_________ Steps to Writing Your Novel

black-hole-star-sucking

Black Holes are pretty to look at anyway.

 

  1. Stay at work late doing work that is due but that you a) have not been given time to complete, and b) are not getting paid for.
  2. Stop in the parking lot to hug a former student and to hear about her semester in Copenhagen, her journey to Barcelona with other kids you know, her most recent internship applications, her brother’s (also a former student) recent success with a documentary that will appear on the Discovery Channel. When she asks what you what’s new with you, respond truthfully: Nothing.
  3. Refuse to dwell on that answer.
  4. Get gas and wait patiently for the attendant to check his text messages even though the window is down and you’re freezing because you have an attendant and that’s why you come here and that kind of laziness on your part deserves some small punishment.
  5. Go to the library and read every fiction title in the talking book section. Choose none.
  6. Wonder, one more time, why every talking book library you’ve ever perused has so many copies of books by Alexander McCall Smith.
  7. Read every non-fiction title in the talking book section. Choose two that you find on the second to last shelf.
  8. Drive home in silence.
  9. Sit in the driveway reading texts from your boss that make no sense and that you could read tomorrow with exactly the same conclusion.
  10. Vent in a group text that makes no sense about the email that makes no sense.
  11. Head inside and contemplate that uneven granite pavers, though picturesque, aren’t entirely navigable post-blizzard.
  12. Say, Hello! Hello! Hello! and, just because no one answers, do not assume no one is home.
  13. Unpack your lunch box.
  14. Discover a loaded dishwasher.
  15. Unload it.
  16. Make tea that you oversteep.
  17. Pet the dog. Finally. Pet the poor, goddamned dog.
  18. When one daughter does come down the stairs, attempt to discover where everyone else is despite the fact that she doesn’t know.
  19. Name everyone individually just so you’re clear: She knows where no one is.
  20. Agree to take her and a friend to work in a few minutes.
  21. Peel an orange. Eat it.
  22. Forget about your tea until it gets cool.
  23. Microwave it.
  24. Answer your phone when your husband calls to tell you he’s on his way home and has stopped at several roadside stands (there is a foot of snow on the ground) and no one is selling any eggs.
  25. Feel grateful when he says, “I’ll take Justina to work. You can stay home and write.”
  26. and when he says he will stop at the grocery store and buy a few things including, perhaps, eggs that aren’t frozen solid.
  27. Go in search of a seat that isn’t covered with cat hair.
  28. Consider it might be easier to find a time in the day when Law and Order reruns are not playing.
  29. Think about how you’ve never actually seen an entire issue.
  30. Give up and get the vacuum.
  31. Run the vacuum over the furniture uselessly and ignore the noise it’s making.
  32. Pull out the filters and wash them, instead.
  33. Insert new filters.
  34. Wonder why the microwave keeps beeping and worry that it’s broken, too.
  35. Run the vacuum and continue to ignore the noise it’s making until it is clear that the reason it’s making a noise is that it’s broken and there is no way it will pick up any hair.
  36. Feed the cats even though you’re aggravated about the hair.
  37. Feed the dogs too even though they’re no help in that department, either.
  38. Go upstairs where the comforter is not only full of cat hair but is also dirty because yesterday one cat got stuck in the (not-used-in-recent-history) bread oven which is now used to store old newspapers and kindling.
  39. Put the comforter in the wash.
  40. Wonder what happened to your tea.
  41. When your second daughter comes home and asks, “What’s for dinner?” suggest a few things and then instruct her to get the frozen sauce out of the freezer while you put water on for pasta.
  42. Answer the following text from your husband who is still shopping: Brocollini?
  43. Answer your daughter’s boyfriend when he asks if you have any meat (meat you buy only for him since no one else eats meat here).
  44. Answer him when he holds up the chicken apple sausages and says, “Do these actually have apple in them?
  45. Answer the phone and speak with your niece’s daughter who has never called before. She’s bored and wants to tell you about The Martian starring Matt Damon who looks like her Dad.
  46. Consider this and decide: She’s right. Her dad does look like Matt Damon.
  47. Go back upstairs.
  48. Tuck in your husband’s side of the bed where he tears the sheets out.
  49. Remember: Have to go to my mom’s this weekend. Need to pack.
  50. Pack.
  51. Take the computer out of the case.
  52. Try for the 1000th time since you’ve lived here to plug something into an outlet that is sixty years old and can’t accommodate a three prong.
  53. Don’t even consider trying to find an adapter.
  54. Sigh. Wish you had tea.
  55. Think: Wait. Didn’t I make tea?
  56. Answer a text from your third (and last) daughter: “What’s for dinner?”
  57. Tell her.
  58. Answer another text where she says: “Who is picking me up from work?”
  59. Call your husband and ask him to pick her up on his way home.
  60. Turn on your computer.
  61. Wait a long time for it to warm up.
  62. Say hello to your husband and daughter when they get home.
  63. Say thank you when your husband says, “I also got bread for garlic bread.”
  64. Make the garlic bread. You can’t expect them to have pasta without garlic bread. They love garlic bread. You love garlic bread.
  65. Hug your middle daughter. She still lets you.
  66. Find the grated cheese no one else can find.
  67. Put away the blueberries people ate while they were waiting for the pasta to cook.
  68. Eat standing up.
  69. Take a break to flip a water bottle so your daughter can videotape you doing it and send it to your other niece’s son.
  70. Clean up from dinner.
  71. Unclog vacuum.
  72. Vacuum.
  73. Unpack couch covers — the latest attempt (after buying a cat bed they don’t use, the Furminator, a special attachment to the vacuum) to get rid of cat hair.
  74. This reminds you: Put the comforter in the dryer.
  75. This reminds you of that book, If you give a mouse a cookie.
  76. This reminds you that you thought your kids would always be little so you should go ahead and vacuum something while they were busy painting at the table and singing Good Night Irene.
  77. There’s no going back now to whatever it was you were doing.
  78. Meanwhile, the cats have gotten into the shipping box and they are very fun to watch. Mesmerizing, really. Like Fiona, the preemie hippo at the Cincinnati zoo who has almost single-handedly gotten you through the first 100 days of the apocalypse.
  79. When your daughter and her boyfriend go to the diner for pie, order banana cream even though you’re full.
  80. If it’s too late to dig into that novel especially when you’re distracting by cats hiding inside the box and outside under the flaps and you’re anticipating pie, write something else.
  81. Keep writing even when your husband calls from the kitchen: “Is this your tea in the microwave?”

 

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One of the Cimalores Might Be a Poet: Part IV

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

PART IV: Revelations

Caron warned we’d be busy at first. Then we’d wait through a cold spring that delivered day after day of rain and biting winds, days with no word from Halifax, PA, where my book waited for the editors to put out the next issue of their literary magazine. I write no new poems. I send out old ones and have them back home with me immediately. The only one that gets accepted is titled Aftermath.

Caron sends me two choices for the cover. I choose the one with a photo of my siblings, Easter 1958. I marvel that my mother, raising four children on a waitress’ salary after her first husband left, could have purchased these clothes: matching coats, white gloves, patent leather purses. My brother wears a suit.

The moment captures not just what they wore, but who they came to be: Barbara Ann, the oldest, worried, serious. As if she understood even then she’d be the one to take responsibility when something terrible happened. When Uncle Duke died, Uncle Joe, Patty’s husband, it was Barbara Ann who made the phone calls and summoned the family.

Jeannie beamed. Before her stood the house her father had deserted, behind her the house where our grandmother lived with her abusive husband, but here was something Jeannie could control: what she looked like, how she presented herself to the world, and on this day, she looked especially good.

We don’t have a picture of my brother as a kid where he is being serious. He makes faces, seems to be in motion, as if he can’t stand still long enough, can’t wait to be done with the costume, the pose, the day. And he would keep moving for many years, from apartment to apartment, from woman to woman, restless, impatient, searching.

Patty tips her head, toes in, as uncomfortable being front and center, being told to smile, at five years old as she will always be. As unsure of her beauty even then.

I’ve told your story, I say to them. I wrote it down for strangers.

 

Mid-August my children, brown and bored by the beach, whine. They want a pool. They want friends over. They want me to examine every mosquito bite they have and console them when they have to scratch. I am reminded of the lure of a book tour, hotels — even cheap ones — in another city. Caron had told me in that congratulatory phone call that I’d be touring in October and November. Shouldn’t I be blocking dates off on my calendar? Packing all my new clothes? Finding someone to help Dennis get the girls off to school? I email Caron asking for an update and get no reply.

Two weeks later, I fire off another. Nothing.

In my final email I say, I can plan some of my own readings if necessary.

The reply comes quickly: Yes, by all means, do.

 

Robert Wynne, Caron’s co-editor, sends final edits on several poems for my approval. Then the book is ready for the printer. I am at my mother’s house for the last long weekend of summer. Downstairs, she refills chocolate milk for the girls and digs around in her drawers until she finds a third pair of scissors. She’s made eggplant for supper, hung their beach towels on the line.

Do I get to dedicate the book? I say in an email to Caron.

She says yes, but to hurry.

I type: For my mother, Mary Cimalore Panciera. Hit send.

But I don’t ask, inexplicably, regretfully, May I add an acknowledgements paragraph? No one asks for one, either. And then the book is done.

 

In slow starts, poetry returns. I find a piece of paper with someone’s name and number scribbled on it left in the bathroom of the YMCA where the girls take swimming lessons. Pansy, it says, in big, cursive loops. Someone left it behind, after this woman, Pansy, dug around in her purse to find a pen. Gave away something vital: Here’s how to reach me; I’ll be waiting. I stare at the paper so long, Justina, my four year old, figures out how to turn the shower on and howls beneath the cold water. I return to my day job, adjusting temperature, refereeing between my daughters over who goes first, but I know I can go home and write a poem. I’ve felt a certain heartbreak.

 

August 28th Caron writes: The book is here! It’s beautiful. Robert and I just need to decide how many copies to send you.

 

September imparts day after day of sun, mild temperatures. We pick apples, ride bikes. We walk to school though the bus ride hasn’t lost its novelty yet. If we must drive anywhere, we put the windows all the way down, tie our hair off our faces. It’s as if, suddenly, we live in southern California. We make plans for outdoor activities and never have to change them. I neglect the house. We run out of clean socks. No one cares. We’re outside. We’re happy.

Except that when we return home, I check the front steps, but The Box doesn’t arrive. What exactly, I wonder, must the editors decide before sending me one copy? One glossy copy with my name on it?

 

My family has not seen the cover. Though it appears on-line, I’ve kept it secret. I have a plan to surprise my siblings, especially, with their photo. I’ll wrap the books up, let them unwrap them at the same time.

Driving to Westerly on Labor Day weekend with the books wouldn’t be bad. We could leave Saturday to avoid traffic.

But the books don’t come.

Well, we have nothing planned the weekend of the tenth. I’ll meet my family halfway, just over the Massachusetts border. We’ll have a celebratory lunch.

No books arrive.

The next weekend, we host a huge party for Dennis’ fiftieth birthday. A great time, since my family is coming, to gather them all together and show them the book — that doesn’t appear.

Friends stalk small bookstores where they’ve been buying books for years. They ask the owners if they’d be interested in having me read, in selling my books. Everyone says the same thing: Can I see a copy first? Other friends try buying it on-line and call me: I can’t get through the PayPal system.

My book sits in Texas. Sits and sits in Texas. All of the Cimalores in Texas.

 

The week after Dennis’ birthday, Patty calls. “Why didn’t you TELL us our picture is on the cover?!” she screams.

I ask her how she knows this and she tells me she looked on the press’s website to see if there was any news about the book’s release.

“Did you tell anyone else?” I ask.

“I called Barbara Ann,” she said. “Jeannie’s out of town.”

I hang up the phone and cry a little putting groceries away. I’d feel silly complaining to Caron about this latest disappointment. I have a book. I’ve published a book. I can cross the oldest, biggest item off my list. And now I’m upset because my little surprise party is ruined?

Though this is how it has always been in my family. We spring good news on one another, reveal it to an enormous coming out party.

But the book is not just ours, and it’s in a bigger world than my mother’s kitchen. It’s in Texas.

 

Friday, September 23, my daughters invite a friend over. The girls play upstairs. They boss Barbie around. The costume box opens. The mail truck flashes by the front window. I’m cleaning up from lunch. One dog finds a sunbeam and reclines. The other follows me in case I sweep any crumbs her way. When I look up from the counter, the truck is still there, paused at my mailbox. It takes me a second to wonder why, and then I know.

Our front door opens with a skeleton key. A not-often-used skeleton key that requires a specifically choreographed shoulder shove and jiggle before it yields. By the time I wrench the old door open, the mail carrier staggers up the lawn with a box. I leap off the doorstep and hold out my arms.

“It’s heavy,” he says. “Maybe I should set it down for you.”

But I am already carrying it back into the house, propelled by the kind of adrenaline that allows people to toss automobiles off trapped loved ones.

 

No graduate writing courses explain how to promote books. I decide to start with a reading at the closest library.

“Sure, you can read,” the library director says. “Whenever you want.”

I trot out a few dates and she says, “Like I said, whenever.”

I choose one date, then suggest 7 PM. “Oh, wait,” I say. “The library closes at 8. What if the reading goes over a bit?”

“No problem,” she says. “We’ll leave you the key and show you how to lock up on your way out.”

“What about refreshments?” I say.

“Bring anything you like.”

 

I call newspapers and ask for a feature on me, modest little me, or a piece on local writers who balance work, family and writing. I suggest several people who might be interviewed. No editor returns my calls.

My friend, Brian, one of the people whose names I would have given for above article, works for a local artist rag. He offers to interview me and arrives one morning with a notebook.

No matter what I say, I think, he’ll make me sound good.

“I don’t feel comfortable being called a poet,” I say.

He asks why, pen poised.

“I don’t feel smart enough.”

He writes, most likely, about my wit and modesty. Thus fortified, I elaborate: “In fact, I feel too ordinary to be a poet.”

“Don’t take this wrong, because it’s one of the reasons I like you,” he says, still scribbling, “but that’s how I’ve always seen you. You are quite ordinary.”

 

My neighbor, Anne, buys the first copy. She stands in my driveway holding out fifteen dollars as I scrounge around under my car mats for change.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says. But I do. I have already paid for the case of books. Now, the responsibility for making any profit rests solely with me. A person who has not balanced her check book in ten years. Who frequently closes one checking account when things get too hairy and opens another vowing to keep things straight.

When I see Anne a few days later walking her dog, I stop my car and hand her two dollars.

“Listen,” she says. “I love the book. It’s so revealing.”

I’m still basking in the love part. It isn’t until I drive away that I remember the second part of what she said.

 

Except for my mother, my family has never read my poetry. My family, as is the case with most families in the world, are not poetry readers. When the book comes out, I sit at my dining room table and inscribe one for each of my siblings and for each of their children. I present them to my sisters and my mother at the lunch I envisioned on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.

“We’ll read it all the way home,” Jeannie promises.

“Well, someone has to drive,” Patty says. It’s always her.

“We’ll read it aloud then,” Barbara Ann says. And they do, all the way home.

 

Jeannie calls me later in the week to tell me she’s on her second reading.

“I told Mariann,” she says, her older daughter, “That this is how it goes with poetry. The more you read it, the more you get out of it.”

My mother tells me Mariann called her because her husband wants to know if there is such a thing as Oak Street Cowboys. “They were reading the book in bed,” my mother said, as if this always happened, couples in our family huddled together over a book of poems. “They couldn’t wait to find out the story.”

 

When Jason, Mariann’s brother calls, he says, “I finally got to sit down with it.” He has twins who stay up much later than their great aunt. “Poured myself a glass of Mickey Murano’s bourbon (Mickey is a long deceased neighbor of Jason’s parents who must have inherited Mickey’s stash and whose liquor cabinet Jason frequently raids) and read it cover to cover. I want to tell you, Auntie Carla, (Jason reached six feet three inches by the time he turned fourteen. Lifts me off the ground when he feels like it), I could have read those farm poems forever.”

He worked with my father the last years of the farm, the hardest years when the buildings collapsed, when my father’s health deteriorated, when no one else came around to help.

“But I do have a question for you.”

“Anything,” I say, remembering when I wondered how I would love my own children as much as I have loved my sisters’ and brother’s.

“Do you have a problem with prescription drugs?”

The poem to which he refers sprung from a fantasy about happy pills. From a friend who took antidepressants and detailed for me how her moods lifted, how the light changed. A poem that, in fact, revealed no more than a desire to discover a quick fix, an immediate change in the weather.

Now I had an idea what revelations my neighbors might be buzzing about.

 

Caron travels to Manhattan and promises to check out venues for me. When she returns, I ask twice how it went but my inbox remains empty. I try scheduling readings at bigger bookstores but they want sales numbers, more data I ask for but do not receive from the publisher. They want reviews which I don’t have. They want to be able to get the book via their distributors which is impossible since the book has no distributor.

I call my mother and complain.

“It’s not how I imagined it,” I say.

She gives me a list of people who need books signed. Books she sells out of her kitchen. That my sisters sell from their desks in the Town Hall, in the school department.

“It’s going like hot cakes down here,” she says.

“Okay, but . . .”

Before I can finish, she says: “You’re missing the most important thing.”

I wait. I can hear her soap opera in the background, the volume high, the commercials hawking floor cleaners and dryer sheets.

“People are not just buying your book,” she says. “They’re reading it.”

 

I learned recently that every thirty seconds somewhere in the world a book is published. Many places in the world — mud huts and country manors, sprawling ranches, filthy tenements — then, must be cluttered as my living room is with stacks of pristine copies, sleek spine to sleek spine.

I read to small groups of mostly friends and family members thankful I have enough people to fill the few seats I usually unfold myself. Miriam brings flowers and a tablecloth, struggles to make change so at least I don’t have to sell the books, put the money away and pick up a pen to autograph the purchase. Dennis comes and I am grateful for the opportunity to thank him publicly, for saying what should have been said in the acknowledgements page. That he’s the one who wakes me up at dawn every day. That he’s the one who listens when I say, “I can’t write.” He has to figure out something to say when I cry about things he might not understand. He brings the girls who sit alone in the front row where they pay attention even though Justina admits my poems bore her. When I glance up from the page and see them, they smile. Sometimes, they wear lipstick. My throat closes so tightly, I can barely read the next line.

 

The week before my Westerly reading, articles about me appear in three different newspapers. My sister Barbara Ann leaves me a message: “I don’t know if you return your own calls these days or if you have a press secretary, but just wanted to tell you the Westerly Sun article is beautiful.” Patty mails me copies of everything. Jeannie hides the newspaper so her husband, a chronic re-cycler, doesn’t cart it off before she gets a chance to cut the stories out. My mother’s phone rings and rings, Cimalores phoning in from all over the place.

 

For the Westerly reading, I wear jeans and a blouse.

“You always wear that shirt for your poetry,” Justina says.

She’s right. It feels good. It’s dark purple, heavy silk. I chose it myself during the shopping month, thinking as I did so: I never wear anything like this in my real life.

We cut through the park towards the side door of the Westerly Library. Jeannie and her family carry trays of cookies, jugs of cider. Patty totes the cigar box for money. Her son Carl lugs the box of books. Barbara Ann reminds me of several people I will see so I will remember their names. My daughters dash ahead to the fountain, illuminated by a red spotlight. My mother and I come last, her hand on my arm. She lost most of her vision the same year we moved off the farm. I point out the shallow steps, the uneven flagstones.

We take the main stairs to the auditorium, not the metal ones to the glass floored stacks of novels. In the open doorway, I stop. So many empty chairs!! It’s as if I’m about to be married again. The room has enormous windows, arched at the top. Portraits of wealthy (non-Italian) library patrons hang on the dark walls as if we’ve stumbled into a manor’s library and not the library of a town built on the backs of immigrants in the quarries. The library has always felt like this to me: as a mansion or as a cathedral. A place that demands reverence.

We’re still setting up when people arrive: a friend who used to live up the street from the farm that is now a Home Depot. Where her house sat is a liquor store. The woman who sewed my prom dress. A friend of Barbara Ann’s who crocheted matching blankets, one for me, one for Beatrice’s foster mother, when we traveled to Guatemala to bring Beatrice home. My aunts come. “That’s my niece,” Aunt Nanny says, cutting the line. She brings a friend who also worked at the summer houses of people like Mrs. Jacobs. My mother’s best friend for sixty years, the reporters who’ve already done stories, a teacher from my high school, the father of my best friend growing up, Jeannie’s friends who sit with us on the Town Beach every summer, my Panciera cousins, my great-nieces and nephews, people who even Barbara Ann can’t name for me.

The library director stands at the podium. She says, “It must be a writer’s dream to return to her hometown to read from her first book.”

The world gets perfectly small and attainable. No New York. No million dollars. Just an audience of people I mostly recognize, my book in their laps.

I look out at them and they return my smile, or sit back to listen, or tilt their heads and wait to hear what I have to say. This person they’ve come to hear, this woman they knew once or heard about, who has now, it seems, become a poet.

“I’ve told your story,” I say.

I read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Weekend Write-In: Onion Skin and Bleaching Fields

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Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields

 

Remember getting assigned a research project when you were a kid? In the 1970’s, this meant heading downtown to the Westerly Public Library, a setting more awe-inspiring to me than any cathedral. Despite the library’s grandeur, it’s circular children’s room with windows that looked out onto Wilcox Park, its glass-floored fiction shelves, its winding staircase that led who-knows-where, the reference room was a dingy place full of thick-spined volumes on metal shelves. The reverence I felt for this institution took a serious hit as I considered the work ahead. We’d unpack our backpacks onto solid oak tables, flick through the card catalog and return with some barely totable tome from which we’d completely plagiarize our material until our hands cramped so much, it was time to head to BeeBee’s dairy for a hotdog on a buttered roll.

Then, Christ have mercy, it was time to go home and type. On the way, you prayed you had an ancient, water-stained box of onion skin and that the ink ribbon had not dried out since you last attempted to hunt and peck your way through this particular brand of misery. And if the gods were with you and everything worked out just fine, there were still those moments when, clicking along at secretarial pool speed, you looked up only to realize you had long ago run out of paper and had committed several lines to the typewriter rollbar. This, of course, meant you had left no space for those bottom-of-the-page footnotes. So you sobbed hysterically and considered dropping out of school. You imagined your teacher with his feet up eating out of a big bag of Lays and watching Wide World of Sports (and then you imagined him as an Agony of Defeat example) and finally, tragically, hopelessly, you began again — only to realize you’d run out of onion skin. No worries. The store at Clark’s Paper Mill, which was the only place within a four hour radius that stocked the stuff, would be open on Monday. Same day the paper was due.

This crisis would fire my mother up considerably. Why had I waited so long to start? Why hadn’t I checked to see what I needed to complete the work days ago? She’d proceed to tear up the spare room where we kept a desk and a blizzard of papers in the world’s worst filing system. When that turned up no supplies, she’d start calling her sisters, her cousins, her friends, her friends’ sisters, her friends’ cousins, until finally, at the home of one of the people you felt least comfortable with in the world, someone coughed up a sheet or two of onionskin.

“Okay, goddamnit,” she’d say. “Now go get it.”

Did I mention I was paralyzingly shy? Social awkwardness was something I longed to attain one day as it would have been a step in the right direction.

After a few more hours of me pleading with her to come with me and then, worse yet, my mother’s chilling Silent Treatment, we would climb into one the old Impalas or another and she would peel out of our laneway, hellbent on a mission to get the goddamn paper or kill us both trying.

Anyway, I guess it all got done. I graduated high school. I never turned an assignment in late.

All of this is to say, however, that I wish I had known then how fun research could be. For example, a few weeks ago, my friend Brian requested a poem about Dutch landscapes. This led to me doing several Google image searches and discovering a world of bleaching fields and tulip trading. It also led me, not to the stuffiest room in a library, but to the Museum of Fine Arts on a Friday night before a long weekend in the company of a real-live landscape painter. We were among the last visitors to the Museum’s special exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

I brought along a notebook and scribbled some of the following:

  • Dutch scientists discovered Saturn’s rings
  • Dutch women had much in common with Nantucket women; wives of merchants and wives of whalers were often left to run things at home
  • In Haarlem you would have smelled the breweries
  • Bleacheries soaked linens in buttermilk for three weeks!
  • A Herring Buss = a ship on which you can gut and salt the catch
  • Fishmongers were mostly women who kept baskets floating in rivers to keep the fish fresh
  • In Salomon Van Ruysdael’s River Landscape with Riders on a Ferry, one cow is scratching her neck

I have no idea which of these details, if any, will make it into Brian’s poem. But I have been immersed in a world that will surely lend itself to some inspiration for a poem. I aspire to paint life-sized portraits of my loved ones in poses that will make them laugh. I can’t get the image of Rembrandt’s illuminated ruffles out of my mind, nor do I ever hope to. Also, my hands aren’t shaking. No deadline looms. I didn’t cry once. Somewhere nearby, my mother is donning her Steelers sweatshirt and awaiting today’s game, her love for me blissfully unconditional.

My research ended, not with a real-life model for a summer blockbuster chase scene, but with a root vegetable torte and a glass of pinot grigio that I raised to evolution, and to the utter extinction of onion skin.