Monday, April 30, 2007

Sorry things have been so quiet around here lately! My time in Illinois was so rich and full, I had no time to blog, and in the hubbub of catching up, I haven't had much time since I've been back.

I was originally supposed to turn my novel in to my editor tomorrow, but I'm going to have to ask for an extension--between wanting to incorporate the new research I uncovered on my trip, plus hearing from my agent that the voice of the novel isn't quite right yet, I still have a lot to do. I'm sure my editor will understand.

I'm still glowing from being in Chicago. What a pleasure to visit all the places I loved so much as a child--including the park and the beach near my old apartment building. And how amazing to speak at my elementary school, to sit on tiny chairs in what had been my first and third grade classrooms and try to imagine my young self there, soaking in information about guppies and Aesop's fables and life on the prairie. The kids in the classes were so sweet, so excited to have me there. As I was leaving, one boy raised his hand for a high five; after I returned it, he said, in an awed voice, "I touched a real author!" My first grade home room teacher--one of my favorite teachers of all time--surprised me at one of my events, and I cried for about the first 10 minutes of my reading, I was so touched. She even brought a picture with her of my first grade class; we had fun trying to remember everyone's name.

I also spoke at one of my junior highs, a gorgeous building modeled after a palace in Venice. I don't think I fully appreciated the beauty of the building when I was a student there. As I walked up the stairs with the principal, I remarked that I remembered the tiles that lined the stairwell, showing pictures of Medieval times. "Oh yes," he said, "the Don Quixote tiles." As a student, I had no idea that those tiles told a progressive story--Cervantes, no less! I probably would have paid more attention to them, had I known. The kids in the class I visited didn't pay much attention to me, either--a marked difference from the elementary school, but that was good. To go from being a rock star to a rock in the matter of an hour keeps you humble!

I made a point of eating a veggie Chicago hot dog and some Chicago spinach stuffed pizza while I was in town. (YUM!!!) I visited some old favorite sites--The Shedd Aquarium, for instance--and some dazzling new sites (like Millennium Park.) I was delighted to realize that even though I haven't lived in the Chicago area for 21 years, my muscles often remembered where I was, where I needed to go. I had a chance to visit old friends and a beloved cousin I hadn't seen in ages, which made the trip even more meaningful (as did the Chicago area CODEPINK group filling the crowd at one of my readings. What inspiring women!)

My time in Springfield was also very moving. I got quite emotional visiting Lincoln's home and office, and even more so visiting his tomb. It was amazing to be in the very spaces where he lived and worked, the space where he was laid to rest. It helped me feel much more connected to my novel. So did going to Downers Grove and finding my characters' house, finding where their furniture store would be, soaking in the places where the story unfolds. Now I just need to translate all of that to the page!

When I got back to the Chicago area, I stayed at the Write Inn in Oak Park--a fun place to write! In all my years in Chicago, I had never been to Oak Park, and I was amazed at the beauty of the town. I didn't have time to really explore the area--I didn't visit the Hemingway museum across the street, and only got to Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio one day after it closed, but driving past all the homes he designed (and the stunning Unity Temple) I was overcome by awe. I realized that even if I had had the chance to delve into the history of these buildings, the technical details of their craftsmanship, it was that awe that would have stayed with me, so perhaps I didn't miss much. That is definitely the main feeling I've taken home from this trip: awe.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Creamy garlic dressing! How could I have forgotten creamy garlic dressing?!

My mom took me to the Italian Village for my day-after-birthday dinner (she's in Chicago for a couple of days while I'm here) and when our server told us our salad dressing choices, I almost fell off my chair.

Creamy garlic dressing was my very favorite dressing as a girl. It was offered at pretty much every restaurant in Chicago, and it was the only dressing I ever ordered. I've been in California for almost 21 years--longer than the 18 I lived in Chicago--and I don't think creamy garlic dressing has been on a single menu there. The tangy smoothness brought back my childhood mouth.

Being at the Italian Village brought back so many memories, too. We went there after we saw Annie when I was about 9--Annie was the defining musical of my childhood; my sister and I put on a production of "Annie on Roller Skates!" in front of our building--and the entire cast was having dinner just a few tables away. We had them sign our programs and were thrilled beyond belief. Tonight, the waiter and host sang Happy Birthday to me, and instead of my name, they sang "Happy Birthday, Miss America." They probably sing that to all the women there, but it was very sweet.

I can't quite believe I'm in Chicago. On the plane today, I was so caught up in the movie ("Miss Potter"--quite cute) and a book ("From Where You Dream", a book about writing by Robert Olen Butler--alternately deeply inspiring and aggravating) that I sort of forgot where I was going. Then, when the plane started to descend, the person in the window seat lifted the shade, and I saw the Sears tower, the John Hancock building, that skyline I know so intimately, and my heart just about burst. Chicago!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

I'm 39 today. Jack Benny's age. Crazy! I seriously feel about 10 years old inside.

Tomorrow I fly back to the city of my birth. I'm going to speak to a couple of classes at my old elementary school, visit both of my junior highs, and possibly my high school. It will be amazing to cross paths with my young self, to see whether the halls of those schools still look and feel and smell the same. If you're in the Chicago area, I hope to see you at one of my readings:

Monday, April 16, 7pm
Bookstall at Chestnut Court
811 Elm St.
Winnetka, IL

Tuesday, April 24, 7:30pm
Barbara's Bookstore in Oak Park
1100 Lake Street
Oak Park, IL

I also hope to finish up my new novel when I'm away (it's due to my editor May 1st.) Maybe I should try to follow Kurt Vonnegut's advice (RIP, Kurt):

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Continuing our celebration of National Poetry Month, I am so thrilled to welcome my friend Jennifer Calkins to my blog. I met Jennifer in the MFA program at Antioch University--at the time, she was not only getting her MFA in Poetry; she was also getting her PhD in Biological Sciences. I was, and continue to be, so impressed by Jennifer. Her work is beautifully creepy, full of mystery and shadow and wonder. You can read her chapbook, Devil Card, here. Her first full length work, A Story of Witchery, was published last year by Les Figues Press, an exciting aesthetic-based collective founded by Antioch graduates.

Les Figues says:
Fantasy, fear, and freedom all play parts in A STORY OF WITCHERY, a new book-length narrative poem by Jennifer Calkins. Here we meet Emily, our “small and weedy” protagonist, an orphan complicit (perhaps) in her own abandonment, and who is caught up, as poet Amy Gerstler writes in her Introduction, in a story “entwined with science facts and twisted clinical fictions.” In language rolling and tripping with spare precision, Calkins makes a modern pilgrim progress into the imagination and the dark world of medicine. Rich and haunting images create an environment of seeming familiarity which, like the internal landscape of the protagonist, dissolves only to reform, until finally resolving into a healed whole.
The tale begins with this introductory poem:
a story of sorcery, saucy and bold
an open mouth
a flash of white and bone

a bone a bottle
a stream of milk

a story of witchery
in which all stories start

the light turns off click

I asked Jennifer a few questions about her fascinating work:

--What was the initial spark of inspiration for this book? Did you
know it was going to be a book when you started to write it, or did it begin as a single poem that opened into a huge journey?

The seed of the book was Emily. Fairy tales have always been a source of great comfort to me and at the time I started A Story of Witchery I was in need of comfort, so the Emily that I envisioned entered into this fairy tale world.
The piece began as a single poem—but, as my poems at the time tended to be long wanderings rather than sparks of diamond, I knew the poem would be with me for a while. When I finished the first draft of The Red Book, I knew I was not done, and that is when I realized I was writing a story that required a book.

--Along the same lines, I'd love to hear about your influences. There are traces of fairytale, of myth, of children's literature, in A Story of Witchery, but it's also unlike anything I've read. What books or writers do you see as your predecessors?

Perhaps more influences than predecessors. Everything I read in some way instructs me and so these sorts of tallies, for me, run the risk of being extremely long. I’ll try to keep the list under control.

Books such as:
Andrew Lang’s collections of fairy tales
The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic
The Master Thief by Camille Guthrie
The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot
Corregidora by Gayle Jones
My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe
Dies by Vanessa Place
The Inferno by Dante
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
The Lord Peter Whimsy books by Dorothy Sayers
The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser
Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

Authors such as:
Stephanie Strickland
Lucie Brock-Broido
Amy Gerstler
H. D.
Anne Carson

--You are a scientist as well as a poet. How does the scientific
process intersect with your poetic process? Do you find those
processes nourish each other in any way?

For both, the science and the poetry, what interests me most is mystery because it is in this realm of mystery that one can conduct research, either scientific or poetic. My scientific background, perhaps, makes me more likely to use “objective” language rather than what might be considered more “subjective” language. It also, perhaps, renders me more analytical.

The processes definitely nourish each other—I find when I focus for a stretch of time entirely on the scientific world or entirely on the literary/artistic world I feel an imbalance that must be corrected with a journey to the alternative world.
I have tried to mesh the two, to find a way that they are the same thing...but I actually do not anymore think they are. I think they are each ways of holding a mirror up to “truth” (if it exists) and discovering mystery—and in the use of both we get closer to what “truth” is. We need both because one or the other renders our vision lopsided, myopic. I do not think we are capable, as humans subject to the constraints of perception and cognition, of looking full on the truth and we need these various ways of finding our way to it.

My science does sometimes slip into my writing—as in Witchery—and, lately, find I am feeling more and more compelled to document, in essays and my present fiction/poetry project, my conviction as an evolutionary biologist of the complete unity of life and of the immorality of the hierarchical philosophical construct by which humans view themselves as separate, superior and granted the right to exploit other organisms without reserve. I feel this issue is more and more pressing, both because I want my children to inherit a world where they can be siblings, cousins, and friends to life and because we humans, always a threat to other organisms, are currently near toxic to ourselves and all other forms of life.

--When did you first start to write poetry? How has your poetry
changed over time?

I started writing poetry and stories when I was in elementary school (I still remember a silly poem I wrote when I was 7). Although distracted by a desire to become a visual artist during my teens, I returned to focus on poetry as a craft in college. In general, my poetry has gotten longer, and more narrative—and my present manuscript involves great stretches of prose as well.

--The medical elements in this story are very jarring and powerful. I
was ill a lot as a girl, and the malevolent doctors made me wonder if perhaps you had experience as a "sick girl" as well.

I’ve had several people mention that the idea of childhood illness resonated with them. Anyone who has experienced being a “sick” kid has experienced the impact of this self-definition on his/her personality, self-awareness and self-image.
Like Emily, I was born with a cleft palate, and because of this, I underwent several surgeries as a child and a teenager. During the 1970s there was less awareness regarding the trauma children, especially pre-verbal children, experience during medical procedures and untangling the impact of these medical interventions on my own psychology has been an interesting, but time involving, experience.

--Can you talk about your involvement with Les Figues Press?

I was approached by Teresa, Vanessa and Pam, the founders of Les Figues and friends from my MFA program, because they wanted to publish Witchery. It seemed a perfect venue as, despite general interest in the text, other publishers were uncomfortable with its experimental (but not experimental enough) nature and its unconventional length. I was also familiar with the other texts chosen for the first series, including Dies, Grammar of the Cage and Requiem, and was very happy to be published alongside those manuscripts.

The year following the publication of the Materials series I joined as a member of the Board of Directors and this year I will be taking over grant-writing for this now non-profit organization. I like Les Figues’ emphasis on understanding the aesthetic a writer pursues—and the manner in which disparate texts can intersect in the aesthetic dialogue. I also like that Les Figues produces strange work—work that does not fit length wise or otherwise into characteristic niches. Les Figues keeps the door open to any school of writing as long as it is intriguing.

--Any words of advice for aspiring poets?

Know why you write. To persist it is necessary to find satisfaction in the writing itself, not validation from the world at large. And read—It’s fun!

--What are you working on now?

I am working on a first draft of a manuscript that combines fictional prose, poetry and drama—some of which is fantastical. The intersect of the text is a fabled door—one connected in some way with death. In the narrative sailors mutiny, archaeologists make dangerous discoveries, governments torture, artists create, and nonhuman beings such as pigeons and palm trees occupy a space on par with humans in opposition to their present state of lesser citizenship.

This piece seems to be emerging out of some combination of my worldview as an evolutionary biologist, my deepening interest in the practice of yoga, the current frightening political clime and my present state as an enamored mother of two.

--This sounds absolutely amazing, Jennifer. I can't wait to read it! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your stunning work.

I'm a few days late to the party, but Happy National Poetry Month, everyone!

Look who is gracing the National Poetry Month calendar this year--my friend, Mr. Whitman, in all his alphabetical glory!

(Speaking of Whitman, I'd love to take part in this Bagels and Walt 4th of July celebration one of these years...)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bjork reciting a poem by my Antioch mentor Alma Luz Villanueva--how cool is that?!

Friday, April 06, 2007

I have written a guest blog in honor of sexual assault awareness month over at my friend Donna Druchunas' blog, Knitting for Change. I love how she combines art with social responsibility in her work, and am glad to be able to help her raise awareness about this pressing issue.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Thank you to everyone who entered my YES contest. It was a true honor and pleasure to read about what makes you say YES in your lives.

I had the hardest time choosing five winners out of the over 50 entries--I was moved by all of them. I decided to eliminate people I know from the running, because I struggled with the ethics of giving prizes to friends; that made the pool a bit smaller, but it was still tough to select the top five. These entries are the ones that ultimately made me say YES, that I chose to say YES to. Congratulations to all of you--books and random self storage auction items are on their way!


Deborah Fochler:

When I was 22 – it was a time when my world seemed to go crazy. I dropped the boyfriend/fiancĂ© of 5 years, met a new guy and married him in less than 8 weeks. I had a wonderful job, had just graduated college and woke up one morning 10 days after my wedding horribly sick. Never in a million years would I have ever entertained the idea of cancer at my age. But there it was. And no one had good news. I had waited too long and it was a very aggressive cancer. So, began radiation, surgery and chemo. All my life I wanted to be a mother. So I bit the bullet and asked the million dollar question. It has been 30 years and I can still hear the screams – NO WAY. But I was young, stupid and fearless. And wanted what I wanted. So I got pregnant and didn’t tell anyone for almost 4 months. When the doctors finally figured it out – they got a court order and tried to force me into an abortion. But everytime I thought about my baby – I just knew it would be okay. I gave birth to twin girls and they have been the most wonderful things of my lifetime. They are what makes me say yes to life and whatever I want to do. For them. After a very long and drawn out process, I have been in remission since 1990. After the initial remission I had 3 reoccurences and I know that one day I may hear news I don’t want. But TODAY IS WONDERFUL AND I PLAN TO ENJOY EVERY SECOND OF IT.

Danice Sison:

Sometimes a song will be played that catches you completely by surprise and paints the mood you’re in. I have this list I keep that’s called “perfect tune, perfect moment”. Every entry simply contains a song title, what I was doing and where I was when I heard it: “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins – coasting along a near-empty highway with my dad at 4am.” or, the theme to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”- my bus going through a tunnel. This series of moments strung together by notes, chords, cadences and riffs – my tiny explosions of yes.

Georgette Symonds:

In a hundred words or less what makes me light up, wake up and feel most alive? itself. Life as I feel it slowly awakening in me each morning as I open my eyes. Life as I kiss the one I love and share my life with as I close my eyes each night. Life as I press on each key of the keyboard as I write.

JD Boucharde:

Last October, my wife and I were in transition.

We'd decided we needed to leave our rented apartment and find something else. Everything was so expensive, and every opportunity closed systematically in our faces. We'd put in our thirty days, we'd ordered the truck, and we had nowhere to go.

One night, both in tears, we knelt by the bed and said aloud a one-word prayer: YES. Yes to Mr. God and Ms. Universe, and whatever they wanted for us.

The next day-- the next DAY-- a family friend approached us about helping us buy a house. A month later, we owned a home. The three-letter word has been our mantra ever since.

Wanda Butler:

What makes me say Yes is the fact that I am finally coming into my own and appreciating the gifts and creativeness that makes me who I am.

For years I had tried to do that which others expected me to do. While this is not wrong in and of itself, it let me feeling depleted

And unfulfilled. I finally got to a point to where I realized that no matter what I did and no matter what I contributed someone always

Wanted more without any concern of my feelings.

I have finally said Yes to being the best I can be for me, no more trying to impress others or being Super Woman.
Many in my circle of friends think that I am a very strong person, why because I have given them that impression.
So many times when I needed help most failed to come to my aid because they felt I had it all together.

I said Yes to being human, Yes to feeling afraid and unsure of myself, no matter what others would think once they
Realized I'm human just as they.
My 87 year old father now has a blog, Buzz's Blog of Wonders. Check it out!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

I have some events coming up that I want to let you know about:

--Tomorrow, Thursday, April 5th at 5:00pm, I will be appearing on the radio show Writers on Writing, hosted by the wonderful Barbara DeMarco Barrett. Carolyn See will be interviewed right after me--very cool! You can hear the interview streaming live online at the link above, or later as a podcast.

--I am headed back to my sweet hometown Chicago on April 15, and have a couple of readings planned in the area:

Monday, April 16, 7pm
Bookstall at Chestnut Court
811 Elm St.
Winnetka, IL

Tuesday, April 24, 7:30pm
Barbara's Bookstore in Oak Park
1100 Lake Street
Oak Park, IL

I am eager to be back on my old stomping grounds.

--Sunday, April 29th at 10:30am, I will be part of a panel on "Inland Empire Fiction: The Other California" (along with Susan Straight and Michael Jaime-Becerra, moderated by Tod Goldberg--all great people!) at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I have attended the festival for many years, but have never been part of the roster before, so I am very excited.

Hope to see some of you along the way...

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I have been deeply concerned about the plight of women in Afghanistan for many years. Since Self Storage has been out, I've felt a real responsibility to support groups that are working to improve the situation of Afghan women (I considered traveling to Afghanistan myself last month as part of a women's delegation; it ended up not being the right time for me to do so, for many reasons, but I still hope to go some day.)

MS Magazine sponsored a recent forum on Women in Afghanistan. You can watch videos of the forum here and ask your Congressperson to cosponsor the Afghan Women Empowerment Act of 2007 here.