Guest Blog Post, M.L. Rio: We Shall Overcome (Someday?)

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The Vietnam War is closer to home for me than it is for most twenty-somethings in 2018, probably because our schools tend to gloss or ignore the conflict. What I remember of my American history classes is that the narrative came to a screeching halt after World War II. Nobody wanted to wade through the moral quagmires of Korea and Vietnam when it was so much easier to end on the high note of Allied triumph over the Nazis, with the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s on the horizon. I’m sure this isn’t a universal experience, but from what I’ve learned in conversation with my peers, it’s a common one.

This war is entrenched in my family history—my grandparents were in the Foreign Service, my mother and her sister raised in Asia while their father worked at the U. S. Embassy in Saigon—so it’s something which has preoccupied, obsessed, and haunted me. I’ve read my grandfather’s letters from Tet. I’ve heard my mother describe waiting for her father to come home, while her mother tried to hide her fear that perhaps he never would. What tormented me most as I got older was how little I understood the conflict. So I did what I do best: research. I devoured books and newspapers, letters and interviews, movies and documentaries, music and memoirs and museum exhibits. The experience was unique in my archival pursuits in that the more I read and the more I learned, the more confused I became. But there’s some strange comfort in that, because that is the common thread running through so many different narratives of Vietnam: confusion and frustration of such agonizing magnitude that words simply cannot do it justice. But, as a writer, I am trying.

It is difficult to explain (especially to people like me who never talked about ’Nam in their history classes but unlike me had no reason to wonder about it) why I spend my scant spare time immersed in something so deeply, indefinitely disturbing. It is difficult to explain that this is something I feel tyrannically compelled to talk about, especially right now. The political climate of the United States is perhaps the most volatile it has been since the Vietnam War—which was ten months into its deadliest year exactly fifty years ago. Daily, anniversaries of deaths and battles and marches—at home and abroad—go by. On October 21, 2017, I walked the same route tens of thousands of anti-war protestors followed to the Pentagon in 1967. In the past two years, I’ve attended protests of my own, dragged out into the streets by a moral obligation to object to what I cannot countenance in this country of my birth: rampant gun violence, virulent misogyny, unchecked corruption, tax cuts for those already obscenely rich, the political legitimization of white supremacy. Since returning to the States from London immediately after the 2016 election, I have lived in a state of constant anger, fear, and confusion. And while I will never really know what it was like for the hundreds of thousands of men who fought for their lives or lost them in Vietnam, I am beginning to understand what it was like to live in a domestic American warzone, where families and friendships and illusions shattered under the pressure of such insurmountable conflict. I feel like I can never quite relax. Random crying jags while reading the Sunday paper have become the norm. Signs lettered with slogans are piled up in my coat closet. Every time I’m off to a protest I dress for a riot, a lesson learned from history and current events alike. Wear sneakers in case you have to run, tie a bandana around your neck to breathe through in case you get tear-gassed, keep your ID and cash in your pocket in case you’re arrested, and don’t forget to call your folks before you go and let you know you love them—just in case. But worse than anything, I think, is the feeling of desperate breathless exhaustion, like you’ve been screaming your lungs out for two straight years and nobody can hear you—or if they can, they’re not listening.

So. Where does that leave you? What do you do?

As historians are fond of pointing out, the Sixties witnessed socio-political unrest unseen since the Civil War. The Sixties also saw some of the most remarkable artistic achievement of the 20th century, and that is hardly a coincidence. Without the cultural revolution which was undeniably intensified by the Vietnam War, we would be bereft of a rich artistic groundswell which gave us freeform radio and music videos, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Slaughterhouse-Five, Bob Dylan and the Doors. Art has often been rebellious, sometimes revolutionary, and never apolitical. It has held a mirror up to nature, since Shakespeare coined the phrase (and long before). Art is one of the most powerful forms of protest we have, which is why artists are usually among the first to be exiled, arrested, punished, and persecuted when totalitarianism rears its ugly head.

For me, art is also a way to make some sense of senseless things. For the last year or so I have been working on a novel which follows the staff of a college radio station from 1967 to ’69. They are students and activists, lovers and fighters, poets and potheads, disc jockeys and GIs and draft dodgers, all dragged kicking and screaming into the chaos and turmoil of Vietnam. In their company I have marched on the Pentagon, watched the Tet Offensive unfold on television, felt crippling fear for a friend who just lost the draft lottery. I’ve also shared their wild delight at the vibrant life of the counterculture, their exhilaration at hearing “Purple Haze” for the first time and knowing it was something extraordinary, their contradictory conviction that peace is worth fighting for, their noble and naïve belief that they can arrest the forward momentum of a powerful political machine if only they, as Mario Savio so memorably put it in the days of Berkeley Free Speech, are brave enough to throw their bodies on the gears.

It’s not an easy story to tell when you know how it ends. The war dragged on until 1975, leaving almost 60,000 Americans dead—including four students killed at Kent State by the National Guard—and many more Vietnamese. It’s not an easy story to tell fifty years later when it couldn’t be plainer how little we’ve learned from the ugly parts of our history that nobody really wants to talk about. But that, of course, is exactly why I feel compelled to tell it.

Last week I marched with hundreds of other people from the U. S. Capitol to the steps of the Supreme Court to protest the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In light of Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high-school party with his hand clapped over her mouth, the analogy that we’re all screaming and no one can hear has become painfully, horribly real. Doubt eats away at me daily, and I can’t help wondering if all our efforts, all our marches and protests and outrage, will ultimately amount to nothing.

As I stood by the Capitol Reflecting Pool under gray skies and drizzling rain, an elegant older woman passed by me—dressed in black, with short gray hair and a face that was familiar, though I’d never met her before. When I realized she really was Joan Baez and not just someone who resembled her I thought, My God, she must be so tired of this. But then I felt a strange, unexpected stab of hope and realized how grateful I am for someone like her, someone who hasn’t given up fighting inequality and violence and war for fifty years, no matter how tired she is. Later I saw her standing under a tree (surprisingly not mobbed by people; perhaps other marchers my age and younger don’t know who she is) and managed to mutter a strangled, inadequate “Thank you.” Because I needed the reminder that apathy is not an option. Because now I can return to the story I’m trying to tell, a story of then and now, art and outrage, small hope and long odds that we’ll ever learn from our mistakes. Because no matter how small the hope or how long the odds, I refuse to fall silent. Of course, I’m no Joan Baez. I’ve only been marching around in the rain for two years and I’m already exhausted. But I will keep marching, and I will keep screaming, and I will keep writing, because just maybe someone will hear me, and just maybe, someday, it will matter.

Guest Blog Post, DJ Lee: The Looking Back

Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/spider-web-34225/

In August 2018, on hill overlooking the Salish Sea, I was walking through an old growth forest that grew suddenly dark and foreign. The other twenty members of the nature seminar seemed perfectly comfortable there. A few yards away, a woman with gray-blonde hair had placed her palm against a towering maple and was talking to it in low voice. Further away, a young man with a shadowy beard padded barefoot on the forest duff, then crouched next to a wild rose bush, eyeing it with loving intensity. Though I’d been anticipating a moment like this for an entire year, I somehow couldn’t do it.

I’d come here to Cortes Island, British Columbia, to join a class led by the geophilosopher David Abram, whose two books The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-Than-Human World and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology I’d read so many times the pages were falling from the spines. Though Abram isn’t the only one to talk about how we humans have wandered far from our animal selves and have lost touch with something vital in the process, he’s one of the most ardent. I thought that by taking his class I might learn to connect more meaningfully to the natural world and to translate that connection into my writing.

Earlier that day, Abram had led us to a grove of cedars and sat cross-legged on the forest floor. A fringe of brown hair peeked from under his leather hat. His brown vest and shirt hung on him like a silken tent, and he used big, sweeping gestures as he spoke. “In oral cultures,” he said, “human language was nothing other than shaped breath. For our ancestors, air carried the words and the meaning.” He spoke of the “beings” of the more-than-human world, the crows, ladybugs, kingfishers, salmon, antelope, grizzlies, rocks, and soil. At a certain level, he told us with boyish excitement in his voice, everything in nature speaks, from the guttural sound of a stream to the squeaky ridges on crickets’ wings. Their difference from us, he continued, is the very reason they matter so much. When we stare too long into human-created things, we deteriorate. He then sent us out to have an encounter with one of these beings.

But now that I was in the forest attempting to do as Abram had asked, something was holding me back. Possibly I felt exposed. Was it okay to talk candidly to a piece of sky with others listening in? Or maybe I felt the relationship was moving too fast. How long does one have to know a Ponderosa before stroking its butterscotch bark? I’m not someone to force intimacy on a person, so perhaps that’s why I was finding it difficult to do so with a sandpiper, a boulder, a patch of moss. I passed another student lying flat, back against the ground, eyes trained on a moving cloud.

I’d never felt such discomfort over an assignment.

Abram was still sitting twenty yards away under the cedars, a slight smile on his face, as if he knew exactly what he was doing, as if he even took some delight in the fact that some of us lept into this encounter while others struggled.

Even if I couldn’t connect, I told myself, I could at least walk in silence and notice the shine of the alder leaves, the chalky aspen, the rugged fir, the ear-like oyster shell. But I resolved not to disturb a thing.

Still, like most writers and storytellers, I’m enthralled with the double-take, the looking back, because it’s the moment after something happens when images collect themselves, events unfold as drama, meaning accrues, and story begins to weave its disparate threads.

And what I saw just then, and saw again, was a silken web silvering in the afternoon light, each spoke double-tied at each cross thread, strung between two sword ferns. Suddenly, I was caught. I reached out to touch it, but then hesitated. What if the spider was nearby? I searched the vicinity, studying each leaf, each stem, the air between. I waited. When she didn’t appear, I placed the tip of my index finger on one diaphanous thread and felt it in an almost way, which is to say, it gently stuck to my skin then pinged back into shape as I pulled away. Was this the encounter I was meant to have? The language I was meant to hear? That for every intimate touch there’s a lingering in the pulling away. Or was I meant to see that these strange, nearsighted creatures spin to live, catching what they need in their gluey mesh?

As if out of nowhere, she came, the orb weaver, or yellow sac, or whatever she was, with her eight legs and eight-fold eyes. A few inches from the first perfect web, I noticed another one. More opaque and less pristine, filled with bits of leaf and twig, this second web hung hammock-like from a branch. She slipped into that hammock and rested, tense and still, legs poised.

As I gazed on her speckled belly, I was pulled out of myself into my childhood bedroom at midnight in my dressing gown and hiking boots, standing on my bed screaming bloody murder, my mother flying down the hall saying, “What’s wrong!”

“A spider!” I said. “I stepped on it and it came up through my boot. Or I thought it did.” My mother rubbed the sleep from her eyes as we watched the spider creep from under the dresser. She scooped it up in her hand and put it out the back door, shaking her head as she left. I was tough by default, growing up the only sister in a house full of brothers, and my arachnophobia made no sense to her. I wasn’t even able to bear the glossy fibers laced through the forest behind our Seattle home, and would refuse to go on hiking trips for fear of encountering a web, though it was thinner than an eyelash.

The spider on Cortes Island made her way to the larger, perfect web, and it was then I noticed that my one slight touch had damaged it. A few strands had stuck to my finger, leaving a gaping hole in the mesh. Something like grief shot through me for what I’d done in my clumsy attempt at an encounter. I wanted to say something. Sorry? But I didn’t know how to speak spider language except through silence.

I remembered that my irrational fear of spiders eventually resolved. I couldn’t recall how, but it must have had something to do with the year I taught Greek mythology to middle schoolers. I would stand at the front of a classroom in Richland, Washington, retelling the oral tales as the students squirmed and fidgeted in their seats. No tale intrigued them more than that of Arachne, the girl who, having challenged Athena to a weaving contest, made a tapestry showing all the ways the gods abused mortals, and for such harsh truth in such a gorgeous form, Athena turned her into a spider.

Or was it that other myth, the one I found in graduate school through the poet John Keats, at a time when I needed it most, that of Philomela? Tereus, her brother-in-law, raped her and then violated her a second time by cutting out her tongue. He thought he had ensured her silence, but Philomela turned that silence into a grave spinneret from which she wove a robe that told her story of pain, whereupon the gods turned her into a nightingale, and so she became a sister in metamorphosis with Arachne, and, it seemed to me then, with the soundless spider there on Cortes Island.

As these things were winding through me, Abram called us back to the cedars with Tibetan prayer chimes. We sat in a circle among the roots. “In oral cultures,” he said, “land is the primary pneumonic for stories. And so stories are intimately tied to the places where they happen.” He then asked us to share our encounters. One person witnessed a mercurial blue reflection on a rock. One felt vibrations under a clod of dirt. One was healed by touching the scar of a fir tree. One heard a maple whispering through her arm. As each person spoke, I felt as if the air itself was multiplying, diversifying, thickening with meaning.

As for my own encounter, it was only later, when I looked back, that I understood how the more-than-human world confronted me with the very thing that makes me human, the ability to let memory unspool. But something else happened, too. In the days that followed the encounter, I noticed webs everywhere, and no wonder. As I learned when I consulted that other, shadow Web, there are over 700 spider species in the province of British Columbia, and on Cortes Island, I was never more than a meter away from an arachnid. I saw the strands under the eaves of the guest house and woven into a blackberry vine, in the silver hair of the other seminar students, and in the diamond chain dangling from a young girl’s neck as she danced to African drums on the last evening on the island. Every web was a double-take, a reminder of how story is built.

Guest Blog Post, Alice Lowe: About Chocolate Donuts

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Now and then, if we’re lucky, writing ideas burst onto the scene fully formed, like Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell. More often they emerge from our routines of list-making, mind-mapping, trial and error. We’re offered prompts or we select them randomly, like choosing a vacation spot by sticking push pins in a map while blindfolded. It’s hit and miss, sometimes an arduous and tedious process, painful as prolonged labor. Will this brainchild ever be born?

We may develop a stockpile of ideas to be developed with the right impetus … or not. When I was invited to submit a guest post to Superstition Review I didn’t say, “Aha, I know just what I’ll write.” Nothing came to mind. I looked at my list of possibilities, hand-printed in alternating blue and purple ink on the dry-erase board over my desk. I eliminated them from consideration one by one: no, not that one; no; uh uh; no, that won’t work. My mind went blank. I explained my dilemma to my husband on one of our morning walks, five miles to Balboa Park and back. This was before breakfast or even coffee, and we’d agreed to stop at Donut Star on the way home, so perhaps he was a bit single-minded. “Write about chocolate donuts,” he said.  

I write creative nonfiction, personal essays—my own stories—so it isn’t as if I have to create new worlds out of wisps of cloud. I am my own protagonist, and the people and experiences I write about are real; I don’t have to design or disguise characters or events. Is this a blessing or a curse? On the one hand the raw material is there for the harvesting, even if it’s covered over with years of accumulated debris. On the other hand I can’t invent—I’m limited by the facts. If I don’t like the way an episode ends, I can’t change it. If I behaved badly, my choices are to tell it truthfully or not tell it at all.

I’ve written essays about family and childhood, about men and mistakes, fear and failure, success and sadness, about getting old (and older still). Extending beyond myself but still in the context of personal experience, I’ve written about crows and cats, sushi and shellfish, science and polar exploration (inspired by a folk song), about baseball and opera, writing and writers. The notes currently on my dry-erase board, potential themes waiting to materialize, include bookstores, boycotts, and breakfast (with donuts?).

My affinity for maps might not have struck me as a prospective topic if I hadn’t seen the blurb in an AARP bulletin that included glove box maps—along with land lines, desktop computers, and analog watches (all of which I continue to use)—among things likely to become extinct in the next fifty years. A lover of fold-out maps, for pleasure reading as well as directions, the idea of writing about them resonated. But what about them? I have a box of maps that I’ve collected from my travels, but I didn’t want to write a travel piece. I needed an in, a hook. The idea hibernated in the “ideas” file that preceded the white board. Periodically I would nudge it and its dormant companions to see if there were signs of life, if anything was ready to emerge into daylight.

My daughter and I went to New York last October to, among other things, run a 10K race. When I printed out a map of the race route, she teased me: “It’s Central Park—why do you need a map?” That was it, the opening of what became “Flȃneur with Baedeker, or, Student of the Map,” published this spring in Superstition Review. In the course of research and dredging my memory, I was able to pay homage to my Long Island birthplace and my Anglophilia, to some of my favorite literary works, and to my mentor/muse Virginia Woolf, and to weave them together into what I think of as a self-portrait in maps. The ingredients were waiting to be assembled, but it couldn’t happen without that first spark, the recognition that here was an idea I might be able to develop.

Perhaps there’s no difference in that respect between fiction and nonfiction. Authors of both are mining the real world as well as their memories and imaginations for themes and stories, for characters and settings, for detail and drama.

When I’m idea-starved and one doesn’t pad over to me like a well-trained terrier, I get a little anxious. I don’t believe in writer’s block, though I might if it was called “idea block.” These are the times when my mind feels a little stodgy, when I even get a little panicky, and I wonder “What am I going to write?” It’s always that initial catalyst that eludes me. Once an idea presents and plants itself, I’m fired up, ready to nurture and cultivate it. If it doesn’t germinate I put it away—that hibernation file—and see if a long winter’s rest might revive it.

Virginia Woolf would swirl her ideas around in her diary, test their validity on paper, often long before she knew what they might become. In a January 1920 entry she writes that she’s “happier today than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel … I must still grope and experiment but this afternoon I had a gleam of light.” She goes on to describe the barest skeleton for what would become Jacob’s Room, her third novel and the first to delve into the modernist style that she would develop in subsequent work. A holiday in St. Ives, Cornwall, her family’s summer retreat during her childhood, prompted the inspiration for To the Lighthouse. She’d visited several times in her adult life—she might have written about it any number of times—but it was on this particular trip that she recognized it as a rich foundation for her novel.  

Food is a foundation—one of many but an especially evocative one—from which I’ve explored life and culture and history. I’ve written a number of food-themed essays, from the autobiographical sweep of an abecedarian to more focused pieces on assorted seafood, on noodles, New Orleans food, Cornish pasties, rutabagas, mom’s cooking, and cookbooks. It’s also a wellspring for sumptuous verbal displays, as many authors, including Virginia Woolf, have discovered. Writing about chocolate donuts isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Pastries I have known and loved? Muffins and biscuits and scones, oh my?

Guest Blog Post, Thomas Legendre: Researching the Stone

Photo Credit: www.migratingmiss.com

Many writers claim you don’t necessarily need to visit the settings depicted in your work, but for me, it’s a good excuse to travel. Perhaps my most memorable “excuse” came when I was researching a novel involving British prehistory and, for one chapter in particular (published as “Ultraviolet” in Superstition Review), some archaeological sites in Orkney.

I was warned about Orkney. “Gale force winds,” a Scottish friend told me. “Cold rain. Rough seas. The ferry ride alone will make you sick for a week. It’s not Hawaii, mate.”

But as an American resident of Edinburgh, known as “The Athens of the North” for its role in the Enlightenment, I had developed a tolerance for such extremes. And I was curious about Orkney, a group of over 70 islands teeming with prehistoric sites that are reputedly the best-preserved in Europe. I had seen photos of the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, less famous cousins of Stonehenge. I had heard stories about Neolithic tribes, Picts, Vikings, and, most fascinating of all, sailors from the Spanish Armada who had survived a shipwreck off the coast over 400 years ago and gone native, leaving behind a strain of conspicuously dark-eyed Orcadians.

There was history there. And prehistory. And legend and myth. And a couple of whisky distilleries. But what really put my motivation in gear? The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, known as “The Pompeii of the North.”

Pompeii? Ok, it wasn’t exactly Hawaii. But I imagined a volcano smoking on the horizon.

I loaded my bicycle into my car, drove it onto the ferry—let’s call it “The Pacific Princess of the North”—and braced myself for a seven-hour roller-coaster ride. My objective was to visit as many prehistoric sites as possible and, since it was late May, use my bike as much as possible while doing it. I had filled an entire suitcase with thermal layers and raingear. But as we left port, the sky was suspiciously clear. The sea was smooth as glass. Instead of clinging to the bulkhead for dear life, I was standing at the rail with a pint of ale watching the sunset at 10 pm.

The Mainland, as it is known, is the largest island and the home of the local government. The streets of Kirkwall, established by Norse invaders during their 600 year reign, were built narrow against the infamous wind. After some wandering, I managed to find my hotel only to discover Robert, one of the co-owners, tending the bar instead of the reception desk. His attitude, at least, was in the right place.

The next morning I woke to heavy rain, my enthusiasm slightly damp around the edges. At the reception desk a woman named Carol offered encouraging words about the weather. “It’ll lift by afternoon,” she said, in what sounded like a blend of Scottish and Norwegian accents. “The Farm Report on telly—that’s the one to watch. Ignore everything else. The BBC can’t really see this far.”

The accent made sense. And so did the outlook. I had been told that the inhabitants of Orkney, separated from the countries that governed them over the centuries, had a distinct sense of identity. They consider themselves Orcadians first, Scots second. What Americans might call The Texans of the North.

Except this wasn’t Texas weather. I glanced out the window again. I scanned my list of prehistoric sites and noticed one that was far away and relatively isolated from the others. An outlier. A distant target. A good excuse to drive instead of bike. It was called The Tomb of the Eagles:  a Neolithic chambered cairn that was found with over 16,000 human and 725 eagle bones inside. These weren’t intact skeletons, but remains that had been disarticulated by way of a prehistoric practice known as excarnation. In other words, the corpses had been left exposed until they were stripped by animals, then deliberately cracked apart and interred. Archaeologists are still puzzling over exactly what sort of religious practices were involved, let alone the beliefs they signified. Photos of the tomb at the time of discovery show skulls arranged on stone shelves, along with an ankle-deep mix of ribs and femurs and tarsals, not to mention eagle talons.

But this was still 22 miles away. Wipers clicking, I drove across several islands linked by causeways known as the Churchill Barriers, constructed to thwart the Germans during World War II and still displaying the occasional mast or rusting bulk of a ship scuttled to block passage. A different kind of excarnation, perhaps.

Signs pointed beyond sheep pastures to the visitor’s center, where I checked in for a hands-on tutorial of the various relics. The Tomb of the Eagles is privately owned, staffed by guides who take an interactive and somewhat playful approach. I was encouraged to hold stone tools, to feel the contours of ancient bones, and peer closely at the upper molars of a skull that had chewed its last meal 5000 years ago. Then I went off to the tomb itself. I followed the path through fields and along a headland with the North Sea churning at the cliffs below.

It was a grassy mound about the size of an RV. The passage into the tomb was low and narrow, requiring a hands-and-knees approach—a common Neolithic feature. In this case, though, the owners had strung a rope along the ceiling of the passage, with a trolley on the floor that a mechanic might use to slide underneath a car.

I glanced around nervously. I was alone. The sea crashed and heaved at the base of the cliff. Then I crouched down and pulled myself in.

It was empty, of course, with vacant side cells and a roped-off corner that was considered unsafe. And the original roof was gone, replaced by a concrete dome with skylights. It should have been a letdown. But I thought of all the hands that had stacked the stones, the regiment of skulls, the scree of bones on the floor. I imagined darkness, the air heavy with death. And those eagle talons.

Had bodies been exposed on the nearby cliffs for the eagles to pick at? And had those very same eagles been captured afterward and sealed in the tomb? I realized this was the nature of the Neolithic—or at least the nature of the Neolithic for us. They took everything apart without leaving instructions for putting it back together again. If you want your history intact and obvious, look elsewhere. This was an imaginative puzzle. Some assembly required.

As I walked back along the cliffs the weather began to lift. I checked my watch. Noon. With this confirmation of the farm report, I drove back toward the Mainland and my appointed tour at Maeshowe, the “finest chambered tomb in Orkney,” which turned out to be another grassy mound, but larger. I was beginning to get the picture.

Maeshowe, though, has special significance. It’s located on a low stretch of land surrounded by hills—a natural amphitheater—within sight of the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and the Neolithic village of Barnhouse. And it’s impressive.

A guide led a bunch of us down a passageway set with gigantic flagstones into a main chamber about 15 feet high. Still fresh from the Tomb of the Eagles, I recognized the look of the place. The same architect? This tomb, however, had been looted and vandalized long before discovery by our enlightened civilization. The chambers were completely empty, the walls covered in places with “runic inscriptions”—i.e., Viking graffiti. There are references to treasure and, shall we say, unprintable activities.

“Many a woman has gone stooping in here,” one of them reads. “Thorni bedded. Helgi carved,” reads another.

But probably the most remarkable feature of Maeshowe is the alignment of the tomb itself. For several weeks before and after the winter solstice, the sunset shines directly down the passage and illuminates the back wall of the chamber. Historic Scotland, which manages the site, maintains a webcam for those meek souls who want to witness it but don’t care to travel to Orkney at a time of year when dusk occurs during lunch.

I emerged to find it raining again. I pulled up my hood and hiked over to the Stones of Stenness. I crossed the bank and ditch and made my way over to the nearest of the slabs. Originally there had been 12 of them. Now there were only 4. But they had character—thin, sharp, with oblique angles that gave them a certain geological nobility. And there was a central hearth:  a stone box set in the ground, where fires had burned for ceremonial rituals and feasts. I looked down into it and imagined heat. The rain stopped. The clouds parted. The sun shone.

There was only one thing left to do. Skara Brae.

Can you handle the truth? It ain’t Pompeii. But consider this:  we’re closer in time to Pompeii than Pompeii was to Skara Brae. In other words, it’s more than twice as old. And there it was, built into a midden, which today serves as a kind of viewing platform surrounding the houses. The roofs are gone, allowing visitors to peer down into the structures. Walls, hearths, beds, dressers—all made of stone.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Tombs. Standing stones. The remains of Pictish or Viking (or both) hill forts. Wind-swept hills and roaring sea. And it was research. Really. These details are coming to you courtesy of copious notes and photos I took in the field, not to mention hours of additional writing at the hotel every night.

That said, it’s hard to claim any scholarly merit in visiting Highland Park Distillery or the restaurants of Kirkwall, one of which served a prime Orkney fillet steak with pan-seared queen scallops in a light whisky sauce, a kind of locavore extraordinaire, while another, called Dil Se, identified itself as “The Finest Indian Cuisine in Orkney,” which seemed like boasting the Best Mexican Food in Moscow. Or maybe the Tex-Mex of the North? But the saag balti and lamb tikka was worthy of any hemisphere, as was everything else about Orkney. As I boarded the ferry back home, I realized the last place I had enjoyed this much was another group of islands I had visited many years ago. What was the name? Ah yes. Hawaii. The Orkney of the South . . . But that would be a much more expensive novel to write.  

Guest Blog Post, Sherrie Flick: 11 Pieces of Good Advice and One I Should Have Ignored

  1. The high school classroom is standard issue. I’ve grown up in this mill town, but it’s really dying now. None of the students around me in this creative writing class have aspirations to become a writer. They want to go to college and get a job that they won’t get laid off from. My teacher Mr. Moore tells me: it doesn’t matter where you go to school. Anywhere you go, you’ll find great professors to work with. He says, yes, I think you have what it takes to become a writer.
  2. I’m in a standard issue professor’s office for my mid-semester conference in fiction 101. It’s probably the first workshop I’ve ever taken in my life. The professor looks up at me, squints, and says: The problem with you is that at some point in your life someone told you you were creative.
  3. I’m 23 years old and about to get into my boyfriend’s puke green Chevy. It’s parked in my parents’ driveway. We’ve stopped to visit them as we head west after I’ve graduated from the University of New Hampshire. We’ll travel across the country for months without any real destination, although we end up in San Francisco for 4 years. My parents don’t understand what in the hell I’m doing, although they wouldn’t say it that way. My dad tells me: always make sure you’re making enough money per month so that one week goes to rent, one goes to utilities and bills, one goes to savings, and one is for spending money. I follow this advice for years and in many ways it’s how I am able to write and work and live and be happy in many different places.
  4. My friend Pam on many different occasions: If you’re not having fun, leave.
  5. I’ve just met my roommate Mallory Tarses at Sewanee Writers’ Conference and by dinner time everyone thinks we’ve been friends forever. I write flash fiction, have been writing it for many years. Everyone tells me I need to write a novel. Everyone. Mallory says, or why not just get really, really good at writing flash fiction?
  6. At that same conference Tim O’Brien says: Don’t forget to look around while you’re in there writing the story, take the time to look around.
  7. My friend Jonah Winter: Knock it off.
  8. I’m four years out of graduate school and living in Pittsburgh with a real job working in museum education. It’s 40+ hours a week and stressful. I feel lost so I email my mentor Marly Swick (See #1) and tell her I’m ungrounded and out of touch with any kind of national writing community. She says, “Why don’t you apply to some writing residencies? I think it’s time for you to do that.”
  9. I’m at Atlantic Center for the Arts studying with Jim Crace and a great group of fiction writers. Armadillos rustle through the grasses below the boardwalks. Jim Crace says: “Slow down. Look at each sentence. Craft each sentence. Vary the length. Think about word choice. Avoid repeated words. Use active verbs. You already do this instinctually, now I want you to do it deliberately.”
  10. Pam Painter: Start with a list. A list is never intimidating.
  11. I’m running the Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh. The writer John Dalton gets up to read from his debut novel Heaven Lake. He finishes and immediately sells out of books. Later he tells me: Summarize the novel in your introduction and then read a strong section that doesn’t logically follow from the summary. People buy books because they want to find out how the two connect.
  12. There’s a big round table and 21 of us sit around it. The Creative Capital retreat is like a boot camp in professionalism for artists. They tell us: Always introduce yourself using your first and last name. They tell us: Have a 1-year plan and a 5-year plan. They tell us: If you’re not being rejected, you’re not working hard enough.

Guest Blog Post, Todd Robinson: Think Think Think

Guest Blog PostThink Think Think

I write most of my poems from a little room on the second floor of a crumbling Spanish colonial in an old neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska. Two wide windows face west, sky and tree-tops staring me down day after night after day after night. Powerlines and rooftops, rain and robins, and, once—though I was so high I doubted my bleary eyes—a showdown between thirty cardinals and three bluejays, which ended with a jay’s Stuka-dive calamitous slam three feet from my face. Sky must be reflected on the glass, because birds wham into it all the time. I notice with a start, then peer down to see a small, still form on a little sun-room roof one story below. If I look away, they disappear.

For all this weirdness and wonder, the swath of this vista usually bores me. I was very bored the January morning I wrote “Hard-Headed Mantra” (Superstition #20), leafless dark trees throwing up their hands to the wintry whiteout that swaddles Omaha four months of the year, my cold bones wrapped in flannel, brain ricocheting with restless cravings for something to do and to be. For years upon years I had filled those empty hours with intoxicants, churring through the lonely hours like a June-bug, sickly as a summer cold in any weather. But those draughts were done the day I wrote the poem. What to do, then?

My AA sponsor has always said if you have nothing to write about, write about nothing. He says Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for writing about nothing, so I might as well write about nothing, too. So there I was, restless and moody as any addict, with no salve for my jangled nerves. A poem, then.

Ted Kooser once told me he always reads a poem before he attempts to write, as a kind of mental calisthenics, so ever the dutiful acolyte, I soon found myself appraising C. Dale Young’s “Between the Dragon and the Phoenix”, which opens “Fire in the heart, fire in the sky, the sun just / a smallish smudge resting on the horizon / out beyond the reef that breaks the waves” before delving into memories of father and son and the ambiguities therein. I loved his roiling rhythm, his painterly images, the high-tension wire between generations thrumming, and thought I might launch out from his reef into my own, more wintry, reverie.

And so I did, conjuring the not-much around and within me that January of 2017 before leaping into the fraught past I share with a man I once hated but have come somewhat begrudgingly to love. The poem tells the story, so there’s not much need to elaborate, but in my emotion recollected in boredom I did make an epiphanic leap between the casual cruelties he larded upon my youthful head and the dazed drunk I eventually became. I mean to imply no causality, but surely the seeds of my later ruin were planted not by his hard hand, but by the lazing, mazing, dozing days of my youth, when I filled the idle hours with daydreams and space operas, comic books and candy. He seemed to find me and my methods contemptible, and perhaps, I now realize, I protested—to myself only, for he brooked no opposition—too much. I always thought I was unique, especially gifted, golden…but it turned out I was just a drifting boy who became a man adrift.

I haven’t dosed since September 30th, 2014, but still I struggle to incite myself into productive action, and find myself staring out that window at a world built for the whims of others. And eight miles to the west, my father does the very same nothing.

Guest Post, Hannah Lee Jones: Poet Expend Yourself

guest postPoet Expend Yourself 

Several years ago, I was a beginning poet determined to learn the craft of poetry without the rigaramole and expense of earning an MFA. Inspired by my friend Rebecca Wallwork’s model—interviewing accomplished writers to get at the gems of their craft, which she’d then share on her blog, The MFA Project—I launched my own blog, Primal School, where I would do something similar with poets.

What I knew then was that I wanted to connect with and learn from other writers. I was prepared to give myself over to everything the art and craft of poetry would demand of me. I wasn’t as prepared to run into my own resistance to everything else the poetry universe demands of its artists.

With the blog my project began easily enough, beginning with questions for the poets I interviewed: How did you come to write this poem? What did you mean by this particular line? Tell us about your revision process.  As I mined for the poets’ techniques and sources of inspiration and highlighted their work on the site, I got to know the people behind the poems. Relationships blossomed. Poets expressed their appreciation for the blog, for the attention and care being given to their work. In a few cases I even helped boost poets who were just starting their careers and whose credibility would be supported by an interview feature. As young as Primal School was, others had even begun sending their students to the site as a resource.

In the winter of 2017 I began a seasonal stint as an intern at Copper Canyon Press in what was then my backyard of the Pacific Northwest. I regarded this experience as another brick in the growing poetic education that was my self-created MFA. In a drafty building in the middle of Fort Warden State Park I made copies, filled book orders, and read the manuscript submissions that came in. In retrospect what was fascinating and almost funny about this period was how quickly my perceived status in the poetry world grew in a manner which had absolutely nothing to do with anything I’d written or actually done. I watched with fascination the god-like projections poets would lavish on Copper Canyon editors in spaces like AWP, some of which inevitably spilled over onto staff and interns including me. I noticed my ego eating it up. I also observed that something in me had developed an allergy to a disjunction I was seeing — between the artifact that is a poem and the life that is its habitat; between poet and other; between poet and the world. It was around this time that my writing dried up, and with it my personal life and the structures in my world which I had come to regard as given.

The exact source of this disruption is difficult to name. But I suspect that the seeds for it were planted during a trip to South Carolina for a writing residency in late fall of 2016. The election of our new president was around the corner; the lefties who were my peers at the residency were not the least bit concerned that this would be the outcome. I wasn’t so sure. For reasons of curiosity and cultural immersion I formed a deep relationship with a Trump supporter who had been kind to me, and as I got to know him, I understood instinctively that his stories were the life which had been missing from my experience. Life to me could no longer consist only of reclining on my chaise lounge with a volume of Tranströmer poems, so far removed from a world coming undone with its poverty, grief, abuses and addictions. I still wanted my poems, but their fuel source was out.

For the grand embrace of the All that is America, the poet we love returning to time and time again (of course) is Walt Whitman. Revisiting his “Song of Myself,” I detect an inspirational whiff of the thing that was missing and that I’d left behind when I committed my life to poetry:

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

When the calling came for the open road I knew I had to respond, which I eventually I did. My writing naturally was reignited.

Gary Dop gave a memorable interview on Primal School in which he advocated for poetry as one of the great healing agents in a culture which has lost its spiritual center. I think it’s worthwhile to examine the question of whether the literary community as a function of this wider culture has also strayed from its center — whether that’s in the way we write (towards a style or objective rather than our deepest selves); or in any number of paths we walk unquestioningly (first you publish poems in journals, then they win prizes, then those poems become a book, then the books win you more prizes, and you get to repeat the cycle ad nauseam till the end of your career); to our relentless concern for how others react or what others are thinking or doing, whether that’s in the reviews we write or how we go about sharing our work (we give readings, of course). I see nothing wrong with any of these things on their own; it’s the blind adherence to them as inevitable steps forward in the career every writer that I’ve begun to question.

As an experiment in confronting these time-worn paths and really challenging whether they are for me, I recently took a break from submitting to journals and have been giving my poems and other writing away on social media. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this. The recent critiques and discussions around “Instapoets” are compelling for the questions they raise: What is “accessible”? Who gets to say what’s good, or what poetry even is? Why is it seen as a waste of a good poem for an author to post it to a social media platform right away (which constitutes publication) instead of submitting it for the formal validation of appearing first in a journal? Bob Dylan’s Nobel win, along similar lines, got me thinking about poetry as a wider arena that in a more inclusive world would encompass songwriters and spoken-word artists and others like them (I’m thinking of people like Gregory Alan Isakov, Cleo Wade and Andrea Gibson). As artists they are all masters of the creative giveaway, a concept worth revisiting in Whitman’s later lines:

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.

The older I get the more I believe that to expend oneself creatively is an act of communion that burgeons out beyond the individual into something that Gregory Orr describes as “the Beloved that is the world.” Recently I had an exchange with a poet who remarked quite cavalierly that he’d never understood poetry as needing a purpose that was rooted in anything that wasn’t the self. I disagree with him. Poetry demands that the self come to fruition and nothing less. But I think the self is just a conduit for the transmission; the real reason we write is to connect with the Other in as many ways as our tools will allow us. In a world steeped in suffering such as ours is in these times, the reason we write is because of our love and our pain, which are shared; our desire to sustain our belief in a world where goodness and mercy and mutuality have not been exterminated.

I am grateful for and continue to hold in highest respect the institutions and individuals who train our poets, who publish their books, who promote their careers. Without them I wouldn’t still be writing poems. I’ll be culling from their wisdom and ideas as I find my own path forward. But I also care about whether we are connecting to the full with the world around us; whether we are honoring our contract with life by saying yes to our deepest and most colorful possible participation in the universe through everything we create. That would be something worth giving my life over to.