It occurred to me recently, not for the first time, that my swimming reminds me of my writing process. I’m a lap swimmer in a community pool. I swim very long distances. My pool is not part of a fancy gym. The locker room is way too small. Sometimes it’s as crowded in there as a subway at rush hour. There’s a grungy gang shower too, with cracks in the tile and some broken fixtures. Hot water is more a hope than a reality. You have to bring your own towel to this place and last week someone pried open my combination lock and stole the money from my wallet while I was doing my laps. I was grateful they left the wallet though, and figured maybe they needed the $22 more than I did. Actually, I love this gym and I love the pool, which, unlike the locker room, is clean and well-maintained. The lifeguards are friendly. Now, writing has its challenges too. Sometimes the water isn’t hot and the fixtures are broken. And the most obvious comparison between the two is that lap swimming is this solitary effort, where you literally throw yourself into the deep end and just take off. Most writers understand that part. Personally, I’m not the flashiest swimmer or the fastest. My technique isn’t the prettiest either, but I do keep at it. That’s like my writing. And like writing, the benefits of swimming work best when you stick to a regular schedule or routine. You increase your stamina over time. Writing a short story is like a long swim for me. It’s tough to get started sometimes. You can struggle at first. You flail away. And then you eventually find a rhythm and you pace yourself. You don’t stop. You try not to lose steam before the finish. (If writing a short story is like a long swim for me, then working on my unpublished novel was more like running a marathon at a high altitude – but that’s another topic entirely.) I don’t think of lap swimming as only a metaphor. It has become part of my writing process too. Sometimes a swim will clear my head and get me back into a space where I can work. But I’ve also tackled plot problems, created back stories for characters and tried out dialogue as I thrash around in the pool, sometimes losing count of my laps as a result. I’m grateful for my time in the water and for my time at the computer too, when things come together and I have enough momentum to carry me through. I think my writing and lap swimming have become somewhat linked in my mind, the endurance part anyway, the personal challenge, the dogged persistence. As with anything, it comes down to commitment — that happy dedication to something that will eventually become part of who you really are, at any moment, on any particular day.
Amy Silverman and Laurie Notaro will be reading at KGB Bar in New York City, on June 7th, at 7 pm. Both have new books being released.
Laurie Notaro is a #1 New York Times Best-selling author, and also a graduate from Arizona State University. Her upcoming book, Housebroken: Admissions of an Untidy Life is a collection of her essays.
When I was a teenager I spent one entire summer, June through August, dribbling a basketball at least two hours a day, seven days a week, alternating left and right hands, while walking, running, jogging, sprinting, and even once backpedaling, just to see if it could be done, which it essentially cannot, and why would you need to dribble while backpedaling anyway? Yet I tried that, and I tried dribbling while riding a bicycle, which was pointless but hilarious, and I dribbled while being assaulted by two younger brothers to simulate defensive traps, and I dribbled with ankle weights on to simulate heavy-legged exhaustion, and I dribbled with sunglasses on to train myself not to look at the ball while dribbling, and I spent hours racing up and down courts dribbling behind my back and between my legs, and I practiced dribbling while skidding and sliding on the court, for a moment would come, I knew it, when I would need to keep my dribble alive even after being shoved or tripped, and I swore I would be ready for that moment.
I dribbled on the courts behind schools and temples. I dribbled down avenues and lanes and streets and trails and byways. I dribbled into and out of highway tunnels just to hear the cool booming sound. I dribbled along pathways and sidewalks and public thoroughfares. One afternoon I dribbled for a while along the Long Island Rail Road tracks until I heard a faint thunderous roar in the distance and I hopped off hurriedly and dribbled home. I dribbled my ball and my brother’s ball and a ball I stole from the churchyard and even once a volleyball just to see if it could be done, which it essentially cannot. I once dribbled into a delicatessen and then out again hurriedly when the owner shouted and lurched out from behind the counter brandishing a kielbasa.
Did my maniacal dribbling drive my family insane? Heavens yes. My mother ejected me for dribbling infractions many times, and my father many times would glance at me over the lip of his newspaper, which in his case was tantamount to roaring, and my sister shrieked and gibbered, and the local dogs blubbered and raged, and even the polite lady next door once asked if I could possibly desist my basketball rehearsal, as she called it, after sunset, as her husband was exhausted when he came home from long day of being an engineer on bridges in the city, and his repose was crucial to the family fortunes, would I be a dear and keep that in mind?
I look back now at that peculiar boy, dribbling down one street after another, sprinting up and down one court after another, and while I see that he was a crazy person, a nut, a goof (and this is not even to mention the ankle weights and the sunglasses and the dribbling-while-sliding-on-asphalt thing), I also have to laud his lunacy. He wanted to be a better ballplayer so badly that he spent two hours a day (minimum – there were plenty of days when I got in more hours, and yes, I was maniacal enough to record my hours in a notebook) practicing this one crucial skill, so that he would be infinitesimally better at the game he loved above all others. He would never be great at the game, never be famous at it, never make a penny at it, but he loved it so that his hard work at it was the most airy and pleasant play. There was something good and true and even wise in that; something fine, something subtle, something that would be wonderfully eloquent, if we could only find the words.
Today we are pleased to feature poet Stevie Edwards as our twenty-eighth Authors Talk series contributor. Stevie mentions how her four poems in Issue 17 all have distinct voices, noting that it has often been remarked that her poems are “very voice driven.”
Stevie discusses what voice is in a poem, and how voice is achieved. Vision is inextricably bound to voice, she observes, as she says “In many ways, our speakers are what they notice.”
Throughout this podcast, Stevie gives invaluable advice to poets. “You don’t have to do much of anything other than be present and mindful for a moment to create a poem that might change someone’s life,” she says. Giving your unique point of view is the best way to create voice in a poem; as she encourages us to say “I am a fucking special snowflake – nobody knows the full shape of my voice.”
You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel, #217.
You can read Stevie’s poems in Superstition Review Issue 17, and hear her read them aloud in last week’s podcast, #216.
“Why Is This Age Worse…?”
–1919 Anna Akhmatova (trans. Stanley Kunitz)
It seems a long time since the picture of a drowned 3-year old Aylan went viral in September 2015. Much was made of the dangling “Velcro straps on his sneakers”, that Aylan was dressed like any child going to a playground in a red T-shirt and blue knee-length shorts – the Turkish guard who picked up the tiny body looked away as he carried the child. How hard it would be to look. And he must have looked when he first picked up the drowned boy. It seems a long time because there have been so many bodies since, and so many of them children. There have been meetings and discussions in various parliaments in Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Germany, and of course Brussels, and some horrid policies have passed through them like Denmark’s law (passed in January) in which the government is now allowed to seize assets of “asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate any non-essential items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.” One wonders who decides on what is or isn’t “non-essential” or of “sentimental value”. Similar laws are now in place in Switzerland and southern Germany.
To be a refugee means the refuge of what once provided the rituals of stability, like home and shelter, no longer exist, that larger threats than those of the risks of being a refugee are being fled. “I don’t want to touch that one” says a friend, “too heavy”, “too complicated” – what will happen if we let ourselves touch the bodies being washed up like the Turkish guard who lifted the dead Aylan from the sand, if we help the luckier to dry land? They will touch us too, the pain and mess of these displaced lives will be real and, especially, there will be names and faces connected to their tragedies. I am about to say something to a friend and warn her that it is unpleasant, and she says, “are you sure you want to tell me” and really means “I’m not sure I want to know” because once told, she cannot, as she tells me “unknow it”; phrases like “the immigrant crisis”, “the Greek debt crisis” desensitize, the particulars are conflated, the faces and names lost. It is more efficient that way, apparently, when dealing with numbers (think of pyramid schemes of debt, think how all the added 0s of the billions lent, and the billions now owed in the Greek financial crisis that are not being addressed in “real terms”; i.e. the IMF – imagine even the IMF – is calling it unsustainable, that the debt cannot be paid back when the economy itself is being cannibalized though there are very real people starving on the streets and homeless as a result); so the question is what are we, or what is “Europe” trying to be efficient about. History has given us some very dark examples of the efficiencies of regimes wishing to keep themselves untouched by groups considered threats to an idea of citizenry and/or belonging. Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life theorizes the biopolitics of “The Camp as Paradigm” in a chapter that addresses the separation between “humanitarianism and politics” as “the extreme phrase of the separation of the rights of man and the rights of the citizen.” I want to say what Clarice Lispector says in The Passion According to G.H. that “till yesterday” there was a way of “fitting into a system.” That now that system is broken and the privileged do not want to “use an unprotected heart.” Perhaps Europe has lost its heart.
Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, says “the distinction between protection and the right to a better life has got blurred” having been part of a renegade contingency of Central European and West Balkan countries, including Hungary, to react to the immigrant crisis by being among the first countries to close its borders to refugees (and so removing themselves from the Schengen agreement of an open border system – that founding European Union dream that promised the free flow of populations). To Angela Merkel’s credit who, initially anyway, sought a joint EU solution for the crisis, responded that “When someone starts to define limitations [to immigration], others have to suffer. That is not my Europe.”
As we entered the port for an activity session with some of the refugee children, we all noticed that there were twice as many tents as there had had a week ago; before the borders closed a lot of the volunteer work involved giving activity kits and baby carriers to mothers on their way north. Once they closed hundreds, and in the case of Idomeni, thousands were now stuck (read Phoebe Ramsay’s updates “On the Ground” on her Facebook page). Tents were everywhere, on any open space of pavement or grass, “Welcome to Europe” Alicia said. “Look at this….” Yes, look at this. Look at the woman using cardboard to sweep away the banana peel, cigarette stubs, and used tea bags from the space around her tent. Look at the children quietly returning crayons after doing their drawings, giving their drawings of houses and homes to those of us who sat with them, look at the boy who shows me there’s a hole in one of the sheets at the shelter and would like to know if there are any sheets not torn that he could have. Listen to the teacher from Aleppo who asks if we could bring some white board markers for the lessons she’s giving in the shelter, look at the fact that the toilets are overrun, that someone has thrown out a doll that looks perfectly fine, look at the boy who is downloading music on his phone, tell me where the border might be between them and us, or you and I?
AUTHORS NIGHT WITH ROBERT ISENBERG EXPLORES TRAVEL WRITING, AND LIVING IN COSTA RICA
Kick off your summer with stories of travel inspiration June 7th in downtown Phoenix
Phoenix, AZ – The public is invited to join Arizona Humanities for a talk with local author Robert Isenberg. Isenberg will kick off your summer travels with stories and inspiration from his works, including his newest book, The Green Season about his life as a journalist in Costa Rica. The Authors Night takes place at the historic Ellis-Shackelford House in downtown Phoenix (1242 N. Central Avenue Phoenix, AZ 85004) on Tuesday, June 7th from 6:00-8:00pm. The program is free and light refreshments are included.
Isenberg describes his many years as a travel writer and journalist, scouring the globe for provocative stories. Hear about his rustic New England origins, life as a freelancer, and the evolving nature of long-form nonfiction. Considering a trip to Costa Rica? Ask him anything. This author night promises lively discussion about adventure in the age of the smartphone.
About The Green Season: “A dynamic collection of essays and reportage, The Green Season illustrates daily life in Costa Rica, a tiny Central American nation dedicated to peace and teeming with tropical life. With his trademark humor and observation, Robert Isenberg describes the people, culture, and biodiversity that make Costa Rica so unique—from a centuries-old indigenous ceremony to a remote jungle crisscrossed by crocodile-filled canals. Isenberg explores the country head-on, fighting his way through San José traffic, mingling with venomous snakes, and even making a cameo in an epic soccer film at the height of World Cup fever. Richly detailed and tenderly written, The Green Season is one expat’s love letter to his adoptive homeland.”
About Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and stage performer. Most recently, he is the author of The Green Season, about his life as a journalist in Costa Rica. His work includes five books, 17 produced plays, dozens of short documentaries, and hundreds of articles for various magazines and newspapers. He created two one-man shows, The Archipelago (about his travels in postwar Bosnia) and One Million Elephants (about the Secret War in Laos). Isenberg is a past Whitford Fellow, Brackenridge Fellow, and recipient of two Golden Quill Awards, as well as a Pushcart Prize nominee. Visit him at robertisenberg.net.
This semester, I had the opportunity to be a trainee for Superstition Review, and when they announced a group of interns would be traveling to LA to AWP, I didn’t hesitate to join them in their adventure. Even though I wasn’t 100% sure what AWP really was, I knew I heard of it before in some other conference. I’ve heard that thousands of writers go there to meet, to talk, and to share their love for written words.
For someone who can barely pronounce “literary,” going to AWP was more than a fun and glamorous trip to LA. This was a great opportunity to interact with different writers and publishers from all over the world. I had a lot of firsts: it was my first experience with Uber (great storytellers). My first time in my 30’s sharing another room with girls I barely knew, who at the end of the first day I was lucky enough to call them my friends. When you share a passion like writing, becoming friends is easy, unproblematic, and so natural that it seems a little magical. And life sent me the best roommates I could ever ask for, Jess, Alexis, and Leslie! And I realized that when a passion unites us, age doesn’t matter.
It was also my first time in a book fair with more than 800 exhibitors. Even though at the beginning, my mind compared it with the Phoenix Women’s Expo, but with authors, literary magazines, and MFA programs, it soon became overwhelming and a little challenging to see it all. However, I was still able to learn new things. I learned there is a bilingual press here at ASU, how did I not know this? I obtained information on MFA and literary presses from around the globe. Also, from the book fair I got different freebies, including enough tote bags to give away to my entire family, and a t-shirt that I was able to use in a non-planned 5k race on Saturday morning. I also was able to start my own pin collection.
One of the best parts of AWP (besides having the compulsive feeling of wanting to buy every book, and wondering if the next J.K. Rowling is in the same room) was being able to represent Superstition Review in different ways: at the table giving information about the magazine, being engaged on Twitter documenting our AWP experience, and basically at every moment during the conferences interacting with people. The greatest thing about representing Superstition Review is realizing that I’m luckier than I thought I was, being able to work with Trish, founder and pretty much the soul of the magazine who has attended 13 different AWP conferences, is rewarding and inspiring. I was only for a few hours at the s[r] table, but during that time I had multiple people come by and ask about her; they wanted to meet her, they were excited and honored to be published in Superstition Review, they were grateful to be read and heard.
Besides the book fair, there were more than 500 readings and panels. One of the advantages of having multiples panels to choose from is that you can invest your time in topics that really matter to you and contribute with your own ideas. One of the panels I attended to, was Latinos in Lotusland, where I was able to share my opinion about Frida Kahlo not being “cool” in Mexico anymore and I shared my opinion on staying true to our own voices and to not follow what it is “cool” on the market. And my favorite part of this is that I was heard. I was reminded that even though I come from a different culture and I speak another language, I have a story worth telling and that I should never stop my writing spirit.
For many writers, AWP is a reunion; an excuse to see each again, for me AWP was a warm welcome to the literary world. It was like I was being told, “Welcome Ofe, welcome to the literary world where you really belong.”
See you in Washington, DC!