This week’s tandem read…

I spent the loveliest Sunday celebrating St. Patrick’s Day–my own way. After Mass and brunch at a Greek restaurant, I found the sunniest spot on my porch, enjoyed a Bailey’s, and started in on this week’s tandem read: Pulitzer-prize winning (Cleveland, OH, native) Anthony Doerr‘s memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World and art historian and travel writer Laura Morelli‘s debut novel, The Gondola Maker.

Do you do much tandem reading?

Tandem reading provides many such textual mirrors and prisms. I highly recommend it.

Writer and Book-seller Michael Berger

This book pairing is pretty obvious: both are set in Italy (the first in the 2000s Rome; the second in 16th-century Venice), with all the inherent romance an Italian setting prescribes–from fine literature, art, and architecture to finely-honed craft and familial trades passed down through the generations. And there will be your standard romance to come–more in Morelli’s tale, I’m afraid, than in Doerr’s memoir. (Like Doerr, I suffered from sleepless nights due to twin boys, only not in Rome.)

What’s 400 years between stories? I’m enjoying the tandem view of Italy spanning centuries, geography, and outlooks.

So far, I’d recommend both books.

With humor and his trademark attention to detail, Doerr chronicles his family’s year in Rome, where he begins work on his novel ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE–when he’s not distracted by the writing of Pliny, the Elder; struggling with his Italian phrasebook; or carting his twin babies around an ancient city not meant for hulking twin strollers.

My favorite excerpt so far:

Jet lag is a dryness in the eyes, a loose wire in the spine. Wake up in Boise, go to bed in Rome. The city is a field of shadows beyond the terrace railing. The bones of Keats and Raphael and St. Peter molder somewhere out there. The pope dreams a half mile away. Owen blinks up at me, mouth open, a crease in his forehead, as though his soul is still somewhere over the Atlantic, trying to catch up with the rest of him.

In The Gondola Maker, Morelli’s expert research makes Venice more than a vibrant backdrop but a fully-fleshed-out character among the cast of this historical coming-of-age novel. I find her description of the craft and trades surrounding gondolas fascinating. (I’m eager to read her latest novel, The Painter’s Apprentice.)

My favorite passage so far:

I begin to absorb the unspoken language of Venetian boatmen, a complex set of hand gestures this cadre of men has developed over generations to communicate silently to one another across the water. Some of the signals are easy to divine: twirling fingers for “Let’s met for a plate of pasta at the midday meal” or a left thumb over the right shoulder for “incoming tide.”

Communication–through language spoken and unspoken–is another bright thread that binds these two books and makes this tandem read interesting and relevant to my writing right now. Tomorrow, I head to a writers retreat where I will continue working on my latest project, a multi-generational novel, featuring, among other related characters, a young woman who is losing her hearing–and must gain the ability to communicate in new ways. (Best advice to bear the long wait after querying agents about the first novel? Work on the second!)

Quick shout-out to my new followers who found this blog by way of my second WordPress Discover feature, My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas. And thank you for getting me past the 1,000 follower mark!

With other interviews, as well as book reviews, story excerpts, essays, and other musings on reading and writing the Rust Belt (and beyond), I hope you’ll stick around. See my categories above for more.

Now, it’s your turn. Are you a serial monogamist when it comes to reading books? Or, are you a tandem- or poly-reader? If so, what’s been your favorite tandem read so far? Comment away! I always respond.

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Aloud: Off the Page, Into the World

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In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.

Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.

As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).

My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.

Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.

How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.

I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.

My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.

It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”

I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.

As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:

  1. Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
  2. Pick a pivotal scene.
  3. Sensory description lets the audience in.
  4. Humor helps, when appropriate.
  5. Use your own voice (accent be damned).

I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.

Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?


From Architectural Afterlife: “This Cleveland Church has Sat Abandoned for 27 Years”

Interior of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo and story credit: Johnny Joo, architecturalafterlife.com

Maybe old buildings are in my blood. For forty years, my dad worked as a draftsman and designer for structural engineering firms, drawing up plans by hand. On trips into Cleveland for the art museum or bagels, Dad would point out the buildings he’d had a hand in. His job: ensuring they would stay standing.

So, it feels like a personal affront to watch buildings–especially beautiful historic places–go to ruin, abandoned.

I’ve talked on the blog before about “Ruin Porn,” a type of photography that glorifies falling-down structures, often in post-industrial places, like my native Cleveland. I’ve said before, that to me Ruin Porn looks like the American Dream on its knees with no dreamer in the scene. (I wrote a three-part essay you can read here, here, and here.) So, what do we do? How to salvage falling-down places?

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ALL THE WAY HOME and the back- and heart-breaking art of the DIY

I’m re-posting this review-lite of David Giffels’s first memoir, _All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House_ in response to a writing prompt–Dream House–over at Lorna’s site, Gin & Lemonade. As my house is still recovering (slowly) from the excitement of a burst pipe, I thought a bit of house reno humor was in order. To respond to Lorna’s prompt, yourself, go here: https://ginlemonade.com/2019/02/13/house-hunting-as-a-wheelchair-user-other-stories/ Happy Friday! ~ Rebecca

Rust Belt Girl

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I was sixteen before I knew a dad who didn’t drive a pickup truck.

Of course, this speaks as much to my limited teenage powers of observation as it does to my rural Ohio upbringing. Still…

My dad’s life was–and is–in his truck. A dad without a truck? How else would one: haul his 84 Lumber finds to turn the attic into proper living quarters;  bring home fresh-split logs–and the log-splitter–to stoke the wood stove in winter; tow a rotted shell of a boat to be restored from the ribs up–in the workshop designed and built yourself.

In my eyes, my dad was the original DIY-er, before that catchy name was put to skillful industriousness, craftsmanship, and thrift.

As such…reading award-winning Akron, Ohio, author David Giffels’ memoir All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House felt like going home. Cursory jacket copy summary:

With their infant son…

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All One Big Happy Hustle

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Thanks to a couple of my favorite bloggers*, I’ve been thinking about the “side hustle” lately. Seems the popular term for side job has shifted from “gig” to “hustle,” and with it, comes a more pejorative connotation.

Let’s start here: once upon a time, when graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing, I learned of an opportunity to do part-time contract work in internal communications—for the credit card company headquartered nearby. Not for a hip advertising firm. Not even for a nonprofit with a compelling cause. Nope, this job would require clocking in and out for the Fortune 500 company sometimes referred to around town as “the devil.”

Internal communications for the devil meant digesting leadership meeting notes on risk management and summarizing and synthesizing said notes into digestible PowerPoint presentations. (Oh, the myriad PowerPoint presentations!) And then came the fun of organizing the presentation highlights into multi-colored graphs on oversized Excel spreadsheets that required a special printer. This job was the opposite of every vision I’d had of my post-school self, teaching creative this and creative that.

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Name your bliss

I’m feeling deep blog love on this Valentine’s Day. Really, I am. I only wish I had the time to devote to crafting a post about the many positive connections–and even a free book or two (now that’s love!)–I’ve made through this site. Work calls–and so I’m relying on the ol’ reblog. Happy Day, whatever kind of love you’re celebrating. More soon. ~Rebecca

Rust Belt Girl

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Is it weird to mourn your mom on Valentine’s Day—with the holiday’s declarations of love, its overtures and SWAKs? This is love stuff, yes, but this is also word stuff.

In the dozen years since my mom left this life, I’ve become more fluent in the language of loss—and of life. Do not pity this post. I happily speak for me and her now, tell her stories to my kids who never knew her, keep her voice alive in mine.

This is mother-love, reborn, but it’s also language-love. Foreign at first and then familiar—even taken for granted—and all the more cherished when it’s gone.

Who among us writers doesn’t ascribe to “show don’t tell?” We illustrate and demonstrate; we craft a tactile scene. But let’s not forget to tell, while we have a voice to do it.

Did you see this coming?

Call your mom. (Or dad or kid…

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When a journal editor says no more death stories* **

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I submitted “Scooter Kid,” a story about conception (of a couple different kinds)–of creation, chaos, and control. (Spot the nod to Stockard Channing’s character in the 1993 movie, Six Degrees of Separation? Yeah, I’m still a little obsessed.)

Many thanks to Elizabeth Varel, Editor in Chief and Fiction Editor, and all the editors of Parhelion Literary Review for publishing my story in your lovely journal. Alongside my fiction, you’ll find a trove of thought-provoking prose, poetry, and art: right here.

Happy weekend. Happy reading. What’s on tap for you?

Thanks for stopping by!

~Rebecca

*Seriously though, submitting to literary journals? Check those submissions guidelines.

**OK, OK, all stories are death stories.

Of Fathers, Sons, and Seasons: Reading Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD

The first good snow of the season on our Crepe Myrtle

I was weeping before 8:30 am. Not because of the cold and old pipes and our living room soaked, stripped, and drying now–like a child pulled from a furtive dip in the lake. No, I was weeping over a book about fathers and sons and the seasons of life–and wouldn’t you think my avid reader-cynicism could have borne me up better than that? Nope, there I was weeping, listening to the end of the story, as I trained my eyes on the winding roads that take me from my sons’ school to home and back, again and again.

Not a chance I could have held it together in the face of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, narrated by Tim Jerome of Broadway fame. From the cursory Goodreads summary: Gilead presents an “intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.”

I will admit right here that it took me this long to read anything by the matriarch of the Midwestern religious novel, and I’ll tell you why. I thought it would be not just “churchy”–an attribute Robinson has said did not define her background–but preachy. After reading (and weeping), I’d define the novel as “teachy” maybe, but only in the best way–as the narrative is presented as a sort of last will and testament from an elderly father, the Reverend John Ames, to the seven-year-old son he won’t get to see grow up. In short, it’s a quiet wonder of a book.

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My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas presenting at Lit Youngstown’s 2018 Fall Literary Festival*

Love poetry or hate it (btw, you don’t really hate it), Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas is right there with you.

What’s it like to be a poet laureate? I asked Dave Lucas that–and more–in this interview over email. Here’s what the author, teacher, and “poetry evangelist” had to say.

Dave, how much does it mean for you to have been chosen as Poet Laureate of Ohio, and what’s up next for 2019?

If you’d asked me this a year ago, I would have said how honored I felt by the selection and how excited I was for the two years to come.  A year into my term I still feel honored and excited, but more than anything I feel gratitude.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to see parts of my home state I’ve never visited before, to talk about poetry in such varied settings and with so many people for whom poetry is a way of making meaning of their lives.

In 2019 I hope to continue those travels, but I also hope to “meet” more Ohioans virtually through the “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry” project.  The project entails a monthly column syndicated in Ohio newspapers and media outlets; this year we hope to create a podcast version as well, so that we can promote poetry in whatever medium Ohioans get their information and culture.

As Poet Laureate, I imagine you’ve met many Ohioans in your travels around the state. What has surprised you most?

I’ve certainly been struck by the number and quality of poetry programs taking place at the regional and local levels.  These are workshops, reading groups, recitations, slams, and more, and I’ve encountered them everywhere I’ve traveled in Ohio.  The internet has of course been revolutionary for bringing people together around a common interest, but there’s something wonderful about seeing people gather in common physical space to talk about poetry.

In your Poet Laureate column on the Ohio Arts Council site, as well as in the classroom, you send the message that most of us love poetry, even if we don’t know it yet. Can you talk a little about how you define poetry and give us a couple examples of the kinds of poetic language we can find outside of what we traditionally think of as poetry?

Literary history tells us that anyone who attempts to define poetry today is about to be proven wrong tomorrow.  That’s both the pleasure and challenge of trying to say what poetry is or isn’t.  So I try to maintain as broad and flexible a definition as possible.  I think that poetry is the aesthetic pleasure we take in language.  Words are for play as well as work, as the groan-worthy puns of any good “Dad joke” will demonstrate.

So puns and jokes in general might be examples of the poetry we find outside of “poems.”  So are the metaphors we use to describe the world.  Riddles, jingles, lyrics, mnemonics, and more.  For instance, I’ve just finished a column (my sixth installment) about the artistry of slang, which Walt Whitman treats as the democratic aspect of poetry.  In this column I argue that even if you haven’t read a poem since high school, you participate every day in the artistry of language simply via the creativity of the slang you use.

One of the daunting things about poetry is the idea that we poetry readers think we’re supposed to read it “right” and find buried meaning. How can you assuage our reader-guilt at perhaps understanding a poem only on its surface level?

Too many of us seem to have been taught that poems are supposed to be solved, some “deeper meaning” discovered and extracted like a vein of ore from a mine.  If we can’t find “it”—or if we find something that we’re told is not “it,” we feel inadequate.

Let’s change the terms.  For example: you hear a song for the first time.  You don’t get all the words, but you like it enough as a whole—its rhythm, its sounds, how it makes you feel, etc.—that you want to hear it again.  You don’t feel guilty about not getting all the words; you just want to listen a second or even a third time.  You keep listening.  Eventually, you get all the words, often before you’ve realized it.

Your poetry collection, Weather, begins with place poems.

“River on Fire”
Stranger, the way of the world is crooked,
and anything can burn. Nothing impossible.
Who comes to send fire upon the earth may find
as much already kindled, may find his city
bistre and sulfurous. Pitched and grimed.
On those suffered banks we sat down and wept.
There the prophets, if there had been prophets,
would have baptized us in fire. Who says impossible
they fill his mouth with ash, they quench him
as if a man could be made steel. A crooked way
the world wends, and the rivers, and the prophets.
Go down and tell them what you have seen:
that the river burned and was not consumed.

…and your collection ends with a poem that examines the language we use for Northeast Ohio’s natural landmark of Lake Erie. How did you decide how to order the collection: as an argument for or against something, as a journey from one time to another, from the external to the personal–or something else entirely?

As you mention, the book begins and ends with the lake.  (Of course, it shows up in the middle of the book, too.)  For me, the lake—or my idiosyncratic idea or myth of it—is what Seamus Heaney calls “the first place in myself.”  So I wanted to begin in that place and with local flora and fauna before moving into the human and even personal histories of (or in) the region. The whole book is an attempt to marry those different histories and mythologies into a coherent vision of place.

Your newer poems center around myth. Can you tell us how the new collection is shaping up and where we can find one of the poems?

The new collection has been “done” several times now.  I assume the writers among your blog’s readers will nod and sigh in recognition of what I mean.  I hope it will be “done”—again—soon.

You can read “About Suffering—,” my take on the myth (and on other takes) of Icarus and Daedalus at the online home of The Threepenny Review.

Do you see poetry changing along with our digital age, with the Instapoets (poets who feature their poems on Instagram), for example? What do you think about it?

The Instagram phenomenon is interesting to me because “Instapoetry” blends forms and genres: you experience the poem as a photograph of the poem.  So you get an experience of the poem as a visual artifact, something different from what you might experience at a reading or a performance.  It’s a reminder of just how many ways we can experience language, and the subtle differences between one experience and another.

What’s your best piece of poetry-writing advice?

The only piece of advice that I believe to be true for anyone who wants to write (poems, or anything else)—no matter who they are or what they want for their writing—is to read as much as possible, to read enthusiastically and omnivorously.

Thank you to Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas for giving us a lot to read and think about!

Find out more about Dave Lucas…

Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize.  In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio.  A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised. 

And more…

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*Photo credit: Courtney Kensinger

Little Patuxent Review issue launch

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I’m delighted that my story, “While Our Grown Men Played,” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Little Patuxent Review. I’m also delighted to be reading at the issue launch event. For more information or to purchase the issue–or subscribe to this lovely regional literary magazine–click on through.

There’s truth in every piece of fiction, of course–despite my penchant for writerly distance. But if there’s one story of mine that tells the tale of my mom and me, it’s this one. In it, I got to call my mom a “world-class whiner,” which she was. But she never whined about what mattered: the breasts that failed her when they let cancer in, twice; the chemo and wig; the daughter living 12 hours away by Greyhound bus. She whined about the little things we could share: overdue library book fines, our pear shapes, cold noses in winter.

“While Our Grown Men Played” is a story about being female, sure; but even more so, it’s about being together, despite distance over roads and time–and cosmos, even. As I write, she’s still with me in the way I am, the things I whine about, and in my body: our ballet bearing, my veiny hands that are hers, the accent that won’t leave me.

Maybe most stories don’t take years and great personal loss to write, but this one did. It is a bittersweet thing to let it go, to read from it in front of others, to somehow tie a bow on grief. But it is sweet, and a testament to perseverance in writing and in living. I hope my mom would agree.

So, today I urge against writerly distance. Let’s try it, together. Let’s close the distances between past and present, between the living and the dead, between fact and fiction–and mine for story that heals.

That’s what I’ll be doing anyway.

~ Rebecca