As 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.
In July of 2008, the year I lived in Melbourne with my family, Starbucks responded to the economic crisis by shuttering hundreds of stores worldwide. In the letters section of The Age, Melbourne’s newspaper of record, the event registered as a triumph over an uncouth invader:
Good riddance, Starbucks, take your awful coffee and go back to the rat hole you came from.
Matt Smith, Beaumaris.
And (huffily), under the headline “A win for good taste”:
Finally, the Australian public has resisted the temptation to mimic and Americanise our lives, by rejecting the Starbucks coffee model. When you consider that the average good (Italian) coffee outlet in Melbourne will charge roughly $3 for a great coffee that will be brought to your table in a china cup, why on earth would people want to pay roughly double for an average coffee, often with a fancy name, in a cardboard cup, that you have to line up for, with no service?
We are to be congratulated.
Steven Rose, Caulfield
Seven months earlier, as we prepared to leave Oregon for my wife’s sabbatical year, I’d sworn never to visit an Australian Starbucks. Why travel to a new shore, then turn your back on the continent? Why open new vistas, then shut your eyes? At the same time, I hadn’t sworn off coffee, which I need in order to avoid headaches, write clearly, and stabilize my moods. But after we arrived in Melbourne, I could not find coffee anywhere. It was only one of a long list of absences, including familiar faces, Mexican food, and rain. (To move from the Pacific Northwest in winter to a Victorian summer, from a dank, rainy perma-twilight to a surfeit of sun, is as dramatic a shift as you can make in the First World.)
I ventured into non-corporate coffee shops on Chapel Street and Swanston Street and Glenferrie Road, ready with my colorful Australian money, and asked for a cup of coffee.
What kind of coffee?
(Delicately.) Espresso, macchiato, cappuccino…?
Drip coffee, at least outside Starbucks, does not exist in Melbourne. The closest thing to it is what Starbucks calls “Americano,” and what Australians call a “long black.” Sometimes you can get coffee made with a French press. Once, in a Gloria Jean’s, I ordered the French Press Coffee of the Day. From the hasty conference behind the counter, I gathered that the Coffee of the Day flavor would have to be identified, and the French press would have to be located and dusted off. Eventually something smelling of burned hazelnuts appeared in a paper cup.
The brief, confused conversations I had with baristas, in early January, seemed part of a seamless web of disorientation and confusion. It included the black light that evidently flashed on above my head whenever I opened my mouth, or the awkward tack-left-tack-right stutter-step that happened every ten steps on crowded city sidewalks, where we had to remember to walk on the left side. It is, I suppose, that disorientation that we went there to find, in order to recover from it.
The absence of coffee felt like the absence of a personal history. I had grown up with the smell of burned coffee in a two-stage aluminum pot (you poured boiling water in the top, and it sank through a perforated basket full of Maxwell House grounds, producing a dark ichor, whose liquid remainder thickened and burned above a low flame all Saturday morning); I had drunk gallons of watery diner refills as a teenager, while out late avoiding the house; for years after I was married, I made double-strength Folger’s in the Braun coffeemaker given as a wedding gift; and then I learned, after moving to the Pacific Northwest, that coffee was not only too precious for free refills, but that it had its own vocabulary of aroma and taste and provenance, like wine for the productive. As a newcomer to Cascadia, I came to have preferences. When at home, I drank fair-trade organic French Roast Sumatra delivered to the local food co-op by bicycle, though none of these qualities were as important to me as its raw strength. I like coffee, I like the taste of it, and I prefer it to be fairly traded, but the truth is that it’s always been about the milligrams. Which is how I came to spend hundreds of dollars a year at Starbucks for something I once thought too bitter to consume.
Writers need rituals, a way to make the world recede. Over the years in the Northwest, writing in Starbucks had become my ritual, the habit that enclosed the habit. I’d park myself by an outlet, plug in the laptop, and write for most of the morning. It was comfortable—that carefully crafted “third space,” neither home nor work, was a good fit for a writer without a job—and over the years, as the price of a grandehouse ticked upward, the comfort began to feel necessary. That third space is designed to be ignored, to be pleasant, unobtrusive, a dependable nowhere. Glancing around, I saw that most other customers were living in third spaces of their own, texting, surfing the net, looking at Windows or out through windows. I was no different; an unfinished manuscript is a third space too. You spend hours there, or years, but you don’t live there, and you hope to leave as soon as you can.
In Melbourne, ignoring our surroundings was not an option. The least detail demanded attention. Which tram do we take? Where can I find coffee? Why does that big cemetery have a banner announcing a website? What does “Bob’s your uncle” mean? In response, we kept our eyes and ears open, asked questions, and reconstituted a version of home. In our beige rented apartment, we slept on mattresses on the floor and covered cardboard boxes with fabric to make nightstands. Our desk was a card table in a corner of the living/dining area. We didn’t own a car; we got around on trams and commuter trains, which not only made us feel virtuous, but also made the rare car ride seem futuristic in its velocity. I joked about selling carbon credits to friends with SUVs, but our plane flights to, from, and within the continent ensured that our carbon footprint was probably less dainty than thunderous. From the atmosphere’s perspective, we were stomping around in clown shoes.
We had translated our life into Australian, and like Australian English, it was both comprehensible and different in every syllable. We had debit cards (called “EFTPOS”), cell phones (“mobiles”), my daughters attended school (in uniforms), my wife worked in a lab (but did not teach), and I cooked, hung out with the kids after school, and revised my manuscript (but not in Starbucks).
Whenever I told anyone we were moving to Australia, I was quick to note that we were lucky. We were lucky. I was determined to make the best of that luck, so I began to drink coffee that was good (Italian). I developed a taste for cappuccino.
The presence of cappuccino, macchiato, espresso et al in Melbourne is not the result of a corporate marketing plan. Nor is it a recent trend. Coffee that is good (Italian) exists in Melbourne because Melbourne has Italians, who migrated to Australia and brought their coffee with them. Melbourne is often described as a “cosmopolitan” or “European” city, and in coffee is the bitter essence of that Europeanness. This, perhaps, is the source of the Melbournian reaction to Starbucks: with its ridiculous names, its grandes and ventis and Frappuccinos, the stores were one more visible reminder of Americans taking over and ruining everything authentic and good.
Leaving friends and family for a year is hard; adjusting to a new culture is hard; uncertainty, in general, is hard. Learning to drink cappuccino is easy. It is possibly the easiest expatriate adjustment on record. In Mr. Tulk (the cafe at the State Library, named for its first librarian); in Brown’s, the bakery/cafe I’d go to with my daughters every Thursday after school; at a shivery outdoor picnic table at the Collingwood Children’s Farm; in a dozen other places I walked into because I’d read about them, or just because I was curious, I learned, somehow, to cope. The cappuccino was good.
It was always gone too soon. The bladder-straining Grande Paper Vat was now a memory, and the quality of Australian coffee (excellent) and the quantity (less than ginormous) were instructive. I was reading a lot of Michael Pollan in those days, and the cappuccino seemed part of a sensibly Australian approach to food. The portions were reasonable, not huge. Even at McDonald’s—I hadn’t sworn off McDonald’s, a practical parent never surrenders a useful bribe–a large soda was maybe sixteen ounces, not thirty-two. Also, the refills weren’t free. The middle of Australia is spinifex-filled desert, not corn, so you also paid for packets of ketchup, and for soda refills. From across the equator, I was coming to see America as the Land of Free-Flowing Corn Syrup, where you could have as much as you wanted of whatever was profoundly bad for you.
Now and then, walking up Swanston Street to the State Library, I’d pass the open door of Starbucks. It smelled exactly like home. But then, so did the Lush, which smelled exactly like its counterpart in Portland; and, for that matter, so did the McDonald’s (“Macca’s”), or the Burger King (“Hungry Jack’s”). All seemed to have drilled a pipeline of memory from Australia to America, and whenever the fragrance of Chicken McNuggets or Pike Place Roast wafted out on refrigerated air, I experienced a swell of false nostalgia. Of course, it was not place I remembered, but displacement, a familiar nowhere, precise, predictable, franchised. I walked on.
The cappuccino did come in a china cup. You sat and drank it, and when it was gone, you left. In an American Starbucks, customers tend to either rush off with to-go cups or loiter for hours over laptops. In Australia, these extremes were harder to find. To-go cups were unusual, and we never saw anyone with coffee on a tram. In these practices were an echo of teatime, which in Theresa’s lab was mandatory. No conversation about work allowed. No drinking tea at your desk. You stop what you’re doing and have tea. It was one of the many reminders that though Australia and the United States had their origins in a single empire, they were traveling on very different vectors.
The cappuccino was very, very good. It was good (Italian); it was good (Australian); it was good (Melbournian). But it was, emphatically, not American.
Reading the letters to The Age—“good riddance, Starbucks”–I experienced an odd flicker of patriotism. Since arriving from the Superpower Rat Hole I was born to, I had been bumping up against my foreignness. I was the one with the accent. I was, for better or worse, the representative of a clueless superpower. And while I found, as many have, that Australians are extraordinarily generous and kind and open, there was also a sort of unexpected ironic reserve, a skepticism, not accurately represented in the commercials for Outback Steakhouse. No one ever told us to go back to the rat hole we came from, but Theresa, at work, was asked in all seriousness if she carried a handgun back home, and I was asked more than once (in a tone of hopeful absolution) if I might perhaps be from Canada.
Because we made friends over the year, because we attended school plays and soccer games and visited places like Merimbula, where American tourists rarely go, we came to see that this attitude was far from rigid. Australians always seemed happy to be proved wrong about Americans. We were not necessarily assumed to be gun-toting, Palin-supporting, Frappuccino-swilling rats, but there was a tone of relief when we turned out not to be. This relief became general in Australia at about 2:30 p.m. on November 4th, when it became clear that America would have a President who was black and Democratic–and a Vice-President who was not Alaskan–and from that day on until we left in late December, the mood was palpably different. There was hope for us, after all. On the day Obama was elected, Laura’s bus driver was in tears, she was so happy, and Theresa’s lab stopped work for the afternoon. Instead of teatime, they had champagne.
Five years later, I feel less inspired than disappointed. The hopes attending Obama’s arrival don’t change the facts of climate. We live in the Anthropocene now, and one peculiar fact of our manmade era is that it is all too comprehensible. Ice melts, the temperature goes up, the species go extinct, the birds’ ranges alter, and the CO2 continues to accumulate. We know what we need to know, and we know that we know it. To have this kind of awareness is to feel less certain about ordinary life. Its solidity shimmers, as if seen through the fumes rising from a gas can. We are compromised Zen masters, enlightened but culpable: the world is impermanent, and it’s all our fault.
To live in Victoria in 2008 was to feel large-scale climate change, in a way western Oregon does not usually allow. Though the blazing heat wave that welcomed us to Melbourne was weather, the eleven-year drought in Victoria was something else again. By the time we arrived, that drought was simply the new normal. The climate had changed. The signs were everywhere, in water restrictions, in the black pipes sticking up from the bases of trees, in patchy cricket grounds, in news reports about irrigation conflicts and the Murray River turning to acid. On February 7, 2009, about a month after we got back home, days of record temperatures and wind prepared the way for the Black Saturday bushfires. Marysville, northeast of Melbourne, was completely incinerated. Thirty-four people died in Marysville alone, one hundred and seventy-three altogether. The smoke cloud was visible from space.
We’d driven through Marysville on our way to Healesville Animal Sanctuary, where my younger daughter, who’d once been terrified by a wallaby hopping through a campsite in New South Wales, successfully petted a kangaroo. I remembered Marysville as one of dozens of tidy, friendly Australian towns, with an Australia Post, an op shop (thrift store: “op” is short for “opportunity”), a few restaurants, a few stores for tourists. Online, you can find photos before and after the fire. The photos before the event correspond to memory, the photos after do not. The aerial photos show an apocalyptic plat map. At ground level, it seems as if color itself has been burned away. Our connection to the tragedy is so slight, it is almost obscene to mention it, except that disasters of that scale are becoming more likely as the world warms, and our chances of escaping them, or avoiding them by travel, are decreasing.
We live in the shadow of unimaginable numbers, the sum of our routines. We drive to Starbucks, because it is raining; we fly to Australia, because we want a change; we take the tram to the State Library and sit in the Australiana Room, the light filtering from a high window, because we want to write about a life. These acts consume energy, and while individually trivial, they are significant in the aggregate. Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and author of The Weather Makers,explains the “telekinetic” nature of the atmosphere: wherever the carbon comes from, it quickly distributes throughout the system. Whether it’s the black Land Rover wedging itself into a Chadstone Shopping Centre parking space, the hunter green Outback pulling up to a Trader Joe’s, or the Prius in the Starbucks drive-through, each of us contributes our parts per million. Our routines produce the crisis, but the crisis also threatens our routines.
When we came back to America, I decided to buy a new coffeemaker. Even after two weeks back in the States, it seemed as if the year abroad was already dissolving. We blinked and returned to the same house, in the same Northwest winter, except our children’s friends were suddenly taller. We stepped outside the bubble for a year, and the bubble welcomed us back. It was eerie: I felt too settled in, as if the trip had not happened. As if some part of me, altered by the trip abroad, refused to root and flourish. Perhaps that dislocation was my way of honoring the fact of the year away.
So I drove to the Fred Meyer store and bought a new Black and Decker coffeemaker, which, when I plugged it in and filled the filter basket with fresh-ground bicycle-delivered organic beans, produced four cups of watery swill. I drove back and returned it, then drove to the ARC on 10th and Beca and found a used Mr. Coffee brand coffeemaker/cappuccino maker for eight dollars. It was so old, its instruction manual did not even list a website. The manual was precisely written, by someone who clearly cared about espresso (the proper grind was “like salt, or sand”); but strikingly, it was written, in English, and not composed of generic, globalization-friendly icons. (These are handy, if you want to sell an appliance in eighty different countries; but they are limited. You can show someone a generic hand filling a carafe with water; you can demonstrate the concept of “plugging in”; you can show not doing something, or rudimentary concepts like “hot” or “shocky” or “ouch”; but you cannot, without words, demonstrate the proper fineness of an espresso grind.)
It took awhile to get the cappuccino maker part to work, but it works. The coffeemaker part works too, but most mornings I make cappuccino; it reminds me of another home. As for Starbucks, I don’t go there as much as I used to. The book I was writing is done, and it’s quieter at my desk.
“Try not to shoot off in every direction like fireworks.” –a Fortune Cookie’s advice
Besides being a poet, a wannabe novelist, and mother of three teenaged daughters, I also teach English, full-time, at a community college. I do committee work. I advise. I’m busy. I like to consider myself the queen of getting-things-done. Many of my students, on the other hand, haven’t figured out how to find time to do the reading and studying that they need to do in order to be successful in my writing classes. So this quarter, I decided to try a social experiment.
It helps that we’re reading a book of essays, Real Questions, that focuses on contemporary issues like what we eat and what media we consume and how we conduct our relationships. While reflecting on such things, it seemed plausible to imagine making some real changes in our own lives. What if we each changed one thing, and wrote about it? I worried that it sounded a little hare-brained, as if I were practicing to become a life-coach. The students loved it. Only a handful of them wanted to change something to do with writing or studying, but they all wanted to change something.
I cooked up a multi-part assignment in which students 1) write a blog-like proposal about something they would like to change, something they can actually DO, daily, for the next forty days of the term; 2) write a persuasive paper about why such a change is desirable; 3) tweet or just write a short reflection which they share with the class daily about the change for those forty days; and then 4) write a follow-up, reflective essay about how their experiment worked out.
In the proposing stage, goals tended toward “Lose 30 pounds,” or “Become a nurse,” or “Get an A in this class.” One man wanted to quit smoking, which I applaud, and another wanted to “be happier,” which I wouldn’t mind doing as well. But even quitting smoking is not quite in the category of “doable,” at least not in the sense that after fifteen minutes one could declare success.
You can write a novel, you can lose 30 pounds, you can quit smoking. But you can’t really do those things right now, today. The first part of this social experiment, it turns out, has been a critical thinking step of figuring out how to narrow one’s focus, how to break things down into parts so small that they’re not merely doable, but scarcely avoidable. I told them to think of things they can do in a single fifteen-minute increment.
When I thought seriously about what I could do, right now, and repeat for 40 days, I decided that the one change I craved was getting through my interminable novel rewrite.
I’ve written this on a list of goals before, and I immediately began to line up my excuses for why it was impossible. This time, however, a voice intervened, a voice I knew—it was the voice I had been inflicting on my students for two full weeks. You can’t rewrite your novel today, but you can write on the novel. So I decided on writing, at my desk—like a smoke break without the cigarettes.
I already write every morning and blog about it, but writing in the afternoon—evening as a last resort—would double my time with the pen. It could make a difference in my rate of progress.
For her first day’s reflection, one student lamented that because the baby kept her up late the previous night, she didn’t get up early and didn’t do the two hours of work on her home business that she had intended. She couldn’t even start, she explained, because her desk was a mess and the thought of organizing it overwhelmed her, and then the baby woke up, and then it was time to plunge into the day. And now here she was, the day half-done, opportunity missed.
And there was that voice again. Wiser than my voice. Don’t give up. Spend five minutes tonight before bed clearing off your desk. Take out one project and lay it out. Just one! (Maybe you’ll actually do something on it! Maybe one step will turn into more!) Check today off your list. Done. Don’t excuse, negotiate, I told her.
I shared a quote that helped me get through my doctoral dissertation when my daughters were small, something the sculptor Barbara Hepworth—mother of four children including triplets—once said:
“I loved the family and everything to do with them….We lived a life of work and the children were brought up in it, in the middle of the dust and the dirt and the paint and everything….I found one had to do some work every day, even at midnight, because either you’re a professional or you’re not.”
How did my own plan work out? The first day it was 5:30 before I remembered. I needed to go home. Then my 13-year-old daughter wanted to go out for coffee and do homework. I, too, had homework, essays to read, a short story to reread in preparation for the next day.
But I couldn’t escape the voice. It’s not midnight yet, the voice said. What would I tell my students? Fifteen minutes? How can you begrudge yourself 15 minutes?
So I ordered my decaf latte and my daughter ordered her Frappuccino and we found a table. I set up my laptop. I went to www.e.ggtimer.com and set it for 15 minutes. I pulled out my manuscript and I started reading and making notes. I circled an image and I brainstormed and I suddenly saw something I hadn’t seen before. I worked for 25 minutes.
There is a primal urge in our muscles, housed in ligaments, tendons, cells. For a wrapper around us: the shell of an egg, nest, hut. To sit reading by a fire in a house with sturdy walls: one remembers the pleasure.
I want to advocate for a dedicated space—for each of you, each of us, as writers—and if possible a writing space separate from your living space. As I write the sentence I lament that it took me years to know I needed such a space and then years to have the means to build one. Mine is small enough a white pine hides it from view, and yet it’s ample. How much does a writer need?
A desk, a chair, a lamp, heat, a ceiling fan for when it’s too hot. A shelf for books. A notebook, a writing implement. Windows, with some that open wide.
What shall it be called? I reject shack, but wish that the word studio had fewer syllables. I prefer the word hut. A friend recommended a longer title, suggesting cursive words burned into a plaque I nail up: “Pavilion for the Gathering of Harmonious Intent.” I resisted that, too. I refuse a sign, a name. I have a knocker in the shape of a trowel next to the door. “Please don’t knock unless it’s an emergency.” This is what I’ve told my husband.
I step outside, hiking up on my shoulder a bookbag with notebook and binoculars; in my other hand a thermos of coffee, a cup. Once I step into my writing hut, I breathe new air. I look out on a ravine behind our house, a creek, deciduous trees. All is forgotten: teaching schedule, chores, dinner menu, dentist appointment. I am riding the crest of a wave, alone. It’s thrilling. It’s where I need to be.
Depending on your writing methods, you can leave technology behind—though wireless does extend out this far. I write longhand in a notebook, ones I buy in bulk quantities. I buy the same ones: lined, thick paper, with a colorful front and back and an elastic closure. I write with a pen. Eventually I will put the poem on my computer (in the house), print it out, work on revision (on paper), and repeat the process. But I love writing by hand. It slows the words down for me; there is time to think, reflect, stop and start again. Recursive, reflective, slow. It is “slow food,” this writing. Here’s a pat of butter sliding across the page, or a piece of ice melting, moving. Mixed metaphors. I think of Robert Frost’s words, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove a poem must ride on its own melting.”
One also leaves behind the whole writing profession, its worries, publishing, frets, envies, niggling doubts. Here one is up against writing itself, by itself. One grapples, struggles. The opponent? Oneself. There is no other here. Get it right; tell the truth, give the right, specific detail.
I like it quiet, like it with the windows open to birdsong, and I like it with music. Either way, find your space. Have it reflect the unique self that is you, and relish it.
Writing as practice, the hand caressing the page, the wet ink lapping at the dry paper. Each poem is a walk, a journey, and the mind wants to rove. Let us go a’maying, let us venture out.
I went through a phase where I was writing from my dreams. I’d wake up and try to get story ideas from the things I’d written on a little notepad during the night. It went like: susurrous–Cambodia–Remember this!–not harm but the other–bullshit–cantaloupe–too true? Sometimes, it looked more like an unfortunate cardiograph, like I was doing a contour drawing with my eyes shut. I’d turn the page upside-down. I’d wonder what certain squiggles meant.
I switched to a voice recorder. This was better but it scared me. The sound of my voice floating up through deep theta was unnerving, made me think of a seance. I’d be sitting at my desk, cup of coffee, yellow steno pad, obsessive-compulsive story writing pen (Uniball Vision Micro 0.5mm–there shall be no other) poised to take down anything promising, and I’d hear myself half in a dream, speaking from a world of ghosts–a man with a green hat who kept telling me about my mother; my old German Shepherd, Shadow, leading me through the rooms of the house I grew up in; ex-girlfriends; former students.
I’d get sentences, whole paragraphs. Some of it was nonsensical. Other things were deeply painful memories I normally tried not to think about. It surprised me that I was dwelling on those things fairly regularly while asleep–and that some part of me had remembered to wake up and drone into the voice recorder. The sleeping Michael was a different person, a stranger who took emotional risks, who went to difficult places while the protective drawbridge of consciousness was temporarily down. I filled notebook after notebook and learned some interesting things about myself. But none of it seemed to apply to my fiction in any meaningful way.
Around this time, I was in the last year of my PhD. I’d published my first book of stories (Gravity, Carnegie Mellon, 2009) the year before and thought it would be a good idea to go to the AWP conference being held in Denver. I brought the voice recorder, but I didn’t continue my subconscious spelunking while there. Instead, I did what everyone does at the AWP conference. I walked around and bought books, listened to panel discussions, talked to people I already knew, stared wistfully out my hotel room window, and burned through my grocery budget for the next three months. In retrospect, however, the trip was justified because I learned something important about writing: I was going to have to write more and do it more quickly.
In the middle of the Colorado Convention Center’s exhibit level where, in a trade show, there would be a local model posing on a combine harvester, there was instead a table full of literary agents. They were from a local agency and had made themselves available for questions. At that time, I had never spoken with an agent. So I took advantage of the opportunity and struck up a conversation about how one markets a novel to the “Big 6” (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan–you get the idea). I wanted to know if there was a special kind of etiquette agents followed with the biggest publishing houses.
When I asked the question, the young agent in a navy suit that should have been beyond his earning capacity, pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked at me carefully as if he might have to pick me out of a lineup someday. “No,” he said. “There’s no special procedure.” Then he reminded himself to smile. “But if you want to succeed with the trade houses long term, you need to be really productive. Can you write around 300 pages a year?” I said no, I didn’t think so, thanked him, and got out of there as quickly as possible. A book a year? It had taken me six years to produce the stories in my 200-page collection. I had 75 pages of a novel that had taken me most of the previous year.
Later, catching up on some window staring in my hotel room, I tried to envision that level of productivity. One page a day? Writing from canned outlines? Some kind of method book, How to Write a Blockbuster Novel in 2 Weeks and Avoid the ER? I didn’t know. I picked up my voice recorder and started complaining about it to myself. I bitched for around 90 minutes. Then, as I started to get tired, I thought I might turn my rant into a piece of creative nonfiction–something about running up against the cruel commodifying values of the publishing industry in Denver. When I typed up what I’d recorded, I had 35 pages and a brand new idea about how to write more without sacrificing quality.
Since then, I’ve experimented with narrating stories and novel chapters into a voice recorder the way I’d once narrated my dreams. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write 300 pages of polished fiction a year. But I’ve learned to be more productive this way, to carry some of that dream energy into my conscious drafting. And I’ve learned to hear my own voice the way I hear someone at a literary reading–listening for the caesuras, the paragraphs, the meanings that emerge from syntax.
I tell my students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop to at least read what they’ve written out loud to themselves. I tell them that their ears will teach them new things about narrative. I say stories were originally meant to be heard and there are lessons about storytelling we can only learn that way. Some of them believe me.
Those of us who have become fascinated with producing spoken drafts have also learned that, while text-based revision is still necessary to produce a finished product, beginning with the spoken word can connect us to a primal source of creative expression. Now I begin every draft by speaking at least part of it into a voice recorder, deliberately tapping into that ghost world of my other self, shaping narrative with the energy of dreams and visions that return to me in my own voice. I listen and write down what I hear, paying close attention to the speaker.
I have been thinking about the ways in which musical and verbal intelligences merge in a poem as compositional strategy, because I have wanted to understand how a poet “thinks” through the music of the poem, as distinct from stating a thought directly as an abstraction or translating it visually into imagery. What interests me is the way a poet puts sonorous “truths” in play. These “truths” are not always articulated thematically in the poem, but the poem’s music gives rise to them, in the musical supplement to signification that Northrup Frye called the “babble” of poetry. The choric aspect of poetry supplements and complements poetic signification, in meaningful (if indeterminate) ways, with what I’ll call sound-thinking.
Music functions as an intellectual, even visionary element of poetry, putting into play something akin to a counter-intuitive logic. A poet sees through words and thinks in song. To give a brief example, consider Tess Gallagher’s elegiac poem, “Comeback,” in which we find resonant moments of words chosen for the aural effect, with semantic intonations rippling afterward like the wake of a boat. What the reader is told is that—as the speaker remembers how her father “loved first light,” and would sit, exactly as the speaker of the poem is sitting in early morning with her cup of coffee looking out over the “Strait”— the speaker may be dying, like her father and her husband, of cancer. But any “certainty” in the poem comes not from direct statements, but in the music of the metaphor: “Light is sifting in/ like a gloam of certainty/ over the water” (emphasis added). Claims to knowing have no explanation, so of what can readers be certain, reading this poem?
I glom onto the word that draws our attention because of its antique music: “Gloam” goes etymologically back to OE, meaning twilight, not dawn, and darkness coming on, not the sun’s light growing brighter as it rises. The use of “gloam” at that moment in the poem is paradoxical. We are not aware of the paradox consciously, but our access to its insight is through the poem’s music. We register that insight subliminally, through the sound of the word, which is a vowel shift away from “Gloom” and “Glum” (as well as to the idiomatic “glom”). The word “gloam” suggests the other words, which are darker, moodier, and would spell out morosely the sense of feeling attached to life and contemplating losing it. The mournful music of long o’s punctuates the poem, where the poem also locates the speaker’s intuitive knOwing, withheld semantically but articulated musically.
I doubt that Gallagher thought of this as she wrote the first draft, or even paused to look up “gloam” in the OED, at least at first. Nevertheless, given the poet’s precision, I trust that “gloam” was retained deliberately during the process of revision. I speculate that while writing the first draft, Gallagher followed initially the aural insight residing in language itself, allowing associative connections to arise, trusting the inner ear to choose the right word for the poetic moment. She must have looked up “gloam” later when revising the poem, and at that time, was reminded that it denotes the exact opposite of how she uses it (dusk not dawn). Perhaps she then articulated to herself the kind of paradoxical logic the moment holds, the spell of sound tugging against the march of meaning. Perhaps she kept “gloam” because its presence is a door into the most profound level of meaning in the poem.
A poem is able not only to make something visible through language, to see through words, but also to make something audible cognitively, sound-thinking, as I’ve been calling it. The point I’m making inverts the notion that content determines form (pace Robert Creeley), and that is that content follows sound.
 See J.H. de Roder’s useful overview of Fryean “babble” and “doodle” in “Poetry: the Missing Link?”: “Northrop Frye in his monumental Anatomy of Criticism simply states that the basic constituents of poetry are BABBLE and DOODLE, going back to CHARM and RIDDLE. In Frye’s view, poems babble, they foreground prosodic features of language – such as sound and rhythm – and by doing so produce charm” (Frye 1957: 275-287; qtd. in de Roder; http://webh01.ua.ac.be/apil/apil101/deroder.pdf).
 On the associated notion of “thinking/ singing,” see Hank Lazer, Lyric & Spirit (Richmond, CA Omnidawn, 2008), 185-204. As Lazer observes, there is a cognitive element which song both activates and enacts, and which we as readers only access by attending to the way music signifies in the poem.
Before I tell you about the puppet parade, let me tell you about my past two weeks.
I was stressed, and as I told a friend, “feeling under.” I alternated between 1) accidentally waking an hour before my alarm and then—afraid to waste time—reaching for a stack of papers to grade and 2) sleeping until 8:30 and feeling guilty for it. Each day I needed to accomplish three tasks, but then one of them ate up all my hours until suddenly it was bedtime. I struggled for days to get to the grocery and in the meantime had cereal for dinner. When I finally bought a carton of eggs, I dropped them in the driveway and five cracked.
I know that a month from now, I won’t even remember the frazzle of these two weeks, and I know that other—truly sad—stories have taken place or been written down in the past 14 days.
But yesterday I was concerned with my story. I vented (whined?) to an artist friend over coffee. She, too, had been feeling under. One of the projects that had kept her busy was to paint a puppet. Apparently, while I had been rushing around, a group of artists had recruited dozens of townspeople and together they were recycling old materials into twenty enormous puppets. The next night they’d march them in their own parade.
I was too curious to grade papers, so I left the coffee shop and went to the artists’ studio space. So far they had constructed: a fluorescent orange owl in a dress; a giant red vulture head wearing flowing strips of garbage bags; several six-foot tall “talking” skulls with Christmas ornament eyes and mirror teeth; a gauzy whale; and imaginary animals with VHS tape clothing.
I spoke with one of the leaders as he measured some scraps of wood. He said about 70% of their supplies were leftovers, things other people had trashed. Of course, I thought about writing. A lucky trick writers have is that we can take a crummy, or disappointing, or even heartbreaking real-life experience (or pair of weeks) and use it to make something new. We can—at least in part—redeem it, give it purpose as material for creating. And then some good has come from it.
The project leader went on to say they dumpster-dove for many of their supplies. I asked, “So how do you know what material is valuable when you see it—what’s worth harvesting?”
He said, “Everything is.”
This answer was enough to get me signed up as a volunteer puppeteer for the parade. And so this evening I led a line of fanciful creatures down the main street of our town. I wore a huge praying mantis whose arms and legs moved with mine. Cloth people with balloon hair hopped behind me, the birds flew on poles, the whale swam circles around us, and the metallic lion heads bopped in time with the snare drum.
As we processed through downtown, kids climbed onto their parents’ shoulders to see and college students cheered from their apartment balconies. When people noticed us through coffee shop windows, I waved a mantis hand to them.
I picked up my insect legs, which were made from bamboo shoots and tied to my ankles with old bike inner tubes. In the heavy green body—made from styrofoam swimming pool noodles, PVC pipe, wire tomato cages, and packing cardboard—I shuffled lightly. And my shuffling grew into even sort of a samba step by the time we paraded back to the studio entrance, where the snare drummer played softer and softer as if not wanting to end it, and we all danced in place on the sidewalk, each of us trying to stall before we had to take off our puppet costumes.
Urban Beans, a coffee shop located in Midtown Phoenix, is a great place to grab an exceptional cup of locally roasted coffee, smoothies, tea, pastries or a tasty lunch. It’s also a great place to hang out and listen to local poets. This Friday night, that’s tomorrow, Urban Beans is hosting a poetry reading and ASU Lecturer and alum Particia Murphy will be reading.
Patricia Murphy earned her MFA in Poetry from Arizona State University where she has been teaching writing for 18 years. Her work has received awards from the Associated Writing Programs and the Academy of American Poets, Glimmer Train Press, The GSU Review, and The Southern California Review. She teaches several writing classes including Poetry, Blogging, Travel Writing and Publishing in Literary Magazines.
Her reading will be this Friday, April 15 at 7 p.m. Stop by, get a delicious coffee with a little heart in it, and stay for the reading. Map here.
The Mercury Building
3508 N. 7th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85014
Anthony Cinquepalmi is a sophomore English (Creative Writing) major in Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. He has been enthralled with poetry for the past six years and hopes to make poetry his focus in the upcoming semester. Other interests include photography and specialty coffee, the latter of which he plans on pursuing thoroughly alongside his writing, and the former being the knowledge foundation for his work on Superstition Review‘s Photoshop/Design tasks.
Superstition Review: What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?
Anthony Cinquepalmi: I am the Photoshop editor. I touch up headshots and design advertisements.
SR: Why did you decide to get involved with Superstition Review?
AC: I wanted to get a closer look at the publishing world. I figure: working with other writers and/or publishers can only benefit my own writing knowledge. Last year, I was talking with a friend about this desire when another Superstition Review intern overhead the conversation and told us to apply. Here we are.
SR: Besides interning for Superstition Review, how do you spend your time?
AC: School and work consume almost equal halves of my week. I work at Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe, though, when I’m not working or schooling, I visit with friends or I read or write.
SR: What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?
AC: Poetry Editor.
SR: Describe one of your favorite literary works.
AC: Letters to a Young Poet, a series of letters from Rainer Maria Rilke to an aspiring poet attending a military academy, is one of the most enlightening pieces I’ve ever read, and it’s non-fiction! It has become a reference point, a source of hope–even, a new bible.
SR: What are you currently reading?
AC: For class: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and The Norton Anthology American Literature. For fun: Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, John Berryman: Selected Poems (American Poets Project), The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and Howl by Allen Ginsberg.
SR: Creatively, what are you currently working on?
AC: I’m currently pursuing photography as well as creative writing. I’m hoping to release a chapbook later on this year.
SR: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
AC: Well, hopefully not dried up in terms of writing, and I’d like to be finished with formal education (with an MFA from somewhere or other). I want to exhibit photography at least once, have a chunk of poetry published in book form. I’m not opposed to teaching. I want to go to London.
Kimberly Singleton is in her junior year at ASU as well as a student of Barrett, the Honors College at ASU’s West campus. After completing her undergraduate studies in English and Public Relations, Kimberly would like to attend graduate school for an interdisciplinary emphasis in English studies, encompassing Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Literature. This past June, Kimberly had an opportunity to present a paper that exemplified her interests in this interdisciplinary approach at Duquesne University’s Communication Ethics Conference. Kimberly currently tutors at the ASU West Writing Center and is the assistant to the editor for an academic book series through Purdue Press. This is the second issue of Superstition Review that Kimberly has had the privilege to work on.
Superstition Review: What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?
Kimberly Singleton: As one of the Interview Editors for Superstition Review, my main responsibility is to craft at least five interviews with distinguished or emerging authors. First, I am responsible for contacting authors for a potential interview. If they agree to an interview, I research their work and create questions based on my results. The questions are then sent to the author for their responses.
SR: Why did you decide to get involved with Superstition Review?
KS: Superstition Review has allowed me the opportunity to experience a career in publishing as a young, emerging professional. By becoming involved with the magazine, I am able to see if this career is one I would pursue after graduation. Furthermore, an internship with such a notable magazine helps me to mature in my understanding of professionalism, integrity, dedication, and time management in the workplace.
SR: Besides interning for Superstition Review, how do you spend your time?
KS: The majority of my time is devoted to my other courses at ASU. I am also a tutor at ASU’s West campus Writing Center and the president of a student organization at the West campus. Both of these positions and the internship keep me very occupied during the week and even on the weekends. When I’m not busy with school-related activities, I enjoy salsa dancing and drinking coffee with my mom.
SR: What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?
KS: Although I have not received formal training in art history, design, or creation, I enjoy experiencing various pieces of art and would enjoy trying out the Art Editor position. My understanding of artwork has come from conversations with other artists, exploring art venues, and my vast interest in aesthetic theory.
SR: Describe one of your favorite literary works.
KS: One of my favorite literary works is E.M. Forster’s delightful book, A Room with a View. Although I have read it countless times, each reading brings additional discoveries from the text. It is a rich piece of literature with multiple layers of meaning and symbolism that concern aestheticism, philosophy, gender politics, and social values.
SR: What are you currently reading?
KS: I am currently reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time for one of my courses. It is a dense philosophic piece that takes the entire history of Western Philosophy into question by challenging Cartesian ethics and instead maintaining our “Being-in-the-World” as the fundamental point for human knowledge.
SR: Creatively, what are you currently working on?
KS: Right now I am preparing to begin my thesis for Barrett, the Honors College which will serve as my writing sample when applying for graduate programs next fall.
SR: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
KS: In 10 years I hope to be finished with my PhD and working in some capacity with a university whether it’s teaching, public relations, or publishing.