Quote of the Day

I came across this quote from Robert Olen Butler in an interview published in Glimmer Train Stories, Winter 2007:

"I stopped writing from my head and began writing from my unconscious. This is the essence of the art form, any art form, actually, and it's the thing I find myself having to teach virtually every student who comes to me, no matter how advanced...
If you go into your unconscious and you don't avert your eyes, and you do that day after day, story after story, book after book, eventually you will break through to a place where you are neither male nor female, neither black, white, red, nor brown, neither Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, nor Jew, neither Vietnamese, American, Albanian, Serbian. You are human. You are human. And if the authenticity comes from that deep place, and if your life experiences are eclectic and broad and intensely observed on the surface levels as well, because that's important, then you can draw that universal human authenticity up through the vessels of characters, who might be, on the surface, quite different from you."

* * * * * * *

It's a great interview especially Butler's articulation of the connection between art and the unconscious. I do have one question: how do you work from your unconscious for a long project like a novel? That is what I struggle with, the starting and stopping and trying to reconnect to that "place".

Aracelis Girmay @ Tempe Poetry in April

I was happy to see that Aracelis Girmay will be in Tempe next Wednesday, April 1 at 7pm as part of the Tempe Poetry in April reading series. Girmay is the author of a book of poetry, Teeth, that's beautiful in every way. She is also the author of a children's book, Changing, Changing that's based on Ovid's tales of metamorphoses. Aracelis is the real deal. Don't miss her reading if you're in town.

Lucille Clifton Seminar

The Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA is hosting an intensive week-long seminar this summer on the poetry of Lucille Clifton. The seminar is for high school and college teachers interested in teaching African American Poetry.

There are scholarships and professional development credits for those who participate. I often hear from high school English instructors that they wish they could teach poetry to their students. This seminar is a great way to study the work of a renowned American poet and leave with lesson plans you cn use in the classroom.

For more information go here.

Nudists, Barthelme Bio + Chablis

I once had a writing instructor whose parents were nudists, that's how she grew up. This teacher had a great sense of humor and the stories she brought to our workshop were always quirky, funny, edgy. She introduced me to the work of Donald Barthelme. The New York Times has a review of a new Barthelme biography, Hiding Man, which I want to read. I've always appreciated Barthelme stories like "Chablis" and "The Baby" which capture perfectly the bizarre nature of domestic life. There's a video of Timothy Hutton reading "Chablis" on MTV in the early 90s here.


I was sorry to read the news that Sylvia Plath's son has committed suicide. Although the Plath suicides, like the David Foster Wallace death, are stories about people struggling with depression, they are sometimes spun as stories about writerly angst. Condolences to the family.

Ursula LeGuin

Check out the BBC profile of science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. It's an audio file that includes an author interview, a snippet from Margaret Atwood about LeGuin, and excerpts of LeGuin's work read aloud. My nine-year old is deep into the Harry Potter series right now, but I can't wait to introduce him to LeGuin and Octavia Butler.

Lit Bits

Interested in what book an author took to a restaurant to read? Look here.

Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstones, and my fave, Praisesong for the Widow, has a new memoir.

Tayari Jones is the hardest working woman in Letters. Check the video.

Books that I spied on the metro this morning: The Life Room by Jill Bialosky and the bible.

About Last Weekend

Sorry for the slow posts which I'll blame on my long list of assignments at work and on my darling kids who are home for two weeks on spring break. Anyway, I've been meaning to post about two events I attended last weekend. I left each one feeling inspired but for slightly different reasons.

The first was Sue Chenoweth's "Predator and Prey" show at Bragg's Pie Factory in Phoenix. It was stunning. Although Chenoweth is an abstract artist (there is no realistic depiction of predatory violence in her work) her artistry is imbued with pathos that communicates this violence anyway. I'm not a visual artist so I can't explain how she does this. I will tell you what I saw. There were blobs of shiny red paint that looked like fresh blood, smears and shapes that resembled body matter. Shark teeth were used to frame one painting. There was the depiction of a cartoon character being force fed in a mental institution, lots of patterns and textures (like those creepy, miniature and crunchy craft store trees used in dioramas). And in some of the pieces there were glimpses of architectural drawings and maps that felt like man's attempt to control the violent forces in nature.

I left this event thinking about the show's title and wondering specifically about humans who prey on other humans. Are some of us natural predators and others, natural prey? I also wondered which came first for Sue, the obsession or the paintings? Did she find the connective theme after she'd created several pieces or was it the other way around? I thought about the similarities between an art exhibition and a collection of short stories.

The second event was the Indian Fair & Market at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. This is an annual event where hundreds of artists and artisans display Native American art. There were traditional dances and storytelling, fry bread, tons of jewelry, sculpture, paintings.

I began to feel uneasy as I watched the dancing. The dancers were children and adults dressed in traditional clothing and the audience clapped for them in between bites of hot dogs and Sno Cones. It was carnivalesque. Many people in the audience looked well-heeled and they wore expensive pieces of native jewelry made of silver, turquoise and coral.

I felt uneasy, too, as I walked around the booths. A good portion of the art had themes of oppression, nationalism, genocide, "otherness". So my question is this--How does an artist from a community that has been marginalized and unfairly treated celebrate the traditions of her culture without being romantic or essentialist? How does she deal with the violence perpetrated against her community in a new way? And when does she get to think about broader issues like the forces of predator and prey in the natural world?

It may be unfair to compare these events. One was at a gallery while the other was set up outside with vendor booths. But the difference was striking to me. It was the difference between decorative arts and artistic innovation. I felt pushed to do better in my own work.

What We're Reading on the Metro or A Poll on How Many People Read Stephen King

Here's what I've seen people reading on the train:

Dreams From My Father by My President

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Phantom by Terry Goodkind

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the World of Nonprofit Boards
by Richard P. Chair, et al.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

One of the "Mr. Monk" books

The Stand by Stephen King

I couldn't see the title on the King book (only his name scrawled huge on the cover) but I'm pretty sure that's the title that was being read. I think I've seen more Stephen King books than anything else. I won't front, I like King's work. The first King book I read was Cujo as a kid. It was a book recommended by my English teacher.

An Art Show Not to be Missed

Sue Chenoweth's show, "Predator and Prey," opened on Friday, February 20th at Bragg's Pie Factory in Phoenix. In a New Times review, the reviewer wrote, "Chenoweth's art assails the senses to the point that you want to look away from the eye-searing colors and grotesque, bloody shapes. But you just can't. And the artist has complete power over the audience. She is the predator, and the audience is the prey, struggling to excape from the emotional hold her works have on the viewer."

The show is open this weekend at Bragg's Pie Factory on Friday, March 6th from 6:00-10:00 p.m.; Saturday March 7th from 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; Sunday March 8th from 12 noon - 6:00 p.m.

The 2002 piece above, "Splendid" is acrylic, ink, graphite, and letroset on panel. It's from her website www.schenoweth.com. I hope to have Sue post on this blog in the future about her process and life as an artist and teacher.

Some Thoughts on Humor

The Blue Pill in the Applesauce

I have not told my son this story: how I felt him drop into the birthing position as I danced and stuffed dollars into a naked man's G-string. How I went into labor two days later. Perhaps a son could never find this funny but just maybe when he's older, he will.

Humor is a birthright that runs in our family. I'm reminded of this weeks after my mother's death as I sift through hundreds of sympathy cards mailed to my father. Several cards contain a handwritten note which says that the writer "will miss Elaine's great sense of humor." Amen to that. My mother was the queen of ironic deadpan. In 1985, when my five-year old nephew sang a song in his little boy falsetto while swinging his legs in our kitchen chair, my mom was the one to put this precious moment into perspective. "He can't read, can't spell his name, but he knows all the words to a damn Prince song," she said. My mother had the comic's gift, the ability to make you laugh at your behavior and critically examine it at the same time.

Since her death, friends have given me books on death and I've read them. I understand that grieving for her will be a rough river. Instead of books, though, I'd like a bereavement culture that incorporates a dose of bawdy humor. I know of other cultures where this exists--the uproarious Irish wakes, the playful traditions of jazz funerals in New Orleans. But there is nothing in my Episcopalian and very Midwestern background that encourages the levity I now seek. How I could use a Day of the Dead skeleton of my mother playing golf in the afterlife.

And the truth is that I'm recalling the irony of her illness and death anyway. The end of life is a tragic comedy and laughter, for me, lessens the tragic part. This is how my mother looked at the world, as if pain is to be expected and mocked. I suspect she learned this early in life when her father abandoned her. Or maybe she learned this as a young mother when her husband died in the Korean War or after her second husband beat and bloodied her. Somewhere in her life my mother learned to laugh through hard times, to tell life that it's often ugly and its breath stinks.

And so in that tradition I remember the fart. My daughter, who was two months old at the funeral, passed gas in mom's face the day before she died. My mother was too ill to even speak, but as soon as the baby let it rip, mom's eyes widened, she lifted a frail hand to her mouth and she smiled.

There's also the day that I was so exhausted after caring for my mother and the baby that I forgot to put mom's bottom dentures in. When I returned to the house hours later she sat with her bottom lip sunken in, her top teeth hanging over like a chipmunk's. My father pulled me to the side. "Why did you do your mother's teeth like that?" he asked.

I imagine the conversation that me and mom could have about those last days:

"I was so tired. And the pain--"

"I know. You moaned a lot."

"Girl, you don't know. That was serious pain."

"But you wouldn't take the morphine."

"It gave me bad dreams."

"I didn't know that."

"Mmm hmm."

"Remember how you hid the pill under your tongue--"

"--and spit it out."

"Daddy was upset about that. He found the melted blue pill on your nightgown."

"Your father got on my nerves trying to hide that mess in the applesauce."

"He was just trying to make you comfortable."

"Comfortable cancer," she would say.

I am still a sentimentalist who will cry during moments of kindness or beauty, but I also think human existence is one absurd little trip. We live, we die, and both experiences are painful, clumsy, and fraught with errors. Why not laugh at it? And why not laugh at ourselves?

Perhaps this is how I'll explain the irreverent baby-shower-at-the strip-club to my son. It was such a ridiculous idea that it made perfect sense. And it's why I laugh today as my six-year old boy raises his shirt to show me how he can roll his stomach. He doesn't know this, but it's the perfect imitation of a male stripper.

Toward 21st Century Rules for Short Story Submissions

I met with a group of fiction writers this weekend and the topic of conversation eventually turned to the task of submitting short stories for publication. No one I know either a) still does this or b) does it and likes it. And it has nothing to do with the fear of rejection. The problem is that the system is woefully outdated. Who in the world has time to fill out a SASE? Who wants to buy postage stamps for godssake? There have been articles written about the death of the SASE and how all literary journals will eventually be online or at least take online submissions. Still, progress in this area is moving slowly.

So here are my lists, based on recent personal experience, of who takes online submissions and who doesn't. I did not include journals that require a mandatory fee. And these lists are for short story subs only:

Journals that have an Online Submission Manager:
42 Opus
Blatimore Review
Boston Review
Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Arts
One Story
The Kenyon Review
Ninth Letter
Our Stories
The Virginia Quarterly Review
Quarterly West
Tin House

Journals that take Email Submissions:
Columbia Review
Colorado Review
Denver Syntax
Literary Mama
The Summerset Review
The New Yorker
Oklahoma Review
Oregon Literary Review
The St. Ann's Review
McSweeny's Quarterly
Fantasy Magazine
Superstition Review

Journals that Only Do Snail Mail (Boo!):
Alaska Quarterly Review
Antioch Review
Arts & Letters
Atlantic Monthly
Brooklyn Review
The Gettysburg Review
Hawai'i Review
The Ledge
Louisiana Review
Southwestern American Literature
Wisconsin review
North American Review
The Sun
Indiana Review
Cimarron Review

Please correct me where I'm wrong and feel free to add to the list. For a more comprehensive list of publications that take electronic submissions go to www.duotrope.com