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 to 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.

Speak Large in the Smallest Spaces

Last week, I noticed that I had been tagged on Twitter—and followed the notification to Vela magazine. In it, Amber Sparks had written a brilliant and incisive essay about the importance of flash fiction, and the reception of writing by women. She included profiles of five writers to watch, and number three is me:

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I was impressed at this generous act of literary citizenship demonstrated by Sparks. So many journals and magazines are not able to pay their writers—Vela among them. It frustrates me when hours of work (writing book reviews, reviewing manuscripts, jurying residency applications, and even writing blog posts) are mostly unpaid labor—and I suspect that women do more of this unpaid or minimally-compensated service work. I saw it all the time in academia.

Of course, the literary / art / creative world does run in large part through a gift economy, but sometimes one can forget the upside of that sort of economy in the frustration and reality that so many of us are working for so little financial remuneration. My flash fiction has taken me hours to craft. And I bet yours has, too.

Here’s an important excerpt from this thoughtful essay:

I submit that women are better at flash fiction because they have learned to speak large in the smallest spaces. They have learned to be heard through the cracks; to be brief because that moment is all they’ll get; to make the most powerful case, the most powerful art, in the seconds between the men and their doorstop novels. I submit that women have learned how to make small fictions because they have had to, and like everything women writers do, they have turned a “small” form into an art and started a fire in the world.

Do read the rest of her essay here.  You can read my (micro) story, “Skin,” here.

***You know, I love reading, writing, and teaching short forms. It’s something I stumbled into, but felt right, right away.  Thank you, Amber Sparks, for writing about flash fiction beyond (the admittedly wonderful) Lydia Davis—and for critiquing the way it is too often dismissed and minimized! It’s not needlepoint—but even if it were, needlepoint too takes skill. Flash fiction: it’s not latch hook.

Recent News

The Cleveland State University Poetry Center announced that my book manuscript, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was a finalist in its 2016 Essay Collection Competition. The other press that recently awarded my manuscript finalist status is also in Ohio: The Ohio University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. What makes this ironic is that the essay I wrote last week for the Kenyon Review was about Ohio and my fear of the Midwest.

In other good news, my essay “Married,” was published last week— in the literary journal Waxwing —Issue 9, Summer 2016. I spent my 20s and 30s going to weddings—over 50 of them (I counted when planning my own wedding last year). I love weddings—they are such joyous events— but there was also a point, in my early-30s, when it felt bittersweet to always be attending these celebrations solo.

My friend Elliot once pointed out that part of weddings is about getting single people in one’s community together—that weddings are a good place to meet people. I met people, but never the right ones. This essay is about that time in my life when I attended so many weddings.

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Still of my sister-in-law and me from the wedding video.

“Married,” an essay written about two of many people I did not marry, begins:

We were in the airport. I can’t stay in this moment. You were sweating so much you needed to find paper towels. You found the usual symbol indicating the usual room. I waited for you, by your bags, watched the people on the moving walkway, standing or walking. Here was all of it: the travel and tiredness. The rolling black suitcases and the pale green suits. Read more here.

Ghazals for Foley

JimFoley-Notes

Jim’s comments on my story, Ithaca Is Never Far,” from John Edgar Wideman’s workshop in the spring of 2000. I used the last lines of Jim’s comments in my ghazal. Sometimes, I am grateful for my tendency to hold onto papers that seem to have no particular use.

My second mini-essay is up now on the Kenyon Review Blog, and it’s about a new book of poems, Ghazals for Foley, commemorating the life of journalist James Foley. Jim was my friend and classmate in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. In 2014, he also became the first American journalist killed by ISIS . The book, edited by our friend, Yago S. Cura, includes the beautiful ghazal by Daniel Johnson below. You can buy Ghazals for Foley here from Hinchas Press (all proceeds to support the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation). From the essay:

Whenever I think of ghazals, I think of our former UMass professor, the late Agha Shahid Ali, who is credited with bringing the form back into usage within contemporary American poetry. The ghazal, often about love and longing, is also naturally elegiac in form. As Cura writes in the introduction to the anthology, “Using the ghazal’s form to ‘speak’ with Jim made sense to us, I guess, because of how the repetition crescendos, and because the form has addressed separation, mourning, and loss for centuries.”

Read the whole post here…

Ghazal for James Wright Foley
by Daniel Johnson 

“The idea of walking ahead on my own through the desert as if compelled by a magnet is insane.”
 -James Foley in his Syria journal

Kinetic friend, you moved like light in a mirrored room. Come home.
Raqqa. Damascus. Aleppo. Homs. You rarely took a room. Come home.

We’ll read Borges aloud–burn windfall in the pit–spark a joint.
You’d leave a parting gift, a rebel scarf or Turkish cartoon. Come home.

You crashed your Civic reading Chomsky in Chicago traffic.
Who now will shatter the day into such bright ruins? Come home.

I killed a bat in Olanna’s room, its body the size of a grape.
I laid it in the trash on eggshells like broken stones. Come home.

Roethke in his journals wrote–The cage is open. You may go.
If sunlight bleeds under your cell door, Jim, never the moon. Come home.

 

The Kenyon Review & Some Thoughts on Work and Writing

Screenshot of the Kenyon Review
As of this February, I’ll be blogging twice a month for the Kenyon Review. My first post developed out of a question and conversation excerpt I posed on Facebook:

Does it matter to you if your life and work are legible to others?
Family Friend to me: “My husband told me you are not teaching at _______ School. So you are not working?”

What ensued was the most vital comment thread on my wall in months. My post explores this question about work and writing, and also meditates on my favorite poem by Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to.” Click here to read the post. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.