Guest Post: Bill Gaythwaite, Continents Away

Photo of a globe and fountain

Photo by Tom Westburgh

When I was just out of college, a man I barely knew left me some inheritance money. He had been a friend of my father’s when they were both very young. This man didn’t have any family, had never partnered up or had any kids of his own, so when he died, his estate was to be divided up among the children of his old friends. I’d met him maybe two or three times in my whole life, when he’d come to visit my family in Boston from his home in rural Maine. These were awkward meetings. He seemed much older than my father, spoke with a thick Maine accent and wasn’t used to being around children. His first name was Wesley, which seemed to fit. He’d ask me the standard questions about school or sports, which I would grudgingly answer, while my parents looked on, raising their eyebrows at me, willing me to be more polite. I did my best, but I couldn’t wait to be excused and dodge the guy.

Later, of course, getting a windfall from this odd, shadowy figure would be a big surprise. It was not exactly an amount I could retire on.  Not trust fund money or anything. I think it was a little over $4000. But since my family wasn’t wealthy by any stretch, and it was over thirty years ago (when this sum went a lot further) I considered it a fortune. I got a lot of advice about what I should do with it, which mostly centered on putting it in the bank or using it to pay off some school loans. But there was never any question. I was going to travel. I was afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust back then. I’d been lucky enough to study in Italy for a semester and travel a little in Europe. Now I wanted to see everywhere else.

I bought a round-the-world ticket from a now defunct airline and first flew to Tokyo. I had no set plans really, from one day to the next, though I’d had to secure some visas before I left home and get some shots in my ass and had started taking malaria pills too.  Aside from the plane ticket, this was going to be shoestring travel. I was always keenly aware of how much money I had left.  If I didn’t spend cash on lodging or food, I’d be able to travel longer, further. A youth hostel or a room in a YMCA was a real luxury on that trip. I spent a lot of nights sleeping in train stations or airports or simply curled up outside.  I was gone the better part of a year, made it to over 30 countries and lost 40 pounds. Somehow I still came home with a few bucks in my pocket.

I did a lot of stupid things on that trip. I was too trusting by half and got ripped off a few times. As an over-privileged American, I probably deserved it. I got lost, missed travel connections and made a mess of basic phrases in a variety of languages. Still, by the time I reached Bombay I was feeling invincible. (This was before the city’s name was changed to Mumbai.) I drank water out of a trough on a filthy street and then was miserably ill for several weeks. Given the real suffering in India, I didn’t have a right to complain too much. I learned some things when I was traveling. One time a local man in Kowloon quite accurately called me an idiot when I gushed about how much I loved Hong Kong, how I’d love to live there. He asked me what I could possibly know about what it meant to live anywhere, other than where I was actually from. “You rich tourists are all alike,” he snapped.  “You see what you want to see.” I hardly felt like a rich tourist. I hadn’t eaten for a day and I was staying in an overcrowded flophouse, but he was right, of course. No matter what my personal circumstances, I had a rich person’s opportunity. I was, after all, traveling around the world. I didn’t fully understand what this man meant until much later, but it humbled me enough to know when I should keep quiet.  One of the reasons I liked traveling alone was because no one was there to see me screw up in these ways or fight with me about directions or tell me which museums to see. I liked the idea of controlling my own narrative and there was something very freeing about doing that half-way around the world, continents away from anyone who knew me by name. The memory of that freedom has stayed with me.

Another real gift of that trip is that it was the beginning of my writing life. Alone in the evening, wherever I was settled for the night, I’d pull out my notebook from my backpack and write about what I’d seen that day, quick snapshots of my life on the road. I was quite faithful to this little journal.  I also had another notebook where I started writing stories and some poems, which I guarded feverishly for fear this book would wind up in the wrong hands — meaning anyone with a passing knowledge of the English language. The work was terrible (this is not modesty) but at least I was doing it. I liked the idea of putting words down at the end of the day, of creating characters and plots, imagining dialogue.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I was never lonely on that trip. Not once. I was creating other lives and situations to keep me company. The writing itself might have been triggered by my travels through China, Thailand, Egypt, and all those other astonishing places, but the nightly ritual of jumping into the work didn’t go away when I came home. It remained part of my life when I moved to New York City and then on trips to other countries in my twenties and early thirties. (Wanderlust percolated in my system for a long time.)

Later, as a busy suburban dad, when I wasn’t going anywhere more exotic than the Jersey Shore, my writing habits stayed with me too. I never felt right if I didn’t spend a little time on my work before I turned in for the night, even if that meant only editing a paragraph. Mine is often a slow process, but it’s a deliberate and fairly constant one. Today this all feels more like reflex than habit, as if my writing routine is hardwired into me, a kind of muscle memory. Wesley couldn’t have known what I’d do with his inheritance and I couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on me to this day.  I will always be very grateful to him.  And I do still think of Wesley, in fleeting moments and sometimes longer.

Authors Talk: Marylyn Tan

Marylyn Tan bio photoToday we are pleased to feature author Marylyn Tan as our Authors Talk series contributor. She talks about the creative process she used to write her poem “bvtch swag.” She explains the significance of the opening quote and how it related to her personal life.

 

You can access Marylyn’s poem “bvtch swag” here.

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.

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.

Guest Post: Anthony Varallo, Welcome the Interruption

Anthony Varallo bio photoAs far as I can remember, it started about ten years ago, right around the time we finally broke down and got Wi-Fi in the house, after years of saying we would never get Wi-Fi in the house—who needs Wi-Fi in their house?—this strange new phenomenon so subtle and so barely noticeable that, at first, it didn’t even feel like a change at all; it felt like what we had always known: the wish to be interrupted.

It occurred incrementally, the wish, starting out as little more than an occasional habit.  My first recollection of it was sitting at home one night and trying to read a book without being able to follow what I was reading.  I kept re-reading the same passage over and over again, or turning to the back cover to read the blurbs I’d already read a dozen times, or checking the author’s photo for no real reason.  I got up and fetched a glass of water.  I made myself a snack.  I read the book’s jacket copy again, trying to remind myself what I was reading.  I opened the book again and realized I had no idea what I’d been reading for several pages.

And then I did something I’d only just begun to do: I grabbed my laptop computer from my bag, placed it beside me, and started it up.  Maybe, I thought, I should check my email.  Yes, good idea.  Maybe someone had emailed me while I was reading my book, and I hadn’t even known it, and that person was now sitting somewhere, eagerly awaiting my response.  Think of how thoughtless I would be if I continued to read my book without even knowing that someone had emailed me.  What if it was something urgent?  Surely the person who had emailed me something urgent would appreciate how quickly I responded to their email.  Impressed, even, by my availability and interest in their urgent problem, even—and this part they wouldn’t know; how could they?—as I sat in my home trying to read a book I was having a hard time following.  Thanks, they would say, for responding so quickly.

So, I sat my computer beside me and checked my email, a position that allowed me to keep the book open across my lap, should I want to keep reading it.  Three new emails arrived, all junk.  I deleted them, and then returned to my book, with the sudden sense that someone was watching me, perhaps approving of what I had done.  I had paid attention to the world around me all while secluding myself from the world, too.  No more lazy, introverted, solo reading for me, like I had done for so many years; no, I would read my book and be attentive to my email at the same time, in case anyone emailed me something significant.  That’s what a thoughtful, caring person would do.  Who would try to read a book while neglecting the world around them?  A wish to be interrupted crept into my consciousness, without me quite realizing it somehow.  I’d acquired a new taste for something, even if I didn’t know what it was exactly.  Someone, somewhere, interrupt me.  Please.

Nowadays, I seek interruption whenever I can.  I keep my laptop open to email, weather, news, and baseball scores.  I open my web browser before I pour coffee into my coffeemaker, before I make myself a slice of toast with peanut butter, before I would even think of reading a book.  When was the last time I read a book first thing in the morning?  Did I used to do that?  I can barely remember now.  These days, so much of my reading is done online, that the line between “reading” and nearly all other activity has been thoroughly blurred.  Eradicated, even.  To the degree that I’m nostalgic now, writing this essay, for a time when I read without my laptop nearby, without Wi-Fi up and running, without a new email demanding my attention: a special, low rate on a hotel I stayed at once, years ago.  A coupon for savings on pharmacy products I do not need.  Another petition to sign.

I look back to that time when I could read innocently, without the need for interruption, and wonder if I’ll ever return to that kind of simplicity.  And I would wonder about it even more, and question, perhaps, what it all means, but I’d rather not think about it now, with the day just starting up, my coffee still warm.  Plus, I need to go check my email.

Authors Talk: Molly Giles

Molly GilesToday we are pleased to feature author Molly Giles as our Authors Talk series contributor. She reads her story from Issue 17, “Cleaning Deposit.” After the reading, she talks about where she got the idea for the story and the real story it’s based on.

 

You can read her piece, “Cleaning Deposit,” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review.

#ArtLitPhx: Rachel Egboro “Telling the Whole Story”

Rachel Egboro bio photoOn Saturday, August 12th Rachel Egboro will be conducting a two-hour introductory storytelling workshop. Rachel is the co-founder of thestoryline.org, a Phoenix storytelling collective. During the workshop, Rachel will give some simple steps to begin and develop a story for an audience. The workshop costs $25 and will be at the Changing Hands Phoenix location. You can find more information and buy tickets here.