Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Little Story About How I Fell in Love

I've written a story about falling in love with books, and with a particular lover of books, in honor of Valentine's Day. You'll find the story, along with a fabulous 90s pic (my hair!) on a guest blog post here over at The Spark.


Sunday, February 08, 2015

A Poem for Valentine's Day

This poem, "Romantic Moment," is from Tony Hoagland's collection, Incorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.

I had the opportunity to sit in on a Q&A when Tony visited UNT a few years back, and I found him to be clever, irreverent, and charming, much in the way his poetry is. Hearing him speak and read his own poetry was one of those instances where the presence of the artist enhances the art, which sadly is not always the case.

This week, as you either embrace or avoid the juggernaut that is Valentine's Day, I hope you take a moment to enjoy this poem, and perhaps share it with a loved one.

"Romantic Moment" by Tony Hoagland

After seeing the nature documentary we walked down Canyon road,
onto the plaza of art galleries and high end clothing stores

where the orange trees are fragrant in the summer night
and the smooth adobe walls glow fleshlike in the dark.

It is just our second date and we sit down on a bench,
Holding hands not looking at each other,

and if I were bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved

and if I were a peacock I'd flex my gluteal muscles to
erect and spread the quills of my Cinemax tail.

If she were a female walkingstick bug she might
insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck

and inject me with a rick hormonal sedative
before attaching her egg sack to my thoracic undercarriage,

and if I were a young chimpanzee I would break off a nearby tree limb
and smash all the windows in the plaza jewelry stores.

And if she was a Brazilian leopard frog she would wrap her impressive
tongue three times around my right thigh and

pummel me lightly against the surface of our pond
and I would know her feelings were sincere.

Instead, we sit awhile in silence, until
she remarks that in the relative context of tortoises and iguanas,

human males seem to be actually rather expressive.
And I say that female crocodiles really don't receive

enough credit for their gentleness.
Then she suggests that it is time for us to go

do something personal, hidden, and human.

Happy Valentine's Day. I hope we all find time to go do something personal, hidden, and human this week. Any plans for V-Day? Do share!

Monday, February 02, 2015

Want to Write Strong Fiction? Pull Out a Pair of Unworn Shoes

My students and I often talk about how objects, especially as related to characters, can make strong fiction even stronger. When it comes to objects, simple but significant can often win the day.

An example: I recently read Paper Moon, a novel by Joe David Brown published in 1971. (Some of you might be familiar with the film of the same name which starred Ryan O'Neill and Tatum O'Neill. Tatum won the Oscar for best supporting actress.)

The book chronicles young Addie and her maybe/maybe-not father Long Boy who travel through the south during the Great Depression and do "business": a series colorful grifting jobs where they bamboozle the pompous and the gullible. The descriptions are vivid, the language is zippy, and the relationship between Long Boy and Addie is one I'll remember for a long time. I don't know that I completely buy the back cover's glowing comparisons to Huck Finn and Scout--that's holy territory for me--but I certainly enjoyed the read and I'd recommend it.

The period details help support the narrative, particularly in the following passage that highlights the day Addie and Long Boy hustle their way through the crowds to hear the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, speak from the back of a train. Addie stands at the foot of the observation platform, close enough to see the hairs growing out of his nose and the liver spots on his hands.The passage reads like this:

     Mind you, I know how lucky I was. I was so excited I could hardly breathe when he first came out on the platform. I kept telling myself that I had to remember every little thing I saw and heard so that when I got to be an old lady I could tell my grandchildren all about it. But then I got distracted by Franklin D. Roosevelt's poor feet. I guess everybody knows he was crippled. That's why he went to Warm Springs, Georgia, all the time. But nobody ever talked about how crippled he really was, probably because it wasn't a nice thing to do. maybe it still isn't, but I want to tell the truth. I was just shocked.
     Why, he couldn't walk a step. He was leaning on a man, and he would kind of shift his body and let his feet swing forward in a shuffle. My head was right even with his light tan shoes. They didn't have any marks or creases, but looked stiff and unnatural, like shoes on a dummy in a department store. There were two cruel shiny steel braces running alongside each shoe. I know I must have heard what Franklin D. Roosevelt said that day, but I can't recall a word. What I remember most is those stiff, unmarked shoes and how shocked and sad I felt. It was a good thing I didn't get a chance to talk to him. I'm sure I would have started crying and blurted out, "Mr. President, I'm so sorry about your poor feet. It shouldn't have happened to a man as good and great as you."
     ...After Franklin D. Roosevelt's train pulled out, I felt like I wanted to go off by myself and think on what I saw and maybe cry a little. But Long Boy hadn't been the least bit impressed. (50-51)
What I like about this passage is how Brown takes an object--those tan, crease-free shoes--to explode this moment and load it with pathos. Roosevelt comes alive as a character through his actions--leaning on that man, shifting his feet in a shuffle--and in his appearance. Notice she doesn't describe his face or his voice: just the unworn shoes and those cruel braces which contrast with Addie's freewheeling, traveling lifestyle.

Addie's positioning at the foot of the platform is appropriate for her focus, and it offers some insight into the power structure: she's literally at his feet. But, through the use of the object, the power roles shift and a young, poor grifter feels sorry for the most powerful man in the country. The object not only paints Roosevelt, but Addie's response in her inner thoughts and her imagined dialogue tells us more about Addie. We see her sympathy for others, her ability to put herself (forgive me) in another person's shoes. The novel revisits this trait in the culmination of the plot, when Addie has a choice to act on her sympathies or cut loose and run.

For those of you who are writers and want a warm-up freewriting exercise, think of an object that a character might have that contrasts with his or her position or reputation. What's off? What doesn't fit? What draws an odd kind of attention, and what might that object mean for the character? Who views the object and interprets its meaning? Like Addie, does that spectator have an epiphany? Start with the object, grab a pen and paper, and go. Ten minutes, no stops. See what happens.

Or, for readers, what's an object related to a character that stands out to you in fiction, television, or film? Let me know what you come up with. I'd love to hear from you.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Recommended Reads for My World Literature Students

This semester, my classes in world literature read several books, stories,and poems, some of which they liked better than others. I always have more trouble narrowing down the syllabus than adding to it, a habit my students adore, I'm sure.

They especially enjoyed two contemporary novels, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. Several students asked at the course's end if I had more books I could recommend.
Why, I'm so glad you asked! I brainstormed the following list for them, but I thought I'd share it on the blog, too. 

Two books I wanted to add to the syllabus but didn't have the room for:
Americanah by Chimimandah Ngozi Adichie
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Books I've Read in the last Year that I'd Recommend (World Lit-ish)
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (I'm reading The English Patient now, and so far I think I like it better)
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
The Secret Scriptures by Sebastian Barry

Old Favorites: Books to Films (of which you should read the books first, Always, always, always.)
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

New-ish Releases That I've Been Telling People About
Swamplandia! By Karen Russell
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Books You Might Have Read in High School (and if you didn't you should)
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

That's off the top of my head for now, and this is by no means an extensive list. Get started here, tell me what you like, and I'm happy to make more recommendations.
My husband, Kern, has been telling me about NPR's book concierge, which I haven't tried yet, but I think it's a stellar idea. I'll let you know if I figure it out.
Happy reading!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

This poem, which I read this morning before my writing time, perfectly captures the pleasure of diving into a big book. I'm a fan of big books. I fell in love with my husband because of many reasons, but partly because of Lonesome Dove, I wept (the ugly kind) over Les Miserables, and my idea of God will be altered forevermore by A Prayer for Owen Meany. Of the books I've read this year so far, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, at 864 pages, is my favorite.

Not sure which big book I'll tackle next, but when I do, I hope it feels something like this:

"Birthday" by Billy Collins 
Before it was over
I took out a pencil and a notepad
and figured out roughly what was left--
a small box of Octobers, a handful of Aprils, 
little time to waste reading a large novel
on the couch every evening
a few candles flaming in the corners of the room.
A fishbowl of Mondays, a row of Fridays-- 
yet I cannot come up with anything
better than to strike a match,
settle in under a light blanket,
and open the first sentence of Clarissa
Look at me setting off on this long journey
through ink and tears,
through secrecy and distress,
anticipation and swordplay. 
As the darkness thickens
and the morning glory puts down the trumpet,
as worms begin to sing in the garden,
and Christ looks down from the wall, 
I will begin inching toward the end--
page one thousand five hundred and thirty-three
in this paperback Penguin edition,
introduction and notes by one Angus Ross.

Your turn: any big books you'd like to recommend?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Encomium for Willie

I'm teaching my students about Encomium and Invective (writing in praise and/or blame of a particular person, policy, place, idea, etc.) for our Rhetoric and Composition class at the University of North Texas where I teach. I thought I'd share a sample Encomium I've written for a friend and mentor of mine, Willie Redmon. Here goes:

Willie Redmon looks like the kind of guy, if he were to be cast in a television sit-com, who you’d imagine leaning up against a fence with a cold beer, shooting the breeze with his neighbor about nothing in particular. He wears overalls. He speaks with a Texas drawl. He smiles a lot and his laugh is best described as a chortle.

But when you meet Willie, it’s more likely you’ll see him with a spade or hoe in hand instead of a beer. When he talks, instead of shooting the breeze, he’ll most likely wax eloquent about the latest crop of vegetables he and his community garden have just donated to the Arlington Food Bank. Willie, you see, is just your average guy who has done something decidedly un-average. He started the Harvesting Hope Community Garden in Arlington, Texas and has, in one year, managed to donate over a thousand pounds of produce to families in need.

Instead of leaning against fences and swapping stories (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Willie has decided that the best way of helping his neighbors is to grow them fresh vegetables. He’s taken the holy admonitions to “love thy neighbor” and “feed my sheep” beyond the abstract and made them practical. It all started in a church service, Willie says. He sensed that a crazy idea he had of starting a community garden on church grounds was more than a notion; it was a calling. He had no money with which to begin his project. “All I had was dirt,” he says. “But I told God I would grow him the best garden I could.”

Willie also didn’t have a green thumb. At his day job, he surveys land properties in the Metroplex. So he knew he had a tough row to hoe, as the saying goes, to create a successful community garden. Yet, once he committed to his idea the resources and help poured in. He received grants from Tarrant Area Food Bank to purchase building supplies. Church members donated plants, seeds, knowledge, and time. An unnamed business benefactor, wanting to participate in community service, donated $10,000 and teams of volunteer laborers to build dozens of raised garden beds.

When you meet Willie in his garden, his overalls will have garden soil on them. He’ll have his pockets full of seeds. He’ll likely snap a fresh leaf of lettuce or a cherry tomato straight off a plant and say, “You should try this.” Meaning, you should take a bite, right now.

Your 21-st century germ phobia may cause you to recoil. What about the dirt, you’ll think? The bugs? But, if you’re smart, you’ll do what he says. The thing is, Willie’s vegetables taste different from the ones you buy at the store. Sure, they’re grown without traditional pesticides but more than that, they’re grown with love. Willie and his garden are more than a sign of the eco-friendly, sustainable food conversations that are trending more each day. Willie is an example of what happens when a simple man listens to a calling. Willie, with his overalls and his vegetables and his easy chortle, shows us that it’s possible, as simple and humble as we may seem, to make a difference.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The good, the bad and the inconvenient

Read this peppy little poem from the Writer's Almanac the other day. For those of you who are gardeners (or not) enjoy...

The good, the bad and the inconvenient
by Marge Piercy

Gardening is often a measured cruelty:
what is to live and what is to be torn
up by its roots and flung on the compost
to rot and give its essence to new soil.

It is not only the weeds I seize.
go down the row of new spinach—
their little bright Vs crowding—
and snatch every other, flinging

their little bodies just as healthy,
just as sound as their neighbors
but judged, by me, superfluous.
We all commit crimes too small

for us to measure, the ant soldiers
we stomp, whose only aim was to
protect, to feed their vast family.
It is I who decide which beetles

are "good" and which are "bad"
as if each is not whole in its kind.
We eat to live and so do they,
the locusts, the grasshoppers,

the flea beetles and aphids and slugs.
By bad I mean inconvenient. Nothing
we do is simple, without consequence
and each act is shadowed with death.

"The good, the bad and the inconvenient" by Marge Piercy, from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

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