Friday, March 30, 2012

My Best Me

I am a writer, technically speaking, only when I am engaged in the act of writing and rewriting. But the problem with this is that I am best when I am writing. Gone is any hesitancy, lack of confidence, egotism. Time falls away. The world is bright and everything is as it should be.
Yet I am a person as well as a writer, and that is a lot more complicated and difficult than the sheer and sublime simplicity of the empty page. The consequences in the world are lots higher, for every interaction I have, whether virtual or face to face, involves a person with feelings and a history, and it is easy for one's narrow vision and thoughtless words to hurt those others or drive them away.
As a person in the world, I am constantly been misunderstood, and no doubt, misunderstanding others. As a writer, I am far better at crafting my words to my audience and creating the impression I aimed for to start with.
Now with the prospect of teaching an online class, I have the chance to merge these two elements, the written me and the person. Let's see how that goes and whether it helps me to think before I speak and act.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Marly's New Novel, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

I just said in my last post that I wanted to reach out to others, and what did I find, one minute later, in my email box, but an opportunity to do just that?
I have told you before about my friend Marly Youman's terrific books. How she has a new one, long-anticipated and just being launched today, that I want to tell you about. Here's some information about it:

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Mercer University Press, March 30th, 2012
hardcover or ebook

Winner of The Ferrol Sams Award
Ms. Youmans gives us a beautifully written and exceptionally satisfying novel with rich language and lovely turns of phrase that invite the reader to linger on every page.
Comments from writers
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage tells of a young boy's travels through the black heart of Depression America and his search for light both metaphorical and real. Writing with a controlled lyrical passion, Marly Youmans has crafted the finest, and the truest period novel I've read in years.
--Lucius Shepard
Marly Youmans' new book is a vividly realized, panoramic novel of survival during The Great Depression. There is poetry in Youmans' writing, but she also knows how to tell a riveting story.
--Ron Rash
In A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Marly Youmans gives us a beautifully written and exceptionally satisfying novel. The book reads as if Youmans took the best parts of The Grapes of Wrath, On the Road, The Reivers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and crafted from them a tale both magical and fine. Her rich language and lovely turns of phrase invite the reader to linger. Ironically, there is at the same time a subtle pressure throughout the novel to turn the page, because Youmans has achieved that rarest of all accomplishments: she has created a flawed hero about which we care. A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is one of the best books I have read.
--Raymond L. Atkins

Novel in pre-order:
Recent poetry:

Rite of Spring

It's spring again, and that means my favorite holiday, Passover, is almost here. Last night, even though Passover has not yet started, the synagogue's Women's Connection held its women's seder.
A seder is a meal, among other things. At this event, women contributed food (my contribution, unfortunately, was 2 dozen hard boiled eggs, which I couldn't get the peels off properly) and other kinds of efforts.
But besides yet another excuse to eat, the main feature of a Passover seder, though such seders take many different forms depending on the nature of the group holding them, is the retelling and symbolic re-enactment of the freeing of the Jews from Egypt, known as "the narrow place" in the Torah, and their 40 year Exodus in the wilderness.
Jewish texts stress that although the events of the Exodus happened thousands of years ago, and in fact, probably never happened at all, since there is no evidence of the Jews ever really being slaves in Egypt (though they were slaves in Babylon),
we were all present when they unfolded, and witnessed the giving of the law at Sinai.
The seder is a particularly effective way of making ritual directly relevant to our own lives. It is not just theoretical, but entirely practical, requiring us to ask questions of each other and of the tradition, to tell the old stories. And this is why Passover is my favorite holiday.
In this particular seder, the Haggadah (the book used to lead the seder) stressed a particularly psychological Egypt, the narrow places of psychological isolation and bad habits that trap us all at one time or another. This resonated with me particularly this season, and released me from the fit of low spirits that has overtaken me recently.
I looked around me at the faces of women I had known for years and women new to me, and I realized that I had never been as alone as I had thought. It made me grateful once again for the support and companionship of the people all around me and made me wake up from the long winter's freeze and want to reach out.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Open Mic

Last night I went to an open mic to read some poems. The online blurb about this venue said it happened every Friday night. Most Fridays I am not available. But this week I was, and I was feeling the need to go out and exercise my creaky reading muscles.
The online ad said this was a mix of music, comedy, and poetry, which could be rather iffy. But it was 10 minutes away, so I took a chance. In fact, it was in the shopping center where I had been earlier that afternoon to buy some produce at the Persian market, so I went.
I knew I had found the place when I spied the multitudes queued outside with their musical instruments and sound equipment. The event was about to start when I arrived, so I signed up (first on the list because the people who had already signed up had left the first few blank).
The host was a young would-be comedian with an Ed Sullivan vibe. He was rather good at introductions, I thought, especially given he didn't know who many of the folks (such as me) were.
I read 3 poems, two of them fairly long. I figured I had more time, but I didn't want to tax people's patience in an audience like this, who may never have been to a poetry reading in their lives. In fact, it was probably a fair bet that 90% hadn't.
There were some people about my age sitting on the couch, and they paid close attention. The man looked familiar, perhaps faculty from one of the schools where I've taught over the years. But neither they nor the others came up to me afterwards with questions about the book, which I plugged, naturally.
I am pretty good at handling a room, thanks to my years of teaching experience, and I connected with them the best I could. The group in fact mostly looked like a rumpled group of freshmen, ready to give me the benefit of the doubt on the first day of school. They were about that age.
The older couple turned out to be parents of a young crooner, part of a nascent band with some interesting sounds. The songs were very short, but had something. I am sure this guy at the mic wrote them. I couldn't hear the lyrics, something about mumbling or perhaps the fact that I was sitting next to the amp, which was blasting straight into my hearing aid.
I thought that band was in fact one of the best things I heard, that and a young woman comedian. There were several male comedians whose material ranged from extremely offensive (shockingly offensive--misogynistic, pointless, and generally unfunny in every way) to chuckle-worthy, to bland.
I didn't stay for the whole thing. But it reminded me that open poetry readings aren't the only self-promoting gig that radiate an "all about me" vibe. It still was sort of a cozy feeling, and perhaps I will go back another time, especially since it's so close.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Early Day

Day 2 of the cat's diet. My cat Whistler weighed in at 17.5 lbs. Needless to say, that means I have to change my ways and stop giving in to his constant yowling and badgering for food, day and night.
He is actually adjusting fairly well. The little cat, however, who weighs in at about 6 or 7 lbs, is still demanding the extra snacks she used to get. She is so small, I feel she must need them. But I don't want her to get fat.
The cats have quit yowling in the middle of the night, but they sit on me and stare, pawing my head and face, and I cannot sleep or get back to sleep. I feed them because I need to sleep, and once I do, they leave me alone.
I have the food measured out so that I keep Whistler at about 1/2 cup per day. I don't think he really needs anymore than that. Part of that is dry food that I dole out a bit in the morning, then put the rest in the bedside table for the middle of the night. The rest of the day they get wet food.
I need to learn to brush Whistler's teeth since the vet says he has developed an allergy to the bioslime on his teeth, and this has caused gum infections. I also need to get him to play. He would rather just roll on his back and have me scratch his considerable belly though! He does like catnip, so I give him some every once in a while for a treat. And once in a while, he'll go for the laser beam.
On the other hand, Shadow is very playful. She is constantly up on the mantelpiece knocking off whatever is there, sticking her butt in my face as I sit at the computer, and demanding food as I cook or eat. She has such an expressive face, I know exactly what she wants at all times.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Imaginary Landscapes that Are Real

I have always been drawn to sea creatures. More than one person has noted that I have written several times about whales, and also have a poem about dolphins. Fish have also been an interest of mine. I kept tropical fish, saltwater and fresh, for much of my life. Indeed, I would start a tank here but for the fact that there is nowhere to put one. The large windows in the house that are one of its main attractions mean that we don't have many free walls for bookshelves or tanks, and tanks must be nowhere near a window, which is a tough thing in this house.
So no tank. But I am as ever attracted to stories I see and hear about the sea and its creatures. Too bad I can't swim, so scubadiving is out.
Yesterday I heard two amazing stories of human seamammal encounters. The one that fascinated me most was the story of a photographer who was spending a lot of time underwater in a seal rookery shooting footage. The animals got used to him, and apparently began to regard him as just another oddly configured seal.
A particular female seal kept coming around, bringing him half-dead, terrified penguins as a gift. She became exasperated, hitting him over the head with the dead prey, because he didn't seem to know what to do with them. Finally, she tucked into the snack she brought him in front of him, as if to show him how it should be done.
For his part, he was more than amused. He said he fell in love with the animal, with all the symptoms of human love we are familiar with, longing to see the beloved, whom he described as beautiful and strong, silvery and graceful, above all other seals. He lost his appetite pining for her above the water.
It reminds me so much of a fairy tale in reverse. We have heard of selkies and the little mermaid, but here is a man, clearly recognized as male by an amorous unattached female seal, who has fallen in love with a creature of another order.
The seal finally had enough of his unresponsiveness and told him off with gutteral barks, right in his face. But another female seal picked up where she left off. Sounds like the scene in a single's bar.
This morning I saw a story about the upcoming show on Discovery Channel about Antartica, A Frozen Planet, with this description:“A lot of what we show you looks like magic, it is unearthly,” Berlowitz said. “People are excited by what comes out of people’s imagination, but if you can find things in the real world that look like they are from your imagination, but they are real, that is even more intoxicating.”
See the video here:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sell Those Books!

Today I visited two health food stores, thinking they would attract just the kind of clientele that might be interested in this book. One was rather unwelcoming, but the other was very positive. I think I've got a real chance to market the book locally in all the stores of this second place!
Still, it feels kind of odd going into what is fundamentally a glorified grocery store and suggesting they buy my book. How sad it is that there are so few bookstores that this is the only sort of place that might sell it!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Interview with Morgen Bailey, with an e.

Today, my interview with writer and blogger Morgen Bailey goes live. Morgen points out helpfully that she shares the spelling of her name with a stripper in U.K., where she lives.
Here's the link:
Morgen has promised to grace these pages sometime soon with her own guest blog.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Book Biz

Though I have been a writer for most of my life, and have published a number of poems and essays, Balance is my first experience with book publication. It has surprised me how many things I needed to learn and am learning as I go along, such as practical information about layouts, fonts, book distribution and promotion, getting a book reviewed, and keeping records of who has bought it and how much those people have paid.
One thing I have found, to my frustration, is that independently published small-press books do not fit into the neat little categories of retail stores or even libraries. They may like the book, and most of the places where I have taken my book, they have admired the concept and the execution, but because it does not quite fit into the system they have set up, in which the store can send back books that do not sell or get a much lower price per unit than I am able to give them, they are reluctant to carry the book.
How many wonderful books are not receiving the exposure they might otherwise get because of this problem? What if there were brick and mortar stores that carried mostly or exclusively small press books of that kind, or ones that had a room or section devoted to them? But I suppose that brick and mortar bookstores are a dying breed anyhow, never mind ones that focus on obscure works like mine!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Interesting Moment on a Friday Night

Last night at synagogue, we had our annual gathering of the latest Merage fellows. These are entrepreneurs from Israel who have shown promise for their innovative or outstanding work in business and/or technology. The Rabbi is always anxious to show off our progressive shul to these fellows because in Israel, such synagogues generally do not exist. The ultra-Orthodox have a stranglehold on Judaism in Israel. Consequently, the majority of Israelis are alienated from the practice of Judaism, whereas, if they had such on option in their country, they might not be. He wants to inspire young Israeli go-getters to push for the broadening of Judaism in the Jewish state.
This group of fellows, not all of them that young, by the way, were all women. That was refreshing, since women have a different set of interests and concerns from men, and these women were far more outspoken than the fellows who have come to our shul in the past. The rabbi challenged them in his comments about the differences between Israelis and Americans, and they challenged him right back.
Out of the group, there was one probably very observant Jew who would not speak into the microphone, since this is technically not permitted on Shabbat. She spoke, actually at some length, more than once, but none of us could hear her.
It was an interesting inter-cultural meeting ground. I always get the feeling that though these people come from the same sorts of background as us, and several grew up or spent significant time in the English speaking world (Canada, Scotland, even the U.S.), they are very different in their assumptions and way of thinking.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Darkest Before the Yeah Yeah!

This morning I was feeling down. The prospect of having to choose the kind of pension R would take will mean we have to read the future in our crystal ball. Will the Republicans win the election this fall? If so, best to stick with the insurance we have and take the relatively low monthly pension. If not, go for broke with the payout, which we would rather do because it gives us a chance to invest the money. But I have "pre-existing conditions"--inherited hearing problems and very mild thyroid issues. Otherwise, I am healthy. In my doc's words, I am much more healthy than most of her much younger patients because I eat well, exercise, and take very good care of myself. My parents lived to be almost 94. What kind of risk am I, seriously?
But I can't get a decently priced insurance policy, so unless Obama's health care policies go into effect, we must stick with what we have. But how to know that?
Aside from that, I am hanging in limbo on some employment issues, waiting to hear whether I will get interviews for jobs I've applied for, etc. And I'm not having much luck getting readings so I can sell my book to the local community.
But I went to yoga this morning and hoped all the way there would be something in my email box about one of these issues. There was. At least I am less in employment limbo about one of those positions! However, I still don't have a place to read.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Book Launch Party

Last night our little house was full of happy people, eating the Persian vegetarian meal I had spent the past two days preparing, talking, laughing, and getting to know each other.
My publisher, Karen Kelsey Davies and her husband Peter, attended, and I think felt very comfortable. My yoga teacher, Bob, put in an appearance, though my other yoga teacher, Denise, couldn't make it. The rest of the crowd consisted of friends old and new, but they all got along famously.
I made the dinner vegetarian out of respect for my yoga teacher Denise and her husband, Ray, who will not eat at a place where meat is served. But no one felt a lack.
I made saffron rice with dill and lima beans and a yogurt spinach accompaniment, an eggplant kookoo (a sort of Persian frittata), loaded with herbs and roasted eggplant, Persian noodle soup, made with loads of mint, parsley, spinach, garlic, and roasted noodles that gave the soup its name. It was garnished with caramelized onions with mint and kashk, a kind of strained and thickened yogurt.
I had gone to the nearby Persian market that morning to pick up herbs and a freshly baked loaf of flatbread, wrapped in brown paper and slung over the push bar of the cart. It tortured me all the way through the market and during my ride home, just having to smell the thing without eating it up entirely.
I also made a couple of salads, shirazi salad, made with crisp Persian cukes, red onions, seeded tomatoes, parsley, mint, olive oil, and sweet lemon juice. Yum. I ate it for breakfast again this morning, a breakfast I far prefer to the usual.
The other salad was roasted tricolor peppers, in a dressing of olive oil and white wine vinegar with garlic. But I forgot to bring it out. It made nice eating today, since it was 90 degrees!
I sold 3 or 4 books, which was nice too!
After most of the guests had left, the rest of us sat around the table, and I read some of the poems. People requested particular poems they wanted to hear, following in their copies. That was fun! As was thinking up novel ways to sign the books to fit each person.
I hope I get to have another launch at the synagogue because there is no way I could fit that crowd in my house!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Without a Map

I often feel as though my life these days is rather like an effort to traverse a bumpy and winding stretch of land without a map. I take a turn, but the land forbids it, and sends me scurrying back the way I came with ominous rumblings and landslides. I have my eye on a patch way out by the far horizon, backed by the furthest hills, but the land won't have it. I am forced in one direction, however forbidding and unprofitable it may seem to me.I can only imagine the sea or a shining city with welcoming lights and victorious music. Sometime, no doubt, I will stumble on both without expecting it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

New Publication

Way back in the ancient days when I lived in Philadelphia (from birth till about 20 years old), I wrote a poem about the Frankford Elevated subway, with one part for each stop from downtown to the place where I caught the bus to go home.
It was in my first (MA) thesis, and it is the last poem in my book, A Likely Story.
Now it will be published in a Philadelphia journal called The Northern Liberties Review. How ironic! I haven't been in Philly for perhaps 10 years, and am not likely to ever go there again, since my parents are gone.
I'll link to it when the poem is published.