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
-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.