I Had a Moment: A Few Thoughts on Denis Johnson, Readings, & Endings

12087282_10153056012911372_862107849312497426_o

Poster from Denis Johnson’s reading at the University of Rochester. October 9, 2015.

I learned last week from a friend’s Facebook post that Denis Johnson had died. I don’t know Johnson’s writing well, but I am thankful to have heard him read a couple of years ago at the University of Rochester. I know he read at UMass Amherst while I was in graduate school there, but it was during a time when I didn’t make it out to a lot of events.

The more readings I attend, the more I appreciate the good ones. His was a good one, a terrific one—memorable—in a sea of not-great ones where I’ve fallen asleep (really). Johnson was well-prepared, funny, read short pieces, talked in between. I went with my friend Angus (originally from Rochester), who was visiting from out of town over fall break. He’s a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a good Q&A and I wrote down several phrases from Johnson’s reading. I recently found the notebook where I jotted these notes down.

IMG_2972And I forgot for a while (about a  year and a half) about the Denis Johnson quotes, because most of the middle of the notebook is grocery lists, and even those languished in a corner for a while, while we looked for other notebooks in which to write lists. I just started using the notebook again for grocery lists and so had seen my notes from the reading—mostly lines from stories. Individual sentences of his stay in your head.

Denis Johnson       10.9.15   UR

“I decide to call ____. They’re in my phone. Odd expression.”

From “Silences,” a story:

“He said the worst silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine that took off his leg in Afghanistan.”

“How often can you witness a woman kissing a prosthesis?”

“Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what goes on.”

From “Accomplices”:

“People in our neighborhood stroll around in bathrobes, but not usually without a pet.”

@end of story, looking at reflection in glass, sky and celery, ski and cycling [?]. “I headed home.”

First sentence of a different story:

“I was having lunch with my friend Tom Ellis one day, just catching up.”

Other sentences:

“His opinion about the afterlife. Mason was for it.”

“Then, more often than you might think in a San Diego café, we were interrupted by a woman selling roses.”

“New York and I didn’t quite fit. I knew it all the time.”

“I presided over all the litter, the people in restaurants in small tables.”

“Our public toilets are just that—too public. We can see each other—black shoes and cuffs. The walls don’t go down all the way to the ground.”

“By staring down at my feet and hunching over I attempted to disappear (to make myself disappear).”

“I had a moment. I have them sometimes…bereft…and not even a physical gesture seemed possible painless.”

***

He signed my copy of Jesus’ Son. I bought another book of Johnson’s (Train Dreams, on a friend’s recommendation) that I still haven’t read. I will now. I want to read so much, so many things, before I die. And my shelves are full of books I’ve bought in the last two years and haven’t finished reading. That’s a goal for this summer. To read more.

Johnson was funny. He read well. He’d timed himself. The short pieces worked. I just remember, as others said about him on Facebook and Instagram, he was present. Even in that reading. I felt present, and I felt him as being present.

I’m sure I got some of the sentences wrong, they’re partial, they’re misquoted. I don’t want to go back and correct them. I don’t want to look them up. I will read his work. I wanted to write this down. That’s all. I was inspired enough, I remember his cadences—and how stories started and how they ended. That I wrote notes. And that in itself signals something to me. I felt alive as a writer, reader, listener.

Last week, I was talking to my friend Ravi about the reading. (He had been there, too.) Ravi said, “And you asked that question about his endings.” I was glad he remembered, because that was the kind of thing I would ask about, but I didn’t remember that I had asked it. I had however written something in the notebook, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it must have been his response (or my interpretation or thoughts on his response). I think I asked how he knew or decided where to end a story.

Usually, when I get that ending feeling / feel

Endings are end—ending—complete or [something] about to be said or about to be said

I remember thinking it was a good answer; it was a satisfying exchange.

***

That day was good…it was one of those good days. After Johnson’s reading, Angus and I went to the Owl House for dinner and I had tea with Irene earlier in the day. And then we also stopped by The Bug Jar. Angus was at his best—someone you could take anywhere. He talked about his mom, whom I’d never met, and the school she’d helped found, which had recently closed. I’m not sure he’d been back to Rochester since she died.

But there we were, across from the park, and we walked through Highland Park, where we had met 20 years earlier, through mutual friends. And who were we then? Twenty years ago, Angus was just leaving his PhD program in creative writing and moving to Brooklyn. Later, I moved to Brooklyn, and even later, I became a professor, too. And  then I left that profession, and became who I am now. A writer.

That October, we were just two people, old friends and writers, listening to Denis Johnson. Then we walked out into the rest of the day, still thinking about his sentences.

What Can’t Be Cast Off: An Interview with Rachel Hall

At the end of July, I completed a six-month stint writing a bi-weekly column for the Kenyon Review blog. I am proud of all that work (and gained tremendous respect for the work involved in writing a weekly column or blog and for all who do it).

Heirlooms-coverMy final post is an interview with fiction writer Rachel Hall, a friend and fellow Rochesterian. Her first book, Heirlooms, is a collection of linked stories, which will be published in September. From the interview:

I grew up looking at family photo albums and listening to family stories. I’m lucky that my mother is an excellent storyteller, as were her adoptive parents, my grandparents. I loved their stories about the war in France, loved hearing them repeated, and in particular the way a new detail might emerge. At some point I began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether… Read the entire interview here.

Fear of the Midwest

IMG_9084

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.

Become a Cabbage

2016-02-02 15.58.00

A sign on the beautiful landscape of The Millay Colony of the Arts, which was once the summer home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The title of this post comes from a poem I love by Naomi Shihab Nye called “The Art of Disappearing.” I was talking about this poem with my friend Holly last week, and was reminded of it again when I read her wonderful blog post this week about Nye’s poem, attention, and creative work. Holly and I are spending this week on a writing retreat at The Millay Colony for the Arts.

Most of the time, I’m someone who walks around (without even thinking about it) with E.M. Forster’s adage in my head:  “Only connect!” Talking, deepening friendships, enriching conversations, creating community- these are never far from my mind. However, it takes time, attention, and solitude to work on a longer writing project, and too much connection (online, phone, coffee dates) and that sustained attention, so hard to come by, withers.

Here’s Nye, from “The Art of Disappearing”:

“When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.”

I think she has point. Another Rochester writer, Sonja Livingston, and I were also recently talking about Nye’s poem. Rochester is a small town. I spend my life running into people I know just about everywhere (especially Wegmans) and I like it. But maybe it’s important to save your singing for your work, for your writing. It’s worth reading the whole poem here as well as Holly’s blog post on attention, Nye’s poem, writing, and Millay.

 

What Comes Next and How to Like It

Last week at Blue Mountain Center, where I was invited to take part in a mini residency, I finally delved into Abigail Thomas‘ new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. It came out earlier this year and I bought it months ago and it has sat while we slowly moved into our new place and got used to too many changes. New apartment, new husband, working from home, etc.  I did something while away I used to do a lot—just recopied passages from her book and other things I read there. I’d fallen out of the habit of doing that, but at BMC, I just settled into the book and reading at a table next to my friend, Holly. Hours passed.

IMG_6212

I admired that Abby wrote about failure. It’s something I have thought about a lot—how to deal with it, why my students and their parents struggled with it, why I do, and how to write about it.  Everyone fails at something, at some time. So why is it so hard to accept it? I do think half of life is showing up, but do we need participation awards?  I got a D in calculus in college and most likely should have failed. I was horrified, and life went on.  I’ve failed at much larger things with far greater stakes than that, too. Everyone has. It’s what comes next that says something.  What did I do with it?  What am I doing with it?

Here’s something Abby wrote in What Comes Next and How to Like It:

“I am trying to convince myself that failure is interesting. I look the word up in the American Heritage Dictionary to find its earliest incarnation, but it has always been just ‘failure.’ There’s no Indo-European root meaning originally ‘to dare’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘hummingbird’ to make of the whole mess a mysterious poem. I can find no other fossilized remains in the word. Humility comes along on its own dime.”

One of the many things I love about Abby’s writing is short chapters.  Suits my way of thinking—these interconnected fragments. I loved her various two-page assignments (I took a four or six week class with her at the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa, the last year I lived in NY) and I used them sometimes in my classes—and I love how she has composed whole books (like one of her memoirs, Safekeeping) in these segments. Here’s one for today from What Comes Next:

12304179_10153126313946372_3641052439507564335_o

“Late Fall”

“Late fall, and the color is gone. This is the season of bare trees, the kinds of trees my sister Judy describes as looking as if they died of fright.  A perfect description. Judy should be a writer, I nag her all the time. ‘If you’re not going to use it, I am,’ I say, but I’m careful to give credit.

The leaves were glorious yellows and reds and browns, but a few along Tinker Street (and one you could see only from Cumberland Farms) were a deep shade of rose. Rose! You had to gasp. But except for those moments of painfully beautiful color, I haven’t felt anything like shouting, can’t think of anything to write or paint (I don’t know how to do autumn), and nothing more has occurred to me recently about failure, except that it’s failure.

But when it gets dark, I’m off the hook. The day is officially rolled up and put away. I’m free to watch movies or stare at the wall, no longer holding myself accountable for what I might or might not have gotten done because the time for getting something done is over until tomorrow.” —Abigail Thomas

Thank you, Abby.  It’s nearly time to stop working.

 

 

 

 

August

.photo(11)

Stone sculpture on the beach in Tiverton, Rhode Island.  Thinking about impermanence, beauty, and change this summer.

photo(15)

My reading, on August 21, 2014, dedicated to my friend and MFA grad school classmate, James Foley (1973-2014).  The event took place at Roc Brewing Company as part of Writers & Books’ Get Lit Crawl (Rochester, NY).  Your writing and life touched so many people, Jim.  We will always remember you with the love and spirit you embodied.  There is only love.

Get Lit Pub Crawl Photo Credit :  Ivan Ramos

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.