Would you like to know what I’ve been reading the last twelve months? I made a list.
As I have done for the past few years, in 2019 I kept a list of the books I read. Generally books I read only for fun and not for school, but sometimes they crossed over. I realized a while back I just wasn’t reading enough for pleasure, and that was making my life, well, much less pleasurable. Reading has always been a vigorous Continue reading “2019 Reading Year in Review”→
I am not a good photographer. I’m not even a mediocre photographer. I have trouble taking decent pictures of inanimate objects in natural light, let alone anything more complicated than that.
But I’m trying to make the effort over on Instagram to make worthwhile posts. Tonight I made a book post that I actually think might not be too bad. It took me a while. And since I don’t share nearly enough photos here on the blog, I’m sharing it with you here.
Today I have a few announcements: some upcoming readings and a sneak preview opportunity for you.
The most exciting news here is my upcoming event at one of Houston’s most beloved independent bookstores, Blue Willow Bookshop! If you’re going to be in town, definitely mark your calendars now for Saturday, August 17th, at 3:00, when I’ll be reading from and discussing The Sharp Edges of Water. This promises to be a fun event with an author Q&A––that’s right, bring your questions for me!––and door prizes and books galore! Even if you already have a copy of my book, come and pick one up as a gift for a friend or family member who likes to read or write. You can check out Blue Willow’s site here for more details. Their address is 14532 Memorial at Dairy Ashford 77079. I don’t mind telling you that the Blue Willow event is a Very Big Deal, and it would be really helpful to make a strong showing there, so please come out for it and pick up one (or more) of my books there!
Finally, would you like a sneak preview of my next book? I’m offering my readers the chance to get a free advance reading copy of either of my next two books––one fiction and one poetry, depending on your preference––before they’re published. You’ll even have the opportunity to give me beta-reader feedback on it if you’d like to! In order to take advantage of this offer, just post a review of The Sharp Edges of Water on Amazon. Now, if you follow the writing/publishing industry, you might have heard that Amazon has been taking down people’s reviews in an effort to remove illegitimate ones, though some genuine ones have been removed inadvertently in this process. I have not experienced this (knock on wood!) and also know that all my reviews are genuine and not planted (except for one baffling troll who posted a weird review of Finis. back in the day). Anyway, Amazon has changed the rules for how reviews get accepted. Fortunately, we know how to navigate their guidelines. You can watch a full explanation here, but I’ve summarized the basics for you:
To contribute a review on Amazon, you have to have spent at least $50 there in the last year, not including promotional discounts.
Amazon doesn’t allow reviews to be posted from people in the author’s household, or from more than one person connected to any same household or bank account or credit card.
Amazon doesn’t allow paid reviews, so your review shouldn’t indicate that you’ve received compensation for it.
Amazon deletes reviews that come in under two days after you’ve purchased a book from them because they assume you can’t possibly have read the book so quickly.
Avoid sounding too chummy with the author in your review: in other words, please don’t ever refer to the author by their first name only, but by either both first and last name or just their last name or “the author”; also avoid sounding “unbiased” by not indicating in your review that you regularly see the author in person or are friends with them in real life.
Thank you again for all your love and support, and I hope to see you on August 17th at Blue Willow! Bring your friends. And if you take me up on the review/ARC opportunity, send me a screenshot of your review on Amazon, then tell me which book (fiction or poetry) you’d like to get a sneak preview of. Until then~
Two years ago I did something for myself that was so far outside of my self-care comfort zone it changed me: I attended a writing retreat. That’s right, I left my family for the better part of a week and went to Maine to focus entirely on writing. While I was there, I realized that I hadn’t done anything so expansive to nurture my creative self in…well, way too many years. Definitely not since before I had my own family, and maybe not even then.
Last month, I went back.
The Moss Wood Retreats on Penobscot Bay in Maine are a gift to writers. Run by director and author Patricia McMahon, this experience gives you the chance to escape from whatever nightmarish summer weather you’ve been experiencing and settle in with a handful of other authors and just focus on your craft for several days. Two years ago I attended a workshop led by Gregory Maguire, which was glorious, but this year’s retreat, led by poet Josh Kalscheur and Patricia herself, was really different and completely fulfilling. Patricia has moved to a generative format, which means that the bulk of the group sessions focus on the generation of new material.
So most mornings we would have four writing exercises which included excellent prompts and then writing time, followed by voluntary sharing. In the afternoons we were on our own and could work on the pieces we’d written that morning; in the evenings during our after-dinner salons, we would share what we’d worked on, if we wanted to, as well as other poems that we found meaningful or enlivening. I also found time outside of these, including at night in my room before I went to sleep, to work on my own other projects if I wished. (I’ve been editing one of my novels this summer.)
I can honestly say this year’s retreat might have been the most productive week of writing I’ve had in a really long time. Aside from the novel work I did on my own solitary time, I wrote so much poetry. Possibly eight or ten of the poems I produced that week will turn into something publishable.
One of the fun exercises we did over the course of the week was to produce a collection of centos. At its simplest, a cento is a type of found poem in which all the lines come from other places. So every person at the retreat anonymously contributed a page of their writing, either a poem or a page of prose. We then browsed these pages and harvested from them lines we particularly liked and then fashioned those seemingly random lines into new poems. We shared these on our last evening together, and the centos were all so very different in scope and tone and subject! They were also delightful; I really loved finding out which fragments resonated with everyone. Here is my poem:
Moss Wood Cento Moss Wood Writing Retreat, 2019
Carnivals always start the same way:
three boys, three sharp-rocked beginnings
grabbing clandestine hand-holds;
spirits of slain warriors speaking from open mouths;
a tarantula stabbed with a stick;
the occasional hint of cabaret music.
Between the border of yellow birch and
the far shore of rockbound pine,
the tether of some other-than-temporal sea
pulls and pulls with the urgency of future demands
on the boy-man stashed behind the garage,
dreadful poverty and sadness floating across his face,
a grunt-crank biscuit in one hand and
a two hundred-year-old scroll in the other.
The memory of children’s cotton candied fingers
keeps his brusque demeanor at arm’s length.
He works in the negative, his pattern
a mystery to me, but a crease between the bridge
of his nose and his eyebrows is the absence
of sailboats long since stored for the winter.
Will we learn something by the weight of them?
He and I will never be young enough
again to think that friends don’t die.
You can keep your emptiness;
all I hear is sirens and defiance,
loud as a burst of gunfire through ghosts.
I’ve stopped believing in magic.
We are all dodging death,
scattered, secluded, incidents of light.
The phrase “two hundred-year-old scroll” is from one of my novels, a work in progress, but everything else in this poem came from the other nine people’s fragments. I offer my sincere thanks to all of them for their contributions to my poem.
Late on the last night of the retreat, a bunch of us new friends put on temporary Sherlock tattoos as a lark. (Mine read, “I never guess.”) Then around midnight, when three of us in the upstairs bedrooms were still awake and packing for our departures the next day, some spontaneous slumber party fun broke out. Two of the other ladies decided they wanted to see how long my hair really was and flat-ironed it for me. We squealed like adolescents as we did each other’s hair and helped each other pick out the clothes we would be wearing to travel in the next day — clothes we would wear home to Houston, to Louisiana, to Scotland. We shared pictures of our families from our phones and promised to write. And to write and to write and to write.
If I could, I would attend this retreat every year. It happens in early June, so if it sounds like something you would benefit from, put it on your calendar now. And if you want to hear more about this retreat and its marvelous director, Patricia McMahon, I’ll be interviewing her tonight on the LivingArt show on KPFT; the show begins at 6 p.m. central time.
While you’re waiting for that to happen, please enjoy these lovely photos of the landscape I looked at every day I was there.
So we come to the end of another National Poetry Month, and I’ve loved sharing these thirty poems with you, and I realize I haven’t included enough prose-poems, a form I rather like.
Here is one by Fady Joudah, a poet who is also my friend who also lives in the same city I do (more or less) whom I also don’t see very often for long stretches at a time and then we find ourselves in the same place over and over again for a few weeks or a few months. I love that.
He and I were both coincidentally featured at a reading in February. Then both coincidentally featured on a radio program last week. Who knows what will be next or when?
Here is his poem “Palestine, Texas” from his latest collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance — which, by the way, is absolutely wonderful, if not his best thus far.
“I’ve never been,” I said to my friend who’d just come back from there. “Oh you should definitely go,” she said. “The original Palestine is in Illinois.” She went on, “A pastor was driven out by Palestine’s people and it hurt him so badly he had to rename somewhere else after it. Or maybe it goes back to a 17th century Frenchman who traveled with his vision of milk and honey, or the nut who believed in dual seeding.” “What’s that?” I asked. “That’s when an egg is fertilized by two sperm,” she said. “Is that even viable?” I asked. “It is,” she said, “on rare occasions, though nothing guarantees the longevity of the resulting twins.” She spoke like a scientist but was a professor of the humanities at heart. “Viability,” she added, “depends on the critical degree of disproportionate defect distribution for a miracle to occur. If there is life, only one twin lives.” That night we went to the movies looking for a good laugh. It was a Coen brothers’ feature whose unheralded opening scene rattled off Palestine this, Palestine that and the other, it did the trick. We were granted the right to exist. It must have been there and then that my wallet slipped out of my jeans’ back pocket and under the seat. The next morning, I went back. With a flashlight that the manager had lent me I found the wallet unmoved. This was the second time in a year that I’d lost and retrieved this modern cause of sciatica in men. Months earlier it was at a lily pond I’d gone hiking to with the same previously mentioned friend. It was around twilight. Another woman, going in with her boyfriend as we were coming out, picked it up, put it in her little backpack, and weeks later texted me the photo of his kneeling and her standing with right hand over her mouth, to thwart the small bird in her throat from bursting. If the bird escapes, the cord is severed, and the heart plummets. She didn’t want the sight of joy caught in her teeth. He sat his phone camera on its pod and set it in lapse mode, she wrote in her text to me. I welled up. She would become a bride and my wallet was part of the proposal. This made me a token of their bliss, though I’m not sure how her fiancé might feel about my intrusion, if he’d care at all. “It’s a special wallet,” I texted back. “It’s been with me for the better part of two decades ever since a good friend got it for me as a present.” “He was from Ohio,” I turned and said to my film mate who was listening to my story. “Ohio?” She seemed surprised. “Yes,” I replied quizzically. “There’s also a Palestine in Ohio,” she said. “Barely anyone lives there anymore. All of them barely towns off country roads.”
Fady Joudah has published four collections of poems, The Earth in the Attic, Alight, Textu, a book-long sequence of short poems whose meter is based on cellphone character count; and, most recently, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.
If there has been one constant refrain in our most recent history, it’s that we must not lose hope. In the face of outstanding stupidity, intolerable cruelty, and just garden-variety meanness, our endurance is what will allow us to outsmart the extraordinary nonsense and significant peril that has become the waters we swim in. If I had my choice, I would fly above that muddy river. I am growing wings.
Here is one more poem by that unmistakable goddess of poetry, Emily Dickinson, and in the video linked below you can see a child signing it while a celebrity reads it aloud.
You can click here for an official biographical statement about Emily Dickinson. In short, she’s widely considered one of America’s top five historical poets, alongside William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes. Her poetry confounds some, much as her life must have, but as far as I’m concerned she’s awesome and way ahead of the minds who attempted to dismiss her. She is, perhaps, a shining example of a woman who did not conform to what society expected of her.
Rachel Rosenthal was one of my Creative Writing students when she was in high school. (She graduated about a decade ago.) She did beautiful work, and one of her poems recently came up at school — or rather, the subject of it did — when one of the student community groups decided to make their service project this semester a campaign against using the r-word. First published in 2009, Rachel’s poem against this word was rooted in her personal convictions. I’m glad to say I have noticed a decrease in its usage among our students.
If I try to casually shout the word,
toss the syllables away like popsicle sticks with bad jokes,
down a hallway warped
by teenage hormones, my half pursed lips choke
on the R and swallow the E without chewing.
Failed math tests are not retarded,
not living people with minds brewed
just a little differently, just slightly deviated.
Biology fails to bring the word to life
with lectures on chromosomes and mutation:
Despite the high-definition, the laptop’s pixels of lifeless
DNA can’t capture the sensation
of passing time with my twenty-three-year-old
sister by singing Raffi, watching Toy Story, and tucking her into bed.
Rachel Rosenthal grew up in Houston, Texas, with three sisters and lots of good trees. She likes to split her time between parks and bookstores, drinking lots of Earl Grey in between. On the side, she just finished her first year of University of Colorado’s MBA program.