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Cross-Country Drive in Lists, 10 Years Later

5 May
In the Badlands in 2009

In 2009, Michael and I drove west from Brooklyn to start a new life in Seattle. I was beginning the MFA program at the University of Washington, and we were ready for a new adventure in a region neither of us ever thought we’d live in. I documented that first cross-country drive in a list of lists here.

Nearly ten years later, we felt the pull to come back east; in April, we packed up our things and now we’re in Chicago, starting the next chapter of our lives. But of course! We had to take another cross-country drive, partly retracing our steps but also seeing lots of new things. And herein is a list of lists for our second crossing:

  • Mileage: Approximately 2400
  • Days: 9
  • Start point: Seattle
  • End point: Chicago

Parting image of the Pacific Northwest: Wet roads, sopping dark evergreens.

Cities stopped in to eat and/or sleep: Ellensburg, WA; Spokane, WA; Missoula, MT; Bozeman, MT; West Yellowstone, MT; Jackson Hole, WY; Rock Springs, WY; Laramie, WY; Cheyenne, WY; North Platte, NE; Lincoln, NE; Omaha, NE; Des Moines, IA; Iowa City, IA.

Detour: Petrified Ginko National Forest

Notable Spokane radio: Developing a trauma-informed perspective, on Native America Calling

Rivers crossed: Cle Elum, Columbia, Coer D’Alene, Clark Fork, Boulder, Jefferson, Missouri Headwaters, Madison, Gallatin, Snake, Buffalo, Hoback, Little Sandy, North Platte, Medicine Bow, Laramie, South Platte, Platte, Blue, Missouri, West Nishnabotna, East Nishnabotna, South Raccoon, North Raccoon, South Skunk, North Skunk, Guernsay, Iowa, Cedar, Mississippi, Fox.

Fauna spotted: bald eagles, hawks, bison, elk, alpaca, orioles, cardinals, starlings, geese, hundreds of horses, thousands of cows.

Best smelling city: Still Bozeman, ten years later. This time, instead of pine trees, it smelled of apple and smoked pork.

Most public service announcements about meth: Still Montana, ten years later. “Ask Me How My Gun Went Off.”

Most fun billboard: “Rock Creek Testicle Festival,” also in Montana.

Most awe: Western Wyoming.

Aw!

Best business name: Pickle’s Discount Mattress in Rock Springs, WY.

Promising overheard dialogue in Rock Springs: “I used to listen to Morning Joe, but I can’t anymore. I just wanna know what’s going on. Don’t rant at me!” This jived with our similar feeling of watching Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC for half a minute. Maybe we can turn it all off? Then again…

Notable Nebraska radio: Christian homeschool radio on social media and the “Pakistinian-Israelite Conflict”

Scariest downtown on a Sunday: North Platte, NE, mostly boarded up and closed, save for Hometown Cash Advance, Cash n’ Go, and a dollar store.

Scariest Victorian home to visit at dusk when no one’s around and the horses across the street are all staring at you: Buffalo Bill’s home, also in North Platte.

Notable Iowa radio: Agritalk. Regarding leaving the TPP: “Was the juice worth the squeeze?”

Happiest lunch spot: cheeky Gazali’s in Des Moines, IA, where we ate garlicky chicken shawarma after several days of burgers burgers burgers.

Unicorn in our Iowa City hotel room, with an excerpt from The Glass Menagerie

Best town name: What Cheer, IA.

Most adorable stop: Iowa City.

Most roadkill: Illinois 😦 Intestines coiled in the street like giant fusilli. My next novel will be a horror novel.

Notable Chicago radio that filled me with glee: Cardi B. on Polish-American Radio. Brr!

Going to AWP Without Really Going to AWP: A Post-AWP Report

2 Apr

This past weekend was my sixth time attending the AWP conference. My first was in New York in 2008, an overwhelming affair of 8,000 writers crammed into a couple Midtown hotels. That year, I sat on the floor beside a woman from Texas Tech who thought my plan to wait five years before getting an MFA was absurd. The next thing I knew, I was working as a paralegal to save money for graduate school, and by August 2009, I had a full ride to the University of Washington and Michael and I moved cross-country to Seattle. You could say that AWP changed our life pretty radically.

Over the years, we went to a smattering of conferences, but each year I went to fewer and fewer panels, as they tend to repeat and I learned you can only soak up so much information. In 2015 in Minneapolis, I mostly had lunch and dinner with friends, a most pleasant experience, but I’d realized the conference fee had been a waste. Next time, I resolved, I would go to AWP without going to AWP.

Last year in Tampa, with my novel just out, I didn’t get to do that. But *this* year, in Portland, it finally happened, and I highly recommend it to folks who’ve been around the AWP block. I was more relaxed. More hydrated! I had time to stay on top of my online teaching, so less stressed.

Now for some highlights:

Wednesday night, we started at The Old Portland, a wine bar owned by Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. They only serve old French wine; I misheard the description of the Corsican rosé as “foggy” and enjoyed it very much; Michael enjoyed a ten-year-old red Bordeaux. Then, the very Portland-y (more stoner than twee Portlandia) bartender said, “Yeah, we don’t like advertise or anything,” and showed us the Odditorium, the band’s 10,000-foot “clubhouse,” where they rehearse, record, film music videos, and the like. It was cavernous and quiet. Michael, a big Dandy Warhols fan, was in heaven.

“Ice Cream,” the mono-print I made at VSC when I was sad that the ice cream shop had closed and there was no ice cream to be had.

Thursday afternoon, we went to the Vermont Studio Center alumni happy hour. I’d finished a first draft of Daughters of the Air there back in 2007. Three former literary staff read poetry from their recent releases. A line from Nandi Comer’s American Family: A Syndrome: “If there is blood, the artist has chosen to omit it.” Ryan Walsh spoke of the connection between visual art and writing at VSC (I still cherish learning how to make a mono-print there) and vegetable poems. Zayne Turner read from “Her Radioactive Materials.”

Most of the other readings I attended featured numerous readers, so, forthwith, more of a collage:

Reading “Cauliflower Tells You

At Strange Theater: A Fabulist Reading, there were spiders and trousseaus and swans roasted in revenge and Japanese monsters and red rooms and porcine men and tyrants and cauliflower-fueled murder. A doll’s head was raffled off, among other trinkets; I offered a rare talisman of Cyndi Lauper’s trip to Yemen.

Friday, we went to the PageBoy Magazine Happy Hour, featuring 17-word poems and prose. It was a fun afternoon of zingy one-liners and dreamy experimental works and Gertrude Stein jokes. Then we were off to Literary Bingo with Lilla Lit, a new Portland-based reading series; it was fast and furious with four-minute readings (a loud buzzer ushered off writers going over). Chocolate was pelted at every shout of “bingo!”; I caught a peanut-butter ball overhead with my left hand and won a copy of Jennifer Perrine’s In the Human Zoo. I also read a poem and someone won a copy of Daughters of the Air. All readings should have strict word and time limits and buzzers and prizes!

Saturday, we paid $5 to get into the convention center book fair. I had a lovely time chatting with Chicago-based folks in advance of our move (yes! big news tucked away over here; more on that in a future post), signing books at the Lanternfish Press table, and seeing fellow LFP authors Charles J. Eskew (Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark) and Andrew Katz (The Vampire Gideon’s Suicide Hotline and Halfway House for Orphaned Girls). It was also super cool meeting Carmen Maria Machado, who signed Her Body and Other Parties and Carmilla, an LFP reprint of a lesbian vampire romance that predates Dracula, with a Borgesian introduction and footnotes by Machado.

Fun!

We also picked up a whole slew of poetry in translation (from Romanian and Hebrew), essays on art, novels, short story collections. I can’t wait to read it all! Our last stop was the Northwest Micropress Fair at the Ace Hotel, where I signed copies of Sugar, my chapbook from Chin Music Press, and hung out with regional small presses, which felt like a special little send off before we leave the Pacific Northwest.

I heard that the conference had ballooned to 12,000 (15,000?) attendees. Amazing! Perhaps, perhaps, we’ll be in San Antonio next year, and if not San Antonio, Kansas City, and if not Kansas City, Philadelphia…?

Sugar at the Chin Music Press shop and online

19 Nov

On Friday, I stopped by the Chin Music Press shop in Pike Place Market to sign copies of Sugar, my new chapbook, and Daughters of the Air. You can pop in to pick up copies while they last! (Also, get yourself a treat. I enjoyed a sesame red bean ball: crispy, glutinous, gooey, delightful.) Not in Seattle? You can order Sugar from Chin Music Press online right over here.

Set scene by poet & nonfiction author Michael Schmeltzer. Thank you, Michael!

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

16 Aug

Snapseed 2I adored the film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution. So when I stumbled upon Chicken with Plums (trans. Anjali Singh) in a Little Free Library, I knew I hit Little Free Library gold. The title, too, is tantalizing. (Some of you may be familiar with my obsession with plums.)

Set in November 1955, Chicken with Plums is the story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Kahn, a pre-eminent tar player. (The tar is a string instrument from the Caucus region.) It’s a heartbreaking story—I nearly burst into tears by page 36—about love, loss, and longing. (Apropos of love, loss, and longing, what would a tango played on a tar sound like? Is that possible? Please comment with links or research leads!) Nasser’s beloved tar breaks, no replacement will do, and he loses the will to live. I read this book just after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, so this may be why I found it particularly affecting. But Nasser finds some comfort in his brother and a beloved childhood dish, chicken with plums. (Here’s a recipe. The author of the recipe calls saffron “the world’s most expensive Prozac.”)

In addition to being heartbreaking, Chicken with Plums highlighted so many things about the history of Iran that I just didn’t know much about, such as the nationalization of the oil industry, which led to the U.K.- and-U.S.-backed coup in 1953. To paraphrase my high school English teacher Mr. Faciano: if you read literature, you get everything—in this case history, politics, music, gastronomy—plus a compelling story, gorgeously told.

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

2 Aug

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille GanselOn WA-20 west toward the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, Michael and I found a Spanish radio broadcast with news relayed at a curiously slow pace, so that even we, with our limited Spanish, could understand. It was a multicultural station based in Vancouver. We got news of sex trafficking in Buenos Aires, corruption in Brazil, and an interview about traditional foods in a certain town in Mexico whose name eluded me: horchata tamarindo, pavo, taquitos fritos, plus socializing at church. There was mariachi music, then a pan flute.

In the next hour, the language switched to something I couldn’t recognize. Something Scandinavian? South Asian? I had no clue. But then bhangra music came on, so maybe it was Punjabi?

At the ferry checkpoint (we were on our way to Victoria, British Columbia), I lowered the radio, as if customs would find foreign sounds questionable. Once we were on the boat, I switched my phone to airplane mode and concentrated on Mirielle Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz), which Michael found at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, when I was there on book tour in April.

It seemed appropriate to read a memoir and philosophical treatise on the act of translation while crossing into Canadian waters. Gansel’s family survived the Holocaust; she grew up in France and remembers the special occasions when a letter would arrive from Budapest and her father would solemnly translate it aloud. Some of her memories remind me of visiting Freiburg, Germany with my grandmother, who spoke a mishmash of Romanian and Hungarian with her cousin and uncle (they saved Hungarian for dirty jokes), and where the cousin’s husband spoke German and their children spoke English to me. Here is the lovely excerpt which prompted my reverie:

IMG_4968

In the 1960s and ’70s, Gansel went on to translate poets from East Berlin and Vietnam. Something she touches upon which I would like to research further is the “de-Nazification” of German and the attempt to translate Vietnamese poetry without exoticization. She mentions Bertolt Brecht de-Nazified Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone without comparing examples. But she does offer this translation of poet To Huu (translated into English, in turn, by Ros Schwartz–oh, the layers!):

Casuarina forests,

Groves of green coconuts,

The shimmering of the white dunes

where the sun trembles,

garden of watermelons with red honey!

Gansel quotes Nguyen Khac Vien, who invited her work to on an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in translation: “Exoticism arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions, the deeper feelings that inspire a work.”

On that notion of digging for deeper feelings, Gansel shares her approach to translating the entire oevre of Nelly Sachs, a Jewish German-language poet who lived in exile in Sweden. She ended up rewriting the work four times, using the Bible’s four levels of meaning, according to the Jewish tradition of exegesis: Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allusive meaning), Drush (deeper meaning), and Sod (secret, esoteric meaning).

I could go on and on and on about how much I love this slender volume about exile and empathy.  This book has opened so many doors for me.

Miscellaneous updates: a q & a at The Seattle Review of Books, a review of DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR, an author-editor panel

7 Jul

 

My, My, My, My, My by Tara Hardy

Some heartbreaking poems I’ve been reading.

The Seattle Review of Books invited me to participate in their fun & breezy column, “Whatcha Reading?” I touched on dark psychological fiction, heartbreaking poetry, an essay on the cleverness of crows, and more. Something for everyone! Plus: a preview of some Women in Translation Month picks.

Over on the Magic Realism blog, Zoe Brooks had this to say about Daughters of the Air: “In every way this is a mature intelligent book which may not suit all readers, but it is an example of how magic realism is so suited to ambiguity and  to difficult subjects.” You can read the whole review here.

 

Also, I wrote a very personal essay about life choices here on Healthline.

Finally, this Monday at 6:30 pm at the Phinney Neighborhood Association, I will be participating in a panel discussion on the author-editor relationship at the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild. The panel will include Dave Boling, author of The Lost History of Stars and Jamie Swenson of the University of Washington marketing and communications department. Matthew Bennett of the guild will moderate. Not in town but curious about the topic? You can tune in live on YouTube.

Notes from #AWP18, Part C: “The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got,” plus book fair porn (e.g. the requisite book haul on a hotel bed shot)

17 Mar

bookhaulIn my last post I promised blood. Well, I’ll just say I slid my boot off Friday night and it was like I was one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. I’m still limping. On to day 3!

What is a better breakfast than a leftover Cuban sandwich? Leftover fried oysters. Just kidding! The Cuban sandwich was much better. Day 3 was the best because Michael got a one-day pass and we got to roam the book fair together.

“The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got” is an irresistible title, so of course we wrenched ourselves away from the book fair for it. Here, without narrative, a fun grab-bag of quotes:

  • “Creative writing aphorisms are as useful as Dr. Phil.” –Chris Abani
  • “Your book won’t save you. It’s just something you’re going to do because you’re nuts.” –Min Jin Lee
  • “How do I handle writer’s block? I don’t write.” –Ada Limón

I appreciated Limón’s story of navigating two groups of people: those who roll their eyes at “abuelita poems” and those who say, “where’s your abuelita poem?” And Melissa Stein‘s remark that dread may be a sign that advice you’ve been given may not be for you, anxiety might mean it’s worth exploring the challenge, and excitement is obviously a good sign. Abani noted that “Craft advice is only important if you’re asking questions. What are you trying to do?”

We stuck around for a reading and conversation between Min Jin Lee and Sigrid Nunez. Nunez on writing about sex: “The vocabulary is not there. It’s either coy, clinical, or filthy, none of which do justice to human sexuality.” At the book signing, Lee called Michael and me adorable. So that happened.

My attention span went out the door by mid-afternoon, so it was off to the hotel bar for wine and fried calamari! Naturally, someone in panda suit wandered in. panda

Next year in Portland! Maybe Seattleites can get some party buses organized…

Guest Post at Lisa Romeo Writes: “Whatever Works: Looking at Visual Art to Write Inspired Prose”

7 Feb

Self_Portrait_with_Seven_Fingers (1)

Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers

Paintings helped me grope through the dark of my first draft of Daughters of the Air. I wrote a guest blog post about that process on Lisa Romeo’s blog. Here’s how the piece begins:

When I was just starting to write seriously, I fetishized notebooks—and, like an eight-year-old—stickers.  I preferred black, hard-backed notebooks with graph paper that forced my writing into small, neat boxes.  My favorite treat was popping into a stationary store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to buy a cheap book of Dover Art Stickers depicting famous paintings by Michelangelo, Kahlo, Goya, and the like. I was trying to write the first draft of my first novel, Daughters of the Air, using Hemingway’s supposed model of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence and all that jazz.

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Years later, still enraptured with the process, I ended up teaching several classes on writing from art for Hugo House at the Henry Art Gallery (you can see my students’ work alongside the art that inspired them in these e-booklets the Henry made here and here) as well as several blog posts for Ploughshares, including this one on writing from abstract art. And, my next novel features an artist. And, many of my essays engage with art in one way or another, like this one on Goya, in the Los Angeles Review of Books. All this writing about writing—it’s time for me to get back to a gallery and refill the well!

“How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years” in The Nervous Breakdown

8 Jan

Wassily Kandinski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wassily Kandinski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am pleased with how fitting it is to have an essay called “How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years” in The Nervous Breakdown today. Here’s how it begins:

1.  Choose a horrific moment in history you know little about, in a country, Argentina, you know little about, but which seems to have troubling similarities to the here and now. Research for years. Images from the Dirty War sear into your mind.

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In other news, I made a handy-dandy card with all of my upcoming out-of-Seattle readings (as always everything is on my appearances page).

Anca L. Szilágyi on Tour for Daughters of the Air

Huzzah!

Monkeybicyle’s If My Book

12 Dec

I’ve written an If My Book column for Monkeybicycle, wherein I compare Daughters of the Air to weird things. Here’s how it begins:

If Daughters of the Air were fruit it would be blood orange and pupunha.

If Daughters of the Air were cheese it would be Roquefort. Also: Kraft saved from a dumpster.

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