One of the amazing things about poetry--and why it's good for us fiction writers, too--is how it can be about language. (Some people I know would say that all poetry ever should be "about" is, in fact, language.) As in, the point of a poem is to get you thinking about the precision of words--but also the bleeding boundaries between them. Usually this is by the stress put on each word via the poem's structure, but sometimes even chatty, narrative poems can dig into language.
I got to see Aracelis Girmay read this poem a few years ago at the Indiana University Writers Conference. She's an incredibly dynamic reader, and I wish I could give you a piece of that memory. You have to imagine a lot of quizzical expressions for the first half of the poem and an accelerating exuberance in the last bit.
Also: you are required to love the poem. Otherwise, I don't want to hear from you.
For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me A Card
for Estefani Lora, PS 132, Washington Heights
Elephant on an orange line, underneath a yellow
6 green, vertical lines, with color all from
The first time I peel back the 5 squares of
unfold the crooked-crease fold of art class
I am in my living room.
It is June.
Inside of the card, there is one long word,
Loisfoeribari: The scientific, Latinate way
of saying hibiscus.
Loisfoeribari: A direction, as in: Are you
North? South? East? West? Loisfoeribari?
I try, over & over, to read the word out
What is this word?
I imagine using it in sentences like,
"Man, I have to go back to the house,
I forgot my Loisfoeribari."
"There's nothing better than rain, hot
open windows with music, & a tall glass
"How are we getting to Pittsburgh?
Should we drive or take the Loisfoeribari?"
I have lived 4 minutes with this word not
what it means.
It is the end of the year. I consider writing
Estefani Lora, a letter that goes:
To The BRILLIANT Estefani Lora!
Hola, querida, I hope that you are well.
just opened the card that
you made me, and it is beautiful.
really love the way you filled the sky with
birds. I believe that
you are chula,
chulita, and super fly! Yes, the card
I only have one question
for you. What does the word
I try the word again.
I try the word in Spanish.
& then, slowly,
Lo is fo e ri bari
Lo is fo eribari
love is for everybody
love is for every every body love
love love everybody love
everybody love love
is love everybody
everybody is love
love love for love
for love is everybody
love is forevery
love is forevery body
love love love for body
love body body is love
love is body every body is love
is every love
for every love is love
for love everybody love love
love love for everybody
Aracelis Girmay is a poet and writing teacher living in New York City, This poem is from TEETH, Curbstone Press (www.curbstone.org).
Drowning Instinct by Ilsa Bick takes hold of you and doesn't let you go until the very last page. I'm proof: I read it in two sittings. Even knowing that Liam would be up at 7:00, I stayed up till 3:00 in the morning to finish it. Here's the description, courtesy of NetGalley.com:
There are stories where the girl gets her prince, and they live happily ever after. (This is not one of those stories.)
Jenna Lord's first sixteen years were not exactly a fairytale. Her father is a controlling psycho and her mother is a drunk. She used to count on her older brother—until he shipped off to Iraq. And then, of course, there was the time she almost died in a fire.
There are stories where the monster gets the girl, and we all shed tears for his innocent victim. (This is not one of those stories either.)
Mitch Anderson is many things: A dedicated teacher and coach. A caring husband. A man with a certain...magnetism.
And there are stories where it's hard to be sure who's a prince and who's a monster, who is a victim and who should live happily ever after. (These are the most interesting stories of all.)
Drowning Instinct is a novel of pain, deception, desperation, and love against the odds—and the rules.
Where to begin? As an author, I stand in awe of the number of plot threads Bick weaves masterfully together here. As a reader, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. And the writing--it's good. Really good. This book works on so many different levels. It's hard to know how to talk about it without spoiling things. So let me tell you about a few things I loved:
The conceit: Jenna Lord is telling her story aloud into a hand-held recorder given to her by a police detective who has asked her for the truth about what happened. She's in a hospital emergency room. There's been an accident; she doesn't know if she's in trouble or if she's the victim. And by the time she finishes the story--when we have all the pieces--we still don't know, exactly. But in a good way.
The nuances: As you can tell from the description, there's a teacher-student involvement in this novel. As a former high-school teacher, usually I steer way, way clear from these stories because they just piss me off. And at first, I wanted to shout at Mitch Anderson, "Never, ever, EVER have a student over to your house alone. Do NOT let her shower in your bathroom. Do NOT cook her breakfast." But gradually we come to see him in his shortcomings and his needs, to understand his motivations, however flawed. Also Bick deals with cutting, grief, sexual abuse, and lots of other serious stuff with subtlty and wisdom.
The voice: Jenna Lord reminds me of the girl from Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. Maybe it's the similarity of the conceit, the simultaneous closeness to the listener (Jenna addresses the detective directly from time to time) and distance from events since they're being narrated after the fact). But at any rate, Jenna is smart, self-aware, and astute. The language of the book is just right for her.
The suspense: There was so much of it. Seriously. I had a list of questions about a mile long and it felt urgent to find out how everything could come together. Bick parcels out some of the secrets partway through, but there are always more brewing...
This book is one you don't want to miss. The official release date for Drowning Instinct is February 1, 2012.
I have two complaints to file today. These have been simmering--no, festering--for weeks, and it's time I said something.
(1) Reading on my iPad is NOT, NOT, NOT the f***ing same. Don't get me wrong, as a writer and PhD student in Paris, I don't know what I'd do without my ebooks and pdfs. Cry? Watch my creative stomach consume itself, Twila Tharp-style? But!! I miss holding books. I miss bookmarks. I miss feeling where I am in a book by the number of pages ahead and behind my present location. I miss writing in the margins. I miss flipping through the pages. Yes, a search function felt "handy" at first, but now I just wish I could follow my own mind's map through the physical pages in a physical book. Andrew Karre, those thoughts you had about discreteness? They're not just idle worries. They're the stuff of my current angst. By the way, I'm pretty sure the Andrew of August 18, 2011, did some time travel and read my (now) diary to be able to write this:
I love books for their self-contained universes. I worry about what happens to the discreteness of those universes when there is nothing to prevent me from barging through every thin place, every interdimensional wormhole I encounter. It seems that every step toward pervasive electronic books reveals another way in which paper books are perfect technology.
Me too!! I want paper baaaack!*
(2) The Twitter character limit that used to seem "fun" and "challenging" is currently pissing me off. I know, I know, I even said Twitter could make you a better writer by training you to self-edit. And probably it can. But who f***ing cares when they want to communicate a semi-nuanced thought? I'm sick of feeling like a bad Hemingway imitator. I'm embarrassed by my chronic two-tweet messages. Yes, yes, I know I can enable a "long message" linking feature, but that makes me feel like I have diarrhea of the keys. Or like I've signed up for a modification that I should be good enough not to need. Damn it, why isn't it 200 characters? Just give me that. Can't they base the bulk of a Twitter message on an overweight Paris pigeon instead of that skinny, too-damn-cute chickadee they used to weigh out our characters? Come on, guys...
*No friggin' surprise that Andrew called this one. He's brilliant, like I said here.
No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is yet another proof that Carolrhoda Lab is pushing boundaries in diverse ways. Here's a description of this "documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller":
"You can't walk straight on a crooked line. You do you'll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?"
Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not books, because "Negroes don’t read," Lewis took five books and one hundred dollars and built a bookstore. It soon became the intellectual center of Harlem, a refuge for everyone from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X.
In No Crystal Stair, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines meticulous research with a storyteller's flair to document the life and times of her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, an extraordinary literacy pioneer of the Civil Rights era.
"My life was no crystal stair, far from it. But I'm taking my leave with some pride. It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. I'd say my seeds grew pretty damn well. And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning."
This is a very special book, and not just because it received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews calling it "a stirring and thought-provoking account of an unsung figure in 20th-century American history." In these pages, Lewis Michaux emerges as both a flawed human being living in difficult times and as a player in some of the most important events of African-American and American life over 30 years.
As a novel "in documents," No Crystal Stair weaves together actual materials (articles, FBI files, pamphlets, bits of poetry) with journal-type entries from Lewis Michaux, his family members, prominent authors, and many other figures (some historical, some imagined) that he crosses paths with in the pages of the novel. For example, we hear from the banker who turns him down for a loan when he wants to start the bookstore; from his sister-in-law who disapproves of his politics and doubts his faith; from authors on the rise, like Nikki Giovanni; from reporters; and (my favorite!) from teenagers who get turned onto books because of his recommendations.
Not all the voices in the novel are perfectly distinct, but that's okay. Because by the end, we've got a gorgeous portrait of a life that's full of nuggets of wisdom, little-known facts about life in Harlem, spot-on portrayals of debates on race and civil rights (integration or independence? accomodation or confrontation? violence or patience?), and anecdotes that you'll want to tuck into the pockets of your heart. A few of my favorite quotations from the book:
Lewis: "If a sexy book gets them in the door, I'll show them a sexy book. Then I'll show them Douglass or DuBois or something else of value. If you're in the book business, you've got to sell books."
Lewis: "I found out who the real Lord is. That is the landlord. He comes to see me every month. So praying doesn't get it. Work gets it. And I'm working hard."
Elder Lightfoot, Lewis's brother: "If there's no devil, who gets the credit for raising all the hell?” and “Be willing to help anybody who is down, but don't go down helping him.”
Snooze (teenage male): "Man, how does Hughes know this stuff? It's like he's inside my head. Like he's reading my mind. I, too, sing America. I read it over and over. It carves itself deep in my mind 'til it sticks. I can't shake it. Don't want to."
Lewis: "Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, there's gonna be no damn peace . . . nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it's being chopped down" (after assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.).
This is a book with much, much heart. In addition to being lovingly executed, it's flawlessly researched. It's a beautiful example of multi-genre research that teachers can share with students of all ages. Tom Romano--the guru of multi-genre research--would be thrilled with this book.
Bravo. I'm proud to be in such fine company at Carolrhoda Lab.
Q: I have a hard time balancing my love of photography and my love of writing. Is there something else you enjoy doing that sometimes gets in the way of your writing?*
A: Um, yes! I had almost exactly the same problem. I used to spend a lot of time with darkroom photography in the days before digital. And while photography and writing are by no means incompatible—indeed, I took a whole class in college exploring the relationship between the two—there is a certain school of thought that says you don’t want to use up your creative energy on anything else but your writing. The poet Mary Oliver writes about how she always chose to do boring, crap jobs so she wouldn’t be too intellectually stimulated (or satisfied) at work. Here’s the quote I’m thinking of: “ I was very careful never to take an interesting job. If you have an interesting job, you get interested in it.”
For me, something was lost in the switch to digital, and when I no longer had access to a darkroom, I more or less let photography go. You can read about my nostalgia for darkrooms here. But that doesn’t mean you have to! See if you can find a way to bring the two interests together. One way is to do writing that complements your photography, another is to use photographs as starting points for writing, still another is to bring in what you know about photography into the world of your stories by making it important to one of your characters.
*Question courtesy of the National Writing Project·and readers of Figment.com for the National Day on Writing. Read highlights of the event in·this post·or listen to me and four other guests talk about the National Day on Writing for the NWP blogtalk radio program here.
To ring in 2012, I offer you this scene: a Paris Metro car full of people on their way home, their facial expressions ranging from impatient to bored. In the middle of us all, a woman with her amplifier strapped to a dolly, sings into a microphone that lets us hear her loud and clear (whether we want to or not) as she croons "Sway" with a very thick French accent.
At first, I found it a bit annoying to have my eardrums accosted by accordionists, singers, and other performers on the Metro when all I wanted was to get home from work and see my boys. But then I began to really pay attention to these performers. Some clearly were doing it just for the money--the handful of change they shamed or pressured travelers into giving them before they finally stepped off the train and went to inflict auditory torture on someone else. The instrument they carried was basically just an accessory to their panhandling efforts.
Other buskers were different--well dressed and apparently indifferent to whether or not they received donations. I have a theory (perhaps totally bogus) that these performers see the Metro as a kind of endless open-mike opportunity. They have a captive audience, after all.
But for my shy self, the proportions of their courage boggle the mind. A captive audience, yes, but a very cranky audience determined not to be moved by their music. Is it the challenge that appeals? And has a Metro crowd ever burst out into applause? I'd love to know.
While I have sometimes wanted to pay the Metro performers money to please, please STOP playing, our little boy Liam is a huge fan of all music, no matter how bad. He'll sway to an out-of-tune accordion, elevator music, or even a cellphone ringtone. So I guess--when he's with us--the buskers can count on at least one appreciative member in their captive audience.
And maybe, with enough courage, one real listener is enough to make it worthwhile. That's what I'm trying to remember this new year, knee-deep as I am in scary, rough-drafting for novel #3.
So far it appears absolutely impossible to go wrong with any recipe by David Lebovitz. But especially when it comes to chocolate, he is an evil genius! What I love best about this chocolate tart recipe is that it only requires ingredients that any sane person already has in her kitchen: sugar, vanilla, butter, coffee, flour, eggs, and a good bar of chocolate. I also made David's French pastry recipe. (It's a lot easier than a rolled pastry crust, but I recommend doubling it and storing half the dough in the fridge for sudden baking needs. I used mine for a quick quiche).
Looking for a simple-but-special holiday treat for your New Year's Eve party? Look no further.
The batter for the tart is delicious--akin to the richest fudge sauce you've ever had. When baked, it becomes denser but is still very smooth, kind of like a very thick pudding. Anyway, the husband approved, as did Liam. I'll let him model the satisfaction since he looks way cuter with chocolate all over his face than I do. (Unfortunately, this is not just a hypothetical comparison: apparently every time I sneak a little Nutella, I manage to smear it across my mouth, which makes it difficult to feign innocence when Arnie asks what I've been snacking on.)
Um, is there a problem here?
More pie, please!
What if I suck in my stomach? See? I really, really need more pie!
For Christmas, Arnie and I bought each other a grown-up* dinner at Les Papilles, a well-established French bistro with a reputation for its excellent market-driven menu and wide selection of wines. And I discovered my new favorite way to have dinner out: without choices.
Because at Les Papilles (translates as "the tastebuds") the day's offerings are the same for everyone and based on what's fresh at the market.
Our first course was a gorgeous cream of zucchini soup ladled over seasoned bread cubes, bacon, and an olive cream fraiche dollop. I loved that we had our own giant tureen of soup so that I could have three servings. (Sorry, couldn't find a picture of our soup.)
The next course was beef cheek slow-roasted in red wine with baby potatoes, carrots and thyme. Tasty, even for this former vegetarian!
The cheese course was a blue cheese served with a prune to balance out the saltiness. Delish.
Finally, the dessert. Oh, my goodness. I wish I could remember what it was called. (If somebody knows from my description, please tell me!) Carmelized bananas on the bottom, this amazingly mild and smooth creamy stuff above that, and a caramel foam on the top. I wanted to die...
Another thing I loved was picking out our own wine from the many choices along the wall...
Not a single disappointment for these satisfied diners.
*Liam had to sit this one out, but he had a great time with super babysitter Melissa.