Goodbye, 2009

I want to end my posts this year with this photo, taken in August, of the Obamas arriving in Phoenix via Air Force One. I won't lie, I'm ready to see this year end, but I'm remembering the good things that happened in 2009 like the chills I always got just seeing this family represent. Look at Malia who is almost a woman, and Sasha with that little bun. Yes, there are many unfortunate things going on in the world, but just look, LOOK at our First Family.

Lady Zora

Each time I read this opening to Their Eyes Were Watching God, I'm thankful:

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment."

~Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God


Dear Muse,

Thank you for showing up at 2 a.m. every night this week. I don’t mind rising from sleep into a cold house and I enjoy your company once my eyes adjust to the pitch black rooms. I do have a question. I was wondering where we’re going with this latest story. I’ve been working on it for a few months now and, um, I feel like you’re taking over. I’m willing to use your ideas I just want to know what it is that we’re doing. Is it still a story about collective memory? Why have you changed the body of water that’s in the story? And could you fucking slow down with the inspiration? I still have to work in the morning, pack lunches and that sort of thing. I can’t submit to you the way you want although I know that’s what you like, you naughty spirit. Here’s an idea, why don’t you type the story yourself and show it to me when you’re done? I’d like to finish this story and the entire story collection before AWP. Thanks for your help.



Happenings + Events

Poet Alberto Rios

Thursday, December 3 at 6:30 p.m.: A free reading by poets Alberto Rios and Brian Diamond as part of The Museum Heart Series at SMOCA(Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts).

Friday, December 4 at 5:30 p.m.:
Arizona Latino Arts & Culture Consortium celebrate the opening of Latino arts new home in downtown Phoenix, 147 E. Adams, Phoenix 85004. Several artists will be present including writer Stella Pope Duarte who will read.

Friday, December 4 at 6:00 p.m.
: Photography opening at Conspire, 901 N. 5th Street, Phoenix, AZ 85016. Photographer Aaron Abbott unveils his new photography book, "Phonebook," that examines those dinosaurs of technology, pay phones. Abbott photographed every payphone between 16th and 24th streets and Thomas and Van Buren in Phoenix. He says, "the resulting photographs explore the cultural aesthetics of these areas while pursuing a visual simplicity."

Friday, December 4 at 7:30 p.m.
: Black Pearl Poetry series featuring poet Mighty Mike McGee at The Original Fair Trade Cafe in Phoenix.

Saturday, December 5 at 7:00 p.m.
: Reception for Poetics of Light Photogrpahy Exhibition at Etherton Gallery in Tucson, 135 S. 6th Avenue. Featured photogrpahers include Kate Breakey, Masao Yamamoto, James Hajicek and Carol Panaro-Smith. The show runs through February 27, 2010.

Saturday and Sunday, December 5 and 6, 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.: a.ware holiday sale at 534 W. Coronado in South Phoenix. Find holiday gifts all handmade, all made by local Arizona artists.

A Cat Tale

Photo from Copyright C. Marx

You can't make up the stuff that happens in life.

I never would have written the situation that I found myself in yesterday for one of my fictional characters. I would have thought the metaphor too heavy-handed, the supporting characters too stereotypical, and the outcome too sentimental. But that's how the situation played out and I'm still kind of shaken about what I witnessed.

I was on my way to a high school in Peoria to talk about poetry. I would tell the kids abpit a [poetry program that I respect a great deal. It's a mash-up of performance poetry and the old-fashioned spelling bee competitions. Students memorize poems written by canonical poets and by some of the best contemporary poets that are out there. They recite these poems in competitions at the school, state, and national levels. The winner of the national competition gets a $20,000 college scholarship. I like that there's a cash prize involved, but that's not what inspires me. What inspires me is how excited these kids get when they engage with language in a creative way. The teachers appreciate that their students are interpreting poems and talking about language in ways that aren't about testing or writing in structured forms for state tests. If you watch some of the past performances you'll see that the kids really step full-body into the poetry and breathe life into these poems for the audience. This is the kind of thing that can change a young person's relationship with literature.

So I was in my happy space as I prepared to go to Peoria. I was a little nervous because I wasn't exactly sure where I was going, I had directions via Mapquest. And I wanted to get there on time to set up my equipment so that I was ready to do the presentation when the kids arrived.

I walked out of the office where I work and headed over to the parking garage to get the state car. As I loaded the little Toyota with my computer, projector, purse, sweater, I could hear this noise in the background. Once I stopped slamming the doors I realized that I was hearing a cat. Strange, I thought. I got into the car and continued to hear the cat's cries. It sounded like the animal was in distress.

I got out of the car and looked around the garage. I don't care for parking garages, don't want to be in one for long periods of time. This garage was like most of them: dark, gloomy. It smelled of exhaust. I walked in front of the car and looked underneath it and saw nothing. "Kitty," I called trying to find the cat so that I could help it. The mewing sounded like a call for help. Each time I called the cat, it responded but I couldn't see it. I needed to get in the car and get to Peoria on time. Was the cat in the pipe that snaked up the wall next to the car? I couldn't figure it out.

I walked away from the car to see if I could find a garage attendant to help me look for the cat. My eyesight is not the best, and I kept imagining that the cat had to be beneath the car, that I just couldn't see it. I was afraid that I might run over the cat when I backed up. No one was in the booth. I was now some distance from the car and could still hear the mewing. I bent down to look underneath the car from several feet away. That's when I saw the orange tail curling out from the car's carriage. There was a cat stuck somewhere inside the car. It seemed like I'd heard of that before.

At that moment two gentlemen wearing dark blue coats and caps walked into the garage and went to a door that said "Storage". They had keys. These men worked for the garage.

I told them what the situation was. They were so gracious and I am thankful that they appeared. They were busy doing their job, but they stopped to help me out. "Pop open the hood," one of them told me. I did. Sure enough, an orange tabby was stuck in the car's engine and could not get out. It mewed like it was in pain.

I can't really describe the horror I felt when I looked at the tail curling out from beneath the car. It was like the machine had eaten the cat. It was horrifying to think what could have happened if I'd started the car. The cat was alive but we needed to get it out and I needed to get to Peoria on time. I felt torn between rescuing the animal and doing my job. I'd driven my own car to the office and I could have abandoned the kitty and jumped in my own car. I wish I could say that I valiantly chose to help the animal but the truth is I didn't know if my car would make it to Peoria and I had to deal with the cat because no one was in my office. Everyone was out in the field doing community work. I could not hand over this crisis.

We decided to get the tire jack and raise the car so that one of the men could go underneath and try to pull the cat out. While one of the men laid on his back beneath the car saying, "Here kitty, come on out, come on kitty," the other man poked the cat with the oil dipstick from the engine. The cat would not budge. It hissed.

And then the car began rolling. All of a sudden the Toyota was moving and the guy standing up was trying to stop it. Have you ever seen someone trying to keep a car from falling? I may have screamed, I don't remember. The car fell on top of the guy on the ground.

I felt ill. I was now responsible for human lives as well as the feline that was stuck in the engine. "Are you okay?" the gentleman standing said to his buddy on the ground. Both men were older than me, both were completely gray. The man on the ground did not move. His friend called to him again. "B___ are you okay?"

I remember the bend of B__'s legs as he laid beneath the car. I had been on my way to talk about poetry.

"I'm alright, why'd you let the car down? He was coming out," B___ finally said.

"Why are you just laying there if you're alright?" his friend asked.

Well, because he'd had the shit scared out of him. He'd come within inches of being crushed.

B__ slowly pushed his way from beneath the car. He said he was okay although he looked a little frightened. He moved stiffly. "Look," I said. "I'm not willing to risk our lives for this cat."

They assured me that they could do this. B___ kept saying that he almost had the cat out of the car. We just needed to put the emergency brake on when we jacked the car up a second time.

We, no they, eventually got the cat out of the car. I felt like I should have had money or a gift to give to them, but I didn't. I shook one guy's hand. B____ didn't want to shake my hand because his palms were black with dirt and oil. He didn't want to get my hand dirty. I wanted to hug B____ because I'm mushy like that, but I didn't know these men, so I touched B____'s shoulder and thanked him. Then I drove to Peoria to recite my own poetry and to excite a room of teenagers about poetry. I kept thinking, What if I hadn't heard about cats climbing into cars to stay warm? What if I'd started the car? What if B___ had been injured or killed?

I realize as I type that I've been on a thread about fiction vs. nonfiction for a little while. The name of this blog even suggests that I'm exploring how writing fits into real life. I'm figuring it out as I go. All I know is yesterday, I felt lucky for a real life happy ending.

The Monday after Thanksgiving Links

Huffingtonpost has posted 29 of the Bart Simpson chalkboard scenes in celebration of the 21st season of The Simpsons. My favorite one: Bart writing It’s “Facebook” not “Assbook” over and over.

Author Virginia DeBerry writes an open letter to Oprah about the plight of black writers.

I recently wrote about my growing interest in nonfiction. For more discussions about fiction vs. nonfiction, which is better, check out essays by Maud Newton and Zadie Smith. Salon also recently published this article about the rise of memoirs and the supposed death of fiction.

Holidays, Princesses + Frogs

I am relieved to be spending this Thanksgiving at home with family. I'll miss spending time with relatives from Indianapolis and Atlanta, but I won't miss the stress of traveling east at Thanksgiving. Me and the fam will travel east but not that far. We'll drive east on the 60 freeway to a mountainside house in Apache Junction, Arizona. We'll watch the sunset from the roof and if we're lucky catch a bat flying by. And we will see Disney's The Princess and the Frog because Ava asked and I promised.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving! Look for new posts next week....

The Pull of Nonfiction. Part Two.

Some days ago a girlfriend reminded me that we are “way woman now.” At forty-two, I’ve had many life experiences both good and bad. I’ve lived through an unwanted pregnancy, the birth of my children, the deaths of relatives and high school friends. I’ve had employers who respected me and I’ve worked, too, for a few brain-dead reptilian jerk-offs. I’m better for it. The artifice I wrapped myself in when I was young (as I sought the rewards the world gives for the inauthentic, the charade, the illusion) has been slowly chipped away by these real life events.

One result has been a change in what I like to read and write. I will always read fiction and poetry because it helps me make sense of the world, but I’ve been increasingly drawn to nonfiction. The books that are catching my attention are memoir and essays, and the films I’m watching are documentaries. Being “wired” may have something to do with it. As I navigate the internet I am constantly immersed in nonfiction news stories and video clips. I also think my attraction to nonfiction is just where I am in life: busy enough to want to sit down with a book that tells me up front what it’s about. Novels force me to consider themes and poetry makes me grapple with metaphor and allusion, but nonfiction—even creative nonfiction that uses literary techniques—is straightforward. A grown woman likes straightforwardness.

So over the last months I’ve watched:

Tyson, the documentary about the boxer Mike Tyson;

the Katrina documentary Trouble the Water;

The Thin Blue Line, a docudrama about the wrongful imprisonment of Randall Dale Adams;

Food Inc., a documentary about the food industry;

Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary about the fashion designer Valentino;

and this wonderful archived film of James Baldwin interviewing black San Franciscans circa 1963.

I recommend all of the above!

Still on my list are a documentary about the making of A Chorus Line titled Every Little Step, and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.

The nonfiction books on my “to read” list include Cornel West’s memoir, Living and Loving Out Loud, Irene Vilar’s memoir about abortion, Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict, David Small’s graphic memoir Stitches, and Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British Protected Child.

Being way woman means that I no longer have time to sit with my girlfriend as we did years ago eating salad with Annie’s Naturals Goddess dressing and talking about poetry. Being young was a wonderful trip. I hope to land somewhere near grace.

A Poem by C.K. Williams

The Dance

A middle-aged woman, quite plain, to be polite about it, and
somewhat stout, to be more courteous still,
but when she and the rather good-looking, much younger man
she's with get up to dance,
her forearm descends with such delicate lightness, such restrained
but confident ardor athwart his shoulder,
drawing him to her with such a firm, compelling warmth, and
moving him with effortless grace
into the union she's instantly established with the not at all
rhythmically solid music in this second-rate cafe,

that something in the rest of us, some doubt about ourselves, some
sad conjecture, seems to be allayed,
nothing that we'd ever thought of as a real lack, nothing not to be
admired or be repentant for,
but something to which we've never adequately given credence,
which might have consoling implications about how we
misbelieve ourselves, and so the world,
that world beyond us which so often disappoints, but which
sometimes shows us, lovely, what we are.

from Repair by C.K. Williams (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000)

More Inspiration

Breath of Life ( has an inspirational mixtape for the week of November 2nd that features music by Kirk Franklin, Chrissie Hynde, Grace Jones, Erykah Badu, Jhelisa, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ani DiFranco, Concha Buika, Nina Simone and more.

Medicine for Melancholy...and Writers Block

This movie just came out on Netflix and it's lovely. It reminded me of Love Jones because the couple is urban, artsy and black, but it's much different. Very subtle and smart. I've been inspired to write --

Three Powerful Women

On Monday writer Marie NDiaye won France's top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for her novel Tres Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women). She is the first black woman to win the award. NDiaye, 42, has published novels, stories and is also an accomplished playwright. For more on NDiaye go here.

Thanks, Tayari!

Grants, Fellowships & Residencies...Oh My!

I wanted to share this great resource, Mira's List, that I learned about. A description of Mira's List from the site:

Grants. Fellowships. Residencies. Resources. Mira's List is a free blog for artists, writers, composers and others in the arts. Here you will find up-to-date information, resources and deadlines for grants, fellowships and international residencies. Money, time and a place to create.
I've added it to my list. Thanks to Ruth for this tip!

The Root's Canon

The Root, an online magazine about black culture, has "rewritten the western canon." The site lists 24 books, beginning with Chinua Achebe's The Education of a British-Protected Child, that should be mandatory reading in schools.

What do you think?

Light Rail Readings + Caitlin Horrocks

Yay for success!! Caitlin Horrocks (shown above), who graduated from Arizona State's MFA program in 2007, has her first book coming out on Sarabande Press in 2011. It's entitled This Is Not Your City and the stories in the collection have appeared in the Paris Review, Tin House, The PEN/O Henry Prize Stories 2009 and elsewhere. Caitlin is super talented, funny, humble, smart...I could go on. She is definitely a writer to watch.

Caitlin will be reading on Wednesday, November 4 at the Piper House at ASU in Tempe, Arizona. The reading starts at 7:45 p.m.

Books that I've spied on the light rail:

Bram Stoker's Dracula (it's the Halloween season after all)
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

The "Push" and Pull of Nonfiction. Part One.

I am re-reading the novel Push by Sapphire. I’ve always appreciated the importance of Push and thought Sapphire brave for writing a story in the voice of a poor black teenager who is raped by her father. But I didn’t love the story when I read it in 1996, not the way that I loved The Color Purple a book to which Push is often compared. For me, The Color Purple was both brave and beautifully rendered. Push was brave but it read more like reportage than fiction and not in an intentional genre-blurring way.

Now that Push has been made into a film, I’m re-reading it to see how I feel this time around. One thing I’ve realized is that I’ve always been more interested in the background story surrounding the book than in the book itself. From day one, I’ve been curious about Sapphire, the experiences she had that inspired the story, the circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication, the public reaction to Push. I remember reading in 1996 that Sapphire received a $500,000 advance for a two book deal. That was a lot of money in 1996. Given the depressed state of publishing in 2009, I think a first time novelist would be more than happy to receive that amount today.

(On another note, try to think of black literary writers who have scored big advances. ZZ Packer got $250,000 for 2003's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Knopf paid Stephen L. Carter $4.2 million for 2002's The Emperor of Ocean Park. Who else? Edwidge Danticat, who just received a MacArthur Genius Award, was given a paltry $5,000 advance for Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994.)

Perhaps I was so invested in the publication of Push because it came out the same year that I changed careers to pursue writing. In 1996 I began freelancing, I went to my first writing conference at Chicago State University, I began meeting other writers. I was so excited back then to be on the writerly path that reading about Sapphire’s advance made me believe that I’d made an inspired choice.

Later, I would hear stories that Sapphire had not finished writing Push when she signed the book contract and that she was pressured by her publisher (Knopf) to develop the story in certain ways. I took that as advice to have my book finished before shopping it. A couple years later I interviewed Sapphire by telephone and listened to her describe, in retrospect, her frustration with the marketing of the book. She didn’t like the dust jacket photo that showed her staring into the camera, unsmiling. In that photo, she is dressed in a leather jacket with a fresh fade, a nose ring, and her expression is intense. She thought the photo was not flattering but provocative and that it was chosen to create controversy or hype for the novel. I remember ending the interview with the feeling that media attention had been a mixed blessing for her. I also remember talking with writers who hated Push. They mocked Precious’s illiteracy as portrayed in the book, the use of “fahver” for "father," for example. There were people who complained (as they had with The Color Purple) that the book demeaned black people and black men in particular.

The controversy around the book took on a life of its own.

Today I’m interested to know why Sapphire has not published another book of fiction. Is it perfectionism or life getting in the way? In a recent interview with Katie Couric she says that she’s currently writing a novel, but what has taken so long? Does she still have a deal with Knopf? I also want to know how Sapphire made the transition from writing primarily poetry to writing a novel. Many writers do both (Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Ntozake Shange, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros) but most writers are much better at one than the other. I want to know how her narrative skills and her use of point of view have changed since publishing Push.

In the Couric interview, Sapphire talks about bringing the novel to the screen, of finding a director (Lee Daniels) whom she trusted with the story. Again the process of creating the art is fascinating to me, but I expect that the movie won’t be as interesting as the background story or the people involved in making it. Lee Daniels' dark artistic vision intrigues me. In a NYT article Daniels is portrayed as a director who likes nontraditional casting and who gets actors to give unexpected performances. That's one way to view it. The casting of Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and the inclusion of Tyler Perry as a producer also seems calculated to target a certain urban audience, and that makes me nervous about this adaptation.

After watching the Couric interview and thinking about Push, what I’d like to see is this: a documentary about Sapphire! That would be an interesting story. Imagine watching a documentary about an artist named Ramona who is born during the baby boom and whose parents are in the military. A film about a woman who works as an erotic dancer and literacy instructor. A film about a woman who witnesses the AIDS epidemic first hand, who forges her way into the New York poetry scene then the literary scene and who in her fifth decade of life conquers Hollywood. As they say, the real story is sometimes better than fiction.

When Two Worlds Collide

I like a good academic discussion. I also love celebrity gossip. So imagine my complete joy last Friday when I attended a lecture on civil rights featuring Reverend Al Sharpton as the keynote speaker. The lecture was a thought provoking discussion about contemporary civil rights—what we are fighting for and the importance of unity among all special interest groups. The panelists talked about viewing civil rights as a continuing process instead of a movement that happened in the sixties. They talked about immigration laws and how Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is violating federal law when he racially profiles Mexican Americans in Arizona then parades them around in pink underwear. State Representative Krysten Sinema—a lawyer, professor and all-around impressive politician who represents Central Phoenix—talked about the importance of gay rights. RaulYzaguirre, ASU’s Director for Community Development & Civil Rights, made an interesting point when he said that we don’t have the language to talk about conquered populations like Native Americans. There were many people in the audience despite the fact that it started at 8:00 a.m. and it was nice to see and hear from progressive people who are a growing constituency here in Arizona. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder as I listened, is Reverend Al really dating Lisa Raye? That’s what the gossip blogs speculate…and he is looking slimmer these days.