Workshops and Readings

"Writing Across Cultures": Fifteen Cave Canem alum read on Friday, May 1 at 6 p.m. at Adelphi University Manhattan Center in New York.

"All That's Gone: A Katrina Elegy" - a presentation of poems and photographs responding to Hurricane Katrina followed by a discussion by artists and project participants who relocated from Louisiana to Arizona. Monday, May 4, 7-8:30 p.m. at Tempe Public Library in Arizona.

"Writing the Coming of Age Story": A workshop led by Tayari Jones at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown June 14-19. Scholarships are available.

Adam Bradley is reading
from his book, "The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop" at Changing Hands Book Store in Tempe, AZ on May 18th at 7 p.m.

Who's Afraid of a Little Short Story?

I have not written fiction for days and days. Instead I've busied myself with gossip sites and swine flu. When it comes to The Piggy Flu, I've learned that fear and apocalyptic thinking are deeply ingrained in many of us including me.

I learned that Maxwell has an album coming out for the first time in 7 years. I searched the web for information on the release, listened to Maxwell interviews, listened to Maxwell's first single, watched You Tube videos of classic Maxwell songs. I gorged on all things Maxwell for two hours. Then I was done.

I woke up at 1 a.m. to watch Prince's interview on the Tavis Smiley Show. I learned that Prince is really really little. I mean his shoulders are--zip--one inch across, with a grown man's head on top. I still love him, rickety though he may be.

I drove to a movie theater to see the Tyson documentary (telling myself that the documentary is a good character study which justified me spending two hours in a theater instead of writing) but the movie wasn't playing at my neighborhood theater so I came home and took a nap.

What I haven't done is work on my latest story.

This story, this story, what can I say? It is stubborn. I wanted it to be about a gay teenage boy but it insisted that the main character be a straight teenage girl. I wanted the mother to have a specific illness and the story talked back, hand on its narrow hip, saying, "What's her illness got to do with anything?"

The introduction to the story is up for revision as well. I've polished and re-polished the intro, making each word sparkle, but I've realized that it gives up too much information too fast. In fact, the problem with the introduction is also the bigger problem with the story which is this: I've been messy with the structure and exposition.

I remember hearing or reading that basic facts of a story (who, what, when, where) should be released early on but that the secondary exposition, facts which help to unfold the narrative, should come more slowly through the text. That sounds so simple, right? But I've been fooled into exposing too much too soon in earlier drafts because I'm writing a first person reminiscent narrator. The narrator is fully grown and she's talking about one year in her teenage life. I believed my narrator was wise and so I offered a lot of what she knew right away. What I didn't think about is how, initially, she would present herself to the reader. Nobody confesses or hints to deep secrets when they first meet you. People let you know what they want you to know and the rest of it is held close to the chest. Having a first person reminiscent narrator is like meeting someone at a party and then getting to know them better over time. You're not going to learn everything at first, only what she wants you to know.

One story that handles secondary exposition really well is "Lawns" by Mona Simpson. There's another story, whose author and title escape me now, that does it even better than "Lawns". When I got to the end of that story and the narrator confessed that he'd found his Vietnam Vet father in the car, I cried. All of a sudden, the emotional distance of the narrator made sense. Before that point I thought the narrator was a stoic New Englander.

I would like to pull off a revelatory moment like that in my story.

I am afraid that I won't pull it off even though technically I know what to do. Knowing and doing are not the same. And it's spring. I'd rather be outside wearing my flowing turquoise and brown skirt (shown above) that I got for $8.95 during a shopping excursion to my favorite resale shop, My Sister's Closet, which is yet another way that I put off writing...

Our Future is in Good Hands

I can't even explain how emotional I became when I saw this picture of William Farley and his little brother at the Poetry Out Loud national competition. They were crying, overcome with emotion, because of a poetry recitation contest. Farley, a high school senior from Virginia, won $20,000 toward his college education. He recited poems by Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams. His high school (and all the high schools attended by the 12 finalists) get $500 to purchase books for their libraries.
Poetry doggone it! Our future is in good hands.

Sherron Pearson's Story

I came across this inspiring story of a young writer and high school student who was one of a select few chosen to attend Oxford University this summer for the Oxford Tradition 2009 program. Several people donated money so that Sherron could attend. She will study creative writing and drama while there. Here's hoping that we'll be reading a Sherron Pearson story real soon.

Lyrics that Capture a Period :: RIP Bea Arthur

Theme Song from "Maude"

Lady Godiva was a freedom rider,
she didn't care of the whole world looked.
Joan of Arc, with the lord to guide her,
she was a sister who really cooked.
Isadora was a first bra burner
Aint' ya glad she showed up? (Oh yeeeaaah)
And when the country was falling apart
Betsy Ross got it all sewed up
And then there's Maude
(And then there's Maude)
And then there's Maude
(And then there's Maude)
And then there's Maude
(And then there's Maude)
And then there's.......
the uncompromisin, enterprisin' anything but tranqulizin'
Right on Maude!!!

Pulitzers + Oranges + Interviews + More

The 2009 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week. Elizabeth Strout won for her story collection Olive Kitteridge about an overweight, unglamorous, middle American woman.

The Orange Prize nominees were announced. The Orange Prize is a UK literary award given to a woman who has written the best novel in the past year. Three American writers were named including Marilynne Robinson who was nominated for her novel Home.

Novelist and professor of creative writing Tayari Jones talks about revision and the young writer.

Maud Newton interviews The Book of Night Women author Marlon James.

And I'm wishing good luck to Erik Hollis from Tucson who competes in the Poetry Out Loud nationals this weekend and Want Chyi who defends her MFA thesis, a novel, today at ASU.

For the Foodies!

Fiction writer and fellow foodie Rae Paris tipped me on a new fusion restaurant here in the Valley of the Sun. It's called Second Line and they serve Caribbean and Creole fare that Rae swears is as good as it gets. Judging by the pictures of the shrimp Po Boy and gumbo that she sent, I believe her.

Second Line just opened this January in South Phoenix at 2727 East Broadway between 27th and 28th Streets. The owner, Duma, is from New Orleans but has lived all over including the Bay area in northern California.

I'm going to stop by for a bite this week.

Detroit as Literary Place

I have been thinking lately about place, how it figures into a novel. Certain writers like Annie Proulx can make a landscape come so alive that reading passages is like looking at postcard images. But Proulx and writers like E.L. Doctorow are doing more than just describing the tundra or naming the fauna of a place. A fully realized setting affects characterization and plot; place becomes the way the characters think and act. I think of the dinner scene in Doctorow's short story, "A House on the Plains" where the son describes his mother's witless farmhand boyfriend. The boyfriend says "This is good eats" at the dinner table and the immigrant servant who speaks little English snorts, knowing that even she is better than this guy. In the space of one paragraph Doctorow gives the reader ample clues of the time period and the stations of each character.

I realize as I write this that I’ve been referring to and thinking about historical fiction and maybe that’s because the writers of historical fiction take pains to know their settings. After all, the veracity of their story stands or falls on the details of the period. But deep knowledge of place can be just as important in contemporary stories. I can’t imagine reading a story that takes place in an international city like Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Mumbai, Hong Kong where the writer uses the city as mere background, referring a few times to a famous building or to the weather. I want the geography and history (there’s that word again) of a place to color the characters’ speech, what they choose to eat, what they aspire to be.

Which brings me to Detroit. Detroit provides a jackpot for fiction writers when it comes to setting. Forget the cartoonish and one-dimensional depictions that you’ve read in the news. We all know that Detroit has crime, mayors who’ve betrayed the public trust, thousands of home foreclosures, thousands of people unemployed, etc. etc. Detroit has recently been dealt a harsh hand. But the richness of Detroit is in this battered public image, the way that remarks like “Well, you know they’re from Detroit” or "Why can't the people of Detroit..." creeps into the soul of Detroiters alongside their pride of growing up in the birthplace of Motown, the auto industry, techno music, and a proud home-owning working class. It’s this constant rub of present misery and glorious past that provides great tension for a writer. It’s why this website of Detroit’s ruins is so popular. You look at those crumbling Victorian era homes and wonder, What gives? Detroit in many ways is emblematic of America: great in the 20th century but struggling in the 21st.

There’s also the history of Native Americans and the French in Detroit. There are French names all over Detroit, like the avenue named Gratiot, that we Detroiters mangle and pronounce as Grash-It. There’s the Detroit River, where Deletha Word died, and Windsor, Canada which is visible on the opposite side of the river. There’s the Majestic Theater on Woodward Avenue which was the site of Houdini’s last performance before he died. There are all of the town's immigrant stories—-the Polish who settled in Hamtramck, those who established Greektown, the Armenians, the large middle eastern population, the southern blacks who'd moved north. Despite the existence of many ethnic groups there’s a parochial feel to Detroit which makes it ripe for characters that William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor would have loved.

There’s George Clinton and Kid Rock. There’s Tyree Guyton making art out of abandoned ruins and trash.

Detroit may be a joke in the popular media but a careful examination of the city’s culture reveals a complexity that can only be given proper dignity in literature. Ask Jeffrey Eugenides who has written two beautiful novels set in Detroit. There are a number of writers--Eugenides, Terry Wolverton, Philip Levine, Toi Derricotte—who have mined Detroit as place. They, too, were pulled by this rugged yet elegant city and what its landscape inspires in the imagination.

LAT Book Festival + Common writes children's books?

It's spring which means book festival time. I was looking at the list of authors for the LA Times Festival of Books which is April 25-26 at UCLA. There are hundreds of authors who will be there including:

Chris Abani
Mary Gaitskill
Aimee Bender
Kadir Nelson
Laila Lalami
Ron Carlson
Sesshu Foster

and Common.

Common Common?

Apparently he's interested in urban literacy and has started a children's book series. The first title, "Mirror in Me" was released in '08. He also has a foundation (Common Ground Foundation) that has created a website featuring a children's book club. Inkwell Bookstore Blog did a review of the website last month.

As my 98-year old grandmother likes to say, Well alright.

John Hope Franklin Commemoration

On April 20 from 6-8 pm, several Arizona scholars, activists, and practitioners will share their thoughts on the life and work of scholar John Hope Franklin. This commemoration is sponsored by the African and African American Studies department at ASU. A symposium sponsored by the department will happen in Fall 2009. For more information contact Dr. Lisa Aubrey at or Dr. Abdullahi Gallab at

Giving Thanks

I am thankful that one of my stories has found a home in an online journal and a forthcoming anthology. You can read the story here.

I am thankful for the stack of New York Times Book Reviews that Aunt Gerry gave me yesterday and which she brings every time we meet.

I'm thankful for Ava's three day sleepover with cousins which will give me a little break until Tuesday.

War Poems

Hard to believe it's been six years since the fall of Baghdad, but Democracy Now reports that on this anniversary of the fall, tens of thousands of Iraqis gathered to protest our continued occupation in that country.

Here are two poems inspired by war, one by Yusef Komunyakaa and the other by Brian Turner. Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer Prize winner, served in the Vietnam War. Brian Turner earned an MFA from University of Oregon before serving in Bosnia and Iraq.

Hanoi Hannah

Ray Charles! His voice
calls from waist-high grass,
& we duck behind gray sandbags.
"Hello, Soul Brothers. Yeah,
Georgia's also on my mind."
Flares bloom over the trees.
"Here's Hannah again.
Let's see if we can't
light her goddamn fuse
this time." Artillery
shells carve a white arc
against dusk. Her voice rises
from a hedgerow on our left.
"It's Saturday night in the States.
Guess what your woman's doing tonight.
I think I'll let Tina Turner
tell you, you homesick GIs."
Howitzers buck like a herd
of horses behind concertina.
"You know you're dead men,
don't you? You're dead
as King today in Memphis.
Boys, you're surrounded by
General Tran Do's division."
Her knife-edge song cuts
deep as a sniper's bullet.
"Soul Brothers, what you dying for?"
We lay down a white-klieg
trail of tracers. Phantom jets
fan out over the trees.
Artillery fire zeros in.
Her voice grows flesh
& we can see her falling
into words, a bleeding flower
no one knows the true name for.
"You're lousy shots, GIs."
Her laughter floats up
as though the airways are
buried under our feet.

--taken from Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa (Wesleyan University Press: 1993)

What Every Soldier Should Know
To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will;
it is at best an act of prudence.
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.

Always enter a home with your right foot;
the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop! Or I'll shoot.

Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.

Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.

You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.

There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas,a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

Graffiti sprayed onto the overpasses:
I will kell you, American.

Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah.

There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai--

and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.

--taken from Here, Bullet by Brian Turner (Alice James Books: 2005)

Happenings. Links.

A few upcoming events in Phoenix...

* This Wednesday, April 8 @ 7 PM, the Poetry in April Series continues at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The authors are Elizabyth Hiscox and Douglas Jones. Their bios can be read here. Tempe Center for the Arts really is a beautiful building. A photo of the exterior of the Lakeside Room, where the readings take place, is here.

* I’m glad to see that The Black Theater Troupe’s still performing "Revenge of a King," its hip-hop version of Hamlet. On Thursday, April 23 @ 7:30 p.m., it will perform at Playhouse in the Park on Central Ave. in Phoenix. The next day, April 24 from 8:15 a.m. to noon there will be performances and panel discussions about "shaking up Shakespeare" at the Lyceum Theater at ASU. Panelists include actor Harry Lennix and ASU professor Ayanna Thompson.

And finally this....

New York Times critic, A.O. Scott wrote a piece about the necessity and resurgence of the short story titled "In Praise of the American Short Story." I’m not sure that I was convinced though I’d like to think people love short stories the way that I do.

My Dirty Little Secret: Reading Cookbooks

Does anyone else read what I’ll call literary cookbooks? You know, cookbooks that combine recipes, poetry and storytelling? If not, I have two I can recommend, If I can Cook/You Know God Can by Ntozake Shange and Vertamae Cooks in The Americas’ Kitchen by Vertamae Grosvenor. Both books have great recipes but they also have stories, poems, folklore, family photos, and anecdotes. The recipes are just part of the narrative tapestry. In fact the narratives in Ntozake’s book are so good that you can sit down and read that and save the recipes for when you’re ready to cook.

Ntozake tells the reader in the introduction that “These perusals of history, literature, vernacular, culture, and philosophy, ‘long with absolutely fabulous receipts (Charlestonian for recipes), are meant to open our hearts and minds to what it means for black folks in the Western Hemisphere to be full.” She then begins the first chapter telling the story of how she was determined one New Year's Eve to cook a traditional, down home meal for her daughter, Savannah:

“Back we went into a small market, sawdust on the floor, and a zillion island accents pushing my requests up toward the ceiling. “A pound and a half of pig tails,” I say. Savannah murmured “pig tails” like I’d said Darth Vader was her biological father.

Nevertheless, I left outta there with my pig’s tails, my sweet potatoes, collards, cornmeal, rice and peas, a coconut, habanera peppers, olive oil, smoked turkey wings, okra, tomatoes, corn on the cob, and some day-old bread. We stopped briefly at a liquor store for some bourbon or brandy, I don’t remember which. All this so a five-year-old colored child, whose mother was obsessed with the cohesion of her childhood, could pass this on to a little girl, who was falling asleep at the dill pickle barrel….”

Ntozake ends the chapter with recipes for Pig’s Tails, Hoppin’ John (Black-eyed Peas and Rice), Collared Greens, and French-fried Chitlins.

As I said, Vertamae’s book has similar content to Ntozake's but the recipes are front and center in Vertamae’s book. She places the cultural narrative in footnotes like this one following a recipe for Philly Pepperpot Soup:

“During the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington’s troops were encamped at Valley Forge, it was bitter cold and the soldiers were hungry. The general implored the nameless cook, who was said to be a West Indian, to feed his men if he could. The cook’s stocks included only tripe and peppercorns but he nevertheless rose to the challenge. His peppery broth with chewy tripe not only fed the hungry fighters, but, some believed, also made them victorious.”

Because I love these books so much, I was thrilled to hear Bryant Terry,the author of Vegan Soul Kitchen on NPR yesterday. His book, contains recipes, poetry, photos, film recommendations, songs. I plan to get it.

A Google search of “literary cookbooks” pulled up several cookbooks that have been inspired by novels or children’s books. For example, a Winnie The Pooh Cookbook or Ann of Green Gables cookbook. There was also "The Literary Gourmet: Menus from Masterpieces" and "Book Lover’s Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature and the Passages That Feature Them". These selections seem a little different than what I’m talking about. But on Alibris, a search of “literary cookbooks” did pull up these titles that I will check out:

Seasoned with Words: A Cookbook; Stories, Memoirs & Poems about Food

Plots and Pans: Recipes and Antidotes from the Mystery Writers of America

For National Poetry Month

Here's a Ruth Forman poem.....

Perhaps You're A Song

waiting to be whistled
tween some man's lips
perhaps you're a prayer
folded tween his hands
perhaps you're a love poem
waiting to be written

or perhaps you're already written
n wait
for someone to decipher your language

or perhaps you're not waiting
not waiting for anyone at all

perhaps you're already all of these things
a song a whistle a prayer a poem
playing just for the beauty of itself

--Ruth Forman, taken from Voices From Leimert Park (Tsehai 2006)

Rejection + the Writer. It Feels Like This:

This time last week I was nervous. I'd applied for a grant and the announcement would be made soon. The waiting part is the worst. Waiting for the letter in the mail. Waiting for a phone call. Waiting for an email. Looking for signs, big or small. I ate a fortune cookie that delivered this cruel joke: What you desire is about to come true.

And then the announcement time arrived. I woke from sleep to check the website. There was a winner. Nope, that wasn't me. I read the winner's bio and then went back to sleep relieved that the waiting was over.

The next day I felt pretty low. I'd wanted this grant to finish my novel. I'd told myself I couldn't finish it without it. I'd told myself I wouldn't write again.

There was more bad news at work, layoffs related to the recession, which made me even sadder. I floated through the day. Then I got an email from an editor about a short story I'd submitted. He loved it and would pass it on to the next round. Good news! I marched on.

The next day I was angry which felt empowering. At least when you're angry you can kick and lash. I'd spent several months on that grant! Although I wanted to remain in that anger, my mind wouldn't let me. It started being rational. It said that I needed to apply for more grants, contests, awards and get into the swing of this whole process. I was whining about one rejection. This writing thing is a hustle, my mind said.

I tried watching television or shopping to forget about the rejection, but those activities didn't work. The best distraction for me is writing. I realized I wanted to work more on a specific story set in Detroit, so I did. Writing was the only thing that made me feel better.

I guess it's a good thing that writing is this compulsion that I have. I will do it regardless. I just read that Toni Morrison had many rejections with The Bluest Eye and that she thought she'd be published posthumously. I'll take posthumous publication. There will be this stack of manuscripts in my house anyway.

This just in: the editor who loved my story sent a second email. He fought tooth and nail for the story so that everyone could see its brilliance, he wrote. He loved my mix of African-American popisms and magical realism. But alas, he lost the battle. It's not the right fit for their publication.....

Aracelis + Curbstone + Bilingual/Bilngue

Writers Venita Blackburn and Aracelis Girmay

Aracelis Girmay's reading on Wednesday night at Tempe Center for the Arts was a joyous event. Girmay fully engaged the audience with her reading of political and personal poems and then she sat down for a conversation with Catherine Hammond, the moderator of Tempe's Poetry in April series. If you haven't read Teeth yet, you have no idea what you're missing.

I left the reading thinking, too, about the importance of small publishers especially in today's economic climate.

Girmay's collection is published by Curbstone Press which states its mission as follows on its website:

"1) publishing creative literature that promotes human rights and inter-cultural understanding and 2) bringing writers and programs deep into the community to promote literacy, knowledge about many cultures, and an appreciation of literature. Curbstone publishes 8 to 10 books a year, brings authors into Connecticut high schools in year-round programs, and has formed community partnerships to stimulate reading and creative writing with many community and service organizations in the Windham/Willimantic area. It is this dual focus on publishing and educational programming that makes Curbstone unique among nonprofit presses."

Authors published by Curbstone include Ana Castillo, Martha Collins, Martin Espada, Danielle Legros Georges, Ho Anh Thai, and many others.

In February I heard Martha Collins read from her latest poetry collection, Blue Front.The collection was inspired by a lynching that her father witnessed as a boy. It was refreshing to hear a poet who is white speak about the legacies of racism and lynching and I'm thankful that a nonprofit publisher like Curbstone decided that this subject matter is not passe, but is still relevant.

Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue partners with Tempe's Poetry in April series and it had a table featuring several books at Wednesday's reading. I picked up The Date Fruit Elegies by John Olivares Espinoza. Bilingual/Bilingue is "committed to publishing quality writing by or about U.S. Hispanics" and it has been around since 1973.

Here's to Aracelis Girmay, Curbstone Press, and Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue. May they be around for many years to come.

What We're Reading on the Metro + A Recommendation

Here are titles I've seen recently on the train:

Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon's Legendary Coach and Nike's Cofounder by Kenny Moore

Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

The Aeneid
by Virgil

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Here's what I've been reading on the train:

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (I LOVED it. I highly recommend this original/funny/sad graphic memoir.)

Home by Marilynne Robinson (This book has been recommended by many people but I'm struggling to keep interest. I'll give it a while; I'm still at the beginning....)