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.

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.

Temporary Talismans

BruceLeePostcardMy penultimate essay for the Kenyon Review blog continues the theme I’ve been exploring of late—what we hold onto, what we keep. In this mini-essay I explore postcards and epistolary friendships with writers Holly Wren Spaulding, Wendy Call, and Michael Martone. I’ve never lived near any of them and our friendships grew in part out of writing to each other. I have a lot more to say about postcards, and can imagine expanding this mini essay into something larger.

Though I didn’t write about the above image for the KR blog, Kundiman, an organization for Asian American poets and writers, has a postcard exchange for its fellows every April. The Bruce Lee postcard is one I picked up at the Kundiman table at AWP. Actually, I picked up several and have sent some to friends, one to my brother, and kept one for myself to remind me of this about writing and life. The importance of being fearless. I see the postcard I gave to my brother when I visit;  he’s kept it pinned to a bulletin board in his office (he’s a Bruce Lee fan).

Postcards also make great writing prompts—I used this in the creative writing workshop I taught this week for teens (I read my essay at the instructor reading, too).

From my Kenyon Review essay:

A postcard arises from a quiet place, before picking up the pen—I think it’s about attention and intention, though there can be something breezy or even rushed, offhand about a postcard….Postcards are incomplete, imperfect, and often say something about one’s travel or daily life—they free us from the sense of having to write something extraordinary or profound. They are a first and only draft. For me, as a writer, that’s such a relief.…Read more here.

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.

Writing with Others

Why is it difficult to begin? At least it often is for me. Right now, my friend Rachel, also a writer, is over and we’ve had oatmeal and strawberries and are writing in my living room instead of a cafe. We went to a cafe a few times last week, but the noise and not being able to control the sounds of people on their phones and talking in loud voices rattled me and left me in a foul mood. It’s easier right now to be at home and to have quiet company.

I’ve got Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind next to me—a book I bought in 1991, with the money from a $10 check I received for publishing a poem in the journal Hanging Loose. Goldberg (I want to say Natalie—I’ve lived with this book for so long—and did hear her speak in Newton, MA once) often writes about the writing and processes behind books—about what it means to be a writer and to commit yourself to that life.

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I retrieved Natalie’s book from my bookcase yesterday to look for some words (an idea of hers) that I may use for a speech I’m giving tomorrow at the Rochester Public Library. Although I seem to have public speaking gigs regularly, they still make nervous. The chapter is called “Who Gave You Permission?” As in—who gave you permission to be a writer. She writes:

There’s someone further along the path, who gives you the nod, who says yes, who adores literature as much as you and so gives you permission to love this odd thing all the way and to continue with it in the face of everything. When I say ‘you ask permission,’ I do not mean you have to go to someone higher up on the totem pole and inquire, Is it okay if I write? Write before you ask anyone. As a matter of fact, never ask anyone; always write, but it is about relationship. You know another writer and this reinforces your own love and commitment. It is not about them saying yes or no; it is about encouragement and friendship. And it is about something deep and unspoken.

I want to say something about this to the high school students I’ll be speaking to tomorrow. They’ve all won awards in a literary contest—the same one I won in 1989, when I was in high school. I want to say something about why writing is important and how I hope they will keep writing—whatever else they may do with their lives. My friend Holly is reading my draft now. I’ll see if Goldberg’s words get cut or stay in. Whether or not I need to edit them for my remarks tomorrow, they stay in here in this blog post.

On Trauma Olympics and Trolls

In a blog post in December of 2015, I made reference to something that happened to me that delayed my conference report on a panel on trauma narratives from the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference last fall. I wrote about that incident, about trauma and privilege, and about cyber attacks in my most recent blog post for the Kenyon Review. This was a difficult essay to write—trauma, privilege, and cyber attacks are a lot of subjects to fit into a mini essay. If you’re interested, read through the three posts to which I have linked—to have a sense of how this essay unfolded. I knew I had something to say, and I did not feel as though it was useful to me or to the discussion of these subjects to stay silent…particularly because I had felt silenced for a while. No more. Writers write. I wrote.

I am grateful to the Kenyon Review and its editors, who backed my post; in fact, they just ran my column in their May newsletter. Some commenters have called this essay brave. I don’t know that it’s brave—but I do know I had to write it. What is writing if not grappling with difficult issues—without breaking silences—without telling the truth—or at the very least, my truth? In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” an essay I read in college (in my Intro to Women’s Studies course), and which changed my life, the writer Audre Lorde said:

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect…I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.

I believe this. And so I speak. And so I write.

 

Hin-Jews in the House

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At my Diwali party in 2001 in Amherst, MA. Both Monica and I lived in Massachusetts for many years and went to graduate school there.

Two months ago, my dear friend Monica Gebell and I read together at Writers & Books, the local literary center in Rochester where I teach. We grew up together, have known each other since middle school, and have both been writing for a long time. Time goes by so quickly and already much has happened between then and now—so I’m especially grateful Monica wrote something about our reading.  Read more here…