Monthly Archives: November 2012

Art Week

Autumn trees

Artist: Carolee S. Clark

Roasted lamb with rosemary and cumin, deep red wine, stories about Dostoyevsky’s house in Russia, stories about Italy…these seemed like perfect things to be grateful for on Thanksgiving. I had Thanksgiving dinner with two Italian friends (one of which I met for the first time, but I’m willing to use this description now).

We ended our lamb dinner with grappa—I was the only one drinking grappa, oddly enough—and cake and stories of street protests in Italy. The time flew by.

This has been a pleasant week, taking some unemployed time off to play and relax. It has been museum week at my house. On Sunday I went with friends to the Baltimore Art Museum, as a friend’s daughter had been invited to create a permanent installation for the museum. Monday was the Renwick Gallery, Tuesday the Phillips Collection, Saturday the Textile Museum.

On Monday, I also went to a coffee shop across the street from the museum and sat looking out the windows at the Renwick while I wrote the first draft of the poem below. I’ve revised it a few times and am fairly happy with it.

Since you’re a sophisticated reader, of course I don’t need to tell you that poetry does not need to be autobiographical, but in case someone less knowledgeable than you reads this, I’ll mention that fact. I did, however, use personal experience as inspiration for the poem, including having seen a similar tree to the one in the poem, and the fact that my father has Alzheimers. But to emphasize that a poem can also be fiction, I’ve written this one in third person.

Yellow Leaves

A tree of yellow leaves
with brown edges
stands on 23rd Street.
People step briskly on to work,
carrying the signature of urban workers,
large cups of coffee held out in front.

A man holding his cup
slows,
then stops,
staring up
at the yellow leaves.
On a calm, windless morning
the leaves are raining down to the sidewalk.

Other trees hold tight,
still waiting.
Only this lone tree looses the leafy cascade.

Last night while ironing a shirt
to wear down this street
carrying a cup of coffee,
the man talked to his mother.
His father comes to the phone no more.
The father’s memories are like the yellow leaves
on 23rd Street—
they are letting go.

The man watches a moment, entranced,
then out of the trance moves on.
His thoughts leave the autumn,
leap back to the green of a summer day
when he sat on the porch with his father.
They drank gin and tonics.
Children played in the yard.
The man and his father talked of different birds,
talked of the father’s joy in bird watching.

The father talks mostly now of the past.
He talks sometimes of birds.
There was one he liked that called “yee-hoo! yee-hoo!”
and…
But the name, like so much else,
has fluttered away.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry, Writing While Living

Time for Changes

As I walked to the bus one morning this week, I passed under a tree with leaves falling and swirling around me. They were coming down rather heavily, apparently having heard the metaphor of rain to describe themselves pouring from the tree. What caught my attention about this tree was that there was no wind at the time, not even a breeze, and no other tree around was dropping leaves. It was as though this one tree had said, “It’s time” and began to release the leaves.

Seeing the tree, which followed a conversation I had had regarding my father, who has Alzheimers, gave me an idea for a poem. That was days ago, however, and I haven’t so much as made a note or put down a word toward writing the poem. Walking home from the bus stop yesterday, I wondered why I haven’t written a poem in months. The first answer, of course, is that I’m not a poet. A real poet would be writing poetry.

The second answer, I decided, is that I just haven’t had the extra time I would need to get to a poem. Maybe this coming week I will write one. My job ended yesterday, so now I will be off for a while until I find something else. I ended up working with the American Pharmacists Association for three full months, more than I expected when I started, and it was a pretty good experience.

I also made a friend there, who has invited me over for Thanksgiving. As for finding a job this coming week, in the few days before Thanksgiving, I hardly think it’s worth the effort, but even if it were, I had already decided that I would have a short break when the pharmacy editing reached the final comma. So maybe I’ll go to the Corcoran Art Gallery or the Renwick Gallery, or who knows? I think some rest and relaxation are in order. It ain’t like I take vacations.

And maybe I’ll sit in a cafe somewhere down in Washington and try to write a poem about my father.

I’ve also been contacting literary agents for the novel Benedict and Miramar. When you send a letter or an email asking an agent to pay attention to you, the technical term for agent begging is “query”. I have a list I made years ago with names, addresses, how to apply, and so on, but for each agency I don’t do anything until I check for updated information. In most cases that’s easy, just by going to their website.

It can be time consuming in some cases, reading the biographical information on a list of agents, to see who is interested in what. Someone who talks quite a bit about children’s literature is probably not going to want what I have, so I look for an agent who seems interested in finding what they call “literary fiction”. I think that phrase is a little bit pretentious if I use it to describe my own work, but that’s more or less an industry technical term, to describe a certain kind of writing.

Once I find a potential agent, I look to see what they want. Most want a synopsis, or summary, of the book, some want to see part of the book, ranging generally from five pages to fifty pages, some do not want to see part of the book. As to what exactly the synopsis should be, man, just shoot me. My own synopsis is one page, which seems to be fairly standard, but I have a friend here in DC who is an agent, and she said my synopsis needs to be two paragraphs. I just found an agency website this week that called for a synopsis of five pages. Five pages? Most agents of course want a synopsis, to see what the book is about (their websites say, in effect, if you don’t send us a synopsis, you have no clue what you’re doing), but I found one agent who said “Do not send me a synopsis, I hate reading them.”

Sheesh. Give me a drink before you shoot me.

And some agents have no website, so you try to find out about them by googling their name to see what turns up. There are a number of sites out there that might be helpful: Absolute Write Water Cooler (a chatroom in which writers discuss agents), 1000 Literary Agents (a list of agents with information), Query Tracker, WritersCafe.org, and still others. When an agent has no website you go to several of these sites to see what you can find out. It’s a problem, however, that the information on many of these sites is not dated, so you could be reading something from ten years ago.

Give me two drinks and I’ll shoot myself.

That’s how this business works. Ahh, literature! Sitting on the heights of Parnassus spinning rainbows of verbality. Uh huh. Unless you’re lucky and know somebody, this is how it’s done, so I will keep doing it. In the best case, the agent or agency has a website and you can contact them by email, which is actually common. In most cases, however, they will not reply unless they want you, so no news gradually means no.

But this blog entry needs to find an ending so that I can get on down to the farmers market to see my cheesemaker, who comes here from Pennsylvania and sells a variety of kinds of goat cheese. It’s a fabulous fall day out there, with bright blue sky, and I want to get on into this weekend. I’ve got relaxing to do, and a haircut to arrange, and a friend to meet tonight for a movie. It’s time.

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Pretend This Is Normal

Emily Dickinson

Was she missing something?

A study was done not long ago in Russia looking at the effect of a particular genetic variation on heart disease. Although the article was published in Russian, the abstract was available in English, a practice that allows more people to see what the research was about. I found the abstract on a medical database, and the text contained a phrase that struck me as quite an interesting understatement. It said that the genetic variation was “unfavorable for successful aging”.

Sometimes I use that database to check things as part of my job, but in fact this job is almost over, as I have almost no work to do now. With the little bit of proofreading I’ve been given lately, I’ve spent most of the week reading about DNA, gene therapy, etc., just for interest. I’ve learned a lot for an amateur, but I’m not doing much real work. I’ve been honest enough to tell my boss that I’m not very busy, that I run out of work, but not honest enough to volunteer to go home and stop being paid. So I recognize that getting paid for doing nothing (except learning about DNA promoters) is not entirely ethical, but I figure it’s better than wearing a ski mask and robbing a liquor store. Which is, of course, what I would do if I came home.

Looks like I’m about to have another transition, back to looking for a job, but never mind. Let’s talk about literature. I went last night to a literary event down in the city, at a “bookstore” (actually mostly a restaurant) called Busboys and Poets, a reference to the poet Langston Hughes.

I miscalculated how long it would take to get there. What I discovered on the highways and boulevards and streets and alleys of Washington, DC, was a massive automotive clusterfuck of such epic proportions that the ancient poet Homer would have needed to use Greek, Latin, and mathematical symbols to describe it, as every car within 100 miles was packed bumper to bumper in Washington. Or that’s how it seemed to me anyway. Was that normal? I was pretty late.

In compensation, God gave me a parking space the moment I looked for one. The restaurant was packed and people were waiting for seats, but I walked on through looking for the people I was supposed to meet on the sidewalk more than an hour before. Busboys and Poets turned out to have a large room at the back, with a stage, booths, tables, and waitress service. A woman was on the stage reading a poem about missing a man’s penis. I’m not making that up.

I found my people (members of my Thursday writing group), who mysteriously had an empty chair right beside their table, so I sat down as if all were normal. As a general rule of life, I’ve found that it can be helpful to pretend that things are normal. The genital-longing poem was eventually followed by another that I liked quite a bit, in which a woman spoke as a mad scientist in love. I thought it was strikingly clever in some bits, such as the declaration that she would create a biological plague to kill people off so as to have some time alone with her beloved.

Maybe that doesn’t work for you, but I liked it, and afterward I went to the poet and told her so. The reading we were at was not an open mic at which anyone could get up and abuse people with their poetry. This event was arranged by some kind of writing collective, which publishes people digitally, perhaps with the idea that it is a step toward paper publication, or perhaps they are satisfied with electrons. It’s an idea that comes up more and more, publishing only in digital format, but I’m old fashioned and I want to be published in a form that a dog could chew up.

Once the formal readings were over, we were encouraged to mingle with the other writers in the room, not actually a very practical proposition, as everyone was seated and almost no one moved. I took it seriously, however, and went over to sit down at a booth with two young women, to interrupt their conversation and engage them in writer talk. One of them works for NPR (headquartered here in DC) and the other, I am sad to report, is in graduate school. I wish her a speedy recovery.

Next Thursday our own writing group will be back to pretending that everything is normal, meeting once again at the table in the back of Bread and Chocolate. I’ve decided next week instead of reading another chapter from Benedict and Miramar, to read what I’ve written describing the characters for the new novel, and see what people think off that. Time to move forward, which is my favorite direction.

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Do You Wag Your Tail at Me, Sir?

Donald Duck as a Musketeer[If you would like to read the book The Three Musketeers, and if you enjoy the pleasure of surprise as you read, then do not read this blog entry. I’m going to talk about the book and I will spoil it for you.]

No matter what else I say here, The Three Musketeers is an entertaining book, full of adventures, interesting characters, and action. In my edition it was 700 pages, but it pulled me through it. A friend told me she’d heard it referred to as a children’s book, though it is clearly written as entertainment for adults. The author, Alexandre Dumas, was known for such big adventure books, also writing The Count of Monte Cristo.

It is odd that the book is named for three Musketeers. By the end of the novel, D’Artagnan has become a Musketeer, and even before that, he is both the lead protagonist and the constant companion of the other three, so that it would have actually made more sense to refer to four Musketeers.

The Three Musketeers is famous as a story of sword fighters, but in fact the name Musketeer comes from “musket” and refers to a fighting unit armed with muskets. Although Dumas chose to make the Musketeers his literary heroes, he almost entirely makes them sword fighters. They do shoot a gun on occasion, but for the most part they are ready at every moment to whip out those swords and start clacking them together. Dumas even refers to them at times as doing something with their hand on their swords, just in case.

In general the Musketeers are prone to fighting, somewhat reminiscent of rednecks in an American country and western bar growling at strangers, “Who you looking at?” The difference is that one group fights with swords, the other with broken beer bottles. I would put the four Musketeers somewhat in the same literary/entertainment category as Shakespeare’s Falstaff or the satirical cartoon character Homer Simpson. They are entertaining and fun to experience as imaginary characters, but you would not want to actually meet such people.

At the beginning, The Three Musketeers seems as if it will be a caricature of violence, similar to Hollywood westerns of the 1950s, where cowboys would fight but no blood was ever seen. The impression of “play violence” in this novel is created near the beginning with a scene in which Musketeers sword fight one another on a large set of stairs just for the fun of swishing their swords around and poking them at one another. Later in the book, however, people are both killed and wounded by swords and guns, although some of the caricature element remains, as with characters who make light of their wounds. I don’t know really, but I’m guessing that if someone shoved a long thin piece of steel into you, it would feel serious.

Against this background of making light of the sword play and even killing, it comes as a bit of a shock at the very end of the book to find quite a grim scene of violence as a woman is put through an impromptu trial (by the Musketeers) and then beheaded as she is trying to escape. In this rather horrific scene and several leading up to it, Dumas has brought two storylines back together. In a sense, this novel is really two books. Most of the novel is about D’Artagnan or his crew, but toward the end there is a rather long section which focuses entirely on the character Milady, the young woman who is breath-takingly beautiful and evil almost simply for the pleasure of it.

Although Milady is almost a caricature of evil, Dumas has done some things with her character that seem inconsistent and surprising to me. He depicts her as sneaky, lying, vicious, and cunning, and moreover, we know she is on the side of darkness because she is an ally of Cardinal Richelieu. What is surprising is that such a character is also shown more than once to be a victim as well. On one occasion, the hero of the novel, D’Artagnan, has tricked his way into Milady’s bed in the dark, pretending to be someone else who she is in love with. (And then D’Artagnan is such an awe-inspiring fool as to tell her later.)

More dramatically, and astoundingly to me, Dumas makes Milady the former wife of one of the Musketeers, who years before attempted to hang her, and in fact left her for dead, so that he’s surprised to find she’s alive.

Why did he try to hang her? But really, is there a reason why a man could suddenly grab his wife and hang her that would cause us to say “Ah, he had a good reason”? It doesn’t matter why. From that point on, no matter how despicably Milady behaved, I couldn’t help thinking “but her husband hung her”. Christ Almighty. Did Dumas really intend for us to think that was OK?

The book also makes use of both real characters and events. Historical characters like Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII, or Buckingham of England are all presented (no doubt correctly) as examples of the sort of dreary powermongers who litter history and make life worse for common people. The book also contains some of the fight to capture the city of La Rochelle, so that the Protestant inhabitants could be suppressed and murdered by the good Catholic King.

For much of the book, Cardinal Richelieu is presented as the antagonist who the Musketeers both oppose and are careful of. He is generally presented as a cunning, ominous character, yet it is the killing of Milady that provides the real climax to the book. As far as the pernicious Cardinal goes, the Musketeers seem to make their peace with him afterward, so some of the bad guys do not get dealt with.

That part, anyway, is like real life.

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