On Women Writers

So Salon has an interesting article by Laura Miller entitled "Why Can't a Woman Write the Great American Novel?" The article is actually a review of a book, "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx," by Elizabeth Showalter.

Here's some of what Miller writes in the Salon piece:

Why, for example, did Britain produce several women novelists of genius during the 19th century -- Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës, as well as accomplished lesser artists like Elizabeth Gaskell -- while America did not? That question could (and sometimes does) lead to a lot of speculation on the national characters of the English-speaking peoples, but Showalter mentions an equally plausible, practical cause: "While English women novelists, even those as poor as the Brontës, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook and sew; even in the South, white women in slaveholding families were trained in domestic arts." Quite a few of the short biographical sketches she offers feature women complaining about being compelled by parents to learn to make pies or mend when they would rather write.

For the entire article go here.

Elizabeth Alexander at Busboys & Poets in D.C.

If you get a chance, go hear the inaugural poet read her work on Wednesday, February 25th at Busboys & Poets in D.C. More info on the event here.

Elizabeth is fierce. Lucille Clifton once said that Elizabeth is so fierce, she could have stopped writing after publishing The Venus Hottentot. Here's a cute video of a young woman reading the title poem from that book.

What We're Reading + Amy Gerstler

Here is a list of books that people were reading this morning on the Metro:

1. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

2. The Bible by God and his prophets

3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

4. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

5. A Brief History of Sociological Theory by Alex Callinicos (not so sure about the author)

6. Runner by Thomas Perry

7. Medicine by Amy Gerstler

Okay, so I was reading that last selection. I love Gerstler's work. I found this interesting portrait of her online and thought I'd include that along with one of her poems:

The Bear-Boy of Lithuania

Girls, take my advice, marry an animal. A wooly one is most consoling. Find a fur man, born midwinter. Reared in the mountains. Fond of boxing. Make sure he has black rubbery lips, and a sticky sweet mouth. A winter sleeper. Pick one who likes to tussle, who clowns around the kitchen, juggles hot baked potatoes, gnaws playfully on a corner of your apron. Not one mocked by his lumbering instincts, or who's forever wrestling with himself, tainted with shame, itchy with chagrin, but a good-tempered beast who plunges in greedily, grinning and roaring. His backslapping manner makes him popular with the neighbors, till he digs up and eats their Dutch tulip bulbs. Then you see just how stuffy human beings can be. On Sundays his buddies come over to play watermelon football. When they finally get tired, they collapse on heaps of dried grass and leaves, scratching themselves elaborately, while I hand out big hunks of honeycomb. They've no problem swallowing dead bees stuck in the honey.

A bear-boy likes to stretch out on the floor and be roughly brushed with a broom. Never tease him about his small tail, which is much like a chipmunk's. If you do, he'll withdraw to the hollow of some tree, as my husband has done whenever offended since he firsts left the broad-leafed woodlands to live in this city, which is so difficult for him. Let him be happy in hiss own way: filling the bathtub with huckleberries, or packing dark, earthwormy dirt under the sofa. Don't mention the clawmarks on the refrigerator. (You know he can't retract them.) Nothing pleases him more than a violent change in climate, especially if it snows while he's asleep and he wakes to find the landscape blanketed. Then hiss teeth chatter with delight. He stamps and paws the air for joy. Exuberance is a bear's inheritance. He likes northern light. Excuse me, please. His bellow summons me.

Let me start again. True, his speech is shaggy music. But by such gruff instruction, I come to know love. It's difficult to hear the story of his forest years with dry eyes. He always snuffs damply at my hand before kissing it. My fingers tingle at the thought of that sensitive, mobile nose. You've no idea how long his tongue is. At night, I get into bed, pajama pockets full of walnuts. He rides me around the garden in the wheelbarrow now that I'm getting heavy with his cubs. I hope our sons will be much like their father, but not suffer so much discomfort wearing shoes.

--from Medicine by Amy Gerstler, Penguin Books (2000).

On Working and Trying to Make Ends Meet

There's a really thoughtful post on buddhafun.blogspot.com about economic realities for working class American women. The writer, Stephanie Han, begins the piece by reflecting on her year as a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) and how she and her partner have tried to juggle raising a family with work. She goes on to discuss the real challenges that middle and working class people face in a country like ours that has no nationalized health care or maternity leave plans. As an expat now living near Hong Kong, it's interesting to hear Han's views on how families are supported or not supported in the U.S. and abroad.

Her essay reminded me of a recent interview of Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich where he said that the real problem with our economy is not the damage done by the housing bubble or the illegal and unethical behavior of financiers, it's that wages have remained static for 30 years.

I say hallelujah to his acknowledgment of this ugly truth. Barbara Ehrenreich has been talking and writing about this for a while. People just don't earn enough. Here is my personal testimony:

1992: Earned $33K for an associate attorney position i nDetroit. In 1996, was making around $40K.

1997: Earned $40K as a paralegal in L.A. 1998: Earned $42K as a raise.

2003-2006: Earned around $28K teaching in Phoenix.

2007-2008: Earned around $25K teaching as adjunct faculty at a university.

2008: Interviewed for a contract faculty position at a university and for a specialized staff position at a university. Both jobs paid in mid-$30Ks.

Also in 2008, a friend with a PhD took a position for a tenure-track English Dept. position at a university for a salary of $35K.

I know that I'm not in a high-paying field (teaching/writing). I've also switched professions. I also recognize that I've failed to negotiate higher pay for myself in the past; I've read that many women, like me, low-ball themselves when it comes to salary. However, the facts of my financial history remain. It does not take an economist to see that it's impossible to afford necessities, save money, or have any type of financial freedom if you're making the same salary for seventeen years while the cost of living increased over the same period. Is there still a middle class if most people are over-leveraged? I'd say there's only the working class and the very wealthy.

Go by buddhafun.blogspot.com and reply to the post. Are times just rough for people now or do you see a larger trend?

What Phoenix Metro Riders are Reading

Here are titles of books that I saw people reading on the train:

Night by Elie Wiesel

I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigioberta Menchu, Elissabeth Burgos-Debray, and Ann Wright

The War Within by Bob Woodward

This Calder Sky by Janet Dailey

The Republic of Poetry: Poems
by Martin Espada

Stone of Tears by Terry Goodkind

Death by Darjeeling by Laura Childs

A Valentine for DJs

Music inspires me to write more than any other art form. Good music opens portals into new worlds, new neighborhoods; it gives me ideas. It lifts my spirit. A recent poem that I wrote happened after I listened to Skee-Lo's "I Wish" circa 1995 (I wish I was a little bit taller/I wish I was a baller/ I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her) and carried that lyric/image "I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat" around with me all day.

I depend on those who really know and follow music to introduce me to new songs and artists. That doesn't happen by listening to commercial radio, which is cool, but not inspirational. I like DJs who can hit a groove and play ten songs back-to-back that take you someplace other than where you are. The Electrifying Mojo was one such DJ back in the day in Detroit. He'd play an hour's worth of Prince. He played Kraftwerk, Thomas Dolby and turned us all out. There's no wonder that techno music, which revolves around a cult of DJ personality, originated in Detroit.

So I was thrilled to get an email yesterday from Garth Trinidad who is now blogging and is back on KCRW in Los Angeles which streams his "Chocolate City" show on the internet. Garth is one of those DJs who always introduces you to new sounds and artists. He does what isn't expected.

A shout to a few other DJs who have influenced me over the years: DJ Namdi and his Afro-Dicia show on KPFK; Peter J. Harris' Inspiration House which was also on KPFK and which blended good music with poets reading their work; James P., my former student who made incredible mixtapes and had a deep knowledge of music to be so young. Happy Valentine's Day. I hope you all are still inspiring folks with music.

Barnes & Noble Bookfair

If you have time, come to the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at Chandler Fashion Center next Tuesday, February 17th. I'll be reading my work and talking about writing outreach. For more information and a poster of the Bookfair events click here. Hope to see you there!

Sapphire's Push on Screen

I am happy to see that the novel Push by Sapphire has finally made it to the screen. According to an article in today's NYT, the film received several awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled to be released in the U.S. I am a fan of Sapphire even though I don't know that I want to see Push dramatized on the screen. It was a difficult novel to read because the story is so tragic. I can't imagine watching Precious Jones, the protagonist, being overfed and sexually abused on screen. But on second thought, I'll go just so Sapphire makes money from this book which was published in 1996. I did a phone interview of Sapphire in 2002 which you can read here. Sapphire was at Arizona State University in 2007 for a symposium on her work. Check out the video.
Sapphire Lecture/Reading, 2007 from ASU English on Vimeo.

The President's Verse + Art going on in L.A.

Okay, so Maud Newton links to a NYT post on Obama's poetry. It's on the right side of her site under "Remainders." The NYT found poems that the president published years ago in a now defunct literary magazine. How can you not love this man?

If I get the time, I'd love to go to L.A. for two events: The Pan African Film Festival and Raymond Shurtz's play, "Bohemian Cowboy," which begins running this month.

A Poem


This burning,
this desire.

This feather on a pond
this pond life underneath
this rabbit in a hat
this hot sauce burn on mouth

this salted licorice
this insomnia walk of ghosts
this turning turning

this blue light
this African rock
this love.

This jellyfish.
This doubling doubling egg
this trampoline laughter
these balloon soft skulls

this family SUV
these tires worn thin
these beads on a string
this microscopic language

this you
with morning frost
and midnight moon
and noon lunch

this 24/7 dance-off
this roadburn hurt
this flowering bush
this sweet sour sweet
these toes
and tongue
an ear

your spleen
my bone
our atoms this experiment

this explosion!
this everywhere

that loops and turns
and soars

a kite
in hand

When I Say 'Writer,' What Do You See?

I watched "The Squid and the Whale" last week as I caught up on movies that I missed at the theater. The movie is disturbing, funny, and true to a specific Brooklyn community in the 1980s. But I couldn't help but feel a weary deja vu about the portrayal of writers in the movie. The writers are a married couple who are extremely dysfunctional in a familiar way. He's an arrogant professor with a scruffy beard who seduces his students. The wife's neglected and thus sleeps around. They let the kids drink beer. They live in New York. They're very bohemian. They're white.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of this pop culture cliche when it comes to writers. We have more than enough movies that depict writers as brilliant but obnoxious, crazy, neurotic, addicted, philandering, self-destructing white men. Don't get me wrong, I love some of these movies ("Adaptation" and "Deconstructing Harry" are two of my favorites) but I want to see a movie that challenges the usual ideas of what it means to be a writer in the U.S. Many writers aren't dysfunctional (screen)writers like in "Leaving Las Vegas" or gentleman writers who drink cocktails and publish in The New Yorker magazine. That last example may be from a previous generation but it persists, if not on film, in our public imagination.

What about writers who are gay or black or expats? James Baldwin was all three. Or writers who write as single parents like Toni Morrison. Or who, like the poet Lucille Clifton, wrote while raising lots of kids? The movie "Author! Author!" from way back is one movie that dealt with this reality. By the way, is there a movie version of "Dust Tracks on the Road"? And if no, why not? Zora Neale Hurston's life was larger than life itself.

For movies that break out of the usual mode when it comes to writers, I recommend "American Splendor" and a documentary, "Born into This," about Charles Bukowski that I got from Netflix. Yeah, the writers are men with emotional issues and in Bukowski's case alcoholism. But both films made me think about what it means to be a working class American artist.

What movies with writers do you recommend?