None of Us Really Left: Reimagining Rochester

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Poets Cornelius Eady (reading from his iPad), Marie Howe (of the fabulous hair), and Philip Schultz (a poet’s poignancy in his countenance) read in Rochester, with local poet and MCC Professor Tony Leuzzi (far right) moderating the conversation.

Last night I went to a terrific reading in town through Rochester Arts & Lectures, featuring Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, and Philip Schultz—poets all originally from Rochester. MCC professor and poet Anthony Leuzzi did a wonderful job moderating the reading and conversation. Eady, Howe, and Schultz addressed the role Rochester played in their lives as poets and how they think of home now (none of the three stayed in town, but draw from their time there in their writing).

Each described a different Rochester, a different sense of place, a different home—Eady described his street in the city neighborhood now called Corn Hill; Howe spoke of growing up in the suburbs in a fake Tudor stone house with a swimming pool in a neighborhood of Irish Catholics, but did not specify which town or area (I found this especially interesting—the absence of detail here; as a product of the suburbs myself, I have always been acutely aware of the distinctions between the different towns and suburbs, and even neighborhoods within the same municipality—I don’t see them at all as all the same).

Schultz spoke about growing up on a street of immigrants in the city, and at some point moved to my hometown / suburb, Brighton, which borders Rochester. Eady and Howe both talked about the same block on Prince Street, which played an important role in their lives. Howe read poems from her first book, What the Living Do, which was written largely about her brother John’s death from AIDS in 1989; John died on Prince Street in Rochester, and some of the poems are set there.

Eventually, all left home. Eady and Howe spoke of wanting to be where people were—where everyone was—all together on the streets. And this place was New York. That resonated with me and with others I know who grew up here. Schultz said it was more that he was fleeing where he was—that he had to leave the pain of his situation in Rochester more than getting to New York.

I just jotted down some notes, because I found the conversation and poems so inspiring. Not only are they all beautiful poets, they read poems grappling with identity, place, and the lost worlds of their childhood and adolescence in Rochester. All stuff I think about often. I had heard Cornelius read before, and have some of his poetry, but weirdly enough, was not familiar with Howe and Schultz.

Some excerpts from the conversation:

Marie Howe: [On the power of poetry]: “What poetry can do—turn our lives into myth.” From the elegiac title poem of What the Living Do, written to Howe’s brother John, these last lines stayed with me: “I am living. I remember you.” I woke up two days later still thinking about these words and the relationship between those of us still living with ones we love, long passed.

Cornelius Eady: [On coming back to Rochester]: “Driving around the neighborhood, looking at things that aren’t there.” Also this—worlds gone by, vanished, lost, another era, another time.

On Leaving Rochester:

Eady: Described a kind of “adolescent panic” to get out—“the larger world was calling to me and I to it…Writers are ambitious. New York tested and pushed me in different ways…and I needed NY for that.” Eady mentioned an important mentor, poet Shreela Ray (who has since passed). Sadly, I never met Ray, but I have her book, Night Conversations with None Other, and have had it for a long time. I need to read it again.

Philip Schultz: “None of us really left. Our imaginations were created here and exist here still.” (How I related to this! I left Rochester for 18 years, but I never really left and it never really left me…and eventually I did move back.) The title of one of Philip Schultz’s book, Living in the Past, appeals to me for obvious reasons if you know me or my writing at all…

Howe: “I never would have met Cornelius and Phil had I stayed in Rochester.” [The worlds they inhabited in Rochester were different and they may never have crossed paths.]

Schultz: [Quoting from what his wife has called the best or truest line of one of his poems]: “I left town, but failed to get away” (from his poem, “Failure”).

This last line reminded me of a sentence in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, which has stayed with me for nearly 25 years: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I appreciate that Schultz’s words suggested something perhaps more subtle and complicated than Mukherjee’s distinction. (However, I think what the narrator says in Jasmine has a great deal of truth to it as well.) Reader, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on staying versus leaving (in life and writing), should you have any you’d like to share.

Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls

Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

A labyrinth near Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk in Amethyst Brook on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

September is the month of the autumnal equinox—the time when summer ends and autumn begins. In the weeks before this, I was thinking about goals for the fall and mourning the end of summer a bit, especially for R, since his life (and mine) change dramatically once the school year begins. But not all change is bad. He loves teaching middle school and coaching tennis, and I love the fall.

My fall classes at Writers & Books begin next week, in October, so I’ve had the chance to do some meaningful traveling and attend events related to art and writing in September. For that, I’m exceedingly grateful…especially since we’ve had health issues in our family, and our summer was mostly spent with parents, my grandmother, and extended family who had come to visit my grandmother.

At the New York book launch for Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

At the New York book launch for GOOD GIRLS MARRY DOCTORS: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Some September highlights: R and I took a trip to New York—our first visit since we went there together at the end of 2013. It was a lovely vacation, instigated by an invitation from writer Jyothi Natarajan to moderate the Q&A for the book launch of the anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion (edited by Piyali Bhattacharya), at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Piyali had invited me to submit an essay to the anthology, but it was due right after my wedding, and I didn’t have the mind space to be able to see an essay through to completion then. So I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this book project in some way. It was a wonderful event—moving essays, a packed house, and a chance to reconnect to some of my literary community in New York.

img_0531I’d vacillated on this next trip, but I am so grateful I went. Stephen Clingman, a former professor of mine at UMass Amherst, invited me to take part in a symposium on the life and work and legacy of my MFA classmate, slain American journalist Jim Foley. Besides his work as a brave witness of the suffering in Syria, Jim was also a talented fiction writer. We were honored to spend time with Jim’s parents, John and Diane Foley, who also attended the symposium.

Other writers on our panel included MFA classmates Erin White and Yago Cura; Jim’s friend from Teach For America, poet Daniel Johnson; our MFA professor, Noy Holland; and Jim’s close friend from Marquette University, Thomas Durkin. One of the writers for the documentary about Jim also attended—his childhood friend, Heather MacDonald. I read from an essay I’d started about Jim a couple of years ago and still need to finish.

img_0428September brought with it the Rochester Fringe Festival, which meant the chance to see my favorite hometown modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance. They have been inspiring me my whole life, and R and I were lucky enough to have one of the dancers, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, choreograph our first dance at our wedding. Fagan created his own dance vocabulary using elements of Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and American modern dance—and this influenced me as an artist; he extended what was possible, or what seemed possible. We all have different stories to tell, complete with different vocabularies. You don’t have to use someone else’s—in fact, you can’t. How liberating it is, but it requires confidence—a certain strength of will and belief in your story.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

September also brought with it the publication of an essay of mine in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization—“Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps.”  In addition, This week was the book party for my friend Rachel’s Hall’s debut collection of stories, Heirlooms. l was so pleased for her! In the last few years, we have talked a lot about the process of writing a collection and sending it out to find its home. I interviewed her about Heirlooms in my final column for the Kenyon Review Blog.

img_0717The day after Rachel’s book party, I had the opportunity to hear the venerable, acerbic, witty, and wonderful Margaret Atwood! (I can no longer say there’s “nothing going on in Rochester.”) Not only is the epigraph from my manuscript from Atwood, her essay, “Nine Beginnings,” is one I regularly teach and come back to in my thinking and writing. I’ve also been reading from a collection of interviews with her (books were generously given out at the event, held at The College at Brockport, The State University of New York).  Here’s an excerpt of an interview I read this morning:

Geoff Hancock: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?

Atwood: I used to say, in the usual Canadian way, ‘Well, aw shucks,’ I don’t know.’ We’re trained to be modest. But now that I’m middle-aged I’m going to allow myself to say, ‘Well, maybe I’m good.’ Not all the time, but enough times, I can get the words to stretch and do something together that they don’t do alone. Expand the possibilities of the language.

Hancock: And your weaknesses?

Atwood: Weaknesses?  We can’t afford to think about those kinds of things. Most writers are tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls all the time. Look down and you’ve had it. If I thought too much about weakness I’d block.

—From “Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls” in Margaret Atwood: Conversations (edited by Earl G. Ingersoll)

Let me just say I want to be her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’m learning to be me as best I can. It’s the task of a lifetime.

Finally, I wanted to share some essays I came across this past month, so as not to forget them. These are also some of my reading recommendations, if you are looking for any:

  • Holly Wren Spaulding’s thoughtful essay on art installations in nature.
  • My friend Meera Nair’s essay about food, longing for home, and the importance of cooking.
  • A smart NYT article my friend, writer V.V. Ganeshananthan, recommended about networking. It’s about more than networking though—it applies to literary citizenship, manners, and being mindful about paying the help we receive forward.
  • My friend, local writer Nate Pritts, on writing outside and the importance of spending time in nature.
  • Also flagged to fully read / listen to (I caught just the end on the radio): Mary Karr on writing memoirs on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
  • An essay on death, dying, and happiness, by Brooklyn-based meditation and yoga teacher, Jess Geevarghese. (I met Jess in a yoga class while in NY in September, and we ended up striking up a conversation at a cafe down the block from the studio…one of the most meaningful interactions of my trip.)
  • Last one: I heard Sarah Cedeno read this essay in July, but it stayed with me, and I’m adding it to this list to remind myself (and you) to take a look at her haunting essay about family, hoarding, and the stuff of life.

What are your reading recommendations? I’d love to hear from you about them.

Fear of the Midwest

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Refrigerator magnets I got at a rest stop on the NYS Thruway. Yes, I was nostalgic for the place where I live.

Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and the Southern Tier all hang onto the moniker of the Northeast by their fingernails. In my story, “The Half King,” I describe Western New York and Rochester as “disturbingly close to Ohio.” New York is part of both the Northeast region and the Mid-Atlantic States. I thought I grew up on the East Coast; it wasn’t until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean…to read more click here for my most recent essay for the Kenyon Review.

The Countries of Sickness and Health

Wanderlust

Molly’s wanderlust / continents tattoo, designed to resemble henna, caught my eye at a charging station at JFK and sparked my conversation with her.

In the car on the way to the airport, my husband (R), more careful than I, asked the requisite last minute questions—Do you have your passport? (Yes, packed since last week). Do you have your visa? This second question gave me pause.

I had a current visa, yes. The problem was that my 10-year visa to India, a total pain to get, was on my previous, expired passport. I had not really used my passport since my last trip to India four years ago, and therefore had not made the connection that my visa was on the old passport…and that my old passport was still in our apartment.

We turned around and I ran back into the apartment to retrieve my expired passport. Had I left it with other inessentials at my parents’ house instead of at our new place, we would have missed the flight to New York—which meant we likely would not have made our other flights.

We are flying together for the first time—to New York and then to Chennai via Dubai—in order to have me meet R’s grandmother and other relatives. Not only is it our first flight together, it is our first overseas trip, as well as my first time traveling with my in-laws. We are meeting them in Chennai. It’s not a low-stakes trip—but then nothing about this year has been low stakes.

It turned out that having a current visa on my old passport was good enough, but I had watched the look on my husband’s face and registered the sinking in my stomach, thinking of his parents who had spent time and effort planning our itinerary and what they would say if I was unable to go.

Go without me, I said to R. I can go to the consulate in NY and then take a later flight. It’s not that easy, R said. We looked at each other. Maybe they just won’t let us go. How could we not think about the irrational fear of Muslims or anyone who is brown or “different?”  The fear that anyone who looks like us (two tired teachers) could be terrorists. The unbelievable rise of Trump. The fact that flights this time of year are packed. I wasn’t thinking about the time of year—school vacations, holidays. I wasn’t thinking about the color of our skin. Being married means having to think about things more. It’s not just my own trip I would have derailed, which (while not ideal), I could have dealt with.

It has been over four years since I have left the country other than a few quick jaunts to Toronto. I had forgotten many things until the last week—calling my credit card company so they don’t freeze my account after a foreign transaction; packing extra Ziploc bags, toilet paper, and Kleenex; filling prescriptions for malaria meds.

Even being in NYC (even just JFK) is a different country. This past fall, I did a little writing-related travel and attended a LOT of readings. I was out a lot, but not dancing and not seeing the world. Not writing as much as I want and need to.

I think I tried to make up for a year where I felt underwater and in a country where I did not speak the language— the world of living with a sick family member (my grandmother—her stroke in my bed, calling 911, my family and I at the hospital and Jewish Home in shifts) and the almost equally strange and horrifying  (to me) world of wedding planning minutiae and decisions (themes, colors, invitations, guest lists, seating arrangements, menus) collided.

I felt frequently mute and as though I could not stop talking and also was not heard. It was though we (R and I) were living inside a snow globe. The rest of the world went on outside it. Or the rest of the world was the globe and I was adrift in some other galaxy—the world of pale yellow hospital masks and thickening agents, countless sari blouse measurements and fittings, and telling my ninth graders on repeat that it was “minus five” each time they forgot to bring their copies of Romeo & Juliet or a writing implement to class. We muddled our way through Shakespeare and the end of the school year. My grandmother is able to swallow again, to speak again, to walk. I survived wedding planning, moving, and the first six months of marriage.

Even with potential visa troubles last week, I realized I still have my real passport—a clean bill of health, a reason to travel (a grandmother to meet), the resources to make it possible, a companion with whom to go. I realize these are not small things; these are everything. I am grateful.

The wanderlust tattoo:  At JFK, I met Molly and her friend Linda, who were en route to Dubai, Kenya, and the Maldives. They were on their way to meet friends from Sweden. They met these friends four years ago (while traveling); now they all sport the same tattoo and travel together. I didn’t ask Molly what she or Linda do for work in Cleveland or if they have spouses or children. It didn’t seem to matter, because it doesn’t. They are travelers. That is enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyondness

A photo of a poster of Mark Strand's poem,

Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” in the Brooklyn apartment of poet Purvi Shah.

“We all have / Reasons for moving.” — Mark Strand

I gathered up my nerve and moved to New York City for the first time right after grad school.  I was lucky my friend Purvi Shah was looking for a roommate; her cozy, furnished apartment (where I had stayed on many visits to New York) and month-to-month rent made the idea of a big move and a big city less intimidating. A purple “Poetry in Motion” poster hung (and still hangs) in Purvi’s lovely living room, and my eyes rested on Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” each day that year.

In 2003, a year after moving in, I left Brooklyn for a writing fellowship in colder Western Mass. I moved a lot in those years–in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, and 2011–across hundreds of miles, often across states, mostly for academic jobs or fellowships.  But I also moved, perhaps, because I was not ready to stop moving, even though I simultaneously craved stability.

Strand’s lines resonate with me as I look back at that time and contemplate the future.

His death this past weekend, on November 29, 2014, set me thinking about “Keeping Things Whole.” I glance at Strand’s poem often still (without fully reading it each time, because I use the above image as the cover photo for a Facebook group I created for local writers in Rochester).

Keeping Things Whole

Mark Strand

“In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.”
 

Having just completed a poetry unit with my freshmen, I wonder what they would have made of this poem.  I might share it with them this week and also Strand’s words below–his take on the sense of mystery in poetry and in his poems in particular:

“If I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am. I think the poem would be, finally, a reducible item. It’s this “beyondness,” that depth that you reach in a poem, that keeps you returning to it. And you wonder, The poem seemed so natural at the beginning, how did you get where you ended up? What happened?”

–Strand, in a Paris Review interview

Thank you, Mark Strand, for the gift of this “beyondness” in your poems.  It has kept me coming back.

Ithaca Is Never Far

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all.” –C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Taughannock Falls

Ithaca Is Gorges:  Taughannock Falls, Ithaca, New York

For the last 19 years, while living in New York City, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Rochester, I have regularly visited friends in Ithaca, New York. This past spring I also taught selections from The Odyssey and thought about that other classical Ithaka.  After months of planning (to find a weekend that worked for both sets of my friends and for us), my fiance and I finally drove to Ithaca, NY, last weekend.  It was a relief to have an easy getaway in a summer that has been unexpectedly busy with our engagement ceremony, family and friends visiting, writing projects, and some of our own longer travels (to visit family and for a wedding).

My MFA thesis, a collection of stories called Ithaca Is Never Far, deals with the search for home– both cultural and geographic.  The title story is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view.  It was also, for me, about growing up in Western New York State–a place often considered at some remove from New York City, other East Coast cities, and anything cosmopolitan. Although I resented the idea of New York State as some sort of culturally remote backwater when I was growing up, after living in NYC myself for six years on and off across 10 years, it is sometimes challenging for me to be back here.

I miss the caffeinated buzz of the city–a constant electric hum–, its diversity, my friends and family who still live there.  Devouring all of Goodbye to All That:  Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (a birthday present from my friend Sally) in one sitting a few weeks ago made me miss the city even more.

These days, I am not able to get back to New York as often as I would like. (My last trip was a one-day whirlwind visit in April to give a reading at the College of Staten Island with my friend, fiction writer Stephen Schottenfeld.)  I try to appreciate what is here, including the quiet charms of my hometown:  great restaurants, ridiculously easy commutes, friends I have known for years, my 91 year-old grandmother, a good job with kind colleagues, a lower cost of living, the natural beauty of places like Ithaca.  And I met my fiance, also a native Rochesterian, here.

I don’t know where the future will take me–whether I will settle down here or if Rochester is one more stop along the way.  Cavafy’s poem reminds me to be patient, to not hurry the journey.

The Half King

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The Half King is a bar & restaurant in Chelsea, owned by and frequented by writers & journalists.  Photo by Alessandra Leri.

I am thrilled that my story, “The Half King,” is  available online!  The Literary Review published “The Half King” in its print journal last summer and you can now read it on TLR’s newly-revamped website.  This story is close to my heart, as it is set both in New York City and in Rochester.