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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Get Lit! Finale: Kathy Fagan & Simon Armitage

L to R: Oliver de la Paz, Ken Letko, Martha Silano, Christopher Howell

I woke up Sunday morning feeling a little sad. The little clock by the bed said 7 am, and I knew it was my last day with a view of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes

Also, no more Olympic-sized pool three floors down and to your left. 

And the last poetry reading only four hours away. I was a bit wiped out and missing the fam, but wishing I didn't have to leave my room with the flip-flop paintings, my room with the cherub lamp. Not to mention the Spokane I'd come to know, with its Spokane River Falls slicing the city in two, with its universities and colleges with names like Gonzaga, along with the venerable Auntie's Bookstore in the heart of downtown. A little wistful, yes, and then I descended the staircase and made my way into the Civic Room for the  final reading of the Festival. 

Kathy Fagan, most recently the author of Lip, is a firecracker and then some. Editor, teacher, poet, and the Queen of Pantoums ("what attracted me to pantoums was the word pantoum, and what rhymes with pantoum . . . lagoon, swoon, moon, saloon . . ."), she treated us with her smart, musical, and image-rich poems. In "Road Memorial" she describes one of those hokey roadside crucifixes, where "X marks the spot where Jesus called our Jim-/bo home." I've always been drawn to these make-shift memorials along back highways in rural towns, "simple-/ton angels posed in imbecile poses." But it's one thing to be able to describe them. Fagan takes the examination of the kitsch to a whole 'nother level, stating  "The highway is a public place and we, / a people dying for a sign," and ending with the killer:

This crap from Wal-mart could outlast us all,
which in our grief is no small com-
fort, since death lasts so much longer, and has no form.

Referring to herself as "a free verse poet obsessed with form," Fagan had me in her grip, for sure.

And then there was Simon of North Yorkshire, England.  Not only a poet, but he also writes for TV, radio, film, translates the Greeks, and is in a band. He said he was a big believer in first impressions, so he was fascinated by a sign he saw when he first arrived in Spokane. It read


He is funny, is way into refrains, writes some of the best persona poems ("I am a Whale"), and he used the word canoodling in a poem. Canoodling! But best of all he speaks like a British person and loves the Clash. 

Then I had to pack up and leave. I hate that part, except in this case I knew I'd be driving back across the state of  Washington, past the exit for Ritzville and the Tokio Weigh Station, plus I had my little satchel of goodies from Huckleberry's, which I planned to eat while sitting next to a cluster of Balsamroot looking over the Columbia, and did. 

Glory be to desert places! Glory be to getting lit by lit in Spokane!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

David Suzuki Rocks Spokane

The Problem: 

1. In nature, there is an exquisite interconnectivity. Example: In the temperate rain forest, the salmon feed the trees. That's how the trees can get so huge on so little nitrogen 14. Because, in fact, they are getting oodles of nitrogen 15 from salmon carcasses, directly as carcass, but also from eagle, wolf, and bears who spread the nitrogen around in their poop and pee. It's a very integrated system, and when we ignore this fact we pay dearly.

2. Case in point: CFCs. At first it seemed to make good sense to put florinated carbons into aerosol cans; I mean, you only had to use a little perfume, and then you could put a little CFC in there, and you had a big can of stuff to sell. Scientists loved that CFCs don't react chemically . . . but that was only a good thing while the CFC was inside the can. Once it gets out of the can, its non-reactive behavior turns out to be a bad thing. This stuff doesn't break down in the atmosphere, it turns out. It not only sticks around, but it breaks down ozone. OOOPS (why, this is exactly what happened in Suess's Bartholemew & the Oobleck)!

3. The effects of CO2 are having a serious impact on our oceans. Overproduction of carbonic acid is making them overly acidic, thus killing off the animals that once stabilized the ocean's carbonic acid levels. It is also turning much of our NW forests into dead/red trees just waiting to ignite. This is due to the lack of really cold winters (-40 F for at least 5 days). Without this killing frost, the mountain pine beetle can survive the winter, and that's what's causing all of our trees to die.  

4. In the massive rush to create a global economy, we forgot one thing: the globe!

5. Economists render forests as worthless until they are CUT DOWN and the logs are sold for profit. Things like oxygen production, habitat, and soil stabilization are labeled "externalities. (Now that's what I call semantic wizardry).

How to solve the problem: 

1. Economy and ecology have the same root: ECOS, meaning household. We need to put the ECO back in economics. 

2. We need a carbon tax. Sweden has one, and their economy is stronger than ever. Even better, they've exceeded their expectations for meeting their Kyoto emissions. They charge $120 a ton for carbon. In Canada, they can't even get a law passed for a $10 charge on a ton of carbon. In the US, we're not even talking about it. 

3.  Look to Cuba as an example of how to eat locally and cut down on food miles. They now produce 80% of their own food within their cities. It's cheap, fresh, organic, and local food, and everyone gets to eat it, not just the people who can afford it. Cuba can show us the way.

4. We need to stop consuming/buying so much. 20% of us are using 80% of the world's resources. When his own father was dying, did he talk about his nice wardrobe full of clothes? His fancy car? NO, he kept saying he was rich because he had family and friends around him.

5. When we decided we could go to the moon, no one could stop us. We dove into Sputnik and never looked back. We kicked butt to get to the moon! Now it's  time to kick butt on solving the problem of our warming planet and shrinking resources. Retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, coming up with 100% renewable energy, & increasing geothermal, to name a few, will add jobs, not take them away. 

6. We need to make a commitment to sustainability in our own communities. We don't have to have all the answers, or have everything mapped out, but we have to start thinking about what we want our community to look like in 30 years, for the next generation. Talk to people in your community. Don't preach. Don't tell people what they need to do. Start a book group and read books like Plenty, in which a man and woman live for a year without eating anything grown more than 100 miles from their home. Think long range, people. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

Post-Charles Baxter Reading & Conversation at the Bing Theatre, Spokane

Baxter's reading/interview were both so good . . . I mean, I knew he would be good (funny, entertaining, smart as hell, share his new work), but he outdid himself on all counts. 

The Top-10 Highlights: 

1. He was a failed poet and a failed novelist when he took to the short story with a vengeance. 

2. "Stories begin when things start to go wrong. Happiness is boring; not only that, it incites envy in the reader. It's not my business to write about nice people." 

3. "It's best to avoid conflict in your day-to-day life, but in fiction? Conflict has its home in fiction." Just make sure that the conflict is unexplainable/unknowable.

4. We all need an Iago (from Othello) in our stories. (He credited this comment to Vonnegut.)

5.  "Don't create a narrator who has it all figured out. Don't be too clear about motives--cut the point-making and glibness, up the mystery."

6. Baxter must write (1) in front of a window, (2) without a telephone, (3) on a computer not hooked up to the Internet. Otherwise, he'll check his email every 10 minutes.

7. He's a major daydreamer. If a story has staying power, he'll start to write it down. 

8. He suggested writers need to "get down to where your obsessions are" --Theodore Roethke

9. His three failed novels taught him he can't write conceptually; he has to write about folks who live in the midwest, his people. 

10. The Soul Thief, from which he read a chapter, is AMAZINGLY good, and I could tell this despite very little sleep, no dinner (except more of them Bite Me crackers, which are starting to lose their allure . . . )

Okay, off to bed. Tomorrow I am stepping out and actually going to a cafe for breakfast. (I can't eat crackers for breakfast, and that's about all I have left).

P.S. Hats off to Sam Ligon for doing a superb job with the interview questions. 

A Little Bleary Eyed but Still Very Lit

So before going to bed last night, being all room and womb of one's own, I had to (of course) type up my notes from my drive from Seattle to Spokane. 

No, in case you were asking, I do not pull over to write; yes, I will probably drive off the road one day--in fact, the other day I hit the curb on MLK Boulevard, but I was neither writing nor talking, I was, in fact, listening to a very early recording of The Grinch and falling asleep.

I stay awake with music, not the squeaky voice of Cindy Lou Who, who by the way my daughter pipes right up with (1) why doesn't she tell the Grinch to get OUT of her house? and (2) She's two, so how come she's talking? and (3) and besides, he doesn't even look anything like Santa Claus. Okay, sure, very astute, but meantime I'm falling into a Suessian freaking COMA. 

But anyway, back to Spokane and Get Lit! 

I'd forgotten (or was too lazy) to go to the grocery store, so my dinner continued to be: Bite Size Everything Crackers, string cheese, and a very nice chocolate cookie w white chocolate chips. This, I am sure, is what prompted me to stay up past midnight working on a poem about paneling, panels, and . . . lipstick. 

Actually, it might have more to do with the fact that I'm writing in a notebook that is (1) pink and (2) festooned with silver sequins. I swear! It was only $2.59 at Walgreen's. I'm telling you, this is a FIND. I think the sequins are channeling my muse. In fact,  I think this is the first time I've successfully channeled a/my/any muse. I think it's Calliope, but then again it might be Aeode. 

But there's a downside to channeling one's muse, and that is . . . sleep deprivation. And really strange dreams about being in Los Angeles and chewing out a friend for god knows what. 

Anyway, up at 6 am and top-o-the-morning back to my paneling poem (wainscotting! drill bits! subverting the post-post-post-post it!) right up till the moment I needed to be in the lobby to convene for my (of course) panel on how poets write and draft their poems. 

Thank goodness I was 3rd out of three presenters, cuz I got to take notes on how Ken Letko and Oliver de la Paz did it (and man, they did it right). Ken provided a little window into his process by sharing a story about witnessing an organic corn farmer (his sign actually says CRON) walk away from his stall at the farmer's market and return with a greasy bag of goodies from Burger King. For Ken, that was his AHA! moment, and he wrote a fine poem that took off from there. Oliver was great because he immediately thwarted the age-old assumption that writers pare down and/or tweak/fine-tune their poems in revision and are obsessive about keeping drafts. Immediately he set us straight: this poet writes to expand and loses drafts on purpose for the sake of revisiting an image or a lost line in a new and fresher way. How cool is that?! 

Then it was my turn, gasp. I am always just fine with my nerves until just before I begin to speak into a microphone, and then my heart starts poking out of my mouth. I was hoping (praying?) that the eight drafts I'd sent the moderator to copy for the audience had immolated themselves when they were sent through cyberspace, but there they were, all eight of them, staring up at me, all expectant to hear why I'd made each and every editorial decision. Which of course I didn't share (notably, none of us shared about how these decisions about what to cut, expand, say, not say, etc., get made); instead, I made fun of some of my earlier ways of phrasing things ("chipmunk mouthed" and a peculiar overuse of the words "sober" and "poor," then highlighted when the poem started to improve (like when I typed "periodontal hardship"), and ended by reading the newest (maybe final?) revision. So I didn't pass out after all. 

And now I have the afternoon off, or the next couple of hours, to check in with my comp students, read from the spring '09 issue of Willow Springs (it's sooooo good), and then it's . . . an Evening of Poetry and Song at the Europa. Can't wait for that . . . 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Live from Spokane/Get Lit!

Had plans to arrive here in time for the late afternoon meet and greet with the other festival authors, but as always unexpected last-minute packing and dealing (including a trip to Value Village for skorts and kid furniture) resulted in a 2:05 pm departure.

I had the tunes blasting ("Love is What I GOT; I said REMEMBER this. . .") and the notebook/pen on the lap even before I got over the I-90 Floating Bridge. Weeeeeeeee! Sunshine! 60 degrees! No one asking for a glass of water!

I was feeling like Richard Hugo in his big American car heading for his next triggering town: a couple of poem ideas bouncing around in my head, my box of TJ's Bite Size Everything Crackers beside me (these are the BEST: garlic, onion, sesame, poppy, and caraway seeds on top--crunchy, not too salty, and 10 calories a pop), and, before you know it, Ryegrass, Washington. And then I'm crossing the mighty Columbia, sailing into Grant County ("Nation's Leading Potato County") and taking a quick peek at the Wild Horses Monument on my right, dozens of wind turbines to my far left . . . and then heading into the Columbia Basin Federal Reclamation Project (note to self: Google that). And then I see a sign for the Grand Coulee Dam. I had no idea it was accessible from I-90 (I almost went for it, but as it turns out very good thing I didn't, unless I wanted to be negotiating a city I've never been to in total darkness). A few more exits, the town of Washtucna, and then the gas light goes on and I'm within the city limits, but OOPS--unreadable .doc-saved attachment be damned--I have no idea where I am, where the hotel is, and no answer when I dial the events coordinator.

But not to be daunted by Spokane (it's such a cute and chipper town with tons of charm and very few chains; instead there are churches, spires, and lots of one-of-a kind stores) I buy a map where I get gas, and except for having the wrong address (it take me to The Sports Arena), I manage to find my hotel. Success! And how sweet and cozy it is, with a Catholic cathedral just outside my window (bells ring on the hour!), and many, many hours to look forward to of not having to comb out tangled hair, read Fox in Sox, listen to The Grinch Who Store Christmas, break up fights, or explain to one of my 97 students what a summary is. Bleeeeeeeeeeeees.

And once I get it my room, I am greeted with (1) directions to the hotel (how handy!!), (2) a bag of goodies, including a bottle of really nice wine, a bunch of E Washington U souvenirs, a copy of Kathy Fagan's LIP (cooool), (3) and a very detailed and dummy-proof (and I need it) itinerary. I was very sad to miss Jane Smiley's reading due to computer glitch and departure delays, but can't wait to hear/see Charles Baxter, David Suzuki, William Dietrich, Ken Letko, Samuel Green, Oliver de la Paz, Laurie Lamon, Kate Trueblood, and everyone else in the coming days.

My first panel is at 9:30 am on Friday (4/17). Oliver, Ken and I will be talking about the drafting and revision process using "actual" drafts of a finished poem. Since I don't keep my drafts (mainly because I have a fear of hoarding), I've been forced to showcase a poem I just finished this past week. Not to bore anyone to tears, but the poem ("Santiago Says," about my dental hygenist, among other things), went through 20-30 revisions.

After that I plan to run in Riverside Park, then eat at Soulful Soups.

Spokane is clean, clear, dry, and seems a fun town to poke around in. I know I'm in the right place because (1) they still have these quaint mom-and-pop Chinese-American restaurants, (2) all that sage and grass separating me from Seattle feels really, really good, and (3) free wireless. 

Thanks to Get Lit! and its generous and kind sponsors for letting me be here. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Okay, let's face it . . .

I'm pitiful, pathetic, a wash-up. It's god-damned national poetry month and I haven't posted a single ANYTHING to my blog since March. It's April 11, the whole world is a beautiful shade of purple and pink, and I am crossing things off my freaking to-do list, trying to make sure that what I post to one of my sections of English 201 "The Research Paper" I also make sure to post to the other two sections. But, but, but . . . honestly I have been writing poetry! Really! Quite a bit, though most of it in my journal, disjointed, and unfinished. So, honestly, I have nothing to share of any worth, but I do want to tell you about a great prompt I came across. (I should be crediting someone for this, but I don't have the exercise book I stole it from down here by the couch (and my desk is far, far away, as in upstairs)).

The writing prompt says to keep a list of surreal or notable images you come across, such as:

1. a Sealy mattress leaning against a freeway barrier;

2. a guy dressed up in a hot dog suit;

3. a pair of carnival ticket booths being hauled on a flat-bed behind a truck.

After you've collected a bunch of these, pick one and use the weird image as the central metaphor of a poem.

Oooh, but you're probably already getting plenty of prompts from the Writer's Digest Poetic Asides blog, where Robert Lee Brewer is pumping them out with a passion. I was thinking I would have time to respond to his prompts DAILY, but as it's turned out I couldn't so I thought I'd combine prompts, so my first poem of the month mooshed together prompts 1 and 2: an origin poem told by an outsider. Okay, sneaky, but it seemed a good solution until . . . well, we all have our excuses, right? But that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep at it, or make up for lost time; that doesn't mean you should accidentally on purpose loosen the hold on your helium balloon, stand there helpless as it drifts just out of reach.

But I do want to share, despite my utter lameness, my infinite bad-role-model-ness and don't ask me please to be your mentee, a poetry moment that took place in my own home despite my having to focus more on my job and kids these past several weeks:

We had some workmen in the house, non-native speaker workmen (except for the son, whose English was better than the rest of the crew's), and as two of the men--the son and his father--were finishing up their puttying job at the top of the basement stairs, I heard some Spanish, and then, very clearly, very slowly: DO I DARE DISTURB THE UNIVERSE? And then a whole bunch more loud and boisterous Spanish. It took me a second to figure out what was going on: why were these guys quoting TS Eliot? Then I remembered: I'd scotch-taped my National Poetry Month poster at the top of the basement stairs. And the poster had done, hopefully for the millionth time this month, its intended magic.

I sincerely hope your NaPoMoWrPoGoToPoReBeaPoGoGoGo is going much better for you than mine is. In poetry, m