I was in San Sebastian when I took this photo.
I was in San Sebastian, with its endless beauty and tranquil charm, its plentiful pintxos and varying skies, its cute little shops that are closed for so many hours of the working day that you wonder how they stay in business until, after a day or two, you stop wondering that, you stop thinking like an American, focused on profit and how to maximize it, and start thinking more than a San Sebastian, focused on how to enjoy the life you have been given.
A few days ago, I walked across the bridge from the Old Town into Gros. Once of the first things I saw, beyond the vast and unbeautiful performing arts center, was a surf shop. “Surf San Sebastian!” encouraged a t-shirt adorned with little fishes. Sweet. Then a surfer walked past me, clad in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard. Then another surf shop. Then another surfer. I crossed the boulevard and sat on the wall by the beach, and watched the whole bay of them, out on the waves, whatever the collective noun for surfers is. Communion? A communion of surfers, paddling, leaping and falling for just a few possible moments of transcendence.
I watched them for a long time, my heart a precious thrashing thing. I have always loved surfers, which is strange for a stout ungraceful girl from the land-locked midwest. And I have always loved surf music. Dick Dale and Jan and Dean, yes, but especially the Beach Boys. Even I found this odd, in my odd adolescence. My stepsister, captain of the pompon squad, fashioned a sprightly dance routine to “Be True to Your School” for the halftime entertainment of the Kirkwood Pioneers, but I preferred the slower darkness of “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl,” which is neither a tribute nor a love song, since it mentions no actual qualities of the girl in question, but masks a darkness beneath its kind melody, like a bloodthirsty cradle-will-fall kind of lullabye: “Little surfer, little one/make my heart come all undone . . .”
Sometimes in my teenage years I would select this album, “Endless Summer” (even its title a blend of promise and threat), from my collection of Springsteen and Costello, La Traviata and Beethoven’s Ninth, and weep into the false sunshine of the hideous yellow shag carpet my stepmother had chosen to adorn the girls’ bedroom. I heard the shadow in the sunshine before Brian Wilson’s mental problems became public knowledge, before I came to terms with the fact that I would have to reckon with my own on my own, since my parents considered them little more than adolescent indulgence.
And this is as far as I got in my musings before I returned to my budget pension on the boulevard above the little glove shop that was never open, so I couldn’t buy my sister the pair of driving gloves I saw in the window. I returned to my stark room and saw the stark news.
I have been in Spain for ten days now and there have in that time been two mass shootings in the United States. This most recent slaughter of children is covered differently here. There is no braying about the right to bear arms, no hypocritical clucking over “mental health,” no admonishments not to “politicize this tragedy” for those whose politics help these tragedies to occur, but no weepy hand-wringing, either. The latest news from the Estados Unidos is presented at most with a raised eyebrow, but in a straightforward manner, the footage shown between footage of the war in Ukraine and some incident in Brazil, the latest development from another country of violence.
“Let me tell you about winds,” Almasy says to Katherine Clifton as they shelter in a car from an Saharan sandstorm in The English Patient. “There is a, a whirlwind from southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.”
I’ve been thinking about The English Patient because it’s one of my movie obsessions but also because I am in the room above the kitchen in the old house here, part of the original structure, a sheep shed, that was all that was here when the owner, Georgina Howard, bought the property. This house reminds me of the villa where Nurse Hana shelters with Almasy, now the English Patient, to allow him to die in relative peace. As the medical convoy moves on, Hana watches from a high window in the villa, chopping off her long hair into a chic bob the way women do in the movies. Disparate characters come and go, a thief called Caravaggio, a Sikh bomb defuser and his sidekick Kevin Whately (that is the actor’s name, I only ever think of him as Kevin Whately) all with their different knowledge, expertise, striving and grief. They come together for a time, and then they part ways.
Let me tell you about winds.
In my room with its view of the roof over the dining room, and then of the valley beyond, I heard the winds around dawn. The nearby wind sounded like the whoosh of the ocean. The approaching wind sounded like a rapidly-arriving locomotive. Not a whirlwind from southern Morocco – Morocco, like all the rest of the world, is far, far away – but a fierce eddy from somewhere that, when it arrived, bent the trees long ago matured into strange undulations like modern dancers.
And then it raised itself up and away.
A few days ago we had a straight, hard rain, after a thrilling prelude of thunder that purred and echoed across the valley. I grated cheese in the kitchen with a keen eye on Chef Carol, who disguises her expertise beneath a mask of amiable vagueness. What’s in the risotto? “Oh, it’s got some shallots and some . . . I chopped . . . did we say 7:15? With risotto, you have to be very precise.”
Outside, the rain stopped. Georgina thundered down the stairs and swept into the kitchen. She is not one to enter a room with hesitation but strides into the action mid-gesture with an urgency to impart, like a herald in a play. But you would not expect a docile demeanor from someone who twenty-odd years ago saw a Basque shepherd’s hut and willed into being a creative manse (or, in Basque, etxe). The central courtyard between the houses is a kind of stage, one where I would happily set a play, a romantic farce, if I wrote plays happily, which I do not.
Georgina cried, “Elizabeth! There is a word for the smell of the earth after the rain! Petrichor!” She rolled the R, so I thought the word must be Spanish or Basque. “Petrichor! From ‘petra,’ meaning earth and ‘cor,’ meaning . . . oh . . .”
From ichor, the term used to describe “the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods” in Greek mythology. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word was first used in a 1964 article written by a group of scientists, which is why we have never heard of it.
“How would you use it in a sentence?” asked one of the writers when we brought petrichor along with the risotto to the dinner table.
I couldn’t think of how to use “petrichor” in a sentence that would not also include the words “smell” or “rain,” which tells me this was not a word clamoring to be coined. I also wonder how these scientists, finding the phrase “the smell of the earth after it rains,” insufficiently pithy to their needs, fell so easily onto “ichor.” Now there’s a word I’d like to use in a sentence. “How do I get this ichor stain out of my dress?”
There is a laurel tree embedded in the patio courtyard. Georgina constructed the patio around it, decided that the tree would be part of the family. In Greek mythology, Daphne, pursued by Zeus, transforms herself into a laurel tree to preserve herself from his lust and other ickiness.
The poem The Laurel Tree by Louis Simpson contains these lines:
“Is there a tree without opinions?/Come, let me clasp you!/Let me feel the idea breathing.”
And ends with these:
“The dish glowed when the angel held it./It is so that spiritual messengers/deliver their meaning.”
Today across the valley I heard the distant drone of a chain saw. Aside from car wheels on a gravel road, as the song would have it, this is the first mechanized sound I have heard since arriving, and it was far-off and faint, could easily have been the buzz of a bee around my head. It is so quiet that the buzzing of bees is a prominent sound, along with the bells and the baaing and the birdsong. The bells of the sheep clang when they move but yesterday, I didn’t see them move. I looked up from my laptop or my notebook — I was writing on both — and there were sheep in the meadow. The next time I looked up, the sheep were gone.
I mentioned this at last night’s delicious dinner of chicken over couscous. I hear the bells, I see the sheep, I see the sheepless meadow. Someone suggested a sheep TARDIS. I suggested that this place is magical, which it surely is.
We also discussed our next Spanish destinations. I offered up Pamplona, which our hostess Georgina described as a place where she gets her licenses renewed, adding, “Pamplona is Spanish. San Sebastian is Basque.” A return to San Sebastian had been next on my agenda, so I simply canceled Pamplona, which I may do on a day trip, and added a day in San Sebastian, to make it a three-day home base. After that, Bilbao. But it is hard to think of an “after that” when now is so exquisite.
This morning’s lesson was on “character.” In our morning writing session, I filled out a character I had briefly sketched in yesterday’s assignment, “setting,” and added her to the scene. This alarmed my fellow writers when I shared — how had I written so much in twenty minutes? — so I will stick strictly to the assignment tomorrow. But in the meantime, I have perhaps the opening of a short story, if I wrote short stories. I’ve written less than a handful, and only one is published, but this place is magical, so anything could happen.
“Don’t you love her accent?” said the Irishwoman to the Brit.
She could only have been talking about me, since I was the one talking. I had been the one talking, truth be told, for quite some time, a jet-lagged dialogue fountain since the five of us had arrived at the Pyrenean Writing Retreat and been revived with a glass of wine (or several). I’d arrived in San Sebastian on Sunday, after quite a long journey that began in Astoria when I dragged my suitcase to the Q102 bus stop, took the bus to the E train, the E to the Airtrain, the Airtrain to the airport, JFK to Madrid, Madrid to Bilboa, then a bus from the Bilboa Airport to San Sebastian, where I was once again dragging my suitcase through a charming, unfamiliar town, where I was thoroughly lost.
“Is easy!” the text from the hotel read. “Cross the river to the Cathedral Buen Pastor, go straight to basilica Santa Maria and go up stairs we are in calle mari 21 very easy.”
It wasn’t easy. My phone was dying because I hadn’t had time to recharge it at the Madrid airport since I spent 90 minutes in line to get into Spain. I didn’t see any stairs and I mistook one basilica for another. Furthermore, despite several weeks of diligent study on Duolingo, my Spanish was crap. I could talk about universities and professors, drinking coffee and having a tall daughter, but I couldn’t ask for directions.
The wide avenues and plazas were full of families out to tire the kids on a Sunday afternoons and pleasantly tired, painted marathon runners. Cafes bustled.
“Perdon, hablo ingles?” I asked a passing family.
They didn’t really, but they helpfully called the hotel, and then haltingly told me that it was a 20 minute walk, which I refused to believe. (It was.) I was handed off to a man with a bicycle, and then I handed myself off to a man I stopped (“Perdon, hablo ingles?” “Yes, of course.”) who happened to be an English teacher. He delivered me to the door of the hotel, which was by then worriedly awaiting my arrival, since the call from the family. They had called me to check on my progress but of course, my phone was dead.
I was so grateful to the English teacher – Xavier, my savior – that I gave him the copy of CENSORETTES I had brought along on the trip in case any of my fellow students at the retreat wanted one. This left me with two books, THE GREAT GOOD PLACE by Ray Oldenburg, which is research for the dog café project, and THE ART OF SYNTAX, part of Greywolf Press’s THE ART OF series. And, of course, THE POWER BROKER by Robert Caro because you can’t write a history of New York City, even a tiny fragment of it, without referencing Robert Moses. One of his great works, after all, is the Triborough Bridge, which ends in Astoria. I downloaded it as an Audible book, my second-ever audiobook. It is 66 hours long and of course, it is eating up massive amounts of space on my phone. Hence, it keeps dying.
The next day, another bus brought us deeper into the heart of Basque country, and then we were collected by van and brought to the retreat, which is unspeakably lovely.
After a night of chatting, I fell into the bed of my room above the kitchen, a charming room that made me feel like some intrepid mid-century traveler, a female Patrick Leigh Fermor.
This morning we had our first workshop, with the savvy and kindly Diana Friedman. The topic was SETTING. She generously used the opening of CENSORETTES as an example of an effective setting. My fellow retreaters were very kind, but I had no copy to give them, thanks to Xavier.
But at least now I can say I have international distribution.
by guest blogger Hattie Jean Hayes
Hattie Jean Hayes is writer and performer of many things, as well as a poet, but I asked her to write a guest post about her submission strategy, since she has such a successful method, far from the “dreamy, impractical” stereotype. Although I am behind on my posts for April is Poetry Month, Hattie was gracious enough to share some of her tips with my readers,
I didn’t begin submitting my work “in earnest” until February of 2021 when I set a goal of submitting a piece of writing every day. By the end of that month, I’d logged 32 submissions on the calendar. That “sprint” broke me of my anxieties or reservations around submissions, and I continued submitting through the rest of the year. My year-long goal was to see 12 pieces of writing accepted for publication; a total of 21 were accepted. I’m on track to surpass that number in 2022. If you’re trying to challenge yourself for a single month or grind on submissions all year, you can use these practices.
I use two tools to inventory all my creative projects: Google Sheets and Notion. I use a spreadsheet titled Creative Project Dashboard to log my in-progress and completed projects, including short stories, novels, essays, scripts, parody songs, original musicals, and poems. Once I begin working on something, it’s allowed to be recorded here – if something is just an idea, it stays in Notion.
Every category of project gets a different sheet, and every sheet has different columns. My stories and essays, for example, get these columns: title, status (in progress, complete, awaiting feedback, editing), synopsis, length, and where I’ve submitted it. The poems get a similar treatment, with the synopsis column replaced with a “spawn point” signifier, so I can remember if something was first drafted during NaPoWriMo, a workshop, etc.
Inventorying my work allows me to track where I’ve sent things, and it means no project is forgotten. There are hundreds of items listed in my document, and when I’m putting together a submission for a journal that will review five or six pieces, it’s helpful to have a list of all my work, so I can say “Wait! I haven’t sent that one out in forever and it totally fits this theme!”
I log all my projects in Notion, a note-taking app/website similar to Evernote. Just use whichever productivity app you’re likely to actually use. I like Notion because I can easily create and move different “pages” in that dashboard. I keep a list of ideas for each category of project, and I put early drafts of the projects themselves in Notion. I really like the flexibility to use dashboards in Notion to track where I am with revisions, or record a bunch of feedback from a workshop and see it at a glance. This is not an ad for Notion, I just like it!
My Notion also has lists of all my accepted and published work, so when these pieces go live, it’s easy to copy and paste the live links onto my website. I have a page in Notion where I record third-person biographies of various lengths since this is something you need to have on hand for submissions.
I don’t rely on Submission Grinder or Duotrope to find and record submissions, only because I find it overwhelming. Sometimes I use the aggregators on ChillSubs.com or in Submittable to look for open journals, but that’s usually when I have a specific piece that hasn’t found the right home, and I need to expand my view a little.
My primary means of finding places to submit are social media. I’m in a submission group on Facebook that introduces me to a lot of new journals, and I use Twitter’s bookmarks feature to flag journals I want to read and submit to.
I have a bookmarks folder on my browser for lit journals, and when I make a new bookmark, I name it “SUBMIT XYZ TO [JOURNAL NAME]” so I’m not confused about the bookmark later. If there’s a journal I’m eager about, and the submission window isn’t open, I set a calendar reminder – with the name of the piece I want to submit – for the day submissions open.
I don’t think you need to be a devoted fan of a literary journal to submit to it, but I do think you should get a feel of the tone and some of the published work. I think I’m most successful when I’m mindful of how my writing will fit a particular journal’s readership. My “best” writing isn’t always the best for the job.
This is probably the most customizable part of the process. When it comes to actually submitting, YMMV! Do you like month-long “sprints” where you send work out every day, or even shorter, day-long marathons? Do you want to fill your calendar with reminders of submission windows, and submit as they open up? Or are you going to focus on one piece of writing, and shop it around until it’s snapped up?
Whatever works for you is good! Make sure that you follow guidelines about submission formatting, and respect any rules around simultaneous submissions. Consider creating a document like mine for short bios/publishing history.
Indexing your writing is just inventorying, again. Once you’ve submitted a piece, index the places you submitted to. There was one poem I submitted to 40 different journals in 2021. By the time it got accepted, I had 9 journals still considering it, and it was so handy to have a list of journals that needed to receive that sweet, sweet withdrawal email.
Log your kudos: were you nominated for a prize? Did your mentor say something complimentary about the piece? Put it in there! If you decide to stop submitting a piece while you revise it, make a note about your different drafts. Once you place it, you’ll want to remember the “before” and “after” so you can see what changed. And if you decide to axe any pieces, consider indexing them into a “graveyard” where they can be cannibalized into new writing later on. I began logging my projects this way in 2016, so I have six years’ worth of ideas (good and bad), drafts (good and bad), and completed pieces (mostly good! some bad) on record. That makes me a hell of a lot more confident when it comes to getting published, and when I get rejected, it’s another data point.
Hattie Jean Hayes is a writer and comedian, originally from Missouri, who now lives in New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, HAD, Janus Literary, Sledgehammer Literary and the Hell is Real Anthology. She is working on a novel and several much sillier projects.
Today I logged off work a minute early, because daylight is still precious, and I wanted to get out into it. I also wanted to walk by the Ukrainian Church which I have written about before, and which I can see from my living room window and which has been, if you get right down to it, most of my world view for the past two years. I face my monitor eight hours a day (not counting what I write when I write because I must write). If I turn my face to the right, I see the little altar of candles I have created to keep my spirits up. If I turn my face to the left, I see through the window the Ukrainian Church – that is, a little sliver of some magnificent stained glass window on the far left and then three stories of indifferent taupe brick and many many dull dormitory-like windows that I realized only during the pandemic were actually windows for a dormitory, for the monks who live there.
Yesterday I thought of visiting the church when I logged off work to set a candle in front of the locked gates. Remember after 9/11 all the makeshift altars in the neighborhood for all the cops and firemen who were then our neighbors? Remember our neighbor Joe the Fireman? I still remember cooking dinner on a Friday evening, on what must have been the 14th of September because the 11th was a Tuesday, and hearing a car door slam and Joe’s deep voice saying “Thanks.” He was thanking someone, probably a fellow fireman, for the ride home. He had been at “the pile” – remember that they called it “the pile”? – since Tuesday. His house had lost either 12 or 17 guys. I don’t remember. I remember calling down to him from my kitchen window, “Thank God you’re alright!” and I remember the absolute exhaustion in his voice as he stared up at a voice just as I was shouting down to a shadow.
Anyway, David, two other people had had my same idea, because there were two candles in jars in front of the gates. Unlit, because it was raining, and not inside the gates, because I have never seen those gates open, except when expelling a congregation, not open even during the Ukrainian Festival which shuts down that whole block of 31st Avenue so that beribboned braided girls can clog on wooden platforms while their counterparts, stiff, solemn boys in short vests, wait their turn to click and leap.
So, not the warmest church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, no tentpole revival meetings or pancake breakfasts, but this is Astoria, after all, and the Greek Orthodox folks aren’t welcoming to outsiders, either. I walked on a block to see Con Ed soldering some metal plate over some hole they had dug up. They have been doing this for months, tearing holes into the street and then patching up, only to tear and patch again. I have theorized – since there is no one to talk to – that they are doing this because of the number of free-standing houses they are tearing down so that real estate developers can erect high skinny buildings where the shabby faux-Victorian houses used to be. Perhaps a greater strain on the Con Ed grid has inspired all this manic drilling and patching and ca-thunk-ing as traffic drives across the metal plates at night?
Anyway, someone was sealing a metal plate over a hole of the crew’s own making, and I watching the arc of the sparks, as one will watch arcs of sparks. A man in goggles saw me and shook his finger at me. He pointed two fingers to his own eyes, then to me. I walked away from him, a few steps before one of his begoggled colleagues shouted, “Don’t look at that! It’s bad for the eyes!”
You said, David, the last time I wrote about this church (see post “Saint Behind the Glass”) that you had never noticed the church, despite living so close to it for so many years.
Four years ago, before I left my terrible job, a fireman died on the set of a movie in the Bronx. His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and attracted hundreds, if not thousands. Firemen and policemen, on motorbikes and on foot, filled Fifth Avenue, 57th Street, and other feeder roads. I was working in the GM Building at the time, at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and was coming into the GM Building from an appointment. I rode the elevator with a Young Turk of Private Equity who tapped both his foot and his phone.
“Is that the funeral for the fireman who died on the set of the Ed Norton movie?” I asked.
“Is what what?” he responded.
I explained: the roads shut down, the hundreds of uniformed men everywhere you looked, the absence of traffic, the sound of tolling bells.
“Huh,” he said, his thumbs still on his phone. “I didn’t notice.”
“Huh,” I responded. “And still there are so many people everywhere.”
“Isn’t it funny how I didn’t notice?”
“Funny is one word for it,” I said, and stepped off the elevator.
I wish this made me a hero, but of course I’m not a hero, and he no doubt dismissed me, as all the young people in my former and current department do, as some weird old dame (if they even use the word “dame”!) But that is a topic for another discourse.
I guess this topic is what to look at, whether or not it is bad for the eyes.
Longer letter later, as we used to say —
I’m not a full-fledged book critic, but I did review two books this year and provided a blurb for another. They are therefore disqualified (and indicated in italics) from my top ten. So, with the downtime I had at my disposal, and reading in periodicals, and listening to podcasts excluded, here are the books:
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanith (N)
Breath – James Nestor (N)
300 Years of Long Island City History – Vincent F. Seyfried (N)
The Winthrop Woman – Anya Seton (F)
Insubordinate Spirit – Missy Wolfe (N)
The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell (N)
Asthma: A Biography – Mark Jackson (N)
Damnation Island – by Stacy Horn (N)
The Other Islands of New York City – Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller (N)
Fever – Mary Beth Keane (F)
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health – Judith Walzer Leavitt (N)
The two ongoing projects here are an essay on breathing and other people’s attitudes towards a person unable to breathe, and a memoir/local history/I don’t know about the little area in Astoria where I live, the dog cafe which I began to frequent as soon as I felt it was safe to mingle again, and the history of the islands around Hallett’s Cove. The Winthrop Woman is a fictional account of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, a well-connected Puritan woman whose marriage to William Hallett, scandalous in its day (1650 ish), necessitated the “founding” of Astoria, which meant that a Dutch governor gave an English newcomer Lenape land to farm. Insubordinate Spirit is historian Missy Wolfe’s excellent nonfiction account of the same events, with a larger cast of characters and less romance. Similarly, Fever and Typhoid Mary are fictional and factual accounts of the life of Mary Mallon.
Wish me luck as we wave 2021 goodbye on making meaningful progress on these projects.
Actress – Anne Enright
Euphoria – Lily King
The Heavens – Sandra Newman
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
The Cold Millions – Jess Walter
Better Luck Next Time – Julia Claiborne Johnson
Meet Me in Another Life – Catriona Silvey
Humane – Anna Marie Sewell
V is for Victory – Lissa Evans
We Run the Tides – Vendela Vida
Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford
Interesting Women – Andrea Lee
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes
A Snake in the Raspberry Patch – Joanne Jackson
This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell
We Want What We Want – Alix Olin
Matrix – Lauren Groff
All’s Well – Mona Awad
Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr
The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki
Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead
The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell
The Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead
Self-Care – Leigh Stein
The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz
I read Hamnet in the food court at LaGuardia Airport, where I arrived at 6 a.m. to learn that my flight on the Fourth of July weekend had been delayed twelve hours. Even the association of reading that book with the every-fifteen-minutes rendition of “New York, New York” played to the performing water fountain, and the tears I shed over Hamnet while wearing a mask could not diminish the experience. I made it a mission to read everything else Maggie O’Farrell has written. The only reason her other novels are not bold-faced is that they sort of cancel each other out, like Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor, and besides, her memoir is bolded as well (see below).
The other bold-facers are the familiar names of the year, with the exception perhaps of my Stonehouse sister-novelist Anna Marie Sewell, who somehow blends a tale of a First Nations detective hunting down missing women with a lycanthropic romance, and Lissa Evans’s V is for Victory because it is the third in a charming trilogy of an unlikely found family during WWII.
Ghostbread – Sonja Livingston
Ladies Night at the Dreamland – Sonja Livingston
Recollections of My Nonexistence – Rebecca Solnit
I Am I Am I Am – Maggie O’Farrell
The Good Poetric Mother – Irene Hoge Smith
I had hoped to do a workshop with Sonja Livingston at VCFA, but when the confeence went virtual, I folded like bad origami at the thought of doing another Zoom workshop. I had already done a novel workshop, and am part of a program called New Directions which blends psychoanalysis and writing, introduced to me by Irene Hoge Smith, the daughter and author of The Good Poetic Mother. New Directions streams for three intensive long weekends three times a year.
I loved I loved I loved I Am I Am I Am, a unique and compelling structure for a memoir.
The Celeste Holm Syndrome – David Lazar
The Unreality of Memory – Elissa Gabbert
Pain Studies – Lisa Olstein
Letters on Cezanne – Rainer Maria Rilke
A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver
I decided to re-read Rilke’s thoughts on Cezanne ahead of the exhibit on Cezanne at MOMA.
Cozy old things and mysteries
The Enchanted April – Elisabeth von Arnheim
Pretty as a Picture – Elizabeth Little
The House on Vesper Sands – Paraic O’Donnell
Dear Daughter – Elizabeth Little
High Rising – Angela Thirkell
Before Lunch – Angela Thirkell
The Women in Black – Madeline St. John
In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming
All the Devils Are Here – Louise Penny
Death at Greenway – Lori Radnor-Day
Castle Bran – Laurie R. King
Clark and Division – Naomi Hirahara
And there you have it. I will close out the year with Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses, which I find slow-going because I often have to close the book in envy and contemplation and reconsider my life choices.
I have a smallish stack of friends’ books I have not yet been able to read, and they are moving from the pile to the list in the coming year. I recognize the utter lack of poetry books, except for the one craft book, on my list, because I tend to read poems as individuals and not as part of a collection, but I am happy to take recommendations.
I am also still looking for literature which takes place in or contains scenes which occur in Queens, so if you have any thoughts on those, send them my way.
As one of the recipients of a #NYCArtist Corps grant, I did a reading last weekend of my work in progress, “40 Days at the Dog Cafe,” at the market adjacent to the dog cafe, Marche le Woof. After my reading, I conducted a workshop called “A Sense of Place,” inspired by the fact that I was inspired by the dog cafe, Chateau le Woof, to begin writing about my changing neighborhood, over the summer.
I am toying with the idea of offering a regular, free, low-key generative writing workshop for writers of all levels. The workshop was my favorite part of an already rewarding day. Here is the “teacher’s edition” of the handout I provided the participants. Let me know what you think in the comments.
A Sense of Place
A Chateau le Woof workshop
When we read stories, we often don’t think of place as a primary element. In the earliest stories we heard, place hardly mattered at all. The story happened in a place – far away? enchanted? A kingdom? A village on the edge of a dark forest? A cottage by the sea? We had just enough to orient ourselves.
When we think of stories, we think of plot, characters, and the rise and fall of action. If we think of place at all, we think of where a story “takes place.” To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Alabama, or, if you move in, in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone else, or, if you move in more closely, on the front porch of the Finch household and in a courtroom.
A Game of Thrones takes place in the Seven Kingdoms, in Westeros, in King’s Landing, and in the throne room where the frankly ugly chair that everyone is fighting for actually sits.
But I’d like to explore how place can serve a story. How it can act as character, or metaphor, or place setting. Place setting is most common in the movies, where a bleak western landscape or a busy heartless city can set up a conflict for the hero. something to conquer.
But place can also be one of the main characters. the examples below are from essays. Let’s see how descriptions of place can be used.
PLACE AS CHARACTER
Somehow you are supposed to teach yourself how to comprehend Hong Kong’s energy and flash contradictions; Asian and Western; the encroaching Chinese mainland and the remnants of England; the greasy night markets of stick-rice tamales and knock-off leather boots that slouch right across from Tiffany, Chanel, and Prada. The only things common to these are the offices sending air-conditioned blasts into the street, a kind of longing for money, and, most important, the sense of storytelling that the city seems to require as a visitor’s pass. Hong Kong has a way of turning on your internal monologue. Walking becomes an act of silent storytelling, figuring people out. You feel like you are lost in some prelapsarian novel in which the plot has begun but the characters wait for you to name them. In some time, at some place, we step into an underground Cantonese restaurant and I see a grey-suited, red-tied man act like a parody of the States. American, I say, with an American accent: good-natured smiles, occasionally the slow English dispatched on foreigners and children, and a slightly uncomfortable look, as though he’s worried he’s outnumbered.
Ken Chen, “City Out of Breath,” 2005
This essay by Ken Chen describes a visit he made with his father to Hong Kong. His father spoke Mandarin but not Cantonese. Is Hong Kong a character? Perhaps an antagonist?
Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as its harsh conditions—the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold—keep you in mind of your mortality. But the desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in evening and under clouds. The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of mountains changes hourly, as places that are flat and stark at noon fill with shadows and mystery in the evening, as darkness becomes a reservoir from which the eyes drink, as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption, rain that delivers itself with thunder, with lightning, with a rise of scents in this place so pure that moisture, dust, and the various bushes all have their own smell in the sudden humidity. Alive with the primal forces of rock, weather, wind, light, and time in which biology is only an uninvited guest fending for itself, gilded, dwarfed, and threatened by its hosts. It was the vastness that I love and an austerity that was also voluptuous. And the man?
Rebecca Solnit, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” 2005
This essay by Rebecca Solnit describes a landscape and a love affair. She ends the passage with the question, “and the man?” but what do we already know about the man, from the way she described the desert? Is he fat or lean? iI the sex good? Is he emotionally available? What clues do we have?
PLACE AS TABLE-SETTING
In the bar up ahead waitresses slam sloe-gin fizzes down on wet tables and men point pool cues at each other in the early stages of drunkenness. The singer in the three-man band whispers test into the microphone and rolls his eyes at the feedback. The sound guy jumps up from a table full of ladies and heads over to turn knobs.
We crunch over the parking lot gravel and wait for our song to finish. I’m over my head, but it sure feels nice. The bar is low and windowless, with patched siding and a kicked-in door; the lot is full of muscle cars and pickups. A man and a woman burst through the door and stand negotiating who will drive. He’s got the keys but she looks fiercer. In the blinking neon our faces are malarial and buttery. As the song winds down, the drama in front of us ends. He throws the keys at her as hard as he can but she jumps nimbly out of the way and picks them up with a handful of gravel, begins pelting his back as he weaves into the darkness.
Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins,” 1995
Where are we? When are we? What do we make of the fact that the writer describes what’s going on in the bar before she and her companion even arrive? What kind of evening is going to unfold, and how do we know?
Whenever the experiment on and of
My life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
And be held.
Jane Mead, I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss
Write about a place that held you, how it held you, what it felt like to be held there.
Art is energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced.
Write about a place the gives or gave you energy, that inspires or inspired you. (It doesn’t have to be artistic inspiration – it could have inspired you to make a move, or a declaration.)
Write about anything you like.
The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was cancelled on July 21 and 22 because a production member had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Friday performance was cancelled, according to The New York Times, “to support the artistic and logistical efforts required to restart performances.” What that meant to us at the Delacorte Theater on Saturday night was that audience would watch a performance which called upon the resources of six understudies. The associate artistic director warned us this from the stage. Some of the actors may call for a line. Some may be holding a script. But New York is back, amirite? Live theater! Woo! The show must go on! Woo-hoo.
Six understudies in a cast of fifteen, but the show must go on. Woo-hoo indeed. The boisterous production, set in a merry community in a Harlem, with prominent Black Lives Matter graffiti and the script vigorously updated, was nonstop energy and fun. I knew nothing of the play beyond the fact that it recycled characters like Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and other tavern denizens from The Henriad, due to popular demand among Elizabethan audiences to see those characters onstage again, and that it was a farce.
I don’t own a copy of the play, except in my tiny-fonted Complete Works, and it was one of the handful of plays outstanding on my bucket list to see every play performed live before I die.
I looked through my books. Tina Packer, in Women of Will, mentions it only in passing, as does Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare and Modern Culture. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare calls it “a very dull play indeed,” adding that its only use, as far as he was concerned, was that it inspired Verdi’s opera Falstaff. “I have nothing to say about Shakespeare’s play,” he told him class, “so let’s hear Verdi.” He then played a dropped a needle onto a record of Verdi’s Falstaff and listened to it along with his students.
I am enthralled by the mere existence of Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, so bear with me: they are a collection of the notes taken by the students, and by Auden himself, at his class on Shakespeare which took place at the New School in 1946. No formal manuscripts of the lectures exist, and the book Lectures on Shakespeare was reconstructed from all the notes editor Arthur Kirsch was able to get his hands on, from Auden and from Kirsch’s dedicated combing through archives as well as his general cry for help, to which so many former students responded.
At the New School, Auden covered the plays in chronological order, and the class was reported to be tremendously popular, with tickets sold at the door to those not matriculating. He sometimes spoke to classes as large as 500. I loved the idea of Auden lecturing to a Greenwich Village crowd, bobby-socked and footloose, fueled by caffeine and ideology, bristling with impatience to get on with a life interrupted and devastated by war. Auden spoke to a class partly comprised of former soldiers attending the New School on the GI Bill. I loved this idea so much that I began a chapter of an unfinished companion novel to my novel Censorettes in which two of my characters, newly wed, are living in on Commerce Street in the West Village, brimming with appetite for their education, their part-time jobs and their new marriage. One Friday night, the wife meets her husband, just returned from a lecture he has given at the Naval Academy on wartime maneuvers. She finds him at the former West Village speakeasy Chumley’s already sharing a drink with Auden. “Auden was famously fond of a sailor,” the wife observes.
This unfinished piece of writing bore similar theme to this particular production of Merry Wives – the famished embrace of culture, the sympathetic crowd, the theater – after a long denial of it. From the energetic call-and-response of the pre-show drummer to the exuberant climatic masked ball, which was five times more crackling than any masked ball I have ever seen in a Shakespeare production, this production was two hours of embracing joy.
“More crackling than any masked ball,” might seem like faint praise, but you must remember (pray you love, remember) that Shakespeare is replete with masked balls – they are in at least Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, and the coy posturing of a hand raising an eye mask to the face never convinced me that characters who had known one another since childhood would suddenly be beguiled by this thin piece of fabric and fancy.
We all know what masks are now We all know what masks are for. But onstage at the Delacorte, they meant no danger at all.
But it was not to be. When the bus reached the place where Vernon Boulevard becomes Astoria Boulevard, I hopped off, turned my back on the road to Astoria Park, and headed east down Vernon, towards Chateau le Woof, as though drawn there by a magnetic barking.
I had only a few times approached Chateau le Woof from this side, and I was curious to find this “3-40 Vernon Boulevard” which my research had informed me was the address where the public artist Mark di Suvero, in the 1980s, had set up a studio before he wandered over to a dumpsite on the East River and decided it would make an excellent sculpture park, what is now Socrates Sculpture Park. My problem with this research was that no such address existed.
I walked past the Two Coves Community Garden, a recovered and nurtured former dumping ground turned vigorously busy garden, replete with bags of mulch, stacks of pots and gardeners standing arms akimbo as they survey their plots, wearing the restless frowns that belie gardening as a mild past time, rather than the fruitless battle against nature that it is. I walked past Hallett’s Playground and the public housing apartments known as Astoria Houses, past the wharf for the ferry which whisks Wall Streeters to their jobs across the water, past the remains of an old loading dock, reduced to splintered black timbers emerging from the river like the hands of drowning ghosts, past a nudely clean, recently completed building on my left, with the wee chrome-fenced balconies favored by the new developers, festooned with banners reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” and regular American flags, past a corrugated metal warehouse on my right, with a sophisticated buzzer lock and a heavy steel\ door bearing the sign “Space Time,” below the glued-on tin black and gold rectangular numbers available at any hardware store, indicating the address. “30-40.” I stepped over a patch of sidewalk deeply stained with seasons of trodden berries from the overhanging mulberry tree, reminding me of my Missouri girlhood. I glanced at the tip of the cove, inhaled the mildly brackish river scent and nodded a greeting at the water fowl waddling ashore on the ribbon of sand and . . .
I backed up. I didn’t turn around and walk back, but walked backwards, not quite a graceful moonwalk, but with a similar magic in the movement: Space Time. 30-40 Vernon Boulevard. The accounts I had read of Mark di Suvero had left out a zero. Problem solved.
I continued walking (forward) along the comma of the cove until I reached the entrance of the park. I paused at the gates to look at the dog café, looking in from where I usually look out – at the cove, the park, the vacant lot in between – and saw the barista Curtis waving at me hugely, like he was bringing a small plane into an airfield in heavy fog. I crossed Vernon Boulevard and entered the dog café. Curtis had found an apartment! He was now an Astorian! He gave me the address.
“I just came from there,” I said.
Curtis asked, “Did you see the memorial? They were having a memorial service. It was like the two year anniversary of this big explosion.”
An older woman fishing in the refrigerator for a bottled ice tea straightened up. “It was longer ago than that!”
“The sign said two years,” Curtis said.
“No,” the woman said. “I remember it. There was a fire, and then there was an explosion, and three firemen were killed.”
Had I been her drama teacher and she an acting student, I would have advised her to conserve her anger and not release it so early in the scene, but she was immediately enraged. Curtis said, feebly and unwisely, “They said two years?”
“I remember it!” the woman said. “I was here. How long have you lived here?”
Curtis stood stupefied in her glare until I attempted to distract her, “Where is this, exactly?”
“On Astoria Boulevard,” she said. “By Astoria Provisions.”
I shook my head. Astoria Provisions? A market? A food bank?
“By the library? You know where the library is?”
“The Carnegie library?” I asked, and watched a cold rage settle over her face as she told herself that no one in this godforsaken dog-addled café was capable of uttering a word of sense.
She probably thought, when I said “Carnegie library” that I meant a library close to Carnegie Hall, but I meant, in fact, the little library on the intersection of 14th Street, 28th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard. It is one of the New York City Carnegie libraries, of which 52 still exist as libraries. Only four of those are in Queens. The Astoria branch was designed by the architectural firm Tuthill & Higgins,whose partner William Tuthill did in fact design Carnegie Hall in the early 20th century. But the Carnegie libraries, roughly 2,500 built worldwide between 1880 and 1930, are a certain breed of library, and ushered in the public library as we know it today. Before then – that is, before 1880 – most libraries were fee-based, and almost none allowed the public to roam freely through the stacks, plucking out books at will. Andrew Carnegie, whatever else his robber-baron failings, is known as the “patron saint of libraries.”
Carnegie would build, at his own expense, a public library for any community that could demonstrate a willingness and ability to provide the building’s, and the collection’s, upkeep and maintenance once the building was up, and to pay a staff. Towns also had to commit to spend ten percent of the civic budget to the library and to make it available, free of cost, to all. The first Carnegie library was built in Carnegie’s hometown in Scotland; the next several were erected in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. Many of them are similar in architectural design, and beholden to a theme of “enlightenment.” Broad stairways lead to wide front doors (representing an ascension to knowledge), between two lamps or torches, either functioning or symbolic, representing the intellectual illumination promised within. Patrons are greeted by a large horseshoe-shaped reference desk.
I wrote a paper on the Carnegie libraries for one of my core classes at library school, which I attended so late in life that I was the same age, easily, of the parents of many of my classmates, and older than nearly all of my professors. Library school had only fertilized and hothoused the seeds of my nerdiness, so I did not attempt to explain the concept of a Carnegie library to the angry iced tea woman. Instead, I asked, “By the community garden?”
“What community garden?”
“The . . . community garden,” I repeated, because there was really not much more to say. One might know nothing of Carnegie libraries, but surely a triangle of thriving green amidst warehouses, the art-funded sanctioned graffitied walls of Welling Court, and the Section 8 housing of Astoria Houses, would not escape notice? “Two Coves Community Garden.”
(The garden, by the way, is less than 500 feet from “Astoria Provisions,” which is a restaurant.)
“It was 2001,” the woman suddenly remembered. “June 2001. Father’s Day. There was a fire, then an explosion. Eight kids lost their fathers that day. One of them was called Fahey . . . and the other two were something Irish. You don’t remember this?”
“No,” I said.
“How long have you lived here?”
“My current apartment? Since the ‘90’s.”
“And you don’t remember?”
The other “something Irish” were John Downing, who had spent that morning studying for the lieutenant’s exam, and was planning a trip to Ireland later that month with his young children to see his wife’s parents and his own grandparents in their respective Irish counties. And Harry Ford, a 27-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, who had been cited ten times for bravery. The fire occurred at the Long Island General Supply Company, across the street from the Astoria (Carnegie) Library. Long Island General Supply was a community fixture, a hardware store which kept paint, lacquer and thinners in its basement, which had no sprinkler system. Once the fire reached the basement, the explosion blast “sent rubble streaming like confetti across Astoria Boulevard and tossed firefighters about like rag dolls,” according to The New York Times.
Downing and Ford were killed by falling brick immediately upon the explosion, which injured fifty other firefighters. Brian Fahey, whose name the iced tea woman remembered, was plunged into the basement when the explosion blew the floor out from under him, He gasped into his hand-held radio, “I’m by the stairs. Please come and get me.” He was found by his frantic colleagues, four hours later, dead from smoke inhalation.
The men were honored by unanimous resolution in the House of Representatives—unanimous, across party lines, reflecting a different time, but also a different time made manifest by remarks made from then-representative Anthony Weiner, and then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The news accounts from the time – the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, The New York Times and even CNN and the Associated Press – are truly heartbreaking. Nothing this bad had happened since . . . nothing this bad . . . but of course, it was June 2001. What was I doing in June, 2001? On Father’s Day? My father was long gone by then, and a June Sunday twenty years ago is wiped from my memory, perhaps because of the sky-ripping, worldwide tragedy which occurred three months later. No. I didn’t remember it.
“2001,” I said to the iced tea woman, and turned my head to include Curtis. “So it was the twenty year anniversary. Not two. You probably just missed the zero.”