Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In the Meantime

...eschewing the blog. This is part of the profession: those moments where one says, "I'm tired of examining my own experience." That's what writers do, in one way or another: one must be open, curious, willing to look at what's there, committed to the impulse to observe and reflect -- with the additional commitment to do so with style on the page, trusting that others might find it interesting. How that works out doesn't always butter other people's turnips, as Philip Larkin liked to say. At the moment I'm weary of the vulnerability and turning to private life. For now.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Alternative Activities for Non-Mothers

A good thing to do on Mother's Day, if you don't have any kids, is go
grocery shopping when everybody else is waiting in line for the
buffets. That's what I did. The aisles at VG's around noon were
almost empty except for the abashed few running in and out furtively
to get that last minute cake and fistful of flowers. By the time I
swung past on my way to the checkout lane, the flower case was
stripped to the last petal. Ha ha, I said to myself, I'm glad I'm
free of this day's guilt and ambivalence, as I said in my latest East
Village Magazine column.

And then while you're shopping (preferably in the sweat pants and
"Minot Beavers" sweatshirt and no makeup that would make any
teenager connected to you grimace and run for her life), get all the
foods you like that children can't stand. Like organic carrot juice,
asparagus, brussels sprouts and maybe a hunk of smelly bleu cheese.
How about a big carton of plain yogurt -- really, PLAIN -- but the
kind with the cream on the top. Oh, lordy, I'm glad I'm an
unemcumbered grownup and can eat that stuff with a spoon out of the
carton if I want to.

And when nobody's looking, light up one of those sweet brown cigarettes from Paul's Pipe Shop on the back porch and blow the smoke over toward the house with all the little kids who're usually on the jungle gym but today are inside giving their mom painted macaroni and glitter-glue cards. Then pour yourself a generous jigger of Black Bush and make noises when you drink it like Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. What the hell. Cut a fart or two if you want to, and let go with an f-bomb when you're talking on the phone. Say it loud.

I also recommend listening to Sam Cooke. May I say that "Little Red
Rooster" is one of the best songs ever recorded? Cooke laid down this
Willie Dixon classic in 1963, and in addition to the song's delicious
blues riffin' and salacious implications, Billy Preston's organ work
is rich and audacious, adding to the naughty tones of the whole thing.
What a great song to revel in on the day when non-mothers can rejoice
in this simple fact: we don't have to clean anything up for anybody.

Also, of course, that same collection includes a wonderful "A Change is Gonna come," which American Idol finalist Sayesha Mercado mauled last week. What a travesty -- I'm with Randy Jackson.

So that's my deeply sober offering for the moment. I hope every
mother out there got the love and thanks she deserved.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Linda Gregerson in Flint: Taking the Human Spectacle Seriously

What a pleasure today in the quaintly named "Happenings Room" at UM-Flint to hear poet and Spenser scholar Linda Gregerson's keynote address to the Third Annual "Critical and Creative Conference" sponsored by the English Honors Society Sigma Tau Delta. She is a tiny, tidy woman with an immense and immensely warm intelligence. She weaves a Mozartian vocabulary with complexity and precision, reminding me of how remarkable it is that we're in this language business to begin with. See, I want to say to my students, see what can be done with it?

Emphasizing that arbitrarily cordoning off creative and literature-based endeavors is "a silly impoverishment," Gregerson, a longtime UM -- Ann Arbor professor and author of the award winning poetry collection "Waterborne" and the new "Magnetic North," said critics in the academy can benefit from the "textures and specificities" of the creative mind, just as creative writers flourish under the influence of scholarly curiosities.

Both disciplines, she asserted, are shaped by habits of reading -- reading books, of course, but also reading other cultural artifacts as if they are texts -- devoutly reading the world, as she put it, "taking the human spectacle seriously." Out of that practice, for writers at least, comes the act of creating in the reader a moment of "recognition" -- when the reader sees something she has known before but never could capture.

She also explored the limits of language and how those limits create schisms, distances in the academy itself. It was particularly sweet that she chose as one of her keystones the Robert Hass poem "Meditation at Lagunitas," since a group of the UMF students in the room had met Hass in his Fall '06 UMF visit and heard him read that poem. She lingered over his breathtaking opening lines "All the new thinking is about loss./ In this it resembles all the old thinking." I made rapid connections to a poem of his in the new collection, Time and Materials, "The Problem of Describing Trees," in which he writes of his glittering aspen, "...There are limits to saying,/In language, what the tree did./It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us."

Not all of us can be so sanguine as the robustly humble Hass. I was relieved, freshly contemplating my own fumbles to set the stage in the first two class meetings of a graduate class on "green writing," when she added, "who is not afraid that language will be insufficient?"

One response is to turn to old stories. This week I offered my students an essay by Barry Lopez, "Language and Narrative," in which he argues that myth is as authentic to human experience as "the wolverine in the man's lap," (okay, look it up...it's a good anecdote). He celebrates the "inexplicable renewal of enthusiasm" he feels after hearing a good story, and he goes further to say that stories "nurture and heal," repairing a "spirit in disarray." (One of my students, interestingly, didn't like the idea that we need nurturing and healing, but that's another matter)

"The stories that we already know accumulate resonance and recognition" of our human spectacle, Gregerson said, helping us see how our experience "resembles all the old thinking," like the Dido myth that she has woven into a seven-part piece she shared with today's crowd.

Walking down Kearsley Street afterwards for sandwiches at the Lunch Studio, one of my colleagues asked, "Do you think she was over their heads?" We agreed that even if she was, good for her. Perhaps they heard her angst about the insufficiency of language and noticed that she kept on spinning stalwart and lovely efforts anyway.

It's what we do, we writers, convinced perhaps beyond reason that words matter -- that they can sometimes be sufficient, if we just get the best ones in the best order, to paraphrase Coleridge and Stephen Dobyns. It was a good way to spend a Friday afternoon.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Spring Cleaning

Winter semester is over. I've got only one class for the spring, and an itch is overtaking me to clean up, organize, sort and toss. We're undergoing major remodeling and we all have to move out of our offices for part of the summer. When I get back from my two months in LA, I'll be in a new office with a WINDOW for the first time in my tenure as a faculty member. I've been knocking around these parts since '93 and it's inevitable that huge piles of detritus have accumulated: too much history, too much paper, a torpid and claustrophobia-inducing disorder.

So I plunge into pile after pile. It's a relief to throw out artifacts of the past, some good, some bad. I don't need to be reminded of all this stuff again. It's good to begin to travel lighter in the world. Not to make too much of it, but this feels a bit spiritual in effect: expunging, forgiving, taking a deep breath and calling a quiet end to unproductive clingings and obsessions. If one's not careful the weight one tugs along in life gets heavier and heavier, when really a person moving into old age needs to be as nimble and graceful as possible. I'm starting to see how much it matters to strip things down, not to hang on so tightly to disappointments, failures, slights, dashed dreams, old fights. Sometimes I feel like a sea creature weighted down with barnacles and sea weed. I want to focus the mind. I want to swim more freely into clear waters.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Crazy about Skype

I don't have an iPod or iPhone and I don't have a FaceBook or MySpace page, and I continually feel technologically sluggish and behind, torn between wanting to avoid all of it and compelled to "keep up." It's usually a wrestling match; I don't think my brain is wired for fast changes anymore, and, while it may sound like lame self-justification, I don't think all this stuff is making us better. Every day I face 18-year-olds, (it's customary in university parlance these days to call them "The Millenials") walking around school continually talking on their tinier and tinier phones, It still startles me. If they're walking alone, I sometimes think they're talking to me: I've said something like "Beg your pardon?" until I make out that little ear cocoon. In today's life on the street, I uncomfortably realized the other day, I'm the one who seems crazy in that circumstance: everybody else knows by now that somebody walking along alone, talking loudly, is connected. I wonder: does this make it easier or harder for those hearing other kinds of voices -- the kind not conveyed via satellites?

Anyway, my point is that despite the above disclaimer, I'm crazy about Skype. On my new MacBook, a little green light at the top of the monitor is a tiny camera, and I can make free calls that allow me to show my face to my husband when he's in California. More important, I can see his face. The other day Lynn Rossetto Kaspar said, about the importance of eating together, "the only time most of us look at each other's faces these days is across the table when we're eating." My heart cramped a little: this winter I've been alone too much, and I've missed seeing my beloved's face. Sometimes when his mug pops up on the screen my hand reaches out automatically -- I want to touch him. But seeing him smile -- at my pixilated image, but still some recognizable semblance of me -- it makes my day. Sometimes when we connect I just want to watch him, without saying anything. I just want to take him in and watch him smile at me and say hello.

Red Flash

This spring red-winged blackbirds seem to have flocked into our neighborhood, uncharacteristically. Grain-lovers, they're more common on fence posts near corn and wheat fields -- their hearty appetite has made them a problem for some farmers. But I love them; I love their call and that splash of red on black. They're very dashing and each time I hear them or catch that flash of red, I feel happy.