Wednesday, October 31, 2007

NYC and Halloween.

Happy Halloween!

If you’ve known me long, you know I love coming up with costumes. I didn’t get a chance to wear a costume out this year (unless you count dressing like Laura), but I did make one. I wanted something new, creative and cheap. What to do? Then it hit me! A costume that required nothing more than a black dress, a white shirt, a headless doll and braids. That’s right, Wednesday Addams. I tried to look creepy in the photo. How did I do? P.S. I made the doll’s dress in less than 30 minutes using a sock and a rag. Awesome, right? My costuming skills continue to rule.

As for the Laura costume, this weekend I went to the city! It was Laura’s and Tom’s birthdays, and the bus company was having a sale: round trip for $40! My taxi ride from my apartment to the station cost as much as a one way ticket to New York! The flight left an hour late, and we drove all night. By 9:15 a.m. I was on the Subway to Queens. At Laura’s apartment, we both napped, had afternoon brunch with her boyfriend, then read and napped some more.

Then it was time to go out. Laura lent me a cute black dress and a signature Laura necklace. She makes the prettiest jewelry. We went out for paella. The whole gang was there: Laura, Madrid, Carolina, Riza and I were together again! It was so good to see all of them. “But it doesn’t feel like you’re back,” Madrid said, “It feels like you’re still here. It’s like I’m not appreciating having you here enough because it just feels like it’s the we’re out for the weekend and I’ll see you in a few days.” But it was just a visit, so I hugged everyone about a thousand times.

That was it, exactly. It felt like I’d never been gone. We went on to Sutra, a trendy club that only lets you have a table if you buy a bottle. Some mediocre wine was $160 per bottle, so we took off (though Riza stayed behind when her entourage arrived, and Madrid went grocery shopping). We went to No Malice Palace (aka Goth-Hop bar, a gothic setting with hip-hop music). After dancing there for quite a while, we decided to go someplace where we could talk.

We ended up at a packed sports bar, and Laura wasn’t the happiest. She is a consummate hostess and always wants everyone to have a great time. When Carolina left, when Ryan’s friend was engrossed in texting, and when a jerk stomped on my ankle (how do you even manage that?), she swung from her usual sunny self to sadness. Nooooo! But luckily, Laura is resilient. She lets herself feel what she’s feeling in the moment, then lets the anger or sadness go.

What we didn’t know at the time was that Laura was suffering from the early stages of a migraine, which was making her more emotional. Anyhoo, everything was peachy until Laura’s friend Maria accidentally took off with my jacket. Whoops. Well, for a little while we thought it was stolen, and the stress drove Laura’s migraine over the edge. But the missing jacket mystery was solved. Even though Laura was wracked with pain (I even cried a little, because it was so sad), Ryan and I got her to laugh a little. She’s a trooper, and her hair is so shiny!

The next morning I was up by nine a.m. Nothing refreshes you like four hours of sleep. I hugged Miss Laura goodbye and schlepped up to Spanish Harlem to retrieve my jacket (H&M belted black corduroy, size 8) in exchange for Maria’s jacket (H&M buttoned brown corduroy, size 14). I guess she wasn’t chilly enough to try mine on when she left the bar. Then I cut through my favorite part of the park, Conservatory Gardens, over to my old apartment in Harlem. (In Conservatory Gardens, the flowers were still in bloom, and the bees were everywhere. See the photo I snapped at left.

At the old apartment, Rick gave me my mail, some of it from July…when I was still in the city. What’s with not giving me my mail, roomie? One voucher from the United Federation of Teachers would have paid for an eye exam and new glasses. Grr.

Then I hopped on a train down to the village where I was meeting Tom for lunch. We wandered for quite a while, trying to find an interesting restaurant that wasn’t packed like a can of sardines. Eventually we found a cute-yet-affordable bistro-ish place where I got Eggs Benedict and Tom lamented once again that he doesn’t like eggs. Well, his hanger steak looked great.

I told Tom how it felt, not like I was back, but like I’d never been gone. Like I belonged in New York, but needed to be in Virginia. I admitted that if I’d gotten into one of the New York schools, my MFA would have been something I did on the side. It wouldn’t have gotten the focus it’s getting now. He got this weird smile on his face, a smile that said “I told you so.” Not in a bad way. Back when I hadn’t decided what to do yet, Tom told me he felt like I was meant to go. At the time it bugged me, because Tom’s not into destiny. I was confused, not sure if he meant that I couldn’t cut it in the city or that he though we should be over, but had no other reason for us to break up. Now I know that he sensed what I also sensed then and know now. To be happy, I needed to see the world a new way and really focus on my career for a while.

After dinner, we decided to walk down to Chinatown, where I was supposed to arrive by 4:30 for my 5 p.m. bus. We had fun walking and talking. The only awkward moment was when we ran into two of Tom’s former students, who assumed I was his girlfriend. Mmm…no. Before we knew it, we were there, both of us amazed that there was a bus station with just one purpose: to run a daily bus back and forth between NYC and Norfolk, Virginia. Then we hugged goodbye. He kissed me on one cheek and I kissed his…and then he kissed my cheek again…and so…more awkward. But we laughed it off. I got on the bus and rode away, back to Virginia and school and my career.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Shoe update no one cares about.

I’m returning both pairs of high heels I ordered (welcome back to my wallet, $100!), but my new tennis shoes are awesome. So, too, are my fabulous boots from Mom and Dad. The heel is lower than I thought, making them more comfy than I expected. I have just one tiny quibble. I would like to wear my boots with a skirt, but I can’t. I have slender legs, and the boots are just too roomy around my ankles and calves. Oh, well. They look kickin’ under a pair of pants! Thanks again, parents.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Work, a workshop and working my wages.

This week was a little more normal, with no festival, no break and no conferences. Monday was a little unusual, because I went to a workshop for writing teachers. I’m taking a class on teaching college composition, and Professor Neff canceled class so we could all go. I carpooled over to Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, with Jacob (the guy in my classes who used to be a helicopter pilot in the army).

He had downloaded an audiobook of North and South, which we’re reading for our 19th Century British Lit class. We listened to it going to and from the workshop. Cheryl Glenn, the woman conducting the workshop, is chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. I really liked her presentation. I disagreed on a few fine points, but overall she was great. She modeled the way composition teachers should hold their classes (lively with a lot of student interaction and input). She also had some great grading advice that may save me hours! She suggests we spend time writing comments on, but not grading, drafts. Commenting will be more fun without the pressure of grading, because you're just trying to help the student get better.

Then, when you’re grading the final paper, write the grade and three sentences: I see you were working on ______. You did a great job with ________ and __________. I hope you’ll continue to work on _________. Nice! But what about the rubric, I wondered? (A rubric is a detailed chart rating student performance in various categories to determine the overall grade.) A classmate suggested I use the rubric in conferences. Perfect! I think younger students need a detailed rubric at every step, but for college students…well, they need to get used to their grades being a little mysterious, because few professors provide detailed rubrics.

At the conference, they gave us cookies, free books and the centerpieces. I ended up with a little raffia pumpkin and a flower. (See photo above, left.) It’s so cute. I’ve been wanting a plant, but couldn’t justify the expense. Free flowers, hooray! I’m going to name it. Penelope, maybe? I’m open to suggestions, so please respond with some. Man, I hope I don't kill it.

Tuesday I had a midterm that took longer than usual. I also had to write two poems and write two responses before class at seven. I just barely got it all done. Wednesday I was finishing the first half of North and South. After class, Jake was going to check out a local Peruvian restaurant and asked if I wanted to come with. I agreed, and the food was lovely. Mmmm…steak with bean-infused rice (bean-coated rice? I don’t know how to explain it.) On the side was a chopped salad of tomatoes and red onions and I had a fabulous Peruvian soda that Jake describes as a combination of mountain dew and cream soda. I think it tasted more like the pineapple soda I used to get sometimes in Spanish Harlem.

Jake proposed an interesting idea. He thinks everyone should have to serve the country for two years after high school graduation. You wouldn’t have to sign up for the military (although you could). You could choose a program like the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity or Americorps. Whatever the program, everyone in America would get to experience discipline and community. Everyone would have a working skill and would have access to undergraduate education after their term of service. I think it’s brilliant. The lack of freedom would be annoying, but there are so many people out there who are convinced they can’t accomplish anything. With a program like this, they would have to. After dinner, I spotted the craziest car in the parking lot.

Thursday I was in full research mode, working on my 19th Century Lit class. We read an excerpt from Eastern Life, Present and Past by Harriet Martineau. In one part of the book, she describes the "hareems" she visited, and when I got home I turned on the TV. “The Girls Next Door,” a “reality show” about life in the Playboy Mansion, was on. The Playboy Mansion was eerily like the harems described in the article.

Martineau described one hazard that befalls any children born in the harem. She wrote that the women had nothing to do all day and longed for affection and attention, so they would pamper and feed a child almost to death...well, no, she said actually to death, but it sounds so xenophobic! Anyway, in the episode I saw, one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends had a monkey she was feeding nearly death just so she had someone to take care of and love.

I had to research on line so I could properly site the episode in my paper and find more information that would strengthen my Playboy Mansion/Harem comparison. I think this is the kind of project that makes my dad feel skeptical about the over-educated. The point is, we study the past to better understand our culture and our daily lives. Why are we so fascinated by harems? More on this in the future.

I’ve already written a tome on my online shopping adventure. Since then it’s all been studying. You know, I have some young relatives who read the edited version of this blog once in a while. I sometimes wonder: Am I being a good example to talk so much about money and other material things?

The answer is: Yes! Establishing a healthy relationship with money will helps to establish good credit, live within one's means, save up for important opportunities and buy only what one really needs or really wants. It’s also essential for healthy relationships. (According to a survey by Consumer Credit Counseling Service, “sixty percent of married respondents report fighting about money with their spouse. In addition, nineteen percent said that financial problems negatively affected their relationships with their parents; while thirteen percent said the same was true for their friends.”)

It’s important, but it’s not easy. I’m not going to pretend it is! Right now, my bank account looks like it has plenty of money, but I’ll have to buy Christmas presents before long. I have gigantic NYC taxes to face in April, and I don’t get paid over the summer, so I need enough cash left over to cover three and a half months’ expenses. If I want to go home for the summer, I’ll need money for plane tickets, too. I have to be careful without becoming a miser. Being too miserly will make you just as miserable as being broke (those words are related for a reason). I'm just trying to find the balance. I hope you all find it, too.

So here are my rules: 1- credit cards are only for emergencies, and should be paid off aggressively, and 2- think about tomorrow when spending today. Suze Orman says to ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? If the answer to any of those questions is no, don’t buy it. (For example, take credit card debt. "It's not kind. Is it necessary? You know that it isn't. And if you don't have the money to pay for it outright, it is not true. If you have to put it on a credit card, it's not true." From Oh, how I love that woman and her crazy leather clothes. Her fashion? Sometimes crazy. Her advice? Always brilliant.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Covering my feet...

Yesterday, I was so happy and proud of how well I was doing financially. (I set up an IRA account to roll over the money from my NYC retirement money.) I make a poverty-level salary, but if I scrimp and save properly, I should be able to get by. The thing is, I need to make certain investments.

I need trips home to visit my friends and family to recharge. I need books for my classes and for my poetry reading list (required for all poetry MFA students). I need basic clothing to keep me warm, and professional clothing so I can make good impressions on visiting writers, supervisors and the potential employers when I look for summer jobs or employment after graduation.

I've known for a while that I have a shoe problem. When I was packing up all my stuff in New York, I sorted through my clothes and got rid of most of my clothes that didn't fit or that I hadn't worn in a year. As a result, I am down to nine pairs of shoes...and that's counting my heavy snow boots, which won't do me much good in southern Virginia. (See all except the snow boots at left). I adore my flip-flops, my strappy ballet-sneaker hybrids, my sequined high-heeled sandals and my dark brown knee-high boots (though I only bought them because the store didn't have that size and style in black).

However, my sneakers are a half-size too small and I've almost worn the tread off them. (They were shoes I bought to wear just until I found shoes that fit.) My beige wedges give me blisters. I only keep them because they're my only non-black dressy shoes. I never wear my brown ankle boots. My patent leather high-heeled Mary Janes are adorable, but VERY high-heeled. They're not the comfiest, and they're a bit too saucy for job interviews and the like. In other words, I own nine pairs of shoes, but I only really wear four pairs. Only one of those four will work in cold weather: the high-heeled boots, which wouldn't be too comfy for walking around all day long or teaching. Also, because they're brown, they don't go with most of my clothing.

I was on the J.C. Penney's web site, looking at leather jackets. Mom and Dad bought me an adorable jacket last year, but it didn't fit. I returned it in exchange for a J.C. Penney's gift card. While searching "leather" on the store's site, I didn't see a jacket I wanted for the right price, but I did see a perfect pair of black leather boots. Thanks for the pretty boots, Mom and Dad!

I decided to pay more than my usual $30 a pair in the hopes that these will last longer than my usual cheapo boots. (I tend to wear through the heels of a pair a year.) Then I got to thinking about my other shoe needs. I do not love shoe shopping, so I decided to get it over with, all at once.

Recently a fellow MFA student recommended to me. Zappos offers narrow sizes(HOORAY!), free overnight shipping and free return shipping. They have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. I decided to try it out.

In the old fashioned way of shoe shopping, I would go into a store and try on every pair of any shoe even close to suitable for the given occasion in both a 9.5 and a 10. Most stores don't have narrow sizes, so I could only try styles with straps. About an hour later, with the salesperson and I on the verge of a breakdown, I would buy the one pair that fit my long, skinny feet or walk out frustrated and empty-handed, only to have to start over in the next store.

Now I don't know if all the shoes will fit when they arrive, but so far I like online shoe shopping much better than the old fashioned way. You click your size (including narrow width !), style, and price range. Then you just look at the pretty pictures, read the description and click it into your cart.

I found a pair of black peep-toed heels, boring black sneakers and brown peep-toed sling-backs (Hello, non-black shoes! Someday, when I have two nickels to rub together, there will be more of you!) that were in my budget. Hooray! There were some non-peep-toed-shoes I liked, but they were too pricey, so my big toe may have to chill a little. The shoes should arrive tomorrow and I'm so excited. I'll be a little disappointed if they don't fit, but the return policy seems easy. Yay!

I was still within my budget, but then this morning, my bag broke! NOOOO! I'm not one of those handbag girls with a million purses. I don't care about designers or the latest style, but I did love that bag. It was a cute fake-leather tote that was half-briefcase, half-purse. It fit my grade book, a notebook and a text book, as well as everything I normally keep in my purse. I could go straight from class or work to dinner or drinks with it. It looked so nice.

Women would stop me to tell me they'd been searching for something just like it. Now I can see why! I've been looking online all day, and can't find anything suitable for less than $60, which, post shoe-shopping, is not in my budget. I bought the old one cheap at Kmart or Target or Gordmans a year or two ago. I always thought it was great that I paid a tiny price for something that looked like a million bucks, but now I'm taking the hit that often comes with cheap things.

I can't afford a cute new briefcase/shoulder bag hybrid, but I found a few I like and have put them on my Wish List. If any of you wants to buy me an extravagant present (and you know you do), take your pick and send it my way. Until then (or until I save up), I'll have to make due with the adorable, sporty Gap laptop bag Mom and Dad got me a few years ago. My cousin Jenny got one, and I coveted it so much that my parents got me one of my own. It works well for a grad student. I'll just need the fancier one when I start looking for jobs.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Conferences, Geneology and Poetry

Fall break (Oct. 6-9) went by so quickly! I was exhausted from the literature festival. I was trying to get all my work done, while also attending tons of readings, lunches, receptions and after-hours gatherings (and I snapped this photo of the school mascot). I basically crashed all weekend, then used Monday and Tuesday to play catch-up.

Wednesday and Friday I had my first student conferences. For the paper they recently turned in, some students didn’t cite their sources properly, and one young woman seemed to have straight-up plagiarized hers. I had a tough decision to make. Would I just turn them in or try to put the fear of God into them? I decided not to possibly end their academic careers because I had a suspicion that was quickly confirmed: “That’s how I wrote my papers in high school, and no one ever said anything,” said plagiarism girl. The others said things like, “Well, I changed some words,” or “My teachers said you didn’t have to quote definitions.” WHAT??? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

My suspicion was that that some of my students came from the kind of school I used to teach at, schools where their teachers were overwhelmed by having too many classes filled with too many students, many of whom had deficient writing skills. Those fine men and women were just struggling to keep everyone’s heads above water and get everyone graduated. As such, they did not have the time or energy for teaching the finer points of quoting, paraphrasing and using proper notation. They didn’t have the time and energy to play plagiarism police. So I went for scaring them, but in a good-cop kind of way:

Me (with scary, serious tone): Is there anything you want to tell me about this paper?

Them (scared witless, but trying to hide it): No. Why? What do you mean?

Me: Let me read you the school policy from the syllabus. (Then I did, and if they still didn’t crack, I pointed out sections with obvious shifts in voice or information they couldn’t have without a source.)

Them: (Various excuses.)

Me (gravely, yet conspiratorially): Listen, most teachers would have just turned this paper in to the plagiarism board. Your teachers don’t need proof. If they even suspect you of cheating, they can pass the paper on for the board to investigate, and the board looks into it and decides what will happen to you. (True, true, and mostly true. The board gives the teacher a recommendation of what should happen to the student, but the teacher gets the final say. However, if the student is found to have cheated, it goes on their record regardless.)

Them: I’m sooo sorry. I’ll be more careful! It will never happen again.

Me: See that it doesn’t. I would hate to see your academic career ended over something like this. Besides, I want to read what you think and what you have to say.”

It wasn’t all bad. I got to have some good conversations with my students that may have made them better writers. I love one-on-one teaching experiences.

That weekend, I was so tired! During conferences, I’d have conferences from 8 a.m. until my 4 p.m. class, then class until 7. By the weekend, I was tuckered out, although I did start working on some poems. When poet Honree Fanine Jeffers was here, she read about a Cherokee ancestor who left her tribe behind to marry a slave.

I was struck by a question: How do two people of such different backgrounds come in contact? How do they decide to get married? I grew up knowing we had some Native American (Indian?) blood, and I remembered Grandma Carol talking about a Johnson ancestor whose Christian name was Rebecca.

I wrote a poem about it, then called my mom – keeper of the family tree … until it blew away – to get more details. Without the written tree, the only Indian ancestor she could think of on the Johnson line was…POCAHONTAS! (“WHAT?”) Okay, I vaguely remember being told that as a child, but as a little girl I could never keep straight if it was Pocahontas or Sacagawea. Years later, when I did research, I found conclusively that we could not be related to Sacagawea. Well, that makes sense, since we’re not even rumored to be related to her.

This new correction sent me after some new research on a forum for descendants of Pocahontas ( Okay, I found a Johnson ancestor linked to her, but that link is through a “Blue Bolling.” Pocahontas and her husband, John Rolfe, had one son, Thomas, who married Jane Poythress and had one daughter, Jane Rolfe. She married Robert Bolling and had one son, John Bolling. John married Mary Kenyon, and they had various descendants. I say various, because some people are confirmed descendants (known as “Red Bollings”); some are relatives, but not blood descendants of Pocahontas (known as “White Bollings); and some have been linked to the Pocahontas through mysterious Bollings who seemed to appear years later from out of the blue (“Blue Bollings”). So far it appears we descend from the Blue Bollings.

It’s entirely possible that I was tracing the wrong Johnson, and I’ll probably look into it in the future, but for now it’s a maybe. One way or another, someone in the family tree had to be American Indian. I mean, look at J.B.’s hair and eyes! Even if Pocahontas was an ancestor, could one woman in the 1600s have that much affect on his appearance? I suspect there were other Native American women mixed in here and there. Pocahontas is just the one the family claimed. She was famous and noble. Maybe some of my ancestors didn’t want to claim an average American Indian, but would claim and Indian “princess.” Well, if we claim Pocahontas, we also have to claim John Rolfe, the man who gave birth to the modern tobacco industry. Rolfe replaced the harsh, native Virginia tobacco (which the whites didn’t like and couldn’t sell) with “sweeter strains from Trinidad,” according to Wikipedia (where I also found the portrait above, left, by Simon van de Passe.)

That led more, interesting poems – not to mention more interesting poems. (What a difference a comma makes!) I’m taking inspiration wherever I can find it, and adding it to my file. A few poems have been lost. I forgot them before I got them written down or I lost the notebooks or scraps of paper or napkins they were written on. That weekend, I added my 150th poem to the file! That’s a lot of poems. Wish me luck on adding more, better poetry.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

My tummy rejoices at the glory of the chicken!

Tonight I made the most glorious dish I have ever cooked. Oh, the Sage and Saffron Risotto was impressive. The Chicken la Bodega was scrumptious. But this, Garlic Chicken and Peppers with Beans is in a world of its own. I must give it a zippier name.

I found it online when I was looking for a way to use up some chicken stock and white wine I had opened for another recipe. I wasn't sure I'd like it. I'm not that big on cooked red peppers. Correction: I wasn't very big on cooked red peppers. I am telling you, people! This is one to try.

Garlic Chicken and Peppers with Beans

1/4 cup olive oil
2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (3 1/2 pounds) [They're crazy. I used 2 lbs. of thighs and had 5 servings.]
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken broth
6 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon dried sage leaves, or 8 large fresh leaves, snipped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 can (15 ounces) white cannellini beans [aka white kidney beans], rinsed and drained
1 can (15 ounces) small red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup (packed) flat-leaf parsley leaves

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Heat the oil in a deep 6-quart flameproof casserole over medium-high heat. Add the bell peppers, cover, and cook over low heat until tender, 5 minutes. While these are cooking, remove the skin from the chicken pieces (except for the wings, where it is just too hard).

Push the peppers to the side and add the chicken. Cook over medium heat just to stiffen the flesh, 2 minutes on each side. Remove the breast pieces from the casserole and set them aside. [if you're just using thighs, just leave them in.] Add the wine, broth, garlic, and sage and bring the liquid to a simmer. Add 1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Cover, transfer the casserole to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes.

Return the breast meat to the casserole, and add the white and red beans. Continue to bake, uncovered, until the chicken is cooked through, 15 minutes. While the chicken is cooking, coarsely chop the parsley.

Serve the chicken in deep bowls, sprinkled with fresh parsley and swimming in all its lovely fragrant juices. Or, using a slotted spoon, transfer chicken and beans to a serving plate. Boil the juices down until only 2 cups remain, 3 to 4 minutes. Adjust the seasoning, stir in the parsley, and ladle the sauce over the chicken and beans.

Time: 15 minutes preparation. 1 hour no-work baking time.

Makes 4 servings. [Again I say, 2 lbs. of thighs yielded 5 big servings.]

Try it, people! Your house will smell fabulous, and it will be the most flavorful, juicy chicken you've ever had.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

ODU Literature Festival- Day 3!

Wednesday morning came so early! I was sleepy from all I had been doing the last two days. I’d been rushing around constantly, from teaching to studying to this reception to that author’s reading. I had my students give me a little midterm evaluation, just to see how I’m doing. The results were mixed. Some thought I explained things too much, others not enough. No one thought my class was boring (I’m very proud of that). A few students tried to scam me: “We should do more readings in class so we don’t have to do them at home.” “You shouldn’t ask us to do so much at an 8 a.m. class.” Hee! There were some constructive suggestions about how I should structure class, but what’s with the laziness, people? Human nature, I guess…well, at least Freshman nature.

The lit fest kicked off for the day with a reading by poet Alan Shapiro. One of my poetry classmates got to introduce him. She had been talking about it for weeks. He is her “poetry hero,” and made her want to be a poet. I’d gotten to chat with him at lunch, and he was rather funny, talking about his life.

Shapiro grew up with Yiddish in the home and American English outside. When people describe him as a Jewish-American poet, he responds that he lives in the hyphen: “That’s where my imagination is most fertile: in the mixing ground where it’s more impure.” He’s also fascinated by the gods, and what people are capable of. “The gods are incapable of excellence because they have no limits.” He contrasted this with the acts of athletes, “whose human bodies are basically like ours,” but are capable of amazing feats.

His poetry is bitter-sweet and daring. Some is abstract. Others are inspired by things he's observed in life. For example, one heartbreaking poem about a relationship disolving shocked the audience into laughter with the line “It’s not the eggrolls, Harry. It’s the last ten years!” During the Q&A, someone asked about the humor in his poetry.

“Life is miserable,” he replied. “I don’t know how you live in the presence of the sorrow and mortal terror without a sense of humor.” Yow.

Then it was off to class. We were discussing 19th Century prose (and unfortunately missing a reading by Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui). Then professor Moraou was nice enough to let us out early. Jake and I walked over. Then I was back to work hosting. Yippee. The director of the festival, Janet Peery, thanked me many times. She kept telling me she was impressed by my grace as a hostess. I appreciated the recognition and it’s great that I made a good impression on one of the top members of the MFA faculty (who is also a talented writer).

I missed Sherwin Bitsui's reading, but at least I got to talk with him for a while. He had some interesting things to say about the trickster figure in mythology and the way his culture shapes his work. He was also great about chatting with ODU students of many different majors and backgrounds.

I also chatted with Jill McCorkle. She's written five novels and three story collection and she's won lots of prizes. It turns out, I had taught one of her stories to my students in the Bronx. We would read it and the students would respond by writing descriptions of their neighborhoods. They loved it. Jill McCorkle replied that that was amazing because she used the story for the same purpose with her students! When I told her about how much my students loved the story, and the great stories they wrote, she told me it was one of the finest compliments she could receive.

The story she read was in turns hilarious and heartbreaking. I cried a little, and I was not alone. I even caught some guys sniffling. It was fiction, but so true to life. She was the first writer so far who made me feel like I might want to write a short story and might actually be able to write one.

That night, the after hours was a lot of fun. I chatted with Mary, Dana, Leslie and Jake. The hours slipped away again until it was time to go home again and hit the hay.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

ODU Literature Festival- Day 2!

Tuesday I had office hours, then went to Janine Latus’s reading. She’s a journalist and essayist. Her new book, If I Am Missing or Dead, was the story of two women (Latus and her sister Amy) and the abusive relationships they experienced. I really want to buy that one and read it, maybe during Christmas break. Latus touched me from the start: “I am an author. I like to say I am an author, because… I like to say ‘I am an author.’” This made the audience laugh as she explained she started saying it as a five-year-old. Only after her first book was published did she really feel it was true.

Latus also gave her top five writer tips: 1- Marry someone with health insurance. 2- Pay attention. The best stories are often in your own life. 3- Help each other. Share your contacts in the industry. Help each other revise. Give encouragement. 4- Practice your craft. Find the perfect verbs. Remove all modifiers. Caress your sentences. Linger. 5- Persevere. Eighty percent of Latus’ submissions are rejected, and she’s a successful author. 6- Be brave.

Latus also outlined the process of creating If I Am Missing or Dead, from proposal to drafting to publishing. She also took the time to inform the audience about domestic violence. After reading If I Am Missing or Dead and talking to Latus, the National Network to End Domestic Violence changed the name of its Direct Assistance Fund to the Amy's Courage Fund. According to the organization’s web site, “Amy’s Courage Fund provides emergency financial assistance of up to $2,000 to victims of domestic violence and their children to meet their immediate needs after escaping an abusive home.”

Some of Latus’ family members were enraged at her for publishing family secrets. They didn’t want to believe the abuse she and Amy faced, but the fund helped soothe those wounds. It helped the family feel the tragedy wasn’t all for nothing, and Latus’ book wasn’t published for selfish reasons. Of writing, she advised: “Tell the truth. That is the writer’s challenge, gift and opportunity.”

A few hours later, I had the opportunity to hear Sabina Murray read. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She’s won a bunch of fancy awards. Her writing is rich and intriguing, but it’s also very idea-based. I think it would be interesting to read one of her books and get to pour over it. Listening to it was a little challenging. Some texts are like that. You have to see the words on the page to really get immersed in the book’s world.

Murray’s characters often talk about ideas, and not everyone gets it. “Some people say to me, ‘No one I know talks like that.’ And I think to myself, ‘You should get smarter friends.’” That made everyone laugh. Murray is half Filipina. She says one thing she loves about it is that the Filipino community doesn’t expect her to just write Filipino stories. They want her to write a wide variety, showing that Filipino writers can write about anything. Her publishers weren’t so sure. They wanted her to be the Amy Tan of the Philippines. She wanted to write about white male widowers in Forgery and a young, female cannibal in A Carnivore’s Inquiry. Luckily, her first book of stories, a few of which were based on her grandmother’s life in the Philippines, was so highly acclaimed that her publisher kind of had to let her do what she wanted. Heh.

Next was my first go at hosting a reception. I put some finishing touches on the room, was a liaison between the program director and the catering staff and made sure the authors were happy. It’s also when I started getting to know Sabina. We chatted for a while. I also started to make friends with some of the MFA girls, especially Leslie, Dana and Mary.

Next up was William Henry Lewis’ reading…or as we call him, Hank! Hank is a prize-winning short story writer. He started off by reading a poem by my teacher (and his former teacher), Tim Seibles. Then he read his own poem inspired by Tim. It was great. Then he read a powerhouse short story. I wish I’d known about him when I was teaching, because I think my students would have connected well with his work.

Hank writes slowly, just a handful of stories each year, and he’ll often write 20 drafts. Unreal! He joked, “I’m not very smart, so it takes me a while to get to know the characters.” He said he became a writer because “I wanted to engage language in a beautiful way.”

That night I went to the after-hours gathering. It was so much fun. I ended up chatting with Sabina and Mary and her husband Roberto for hours. It was great! Before I knew it, it was time to go home and hit the hay.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

ODU Literature Festival- Day 1!

This week was ODU’s 30th Annual Literature Festival! This year’s theme was “Tradition and the Individual Voice.” Some of the events and speakers tied in with the blues, and call and response. I decided the festival would be an amazing opportunity to make a name for myself in the program, make some friends, connect with authors and get inspired. To do so, I signed up to host several receptions and went to as many events as I could. I missed two for class and two when I needed to do homework, but I caught all the rest of them.

Monday, I taught class and collected my students’ analysis papers. Then I went back to the apartment to study. That night, though, I went to the author’s reception and got to hear Rick Bass read. At the reception I was observing so I would know what to do when I was a host. I also schmoozed a bit and at one point I noticed a problem. Each time Bass razed an hors d'oeuvre to his lips, someone would ask him a question, so he’d have to put it down. During a lull, I went over and guarded him so he could chew and swallow. He laughed, but he seemed to appreciate it.

Bass has written 23 books of fiction and often writes about the environment. During the Q&A, he was asked, “Is literature dead?”

“Yes. If it’s not dying, it’s on the ropes. But so is everything else precious and specific.” He went on to mourn the “affluence of culture” and “vanishing of nature.” Bass said he sometimes wonders if writing short stories is an indulgence. If literature is dying, he concluded, we must cherish it. He also gave some interesting advice on writing characters. He said he doesn’t know everything about the people he creates. He looks for opportunities for them to move new ways. “If you know the ending when you begin, you might as well write a travel brochure. ‘Come enjoy our sunny state.’” The contrast is fascinating: He is pessimistic about the state of literature and the environment, but he shows optimism in his writing and environmental activism. In real life he writes nonfiction pieces to inform the public about wildlife areas that need preservation. In his stories, you can learn about some of the same issues, but it's never preachy. The characters just experience the environment. It touches them (and the readers) in subtle ways.