Guest Post: Barbara Crooker, Writing Abroad

Right now, I’m getting ready for an international artist residency, at the Moulin á Nef, Auvillar, France.  This studio is owned by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), where I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of previous writing residencies.  As I’m beginning to think about organizing and packing, I thought I’d use this blog post to talk about how one goes about planning for this type of residency.

Right off the bat, the biggest difference (for me, anyway) is that I won’t be planning to take any books along.  I’m of the school that thinks that 90% of my job as a writer is to be a reader, and yet I won’t be taking any of the piles of books and journals that are at my feet right now. A hazard waiting to be tripped over, because I don’t want to incur that $200 baggage overweight fee. So I’ll be traveling lightly, relying on the serendipity of the books that are in the little hallway library outside the studios. Last time when I was here (three years ago), I stumbled  across a book by Fidelma Cook (an unknown author to me), and this poem came out of something I read in her book:

 

SIXTY-FIVE

Why would you want to strip off at our age?
Mingle all that sagging, crepey skin with another’s greying flesh?
French Leave, Fidelma Cook
Well, why would you not?  If the lights are dim and the candles are lit,
surely this old skin will do, the two of us rubbing along slowly like freight
trains chugging up a grade.  So your stomach’s not a ridge of washboard abs
or tablettes de chocolat as they say here; mine’s a puddle of warm crème brûlée.
Pears ripen slowly as they concentrate their juice.  Brie slumps in the shell
of its rind.  And both of them, and all of me, are absolument délicieuse.

 

Another part of traveling lightly means no printer. My usual method of writing is to do a number of drafts by hand, then move to the computer, and I print out copies of all versions. I often find, in revision, that I need to go back a few versions to find the right words or the right lines. But when I was in Auvillar previously, I learned that I could scrap my usual method and edit on the computer, something I didn’t think I could do.  Also, I’m wed to writing on lined yellow legal pads. Which I found out do not exist in France. They use grid paper, in much smaller notebooks  I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to write on them (Am I superstitious? I guess I’m superstitious), but learned that I could be flexible. Which is, I think, a key to being able to travel, and to use this gift of time wisely.

Last time, I went with a project in mind, which was to do a series of ekphrastic poems based on the Fauves, especially Matisse. I found that having a project gave my work some structure, which seemed to prime the pump and get other poems started. Here’s one of the Matisse poems:

 

LANDSCAPE AT COLLIOURE, 1905

~Henri Matisse
The last line of the poem is also Matisse’s
“From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands
I knew this was my life.  I threw myself into it like
a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”
Henri Matisse
This hillside’s the shade of grape soda,
lawn an ooze of electric jaundice,
and the sky’s a violet slither. The red,
blue, and green trees are dancing, supple
and sinuous, and the leaves are singing, a riot
of light.  He squeezed out red-orange like plastic
explosives.  Painting is an act of belief.

As I began to work on the ekphrastic poems, it occurred to me that I might also create a section where I attempted, in words, to do some of the wild and crazy things that the Fauves did with paints. I called these poems “word salads,” and many of them ended up in form. This one uses abecedarian end rhyme:

WOMEN

after Dorianne Laux’s “Men”
It’s tough being a woman, feeling you’re an object to be bought,
an elusive quarry, something to be chased and caught,
when you know you’re more than that.  So pull me a draught,
Charlie, give me something dark and frothy.  Wars have been fought
for less—   I came in wondering what a girl’s got
to do to get herself noticed?  I mean, I’m so hot,
I could melt neon.  You want my number?  Well, jot
it down, big boy.  I won’t call you.  I have a karaoke slot
at nine pm; I’m thinking a Madonna medley will do.  Lots
of water under this dam.  I want to be a player, not a mascot.
I want something bathed in dark chocolate, with a nougat
center.  I want a lobster in my steaming pot,
champagne on ice, and two chairs by a wrought
iron table on a terrace in France.  Whoever sought
the fountain of youth can forget it.  The lies the movies taught?
They’re a crock, a foolish dream, a vicious plot.
Life isn’t fair, you’ve got to play your cards, no matter what.
I could have been Dean of Women, a cover girl.  An exot-
ic dancer at a go-go bar.  Or married to a guy with a yacht.
But I’m not.  So pour me another shot of Jack, O Great Zot.

Writing in form and writing ekphrastic poems imposed a sense of discipline on the residency, but I also wanted to leave myself open to serendipity. So when, in my daily visits to the boulangerie, I noticed that there were a number of desserts with religious names, I decided to a) try them all (tough job, but someone had to do it) and b) incorporate them in a poem:

LES BOULANGERS

Blessed be the breadmakers of la belle France
who rise before dawn to plunge their arms
into great tubs of dough.  Blessed be the yeast
and its amazing redoubling.  Praise the nimble
tongues of those who gave names to this plenty:
baguette, boule, brioche, ficelle, pain de campagne.
Praise the company they keep, their fancier cousins:
croissant, mille feuille, chausson aux pommes.
Praise flake after golden flake.  Bless their saintly
counterparts:  Jésuit, religieuse, sacristain, pets de nonne.
Praise be to the grain, and the men who grew it.  Bless
the rising up, and the punching down.  The great
elasticity.  The crust and the crumb.  Bless
the butter sighing as it melts in the heat.
The smear of confiture that gilds the plane.
And bless us, too, O my brothers,
for we have sinned, and we are truly hungry.

 

Picture of French desserts

These poems ended up in my new book, Les Fauves (C&R Press, 2017). And now, I’m thrilled to say I’ll be going back again in a few weeks. I’m doing an hour of French lessons every day, I have my passport, my plane ticket, and my packing list (yes, I’m obsessive, and I keep packing lists for all my travels, whether they’re family camping, a beach vacation, or a writing residency).  I’m hoping to do more ekphrastic work while I’m there, and so am taking several art calendars along.  I’m also hoping to do more poems in form, perhaps the Golden Shovel, perhaps half-rhymed couplets, perhaps embedded sonnets.  I know the muse doesn’t appear magically; you have to be at your desk (or at a café, or down by the river, with a notebook) to greet her. But whatever happens, I know this stay is going to be magical.

#ArtLitPhx: Workshop with Daniel Magariel

On Monday, August 28th, Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix will host Daniel Magariel for a workshop and conversation about his new novel One of the Boys. Purchase the book and you’ll get access to his workshop, “Editing with Abandon.” After the workshop, join the author for a presentation about the book. More information can be found here.

#ArtLitPhx: Film and Conversation presents Manifesto

On Thursday, August 24th, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art will be showing the new film, Manifesto. The movie stars Cate Blanchett in thirteen different roles, and is directed by acclaimed art director, Julia Rosefeldt. Tickets are $7 and available through the museum website. Click here for more information.

#ArtLitPhx: The Art Guys

On September 7th, the Scottsdale Art Museum will be hosting The Art Guys, a comedy duo that uses humor to demystify the art world. This lecture is a free event that starts at 7PM. Find out more information about the event here. And check out The Art Guys at their minimalistic website here.

#ArtLitPhx: Wordplay Cafe presents Seven Deadly Sins

Starting August 10th, Mesa Arts Center is partnering with Creative Catalysts to present Wordplay Cafe open mic. The monthly event will start with a performance writing workshop then follow up with open mic performances, featured storytellers, spoken word artists and musicians. Volstead Public House on 105 W. Main St will host the workshops until the finale story slam on March 22nd at Mesa Arts Center. Find out more information and get the complete schedule here. This is a platform for local community members to take their story and transform it into spoken word and performance art.

Guest Post: Edmund Sandoval, Headwaters

Back in late April of this year, I picked my mother up from the airport in Portland, OR, the town in which I lived at the time. She’d flown in from St. Louis, MO, the nearest city to my hometown, where she still lived with my stepfather. My hometown is Carbondale, IL, and it is a two-hour drive from there to the airport in STL.

Carbondale isn’t really close to anything. Within its borders is a hospital, a library, chain restaurants, a dying state university. The university mascot is the Saluki, a breed that traces its origins back to the Fertile Crescent; the regional nickname for Southern Illinois is Little Egypt; fields of soybeans sway to the horizon; there is a small town named Cairo at the bottom of the state and the locals pronounce it like this: kay-row. Carbondale is an ethnically diverse town, containing white and black and brown folk. It is mainly poor, country rural, with strains of moderate wealth strumming through it here and there, owing to the dying university, which, at one point, was quite the opposite.

My parents moved with my brother and me to Carbondale, the Dale, as it is known colloquially, in the mid-1980s. I have vague recollections of those days. Somewhere, there is a photo of the four of us perched atop the hood of the brown Honda Accord my father purchased once he started making decent bucks as a doctor of cardiopulmonary disease. My parents divorced when I was young enough to not recall my age or where I was in elementary school. I’d say right around third grade. That sounds about right.

The day in PDX was gray and cool and free of rain. It was springtime and the river by my apartment was swollen and its murky waters had swallowed a portion of the park that ran along its southern shore. My mother flew out because I was finished with Portland and was gearing up to drive across the country to Chicago. I’d already quit my job and sold my sofa and packed all my junk. My mother was gonna be my co-pilot. We’d never taken a trip of any kind in close to two decades. I thought it would be a fun experience for us both. My mother’s only condition was that we leave the set course of travel in order to witness the headwaters of the Missouri River. The route to Chicago was about twenty-two hundred miles, a distance we planned on covering in four days. Zip zip.

As it goes, we’d not done any kind of serious travel since my brother and I were kids and could not drive and my mother the only one behind the wheel of the ‘94 Chevy Cavalier (gray paint, gray upholstery) she’d inherited after the passing of her mother. The trips we took in that car was this one : back and forth from the Dale to Hawthorne, NJ, any number of times, until I was an adolescent. Hawthorne is the last town my mother called home until she moved away for college and the rest of her life.

For about the past ten years, my mother has consistently informed my brother and me that she would be damned in and in hell before she spent more years living in the Dale than the age she was when she moved there. As it turns out, 2017 marked that cutoff. Sometimes she’d wonder aloud where those thirty-three years went. Like, I came here young, son. You know.

My mother grew up in New Jersey and when she says radiator or coffee they tumble out as rad-ee-ator and caw-fee. Before she had us kids, she’d dreamt of being an airline stewardess. I write stewardess as that was what it was then when she’d had that dream. It was a dream she could not pursue as she did not meet the height requirement listed by the airlines. Over the years, my mother has been a flautist, a mental health case worker, a teacher of sorts in the Carbondale Public School system. The last job was one she held in disdain and the one that would carry her into retirement. Just as she’d languished in Carbondale, she languished in a job that gave her no sense of joy or accomplishment. It was time, finally, to get the heck out of Dodge. I don’t think it was a month after her last day of work ever that she and my stepfather put the house up for sale. I thought it was bad timing. In Illinois, at that time, and now, the powers that be were working hard to fuck it up big time. For nearly two years, the state functioned without a budget. The university creaked and cracked a bit more and stopped hiring. Nobody held their breaths. When they got the house appraised, its value had dropped by almost a third when they last checked its worth. But fuck it, they said, and put the For Sale sign out in the front yard.

I’d left for Portland in 2014. I’d been living in Madison, WI, prior to the move. I spent three years in that town. And they were hard years and seemingly without end. I was sad most of the time. I hated my job and, yet, I found salvation in it, as I was able to hunker down in my cubicle and write by day and week, and churned out stories by the gross. I drank slowly and carefully. I went for runs and stayed up late. One unfortunate evening, I renounced writing, and dumped all of my notes and other writerly ephemera into a number of the plastic Woodman’s grocery bags I employed as trash bags. Another evening found me slumped in a miserable heap by the small waterway situated between the Lakes Monona and Mendota. I held a lot against that town, including that it was in Lake Monona that Otis Redding and most of his band perished on a snowy winter night five decades ago. It was a fucked up and transformative time, in many ways.

There wasn’t much to do in my apartment by the time my mother and I pulled up under the bridge that hulked overhead. There was some sweeping that needed done. The refrigerator was ready for a scrubbing. Mainly I needed to send my books across the country via the post. To make a couple runs to the Goodwill. So we went for a late lunch and talked about my brother and other things.

I’ve never been much of an adventurer. The last long trip I took prior to driving to Portland was when I drove to visit my brother when he lived in New Mexico. He was living on a farm and the scene that I came upon when I arrived there in the wintertime afternoon eight years back was of a woman stretching a fresh hide with a solution of brain matter and other intoxicatingly strange ingredients. I would later learn that the brain in that bizarre stew was once possessed by the owner of the hide that was strung about the two posts that held it up like a suede flag. From that time forward, I made it back to New Mexico once more and then spent the next six or seven years putzing in Illinois and Wisconsin.

My mother was a traveler once. To some degree. We’ve not talked about her youth much. Her twenties and all. I do know that she traveled to Russia, at one point. The USSR, I guess. That she’d been to England and traveled on a hovercraft over some isle or another. She’d seen Europe. And Nicaragua, the country my father hails from. With my dad, they skipped from city to city, from somewhere in New Jersey to St Louis to Tallahassee and then, finally, to Carbondale. She’s been to Cairo, also, the real one, in Egypt. That trip, I’m certain, was the last real one she took in the last fifteen or so years. She went with my stepfather. Their friends were living there. One of these friends is a poet and artist. There is a print of his artwork above this computer, for instance. It is picture of doorways. In the past five years, my mother’s travels have been to two sections of the country: Oakland, CA, and West Milford, NJ. In Oakland is my brother, his wife, and their kid. My mother went out there a lot as she was having a damn good time being a grandmother and all that jazz. Especially as my bro and I had for the longest time said we’d be damned and in hell before we would join any partnership that would result in a kid. But things change. New Jersey is where my mom’s siblings reside. She went there a lot in the past five years because her kid brother, Tom, got cancer, which he would succumb to in the spring of 2016.

I enjoyed my time in Portland until I didn’t. And the time spent driving to the city. Back then, I’d forgotten of the vastness of the country. It had been years since I’d driven more than five hundred miles in any one direction. The major highways I took to Portland from Wisconsin took me through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. There was also an excursion into Wyoming. The original plan was to check out the Devils Tower in that state. I’d long admired its weirdness. Its jutting out of the earth like a huge striated button just waiting for some humongous god or monster or something or other to come by and push it back into the soil. But there was a motorcycle hangout going on when I’d be passing through, and even the KOA camping sites were going for a hundo or more just to lay a tent down. I went into Yellowstone instead. And saw bison lumbering around like mobile sofas clad in rotty brown shag upholstery masquerading as fur.

My mother and I loaded up my car on a rainy morning in Portland. The rear of the car was packed with dishes and sheets and clothes and my stereo. Not much more. Toothpaste and toothbrush. I was excited to shove off and get going. I left a kitchen table behind. My bed. My landlords said, Heck, just leave em. We’ll find someone who could use em. My landlords were from STL originally, and were friendly, and still Midwestern, and drank like college freshmen, and often fought in the early evening, and were awake by the times the birds creeped up from their tepid slumbers. Every few weeks, I’d take my recycling out and shake my head with wonder and astonishment at the blue bin brimming with empty handle bottles of gin and vodka and thigh-sized bottles of red wine. But lots of us have been there, and are there, and will be.

I was excited because on the opposite side of the country, my partner, Jeanne, was packing up her belongings and preparing to shed the life she lived in order to start one with me. She was living in New York City, NY, the biggest city in the country. Similar to me, family would be helping her drive across the country. Her sister-in-law had flown from Santa Cruz, CA, to load and steer her across one thousand or so miles that lay between NYC and Chicago. Because you can kind of do whatever you want in NYC, they parked their rented Budget truck right on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building.

For the longest time, I’d simply assumed that my folks, all of them, would not uproot from Carbondale. They’d just been there for such a long time. It was less than an abstraction and more like a patent untruth. Because, ya know, thirty-three years isn’t a minor collection of years. It’s three decades. In that time I went from a preschooler crying and clinging to a chain link fence to a grumpy high schooler to a grumpy college kid to a grumpy adult to, improbably, to me, at least, a pretty happy thirty-something copywriter with a supportive and lovely partner.

My mother and I talked about many things as we sliced across the country. We talked about my prospects in Chicago (I didn’t have any), my partner Jeanne, the way my life imploded/exploded in Portland and how trust is a fickle thing. We talked about the house and how it refused to sell itself. We talked about my stepfather and his age and how he was getting along. We listened to Serial and it was new to us because we are both resistant to new things a lot of the time. We saw not a single bison. We saw mountains and snow and trees and rivers. We counted license plates. We stayed in dirt cheap Airbnb rentals. One of them was miles removed from any road or highway and tucked in a canyon. We did not drive fast. We drove fast. We did not drive at night. We marveled at the vastness of the country. As it happened, we took almost the exact same highways I took to get out of the Midwest in the first place. At one point, I paused to reflect on that. How momentous it seemed, to be retracing, to be going back, to be bidding adieu to all that horror and sadness. At the same time, I thought of my mother and her need to escape. Because I know what it’s like to live in a place you don’t want to, and to have the feeling that escape is beyond the scope of what is possible.

The headwaters of the Missouri River weren’t much to look at. The more so when you think of its length, some two thousand three hundred miles and change. Which is approximately the number of miles my mother and I drove. My mother was ecstatic to be there. I could see why. That something so vast, something capable of reshaping the land over which it flowed, could have so simple a beginning, and that, if you followed it, if you let yourself be carried by its waters, you’d come to an end.

The house sold last month. Some young guy bought it. I’ve never seen him. It’s the last weekend of the month of July and this afternoon I’ll drive back to the Dale and help my mom and stepdad pack up whatever things they didn’t sell or give away. My partner is coming with me and we’ll lift boxes and furniture together. They’re moving to Florida, my parents and stepdad. Far away from the Dale, and Oakland, and Chicago, and New Jersey. It’s a place, though. And there are Palm Trees. And the Gulf of Mexico.

Authors Talk: Claire Polders

Claire Polders bio photoToday we are pleased to feature author Claire Polders as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Claire discusses her short story “Fistfuls” and the various ways she starts a story. Sometimes she starts with a philosophical question, other times the story is based around a true event that she experienced, and sometimes (in the case of “Fistfuls”) she writes from curiosity and allows the story to guide her.

You can read Claire’s story “Fistfuls” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review here.