Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Retreat is a Retreat…

Initially my plan was to work with an editor on my manuscript while in retreat at Centrum. But that was before a spring virus wrestled me down, and I got two months behind (with an average daily word count of 500 a day 5 days per week, that means a lot). So my aim was to make up for those two months and write, and write and finish my book. Did I do that? No. Which doesn't mean my characters left me alone, far from that. They accompanied me wherever I went. Early in the morning on the beach Jake for instance would whisper he'd been there, done that, and please pay attention to all the philosophical thoughts that cross your mind, will ya!

Half way through the week I recalled why I hadn't opted for three meals a day at previous occasions: In order to write I've got to stay in my room! And while I'll try to remember that point, I have no regrets about the hours spent at the Commons interacting. For if there was anything I craved after bunkering down in my writer's den at home, it was the company of other writers. Instead of giving myself a hard time for not making up for the lost time behind my desk in the spring, I enjoyed this Centrum retreat as a retreat from my office and isolation.

Meanwhile taking a break from focussed writing, while taking in the work of others, opened my mind to possibilities I hadn't been able to see before. Sometimes we have to step back, give the material and ourselves some breathing space. And that is exactly what happened thanks to my retreat at Centrum.

As a matter of fact, I've got to sign off now, for enough time has been spent online. I'm going back to my den and get down with my bad business.

With grateful thanks to Centrum for providing room (and board and everything else) and all of the folks who shared a bit of themselves.

Kim Addonizio and Gary Lilley Deliver the Blues to Centrum

Saturday July 19, 2008. To get a taste of the Train Songs Kim Addonizio treated us to during her and Gary Copeland Lilley's reading at the Wheeler Theatre check out her harmonica performance at the Bowery. Having Gary and Kim on stage together was quite a treat. The poets hit it off well. Each took turns or joined forces to move the audience with his or her Blues and in the end we all joined Lilley in singing Good Night Irene (leaving out the drowning part he later said).

I got my appetite whetted to hear Kim Addonizio and
Gary Copeland Lilley again.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Kathleen Alcalá, and Chris Abani Read at Centrum

Friday July 18, 2008

My right ear is filled with the noise of rolling waves and the cold tongue of a mean northern wind, while my left side is warmed slightly by the earth's radiation of diffused sunlight. One side longs to sleep, roll up on the comforter covered cot, the other pushes on braving the elements.

Beyond the lighthouse I'm rewarded with sand paintings gracing the beach.

At 4 p.m. Gary Lilley's group meets at the bunkers for a poetry reading.

Back at the campus it turns out we've missed a fantastic lecture on craft by Kurt Andersen who is the recipient of the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction. We're just in time to help finish off a lovely spread of hors d'oeuvres and wine.

After dinner Kathleen Alcalá reads from The Desert Knows My Name, linking and comparing the age-old Latin American stories about women drowning their children (to ensure them a better fate than life could offer them), with the case of Andrea Yates, the woman in Texas who drowned her offspring.

Serendipity finds us listening to Chris Abani's opening lines which tell about a similar tragedy, followed by his at times heart rendering poetry.

Kim Addonizio presents Lecture, Rebecca Brown, and Brian Evenson Read at Centrum

Thursday July 17, 2008
Grey on grey, a congregation of seagulls of all ages; in the foreground two crows picking the head of a salmon clean. Two fishermen emerge from the fog, only two small boats as far as I can see.

Gulls take off, one sweeping shwoosching wave of wings across the surf. The crows hop, hoppety, hop to higher ground, leaving behind an alien creature gasping for air.

Poetic License

For the afternoon lecture Kim Addonizio reads from a chapter in Ordinary Genius: a guide for the poet within her upcoming book (January 2009) and shares with Tsjechov the notion that you need to write "colder" about emotional stuff so the reader comes to the emotion rather than be hit by it over the head. "'Hopeless grief is passionless', says Browning," she adds.

After dinner Rebecca Brown reads from her oeuvre, and touches us, sharing the bare bones of honesty in her Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary.
Brian Evenson brings someone into our circle we'd rather not know, but who makes us laugh nevertheless. Literary version of South Park. Tragic material seated on a funny bone.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Selah Saterstrom, and Gary Copeland Lilley Inspire and Participants PTWC Read at Open Mike Wheeler Theatre at Centrum

Wednesday July 16, 2008
Wake up at 4:00 a.m. I'm on the beach by 5:30. From a distance I see ten sticks — no, stick figures— at regular intervals where yesterday there were none, closer up it's a minyan of fishermen standing in the shallow water. On the water of the Strait small boats lie anchored, dark silhouettes against the daybreak pastels on the horizon, salmon season has opened.

After reading The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom I know more about white space in fiction and experimental literature, but also and unfortunately I dare say I understand the story itself better than one might want to do. In the one binder I brought that would have sufficed (no need to have schlepped the milk crate with six others) I find notes dated 2001 on Folie a Deux.

Attending the conference as a Centrum resident rather than workshop participant gives me lots of time to reflect on where I'm at with my manuscript. No pressure to deliver. I've let go of the average daily word count of 500, am more concerned with the steps I take (literally over 10,000 a day).

Thoughts come and go, waves of understanding leaving sullen impressions on my mind. I've succumbed to the fact that this is a week of much craved "peopleizing"; being among word smiths exactly what my life lacks on a day to day basis.

Twelve hours after a bird song woke me up I attend a lecture on the importance of voice by the author of Alpha Zulu.
Gary Copeland Lilley takes the stage at The Wheeler Theatre. He talks about Persona Poems, about speaking for those who can't, about being a witness and pointing a finger at what's not right. People are more apt to believe the Persona who stands somewhere between writer and reader (and thus The Persona is a welcome "face" in advertising (JvP)).

During Lilley's lecture Zora Neale Hurston the earliest "voice of African Americans" comes to my mind and how I discovered "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in Paris, in the library of Sophie Vallas (Professor of American Literature) and how Zora's storytelling guided me through a landscape I could never have known from my own experience, speaking in voices of people who otherwise would not have been heard…

"I always felt sorry for Popeye because of Olive Oil," Lilley said, "always being beaten up by Bluto."
And then Patricia Smith came with her take on the steamy love triangle between Olive Oil and her two beaus, and the role Bluto had played in her life… A good way to show how changing THE point of view may change YOUR point of view.

Lilley, a veteran of the U. S. Navy Submarine Force, speaking passionately about his experiences under water, takes us inside the submarine and we feel his empathy (not the same as sympathy, he stresses) for the other, the individual whose predicament he understands with every cell in his brain and body. He talks about word choice, sound pattern and diction but the element he doesn't mention, and doesn't need to mention for he's the personification of the notion, is passion, followed real close by compassion.

I prep for the open mike, cutting sections from the (so far) first chapter of my book "The Writing on the Wall" (aka as Jake's Cut, or Painting for Life) to fit within the allotted five minutes per reader. Deborah the M.C. promises to be stern and I finish without her cut sign. The reactions from the audience are good. I'm thrilled. Relaxed (for I've had my moment) I can sit back and enjoy the other writers reading. Great variety, interesting work, lovely evening. Some go out for drinks, I think I'll sleep. But instead my text keeps on milling through my head until deep into the night.

Too bad poetry and prose Open Mikes took place at exactly the same time but at different locations, I would have liked to attend the poetry reading and listened to new friends.

Anne Waldman Doesn't Miss a Beat at Centrum

Tuesday July 15, 2008
Imagine Jake getting up before daybreak. Cup of tea in hand he steps out of his house onto the boulevard.
Awesome sight, darkness, light, daybreak. He makes his way across the sand to where the waves lick the beach ~~~~schwoosch~~~~schwoosch~~~~schwoosch.

After finishing Jake's factual biography I realized I missed too much information, but his story remains interesting. In 2006 I thought that was perhaps good enough a reason to take what I had and to create a fictional account… Write a novel or at least a short story, or a novella about his endeavors to become a professional artist.

Selah Saterstrom's book The Pink Institution (can't help it, keep on wanting to say Asylum) is an eye opener. What on earth is she doing? I wondered eyeing the white space, the omitted texts. And then I got it. If our personal memory is fragmented already, the past for sure is. History is fragmented, blank spots may appear when looking back. Selah knows how to glance in the mirror sideways to catch the moments of truth that propel the story of four generations of women forward. The cover tells you the book is a novel, and novel it is, with it's combination of poetry prose, poetry and prose, and thoughtful illustrations this small book is a gem of experimental writing.

Rebecca Brown's introductions of presenters are mini-lectures within themselves. Before Anne Waldman steps into the footlight Rebecca has taken us back three quarters of a century, the times when Memphis Minnie seduced the crowds with her country-blues sounds. She prepares us for the "s-witch" in Walman's work, for words treated as sacred creatures, for taking it all in "Without Stitching Closed the Eye of the Falcon" (audio).
Anne Waldman is an activist powerhouse, with a performance that must inspire the lot of us to stand up and deliver.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chris Abani Touches Crowd, and Joan Larkin Reads and is Honored at Centrum

Monday July 14, 2008

5:30 a.m.
Barked at a seal in the Strait of Juan de Fuca along the Fort Worden shore
In reply the slick head ducks, a glistening smooth fat blob flips up and over
Gone is all evidence of the sea dog's presence, right left and ahead nothing but ripples in the outgoing tide.

Half asleep my horizon askew, I imagine a dolphin frozen in mid-air or mid wave, a buoy perhaps.

Thinking all the time about my manuscript: Do I really want to start with Jake and Nita's first meeting, or with the first chapter I wrote as such, starting off in Prague? Do I opt for chronology or association, should I stick to the memoir and make the first chapter a fictional account? I hope to find clarity during my stay at Centrum.

Breakfast at the Commons much better than dinner the previous night. Someone says breakfast will be our best meal. I hope for more, for good meals three times a day. For nourishment of the soul and the body.
I start by connecting with Kathleen Alcala by telling her I've read her books (but left them at home, so no chance to get her to sign them here). We talk about Crypto Jews and the fate of Patrilineal Jews in the United States and the Netherlands. She suggests I read The Cross and the Pear Tree by Victor Perera

In the afternoon I attend the lecture by Chris Abani. He says talking about craft makes him nervous, so he reads something about the philosophy of writing. He mentions story templates: "Once upon a time - suddenly - luckily - they lived happily ever after", and "The Invention of the Kaleidoscope", Alpha Zulu (by Gary Lilley), what it means to be human, thoughts about ethics and narrative, "reaching for the human moment". A colleague ("a real f…r") asked Abani: "What does it mean to be human?" Ethics, the narrative, the human, the other.

Talking about The Goat's Song (I wrote down "the goat diaries", where did that come from, the reference had to be about Dermot Healy's novel) Abani notes that in Jewish folklore goats lead to heaven (or paradise?) and he relates a story about killing a goat: If you cry about this (the killing) you'll die of a broken heart.

"Face the most terrifying things in narrative," he says. I scribbled: "scapegoats = narrative thread" and "draw out all courage and kindness plus goodness and combine it with death."
When talking about his mother, his writing about death, he pauses, swallowing hard. The fate of the poet in exile personified.
Abani wishes for us that we may cry but not die of heart ache. And I know that is possible, for I've survived the worst heart ache, I've recovered the spark in my eye, my sense of humor and lust for life.

At dinner the night before, Ellie, who prior to her move to Port Townsend had been a member of the same critique group in Seattle as I, made a remark about the wonderful health care system in the Netherlands, and without missing a beat I say: But my baby died there! And while she bends over in shock, remembering, for it was she who proof read my book on infant loss and grief and recovery nine years ago, I think her "faux pas" is funny, a joke, and smiling, with a spark in my eye I fill in the person who sits to my left, who's wondering what's going on.
"My baby daughter died during the last five minutes of her breech delivery, and Ellie just remarked how good health care is in the Netherlands.
The look on her face shows disbelieve, she reads the discrepancy between message and countenance as denial perhaps. In her eyes I'm the bad actress unable to convey a message in a believable manner.
In my mind my response, however dark, the humor shows I've recovered. I'm not hiding from grief, I'm not in denial. And it's not that I'm beyond grief. Around Ariane's birthday, seeing Miley, the young singer at fifteen, the same age our daughter could have been this year, made me weep for a week. I cringe when I hear a friend say he's been waiting all his life for the moment that he would become a grandfather, because that chance was taken from my husband when the doctor decided she'd rather finish her dinner than allow the co-assistant to get the O.R. ready for my C-section. But that's a whole other story. The story today is that I cried ten years and didn't die of heart ache, and fifteen years after our loss I can even laugh when someone makes a boo-boo that involves our fate.

Joan Larkin is honored by Goddard College and Centrum with a reception to which MFA students and conference attendees are invited. Good nosh and drinks, schmoozing. After dinner Ms. Larkin reads from her work at the Wheeler Theatre.

Lesley Hazleton has Crowd Travel in Time, Selah Saterstrom Transforms Real Life at Centrum

Sunday July 13, 2008 Thayer and Jordan welcome us and Rebecca's introduction of the first two speakers is a lecture in it self.
Selah Saterstrom's boy eats a bicycle and Lesley Hazleton's Jezebel wants to know where The Man is from and so she goes to his motherland. I'm sorry, but I'm really too tired from traveling and still baffled by home life securities (our neighbor Jage was killed) to give a better report.

We, the writers who opted for a residency, which would include room and board plus free admission to readings and lectures rather than attending a manuscript workshop, didn't get a name tag, nor the program booklet. All we've got to show that we're part of the conference is our meal ticket.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Washington Council of the Humanities readings and lectures will be free to everybody, not just conference attendants but also members of the community at large (the world so to speak).

Laurie Anderson repeats over and over in my mind: Nobody knows my name…
I make my own badge.

Check in Sunday July 13, 2008

Notes to self for next conference: Don't try to take contents of home office, especially not the hard copies of all research data, a crate and three bags of paperwork is way too much, especially when you don't take a look at more than one binder.
No need to bring coffee maker, java at the Commons is better than ever. Do bring the coil to heat water for cup a tea in the a.m. plus your favorite mug of course. Pack fleece vest and or jacket + long sleeved shirts, a hoody or a hat and black jeans
(what were you thinking bringing only tank tops shorts and summer dresses?).

Bring ear plugs, or at least some cotton balls, to keep northern wind from making Eustachian tube sing a tune of despair (also good for keeping your neighbor's a.m. phone conversations out of your personal space). Remember the knees! Don't get a room on the second floor of the dorm. And request a room away from the bathroom.

If you get an outdated mattress, ask for a newer one (I saw a couple of guys exchanging a neighbor's oldy). Pack some coat hangers. And don't forget the 'wetties'. The rooms DO have locks, just because you got a room without a lock in the overflow dorm the first time you came to the PTWC in 1995 doesn't mean there are no locks, when are you going to remember that? If you really have to change bags three times a day, keep pens in every single one of them. Bring the download cords for camera and other gadgets and don't forget the battery charger. Think to bring sunscreen and bug repellent (the latter for readings in the evening at the Memory Vault).