive day. But to me, I feel lazy. I've also watched a couple hours of television and goofed off online. I should have also submitted work to journals, edited some poems, worked harder on my essay, gone out of the apartment for a walk. I suppose I can still do those things. It's only 5 o'clock. Pressure.

Last night I was talking to my boyfriend, Sal, about confidence. So much about my life and how I spend my time is dictated by how good I'm feeling about myself that day. It's difficult for me to accomplish much when I feel I can't possibly catch up. But catch up to what? When did this race begin? Who am I comparing myself to? There are millions of writers, most of whom are more talented and successful than me. But I don't even know if that last sentence made use of proper grammar. Than me? Than I? I'm a terrible copyeditor. I should really learn the rules of grammar and punctuation. Pressure.

If I had more confidence, I would stop this comparison thing. Because while the world and the job market want to make us feel like this is a race, it really isn't. Writing cannot be. Because writing, like living, requires a lot of patience. I won't have all the information I need right away. A journal will take months to get back to me about a submission. I won't be as well read as a lot of people. I got a late start, not having directly studied writing or literature in my undergraduate studies. I did study education though, which puts me in a nice position to always have a job teaching. But I won't be at the same place many other 29 year old writers are. I don't have a book. I'm barely published. I really need to send work out. I should be reading something. Researching markets. Pressure. Pressure. Pressure.

Part of the pressure we feel is invisible. We don't know our competition. While an athlete knows who they are competing against, writers can only imagine our competitors. When I submit work to a journal, in my mind I'm competing with the most talented, successful, ingenious writers in the world. This can make the submissions process terrifying for some. I feel my vertebrae compacting.

Sometimes pressure is good. When I'm trying to fall asleep, I cannot sleep without a blanket. Even when the temperature is 105 degrees, I must at least have a sheet covering my calves. Feeling the light pressure of the cotton fabric comforts me. I feel covered. Less exposed. When I'm feeling the emotional pressure, rather than a back massage, I often just want someone to literally lay themselves on top of me. Strange, I know, but I'll lie facedown and have Sal lie on my back for a few minutes. While I'm there, I can feel my spine cracking and stretching. My breathing is forced and shallow. My cheeks are squished and I can feel my hip bones digging into the mattress. And then he rolls off me, and I breath in deeply, filling my lungs, and I breath out. I breath out all the pressure.

I have not found a remedy, save for my boyfriend's full body squishes, for all this pressure. Sometimes I feel like having a real, honest writer-mentor would be a good antidote. Someone who is working as a writer, who knows how to set deadlines and stick to them. Someone who understands the mind games and the self-esteem and the lack of confidence. A person who can offer feedback and advice when we feel like quitting. Who knows when we've worked enough for one day. Someone patient.

Any takers?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How to Be Alone



A video by fiilmaker, Andrea Dorfman, and poet/singer/songwriter, Tanya Davis.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Notes from the Editor's Couch

I call it an Editors Couch because my desk is often uncomfortable. It's more academic, studious. When I'm reading submissions to Weave, I want to curl up with them as I would my favorite novel or book of poems. My laptop is small and easy to handle while curled comfortably in a corner next to some pillows. I've actually gotten into the habit of doing the business-side of things from the couch. Suddenly, paying sales tax isn't so bad when done from the comfort of my brown Ikea sofa.


I realized today that I haven't yet written about the fourth issue of Weave. This issue is particularly emotional for me, because it marks a transition in this project. Since Weave's co-founding editor, Margaret, had to step down, I've been spending some time thinking about what it means to be an editor. For me, this project was always about the work we publish. Clearly, it has to start there. Yes, it is fun. Yes, it is flattering to get off to a successful start. Yes, it was exciting to get a grant. But it's more than that and even more than the amazing art and literary works we publish. It's the emails of appreciation I get from readers and contributors. It's the readings where I get to meet our contributors and hear their works read aloud as they want them to be heard. It's when contributors discover one another's work, like issue 04 contributor Teresa Petro-Micchelli ("Tracing") did when she praised fellow contributor Sal Pane's story ("America's Lover") on her blog. It's when I get to hold the actual issue in my had, a tangible object, a collection of people's hard work. It's the feeling I get when I see people reading Weave.

This issue has so much to give. Playwright Cassandra Lewis's hilarious one-act, "The Elevator Mystique", never fails to pull me out of a slump when I need a pick-me-up. Patrick O'Neil's personal narrative "The Demise of Horticulture" is still honest and darkly funny each time I read it. Ellen McGrath Smith's "The Latching On Song" speaks to the strange connection of mother and child, making it both universal and utterly personal. LEX Covato's cover "Brainstorm" is an amazing addition to the face of Weave. Renee Summer Evan's deals with death, grief and ultimately that new spark of hope in her story "The Fifth Jar", which moved me to tears when I first read it. Partly because it touched on the feelings I had after the loss of my grandfather this past December. That's the kind of work Weave publishes. Work that shifts us, leaves us changed, or opened, or filled. Or all these things.

I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of this issue, if you haven't already. It's so fantastic. I could go on and on about each piece of work in the issue, but that would leave no room for surprise. I also encourage you to subscribe and also consider donating to Weave. We work hard and with the new staff lined up, I know there are great things to come. Fresh perspectives, new ideas, branching out into new media like podcasting or video readings. There are many new adventures on the horizon. I want to keep doing this as long as time and money allow, and sometimes even when those things fail, I hope to still be couch-editing. It's just so comfy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pride


I'm sure you've heard by now that Prop 8, the ballot proposition in California that defined marriage as an institution made only for a man and a woman, has been overturned. Gay couples can now get married, just like straight couples in this state, along with four others, plus our nation's capital. Living in California this summer, just feet away from the Castro, with all its history, and now being present here during the overturning of Prop 8, has given me some hope. Hope that human's can learn from their own history, weigh progress against tradition, factor in the ideas of the old and young, put aside personal beliefs, and just let people be themselves. I don't think I'll be able to process my entire experience in this state until I'm back in my home state. But for now, I'm just proud to be here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

BEATIFIC: Kaleidoscope Reading Series

Last night I attended the Kaleidoscope Reading Series, curated by Michelle Wallace. Of the readings I have attended so far, this one felt the most familiar to me. Perhaps it was the dim, red lighting or the small, cozy living room atmosphere of the Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone. It could have been youthfulness of the audience and the readers, who are on similar career paths as myself: current MFA students or recent graduates, educators, publishing in familiar journals. It also seemed that everyone there knew one another. I noticed that about all of the readings actually. There is definitely a community here, but it seems that they run in smaller packs, which is similar to Pittsburgh. Lots of readings, but it's too soon to tell how much crossover there is between reading series. There were definitely fewer people at this reading that compared to the RADAR Reading, but also Diane di Prima put a lot of people in the audience, so I can't fault Kaleidoscope.

There was something else that felt more familiar about this reading. I keep sensing it was the intimate space, the cheep beer, the funky young audience. But I suspect it was the writing. It resonated more with me than any other reading I've been to so far. I'll try to be brief with my reviews of specific readers, since there were five in total. Kudos to Michelle (who welcomed me when I awkwardly walked in at the last minute) to planning a short intermission. Too man readings I've attended (in any city) run on too long without a break.

The readers themselves were all young, in their late 20's or 30's and they read a mixture of fiction, poetry and memoir. First up was Michael Zhai who read some nonfiction that were pulled from his experiences going to on a high school field trips to visit a Pilgrim village in his home state of Massachusetts. Zhai's prose was well written enough, but I was more captivated by his poetry. His verse was musical and had more surreal striking imagery, which made up for the fact that he was kind of a low-key reader. Sometimes I wish people would practice reading and be a little more compelling, like they actually like their own work.

Next up was Elissa Perry, who read an excerpt from her novel. I find it difficult to be dropped into the middle of a larger plot line, but Perry pulled it off with her understated confidence and warm cadence in her voice. Her writing detailed a gathering of young lesbians and included a rather sensual scene that managed to be sexy, but not pornographic. I think she was probably the best in terms of reading ability and presence. I was also left wanting to read more of her novel, which is probably what she's going for.

The next reader was Richard D'Elia, a quieter man who's poetry had no titles. He was all business when he read, very efficient, pausing long enough between pieces to make up for the fact that his pieces were untitled. While some of his work was compelling, I felt like I needed to have more time with it. I always feel this way, especially about lyrical poetry. If it doesn't have a narrative or a long extended metaphor, it's difficult to really get a poem the first time you hear it. His work incorporated a lot of earthy imagery, one in particular was about the body and merging with the natural environment, something I rarely hear coming from a man's work. But perhaps I'm stereotyping.

After a short intermission, Scott Duncan entertained us with some nonfiction that he claims to not have written himself. He is apparently working on a re-imagining of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona. Instead of reading an excerpt, he chose instead to read synopses the various remakes of the story in film, documentary and even pornography.  In short, it was very funny. I'm probably not the best person to comment on it simply because I had never heard of Jackson's classic novel until Duncan read this piece. It is clearly a part of the culture in California though, and part of the Mexican culture specifically in Southern California. Good reader, relaxed, entertaining. It's rare to have sustained humor at a reading and I appreciated it.

The final reader was Maiana Minahal who read both poetry and a selection from her new memoir. I did find the subject matter of the memoir compelling, mostly because it details the events leading up to the sudden death of Minahal's father six years ago. As the story progressed, it seemed to point toward her father drowning while the two were swimming in the ocean together in Hawaii. However, she stopped short of the actual death, so we're left wanting more. A good tactic on her part. Minahal admitted to never writing nonfiction before and that this was a work in progress. I felt the excerpt lacked the emotional tension that I longed for earlier in the section. She spent a lot of time setting the scene and describing minuscule events and it wasn't until the end that we got to feel what she was feeling. I wanted more of that earlier in the piece. I think her nonfiction could benefit from her poetic sensibilities, which are clearly her strong suit. Her poetry was my favorite poetry of the evening in both the ambition of the text and the reader's particular voice. Minahal read from her book Legend Sondayo, which is primarily a retelling of a Filipino folktale. She stated during the reading that she both modernize and made the stories queer to reflect her specific voice and the story's impact on her as a young person. Minahal's strong reading voice was as it's most deliberate when reading from this collection. I never wanted her to stop. I also bought a copy of her book. You can too.

I tried to find links to blogs or websites for all of these writers, but when doing Google searches, all of their names, save for Minahal's, came up with random links to strange websites.  I'm surprised by this fact. In Pittsburgh, almost everyone I know has a blog or a website or a project with their name attached to it. Your name is your product as a writer, IMO, and you need to have a web presence. Perhaps I just run with that crowd though. It seems all of these writers are doing well for themselves despite their lack of web presence. If I was going to be in San Francisco for another month, I would definitely go out to this reading again. Nice job, Kaleidoscope.

Note: I did find Elissa Perry on Twitter. Yeah, I'm following her now. Cuz I'm a big writer-geek fan-girl.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blogathon is canceled, among other things

Just a quick update that I won't be doing Blogathon this year. It seems the alt-blogathon site couldn't get its act together either, so I'll hopefully be on board for next year. I think I'll  have the summer off next year.

I'm having some difficulties adjusting to life in San Francisco. It's a temporary life of course, as I will return to Pittsburgh in a couple weeks (sigh). When I would explain the trip to people in the spring, most would react with wonder and envy, wishing they could do something like this. The problem is, and I've been hesitant to say this but, I'm pretty lonely. As it turns out, independent studies are very isolating. Sal is working all day and I don't know anyone else. No one. I can only go to so many cafes, or the library or readings alone before things just get old. I like to experience things with people.

This all really has me thinking about the people in my life. Relationships have always been a big priority. Friendships, family bonds, peers, mentors. I've always been a people person. I do get excited on weekends to come home to my apartment in Pittsburgh and just be able to take a break, eat pizza in my underwear and watch Gilmore Girls all night. But then I want people. I want to talk something through with someone. I want conversation and understanding. I want to listen to someone else's thoughts, because mine are get old. Too repetitive.

It also has me thinking about investing in new relationships. As I begin the last year of my twenties, I realize that the people I'm closest to, the ones who know me the best and I can say anything to, are the people I've known the longest. I guess that's nothing new though. I've been lucky enough to make a few friends as an adult that have been my soulmates. But I've also lost a lot of friendships. I don't know if this a universal experience, or if the common denominator is me. Am I not investing in friendships in the way I want others to invest in me? I like to think I'm a good friend. I know I get a little lost in my head sometimes, but my oldest friends know how to just snap me out of my navel gazing. But then I think, how do people make friends as adults? It's not like childhood, where you realize you both love the color yellow and you're best friends forever.

Monday, July 19, 2010

IT'S BEATIFIC: Radar Reading with Diane di Prima 7.7.2010

As part of my independent study for the summer, I am documenting my travels around San Francisco. I was not sure if I wanted to document this experience online or not. After some reflection, I think that this space is the best place to document my experiences while I'm in the city. Another portion of my study is devoted to ecotourism and the Redwood trees of Muir Woods. I will not have internet access in that space, but for now, as I sit in Vesuvio in San Francisco, drinking my Stella and typing away in the upstairs loft, I figure I might as well document my experiences online for all the world to see.

I'm a little behind. I'm also not traveling in any particular order. I might return to some places more than once. But to kick off my initial study of the Beat poets, I discovered that Diane di Prima, lady beat extraordinaire and San Francsico's Poet Laureate, was reading as part of the RADAR Reading series. RADAR is produced by Michelle Tea and places an emphasis on queer art. Below is my experiences before and after attending the reading on July 7th.
_______________

I have been in California for one week so far. The first week has been stressful while we tried to find an apartment in the city. Luckily our phones could sync up with Google Maps and our GPS and we got around this new landscape. San Francisco, like Pittsburgh, is a city of neighborhoods. However, unlike my steel city, San Francisco's neighborhoods and their inhabitants aren't put off by the lines drawn in the sand. Folks from the Mission travel into the Lower Haight. People from Russian Hill visit the Castro and I have been to many neighborhoods, making note of their distinct characteristics, while also noticing the broader characteristics of the general city. People enjoy eye contact here. There is an openness to the people of San Francisco that has had me startled. Intimidated. There is not focus on what seems proper or expected, but on what is reality. Sometimes I feel I have to hide parts of myself in Pittsburgh: my queerness, my godlessness, my liberal politics and my artistic thinking. Pittsburgh might be fine with these things, but I'm not sure. It's like Pittsburgh is my mother. I'm not ready to be that person in front of Pittsburgh just yet. But in San Francisco, I can be whoever I want. And truly, no one cares.

By "no one cares" I mean, if I wanted to leave the house wearing a hot pink tutu and a tank top that reads "I like to kiss girls (and boys too)" no one would care. I can openly give affection to my current partner and know that while I might get some attention, but more likely the beautiful drag queen at the other end of the bar is getting more attention than me. And this is not meaning to sound stereotypical. There are plenty of just "regular" mainstream people here. Although I do find myself longing to either cut my hair, pierce my nose or tattoo something on my wrists.

After our apartment hunting excursion, we found the loveliest place in San Francisco, situated in a quiet off-street in the Lower Haight. The online maps were such a success, I've begun to create a map for all my excursions around the various parts of the city for my Beat Poetry studies. While doing research for my map, I was referred by a friend to the RADAR Reading series. Once I checked out their website I realized that the beat writer and poet Diane di Prima was reading at the main library branch in the city. Since we had yet to move from Mountain View, I decided to face my fear of public transportation and take the CalTrain toward the city, with a quick switch onto the BART system that took me directly to the library branch holding the reading. I got there so early I had time to get some dinner, sign up for a library card and check out the poetry section. I breathed a sign of relief to realize it was quiet extensive and that I would not have buy too many additional books for my study.

I went downtstairs for the reading about 10 minutes before it was set to begin. There were only three people there and they seemed to be the folks that organized the reading. I left, got a bottled water, used the bathroom and by the time I returned the seats were filling up. I quickly snagged a front seat and did not move from it the entire reading.

RADAR Reading Series featured Diane di Prima, Tony Tulathimutte, Mica Sigourney and Ryka Aoki, their first winner of the Eli Coppola Poetry Chapbook Prize. Diane read last. All of the readers were pretty incredible. The first thing I noticed about this reading was how prepared all of the readers were to do their writing justice through performance. Perhaps this is part of the beat movement rubbing off on them. Perhaps it seeps into the writers and poets in the air.

The first poet, Mica Sigourney, was irreverant, funny, sweet and overly-concerned with the volume of his speaking. His work was like little portraits of "a day in the life of a gay man" and later described his work as such. He said (and I paraphrase) that he steals his work from his friends and the things they say. He just wants to document the cool and funny and fun things he and his friends say and do. Document what it's like to be a gay man in San Francisco. A number of his poems were named "Faggot" and it almost became a running gag. His poems were narrative and surreal and funny and grand and specific. I enjoyed them.

Tony Tulathimutte, a fiction writer, read a selection from his novel. Tulathimutte will be attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop in the fall on the Truman Capote Fellowship. Bastard. He's really talented. His work was amazingly detailed and really peaked into the mind of a character who was so cut off from the human experience, so throughly obsessed with organizing and documenting his porn collection, yet somehow we had the greatest sympathy for him. Because this character had somehow taken sex and followed it around through pornography and digital re-imaging and back around again to real human experience. Fantastic.

Ryka Aoki was my favorite of the new-to-me writers at this reading. Her work was just SO honest and real and straightforward, yet also mired with familiar religious imagery and often taken to surreal landscapes in the sky, in the mind, in the emotions, in the voice, in the transitory places, in between things. Her honesty about being a trans-person and being an abuse survivor was so compelling. She managed to balance being overly confessional with just being real. There was no exhibitionism, it was just personal experience that was somehow made universal and mystical and wonderful.

To the final reader, I cannot do justice to her presence. Diane di Prima got up wearing a simply black cotton shirt that was falling off her shoulder, revealing the fact that she was braless at 72-years-old. She began her reading with a few songs she wrote earlier that day and some anecdotes about her husband, who's back had been thrown out and he was at home, lying on the floor. She sang in a voice that was gravely and too low for her vocal range. But it didn't matter. We were at story time. The room was packed, standing room only in the back, and people egged her on to read more and more. She decided to read primarily from her yet-to-be-published memoir about her life as an artist in San Francisco. Her first memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, I have yet to read, but if it was anything like the selections she read from tonight, I cannot wait to pick up a copy. Her stories were funny, part how-to guide for artists, part grandmother telling you her life story, you could not stop listening. She only read for a few moments, but the story she told us was more than enough from which to glean inspiration about how to truly live a rebellious artists life.

Afterward, I cannot say how I felt, except that the room was bursting with intellectual questions for the Q&A session, bursting with personality, humility, hospitality and creativity. The audience was comprised of a fascinating mix of people that, were I to describe them, I would fail miserably by placing them into strange stereotypes of modern beatniks and hipster-queers and hippie-lovelies. I will say they were diverse and warm and I felt very comfortable in this space.

If this reading is any indication of what the current poetry scene is like in San Francisco, I cannot wait to get out there and attend another reading. This really set the bar high for me.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I'm Gearing Up

I've been searching the web for tips about Blogathon. I found this helpful post from a few years ago. The tips I'm finding seem to range into multiple categories: how to stake awake, blogging topics, screen and browser navigation, what to eat, how to pick a charity - some of these things I'd never have thought of. Like, it would not occur to me to research browsers and think about which ones work best with multiple tabs open. I'm leaning toward using Chrome, because Firefox totally sucks the life out of my blog for some reason and makes scrolling super slow.

The tips about eating all say to avoid high carbs because they make you crash and burn. Good thing I've been eating a new diet that has me at 100 calories for each waking hour. I'm already thinking of preparing a fridge full of 100 calorie snacks to eat during the 'thon. Staying awake will be hard, but I think I'll be able to pace myself.

The topic suggestions fascinate me. I find I always have something to say and have to reign myself in with my blog. I don't want to spam my Twitter and Facebook feeds with updates constantly, so I try to just post daily or less. Also, reading other people's blogs often help me come up with ideas for posts. For Blogathon, I am already connecting with a number of other "thonners" so hopefully that network will cause some cross-pollination inspiration. I'm thinking I'll post about a number of related topics: writing, poetry, teaching, skepticism, editing, nonfiction, etc. I might even consider doing a few video posts, but I'd have to practice beforehand and come up with a quick way to edit and upload. Experienced blogathonners suggest making an outline of topics ahead of time from which to draw inspiration.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Vote for my Blogathon Charity!

Ok people, I'm trying to decide on a charity for Blogathon and I'm not making any headway. I just can't choose between any of these great organizations. I need your help! Before the poll, I've provided links to all of them in case you want more info. Thanks for voting!

Carnegie Library
Gay & Lesbian Center of Pittsburgh
Center for Inquiry Pittsburgh

Which charity should I support during Blogathon?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I'm Emotional and I'm a Skeptic. So fuck off.

I do not have a degree in bio-genetics or astronomy. I'm not an expert on evolution or black holes. I have not studied philosophy or consciously debunked paranormal claims using logical fallacies. I try my best to stay informed of scientific issues that are important to me. I try my best to step back and consider the validity of an argument and I'm willing to admit I do not know enough to state an opinion on something. I value proof, logic and reason. I consider myself a skeptic.

But still, I can't wrap my head around a lot scientific knowledge. It's not because I'm a girl and I'm a less inclined. It's because I've chosen a different path. My talents and interest like outside the realm of being any kind of scientific expert. I make the world a better place by helping people understand the world through connections and metaphors. I find painful beauty in a well crafted poem. I am very in touch with my emotional self. I am full of passion and spark and vision and excitement. I'm emotional.

And I'm pissed off.

Why? Because of these question that's being posed by Bruce Hood (author of Supersense) at TAM8:

* Would you willingly wear Jeffrey Dahmer’s clothing?
* Could you stab a photograph of a loved one?
* Would you accept a heart transplant from a murderer?
* Would you exchange a sentimental object for an identical duplicate?

Actually, I'm not pissed off because of these questions. I LIKE these questions. You know why? Because it's proof that skeptics aren't untouchable. It's supposed to be an exercise that shows skeptics that we are HUMAN TOO. Even the most skeptical of us have irrational beliefs. This doesn't mean we aren't skeptics. This isn't a weakness. I repeat: it's called being human.

I'm pissed off because people assume I am less of a skeptic because I wouldn't be willing to get rid of an object because it holds special meaning. I'm also pissed off because people are taking these questions out of context and using them to play "I'm a better skeptic than you are!" game because one person would be willing to throw away their wedding ring.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shhhh.... I'm at the library

I love being nosy at the library. To my left a woman with a cute purple purse is reading intensely. To my right, another woman has self-help books surrounding her: Highly Effective People Who Make You Shut Up and Sit Down in 8 Easy Steps kind of stuff. Some guy behind me has really kickass boots and an ascot is taking a little snooze with a magazine resting on his lap. Yeah.

I got my San Francisco Library card today. Turns out visitors can get them for three months. Awesome! I quickly located the poetry section and found some books I've been meaning to read. I also hopped on the wireless while I wait for the reading to start at 6pm. The RADAR Reading series has Diane di Prima reading tonight, which works out oh-so-perfectly with my study of the Beat poets. I even took public transportation here for the first time, and as a girl from the suburbs who loves her car so very very much it was a nervewracking experience. Once I get used to it I'll be golden. Maybe even start taking the bus more when I'm back in the burgh, since you know, it's free and all for Chatham students.

I've also decided to do Blogathon this year along with my friends Daisybones and Nyelarebirth. Seems that the real Blogathon is down for the summer, but people quickly began an AltBlogathon site to fill in the gap. I'm still thinking about what charity I'm choosing. Considering: Pittsburgh Public Libraries, Center for Inquiry, Pittsburgh LGBT organization or perhaps something BP oil spill related. Ideas?

I'm off to the reading! I'll let you know how it is.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I Hate Vincent D'onofrio

The TV is on in the background tonight, with my least favorite Law & Order spin off. It's on mute. My boyfriend is currently scouring the internet for a solution to our entertainment problem. We want desperately to get rid of Comcast, but unfortunately there are no good alternatives that will work with Tivo. Oh the modern problems we have, so trivial.

In the matter of "learning to live like a writer", I've managed to edit two poems tonight to a somewhat respectable state. I also edited a piece of flash fiction I'm working on. Additionally I've gotten a lot of work done for Weave earlier today. I'm surprised at how much I've accomplished. It's been a literary day. I was bored after dinner, wanting to quit for the night, eat a bag of chips and watch three episodes of LOST.

Instead, I got caught up on my blog reading tonight. I read this really great blog post over at my new favorite poetry blog. Mehnaz Turner reminds herself why she writes poetry. My favorite?

6) Because poems are fun.

It got me thinking about why I write poetry. For me, with boring television (and my hatred for Vincent D'onofrio's ridiculous, spotlight-hogging monologues) poetry brought a little magic to my otherwise mundane Tuesday evening.

Thanks poetry.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Are You Always This Sunny?

When I came to visit California last year, I could not get over the sunshine. I awoke each morning with the same exclamation: "It is so beautiful outside today!" My boyfriend tried to tell me that it was like this everyday, but it did not stop my gleeful cries. I couldn't help but gush about how amazing it was outside. Being so used to the very occasional sunny day in Pittsburgh, I savored each day. We drove around with the top down on his 2003 silvery-blue Thunderbird and I got a little sunburned. We went to Sonoma and tasted the wine that grew from the earth that was constantly touch by the sun's rays. Brilliant.

So now I'm back and I'm here for a longer stay. I've been to California for three days. I've barely spent one moment outside.

What's wrong with me?

I think I've been putting a lot of pressure on California. With all the fault lines and earthquakes, I don't think it needs it. I was betting on being happy here. The sun and Sal made me so happy last year. But that was a vacation. This is the summer. I'm here and I have a ton of work to do. My independent study on the Beat poets and Muir Woods/Ecotourism. Interviewing applicants for Weave. I've been writing. So that's good. But while I'm in the state of California, the state I really find myself in is a blurry one. A blurry, transitional, slightly-depressed state that is now resenting some of this delicious sunshine that I adored so much last year. Who knows when we will find an apartment and get settled into the city? I find myself lacking the skills to know how to be productive without a routine, my desk, my books and my car. I don't have any answers yet.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Feeling Logical

I've lived in Pittsburgh all my life and somehow it still manages to surprise me. Yesterday I went on a self-guided tour of downtown viewing various public art displays that can easily be found in the city. This particular tour led us around the cultural district where we saw sculptures, light installations, and two story tall murals among others (slide show below). I was surprised at how much I had not seen already, or would not have otherwise noticed had I not been forced to notice by way of this tour. Once my eyes were opened, I saw other public art including graffiti, posters, art galleries and metal sculptures. In the tour book there was a quote from one of the artists, Sol DeWitt, about the role of artists in society:

“Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” 

I find this statement reflective of the process I experience with writing. Connections are a big part of what I spend time contemplating. I think constantly about life and relationships. The relationships between people and themselves, their peers, their families. Between countries and neighbors. Between feelings and nature. It's quite exhausting sometimes. But what is strange about these leaps is that, in the moment, they feel logical. But I suppose that is  an oxymoron. Can something FEEL logical? The leaps are what I've thought about and experienced. Especially in poetry, if I can get into a place where these mystical leaps seem logical, in those moments I make the most fascinating connections. Perhaps the sense of logic is really just me letting go and learning to trust my artistic instincts. I am still letting that quote resonate with me. I think I have more to say about it, but I can't quite figure it out yet.

In response to the urban art walk, I decided to write poems about each piece. I've got a few started already. One mural entitled "Yesterday's Tomorrow" by Brian Holderman depicts a futuristic scene using a limited color palate with almost a 1950's style geometric images. The poem this piece inspired begins:

Blimps are bloated metal
fish, black in the seasky
unzippered office buildings
slip down the slope of a bowl
balanced high, purpled
and filled with future liquid

I've got to do some editing still on this piece, but there was something almost too happy about that mural. Too idealistic. Most pictures of "the future" seem dated to me, like we're still hoping for flying cars and robot maids. I am going somewhere darker with this poem. I am excited to have a series of poems I can work on. It seems like this kind of project is a great way to generate a lot of new work in a short period of time. In the past four days I've started six new poems. I think now that my class is winding down and the school year at work is complete, I will find myself being a more productive writer. I leave for San Francisco in four days. I almost can't believe its finally here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wild Harvest

This past week I volunteered at Eden Hall Farm, an area of land recently acquired by Chatham University. The land has many uses including a decent size vegetable garden, wildflower garden, greenhouse and, more recently, a three sisters garden. My class has been helping weed and plant and this past Saturday we actually began from scratch (in the most literal sense) and created an entirely new garden. The three sisters are corn, pole beans and squash that all use one another to grow together. The corn is planted a top a small mound and around it at the top of the mound are pole beans, which grow up the stalks. At the base of the mound grows squash plants which act as a deterrent to small animals with its scratchy leaves that make it quite unfriendly. I like the concept, considering how these three sisters might interact if they were characters of some sort. It could be an interesting sort of folktale.


I found weeding to be most satisfying. I enjoyed letting my classmates plant and harvest, while I tugged and dug my forked weeding tool into the earth to loosen the roots of a deeply grown weed. There is something about pulling up an entire weed by its roots. The earth was very soft on Tuesday, which made the weeding much easier, however no less satisfying. I can't quite figure out what it was about weeding. Perhaps it is related to my desire to overly organize and straighten. After looking at an area, it felt good to see it free of weeds, at least for the moment. There was also something comforting about knowing the weeds would eventually be back and the process would begin again.

It seems like a good metaphor for life. Just like with weeding, there is always something on the to-do list. Dishes, laundry, homework, grading, errands, phone calls. It goes on. They grow back and I find myself longing for a time period where there is nothing to weed. Nothing trying to root its way into my time, stealing away the nutrients of creativity, drying out my imagination. But I also take solace in those times when I can get a sense of accomplishment from doing something relatively simple. Something as simple as paying a bill or folding towels. I know I need that variety, but also the break from the intense. Teaching and writing are intense passions. They are the real fruit, the sowing and tending and harvesting. But I need a break this summer, to do some simple things, to let my soil loosen up and breath. Maybe even ignore the weeds as well as the harvest. Just let things run wild a bit, see what ends up growing on its own.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pennsylvania's Landscape as the Human Body

This week in the park I read a book that I forgot I had. I'm not sure where I found it, but it is very timely considering my current class's study of landscape. Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania is a collection that explores Pennsylvania's rich literary history. Editors Marjorie Maddox and Jerry Wemple are both professors at state universities and have put together a collection organized by region. I quickly skipped ahead to the fifth section marked "Southwestern Pennsylvania: The Three Rivers Region and the Laurel Highlands" and was instantly struck by the first poem by Diane Ackerman. The poem is called "Lines Written in a Pittsburgh Skyscraper" and it examines the diverse cultures, communities and landscapes that one encounters in Pittsburgh. The first stanza begins with the body and includes the lines:

I know that the body
is a river, whose bones and muscles
and organs are flowing.

I recently wrote a similar passage in a nonfiction piece describing the Pennsylvanian landscape in correlation to the body. It is fascinating to see your own experience reflected in the work of another poet (especially an established, successful poet like Ackerman). I was also struck by her nod to the history of coal mining, again personifying the landscape in corporeal terms: 

My students are the children
of coal miners, who watch the ground
swallow their fathers each day,
sometimes even digesting
the trapped men, turning their bones
back into lime, into coal.
It is the oldest fear:
that Earth may recall you.

That last line of the stanza really struck me. I love when a poet brings something back to the universal, in this case, the fear of death. It's also interesting that she is looking on the death of coal miners as an educator. The region boasts many colleges and universities, so she really goes a long way in this poem to incorporate all the aspects of Pittsburgh culture.

I often read poems about Pittsburgh with submissions to Weave, but we rarely manage to accept a piece. Before today I could not really articulate why, but reading this poem makes me realize that place-based writing should incorporate the universal. You can't simply name drop a few neighborhoods and inside-joke commentary on one particular scene. I think the poet should reflect upon the place and communicate it's essence as if the reader had never been there. If the reader has, the poem is that much richer and relatable, but relying solely on a region's residents as an audience seems counter-productive. This place should be transported to the reader, as if they themselves are inhabiting the space. Perhaps Ackerman's technique of using the body to describe her experiences will help readers physically place themselves in Pittsburgh's landscape.

Sitting here in one of Pittsburgh's many parks, I wonder how I might write this place. How could I describe the subtle changes in my surroundings, depending on the weather? How can I communicate my ability to know when rain is coming? Should I try to count the number of birds I hear? Is that possible? My experience in this place are layered: both corporeal and almost other-worldly. It seems like a large undertaking, but perhaps my initial instincts to express my surroundings through the body might be a useful and universal place to begin.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Craft of Pigeonholing

When I was twelve, I used to write stories. The narratives mostly revolved around a twelve year old girl living out all the adventures that I could not. Those adventures usually included boys that liked me. I was a little boy crazy. Ok, a lot boy crazy. I would let my friends read these stories and some enjoyed them. I distinctly remember a friend being disappointed that I hadn't written more yet.

In high school I transitioned to writing poetry to express myself and left fiction by the wayside. I thought of myself as a poet, not always as a writer. I'm not sure if that meant I was busier as a teenager and had less time to commit to full plot structures. Or if the brevity of poetry held my short attention span. But whatever the reason, I have not seriously tried writing fiction until last week, for an assignment in my summer class. We already wrote poems and a personal essay and I had a foundation of craft for those genre, and while I know a good story when I read one, there always seemed to be something mysterious to me about a good short story. How does one balance character and plot? When is too late to introduce a new character? How can I write realistic dialogue? How much is too much symbolism?

Luckily my professor demystified some of this during our class discussion on craft last night. Short stories should focus on character. Symbolism comes secondary to a solid plot structure (I tend to write mythical narratives packed with metaphor and symbols, perhaps at the expense of everything else). Don't end a story by killing the hero. These are all elements I've sensed in good works of fiction, but could not articulate.

During the discussion I seemed to have an epiphany about writing. It's hard work. I knew this before, but I really felt it when I wrote my story for class. Nothing was easy about developing my characters. I had to go back and change things a million times. I steered clear of dialogue. Each paragraph was a slow climb up a mountain that seemed to get taller by the minute. I thought I would never reach 1500 words. I got to 1502.

This is not to say that poetry and nonfiction are simple to write. They just happen to come more easily to me. Poetry is hard work, especially during the editing process. I can't help but feel like I've never finished one poem. I never trust myself to know when a poem is finished. But there is something manageable about the length of most of the poems I write. I can see it from beginning to end. It's a container that holds exactly what I wanted to say. A poem thrives on that moment of "ah ha!" - that inspiration, the impetus that forces us to pick up a pen before we lose it.

Fiction can start with that spark of an idea, but ultimately you have to have a lot of confidence, focus and coffee to sustain you through to the end. You have to trust that more sparks will come to you, and if they don't, you have to keep plodding along until it does.

Nonfiction makes sense to me because it's real. The circular structure and meandering connections reflect the way my mind works. I spend a lot of time thinking about my life, my relationships, my work and society, culture, the world. I can weave these ideas together into prose that can also be lyrical, pulling in my poetic sensibilities and yet also having the freedom to be direct and specific about what I'm trying to say.

Fiction is not real. It's completely made up characters. The plot, setting, structure, tone, metaphors, characterization, conflict, conclusion - all of these things depend on me. That's a lot of juggling. Juggling while balancing on your head in a thunderstorm. While I wrote my story for class, I found myself unsettled by the power I had to create - and then destroy an entire plot twist or character or line of dialogue.

And yet, at some point, it became real to me. Somewhere in between the 1200th and 1502nd word I saw my character take shape. I saw the underlying themes that I didn't purposefully create. But I also saw the hard work I put into it. So perhaps it was 5% magical talent and 95% hard-ass work. But I liked the world I created and I'm looking forward to editing it. In fact, I've actually started a new story last night after class, armed with the discussion on craft.

In my MFA program I chose to be dual genre in poetry and nonfiction. I write both anyway, but I've been so drawn to poetry, I thought about dropping the nonfiction. But since this class, I'm realizing that I'm mostly just really drawn to whatever it is I'm doing at that moment. I also needed a break from poetry. I think the prose I've written for this class has been much stronger. And I'm surprised at how good it felt to have written a short story. I'm sure I've made a lot of rookie mistakes. But I can't think about myself as a poet. I have to open myself up to the notion that an idea might take a different shape. That I can't write myself into a certain camp and never leave. That isn't the kind of creative life I want.

Sure, we all have our talents. Maybe I'll discover that no matter how hard I write, my poetry will always be better than my fiction. But I can't accept that. Not yet anyway. I'm still learning how to be a writer and I have to believe that the hard work and development I'm investing in knowing craft can be applied to all kinds of writing. I won't limit myself, especially not just because something is hard. Besides, I'm in grad school. It's supposed to be hard.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Countdown to California

Since my trip to Rwanda was canceled, I'm counting the days until I go to San Francisco for the summer. Just 11 days until I leave on June 28th, but Sal will arrive in Pittsburgh even sooner, next Friday the 25th. Woohoo! I will now assume you want to know my schedule and list all the fun things I get to do before I leave:

- Car inspection and Drinking Skeptically on Friday.
- Help garden at the Eden Hall farm on Saturday.
- Convince Apple to give me a new keyboard for my MacBook on Sunday.
- Spend time with Dad and have a Weave meeting, also Sunday.
- Work all week, including Wednesday, June 23rd, my birthday.
- Finish early on Thursday, go on a walk downtown with my class.
- Read some poetry in South Park on Friday night and pick up Sal later at the airport!
- Next Saturday night we're having a little birthday/goodbye party for Sal and I.
- Pack up Sal's stuff and send it to California.
- Leave on Monday, June 28th!

I also get to clean and organize my classroom, since I'll be away all summer. I'm looking forward to getting organized and reading some young adult novels this summer, so I can teach them next year. On my YA reading list so far:

-Bud, Not Buddy
-Maniac Magee
-Loser
-The Secret Garden
-Hope Was Here
-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Oh come on June 28th! I can't wait for you to get here :)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Help Keep America Lookin' Good

I remember that silly owl from the PSA's during my childhood, telling me not to litter. After a few clicks of my mouse, I discovered that his name was Woodsy and we can watch most of the old commercials on Youtube.

I wonder about the effectiveness of public service announcements. Do they actually encourage or discourage a certain behavior? Did I really not do drugs because someone showed me that egg in the frying pan? Did my parents give me the birds and the bees talk because a PSA told them it was ok to talk to your kids about sex? Did Woodsy really keep me from littering?

During this week's visit to Frick Park, I climbed up to my usual spot and discovered a few cigarette butts. Now, I don't mind if people smoke. I prefer they do it away from me and that they clean up after themselves, but this really seems to be an acceptable form of littering. Why is that? Perhaps smokers think it's just one little cigarette butt. But they add up. Maybe they need to check out Woodsy again.

But it's not just cigarettes. Or trash really. Humans have a lot of stuff. And inevitably, we lose some of that stuff. Other things I've found in the park include:

- An old water bottle
- A sock
- Sunglasses
- A grocery list
- A pacifier

It makes me wonder if there are many spaces that have yet to be invaded by our stuff and our carelessness. I also wonder how someone left the park without a sock. Wouldn't they have noticed it was missing when the walked out on their sockless foot?

This weekend, when my mom and I went camping, we produced a very small bag of trash. We burned most of the paper products we used in the campfire. We had almost no food waste (we like to eat) and we recycled our plastic, glass and aluminum containers. I even saved the plastic grocery bags to take home and recycle. At home, I compost my food waste, and recycle everything possible, including paper products. I'm not sure why these things come easily to me and not to our friends who can't seem to throw away a cigarette butt in a garbage can.

I feel very tree-hugging, crunchy-granola when I write about littering and recycling, but I kind of figure there are basic things that should have sunk in by now. I don't care if you smoke or take your socks off in the woods. Just clean up after yourself please.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dogs, Spiders and Smelling Good

Last week I went to read for class in my spot in Frick Park. I had some water and a notebook, a bunch of pens. I was prepared to lay there for a couple of hours reading, people watching and just doing some general notetaking, in the hopes of getting back in touch with a few parts of myself. I've been feeling more connected and generally aware of the natural world as a result of this class. I notice weeds more after having read Nancy Gift's A Weed By Any Other Name. I listen to the birds outside my window in my living room more often. I have my blinds open while I sit at home. I'm not sure why I use so many lights inside during the day. I even played Frisbee with my brother and sister in law last week at my parents house. It's been a good progression toward a more crunchy version of myself. I like it.

But my plans for the park last week were not what I had predicted. The rock, first of all, was really uncomfortable. I couldn't find a good place to just curl up and read my book. I also didn't realize that part of a trail comes out right at this rock. So a couple of times people walked by me and once a group of dogs ran past. I like dogs well enough, but I am allergic. So I'm not really comfortable around them since I've had to keep them at a distance for fear of devolving into a big sneezing mess. Then there were the spiders. I found two or three crawling on my body and I couldn't shake them. I tried brushing them off but I was also trying to not fall off the giant rock I was sitting on and also not scream like a girl in the woods because of a bug. How lame is that? To be fair, they were kind of cool looking spiders. One was black and shiny and kind of small, but fat looking. With pinchers. The other was a lighter color, perhaps a yellowish green. Also small and fat. I wish I wasn't so irrationally afraid of spiders and other insects. I've overcome other fears so I wonder if I could overcome this one. It really does hamper my experiences with the outdoors.

So I left, but on my way out I sat for a few moments on a nice bench to check out this tree that had fallen over. I love looking at tree roots. It's like their branches are curled fingers beckoning me over to them. I could curl up inside a million gnarled arms. There is something frightening about them too, the way the root hairs hang down. How the thick roots look like the arthritic hands of an old woman. The rotting. The death. But I still find them fascinating. But my fascination was interrupted by a large flying bug of some sort that dive bombed right into my neck. Later I realized I had put on some vanilla scented lotion the night before and had yet to shower the next day before my park adventures. I did manage to take some pictures while I was there. I'm hoping this week is less insect-filled. I'll be sure to avoid smelling so delicious.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

This Poet on Place

How has place influenced your poetry?

I am not sure still. I guess it depends on what definition of place we are working with. My place in life, in society, in time, in history - my identity and how it relates to all the aspects of location - that is generally what poetry is about for me. I don't mean "history" in the sense of the historical, wars, battles, but in terms of my personal history, my personal experiences with time. The changes of my body, how I experience places, it's all filtered and interpreted through the self. I have tried to get out of my head, out of the body, but it seems that is where I begin effortlessly. And I don't begin there just because it is easier. It's the necessary "starting place" for me as a poet. My inner landscape influences everything, it's my bias, and I'm always questioning it, smoothing out rough surfaces and assumptions I have made about myself.

It's not just the self either, it's other people. When I travel, it's almost always because someone I want to see is in a place. I think the same is true for my poetry. When I write, it's because there is someone I'm trying to see; myself, a past lover, a current lover, an old friend, a member of my family. I am visiting a lot. I am currently visiting Chicago because my best friend from high school lives here. I am staying in California this summer because my boyfriend lives there. I visit a place and it's inevitably connected with a person, a feeling, a memory. So for me each poem visits places too, or old feelings, a blurry memory that needs to be shaped.

In retrospect, do you see specific places influencing your poetry?

Looking back at the work I have produced over the years, what I have noticed is place has always been there. It's been deeply connected to my experiences as a female and my body. It's been my anchor when I feel anxiety or depression pulling me away from shore. It's not a separate entity. Place is the feeling I get when I can't stop thinking about how a person or an experience made me feel. Once I get into that place, I write. I write the body as place, people as place, time and death and laughter as place.

When I think about place literally though, the physical landscape of Pennsylvania has definitely shaped my work. I grew up camping with my family and the outdoors used to help me slow down. Help me get into that place where I can't stop thinking about something and it has to be written. You don't have to drive more than 30 minutes in any direction of Pittsburgh and you'll hit a state park. I grew up in these parks, camping, hiking, jumping over creeks. I had a real comfortable affection with the outdoors, the moss and wind and birds of my state. Growing into young adulthood, I lost that connection for a time, but my writing has allowed me to reconnect with and recreate those experiences. With all the rivers and slopes and bridges and tunnels of Pittsburgh, I sometimes imagine my body laying down and fitting right into the physical landscape. I feel at home in this landscape.

I drove through the Midwest a few days ago on my way to Chicago and all I managed to say was, "Wow it's really flat here," and,"Look, a farm. A cow." My friend in the car and her one year old son were much more interesting to me. A landscape has to compete with the beauty that I grew up with in order for me to take notice. It has to pull me out of my head or away from people. Pennsylvania can do that. West Virginia did that for me, when I lived there for a time. Oregon sometimes does. I have a friend who lives in Portland. California does initially, with all that sunshine. That is definitely something we lack in southwestern Pennsylvania. I stayed near San Francisco for two weeks last summer and all I could say each morning was, "It's just SO sunny here!" and that was impressive. But I can see it becoming less novel. Pennsylvania always surprises me. There is always something new to see growing, shifting, blooming, withering, regenerating. Just like myself and my poetry. If anything, I'm always in a new state of being, and so is my poetry, much like the landscape of Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Feeling Gravity

Sitting in Frick Park on this large rock reminds me of a camping trip my family took when I was a child. Jakes Rocks is part of Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. From what I remember, it was basically a hiking trail, along which you could find enormous rocks that the park advised against climbing. Of course, my family climbed them anyway. Especially my brothers. They would scale the rocks without fear, jump from boulder to boulder, squeeze themselves into awkward crevices.

To this day my youngest brothers (23 year-old twins) are tall and thin, able to climb trees and jump so high they seem to pause mid-air for a moment, as they defy gravity. Just this past weekend we played frisbee in my parent's back yard. My brother Matt would float when I tossed the disc to him, leaping high and floating in the air, mimicking the frisbee. He and his twin have our father's lanky build. I remember the first time I felt the weight of my female body. When I was young, I was built like a boy and my limbs seemed weightless, hollow and I could float when I ran. The summer I turned 12 years old, I started puberty, grew curves and I was much taller than my brothers. My thighs no longer floated through the air as I raced them to the end of my back yard. My center was heavier, my core. I felt my own gravitational pull. Something shifted inside me as my body weighted itself to earth, less mobile, heavier.

That really changed my relationship with the outdoors. It changed gradually over time. I have not been able to connect to my body's strength as an adult. I get very winded climbing the 30 steps to my apartment. I also have much more anxiety. Fear of heights, fear of falling. Fear of death in general. Fear of drowning. Fear of physical pain. Perhaps if I had learned to use my adult body in a different way, I would not have lost my connection with the outdoors. With that wildness of childhood when I could float from rock to rock.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reclaiming Wonder

I was raised in the Methodist church and some of my strongest memories from childhood are from a Methodist church camp in the Laurel Highlands called Jumonville. When my mother was growing up she also went to Jumonville. My grandmother was a youth group leader for a number of years and she took her youth there many times. My brother and his wife were engaged at Jumonville and eventually married in the small church there. Needless to say, there is a deep family history there.

The Laurel Highlands is exemplary of the beauty of the Pennsylvania landscape. The mountains in this area are called the Alleghenies and they are the highest point in the state, including the tallest peak, Mount Davis (which I always got a kick out of as a child). The Alleghenies are part of the larger Appalachian mountain range. The mountains really offer some amazing views as you ascend "The Summit", the large hill on which the church camp sits. I don't think that many people realize how beautiful this state is unless they have traveled here. Even moreso if they have camped here and there are a number of state parks in the Laurels. Keystone, Kooser, Laurel Hill, Laurel Mountain, Laurel Ridge, Laurel Summit, Linn Run, and Ohiopyle. My family discovered their love of camping in the Laurel Highlands and we would often visit Jumonville on our way to and from a camping trip.

Jumonville has a number of stakes in the history of the region and the country. It is the site of the Battle of Jumonville Glen during the French and Indian War. This became the opening battle of this war and George Washington spent time traipsing around this area during his days as a lieutenant colonel. Fort Necessity is just down the road from Jumonville. When I was young I remember thinking it was strange how our first President was so entangled with our state's history. That I could stand on the same land where men killed one another. That it was now where I was expected to go and pray and learn about Jesus.

Jumonville Christian Camp & Retreat Center has its own claim to fame. High atop the mountain where the camp is located sits a giant, 60-foot steel cross. Because the Laurel Highlands have such tall, majestic mountain peaks, some of the peaks can be seen from hundreds miles away. As you drive up National Road (route 40) you can easily make out in the distance this massive white construction.  As children, my brothers and I would try to be the first one to find the cross among the distant peaks. The cross was an important part of my youth, as I spent many summers and weekends there with my youth group. I've had communion, sang, danced, quoted scripture, and just generally marveled at the splendor of such a grand monument to the Christian tradition. However, while the cross was always a fitting miniature mecca as a budding Christian, I always managed to walk past it and gaze out at the view from the mountain it sat on, where the campers could see up to 50 miles and into seven different counties on a clear day.

While I loved the cross and the feelings of spiritual awe I experienced there, I was more fascinated by another natural and historical area, the small glen where the Jumonville battle first took place. There are large rocks scattered about the area, many of which you will find with large, round dents in them. These dents are sometimes large enough to hold a bowling ball, should someone need a place to hold theirs. I was a teenager when I learned that those dents were made from the cannons that were shot during the Battle of Fort Necessity. Dents like that pepper the rocks all over the Laurel Highlands and to this day I am still both facsinated by the technology and offended by the violence that converged on this beautiful landscape. At one point, I probably even prayed for the people that died in that battle a few times.

It's strange how this place holds so much baggage. There is historical baggage of violence, death and war that was ultimately about power and greed over landownership. There is religious baggage, now that a Christian camp has staked claim in a natural space, merging the awe of Nature with the awe of God. There is my own personal baggage of coming to terms with losing my religion. Of accepting the beauty of a place, despite its associations with things that I feel tear us away from and cheapen the intense experience of the outdoor, like war and religion.

We have spoken a lot in my class about appropriation. Of land, history, culture, environment and nature. Staking claim in something and manipulating it to suit your own purposes. Certainly the Laurel Highlands and Jumonville have been appropriated. Whether it be a sixty foot, white cross or 250 year old cannon ball dents in the million year old rocks, humans have wanted to leave their mark. Almost like taking credit for the creation of a natural space. I feel it would be doing the land a disservice to be ignorant of its history. However, I think now that I am adult who has come to terms with and embraced her secularism, I can quietly put away that baggage and marvel at something humans did not create. I can be content with leaving behind the spiritual wonder of my childhood and reclaiming the natural wonder of the beauty of the Laurel Highlands.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Countdown

Yesterday I splashed coffee on my MacBook. At first I didn't think anything of it, but then my keys began to stick and my space bar was acting strange. I quickly called my technology guru (aka: Sal) to give me some advice on how to clean it. I had already taken a damp cloth to it but it clearly wasn't working. Turns out, the best chance I had at saving my laptop was by turning  it off and letting it sit upside-down for 72 hours. Good thing I brought my work laptop home. It's still unnerving though. My backup drive is formatted for Macs so I can use it on my hp work laptop. But I managed to back up all my work and get most of what I might need for three days onto a flash drive.

During this process, I realized just how important my laptop is. I'm pretty much a snob when it comes to computers. I love love love my MacBook. I loathe loathe loathe this Windows laptop. In the two years I have had my MacBook, I have never had any problems with it. That is, until I spilled hot coffee on it and the keyboard went haywire. A birage of thoughts began to stampede through my brain:

"What about all my photos and music? I don't back those up. Dammit I need a bigger hard drive. God I hate using a Windows machine! I have no video chat on this thing. What if I lose everything on my backup drive? All my tax files and what not? I'm sure my backup missed something!"

What device, if any, has ever been so central or important to a person's life? My entire life is literally on this machine. My business. My finances. My saved passwords to any site I've ever been on. My writing. All my writing. Even though I managed to back up my documents, what if I couldn't have? Prior to that backup, I hadn't done it in over 10 days. I would have certainly lost data. And to replace this four year old laptop with one exactly like it would still cost between $500 and $700 bucks, not to mention the cost of a new one. It hurts to think about getting a new one. I don't have that kind of money to throw around.

Today at 48 hours in, I'm anxious. I want my laptop back. I hate this stupid computer. It's big and bulky and freezes when I play video. It's ugly. My MacBook is so sleek and tiny and writerly. I do find it demonically hilarious that my laptop is on the fritz while I'm trying to reconnect with nature. Right when I realize it's possible my addiction to dependence on technology is what caused me to lose my connection with nature in the first place. Did my coffee leap out of the cup in order to force me to write by hand? Did I secretly want to spill on my laptop? I almost never bring my work laptop home, but needed it to run a PC-only program over the weekend. I was not without internet, IM and email for long.

I would like to reconcile these parts of my being. I don't see myself becoming less techy. I think it's beneficial for me as a writer and a teacher to be tech-savvy. Who says I can't cry over spilled coffee on my laptop and still love to listen to the birds outside my window? I have spent less time online though, since I kind of hate using this monster of a machine. I've heard at least five different bird calls in the past few days. Maybe a little less tech-loving and a little more tree-hugging is in order. Yes, that was corny, but rather than make this transition so serious it bores me to tears, perhaps I can find a way to make it fun. Who knows? Maybe I'll learn to take a walk without my smart phone.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Frick Park Adventures

I was on a mission today, to find an outdoor space near home. I need space to visit on a weekly basis and write while I'm there as part my class. I decided I'd search for a good spot in Frick Park.

Wow. I can't believe I have not spent more time in Frick Park. I live about 5 minutes away from the largest park in Pittsburgh at 561 acres. There are way more trails than I originally expected and, as I accidentally discovered, they extend well into multiple townships. I first walked down the Biddle trail until it met the Tranquil trail. I sat on a bench nearby for about 40 minutes just reading and people watching. There was a nice little stream behind me and it wasn't too hot out. I managed to get some writing done too; I have the beginnings of a good personal essay. Lots of people passed by with dogs and I've got a few mosquito bites as a result of sitting so close to water PLUS walking at dusk. I need some bug spray. It's just been so long since I've hiked. It felt both strange and increasingly familiar at once.

I've been experiencing a lot of acute anxiety episodes lately. Panic attacks, really. They rarely happen as a result of a specific trigger, but today when I had to leave to find a spot outdoors, I found my heart quicken and my breath become labored. I think some of my anxiety is related to trying new things, or doing things alone. I also don't spend a lot of time outdoors anymore. I'd like to consider saying this is because I am busy, but really the reasons are more layered than that. It's about desire too. I spent a lot of time reflecting on when exactly I lost my desire to spend time outdoors. I still camp with my family, but I rarely seek out my own outdoor experiences. I used to hike, camp, canoe, kayak, even bicycle on occasion, despite the fact that I don't own a bike. When did I become so indoorsy?

I think the answer might lie partially in my affinity for all things techy. This didn't develop until I was in college, when I got my own laptop and had the internet for the first time. In the days when Napster first came out. After that, it seems that more and more of my life was dependent on technology and less and less of my life was oriented toward the great outdoors.

Yet, I still consider myself an outdoorsy person. And today I reminded myself of that. After I finished writing, I walked down the Tranquil trail and there were less people around. I found some more secluded spots for writing and observing. My favorite spot I found was on a rock ledge up a steep embankment off the trail. I decided to see if I could get up there myself, despite my fear of heights (and falling to my death, alone in the woods). I made it, just like others before me, some of who are apparently smokers as evidenced by the cigarette butts I found on the ledge. Just a few though and they didn't ruin the heady experience I felt once I reached the top on my own. The picture is me dangling my feet off the rock's edge looking into the area below. Yeah, I was nervous. Scared of falling. But climbing up there made me feel accomplished. I think I may have found a little place that can my outdoor home for the coming weeks.

Places

When I think about place on a very basic level, the places that I inhabit most can be counted on one hand. Home, my car, work and campus. By far I spend the majority of my time in the first two, with only a measly 25-30 hours a week comprising the latter two. This is product of my current lifestyle: I'm very busy and my work and class demands are stressful.

Home is always shifting. I have moved a lot in the last five years, having three different apartments. It takes very little time for me to settle in and feel at home in a new place. I come from a family of homebodies, so being in my home space is very comforting. I've only lived in my current apartment for 9 months, but it definitely feels like home. I also like the freedom I have in this space; living alone provides me the space to escape. My boyfriend sometimes says that I'm too comfortable at home, and that once I get there after a stressful day, it pulls on me, keeping me indoors for the night. I just really like being home. The outside world is chaotic and unpredictable, and after a stressful day I prefer to shut the world out.

My car is a strange kind of place. Mobile, transitional, temporary. Like a protective little bubble that breaks when I arrive at my new location. I have had my Saturn for almost 7 years now and I'm somewhat emotionally attached to it. I'm not sure if many people would consider their car a "place" but considering how much time I spend in mine, and how much I rely on it, it would be foolish to not reflect. I'll consider this place more actively now in future posts.

While I love home, this is not to say that I don't travel a lot. I do. However, for me, travel has rarely been about the place itself. I don't go on vacations to beaches or tourist stops just for kicks. For the msot part, I travel somewhere because someone I know is living there. My best friend moved to Portland when I was a junior in high school, so since that time I've been traveling to the west coast regularly. My other best friend lives in Chicago, so I visit there often too (and will be in just a couple weeks!). I travel to San Francisco and New York often because my boyfriend lives in the former city and his family lives in the latter. I'm traveling to Rwanda with him this summer as part of a business trip.Travel is almost always about WHO is going to be there, rather than what or where. If my people are there, I'm fine.

Now that I reflect on it, the place I spend the most time is inside my head. I tend to wallow around in my own thoughts, sometimes to a fault. Which is why this blog's title is important; it serves a reminder that there are places outside of my headspace. A reminder to come out and play more often.

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I'll be exploring place a lot more in the coming weeks. These posts will be part of my Nature and Environmental Writing course. I'll tag them with NEW so if you want to read just these posts you can click on the tag in the cloud on the side bar.