Wednesday, March 28, 2007

STD notes

I'm sitting in a hotel room (tv burbling in the background) in Pittsburgh, PA, typing this.

We're here to attend the annual Sigma Tau Delta National English Honor Society convention. This year, there are over 700 English majors in attendance, and 12 of them are ours. Wow.

Tonight, some of us went out to dinner. We walked down to the strip district, through thinning rush hour traffic, making only a few mistakes in navigation (my fault) that led us into one dead end at the Amtrak station. "Is this the shitty part of town?" Stewart asked, as we threaded our way under the rotting overpasses, past deserted carpet warehouses, kicking through blowing paper cups and cigarette butts.

We found a restaurant in the middle of the district, a two story bar with an iron grill railing along both street and balcony. We took up two four tops on the balcony and ordered hopefully. Zach and I went hog wild and chose the Lobster roll. We were disappointed. Was it even lobster in the roll? It was all ground up, a ruddy mess shoved into greasy slabs of buttered toast.

We must be English majors; though I'm sure most of us are pretty good with math, we babbled and bobbled over the bill for far too long, until finally we figured out a decent tip and left.

Tonight, the Rectangle readings--one great story about zombies and some well-written but strangely distant pieces of creative non fiction. I sat in the audience, closing my eyes at times to blot out the sudden blare and thump of music from the next ballroom, the words bouncing off the grotesque fleur-de-lis pattern of the yellow (yes, yellow!) wallpaper, reverberating. I tried to swim my way through the words to their hearts, to find the center of each matter, to see into the speaker, the writer, the light that defined him or her. It was difficult, if not impossible. I yearned for a more solid sense of story, of connectedness, instead of the swirling sensation of glancing acquaintance.

Ah, well--as we filed out of the ballroom at the end of the reading, into the Hilton hallway where the air was fresh and cool on our fevered faces as two moist mother's hands, I felt the building connection between those of us from Wisconsin, drawing together easily as we walked down the hallways, planning the next three days, teasing each other about outfits and parties and this blog (I'm not going out to drink, I said, because I gave up alcohol for Lent and because I need this time to write about them on the blog).

This entry has no thesis. It swirls around a warm center. That center is filled with nothing that I can put into words.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Pissed Rigid

It's the first official day of my spring break and I'm sitting in my living room with the blinds still drawn, stewing.

Last week, prompted by the office assistant in charge of updating our faculty information forms, I went back to my vita to add my few new publications. In the meantime, I started to wonder what happened to a few items, such as the poem supposedly accepted to a journal two years ago--no sign of the journal yet, the book review accepted a year and a half ago (again, no contributor's copy), and the batch of poems a former student solicited from me for her own university's mag.

I sent out a flurry of emails, determined to discover what had happened, if anything, to my work. First, I found out by looking at the online version of the book review's journal that, indeed, my piece was published a year ago. My name, however, was misspelled--annoying, since this is a fairly reputable literary journal. I'm assuming that book reviewers don't get contributor's copies; they certainly don't get a contributor's note, nor do they get a more than cursory overlook of their last name. At least I didn't have to delete the line on my vita.

Today, I got a very apologetic email from the editor of the journal that did, in 2003, publish my poem under a new title (they didn't like the old one, which was "Necrophilia," and changed it, probably with my help, to "Grace," but didn't a. inform me that they were indeed publishing it under a new name, or b. send me my contributor's copies). So that's nice--I can add that line in my vita back.

I also got another apologetic email from the former student. Her editor decided not to use my work "this time" but wants me to send again next year. This is what's chapping my hide just a bit. First of all, when I worked for a literary quarterly and we solicited work from an author, our editor did his damndest to select at least one of the poems in the batch for publication, even if, on reflection, he didn't much like them. Second of all, we made sure that we kept in contact with the writer throughout the process. This particular process has been going on since the beginning of last semester, or longer. The editor did not ONCE get in contact with me personally to let me know that a. my stuff wasn't good enough and so b. I could send it elsewhere. And now I'm supposed to want to submit my shit again next year?

Please. PLEASE. I not only feel offended (my stuff wasn't good enough, even--especially!--after solicitation) but annoyed. No. Beyond annoyed. Fried. Pissed. Pissed rigid.

It's one thing to be rejected. It's another to be blown off, forgotten. The least the editor could feel would be a modicum of guilt, a little shame. Something! A little apology. So sorry to get your hopes up and make you send me something, and then to take so long to mull it over in my peabrain.

So I'm sitting here in my living room with a gray cloud floating over my head. I'm sick of sending poetry out to little pissant journals with an inflated sense of their own self importance, waiting as long as a year for it to come back with a standard form or, worse (at this point in the game), a handwritten "note" saying "sorry, try us again next year" or some other claptrap.

Why? Why should I try to "date" you again, moron? It's a failed seduction. You've sent me a come on, so I've put myself out there, and now you've said, Eh, sorry, not interested. In fact, so not interested that you're not worth the time and energy it would take me to reject you. Try me again next year when perhaps I'm more desperate.

Right. And maybe next year I'll have finally grown a set of metaphorical balls on me (sorry, feminist friends) and I'll have better journals to sleep with.

And maybe I'll be writing in a genre that gets more respect (and reading time) than (sorry again, folks) poetry.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Evil Genius

I am almost done with Wilkie Collins' novel, something I found in our college library, something old and green-clad, crumbling yellow browny pages that threaten to evaporate as I turn them. There's some real crazy gender role stuff going on in the novel. It turns out that "evil genius" refers not to some villainous man tying women to railroad tracks but to a governess (of course) who disrupts a happy family (wife, husband, spoiled only child, spoiled mother-in-law/mother-of-wife) with her evil neediness and pale, wasted good looks. Once she's taken in by the family and the bloom is finally on her rose (good air, love of child, regular food, affection), the kind, loving father-husband of course falls in love with her and everything shits the bed.

Well, at first we're to assume that Sydney Westerfield (the governess) is in fact the "evil genius," but it turns out that the coiner of that phrase, Mrs. P, the mother-in-law/mother of the wronged bride, is herself the E. G. The man in question is not an evil genius (frankly, he's too stupid to be a villain and, in my humble opinion, should probably die in the last 40 pages); he's a victim of his dick and circumstances, according to the semi-sympathetic narrator.

I'm wondering about WC's narrator. You see, the wronged wife, Charlotte, is strong-armed by her mother and her lawyer into, horror of all horrors, filing for and getting a Divorce. The Divorce allows her to keep her daughter but ensures that she will become the scourge of civil middle class English society. So Mrs. P. allows the misapprehension of widowhood to cover over the "fact" of her daughter's Divorce, so that a new and woefully ignorant man can be reeled onto her daughter's hook. Madness of all sort ensues. What does the narrator think about all this? Clearly, he thinks that Charlotte was a chump to allow the governess access to her loving husband in the first place. Also, he thinks that Divorce is a sin. He probably wants us to see the ex-husband as a supreme putz. After all, ex-husband has managed not only to lose his family, but also the repentant governess, who sees that she will never truly have her "lover's" heart, and gives him up.

What will happen in the last 40 pages? I predict that Sydney will not survive--the bottom of the pond has been calling her name, despite her selfless act of contrition and her attempts to patch things up with her former mistress, Charlotte. I predict that the lumpen ex will manage to rewed his ecstatic former wife, Charlotte. The spoiled only daughter will remain spoiled. Somehow, Mama P will get her comeupance.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What else is new?

I managed to spill disgusting swamp water, percolating under Steve, the Christmas tree, all over the living room floor last night. (For full, gory details, check out That was last night, at 10:10, when I should've been going to bed.

Now I'm sitting in the living room with the laptop on my, well, lap, and I'm trying to think of what I need to do--other than get up and go to the bathroom, change pants, practice qigong, (can I just insert how much I loathe the standing postures? the pine tree, sitting at a desk, and holding the basin for 5 minutes each? ugh. i can't get my brain to stop leaping all over mundane, idiotic things like a squirrel in the back yard), think about bathing the girl (who is sitting in front of the boob tube watching a very bad movie on Cartoon network and I'm letting her), set up the dishwasher, make the proper bibliography for all the critical articles I want my Intro to Lit students to read (ha and double ha to that one, Batman--they'll read those articles when Hell freezes over), moisturize my hands...

Or I could read those books that are collecting on me. I'm in the middle of Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, still. Now I've got three more books to read, all of them about raising strong children/daughters. Lizzie's past her crisis (the latest one) with the kids across the street but I've invested over $30.00 on the books and, by God, I'm going to get my money's worth. Eventually.

Today I went into campus thinking I'd spend the day working on my own writing. What did I do instead? I can't rightly say. But I burned up the entire day, all the way to past 5 PM, and I don't have a single line of a single story or poem or essay (except this, and what's this?) to show for myself. In the middle of my time sink, I tried to update my vita, looking for those "forthcoming" poems--the ones that So and So journal promised to publish in 2004 and then absolutely nada, the silence of death. So I tracked them down, or tried to, leaving voice mail messages and emails, sprinkling my electronic crumbs around the internet. The net result is that I ended up deleting a line from the vita. So instead of accomplishing anything, I really de-complished something.

This will depress me if I think about it long enough, so I won't. I'll change my pants, practice qigong, insist that Lizzie soak her rear end, and read a chapter of EL&IC.

But what about the bibliography for the articles you want those kids to read? Eh. Maybe you should just delete that paper from the syllabus.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

That's what I'm reading right now.

I have to thank Missie for foisting it on me. I went by the Reader's Loft one afternoon last semester, before it even got that cold, in a funky low mood, wandered the new store, pet the cats, and wondered what I should read. Missie suggested Foer's novel.

"Ick," I said. I didn't like Everything is Illuminated. I'd read a few reviews of Extremely Loud and was already thinking I'd give the new novel a wide berth. Too much trouble. All that postmodern posturing, semi blank pages, pictures, weird/selfconscious/pretentious moves by novelists (male) decades younger than me. Savvy little animals in tight black pants trolling cocktail parties in Nueva York.

"I loved it," Missie said. "This is the one that'll convince you. It's going to blow you away."

Or something like that. God, I can't even remember the name of that guy in the poem who everyone wants to be, the one who goes home and puts a bullet in his brain. Richard Corey, yeah, that's the guy--thanks Student X. Your autism must make your data collection work better than mine. Or is it your age?

Back to what I was saying--

I ignored the book, which I bought more out of a sense of guilt than anything else (Missie and I had had a strange moment at a writing group meeting a few weeks before this encounter, and I was still feeling rather tentative around her, apologetic. As if I needed to buy the book she'd recommended in order to smooth her metaphorical feathers. Missie, if you're reading this, here's an insight into my turgid little mind), for weeks that quickly turned into months. Finally, after finishing that Ruth Rendell number I bought in the library bag sale, I was forced to turn to Foer.

And, by gum, I'm loving the novel. The narrator's a precocious nine year old, Oscar, with a bevy of mental challenges--OCD, mostly--no doubt brought on by his father's death in the 9/11 tragedy. He finds a vase in his father's closet, and inside the vase he finds an envelope with a key inside. On the envelope is written BLACK in a red pen. Oscar decides to find out what lock, in the vast area of New York City and its 5 boroughs, fits the key. The kid is funny, tragic, insightful, naive, driven--everything I want in a narrator.

The only drawback, and this I remember as a pernicious frustration from Everything is Illuminated, is that Foer doesn't like to create a new paragraph for each new speaker. He throws all the dialogue together in a single paragraph without tags--

"Did you throw out the trash?" "What trash?" "The trash I'm looking at right now, you loser." "Don't call me a loser." "I will if you are one." "Am not." "Are too." "Not." "Too." "This is ridiculous." "I know you are but what am I?"

--so that conversations hit my eye in a barely differentiated lingual wall. That's probably Foer's (pathetic) intention as an author.

I like my dialogue spaced out, like my Sunday afternoons, dude.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

All My Messages

--came back.

They're all there now, lined up, the unread and the already read (raw and the cooked), waiting for my action. Respond, file or delete.

So I'm free to resent them, lined up like that, demanding their snip of attention. I'd rather finish reading the Ruth Rendell novel I've been meandering through (Grasshopper, something I picked up for about 13 cents at a 2.00 per paper grocery bag library sale), or watch another episode of Arrested Development on DVD, or the episodes of 24 that have stacked up on the box.

I collected first drafts of semester-long projects from my senior creative writers last week. This afternoon I read through a few of them, marveling at the energy in their prose, at the sloppy use of commas, at what gets left out as much as what gets put in. One of them sent me a story 106 pages long, a first-person buildingsroman about a feckless stoner who learns the secret of life: delayed gratification. The story was fun to read, even though some of the most necessary scenes were missing from the draft. It's not a story, I emailed him, but a novel. A novel missing crucial scenes. I wonder how much of the storyslashnovel is autobiographical, if the "lost weekend" story has become, now, the "lost undergraduate education and transitional year afterward" story, and if the writer has been mired in the same hair-raising antics as his narrator for the last four years.

Did I mention that I read that story on my computer screen, and used the Word comment function to respond to it, tapping my end comment in with the pads of my fingers, exposed now and fully functional at about 80 wpm because I finally remembered to whack off my burgeoning fingernails? I feel very 21st century.

Yes, I got all my email messages back and read them, and responded to a few of them, and got a little annoyed by some others (pressure on one front to attend the high school reunion in Acapulco even though I have already announced that we need a new roof, I don't want to return to high school mode, I can't get someone to be with Lizzie in the mornings while Dave has to go to work, and--hm, maybe I didn't mention this--I just don't want to anymore; on another front, irritating emails about meetings I didn't attend, emails that create anxiety in me about not attending those meetings, number one, and then about what kind of work is going to be dropped in my lap as a result, number two. It might've been better if they'd just disappeared completely, as I'd suspected.

Or hoped?

Friday, March 2, 2007

A Wee Bit Freaked Out

I was just trying to read my email via the college's webmail program and, in the middle of trying to delete a message I'd responded to (simplification program for life: touch a piece of electronic mail once and then move on), the screen went up to the top and I got the message that I have 0 messages now. Zero. Big empty donut hole.

Of course now I'm thinking there must've been 10 or so crucial messages in that list that I didn't get a chance to see. Maybe Mom wrote me a message from Boston, where she's visiting my sister, my sister who's supposed to be having an operation, and maybe Mom wrote me an email to say that things aren't going as well as they should, I should drop everything right now and book a flight. (Yeah, yeah, that kind of important message comes by telephone. It's just fun to have a dramatic moment now and again.)

Maybe I got a message from an editor of a challenging publication with a history of rejecting me--Ploughshares, or Passages Northwest--begging me for a new submission of at least 3 poems if not 5. (Yeah, yeah. Dream on.)

Maybe someone from the dim past discovered my email address and got in touch with me again after 20 years of silence--the first serious boyfriend, F, from college, who has disappeared leaving no forwarding address into the bowels of New England. He's written me to tell me all about his life since 1986, when we graduated, in detail. He's going to be in Green Bay soon with his family and he'd love for all of us to get together, only I have to email him back and let him know if it's okay. Now I'll never be able to send that email to him and that'll give him the impression that I want him to stay lost, he'll make a mental note, and that'll be the last I hear from him ever again. (He's not the sort to go to a college reunion. Well, neither am I, come to think of it.)

Why did this happen? Is it a mirage or reality? What was the last thing I did before the obliteration event (OE, henceforth)? I was checking my spam quarantine and I found an email from a high school friend in there. Great! I clicked on the whitelist button. Slowly, achingly, the little wheel at the bottom of the screen churned and churned and churned. Bing, the window came up. Beth's message was gone--delivered, I assumed.

Then I went back, paged back, to the email window. Responded to a student's email. Hit SEND. The wheel chugged and chugged and chugged. And then, after a longer pause, it stopped. And the screen was collapsed. O messages.

I shut down Firefox and restarted it. Logged into my webmail account. Still 0. I checked my files. After another long hangtime, I got 0.

The rational part of my brain tells me that the college system went down momentarily. The email program hit a snag in the stream. I'll check again later and all those messages will reappear.

But what if they don't? asks the part of my brain known as Worry Wart. WW is a real bitch. She likes to insert herself into my daily routines like a small electroshock device. Her favorite message is this: 'You forgot your purse.'

I didn't forget my purse today. I did lock us (Lizzie and me) out of the house this morning. WW hit the panic button. Lizzie watched me go into the garage and freak out further (WW up a notch) when I realized that the extra key is no longer in the flowerpot. "Hey," Lizzie said. "I have a key."


"Yeah, in my coat. Zipped into the sleeve."

Phew. WW recedes with my heart as it slides back down my throat.

One disaster averted. Will this email inbox be the real disaster? Strange, but with an inbox set to 0 I feel unmoored, set loose, drifting. Even if it is an illusion.

I hope it's an illusion.