Pubs, Sultry Summer Edition

The Summer 2013 issue of The Massachusetts Review, which includes my story “Plenty” is out and on the metaphorical stands.  You can subscribe here.

“Plenty” might be suitable for the season, which around here, we just call  “Thick of Farmer’s Market” (we also call it steamy-hot):

All those years ago, when the guy with the guitar at the blueberry farm had handed back her change, his fingers had been stained up to the first knuckle with blueberry juice. And then, on the drive home, she and John had had their first real argument — over how easy or hard it might be, to defer one’s student loans, or wear faded overalls, or be a gentleman farmer.

The next morning, she had cooked down the berries while John was at work, with a recipe she’d kept when she cleaned out her grandmother’s house, spidery handwriting on a stained index card.  She tilted it on the counter and set to work.  Eva’s Blueberry Jam,  it proclaimed, and in the right-hand margin: the best Edward says he ever tasted!  Who was Eva?  Edward?  The house filled up with the smell of hot sugar, like a fairground.

An aside:  last weekend’s Blackberry-Lime Jam  was just made for research’s sake, of course.

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And while we’re on the subject of art and craft, and magazines, when my poem “Cucumbers” was published in Ruminate this past spring, I received a year’s subscription to it.  I just got the Summer 2013 issue.

It’s gorgeous, both in form and content.

Print, in case you haven’t heard, is pretty close to dead.  Who needs ink, when we’ve got bits and bytes and vapor?  The wisps of words we have do the job just fine.

I’d argue otherwise. I’d like to, in fact, put in a vote for things that are tactile — for  process.

I won’t lie:  I love the convenient jolt I get whenever I click away from the work I’m doing to read… whatever.  (To be honest, usually it’s the neighborhood listserv, which no one in their right mind would call either  art or craft).  I can waste an hour or so letting my mouse rove from here to there and back again with the best of them.

It’s so easy, for us to consume.  Words and opinions, in this particular case.  We eat them up.  We chew them up and spit them out.  And we hardly ever even have to pay for them! When we have gotten so good at attaching ourselves to the I.V. of communication,  what point is there in something as old-fashioned as print and paper?

But there might be something to be said — for the shrink-wrapped magazine that arrives unexpectedly on a sultry summer afternoon.  For one thing, its arrival in the mailbox helps keep the U.S. Postal Service afloat.   For another, the unpredictability of its arrival might actually be a sort  of gift.

We can summon up so much, and so quickly!  We get exactly what we want.  The second that we want it.

So maybe it’s good for us  — to occasionally be surprised.  Even if it’s by something as mundane as a magazine.

The day my copy of the latest Ruminate arrived, I stood at the curb and reached into my mailbox.  The neighbor’s hickory tree has already started tossing down a few harbinger nuts, hints of cooler weather to come.  The street was quiet, quiet.  Sealed off.  I tossed the mail onto  the front seat of the car and backed out of the driveway and Younger Girleen and I headed off, to the orthodontist.

This time last week, she and I were headed farther afield.  To Western NC to pick up her older sister at camp.

On the way we stopped, as we have the past couple of years, to pick berries at a  farm perched at the top of a slant-sided hill. South Carolina tableland, I suppose you’d call the area, the littlest toe of the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  The real hills, or their bulky outlines, hang on the horizon like a bank of clouds.  We pick a gallon of blackberries from looping canes; another of  rabbit-eye Blues.

And then I lug them into our hotel room that night, and out again the next morning.  After Big Sister has been picked up, and hugged, and we are headed homeward, we discuss:  a crumble this year?  A pie?  Should we just eat them by the handful?

There was enough for all those things.  There was, in fact, plenty.  

Last Sunday afternoon, I brought glass jars to a boil in a black-speckled canner purchased at the local hardware store that, a year or so after the Big Box went in two miles away, gave up the ghost and went under.

Thinking all the while.  Of this, of that, of the way an 11-year-old’s legs magically lengthen when you aren’t there to see that 11-year-old for two weeks.

Thinking also of the water required to sterilize a half-dozen jelly jars, the natural gas required to heat it, and the jar of jelly to be had at Kroger down the street.  What does it cost?  Two, three dollars?

I am a fool.

Every morning when we pull out  our newly-minted jam and smear it onto slabs of toast, I admire its distillation of that afternoon, when I picked berries with my eight-year-old, and a hawk wheeled overhead, and I was lost in process.  

Our fingers touched every single berry in this jam!  Younger Girleen points out.

At the orthodontist, I sat in the waiting area while her titanium spring dental appliance was adjusted, magazine on lap. Fingers happy with the heft of the paper pages, the crisp ink, the middle section of reproduced paintings by an artist I’d never before known to seek out.

A fool, yes, but such a happy one, on certain sultry summer days.

The World, the Words, and the Work

When you’re a writer and you head to a residency, you approach your time there as a job.  A good job, a pleasant job, a pearl among jobs, but a job all the same.  Because commerce is our culture and you live in the culture too, and out there in the wider world there are people who call what you do your  “product” and those people need to know if you have “built a platform” yet to sell it. Writers take themselves out of their regular lives and travel to small, quiet, isolated places:   while under deadlines; to wrap up books owed their publishers they should have turned in years ago; when they are stuck; when their marriages go south; after a particularly tough semester.  They travel with outlines and files and background research. And once they arrive, they unpack.  If people still wrote things longhand they would earnestly sharpen a pencil or two and get to work.

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Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s house in Flat Rock, NC

I arrived at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in early March with a list.  Of things I would write, of things I would read.  I would re-read The Dubliners, and To the Lighthouse.   I would read The Second Sex, just because I was working on something in which a character had been named after Simone De Beauvoir, and I had never read it before and I figured I better rectify this gap in my education. I would write four new stories, and spend a little time tinkering with a fifth: if a story runs around 20 pages, and I worked without a single false start, that meant I needed to write 3.8 pages a day, each and every day I was here. Do-able, I thought.

But what about The Dubliners?   What about walking over to the barn, to visit the descendants of the goats Sandburg’s wife Paula raised?  What about walking up Big Glassy Mountain, behind Sandburg’s house, where the provisional Seal of the Confederacy supposedly was hidden during the Civil War (I had no idea what the provisional Seal of the Confederacy was, but it sounded important).

What about noticing that the Japanese Magnolia in front of the Sandburg Home had gone from furred catkin to overblown pale blossom in the twenty-one days that I had been there?  Or absorbing the feeling that the 264 acres owned by the United States of America were very loved: regulars walked the trails on the Historic Site property each and every day.  When I  sat down on Carl Sandburg’s chair set on the flat rock behind  the house in the late afternoon, those same walkers would extend the hope that I was able to “channel Carl” when they walked past me.

I approached my time at the Sandburg Home as a beautifully-bestowed, unlooked-for opportunity to participate in some neat community outreach and (more selfishly) to get a bunch of work done. Beyond that, I didn’t think much.   And the National Park Service is not in the business of fostering personal growth in its writers-in-residence. For one thing, that would be difficult to orchestrate (can you imagine the paperwork?) and for another, we live in the above-mentioned commercial world, and in that world, personal growth and four dollars can buy you a cup of coffee.

But.  If nose-to-the-grindstone production were the only point of residencies and such, wouldn’t it just be better to lock up writers  in windowless cement bunkers?   Wouldn’t it just be better if they sat in drab highway-side motels for a few weeks?  Wouldn’t it be better just to set up some sort of assembly line, tweaked for maximum efficiency, and set them to work?

I doubt any of these would be a winning formula.

The world, and the work.  The world, and the words, and the work.  Anybody who wants to put pen to paper, anyone who wants to write  —  high school student hungry for self-expression, former English major who fifty years ago thought they might have a couple of good stories in them, grizzled professional who has been doing this for years —  has to keep these three balls in the air.

The world, the words, and the work.  Such a delicate balance!  Without any one of them, you have nothing.  Too much of one of them and you have — well, not nothing,  but a different life, a life that sometimes contains the words if only.   If only I had taken the time to write down that story my grandmother always told!  If only I had looked up from the computer and stopped to smell the roses!  If only…

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Quizzical Sandburg goat…

“Poetry,” Carl Sandburg said, “is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits,” and that might be another way of saying the same thing.

Before I went to Sandburg’s house, I dug out my copy of his Complete Poems.  It had traveled with me from place to place for thirty years.  The last time I’d cracked it open was about 12 years before, when I pulled it from a moving box and set it on a  bookshelf and noticed  it was full of ribbons I’d used to mark the poems I especially liked eighteen years before that.  Messy!   I thought, twelve years ago.  The book had gotten waterstained somewhere along the way, and all those trailing ribbons looked bad:  I yanked them out.

Knowing what I know now, that someday in the future I was going to stand in Carl Sandburg’s house  — I wish I hadn’t done that.

Who was the person who carefully cut strips of gold ribbon and laid them along the binding of certain pages of The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg?

In 1982, when I was seventeen years old, I committed a grievous sin.  I stole it.

I justified my crime like this:  the book had been put on the shelf of my high school library in 1970 and I could tell from the card slipped into the front pocket that it had never once been checked out.  No one would miss it.  No one needed it as much as I did. 

While I was the writer in residence in Flat Rock, people asked me what my relationship was to Sandburg.  Relationship?  At first I thought this question was like asking me my relationship with Robert Frost, or Flannery O’Connor, or William Shakespeare.  For any modern writer to say they have a relationship  with these canonical writers is, in some ways, to presume.   What relationship did I have with Carl Sandburg?  I thought his house was lovely; I liked Western North Carolina.

But once upon a time.  Once upon a time there was a seventeen-year-old  so passionate about words that she resorted to petty thievery, to acquire them.

Since being at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, I’ve realized Honey and Salt  contained the first love poems I ever liked. Because of The People, Yes,  I went on to read Walt Whitman when I was twenty-three or so.  Because of Carl Sandburg, when I was seventeen years old, I read Yevtushenko!

I’m 48 now.  When I read certain of Sandburg’s poems, it’s like being embraced by an old friend.  My eyes stop at certain phrases and it hits me:  I learned to write by some of these rhythms.

Would I have realized this if I hadn’t gone to Sandburg’s house?  Perhaps.  Perhaps, when I was an old old woman, whittling down her possessions, I might have taken the Complete Poems down from the shelf.

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In the Sandburg Home, mantel photograph of Carl and Paula Sandburg, by her brother Edward Steichen.

I’m glad I became reacquainted with him sooner.

Pubs, Cusp of Summer Edition

The latest issue of Crazyhorse, which contains my story “The Snow Queen,” is out.  You can get single copies and subscriptions on their website.

“The Snow Queen” is the second published story of a set I’ve been working on, all of them about a character named Simone, some of them set in Madison, WI.*  It gets cold there.  What better to read as your summer gets underway than a story set in deepest, darkest Midwestern winter?

A snippet:

On the other side of the windshield lies the landscape Simone has lived with her whole life: comfortable, rounded hills, an occasional barn nestled down in the curve between them. Houses set into fields like pictures from books, except where manure smears the old snow. She holds herself upright to keep from leaning into the passenger-side window of the Gremlin, where a greasy circle from someone else’s head has been pressed across the glass at chin height. What Jeremy intends is — she doesn’t know. Is it illegal? She hopes so, suspects it isn’t, just ill-advised. 

*The first of the “simone stories,” “Atomic,” came out in Freight Stories last year. Not all these stories are set in the early ’80s, but these two are.

Redux…

Once upon a time, in those long-ago, pre-Internetified days we can hardly even remember anymore, after a writer had a story or poem  picked up  by one of the small literary magazines, that was that.   Unless the piece became  part of a larger collection or was selected for one of the annual anthologies, its readers were just the magazine’s subscribers and those rare birds (possibly extinct now)  who picked up literary magazines in bookstores.

With Redux, editor Leslie Pietrzyk gives “work worth a second run” new readers, new eyes, new audiences.  “Household Tales,” a story of mine first published in the Yale Review in 2001, is up on Redux this week.

One of the interesting things Redux does is ask writers to tell a little bit of “the story behind the story” being reprinted.  The genesis of “Household Tales”?

I wrote “Household Tales” not long after I moved back to the U.S. from Germany during a period when I was lucky enough to hold a six-month fellowship at Paisano, an old white-sided ranch house on 254 undeveloped acres in the hill country outside Austin, Texas.

Before Paisano housed a writers residency program, it was the weekend retreat of J. Frank Dobie, the noted Texas folklorist. When I was there, the house still contained copies of the books he had written, his personal desk, and the blue-and-white china he’d used. Every day, I spread my writing on a long rough-hewn table where writers had been sitting down to work for over thirty years. Some mornings, white-tail deer picked their way across the yard outside the window like a bevy of belles on their way home from a dance. Some evenings, I sat down in front of the fireplace stained with 160 years’ of woodsmoke and read the folktales Dobie had collected.

If an environment like that doesn’t insert itself into what you’re writing sooner rather than later, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. How could I not think about the sorts of stories we choose to tell ourselves?

“Household Tales” is the result of that time, and that place. It’s an attempt to refashion elements of folktale, ghost stories, and westerns —old stories we think we know by heart — to weave a new fairy tale, one that is both a meditation on the stories we retell over and over and the narrative of a single wedding and the baggage bystanders and participants alike bring to it.

Pubs, Blustery March Edition

Issue 27 of Ruminate Magazine, which contains my poem “Cucumbers,” is out and on the metaphorical stands.

Ruminate is a beautifully-executed magazine with a mission of “chewing on life, faith, and art” AND a very thoughtful digital presence.  On their website, you can purchase single “hard” copies, as well as digital copies and subscriptions.

Ruminate is one of those magazines that asks contributors to be a little less formal in their biographical notes. I wish that were the norm.

Because — as Carl Sandburg once pointed out — “poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” In my case at least, the children mentioned in my bio do more to further my education than any graduate degree.

In the Pipeline….

Recent writing-related news:   I’ll have stories coming out soon in both Crazyhorse and The Massachusetts Review, and a new poem in the March issue of Ruminate!

I’ll post linkage when each “goes live.”

News, Early 2013 Edition

Recently received word that I’ve been named the 2013 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence and will spend a few weeks this spring living and working here, at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.

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Though Sandburg is often associated with Chicago and the midwest, he acquired a property in western NC (called Connemara) in the 1940s.  He lived there with his wife Lilian Steichen Sandburg until his death in 1967, when the house became a unit of the National Park Service.  The park’s historical and cultural resources include 264 acres of pastures, ponds, small mountains, and hiking trails as well as a total of 50 structures, including the Sandburg’s residence and goat barn.

Interestingly, I mentioned the Sandburg Home National Historic Site in passing back in 2008 or 09, long before I knew about the writer-in-residence program there:

… Carl Sandburg’s House, where I was most impressed by the fact that they raised goats, which seems in many ways a more sensible (and lucrative) profession than writing)…

There are still goats, descendants of Mrs. Sandburg’s champion herd!  I’ll be living within sight of the barn.

The Sandburg Home website mentions that  he and his wife dreamed of having a “shack in the woods with a roof, four walls, three chairs (one for company), a hat rack, a bread box, and a bowl for wild flowers and a coffeepot.”

I like it that their dreams specified a bowl for wild flowers along with a roof, four walls, and three chairs. I also like this photograph of the two of them very much.

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“It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?’…If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one’s time-the stuff of life”

– Carl Sandburg

The Written Word, Late October 2012

Freight Stories No. 8, which includes my story “Atomic,” has just gone live.

“Atomic,” set right on the cusp of the 80s,  was really fun  to write.  Among other things, it includes an homage of sorts to the sandwich shop/game room in Athens, GA where I spent much of the summer of 1979.

And yeah, I listened to Blondie’s Eat to the Beat while I wrote it.

A snippet:

The cold, lacy foam that retreats along the sides of the pitcher every time he refills anyone’s mug has burnished the afternoon, but not even that is enough to make her completely forget her question — how can any one person have so many quarters? He pulls them out of the front pocket of his jeans with a conjurer’s flourish. And she keeps playing, all the while knowing— this generosity is suspect. She looks at the long braid snaking down his back. It’s almost impossible to imagine a person standing in front of a mirror every morning, taking the time to braid all that gray hair. Almost impossible to imagine anyone professing love for Jane Fonda. Can he really not know? About Jane Fonda’s gleaming spandex and flashy aerobics?

Best American Mystery Stories 2012

I haven’t actually seen a copy yet, but The Best American Mystery Stories 2012, which includes my story “Trafficking,” is out.

Other authors include Mary Gaitskill, Thomas McGuane, and Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone).  Can I say how pleased I am to be in such august company?

Here’s a snippet from “Trafficking”:

Up until the very second when what Moultrie still refers to as his misstep occurred, he always claimed he got some sort of lenience. He was still in business because he had scruples and they knew it: if the sale of certain drugs was going to happen in Baton Rouge, they’d rather it be him that did it than anybody else, so they turned a blind eye. This logic seemed stupid to James, one of his stepbrother’s wrongheaded assumptions that left him wondering how Moultrie had managed to survive life for almost forty years.