Portrait and Punctum

Thursday, March 15, 2018

I have a new essay up on the Approaching Mystery feature of the Sick Pilgrim blog.  I curate Approaching Mystery and occasionally write for it.  If you have a brief essay of around 750 words that explores the mystery of the everyday, send it my way.  For a writing prompt based on the essay, see my next post below.

Here are some additional photographs to accompany my piece:

Write a vignette

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Here's an assignment similar to one I have given in my flash memoir courses.  The next online course starts Friday March 16th!  More information is here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/approaching-mystery-an-online-flash-memoir-course-tickets-42572637906

Assignment:  Take a picture of someone you know and like, a portrait.  (Or look at a portrait you already have.)  Now also write their portrait in one to four paragraphs.  The portrait that you write should revolve around what Roland Barthes called the punctum, the detail that snags your individual attention as a viewer, that has emotional resonance for you.

Here's an example of a "portrait" piece I wrote in the past, a prose poem about my cat (though I didn't originally write it about this image).


Before I have to put my cat to sleep, I dream that I wheel him outside for some sun.  He is a teenage boy with a degenerative disease, and his stomach is hurting, so I rub it for him.  But we are enjoying the day, the sun and the grass and how we belong to each other but are separate, too.  Tom Waits comes into the yard to do some landscaping.  He is wearing his hat and suspenders, his undershirt and old suit pants.  I say, “Hello, Tom Waits.”  Then Andy says, “Hello, Tom Waits.”  His voice comes out in a slightly strangled way because he is a boy with a degenerative disease and also a cat.  He is making a joke about how he can talk now and about how funny it all is.  Then we laugh, and I’m thinking about how funny Andy has always been.  We sit in the sun like ambassadors, like kids at a Kool-Aid stand. 

2017 was a year ...

Monday, January 01, 2018

source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/6469383/Paula-Rego-interview.html

ok.  My four-year-old son typed that "ok," and it seems as good a way as any to start.  OK.  2017 was a year.  A lot of insomnia, a lot of being overly hooked into a disturbing news cycle ...  How to proceed?  

Yesterday I woke and sat in bed typing up an accounting of the year, a list of what has gone right.  As a poet (and a person superstitious of happiness), I find it difficult to make such an accounting without feeling that I will short circuit creativity by being wedded to "the battle-shriek 'Success!'," as Muriel Rukeyser wrote in The Life of Poetry.  (I wrote about this idea from Rukeyser here.)  On the other side, there is "Why not?"  Why not take a moment to take a measure of the fruits of a creative life lived between the cracks of a society that gives little incentive for such pursuits?  

So, here are some of the things that went right this year:  

*I wrote, edited, and submitted my next book of (mostly prose) poems, with help from a couple amazing friend editors, who gave me invaluable outside perspectives.

*I edited a book for Trio House Press (Pamela Johnson Parker's Cleave, forthcoming in 2018!)

*I curated, edited, and wrote for the flash essay series “Approaching Mystery” for the website Sick Pilgrim. 

*I taught my Approaching Mystery flash essay online course twice; am set to teach the course through Creative Nonfiction to teach in fall 2018; and am getting ready to teach a course on Writing Spaces starting January 12th.  (Information for that course is here.

*Wrote a poem a day in April, several of which I revised and published. I exchanged April poems with Rebecca Bratten Weiss, which led to a continuing exchange of poem on our TinyLetter, The George Sandinistas.  (You can subscribe to receive poems here.) 

*Rebecca Bratten Weiss, Jessica Mesman Griffith, and I then started the women’s literary collective George Sandinistas.  I presented at the Convivium conference in Pittsburgh with them about women's literary community, and I got a collaborative chapbook of poems accepted with Rebecca.  (A second chapbook for me from Dancing Girl Press!) 

*Had poems published in the following journals (most of which were solicited):  South Dakota Review (poems and flash essays), the tiny, Convivium, Talking River, and Vinyl.

 *Wrote three essays, which were accepted for publication:  “Don’t Let Me Down: Eleven Facts about the Beatles” at Pine Hills Review; “Seven for Today” at Rattle and Pen; and “Battles,” forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly (and currently a finalist in their Open Prose Competition).

*I also did a bunch of childcare and activities with my kid (reading, playing, taking him to preschool/playdates/library/museums/summer camps) and watched his interests and mind develop.

 Phew. More than I thought.  

And to get us back on the thread of creative thought, click here for images from the artist Paula Rego.  I first fell in love with Rego's work when an art historian I met while teaching at Marquette introduced me to her work inspired by Jane Eyre.  That semester, I was teaching Jane Eyre in a Women's Literature class, together with fairy tales and other works inspired by the fairy tale Bluebeard, such as Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" and Jane Campion's film The Piano.  And just last night, on New Year's Eve, I watched Crimson Peak, a Guillermo del Toro film from 2015 which also plays with Bluebeard themes.  Tracing and pondering such threads of cultural and artistic production, that is what makes me feel alive to myself.  That and friendships that feed my spirit and creativity.  Onward.            

When I wake up, my son tells me a riddle:

Sunday, September 03, 2017

(for Gregory Crosby)

It's a grownup.  It's a woman.  It's the person who gave birth to me. 

When I wake up, I pick up my phone to check the time, check Facebook, check the app that says how much deep sleep I got.  1 hour, 21 minutes.  You were 20% in Deep sleep.  Deep sleep helps with physical recovery and aspects of memory and learning.  If you're feeling extra refreshed, you likely spent some time in this stage.  I am not extra refreshed.  I try to remember my dreams.  I think I was getting something renewed, some government permit.  My friend, the poet who always wears a suit, was there maybe.  We were in a snaking line in a government agency, but we had each other to talk to.  We were kind of having fun.  We were kind of menaced.  I was in REM sleep for 1 hour, 38 minutes.  REM has been shown to be important for your memory and mood.  During this stage, dreams are more vivid, heart rate is elevated, and breathing is faster.  I think, I will set my intention for the day.  I will be compassionate toward myself and others.  My mind spits out expletives in return.

Before my son was born, when he was still a fetus named Eva or Ella or Charlotte, I found out he was a boy.  When the ultrasound tech told me, I said, Are you sure?  There was a period of adjustment, but I decided that I would named him Charles and walk him around by the hand, both of us scowling at people and being precocious, like Esm√© holding her brother's hand in the Salinger story.  Come along, Charles.  I came to realize, that while precocious, his name is not Charles, we are not orphans in wartime England, he is not my brother, and he will only intermittently hold my hand.  Yesterday at Barnes and Noble, he zipped back and forth in front of the Legos, his voice rising as he demanded larger and larger sets.  I redirected him to the small cars, helped him choose one, then we read a book about high maintenance ponies, and then I ushered him to the cafe to get my coffee.  He zipped ahead of me to come to a halt inches from a young man waiting for his drink, and then he pointed his finger at the man vigorously, saying, YOU!  The man did not look charmed, nor did we talk about military wristwatches and dead soldiers.  Come along, Charles.  

It is August and we are tired.  We are worried.  My son looks at me as I stand at the bathroom sink and bursts out, I don't want you to die!

Sunday is my day to sleep in.  My son tries his best to wake me, and I try my best to stay asleep.  Finally he walks away to find his father, leaving a rubber turtle next to my pillow.  When I wake an hour later, I am tenderly holding the turtle's flipper between my thumb and forefinger.  Come along.

(I wrote this poem as part of a poetry exchange with the poet Rebecca Bratten Weiss.  http://tinyletter.com/The_George_Sandinistas
We're taking a hiatus right now, but look for our chapbook in the future!)

April 30th poem

Monday, May 01, 2017

Some Facts about the Cold War &etc.

That time I refused to stand for the National Anthem being played over a film of daisies in a field, girls in bikinis, and fighter planes, and the kid from 8th grade asked if I was a communist—it’s lodged in my mind, diamond-like.   

My mother told me never to be polite at my own expense.
Everything else told me always to be polite at my own expense. 
When I was a young teenager, I had a summer job at a library warehouse that shipped books to Army bases all over Germany.  Before my first day of shelving books and slapping on shipping labels, I had to report to an empty chapel-like building on post and swear to uphold the Constitution.  I was 14.    

When I was 11, Colonel Bean came to our class to explain to us that our nuclear arsenal was a deterrent to war.  When we asked some questions about that, he asked us how we thought things should be in the world.  People shouldn’t have to worry about where their food is coming from.  Everyone should have access to what they need.  People should feel secure.  He told us that was communism. 

My son tells me, One day I just became alive.  Then asks, What did I say when I became alive?  
(He didn’t say anything.  Just looked at me like, “I’m here.  Here I am.” Like he belongs here.)

I don’t know where any of us are going with this. 
Something that wanders away to bloom somewhere else is called a volunteer.

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