Guest Blog Post, Alice Lowe: About Chocolate Donuts

Photo Credit- linked

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 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.

Guest Post, Martha Zweig: Backwards

Poetry calisthenics: Chain words together so that the end part of one word becomes the first part of the next, ad infinitum: zippercentralalalandscapersonarrowboat… (zipper; percent; central; tralala; lalaland; landscape; caper; persona; sonar; narrow/arrow; rowboat…)

Even better is to link words and idioms of common speech such that one bleeds into the next upon contextual shifts of the words’ meaning: “…everlovin’ blue-eyed hurricane to witness God’s will leaving you for dead wrong.” Hurricanes do have blue “eyes.” Eyes witness. A last-will-&-testament needs a witness. The will leaves something to the beneficiary, but God’s will, ever contrariwise, abandons Its beneficiary, leaving her for dead, and dead wrong to boot (from my poem Invocation: Monkey Lightning, Tupelo Press, 2010).

Write your list of rhyme words first, then decide where to put them. Not today at the ends of lines. Maybe at the beginnings? Maybe in the middles? Let the placement of those rhyme words provoke and determine the rest of what you say.

Collect fifteen of your fragments many years old and never used. Put them on the table in random order. Change the order. Cut each fragment in half and repeat. Fill in the blanks until they’ve made you say something you never would have thought of in a million years—but which you will recognize.

***

For a period of fifteen years I wasn’t able to write anything. I did try. I sat on the floor and thought about subject matter: what do I love and why? Memories? Gratitudes? Consolations? Convictions? Some wisdom I might convey? Jeezalu, can’t you just describe something out the window, anything? Nope.

People ask, where do you get your ideas? What inspires you? Nope. Not a thing.

I did find some support. A local group of the then-national organization No Limits for Women Artists took me in, a writer, though all the others were visual, paintings and pottery. Meetings consisted of our glorious leader calling up each person, one by one, to an individual standing interrogation: What is your vision? (Answer.) What is your vision for the next three weeks? (Answer.) What’s the next step? (Answer.) What makes it hard? (Answer.) Then the leader guided the woman-on-the-spot along to develop a personal affirmation addressing the difficulty. (Affirm!) Next-and-last, What help do you need? Any answer OK– Nothing. Babysitting. An item to borrow. Most popular: send me a postcard of encouragement. No guarantee that anyone would do anything. But—how hard is a postcard? I loved it. Each local group ended after 6 sessions. Good, it didn’t go on long enough to turn phony.

At some point language personified itself to me: it was royally pissed, all these years I’d spent whining and hadn’t made any poems! Eff you, language. I’ve had a hard time! We circled and growled for a while. I’d offended language expecting it to conform itself to my power-point agendas of blah-blah subject matter. Meanwhile it had all these words to spill out wanting to play and do mischief, wanting to surprise me!

***

An only child, I grew up in white suburbia in the talk of a doctor father who orotunded like Shakespeare and/or the King James Bible. “Pontificating!” my mother hissed. She romped about in her own astonishing range of diction, mixing high elegance with gutter-demotic expletive sometimes in a single sentence. She dubbed the hospital where my father worked the “horse-pittle.”

Formative years of such yackity-yack? Who could ask for more? Thunderstruck still, I invoke loops of language as Higher Power flapping around out there like a pterodactyl, so indiscriminate in its associations that it may, from time to time, descend to build a nest in my hair. I woo language. I scavenge words. When I have nothing to say, I start with words. One word leads to another. They rough-and-tumble noisily, dragging me into their brawl and peeling out living bits of (who knew?) my own soul stinging and giggling.

How do I know what I think til I hear what I say?

Lugging groceries up the lengthy path to my house, I mutter to myself,  “Krakatoa; asterisk; flip…”  Bits of more or less and pinch of something else.

Authors Talk: Maria Martin

Today we are pleased to feature poet Maria Martin as our Authors Talk series contributor. Maria discusses her poetry’s subject matter and how it has evolved over time.

When she started writing Maria wrote “almost exclusively” about herself. Eventually she felt that she had exhausted her subject matter, that she “didn’t know how to write.” Maria ends her talk by explaining how prose poetry opened up her writing and how “Slow” is a turning point for her and her work.

You can read “Slow” and three more of Maria’s poems in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Authors Talk: Anthony Mohr

Today we are pleased to welcome author Anthony Mohr as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this brief interview, Anthony speaks candidly about what inspired his essay, “Risk.”

Of all the memories that conglomerate in the essay, he says that the game itself is what primarily inspired this essay. Anthony then tells us that “98.5%” of everything in the essay is true, from the names of the characters to the dialogue from the military. In light of this, we discuss his friends’ reactions to the essay and their role in preserving the truth of the essay.

You can read and listen to “Risk” in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Authors Talk: Kalani Pickhart

Today we are pleased to to feature author Kalani Pickhart as our Authors Talk series contributor. Kalani discusses the process and personal significance of “Little Mouse.” She concludes by offering a piece of advice for other young writers.

Kalani explains that “Little Mouse” is her first story that “did a lot with very, very little.” She explains her immediate affinity for this method because it allows the characters’ voices to be communicated more directly. Characters revealing themselves and being heard on their own terms and in their own tone is Kalani’s first priority. This is clear from her language throughout the talk.

You can read and listen to “Little Mouse” in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Authors Talk: Natalie Young

Natalie Young

Today we are pleased to feature author Natalie Young as our Authors Talk series contributor. Natalie begins by reading “Notes on Earth Life” before explaining how the poem is part of a larger series about a human woman, an alien, and a monster. She shares that her “goal is to combine actual history and reality with speculative fiction to explore identity and human absurdities, as well as culture and environment.”

Natalie also explains how her manuscript attempts to “show a different perspective of things our culture does that we tend to accept as normal, but when seen from fresh eyes can be peculiar.” She reveals that using the voice of an alien helped her achieve this because putting on a mask adds distance. Natalie also delves into her inspiration and the process of choosing what topics to include in her poem.

You can access her poem, “Notes on Earth Life,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.