One of the Cimalores Might Be A Poet: Part III

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Photo Credit: Miriam Novogrodsky

The Cider Press Review has recently announced the winner of its 2015 Book Award. More than ten years ago, my book, One of the Cimalores, won their inaugural prize. I wish Julia Bouwsma success with her award winning manuscript and the kind of dream-come-true stuff that happened to me all those years ago.

This entry is the third in a series. Read the first installment here and the second here.

PART III: Calling All Clavicles

Caron, Cider Press’s editor, needs a picture. A JPEG which I have to ask for clarification on: Does this mean a digital camera? She writes back: Yes. Do you have one?

Well, Caron is recently acquainted with my poetry, but otherwise knows little about me. I consider all the people I know who own these cameras — everyone — then I consider who I would trust with the assignment and I am left with: Miriam.

Miriam, my fiction-writer friend, and I examine the publicity shots on book jackets. We say: She’s very full of herself, isn’t she? or, I’d sleep with him. Certainly, she has the expertise I’m looking for.

She arrives and marches past me upstairs.

“Let’s find you something to wear,” she says. Though, as it happens, I am not naked.      She rifles through my closet tsking until she comes to a revealing tank top I bought to put under several other items of clothing.

“This,” she says. “It shows off your clavicles.” Things I’ve never considered showcasing.

I put the shirt on. Cross my arms as if I’ve something to cover up, which, it turns out, in this shirt I do.

Next, she tries to unscramble a knot of necklaces in the small dish on my dresser.

“This is it for jewels?” she says. “My God, you are the most frugal person I know.”

She selects a pair of earrings she bought me for my birthday though we aren’t supposed to exchange gifts. When I produce my make-up bag, she struggles to get it unzipped.

“New foundation,” I say, proud of myself, though still cringing at the forty-eight dollars it cost me. Forty-eight dollars!!

“But how old is the mascara?” she says, putting it on me anyway.

“Same age as Beatrice,” I say. My oldest daughter. Six.

“You know I’m not a great photographer, right?” she says. “That at my house the joke-of-the-day is that I’m out on a photo shoot?”

She snaps fifty pictures, has a cup of tea, then takes the camera home to her husband who says, “Although it’s amazing that Carla has written a book, it’s more amazing you will get the photo credit.” He puts me on a disk that Miriam titles: Carla Gorgeous. Which is another reason I love her.

The photo we agree on has one small problem: my bra strap shows. It’s nothing from swanky lingerie shops. It’s beige, as old as Apphia, my middle daughter. Five.

I send it to my brother-in-law Jerry who erases the bra strap but gives me bushy eyebrows and a mustache.

Very funny, I write back.

When we finish, Caron writes: Great picture. You must have an excellent photographer.

But do I look like a poet? I wonder.

Dennis lifts it off the counter when he gets home from work.

“Hmm,” he says, “Very Joyce Carol O’ish.”

 

For the cover, I want black and white photos of the Cimalores. My mother rummages through a box that has gotten wet many times though we have never determined how. She peels a few off and mails them. Aunt Rita sends me an envelope with pictures of her grandchildren.

“She doesn’t want pictures of them for Christsakes,” my mother tells her.

“Well, they’re Cimalores,” Aunt Rita says.

My sister Jeannie says, “If you use that one with my hair flipping up, I’ll die.”

My mother says, “If you use one with that bastard my father in it, I’ll die.”

Months later when the cover still isn’t designed, my mother discovers a few photos undamaged by the mysterious flood. In one, cut to a strip, two of my uncles, one now dead, flank a woman I don’t recognize. At their feet, Aunt Nanny lays on her side, her head wrapped in a kerchief like a 40’s pin up. They’re all smiling, Uncle Joe with the irony I remember, though it has been years since I’ve thought of that expression, the one his sons have now, his grandsons in Aunt Rita’s pictures, too. Uncle Louie is so thin he’s hardly recognizable. The woman between them, I realize, must be Louie’s wife, Helen. I’ve only seen her image in the wedding photos Louie gave my mother to keep after Helen died suddenly at thirty-three. Two of the poems I’ve written about this aunt I never met are in the book. My mother is curator of her mini-museum. Not only does she have the wedding photos, she also keeps Helen’s pink jewelry box under her bed. As a child, I sat many hours with it, examining her clip on earrings, her thin gold watch. My uncle had long-since happily remarried with a large family, but Helen had never really left our house.

I told your story, I say to her now. To all of my young aunts and uncles who mug and clown for the rare photograph that survived.

 

Everyone volunteers to take me shopping. This appeals to me: buying clothes for fall readings off clearance racks in spring. Teresa holds up a red brocade jacket: “This,” she says. “With a revealing tank top underneath. Show a little lace.”

“Do poets show lace?” I say. I’m thinking about Jane Kenyon. Mekeel. Stephen Dunn. Keats.

Keren hands me black pants. “A must,” she says. “But what will you do about shoes? You can’t wear those. In fact, you can’t wear anything you currently own.”

Although I shop with one friend at a time, it’s as if they’ve held a conference first. Be tough with her, they have strategized. Make her spend money. Deny her elastic waist. Be especially merciless about not letting her have the over-sized stuff. Call out those clavicles. Tell her to stand up straight.

 

When the proofs for the book arrive, I put them on the counter. All day, I circle them as if they are a strange, reptilian pet I have agreed to babysit. Dennis comes home from work and eyes the package.

“What’s this?” he says.

I tell him.

“Have you opened them?”

“What if they’re not very good?” I say. “It’s too late to say I’ve changed my mind, right?”

He shakes his head and goes upstairs.

The next morning, Caron writes: So how does it feel to hold it in your hands?

I like the font, I reply.

It reminds me of Jane Kenyon’s font. Small, serif, unlikely to call attention to itself. For this I am so grateful I nearly weep.

 

One of the Cimalores Might Be a Poet:Part II

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The Cider Press Review has recently announced the winner of its 2015 Book Award. More than ten years ago, my book, One of the Cimalores, won their inaugural prize. I wish Julia Bouwsma success with her award winning manuscript and the kind of dream-come-true stuff that happened to me all those years ago.

This entry is the second in a series. Read the first installment here.

Part II: What Poetry Can Do

Sometime over that next year, Dennis heard that wet bread taped over a splinter would draw the wood out. He tried it when a wedge of pine lodged itself into the heel of his palm, tearing electrical tape from the roll with his teeth to bind the poultice together. We were three seasons behind on Six Feet Under and, having finally figured out how to work our DVD player, given to us by a friend impatient with our lack of technology. We looked forward to a Friday night catching up on several episodes. From upstairs, requests for water, for hallway lights turned on or off, for one or another person to stop singing, quieted. The dogs came in from prowling, cold air swirling off their coats, and collapsed by the wood stove. How many times had we heard it was the coldest January on record? But it would end tonight in one burst of Canadian air streaming over us, festooning the snug houses of our neighborhood.

When the phone rang, we let the answering machine get it. We only called for the message because no one called us this late. 9:30. No one but an old college buddy of Dennis’ who tormented us because we go to bed so early. What if it’s an emergency, we thought.

Dennis held the receiver in his good hand, listened, then said: “Caron Andregg? Cider Press Review?”

I threw off the afghan and grabbed the phone.

“What?” he said. “What?”

He had no idea I’d submitted a manuscript to a book award contest. Or he had forgotten. Or he hadn’t connected that manuscript to this phone call. I couldn’t listen to Caron’s message, her voice deep and whispery, as if in her house, wherever it was, someone slept lightly, and explain.

“I have good news,” Caron’s message said.

I dialed her back quickly and just as I got to the final digit, to the second where I could turn to Dennis and say, “I think I won a book contest. I think someone is going to publish my book,” he peeled off the tape and shouted (though our house was full of light sleepers): “It worked!”, the splinter slipping out of his flesh as easily as if it had passed through water.

My mother goes to bed earlier than I do, in deepest winter by 6 PM. I called my sister Patty instead. Patty who once listened to the poem the manuscript is named for and said, “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand poetry.” But she received news of the book with the hysteria that marks celebrations in my family. We like noise and champagne and effusive displays of affection. We remember fight songs from high school and sing them boisterously as we set the Thanksgiving tables.

“I cried when she told me,” I said. “I had to hang up the phone and call back for details. They’re sending me on a book tour! New York and Boston!”

Boston was 40 minutes away. But New York! New York is where real writers go! New York was what got everyone whooping the next day when I made the rest of my calls. The night before, Caron promised to promote this book, the first book award Cider Press sponsored, with low-budget, but no less romantic, trips to the Big Apple. “We may have to share a room,” she said, “but if you’re willing, we’ll go.”

Though Caron and I might have to share a room, my sisters, my mother, Dennis, my daughters, my nieces, my friends flying in from Florida, driving down from NH, leaving babies behind with husbands, coming specifically to make sure I dress right and wear make-up, would take up the remaining rooms on our floor.

I hung up the phone at last and turned to Dennis who worked at the kitchen table on a memoir about a fainting-in-church phase he endured, and burst into tears.

“What?” he said. He said this often and with the same what-did-I-miss-this-time exasperation. “Isn’t everyone happy for you? I can hear them screaming through the receiver.”

“It’s not who is here,” I said. “It’s all the people who aren’t.”

My father, first of all, who wouldn’t have cared that this book wouldn’t make that million dollars we needed to save the farm, my grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, whose lives I’d included in those poems. The book is titled One of the Cimalores after my mother’s people whose stories I’ve told. It’s Mrs. Jacobs, eighty years old and nearly blind, who summered in Watch Hill when I was a college student. She hired me to read aloud to her as she watered her gardens and to take her shopping for hand-packed ice cream, lobsters, fresh fruit, then sent me off every afternoon for several hours so I could write.

It was also a general feeling of indebtedness: to my mother for her stories, to Mekeel for writing, just once, the line: You’ve got talent, kid, across the bottom of my work, for my friend Lauren who lived with me during my year at BU when I couldn’t imagine writing one line that wouldn’t inspire criticism, sarcasm, ostracism, for Teresa who called me her friend the poet through all the years I didn’t feel worthy of the title, for Dennis who rose every morning at dawn and wrote and inspired me to do the same, for the poets who had read my drafts and offered feedback, for my students who sat around workshop tables and coaxed me back to poetry. An endless list of people who had a hand in this book that, in the end, would feature only my name on the cover.

In March, I returned to the high school where I’d taught for ten years before leaving to raise our daughters. This time, I visited as a poet-slash-teacher, hired to lead a teacher workshop on discussing poetry with teenagers. I spread a few dozen books of poetry across the conference table and urged people to read quietly.

“Later,” I said, “we’ll hear some favorites and discuss them if you’d like.”

Of course, these are English teachers: They discuss. They said why they chose the poems they did, what it felt like to find a fear voiced, a love described as they wish they could have described it.

Look what poetry can do, I wanted to say. It’s what I would have said as a teacher in a classroom full of high school students.

But I didn’t say it that day because I would also be saying: Look what poets can do. Look what I can do. Who used to be a teacher. Who still felt like a teacher. Who didn’t feel like a poet. Who didn’t feel, yet, as though she’d earned that mantle.

One of the Cimalores Might Be a Poet: Part I

one of the cimaloresThe Cider Press Review has recently announced the winner of its 2015 Book Award. More than ten years ago, my book, One of the Cimalores, won their inaugural prize. I wish Julia Bouwsma success with her award winning manuscript and the kind of dream-come-true stuff that happened to me all those years ago.

This entry is the first in a series.

PART I: A POET? REALLY?

In the Westerly Public Library, fiction shelves sat on a glass floor accessed by a metal staircase that broadcast footsteps. As my friends chattered below, chemistry notebooks, encyclopedias fanned before them, I browsed the dull-spined books. Slats of fluorescent lights glowing from the reference desk shone through the cubes at my feet. I trolled the P’s. P, Pa, Pan, until I found it: the place my book would rest someday. I pushed aside its neighbors, reserved a slit wide as my finger. Then I returned to my friends who thought I’d been scouting titles for our report on catalysts.

What do you want to be when you grow up? people asked. New people in my life, people just passing through my mother’s kitchen, adults who knew little else to ask small children. Some days I told them I wanted to be a dairy farmer like my father.

“Pick something easier,” my mother said.

“Pick something where you’ll make some money,” my father said.

So, other days, I said a writer. Then the person bending towards me trying to get me to speak, (I would have been called, then coaxed, then ordered, out of my room to meet guests) would wonder what I would write.

“Books,” I’d tell them. Meaning: novels.

“Now that’s a good idea,” my father said. “You write a book, make a million dollars and we can sell this place. Then your Daddy can take a rest.”

This appealed to me: making money. Also, having my father in the house on cold nights, snow pinging off the windows, wind shearing shingles off the barns, instead of outside soldering busted pipes or delivering still born calves into a bitter season. I liked the idea, too, of becoming famous, signing my autograph, having my picture taken for newspapers. She used to be so shy, people would say.

In college, I struggled with fiction classes, agonized over stories that weren’t stories at all but pages and pages of description. Finally, a friend who witnessed me jamming yet another page one into my typewriter and kneading my forehead as I stared at it, suggested I try a poetry course.

“For fun,” he said. “Enjoy yourself a little.”

When Mekeel McBride walked, bells on her cloth bag jangled. She entered the room in broom skirt, poncho, crimped hair frizzing around her face. In the margins of our drafts, she printed encouragements with purple markers, letters as fancy as artwork. We sat around a large table and read drafts aloud, Mekeel leaning forward, beaming, no matter what garbage we produced.

Though it turns out, I could write poetry. I had no idea how to do it and Mekeel offered little or no instruction, only praise and encouragement, but my friend was right, I enjoyed class. I felt free. And something was working. Even the crusty graduate students in our workshop offered praise. It didn’t matter, though, I thought. This isn’t really what I do.

After several of my poems appeared in the campus literary journal, someone referred to me as a poet. I studied myself in the mirror: my hair short as a boy’s, my earrings garnet studs I’d had since my eleventh birthday. My wardrobe consisted of Levi jeans and button down oxford shirts, sneakers and one pair of LL Bean duck boots. I didn’t carry a purse, just a wallet flat as a man’s in my back pocket. I desired nothing more than to blend in, to walk from one part of campus to another without anyone glancing my way. The way it was, say, with fiction writers.

Three years later, in graduate school, the creative writing students gathered at The Castle, a gloomy basement bar off Boston’s Commonwealth Ave. My fellow poets crammed chairs around two tables, ordered wine and recited poems, dropped literary allusions, compared one person’s translation of Ovid to another. I’d spent a month listening to these kinds of conversations. Conversations in which I was not smart enough to participate. I’d made a mistake both in coming to Boston University and in pursuing poetry. Poets were either free spirits draped in tinkling bells or erudite scholars who communed regularly with the dead.

I felt nauseous, homesick, though I lived a half hour away and could leave any time. I moved to the bar and ordered a beer.

A fiction writer named Otto introduced himself. “What are they doing over there?” he asked.

“Talking Ovid,” I said, shrugged, vowing not to cry.

Otto pulled the stool out beside him and I sat. We clinked glasses. “Fuck Ovid,” he said.

I finished graduate school, completing an embarrassing collection of poetry, and refused to fool around anymore. I courted solely the fiction muse, except when I got a teaching job and wrote with my high school students. Only then did I sit in the discussion circle and play along with them, trying out in-class exercises to produce poems.

“Stay loose,” I told them, “have fun with words.” As if I believed it possible.

After ten years, though I loved my profession, I left my classroom to stay home with our first daughter. I missed teaching, but I reasoned that, if I couldn’t teach right now, I should write. Every day. Something I’d never been able to do. I used my daughter’s nap time, rose at dawn before she awoke. I hung posters in local libraries inviting fiction writers to form a group. As I toiled away at my true love, I sent off the poems I’d written with my students. Two got accepted one day, two more the next.

“I guess it’s not a fluke,” my husband Dennis said, staring at the second editor’s letter.

I had no choice but to return to poetry, but only as a diversion when I needed a break from fiction. We had a second daughter and a third. We lived in an old farmhouse, much like the one I’d grown up in, a fixer-upper with a huge lawn to tend. Dennis and I traded books; my writing group met weekly; I published poetry, memoirs about the farm, even a few short stories.

For my fortieth birthday, we celebrated with a small group of friends around our table, lit candles and drank wine. A lot of wine. Our daughters watched a movie, came in for cake before Dennis put them to bed. Upstairs they brushed teeth, sang Good Night, Irene loud enough for my mother to hear them a hundred plus miles away. Candlelight softened the faces of the people to whom I felt closest.

Here is my life so far, I thought. A good life.

Forgetting, the way I mostly forgot, that what I had wanted longer than I had wanted anything else was to write a book.

Weekend Write In: The Real World is Obviously Overrrated

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And this is me, preparing to read the latest batch of fiction from my students (who are actually wonderful people who make me love my job).

Twenty years ago, one of my students wrote a story about a kid who is bored at his new job in the women’s clothing section of a large department store. We had talked about putting protagonists into a position where they had to make a moral decision. For this protagonist, a person who considered himself one of the good guys, it was whether or not to call store security when he witnessed an older, clearly disadvantaged person shoplifting. The story received a coveted Gold Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. In the letter of congratulations, the contest coordinator made a special point to note that the hardest thing for any young writer to do is to write a short story.

Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about it, but two decades later, those prophetic words stalk me and my students. No matter the models, no matter the warnings, no matter the conferences, young writers turn out — let’s call them rough — pieces of short fiction. Why? Because, for the most part, they want nothing to do with the real world and/or anything that actually happens to people in it.

Take this week, for example. In our Stranger Comes to Town unit, we read a Bo Caldwell story called “When Children Are Present.” It is about what happens when a young man starts working at a daycare and a child dies under mysterious circumstances. We spent a day outlining situations in which a person’s gender might complicate a plot. What happens when a woman takes over as small town volunteer fire chief and someone is killed in a house fire? Is she judged more harshly than the previous male chief would have been? What happens when a peeping Tom disturbs a peaceful, friendly neighborhood. Does the middle aged, unmarried man whose sole passion is fostering cats draw unfair attention?

We read A and P by John Updike. How many of you have been bored at work? I ask. Every hands goes up. Okay, I continue. Now think: what kind of a stranger could come in a disrupt the day? Someone suggests that a 60 year old man gets a job in the teenaged clothing store that she works in. I feel a dangerous glimmer of hope.

I worry that Cheever’s Good-bye My Brother will not appeal to them, but they come in very excited to discuss it. They cite powerful passages. They respond animatedly to the characters. Everyone understands that the blacksheep of the family might, indeed, be a stranger. In fact, many of them know this firsthand. The odd uncle who finally shows up for Thanksgiving. The cousin who dropped out of school and has been living out of dumpsters in New York City despite the family’s wealth.

We draw maps of a setting and describe what kinds of lives exist in it. Several quiet minutes pass as students envision the placement of playgrounds, stadiums, salt marshes. They use color pencils and markers, label all kinds of things. Next, they put these aside and create one paperdoll with some kind of history, a brief description. We tape these to the board and raffle them off. “Take this character,” I say, “and put him or her into your setting. What happens?”

When, finally, it is time to write, they tap away on their keys. Based on their Character Goes on a Journey stories, I am on red alert. Plots for those stories mostly derived from one of three places: The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Clue. But surely my comments and their grades will remind them: real world, real world, real world.

Anyone need help getting started? I ask. A hand shoots up. I glance down at the graphic organizer she’s sketched in her notebook. In the center circle, in all caps: SUPERHERO.

Now, I have two choices and both of them spell failure not for my student, but for me. Do I remind her how difficult it is to create an ENTIRE world and make your reader believe it, thereby crushing her creative impulse? Or do I offer my useless advice and then set her free to write a story that, despite my most optimistic hopes, will fail miserably?

Actually, I can do neither because her question is: What is a really cool way a superhero might come by her powers?

What can I say? My own imagination is just not that vivid.

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes says that no matter how inexperienced kids are, they are capable of writing good poems, a philosophy I have total faith in. Kids stun  — and I mean STUN — me every year with the poems they create. But most things that stun me about fiction have been that numbing kind of stun that comes from a really bad stubbed toe. The searing pain and then the wretched throbbing. The anger you feel towards that stupidly placed piece of furniture, your own lack of grace. God, you need something to punch.

Since I can’t do this, when I start reading another fantasy piece in a heartlessly tall pile of stories, I write a list of all the new words the writer has invented at the bottom of the first page. Only the author knows if these are places, people, tribes who survived the apocalypse, days of the week.

Other stories, I just collect for future Ripley’s Believe it or Not plot device games I might or might not play someday.

For example: The story where a girl invites a stranger to a concert her younger sister desperately wanted to attend so the younger sister gets her revenge by asking out a boy the older sister likes. Eventually, they even marry, and then — wait for it — she discovers he’s their long-lost brother.

The superhero came by her powers by falling on her face during marching band practice. Sniffing pavement, it turns out, makes one invincible. And maybe the story itself didn’t quite come together, but I can applaud the real gem here: a marching band superhero fired up by asphalt. In a fiction writing class full of young people on ridiculously artificial deadlines, this is considered a good day.

Now, I could end this blog entry with a line like Joyce’s: Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. It would fit.

Or I could just end it the way young fiction writers do, no matter how many times you beg them not to: And then, I woke up.