Voices We Followed

This book was on my radar then fell off: Poems from the Women's Movement edited by Honor Moore was published this March 2009 and contains the work of 58 poets including Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Sonia Sanchez, May Swenson, Alice Walker, and Audre Lord. Moore says that she chose to cover work from 1966 when Plath publishes Ariel to 1982 when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to be ratified, but also when the number of women's poetry had exploded. You can read an essay by Moore on Boston Review here, and a review of the book on the Feminist Review blog, here.

Another book to buy. Good thing it's pay day...

Needed: Creative Thinking + A Collective Time-Out

We've seen a lot of race-baiting in public discourse recently. I appreciated this article, "Everything Professor Gates & Sergeant Crowley Needed to Know, I Learned at a Montessori School" by Jehmu Greene that appeared on Huffington Post today.

Greene argues that we need more critical thinking and conflict resolution skills to effectively work through racial conflicts. She writes:

A person's ability to solve problems in the midst of a heated situation is directly related to the number of possible solutions he can think of in that moment.

I'm guilty. So true.

Why I Learned More About Writing Novels from The Wire than I did in my MFA Program

The Wire, HBO’s now-defunct drama series that ran from 2002-2008, is everything that you’ve heard and more. Believe the hype. There have been countless pieces written on how great the show is and for a long time I listened to the praise and thought “Yeah yeah, I’m not into cop shows,” but it became hard to ignore the glowing recommendations of the series by people whose opinion I valued. Several talented writers kept saying, “It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.”

So this summer I rented the DVDs and I watched. "Watched" is probably not the right word. Paul and I were addicted, shuttling the kids off to bed each night so that we could stay up past our reasonable bedtime to watch episode after episode. Paul was more hardcore than me, he could watch 3 episodes back-to-back without fading. I usually had to stumble to bed and then catch up to him later by watching the rest of the episode the next day.

The characters are always complicated like people are in real life. They struggle with good and bad impulses, they have conflicting motivations. The actors aren’t your standard Hollywood actors with symmetrical, flawless features. They have scars, filmy eyes, missing teeth and these details make them much more interesting to watch.

The plot lines are deftly woven throughout the series. A seed is planted in Season One that may not blossom until Season Two or Three but by the time it does, you can look back on all the hard work the writers put into developing that particular story. I never felt like “Why did he do that?” or “That’s not believable” (well I did, but only once with a minor character, Brother Muzone, who seemed more like caricature.)

Best of all, The Wire confirmed the importance of examining social issues in creative writing, something that I felt was missing from my MFA program. Often in workshops we focused on the insular world of a story without considering or discussing the larger context of the story. I remember work-shopped story that featured a character engaged in homophobic conversations through scribblings on a bathroom wall. For a long time we talked about the veracity of the scribblings and the character’s motivation without discussing homophobia, public restrooms as sexual meeting places, the low-tech nature of this type of communication, etc. It felt like craft was being examined in a vacuum and sometimes, as a result, our stories weren’t rooted in any familiar social context. Often I felt like I learned more about writing from teaching composition courses at the university. At least those writing courses accepted that we can’t separate language from its environment.

The Wire’s language (it has multiple storylines and numerous characters) is a reflection of our complex, multi-tasking society and how we engage with industries and institutions. Although the setting is Baltimore, it is every urban metropolis in the age of our industrial decline. The Wire portrays a world that many of us grew up in.

Guest Blog, "In the Fullness of Time"

Poet Antoinette Brim is also a mother who teaches college courses full time. I asked her to do a guest blog on how she was able to finish her debut collection of poetry given her busy schedule. The collection, Psalm of the Sunflower, is forthcoming from Willow Books September 1, 2009.

In the Fullness of Time: On Writing with (in spite of/around/in between) Children
by Antoinette Brim

I can barely hear her. I am eager to hear every word she might say, but the children – my youngest son, my only daughter, and her best friend are singing along with Sponge Bob and Plankton at the top of their lungs. I am still straining to hear her, even as I entreat the children to be quiet. But, they playfully ignore me and continue singing. I am not angry because no one is whining that their inalienable right to respect as the oldest/youngest/keeper of the Corn Pops/Custodian of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch has been violated. These are happy sounds and I’ll take them.

And I’ll take this call here in front of my computer because we are talking about my book - searching it for errors, lest any make it through to the final printing. Hers are one of the seven sets of eyes that are proofreading and challenging punctuation and word order to the very end. I am eager to see my words through her eyes. I’ve looked at this manuscript for seven years now and it is easy to see past the words on the page, to miss what I’ve written because I know the back-story.

When I began the book, I didn’t even know I had in fact begun a book. I knew that I had entered an epoch. I could feel a thickness, a spot of turbulence in time. Back then, I was married with young children. And, the poems were just bits of longing. Rough and rudimentary, at first. Actually, I had been tugged into writing by invisible hands. My dying mother-in-law made me promise things. A local creative writing professor, after reading my fledgling poems at a local poetry day, asked me: What are you doing with your life?

And, having no answer for him or myself, I chose to take a road trip on a Greyhound from Little Rock to New Jersey with my then five year old daughter. We ate greasy bus station food, watched the landscape rise into skyscrapers and fall into ruin against the backdrop of day and night, until we found ourselves in my Nana’s loving arms. It was on that trip that Psalm of the Sunflower began to germinate. Those early poems, written on that bus ride, became my new beginning.

I grew over time. The children grew. The book grew, too. However, the marriage did not. But, mothering the children and the book somehow soothed me. I would sit the children around the table and we would ‘do our homework’ together. Tiny Thomas wrapped his chubby fingers around his oversized Crayolas. Waverly colored daintily, while supervising her younger brother. Roland-Michael was the only one with ‘real’ homework. He did not let that point go unmade. All the while, I wrote - sometimes feverishly, sometimes contemplatively, sometimes not at all, while we sat together.

And when divorce forced us from our home and into an apartment, I worked in a corner of my bedroom while my laughing children bounced on my bed. Sometimes they watched television, spilling popcorn and cookies crumbs between the sheets. They lay on their bellies with their feet in the air, doing their homework with fat pencils and then as time passed with more slender ones. My bed was their island. My desk was my own world of poetry and papers to grade. They’d often times fall asleep in my bed. I’d often fall asleep at my desk.

I learned how to rise early to write. I found that 4:30 AM was a good time to coax the coffee pot into making coffee. The world was still and I could hear the poetry in my head. Those two solid hours of silence proved fertile ground for metaphor. Late nights or early mornings were the time for new work - the work born of tears and quiet panic. Such is often the late nights and early mornings of newly single mothers. The children’s waking hours were reserved for the children and stolen moments of revision.

In those days, fun had to be cheap: Tandy’s 50 cent movies, my purse brimming with candy from the Dollar store; grilling hotdogs in the park; visiting friends. And, when the children were settled exhausted into silence. I’d push the shut-off notices out of sight and read Tagore, Senghor, Amichai, Trethewey, Cisneros. And, then I’d write. As the children grew, I grew. And, the book grew, too.

I learned how to pull apart the layers of sound that filled the house, lifting the questions that I must answer from the uneven roar of the television. I learned to find the strips of silence that I needed for concentration. I learned to say: Mommy is writing now. And, the children learned to entertain themselves, sometimes. They grew to talk on their cell phones, to discover Facebook, to sleep-over and camp-out. And, I wrote and learned to love again the stranger that was myself. And in this manner, seven years passed.

And now, in the fullness of time … I can barely hear her. I am still straining to hear her, even as I entreat the children to be quiet; they playfully ignore me and continue singing. But, these are happy sounds and I’ll take them.

I find myself smiling because after all, it’s all for them. They will not remember this moment, this day that is so important to me. Perhaps they will remember that they were happy. That is all that they really need to remember. But, the book will remember my nuanced pain, Thomas’ wonder at the moon and the life we lived before this life we live now. And, when I, too, am a memory, the book will tell my children the stories they will have forgotten.

Antoinette Brim teaches Creative Writing, Composition, and World Literature at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, Arkansas. A Cave Canem Fellow and a recipient of the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation Scholarship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Antioch University/Los Angeles. She is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination. Her work has appeared in various journals, magazines, and anthologies. Psalm of the Sunflower is her debut poetry collection.

For more, go to antoinettebrim.com

Remembering E. Lynn Harris

Author E. Lynn Harris died today while on a book tour of the West Coast. There are so many reasons to admire E. Lynn Harris...for his business savvy, for his courage to shatter taboos, for providing one of those moments in our community when everyone is reading the same book (Invisible Life). Harris made me believe that with guts and talent it is possible to be a bestselling author.

Here is what Fred Smith is remembering about his literary role model, and a link to a Washington Post article on the author.

What Water Means in the Desert

It's rained two nights in a row in Phoenix. It was dramatic rain, part of the monsoon season, complete with high winds and lightning. I've been away for a week but there was evidence of recent storms here as I pulled into my neighborhood Sunday evening. A couple of trees had torn branches. One jacaranda had simply snapped at the base of its trunk. I hate the damage done to the trees, but in general I like this weather. I think most people like the change from our usual sun and drought.

I thought about the lure of water last week in Sedona as I watched people jump from a cliff into frigid creek water. The water was so cold it left you breathless. There were more rocks than there was water, but you would have thought that we were at the beach. Hundreds of people stood around on the rocks waiting to jump from the cliff or to ride a shallow current that was as narrow as a playground slide.

Water. Everyone is drawn to it but it takes on added significance in the desert. When I'm riding the rail to work, there is a palpable energy that passes through the train when it crosses over Tempe Town Lake. People become calm. If you look east as the train crosses, the sun creates an illusion that the lake is a big body of water like an ocean. When the water abruptly ends, I'm reminded that it isn't an ocean but part of an intricate, man-made canal systen started by Hohokam Indians.

Water blesses, cleanses, nourishes. Last night when the storm subsided and there was only rain, I saw five of my neighbors standing outside, no umbrellas, just talking and enjoing the raindrops.

When I first moved here, a couple of my high school students told me that it was a crime in Arizona to refuse drinking water to someone who asks for it. I've heard this legend repeated by other people, but I'm not sure that it is true. Snopes.com has looked into it as well without much luck. Anyway, I like the legend. It says so much about our desert culture.

I'm working on a story that has water as the main theme and image. I wrote the first draft ten years ago; it was a first person narrative, a "voice from the water" that frankly spooked me. I've returned to it now and I'm enjoying thinking about my fears of water. Water as a violent natural force. Water as the home of predators. Water as the home of captured prey.

R.I.P. Teacher Man

I was sorry to read that writer Frank McCourt has passed away. I am a fan of Angela's Ashes and Teacher Man, two of the three books that he published in a relatively short period of time. I remember reading Angela's Ashes and thinking how slim other memoirs that were out at that time seemed in comparison. Mr. McCourt lived a remarkable life.

Getting Through July

My mom, Elaine Marie Richardson, pictured above, died four years ago in July. I thought that I would be better able to deal with her death by now but no such luck. Anyway, I've been reading Kimiko Hahn's The Unbearable Heart which is bringing some relief. Here's one of the poems from that collection:


Since mother's death the ceiling settles
close to the trees, the buds,
a texture of red haze over the hills along the parkway.
Now mist. Now a cloud burst.
Even without sun the cherries lining the river
in one night it seems, blossom.
How they can I do not know.

--copyright 1995 by Kimiko Hahn

Literary Links

Here are a few items of interest I found on blogs and news sites:

* Isak discusses and links to an article by a Native American writer who writes of her encounter with Sherman Alexie, an author she both loathed and admired.

* Simply Fred Smith talks about how to balance your day job and writing dreams.

* Novelist Bernice McFadden was headed to Austin for the Black Book Festival and instead ended up with this hilarious travel nightmare story titled "12 Hours of Murphy's Law."

* Fiction author Aimee Bender has a nonfiction piece about failed marriage in the Washington Post Summer Reading section.

* The LA Times interviews Percival Everett about his new novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier.

Contest News

Here's a contest that seems do-able: Gulf Coast Literary Journal is holding its second annual Donald Barthelme Prize for Short Prose. The thing I like about this contest is that you can submit in multiple genres (prose poem, micro-essay, or flash fiction) and that submitted work only has to be 500 words. Five hundred words seems reasonable. Check the website for further details.

Lists, Lists, and More Lists!

'Tis the season of the Summer Reading List! There are a jillion lists floating around; most major newspapers feature a summer reading list and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Stephen King have lists as well. Over a year ago, I inherited books from two separate friends who both happened to be moving to new places and didn't want to ship old books. I haven't read all of them yet, but I'm setting a goal of getting through the ones that remain by the end of the year.

Once I've made it through the books in my house, I'll consider the 2009 summer lists. Right now, I like NPRs 10 Best Cookbooks of Summer 2009. Tacos by Mark Miller seems especially promising.

And let's not forget chapbooks or books on independent presses. Buying these books are a great way to directly support a writer and/or small presses.

List of Books on My Shelf to Read by December 31, 2009:

American Woman by Susan Choi
Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee
The Holder of the World by Bharati Mukherjee
Love by Toni Morrison
The Final Passage by Caryl Phillips
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez by Richard Rodriguez

List of Self-Published Books or Books on Small Presses I Recently Obtained or Will Obtain:

Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith (Coffee House Press)
The Life Effect by Kayla Miller (available on lulu.com)
The Date Fruit Elegies by John Olivares Espinoza (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue)
Teeth by Aracelis Girmay (Curbstone Press)
Peggy Shumaker: Greatest Hits 1974-2005 by Peggy Shumaker (Pudding House Publications)
Perspective: Four Poems by Lita Hooper (available on litahooper.com)
Psalm of the Sunflower by Antoinette Brim (Aquarius Press/Willow Books)

We Had Him

Back in January when we were preparing for the presidential inauguration and everyone was talking about ceremonial poems, a friend mentioned that she thought Maya Angelou brought the perfect amount of grand gesture and sentiment to a ceremonial poem to make it work. I don't remember the poem that Angelou read for Bill Clinton's inauguration, but I really liked what she wrote for the Michael Jackson memorial service. Here is the text of that poem(without the author's original line breaks, stanza breaks, or punctuation):

We Had Him

by Maya Angelou

Beloveds, now we know
that we know nothing,
now that our bright and shining star
can slip away from our fingertips
like a puff of summer wind.
Without notice, our dear love
can escape our doting embrace,
sing our songs among the stars
and walk our dances
across the face of the moon.
In the instant we learn
that Michael is gone,
we know nothing,
no clocks can tell our time
and no oceans can rush our tides.
With the abrupt absence of our treasure,
though we are many,
each of us is achingly alone,
piercingly alone.
Only when we confess our confusion
can we remember that he was a gift to us,
and we did have him.

He came to us from the Creator
trailing creativity in abundance.
Despite the anguish of life,
he was sheathed in mother love
and family love, and survived,
and did more than that: he thrived
with passion and compassion
humor and style.
We had him, whether we knew who he was
or did not know,
he was ours and we were his.
We had him, beautiful,
delighting our eyes.
He raked his hat slant over his brow
and took a pose on his toes
for all of us, and we laughed
and stomped our feet for him.
We were enchanted with his passion
because he held nothing,
he gave us all he had been given.
Today, in Tokyo,
beneath the Eiffel Tower,
in Ghana's Black Star Square,
in Johannesburg and Pittsburgh,
in Birmingham, Alabama and
Birmingham, England
we are missing Michael Jackson
but we do know we had him
and we are the world.

To see the video of Queen Latifah reading this poem at the memorial service, go here.


Poets & Writers magazine has an article on books that are being published in Twitter's 140-character format. The comments on P& W's Facebook feed (ranging from "WTF" to "is this a joke?" were priceless). Check out the article here.

No Title, Just an Excuse for Posting a Picture of Idris Elba

Been thinking lately about how literature and new media fit together. It started when I published a story in the Oregon Literary Review, in the last issue before the journal changes to a video-file-only format. Beginning in 2010, OLR will only feature writers reading or performing their work.

Then as I did research for my job, I stumbled across poemsoutloud.org which features audio files of authors reading their work. That site links to a couple of similarly formatted sites, some that I'd heard of, some that were new to me.

I like the idea of literature playing a different role, of updating itself to fit the way that we read and consume ideas today.

I also like the idea (obviously) of blogging. Blogging feels like a type of power, like you're bypassing the gatekeepers to say whatever you want.

Salon has an interesting article about blogs and how they are changing the media game. In it, Scott Rosenberg writes that traditional media institutions don't hold the blogosphere in high regard. Media mogul Barry Diller implies that any talentless person can write a blog, but Rosenberg says that Diller and others are missing the point:

"Their view values each bit of expression based on marketplace worth and potential breadth of appeal, but ignores any worth the expression may have to the person who made it. Most narrow-mindedly of all, they assume that yesterday's filtering methods will remain reliable and sufficient tomorrow, no matter how radically the environment changes around them."

In the Salon comments, one writer wondered what our new media means for the novel. After all, blogs are like essays of journalism, but what about longer written forms? I've heard about digital novels and microblogging novels on Twitter, but I've never checked any of this out.

I don't know.

I do feel like the best "novel" that I've "read" in years was watching all five seasons of "The Wire" on Netflix...