Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What to say about Charleston

"So it is better to speak
we never never meant to survive."
--Audre Lorde, "A Litany for Survival"

I'm reading Roxane Gay's essay collection, Bad Feminist. In her introduction, she mentions on more than one occasion that she is messy, that humans are flawed and messy. "I am just one woman trying to make sense of this world we live in. I'm raising my voice to show all the ways we have room to want more, to do better." What a relief to read this introduction, to know that here is someone, saying loudly, that she is not perfect. And yet, she still goes ahead and writes anyway. This is what writers do: we write anyway. I know that I'm not perfect, but for someone to announce this publicly, on a big stage, is really quite a relief. My thought was: hey, I'm not alone! How awesome!

This is why we write. At least, this is why I write. To make sense of the world and my place in it. To tell my stories because I know there are people out there who think they're the only ones but maybe they'll read my stories and think what I thought: hey, I'm not alone! But also to be the example I never had, to be the leader I never had. To write the books I've always wanted to read, the ones where I can see myself in them instead of on the sidelines. Who's writing stories about a second-generation Filipina from Jersey who grew up in the eighties? No one I know. Why would anyone care? Because I know there are second-generation Filipinos (heck, just people with immigrant parents!) out there now who are trying to navigate that space between our parents' world (aka the "old country") and our own "new-terrain" American world. And boy, what a relief it might be for them to know how someone before them survived (and continues to survive) it all.

But this is not what this post is about.

This post is about Charleston. This post is about race. This post is about trying to navigate the hurt, the grief, the mourning, the outrage, the disgust, the disheartenment.

At least for me.

And this post will be messy. Completely messy. Totally human.

I've been sitting with stunned silence for a week now. Not knowing what to say really. Everything that wants to come out of my mouth is nothing new. And that is the most frustrating part for me -- that I have nothing new to contribute to the conversation. Still, I know that I need to speak even if it's the same thing everyone else is saying. It's important to speak. To be heard. For the very reasons I listed above: to let others know we are not alone in our experiences, in our existence. I'm also frustrated for other reasons. I've tried journaling about it, trying to process it all. I can't even think about poems. Words seem like a failure. How do you express the chaos of emotions? Nine people are dead. Nine black people. Nine disciples of Jesus. At the hands of a man who was welcomed in fellowship and sat with them for an hour. A white man who then shot them dead. In the house of God. How do you begin to process that? How do you explain the combination of shock, grief, and --what's the word? is there a word? A word for that feeling of "nothing has changed"? Resignation? A word for feeling "we, people of color, all know and have known that nothing has truly changed despite the fact that we have a black president"? Is there a word for that?

We are not a post-racial society. Who first introduced this idea anyway? (Probably some white guy.) What does that even mean, "post-racial"? Is it supposed to mean that we're so far beyond racism that we no longer see differing races (i.e.. the myth of racial colorblindness) ? Or it is supposed to mean that we embrace and treat all races equally? Either meaning is bullshit. The trouble with the issue of race these days is that it's more subtle, which is more insidious. How many articles are out there on microaggresions? Lots. Here is one. Here is The Microagressions Project. Why more insidious? Because it places doubt in the minds of those who have been aggressed. (How terrible is that?! To be taught to distrust your instincts?) Because the aggressor downplays his/her language. There's a lot of "oh, I didn't mean it like that". Or because s/he truly doesn't understand that the language is so coded with racism that s/he doesn't know what s/he's saying -- true ignorance. Because no one would readily admit s/he is racist. Read Claudia Rankine's Citizen if you don't believe me. 

The media, predictably, has not used the word "terrorist" or "massacre" to describe the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. "Tragedy" has been the popular term. Charleston "shooting" is another. To which some have responded: this is not a tornado or hurricane we're talking about -- this is the death of nine people intentionally shot in a church. The media, predictably, is trying to humanize the shooter. [His name will not be mentioned on this blog. He does not deserve to be named.] "Mentally ill" they say, as a way to take him off the hook of responsibility. (Which certainly does no favors for the fight against the stigma attached to mental illness.) Not that there was any documentation written by his own hand about his hate for black people in this country. "Hate crime" the police say. Thanks, Masters of the Obvious (aka MOTO). And yet. And yet. Had he been a Muslim with brown skin who shot white folks in a church, I'm sure as hell they would be screaming "terrorist" and "massacre". National security would get bumped up from orange to red (do they even do that color thing anymore?). And they would paint this person as an extremist thug, dehumanizing him by talking about his blind devotion to his religion. We have all seen this narrative way too often that it has now become a cliche.

I am tired of this bullshit.

But I am also heartbroken. Death at the hands of another is still death. Is still the loss of life. The loss of light.

So what is there to say? Our country is broken. It has been for a very long time. Probably since its birth. And we are all trying to get it right. Fighting to make it right. At least the people I know. The people in power don't seem the least bit interested in doing anything that would take their power (and their money) away. So it's an uphill battle. But if enough of us speak out, if enough of us scream and demand what's right, maybe something will happen. Look at how quickly the battle flag of the south [again, a name which will not be mentioned on this blog] is becoming a discarded icon. Major retailers have immediately stopped selling it. People are calling for its removal, while a handful are holding steadfastly to their legacies, failing to see that it's a legacy of hate and violence. This is what can happen when we speak. Someone might be listening. And for those of us who were never meant to survive (which means, for me, we've got nothing to lose! so go all out!), speaking out just might change that.

Roxane Gay has written a piece in the New York Times about why she can't forgive the shooter. I am with her on this, all the way. She has articulated what I've been thinking, but haven't been able to put the words together. Thank you, Roxane, for this.

Nayomi Munaweera has also written something that has resonated me, reminding me of why we continue to write, why we must persist. Thank you, Nayomi, for this, "Writing Race the Day After Charleston".

I'm sitting here saying, hey, I'm not alone! And I am grateful.

Let us remember the names of those who were taken from this world too soon: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Re-entry, Day 3

I started to write a different post, one about Ross's lecture and our one-on-one conference. But then I hesitated, got side tracked, asked myself: what is it that I want to say about those two things? What did I want to share? I didn't know. So I stopped.

I've had this blog for many years, but have never been really consistent in keeping its content current. (The fact that the word "content" now means something having to do with a website already bothers me--but how else to speak of the words found on a website?-- and the fact that I'm doing it now to talk about my blog gives me the heebie-jeebies.) Being at Bread Loaf Orion gave me some purpose to writing daily, reporting on the happenings at the conference, sharing some new insights. Now that it's over and I am trying to process all that I've learned and discovered, I'm self-conscious about what I put here. How much do I think aloud in a public space? How much do I keep to myself? How does that choice matter to the results of discovery? It matters. A lot. Sometimes, sharing messes with the magic. Sharing before it's ready, that is.

So instead, I will talk about re-entry into my usual routine of life. How I am reluctant to just jump right back into the harried pace of my suburban Jersey life. I have a million errands to run, some of which I should probably do today (like go food shopping... we kinda need to eat), but I am reluctant to do them. I really don't want to interact with people. I just want to hole up in my house and write. And read. There is plenty I want to read! But that is not feasible for a mother, particularly one whose children are involved in various afterschool activities. So how does one get back into the world without totally destroying the magic of Bread Loaf? Without leaving it so far behind that it feels only like a dream?

I don't know.

Time keeps moving and there are things in place that are happening, that have been planned, that are inevitable. I cannot avoid them or stop them from happening. So I guess I just have to go with the flow and see it as my return to the sea.

One thing I considered doing in order to ease this transition was yoga. I have yet to try that. Maybe tomorrow morning. The other thing: knitting. Two very physical acts that engage one on various levels: physical, emotional, psychological. Maybe that will help me get grounded and centered. Clear-minded. Maybe.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

What I haven't said

I spent this morning in my home office, writing, trying to process all that has happened during my week at Bread Loaf Orion, trying to decompress. I journaled. I wrote a letter to a friend (by hand!). I have the seeds of a new poem geminating in my head, but have yet to put it in ink. And now, I am here. With two young children (out of three) sitting with journals of their own, whispering to each other and writing. I know what it sounds like: oh, how sweet! Trust me when I say this moment will last another thirty seconds. And I want at least thirty minutes to write this post. My youngest is already moaning about being bored, about not wanting to participate in the game her sister has invented, one that involves naming letters (sounds like a modified version of Hangman). And I am back, vacillating between wanting to engage with them & their game and wanting to set cereal boxes on the kitchen table, telling them to eat, and allowing them all the television they want so I can write.

Welcome home.

I'm already missing the magic of Bread Loaf, of being among people who share in my passion of language and life, of commas and the earth. Of being in the mountains. As I reread the posts of my experiences this past week, I notice that there is a lot unsaid. What is that about? Is it about a lack of time to explore what I want to share? That's part of it. Is it about a reluctance to really be open & vulnerable to the oft-times terrible world that is the internet (namely, the trolls)? Maybe. But what I have pushed myself to do all week was to allow myself to remain in uncomfortable spaces, to venture into unfamiliar locations. To take risks. So why should a blog post be different?

Soooo, let's see...

I've been thinking about my conversation with Ross about poems, about the making of poems and their origins, about the different positionings of a speaker, about the positions of poems themselves -- coming from a place of knowing versus a place of not-knowing. And I'll tell ya: I loved that conversation, loved how I had to think (!) to really THINK and explore and examine. But what do I want to say about it here? I'm not sure. I just know that I wanted to at least make mention of it.


I think I've lost my momentum, my train of thought, due to the presence of little children, arguing over who gets to control the mouse (I have since allowed them access to, a site comprised of learning games for primary grade school children.) in the small space of my office that once was peaceful with silence. Shit. Moment's gone. Guess I'll feed us all breakfast now.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Entries and re-entries

So today is my last day of the conference. Most people are leaving tomorrow after breakfast, but I am departing after today's lunch as today is my husband's birthday and I don't want to miss the family birthday dinner!

I am reluctant to leave the amazing nurturing bubble of this writing conference but it has to come to an end sometime. But before I go ruminating on that, a recap from last night:

* Terrific morning lecture by Ginger Strand with accompanying slideshow, which was not a powerpoint presentation, but more visual aid to what she was saying, an illustration. I'm re-thinking Niagara Falls, the geography of interstate highways, the landscape of small towns in decline. She was both insightful and hilarious, playing with language in her lecture. This whole conference, in general, has been thinking and re-thinking about a lot of things, much of which I hope to retain! (Sometimes mommy brain causes amnesia. One of the side effects of motherhood.)

* Workshop! We talked about a couple of my poems --again, the folks in this group offered insightful feedback. I got some new ways to think about and approach my work. It was really helpful in giving me ways to turn the poem(s) in my hand like a jewel and look at all the facets, how the light hits each angle, and how to enter the poem in a different way.

* Lunch conversation: we talked about the written word, about how that's a commitment to making the internal external, to making it real --an actual thing-- by putting it down in ink on paper. How that makes it a concrete, tangible thing. Something you can hold in your hands. And how, usually, you can't take it back once you've put it out there. Sure, you can burn it --but it's already seen the light of day. You've put it outside of yourself. Even saying things out loud: once you put it out there, you can't take it back. Like toothpaste: you can't put it back in the tube.

* Afternoon class: a roundtable discussion with the editors of Orion magazine. Helpful information about the print publishing process, particularly knowing their 6 month lead time. It must be difficult to not get caught up in the pace of instant gratification of digital publishing. But in listening to them, they sound really really invested in putting together an outstanding magazine. And that is awesome!

* Evening festivities: they bussed us up to Snow Bowl (a ski resort) for a Friday night outing. Happy hour, dinner, live music, and if you were so inclined, dancing. It was a good time (I'll leave that to your imagination). We even took a class photo:


Now, I'm in reflective mode. Thinking about this week and all that has happened. How much my brain has stretched and reached in ways that I have missed. How I hope those pathways are strengthened and can brighten with more frequent use. A lot has happened, new ideas have been born, and to be in community with other writers is quite a thing to be cherished. One of my new poet-friends, Kate, told me that she tends to feel effusive at these kinds of things. There is a kind of love here, built through support and empathy in this journey called writing. And I will miss that. Not that this is an end--no, it's not--but that the daily-ness of this kind of interaction, of this feeling will end. I plan to stay connected with my new poet-friends, hoping this is the beginning of sustaining the growth we have all started here at Bread Loaf Orion.

(On a half-joking side note: re-entry into the regular world is going to be a bitch!)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Breathing room

Yesterday was the day of unscheduled time. There were no workshops, no afternoon classes. Just big blocks of unscheduled time. So what did I do? Turns out, it was the best weather we've had all week (high 70s, brilliant sun), so what better time than to be outdoors, engaged with the landscape?

After the morning lecture, I had a writing date with a few people from my workshop. We sat at a picnic table in the grass, near a spruce tree, and wrote. The prompt I provided was to take a photo of something nearby (taking angle & light into consideration as well as focal point). We then exchanged photos and wrote about what we got. Here's the photo I got:

And the prose poem that ensued:

"A Blessing"

The telephone booth has asked the earth for an invitation. She has been abandoned, her purpose lost to the wind of technology. She has no tribe. She wants to belong, to no longer exist in isolation. The sadness of rain glazing her plexiglass windows, a kind of weeping, a grief she cannot escape. An end, a swallowing of her rectangular body would be better than this. The dark clouds, the icy chill of wind. Anything is better than this.

The earth listens quietly and without a word, obliges, fulfills the phone booth's request.

The next morning, she wakes to a sun vibrant with heat, the soft grass warming her rusted joints and the most beautiful gift of evergreen hair: soft triangular spikes laid upon her aluminum head.

This is life! This is blessing.


Prose poem, huh. That's what I've been thinking to myself. I'm caught between poetry and prose right now. Workshopping poems, but writing prose (e.g hello, blog!). Just an observation.

After that, I went to a yoga class in a big meadow in the middle of this Bread Loaf campus. It felt so good to be in downward facing dog, hands and feet grounded in the grass. To do sun salutations with the late morning sun beaming on my face (god, I know how corny that sounds! The word "beaming" is just too... cliche? Hokey? Cheesy? I need to find a better word.). Such a truly grounding experience to reconnect, not just with the self within, but outwardly with the earth.

And then a picnic lunch at Frost Place (yes, as in Robert Frost). We hiked there. A mile and a half through the woods on cross-country trails, the terrain of which was not ideal for my tender right ankle. After all that rain in the beginning of the week, there were puddles, at times small streams, and plenty of mud on the trail, which forced me to navigate rocky terrain strewn with stray twigs and branches. I also worried that I'd brush up against poison ivy as I was not wearing long pants (high 70s!), forgetting what that plant actually looked like (remembering vaguely something about three leaves, but nothing more). After eating, I walked back the easier way (the paved, albeit uphill, road!) with a couple of friends.

That was a lot of physical activity in a span of two and a half hours.

The afternoon filled out with Bread Loafer (that's what they call participants) readings and a faculty book signing happy hour on the Treman lawn during the gloaming, one of my favorite times of day during the warmer months -- that late afternoon / early evening sun, the quality of it -- clean and soft. Add a couple of cold beers and some friends on a grassy knoll with the mountains in the background and you've got a perfect happy hour.

Dinner was great conversation. The evening reading was fun, particularly Craig Childs and his photographic enactment of Burning Man (which was only part of his reading, but most hilarious). Then off to the Barn for another Bread Loafer reading, prior to which Ross said to me: when are you reading? I said I wasn't. And well, he gave me this look like it really wasn't an option.

So I moseyed over to Stephen, organizer extraordinaire of these readings, and asked if I could read at the very end since I would not be around for the final reading on Saturday night (I have to leave the conference that afternoon). He is very strict about time --three minutes-- in which he holds up a red cushion and shakes a rattle to signal thirty seconds left (which is humorous from my vantage point as audience member). He was reluctant to add me, but I promised that I would only read this very brief poem that would probably take thirty seconds. He conceded. As the reading progressed, one woman whose name was called said she read yesterday. So Stephen calls out: where's the alternate? Hahaha! That's me! I go up to the podium, introduce myself and say: is Ross here? I scan the room --nope! I said, He put me up to this & he's not here? Then, I read my poem, the one I wrote that morning (see above). When I finished, there he was, by the door. Probably walked in when I said, thank you. Hah! Anyway, it felt great to just take that risk of reading a raw poem, not thinking about what it means or what it's about or worrying about word choices or anything like that. Just to read it. In front of an audience. To bear witness.

This is why I'm here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Last night's reading

Ross Gay, my buddy, was one of the readers at last night's faculty reading. And he rocked it. He read the title poem of his latest book catalogue of unabashed gratitude (plus a few others). I was really impressed with how he sustained the energy of a poem that length in a reading. (It's quite a long poem.) Here he is, in the midst of reading it:

The audience really responded to his vibrant energy. You could feel it in the air.

Speaking of energy, while I want to write more, I must turn in. I'm exhausted. More details in tomorrow's post!

Maps & mapping

So I'm writing this post after breakfast, after having talked and interacted with people. What does this mean? It means that it'll be tougher to recap yesterday's events as today's events have begun. And for me, when the day begins, it's hard to turn away from this day's excitement in order to look back at yesterday. But I'll try.

The highlight reel:

* Morning lecture felt like a lecture, unlike the previous one which felt like storytelling. Complete with a powerpoint presentation. That took an adjustment of my expectations. Still, it was fascinating to learn about how essential artistic expression has been for us human beings. It has been created by humans as far back as 42,000 years ago (at least I think that was the number). There was a slide of this artifact: a lion-man figure carved from a mammoth tusk, the detail of which was incredible. The overall aim of the lecture was to illustrate how necessary art is, how necessary artists are if we are to survive as a species.

* Workshop was relocated to the Barn. We left our fluorescent-lit classroom for the wide open space and naturally lit Barn (which is literally the larger part a barn, the rest of which have been made into classrooms, so you can imagine the very high ceiling, which is also the roof itself) and sat in cushioned rattan chairs. What a difference setting makes! We all felt so much more relaxed and casual in our conversation about each other's work, really working to excavate the poem beneath the draft that lay before us. Pretty awesome.

* Afternoon class: this was something you could sign up for. A class in which one of the instructors just ran a class, teaching something about writing and/or creating. Today's class? Mapping. Ross facilitated that class and it was a lot of fun. He, being not just a poet but a visual artist (a painter, to be precise), brought in giant sheets of paper and colored pencils. He had us draw two maps: one of a dream we had, one of a childhood place in which many significant moments happened. I was screwed on the first one; I don't have dreams every night and when I do, I inevitably forget them the minute I wake up. So I doodled. What else was I supposed to do? I couldn't even make up a dream! So I just drew some spirals with different colors. The second map was interesting: it was of the street I grew up on, Sunburst Lane. The name alone evokes not just memories, but a natural image: that of the sun bursting with light at daybreak. The breaking of day, the day broken by a sun exploding with light, so much light that it bursts, it explodes. Um, yeah. Sorry. Poet here. That kind of thing tends to happen. Anyway, along with this map of my childhood street, I listed five significant moments that happened there. I had never stopped to think about just how many events happened on that street, literally ON that street. Not in my house or in a neighbor's house. The street itself. A lot of shit happened. And in thinking about memory, I'm asking: how much of it actually happened? How much of it am I making up, thinking that this is what happened? Isn't that the nature of memory? Did I really learn how to double dutch at Alicia's house? Or did I just really want to, and in my remembering, inserted the notion that I actually did learn how to skip dual ropes? I don't know. Does it matter? Isn't the essence the important part of memory?

A third collaborative map was called for. So, we broke up into groups of five and were presented with the task of mapping out a solution. I told my group that we couldn't do something predictable and boring like solve climate change or anything related to nature and the environment. I told them that everyone would be doing that. How boring! (I know: I'm trouble.) So in our brainstorming conversations, we came up with the idea of a stadium stampede as our problem. How to solve this? I came up with the idea of retractable walls that fold into each other, similar to an accordion (I have no idea if this is architecturally sound, but we only had 25 minutes! so whatever!). My group loved it & then took off with their own ideas. It was one of my better experiences with collaboration yet! The results were hysterical and entertaining (To summarize: there was a halftime show in which Janet Jackson was about to make her big finish with a giant boob piƱata, which was to set off fireworks, but something caught fire & the whole thing exploded, thus triggering the stampede. Our protagonist, Joe, got trampled and in trying to escape, was somehow lifted up by the crowd & crowd-surfed his way out of the stadium towards one of two DJs in the parking lot. Would he travel his way towards Queen's "We Are the Champion's" or Kenny Chesney?). Not to worry, we met all the requirements asked of us and understood the lesson Ross was trying to teach us: that maps are like stories: they are not always what they seem as the mapper chooses what to show you and how to show you. (And by the way, the other groups *did* do boring predictable environmental stuff, like how to save the bees.)

Anyway, I gotta run. Morning lecture starts in five minutes! More to come later... maybe!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Back in the saddle

Yesterday was so full that my cup runneth over.

The morning lecture was given by Pam Houston, a talk called "What Has Irony Done for Us Lately?" She prefaced by saying it was a work-in-progress; it felt pretty finished to me. It was broken up into sections and one in particular really hit home. In it, she told the story about the last days of her Irish wolfhound, Fenton. The tenderness. The very real relationship between human and dog. The small actions we take in the face of death. Like the generosity of the butcher who, after stacking high quality steaks on the scale and listening to Pam's reason behind the purchase, took one off and said, his steak is on me. This moment had me in tears. I could not stop thinking about my first dog, Hannah, who died in 2012. How I spent her last night on my living room rug, her head in my lap, both of us watching tv. How I knew that she knew, that we both knew the end was very near. How hard it was to be in that room at the vet's office, watching her go, but needing to be there, to comfort her, to not let her die alone. How her breath slowed and eventually stopped. How I was a mess afterwards for days. How my oldest, at six, didn't recognize tears from my eyes, asking, what's that water coming from your eyes? How my second child understood so deeply that she, a then four-year-old, was almost as heartbroken as I was. This is what writing does. This is what storytelling does. It connects us. The lecture was moving. The audience, again, was left in silence, processing, digesting.

Then off to workshop. Which was terrific. A good group of folks who really give a shit about poetry. I know: this is a "duh" statement, but it's more a commentary on how long I've been away from a writing community. I was so excited to be in conversation with people who understood the significance of a comma and its placement, to be in a poem or not. For you non-writers, this is dorky. For you poets, you know exactly what I'm talking about. For the first session, we stumbled a bit in how we responded to each other's work, still trying to feel each other out, but I thought we did great, offering feedback that was useful to the poet when framed through questions and descriptions rather than judgment and opinions ("I liked..."). What was really great for me was that my brain was actually working! It was stretching and expanding on preliminary basic thoughts about a poem -- I mean really stretching. I can envision my brain twisting around, reaching for deeper layers in a poem and searching words to express what I notice. This is something I've missed. Teaching undergrads for so long, my critical eye has gone soft. This is like me doing basic level yoga for so long after not having done a level 3 class and just easing right back up there. The joints are a little stiff, but I can feel them loosening up, I can feel my body poised to take on Bird of Paradise. Not just yet, but soon. Warm ups are important; we want to avoid injury. I'm really looking forward to our next session later this morning.

After lunch, I took a short hike along some ski trails (translation: it was all uphill!), but felt good to be in the quiet of the mountain (well, mostly quiet. There was a distant mower buzzing away), the small calming rush of the stream. Then, I had a small group meeting with Patrick Thomas, managing editor at Milkweed, which was great. Lots of good information about how, generally, small presses might work and specifically, how Milkweed works and what they look for. Doesn't hurt that he's young and good looking (hahaha! Did I say that out loud?). He did say, towards the end of our session, to give love to the editors... to which one person said: "I like your shirt." And everyone laughed. In all seriousness, though, he meant that editors like to know that you have done your homework, that you've researched the press to see if your work fits with their vision, based on their book lists, for example. The fact that he said this told me that way too many people don't do their homework because, perhaps, they just want to get published any way, any how and as a result, mass submit. Not the best approach. It's like looking for a job: you're not going to just apply to every single job out there. And even if you narrow down to your field of expertise, don't you want to work in a place that suits you? Of course! Same idea. But for some reason, this kind of common sense doesn't translate in the writing world. Generally, any kind of common business sense doesn't cross over. See what I mean by writers being a weird species?

There's a wide variety of folks here. Sure, they're all writers, but where they come from is an interesting mix. During happy hour yesterday (yes, there is an actual hour in the schedule in which we socialize before dinner. And yes, there are beverages available for purchase during said hour.), I talked to a man named Stephen for a while. He's in his early seventies (he looks much younger than that! I'd guess his early sixties) and he's a retired astronomer & professor. He's currently a photographer who is now pursing writing, working on a collaborative project with his granddaughter. Incredible! And while he lives in Arizona, he grew up in the Bronx. We argued over who was the epicenter of sarcasm: Jersey or the Bronx (Pan Houston made mention of Jersey sarcasm in her talk). We decided it depended on which decade you were talking about. He was talking 1950s Bronx. I was talking late 20th century/early 21st century Jersey. Hah! That was a fun conversation.

The meals have been interesting, sitting and talking with both writers and translators (the Bread Loaf Translators conference is also happening here). What I've loved so far is being able to talk to others about language and the choices we make, whether translator or writer. To talk about these things to people who get it, who share my passion for language. This is why coming here is good for me. I don't get the chance to have these kinds of conversations back home.

And now to begin Day 3, which promises to be sunny and a bit warmer! Hooray!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Kicking things off

As part of the opening event for the conference, Luis Alberto Urrea read his story, "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery" (Click here to hear him read the story for Orion magazine.) What an honest and heartbreaking story about living on the US-Mexico border. The storytelling was so captivating (he recited the story from memory, adding some performance to it) that I was right there with the two young Chicano boys. I was in that canoe with them, seeing the lay of the land, the mix of water flows and the discards of human beings (a shopping cart half submerged, covered in algae). By the end of the story, with all the weight of the protagonist's silence and his looking away from what has happened to his friend, we the audience were quiet. Uncertain as to how to transition out of that definitive moment back into "hey, we're at a conference" mode. Someone eventually said, Thanks for coming -- won't you join us for a dessert reception next door.

What an awesome way to kick things off!

So, I got to thinking: what is this place? Bread Loaf Orion is a conference and workshop for environmental writers. What does that mean exactly? I don't consider myself an environmentalist, not in the activist kind of way. The word "environmentalist" alone suggests political activism. I'm an activist, but not when it comes to the environment. More social justice activist. So what does it mean to be an environmental writer?

To be completely honest, the first thing that comes to my mind are a bunch of hippy Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugging white people. I know. Terrible. I'm better than stereotypes, right?

But then I looked around the room where the reading was held (a place called Little Theater) and it was a sea of white faces. Just to be sure, I did another scan of the room during the dessert reception. Yup. I'm not mistaken. Totally white. I think I saw about three other people of color, aside for the two faculty of color (Urrea being one of them). Soooo, there's six of us total in the wooded mountains of Vermont. This should be interesting.

So what does it mean to be an environmental writer? I hope to find out this week. I hope that it's more than what I'm presuming.

How did I get here? Good question. I received an email from Bread Loaf (I'm on their mailing list) that said, "A few poetry spots left!" I hadn't considered applying to BL Orion because I didn't consider myself an environmental poet-writer for the reasons stated above (ie. not white, not a tree hugger --though I do recycle!, no Birkenstocks). But then this email came at a time when I was feeling pretty crappy about where I was as a poet-writer --so crappy that I wanted to give up on writing altogether (which is highly unlikely, but that's how bad I was feeling). I took this as a sign & said to myself: hey, why not? I have nature in my poems -- that's "environmental", right? So I whipped up something for the application and submitted it the next morning. The day after that, I get an acceptance email. Seriously? I thought to myself. I guess this was the universe's way of saying: you're not done with writing. And voila! Here I am.

But the main question still stands: what is an environmental writer? I have no idea. At least with regard to the poets. Sure, the creative nonfiction folks write about various things related to nature & the environment (that's the impression I'm getting), but what about the poets? I read some of the work in my workshop packet and it seems the poets in my group write solely about nature, observations and such. My work? Well, that's where the "interesting" part comes in. My poems, more often than not, address race in some way or another. The work I've submitted for this conference uses the natural world as metaphor to illustrate racial tension. Because of my past experience with workshops outside of VONA (i.e.. the rest of the world), I'm bracing myself for the worst, but really hoping and praying for the best. The worst? Feedback in which readers do not get what I'm trying to do with the poems or offer suggestions so that I can explain the context (racial history) of the poem. The best? Readers who understand my aim and offer critiques that focus on helping to uncover, shape, and polish the poem on it own terms. The good news? My worship facilitator is a man of color and also happens to be an old friend, who, yes indeed, gets it. Thank goodness for that!

Day 2: First workshop. Here we go!

Monday, June 1, 2015


Greetings from Bread Loaf Mountain! I got in about an hour or so ago. Checked in, settled into my room in a cottage-style dorm room (the dorm is literally a cottage!). I had planned to take a short nap to recharge from that 5+ hour drive in the rain. I laid down, about to fall asleep, and my phone lit up like Christmas. Suddenly, everyone and their mother is sending me a message about this or that. And my brother calls about the first summer swim team practice being delayed due to thunder.

Man. So much for spotty cell service. I was really looking forward to disconnecting from the mama life.

And so much for my nap.


Well, what better time to write a blog post! Though, to be honest, I don't have much to report. It's cold and damp. About fifty degrees. Fortunately, the rain has stopped for now. My room is chilly -- it was warmer before when the heat was blowing, but now it's not. Good thing I brought a fuzzy blanket. I'm considering pulling my winter coat out of the car (I threw it in there, just in case) -- it's supposed to get down to the mid-40s. The people above me are noisy & heavy footed & use the bathroom a lot. I think that toilet flushed at least 5 times in the last hour. The one on our floor? Twice. I just hope the people upstairs are early sleepers.

It's weird to be back in a conference / workshop setting. Feeling anxious and nervous, which is par for the course when I'm experiencing an unknown -- new surroundings, new people --and not just regular new people... writers! Writers are a weird species. I should know. I am one. Socializing with writers gives me anxiety. They're so unpredictable and sketchy, hard to read, tougher to trust. (That's for another post.) But isn't this what it's all about? Going outside our comfort zones? Pushing ourselves to experience new things?

I think I'm hungry, but my belly is all nerves that I can't even think about eating. There's a welcome social in about ten minutes and I'm thinking about hiding out in my room until dinner at 6:30. But of course, I can't do that. That's just dumb. If only I brought a flask of tequila. You know, liquid courage. Just a swig to ease the nerves, warm the belly, loosen the guard.

Jeez. I sound like a college freshman!


Okay, off I go to socialize...

Oh, and speaking of college freshman, I didn't finish my homework of reading all the participants' work prior to our first workshop meeting tomorrow. Guess what I'll be doing tonight? *tsk tsk* Typical frosh!