Saturday, December 31, 2011

End of the Year Roundup Blather

I am sure many of my friends and various pundits are happily summing up the departing year and making certain pronouncements about the next, with a big nod to wishes and blessings. I won't. I spare you, and by that I mean me, this exercise. Instead I will take out a piece of paper, a pencil, a thought... and until then, see you in 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Seasons of Small Changes in Poems, Photos, Sketches

I am at work on my next poetry collection, just in case all the visuals on this blog had you worried I'd forsaken words. I frequently walk to a small urban pocket park near where I work. You could walk by it in a hum-de-dum and not notice it was there. Or glance quickly at the slice of trees and reflecting pool and just as quickly have it fade from view as your thoughts or smartphone claimed your eyes. But by going there through the seasons of my first year on this job, I am in the habit of observing this sliver of the universe. I worry, who will want to read my urban pastorals; what can I bring to this place that has not been wrung out of far grander minds and views? But that way of thinking never did me any good. I go, I respond. I send the poems like brief letters to the friendly ears of the world.

This is my true meaning of being "observant" since I don't frequent any churches or temples... The spirit is mine, in the end, my tenure on the bench, my allotted days... and it is good to slow down enough to see and feel a place with my particular collection of associations and skills. I write, I draw, I photograph the park. My eye is at the center but sometimes I push beyond myself and it is in those moments I hope to reach you.

Good News comes in Twos

Nice. My portrait show at the Cornelia St. Cafe is extended by up to a week into January 2012 as next person not ready yet to hang their show. Hooray! Join me for drinks there.

I just sent the last issue (in paper) of Alimentum to press. It contains wonderful spot drawings by my very own artist daughter Caitlin Allen–her first time in print (I didn't let the editors know she was related to me until they said yes after seeing her sample art!) and another fun food map by me. Doing this map illustration/cartoon I discovered I can use real photos as textures in photoshop to add to my drawing instead of drawing them. I like the effect! Here it is:
My Jewish and Christian halves enjoy T-Day entirely.

Please buy this issue, it will be the last of 13 of this gem-like magazine. I am genuinely sad it is leaving the land of print. It fit so nicely in the hand. I won design awards for this one... But the marvelous publisher Paulette will continue the project online, however I am not the designer of the online incarnation. So goodbye paper Alimentum...and long live digital Alimentum.
Some of the spot drawings by Caitlin Allen for Alimentum, issue 13, published Winter 2012.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Miracle of Glass & Wood

I've been sketching people for years. Especially at readings where the expressions and gestures of the poets and my need to do something with my hands led to my art show currently on display at the Cornelia St. Café. There are nearly 40 framed watercolors and drawings on the wall. It is rather like putting together a chapbook, one general theme, lots of white space around the content, and the act of framing the work, in a page or under glass, makes it feel more real.

It makes me want to venture out with a glass and wood frame around my head, surely this would make me more real to others, define and sharpen my appearance? But a bit difficult to maneuver in rush hour. At the very least a hat does this and I am fond of wearing hats that don't shatter easily.

Tuesday is the opening, please come if you are in the area. The food there is good too. I'll be staying for dinner and a glass of wine. I am so happy to have this moment. So many friends helped me focus my efforts, Flash in particular for pushing me to show my work to Robin Hirsch at the Café. And Deborah and Sarah and Caitlin and always, Jim...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Loosening up...seeing into the face of the Earth

Doing more sketches and studies from sketches...for upcoming show... am wondering where caricature and sketches cross the line and hurt or help the final work... Not all the poets and writers are going to like what I did, I can hear them mutter "too cartoony" or "my nose is not that big!" Maybe I didn't capture them well or my view of them doesn't match their preferred view. And there is always a sneaking in flavor of the artist's self portrait in any attempt to look into another human face.

I continue to write poems in "my" pocket park near where I work. The season is changing, the stone seats are getting cold, a chill creeps along spine as I sip hot soup... and again, as I send myself out into the trees, the reflecting pool, the sparrows and fellow passengers in this immobile platform of a lunch hour, I am sometimes all that I see and it is time to push deeper to become aware of what is beyond my immediate concerns. My mind is a scrim always muddying up the view. What the hell does it mean to write poems about trees anyway? I am not a tree, I was never a tree. Look up, look out.

My brother-in-law recently called me wanting some advice about posting poetry online and unspoken, a bit of encouragement. I told him he absolutely should share his poems, no matter what anyone says. That I enjoy his work and so will others. And that said, make sure the comments are moderated to delete the crazies.

Don Pettit is interested in looking at the natural world and finding a way to express how deeply he feels, loves, and appreciates his good fortune...all from a most unusual seat. While I sit in a small urban park and see a few yards around me...Don will soon be in the space station and looking down on an earth at once close to his heart and 250 miles away. I suggested he bring a good thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, and maybe some Robert Frost this time (he likes Robert Service too). I said he could get inspiration from how Frost would write about nature and it also was about something else. Don being a science guy, he will always bring that view, but he is also a guy with a huge heart... Weight being an issue, he will need to have electronic versions uploaded to him. Just think, I may be responsible for the first rhyming dictionary being beamed up to the space station.

So here's to trees and that great cloud trailing marble of earth. And portraits. The face of humanity is everywhere and my own eternal fascination. I hope I can see the you in you oh subjects of my scrutiny.

Study of Phillip Lopate

Study of Adrienne Rich

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I give a talk to Washington Map Society in the Library of Congress

J.C. McElveen, Program Chair of Washington Map Society, gives me a nifty plaque in Library of Congress
Through the serendipity of worlds colliding, I was invited to give a talk on the sort of decorative and often illustrated maps I've been producing for the last 30 years to the Washington Map Society in the Geography & Map Reading Room in the Library of Congress on October 13, 2011.

Years ago, I met my friends Ernest Lilly and his wife Esther McClure at Lunicon, a science fiction convention held in Westchester, NY. They currently live near DC, Esther works at the Pentagon...Ernest reviews tech gear...their church friends, lawyer J.C. McElveen, and his wife Mary (recent poet-laureate of Alexandria) brought up the topic of mapmaking and Ernest mentioned he had a friend who made maps...and thanks to map geeks and science-fiction aficionados having a talk, I was invited to speak.

J.C. kindly gave me a topic and description: Mapping Real and Imaginary Worlds: Graphic Design in the Pursuit of Learning. 

The "pursuit of learning" part troubled me a tad. I'd made maps in pursuit of a fee, for the love of a challenge, for the joy of combining illustration, calligraphy, and narrative interpretation into a graphic representation of the book's story, but I wasn't sure about the education. Then I realized, duh, I'd been the one to learn things along the way. That I'd learned to go from a 19th century style of  drawing with a crow quill and Mitchell's calligraphy nibs (sizes 5 & 6 for text, 3 1/2 for titles) to the 21st century using Adobe Illustrator with a digital pen.

I found and scanned about 70% of the maps I've done, doing high resolution first then saving a copy for PowerPoint at a smaller size. I struggled with making the slide show in PowerPoint on my mac. Come on BILL GATES make it easy! The circular spinning time hazard symbol happened with every action.

Here is what Jim would hear as I was working:

"Oooh, I forgot about this cool map I did for that murder mystery book!"
[sound of scanner wearily buzzing]
 "Too bad I don't have a bigger scanner, I am getting so tired of matching up two scans."
[Jim grunts a bit off-stage]
"Wow I am up to slide 36, Jim..."
"Great" he says, shaking salad dressing.
"OMG I can't F&*#&ing get this image to drop onto the page, it keeps disappearing and taking the text with it. Why the f*&$^ is this taking so long? Now I have the circling eye of endless Godot  ff&%&*"
"Maybe you should eat," he says, plating the salad.
"Maybe Bill Gates should apologize for not making PowerPoint work on a Mac, he said such nice things about Steve, couldn't he make nice with the software now that Jobs is dead?"

I switched to using Jim's laptop, all PC and here PowerPoint worked as it was supposed to, clunky, but doing the job.

On the Bolt bus to DC I continued to rewrite my talk. I was feeling nervous. After all, these were map experts. I'd come to it as a graphic designer. I was a lightweight.

And then... after being treated to a Chinese dinner (thank you for the meal!) where my nerves made my conversation less than scintillating...we walked through a dramatic lightning storm to the map reading room, a wonderful cavern in the basement of the modern Library of Congress building. The space is teeming with history, maps, and globes that just beg you to look at them...I enjoyed talking to Mary McElveen about poetry until I started to notice people sitting down and looking expectant...then it was time. I was introduced by J.C.. Jim clicked the slides and the opening one appeared on a large monitor. I held my notes in one hand and once I started, I never once needed to look at them. As I talked, some mysterious process took over. I channelled my father's ability to give a lecture, my mother's ability to engage a class, and I enjoyed myself. The best part was watching people relax, especially those who might have been a bit worried I'd do a face plant. People nodded, laughed, leaned forward. It was fun! I discussed failures and milestones, difficult unnamed clients and amazing projects...And 45 minutes later I was done. I answered questions, had my photo taken as I was given a commemorative plaque, more excited buzz, I was asked to give electronic copies of my maps to the library collection! Tom Sander, the editor of The Portolan (the Washington Map Society journal) wants me to write a 3,500 word article based on my talk, and the head of the division, Ralph Ehrenberg, offered to show me around their collection on my next visit to D.C. Oh, it was grand. I am ready to speak again.

Later Jim told me he was so proud and added "you are one of the only people I know who speaks in full sentences." Yet another one to thank all my parents for, full sentences are a fine way to talk, even when cursing out software.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back with pencil and tree

The long silence? A new day job. The sort that takes rather a lot of time to learn, it's a new field, a new culture... But my lunch hours have been another sort of learning...I go to a small park and feel the wind & sun on my skin, watch the birds, water in a reflecting pool, and two rather droopy trees... I will have a chapbook of poems out of my lunches. Plan to sketch the scene as well. So this is good. And I still draw every day on the way to and from work. Have introduced color pencils. You can see me start to figure out what I want to do with color in the sketches below with 4 colors: black, red, blue, yellow and ochre. The stops go by so fast. A little yellow on a lip, a lid, a hat, oh yes, in my subway the light may not be flattering exactly but it is bold.

Drawn as Jim watches TV...

Using yellow, red, blue and black inktense pencils.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When the process is better than any results

Last night I went to an opening of a friend of a friend's art at the Cornelia Street Cafe. Robert Woodward makes beautiful semi transparent scultptures with resin, found objects and swirls of color, unexpected holes, and lyrical lines of metal. I had a glass of wine, talked to the owner of the cafe about my upcoming show, met some cool artists and writers, and chatted with both my daughters—Natalie working downstairs in the performance room and Caitlin dropping by to see the art and then go meet friends...

So I had a glass of wine, no food, happy art eyes, and was taking the subway home and felt the urge to sketch despite tippiness. I was surrounded by a group of sandy footed black kids in flip flops, holding beach gear, and clearly had their usual high energy well dampered by a day at the shore.

I selected an older Vanessa Redgrave-ish lady dozing diagonally across from me. I had to lean around a wide person to see both sides of her face. At some point the young man next to her became convinced I was drawing his portrait! He began to pose, with a deeply pleased and self conscious grin on his face, and I really didn't notice him for half the trip. The boys were of interest, some claiming they could really draw anything and others saying there was no way they could draw even a rabbit. One child said dourly that the beach had been bad for her as she'd cut her mouth on something...and it turned out she loved to read (Junie B. Jones books).

The posing young man said "Can I see?"
I realized what had happened and laughed.
"Oh no, I wasn't drawing you, I was drawing her!"
At this point the young woman minding the boys began to laugh and repeat what I'd said. The older woman chuckled.
I sketched the young man in one stop, showed him, he nodded with appreciation and ran off the train.
"Wait, you forgot your umbrella!" shouted the lady.
"It's yours...." called the young guy.
She didn't want it. The boys considered wanting it but one of them decided I had better have it as they would fight over it.
I took the umbrella and declared to the car, "it is nice to get paid for what I do!"

Then the boys wanted me to do their portraits but it was my stop. I told them to draw each other and thanked them for making my ride much more interesting.

Just this morning I'd been complaining all our umbrellas had disappeared, funny how the universe resets the balance.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Donald (Justice) portrait, first try

As you may know (if you read sidebar) I have an art opening coming up in December in the intimate upstairs studio/dining space at the Cornelia Street Cafe. I had suggested to Robin Hirsch, one of the owners, that I feature the small impromptu sketches I do of poets and writers as they give readings. I'd call it something like "Poets Corner at Cornelia" and feature as many poets as I can that have graced the small vibrant downstairs performance space with their words (plus a few that would have undoubtedly read there if they weren't otherwise deceased). Robin liked my small works but after a moment of staring at the 3 x 5 inch pencils and watercolors, asked if I could perhaps also work a little bigger. I blithely assured him I would do various sizes. And I have worked MUCH larger--too big for these walls and not with this subject matter...

Scale is a bitch. Did I just say that out loud? What works in postcard size doesn't automatically improve with enlargement. So now I am politely asking my muse how to revise my process. So far, she isn't returning my face book pleadings and "likes" on her enigmatic comments.

I tried a surrealistic photo shop collage for Sylvia Plath but suspect I need to stick with paper, pencil, and paints.

This weekend my daughter Caitlin helped me temporarily turn our living room into an art studio. Out came easel, thick arches watercolor paper, brushes, and pliers to undo gummed up tubes of paint.

I love the words of Donald Justice and wish I could have met him. But he is, alas, in that category of poet that can only pose past tense.

But how do I work? In my quick sketches, I scribble in the dark, shade/smudge with my pinkie, and add color at my peril since I can't really see what I'm doing. How do I do this at home with too much time to get precise or timid?

My friend Jeanne Marie Beaumont was once at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference when Justice was there. She assures me he was, as he appears in the photos, nice, rather shy, and more focused on the work of making poetry than working the business of being a poet.

He has a great poem about a dress maker's dummy in the attic, a naked ghost that appealed to his teenage imagination.

So here is my first sketch, with dummy, pre-paint... and I will try other approaches...want to work in some couplets from the poem... (penciled in, photocopied and stuck to the paper, pin pricked calligraphy?) Now if I only knew what were the color of his eyes...?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Daily Sketch 6/30/11-7/1/11

A week of sketching has made me aware of how much I've forgotten. I took out my trusty best guide to the anatomy of the bones and muscles of the human noggin, Gary Faigin's The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression. Years ago I was a monitor in his late afternoon sketch class at the Art Students League, he was a great teacher and I watched me and everyone else—from stick figure beginners to pros—gain the ability to see what they were looking at. We look at faces with our animal brain, so tend to draw larger what is most likely to help or hurt us. All beginners draw anacephalic heads with grievously small craniums and overly large eyes and mouths. As Little Red Riding Hood says "What big teeth you have Granny!" The natural way we draw heads is a map of how our brains process expression. But if you want to do portraits it is good to be able to see the actual topography of the subject and then feel free to distort it any way your artistic soul wants.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Daily Sketch 6-29-11

I am getting plenty of attention as I draw.
"What you have is a gift, a gift!" says lady with crisply curled yellow hair to my left.
"Actually I prefer to think of it as a craft, I've had years of lessons."
"No," she insists, "it's a gift, I can't do it."

"OH MY GOD I saw you draw that man in like 5 minutes, with all that detail! Who are you?"
It occurs to me to offer a spot of self-promotion.
"Er, I'm the December gallery art show at the Cornelia St. Cafe." The salt 'n pepper woman leans over for one last look.
"Oh good, I live in the Village, I will come to your show!" She exits.
 The woman she leaned over takes an interest. We have a nice chat. Her work in marketing research overlaps mine. She tells me it was one of the most entertaining rides she has had in ages.

Young guy on my left reads my comment about big black glasses and says "Yeah, I wonder that too." And he was the one who noted I sure enjoy drawing when I missed my station by two stops.

Yes. I do like to draw. I do. Feels good to get into practice again.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why I mention you won't meet The Donald or Justin Bieber in this post

I went to a webmaster's round table (yes, big oval table) held at the New York Law School (no, not the NYU Law School). It was for not-for-profit webmasters, which, according to my new job description, I sort of am. Although far more qualified people are in charge of the "back end" (data bases and programs that run everything under the hood).

It was a fine informative group and I learned plenty—even as some of the talk left me slightly stunned. Jargon. Trends. Usability. More Jargon. Hits. Conversions. CMS Solutions. These were seriously smart tech people. They shared a central casting appearance that comes from spending most waking hours slouched in front of a glowing monitor, not moving much more than a mouse, and intensively problem solving. The woman were better dressed.

I learned that if I were to mention The Donald, The Beiber, Lindsay Lohan, or Britney Spears in my blog I would get many more "hits" (visits to the site). And hits can turn into something called "conversions" (people going on to buy something from you). Isn't market-speak grand? For the charity I work for, I plan to design them a new website that visually clarifies their mission and this hopefully brings in more money—without using even one troubled starlet, shady tycoon, or annoying teenybop heart throb. 

But I will NOT stoop to listing celebrities I care nothing about to boost my own blog ratings. I will let my takes on POETRY and ART and DESIGN and MAPS and VISUAL NARRATIVE attract those hoards who share my passions. I am not here to sell you anything except, perhaps, a little of my own excitement over the unexpected and fine flavors of life and art. No more Donald. Begone. Delete. Delete.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cheesecake, Guardian Angels, and the Feminist Mystique

My daughters and a friend marched in the Mermaid Parade this weekend and got a LOT of attention. The three of them were splashed across page 6 of the Daily News and also in the Post. They were the merbabe cheesecakes du jour. I am guessing millions now know just what my daughters look like between their necks and navels.

Caitlin projected serenity, Natalie was "LOOK AT ME—WOW this is FUN!!!!" and their friend Courtney reveled in a bad girl rocker chick attitude. They enjoyed themselves and were enjoyed in turn. But a lot of grunty gross guys made grunty gross suggestions as the trio waved, posed, and vamped along the boardwalk. Clearly many women (and men!) love to show their assets in this costume (or rather almost no costume) event of the summer, but I also felt protective, THESE ARE MY GIRLS! Smutty pleasures and feminism make for psychotic photojournalism. Put it this way, my best photo of the day was Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, on the phone and a little boy next to him also on the phone--as if they were talking to each other... my friend Michael says sometimes the best shot isn't what you came to see but what's in the other direction.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Junk Food map for Alimentum: The Literature of Food!

It's out! The 12th issue of Alimentum (which I designed) printed well and my map is in it. When I laid out the issue there was one blank page and seeing an opportunity I asked Paulette (head honcho) if I could try something... I created the map first on paper, rough pencil sketch, that I scanned and used as a basis for finished drawings in Photoshop (head outline) and Adobe Illustrator (everything else). Coming up with the A-B-C  commentary was not a cinch. The humor lurched from too personal to too snarky to just pathetically unfunny. In fact you may still think it is all of those things! I tested it on friends who raised eyebrows as they realized what churns through my gray matter. I thank Jim, Natalie, Deborah, Joe, Flash and Mia for their input...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Trump SoHo Redux--say what?

I don't blog everyday. Especially when I've started a new job and am madly figuring out how to put together a one woman show of my poet portraits (Cornelia St. Cafe art gallery in December)—maybe I let a few things slip.

Yesterday, I'd finally posted something new and idly checked my google analytics. My blog was showing a 985.13% improvement in visitors. SAY WHAT?!? I'd had this huge unprecedented spike on one day—May 27th, to be exact—over 1,300 people came to read something I'd written in 2007. The analytics indicated curious folks had followed a link from an article in The Daily Beast written by Wayne Barrett "Inside Donald Trump's Empire: Why He Won't Run for President" and read my "Possess Your Own SoHo--sez Trump". It's just possible Barrett* had meant to link to a news report and accidentally got me, but I prefer to believe this professor of journalism and major investigative reporter was tickled by my rant. 

How nice. I've wondered if anyone is reading the older pieces. On May 27th they did. And who knows what stray thoughts in 2011 will appeal to readers in 2015? Spike away dear readers and thank you.

*(or Valerie Bogard, Bryan Finlayson, Nichole Sobecki, Barry Shifrin, and Katie Thompson who contributed reporting to Barrett's article)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A small step out of traditional

I often sketch writers as they personally read me their works—while ignoring the large audience that also sits in the same auditorium. In this way I've gotten rather good at scribbling on a tiny pad of paper in the near dark with all attempts made to keep the pencil from squeaking or percussing the paper. The sketches are a bit cartoony but still traditional, kind of old fashioned. I have offended nobody with them.

Lately in my quest to work bigger and fill a few walls at the Cornelia Street Cafe art gallery (my show is coming later this year!) I have begun experimenting. For this exercise I sketched a poet who could not pose live. I drew on paper. I wrangled in photoshop. I turned her black and white photo into color. I added type and more photos. I showed it to people who either disliked it a lot or said I was on to something. I have taken my first not very startling toddle out of safety.

Being that I am a book designer, the piece has that book jacket feel. I know. Occupational hazard. But I had to start somewhere. But I do feel excited by combining pencil and photoshop.... Maybe in time, if I do a few more of these, I'll get it nudged into a portrait that does not seem like it hugs a spine and sixteen signatures. Should I add more bees?

Monday, May 30, 2011

The holiday weekend sneezathon

Yes, I spent Memorial Day and more with a cold. The fever makes me listless. Also, can't figure out where I hid the air conditioner... It must be lurking somewhere.

I am passing my time between naps trying to write in terza rima. Specifically, I'm trying to write a terzanelle, which is the unholy offspring of a villanelle using terza rima rhyme. Villanelle's are notoriously difficult to write, the terzanelle is supposed to be a bit easier, it isn't quite so overpoweringly repeating. I feel rather like Bartolomeo Ammannati must have felt after carving his Neptune, a slavish homage to Michelangelo's David--adding a beard just wasn't enough to keep the populace from noting it was a rank imitation. In this case, the populace is my own feverish gallery of critics who generally sit in the gray matter house seats and throw me unsolicited reviews of work-in-progress. Would ibuprofen help shut them up? No? I don't think wine is the answer either.

The word "terzanelle" has a Tarzan sort of echo, and it is a muscular verse form. Repetitions after all are the key to glutes and form.

I write free verse because I can't do the harder stuff well. I default to my easiest mode of expression. But I also believe I'm supposed to Grow and Learn and generally Improve my tool kit.  It is me, the thesaurus and rhyming dictionary today...and the sneezes, no doubt they will inform the rhythm of my lines.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I am interviewed in my writer's hat

Jill Dearman, who interviews writers for a feature "Writer to Writer" on the Barnes & Noble community blog, has interviewed me.

The interview is >> here.

When she first asked me about myself, I wrote a long ramble to what became the interview.  Here is the long version, but really, what is distilled is often best....

Dear Jill,

So many of my writing friends grew up in working class families that didn’t read much besides the bible or reader’s digest. These friends were the first in the family to go to college and when they committed to writing poetry that was such uncharted territory their families shook their heads or begged them to come home.

There is a kind of freedom in switching tracks. But that wasn’t my journey.

Instead I grew up in a two-person nuclear family, a divorcee and daughter in tow. We migrated from one university town to another chasing the seasonal work of an assistant professor. Besides teaching poetry and women’s lit, my mother was openly a poet and quietly a lesbian. I grew up with English professors snorting theories in our backyard, poets declaiming in the living room, and adoring and hungry students hogging my mother’s attention.

I found the poets the most annoying. They drooped, they blathered, they hideously quoted themselves. In general they disliked children and ignored me. My mother smoked her cigarettes in a long holder and quoted Roethke and Dylan Thomas in theatrical tones that made my teeth clench.

As I child I so detested poetry I refused to listen to any bits that littered Winnie-the-Pooh.

My mother planned for me to be an artist, one talent she didn’t pursue, and bought me art supplies and lovely blank pads of paper. She had me sketching her portrait when I was nine and was pleased with my ability to catch a likeness. She often encouraged me to talk about what I SAW, and delighted in my saying things like “pink is my favorite color of lightning.”

Then I had one of those dismal childhood illnesses when I was in third grade that kept me in bed for several months and I began to read to pass the time. Soon I lived to read. I tore through most of the interesting children’s books at the library and my mother, looking much as Piaget must have looked observing his child, began to experiment.  I was started on Jane Eyre but grew bored with her once she was an adult. In fourth grade I read my mother’s heavily annotated copy of Sister Carrie and fell in love with Dreiser. I read everything, from comfort novels by E. Nesbit to tough stuff like Treblinka when I was 9.

When I was ten and visiting my father, he gave me a blank journal and advised me to keep a diary. It had helped him develop his writing skills, and Pepys’ like, he fills them to this day. Since he has retired as a biology and genetics professor he publishes a science book a year!

By the time I was in high school I established a habit of borrowing a stack of books a week from the library and only reading though the ones that deserved all my attention. I applauded and cried for Harold and Maude long before it became a movie, ditto Cold Comfort Farm, The Mouse that Roared, I Captured the Castle, and many others. I devoured Jane Austen and Dickens, Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, Joan Aiken, and only judged a book on how well it entranced me with story and style.

I never expected to be a writer let alone a poet. I started college planning to be a studio art major. Then my mother died when I was eighteen. I switched majors to English. I felt a need to know what she knew about literature, beyond my voracious consumption. Professors David Sheehan and Paul Dolin helped me fall in love with poetry, from Chaucer to Yeats to Elizabeth Bishop. I began to jot parodies of the poets on scraps of paper. I kept writing in my journals about all the heartache, hopes, fears, gossip and love affairs that life supplied. I wrote one final exam in blank verse.

I graduated, came to NYC, and became a book designer. I tried writing novels but they always drifted away from me. I was working full time and had two children, I just had no time for long works… I started a writing group. It didn’t work out. I started another one, learning from my mistakes, and it worked quite well. One day my writing group (River Writers) outed me as a poet. It was hard for me to own it. And then I dived in. I took workshops, I read current poets and revisited the greats. I found amazing, delightful, deep and currently living and writing poets all over the world.

I discovered Amy Gerstler and Donald Justice as well as the translated works from Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Symborska. And by taking classes at the 92nd St. Y and The Frost Place, I learned from some remarkable poets, among them, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Baron Wormser, Jeffrey Harrison, and Sharon Dolin, who are all great reading. Jeanne Marie asked me to help her create an anthology of fairy tale poems after a workshop. The Poets’ Grimm came out in 2003.

I also took on more and more freelance work designing books for poets and novelists. It was thanks to Marsh Hawk Press that my first book of poetry was published. They noticed that their designer was also a poet and asked if I had a manuscript…did I have a manuscript!? Did I ever…ten years in the making. The Elephant House came out in 2007.

I chose not to go the academic route, so no MFA. I never stopped loving good writing in any genre. I reject the snobbism of genre ghettos. Some of the best novels are on the YA shelf—read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, YA short story collections by Kelly Link, and fantasy books by Diana Wynne Jones. John Crowley, Kelly Link, and Jonathan Letham go to the same science fiction conventions that I do, I adore literary graphic novels, like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and David Small’s Stitches. The social satire and literary spoofs of Posy Simmonds, such as Gemma Bovary, are brilliant. Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, is haunting and works for any age although it is on the children’s bookshelf.

Now that my children are grown and I’ve gone entirely freelance, I am taking on longer projects, a novel, an illustrated picture book, and of course, my next poetry book. I have never been able to cut off the writing from the drawing. I do see the pink lightning but it also shakes the landscape of words.

I still borrow stacks of books every week and only read the ones that demand my time. I carry a sketchbook and draw the writers as they read their works, at the 92nd St Y, Cornelia St. Café, Comic Book Conventions, Book Fairs, and Poets House. I hope to do a show of my sketch portraits this year.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

On a lighter note, let's hear from Death and Art

Had a great time drawing the poets night before last at the 92nd St. Y. Sharon Dolin (who teaches poetry classes there) brought me as her guest. C. K. Williams and C. D. Wright touched on similar themes of death and loss. I had a funeral (for the father of a friend) the next morning, so was hoping for more upbeat choices, but as always art consoles no matter the theme.

And they read so well! Daisy Fried introduced Williams. His long lines, infused by his breath, arching eyebrows, expressive line of a mouth, and hunched left shoulder, built in intensity. I didn't have time to draw the guy who introduced the second poet, alas... Wright has a lovely full head of wavy white hair, brisk eyes, and smiles that pass over the planes of her triangular face transforming it into a heart.
As I approached the poets after the reading they mentioned they had heard someone might draw them, was that person me? A bit in shock I said yes, I supposed it was. I got their autographs and thanked them for their work and then looked around for the guy who had spread the rumor that there might be a portrait sketcher. Fried pointed me to a slender nice-looking youngish man in a dark suit in a dark corner of the auditorium. My advance praiser turned out to be Bernard Schwartz, who heads the 92nd St. Y writing programs and had introduced the event. He was delighted with my work! How wonderful that feels. I promised to come back and draw more, he encouraged me to do so. I sent him the scans. And now I put them here.

The One Thousand Dollar Box of Tea

A couple of months ago I had the flu and discovered the savory soothing pleasures of licorice tea. IF ONLY I had stopped at a few cups. But no, I had a whole box of the stuff and drank it in the evenings and at work, it's wispy fragrance filling the borrowed cubicle where I worked on ads and brochures for a publishing company in it's busy season.
  • At first I felt tired and off balance and blamed it on my flu recovery
  • I began to have heart thumps and blamed it on too much sitting.
  • My belly and ankles swelled by mid-afternoon and I thought too little exercise was causing my body to melt and bloat.
  • I blamed the headaches on eyestrain from working two jobs.
  • I didn't like the tingling in my left hand and cramps in my legs and ignored it.
  • Then I started having full fledged panic attacks with trembles, until they were almost a daily beast. I blamed it on financial woes, world upheaval, my cat's demise, a bad review, and watching too much news.
Then last Thursday at 4pm, as I idly wondered if I was a total namby-pamby--or going off the deeps--I sipped my final cup of licorice tea and within minutes had all the symptoms slam me. I was faint, I was having heart thumps, my feet looked ready to burst the straps of my mary janes...and I had an epiphany and looked up the effects of too much licorice (glycyrrhizin). I had most of the symptoms, except the guy ones, eureka!

Wiki: "Excessive consumption of liquorice or liquorice candy is known to be toxic to the liver and cardiovascular system, and may produce hypertension  and oedema. In occasional cases blood pressure has increased with excessive consumption of liquorice tea, but such occasions are rare and reversible when the herb is withdrawn. Doses as low as 50 grams (2 oz) of liquorice daily for two weeks can cause a significant rise in blood pressure." I'd been having it daily for 2 months!
emedicine: "Symptoms of licorice toxicity may include the following:
  • Fatigue and muscle cramping
  • Dark urine (myoglobinuria)
  • Weakness (hypokalemia, myopathies)
  • Polyuria/nocturia (increased extracellular volume)
  • Edema (increased extracellular volume)
  • Dyspnea (pulmonary edema)
  • Headache (hypertension)
  • Paresthesias/dysesthesias (eg, burning sensations of extremities)
  • Impotence and diminished libido
  • Amenorrhea "
I'm currently uninsured, so I paid these (kindly reduced) prices:  I went to my doctor ($125, ka-ching) who sent me to a lab for tests of my fluids ($125 ka-ching). My blood pressure which had been 90/60 two months ago was now 160/90. He told me I looked greenish and tests showed my liver function was off. But being a doctor he dismissed my self-diagnosis and sent me for an echo cardiogram ($500, ka-ching!) heart OK! I need further blood, pee and liver tests, ka-ching, ka-ching... at $30 a cup!

I read it takes about 2 weeks for symptoms to improve. Months for the adrenal system to fully bounce back. Already I feel better, but tire out by evenings... I am eating lots of potassium rich foods and avoiding the salty ones. I am measuring my weight and ankle circumference every morning and they are going down. I have fewer of all the nasty effects. I am not crazy, just poisoned. And licorice is an ingredient in many of my other tea mixes, with names like Peaceful Mix and Happy Day. They are in a landfill now.

What is shocking? Dog medicine is better regulated than human. Any health food store can sell herbals that can kill you if used to excess. And what is excess? Not listed on the box, that's for sure.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The curious symbiosis of literary presses and writing programs

It is a curious fact that literary presses with reputable writing contests will be supported by MFA students in possession of a manuscript.

But it goes further than that. The non-tenured or would-be teachers of such programs will also want to have their works published to enhance their prospects.

All the students and teachers must pay the entrance fees to the contests which help fund the costs of hiring a judge and producing and publishing the prize winning books.

The AWP (Associated Writing Programs) book fair was filled with hundreds of presses offering contest information. Their tables were covered in books, stickers, small candies and the all important prize entry flyer. And there was this hungry look in so many eyes, the yearning to not be spurned by a contest judge, the desire to be published. On the other side of the table sat representatives of the presses, eager to sell the lottery tickets of publication.

What was curiously lacking was rapture over the poetry and prose itself. Unlike the Dodge or Frost Place Poetry Festival I didn't see as many folks buying books to read for pleasure. I saw tit for tat book exchanges. It was an industry of writers and publishers without the general readers. It was an inside job. Think ouroboros devouring it's own press release.

The writing programs pump out thousands of students a year, each with a manuscript. The presses publish hundreds of prize winning books. But who will read these mountains of books? How do you know where to start?

And I am part of it, I design books for literary presses and I am published by them too. After AWP I decided it was important to get the word out on books I have loved reading. So expect some more book reviews in this blog.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Through the Heart

This Valentine's Day started and ended with a massacre.

At my temporary freelance job, a jolt ran though the halls after a dozen people were fired on Monday the 14th. I imagine them at their pre-paid romantic dinners handing over gifts of dark chocolate accompanied by the unromantic conversation (and often held these days) about how the middle class can survive on lost income...

I spent my lunch hour wandering through the church-like splendor of the Wall Street Borders, enjoying the feeling of books all around me, new books, with their inviting covers and sexy flap copy. The carved and gilded wooden ceiling an appropriate dome, a bookish cerebral cortex above all the thoughts captured in page. But they are going into Chapter 11... I said to the man behind the help counter, "I don't want you to go," and with deep feeling he replied "we don't want to go." But soon, they will. And with the unfolding huge shift in technology, paper books will become high end gift and art objects and the reference books, textbooks, and quick reads will be electronic. 

I came home to face death. Our cat, who has gradually been getting sicker, got to the place where there was not much good about being alive. Barely moving, she slept on my heart, her weight barely more than a blanket, her purr a dim throttle. I thanked her for the good times and petted her until the vet came to our place and with a final shot to her heart she died with eyes wide open.
Loss always echos with other losses. I miss my cat and our sixteen years together (yes, I know, I am a trope myself, middle aged writer with a cat, I know) I miss my mother and our 18 years together, and I miss Scribners, the plethora of used bookstores on 4th, the specialty Mystery bookstores, the recently closed Barnes & Noble on 67th, and all the other bookstores I have known and loved.

But books will still be read and written. I cannot be a paper Luddite. I am learning all the new web technology as fast as I can. It is like dating a fast talking mystery man...maybe at some point I'll understand what he is saying and even fall in love. My friend Flash Rosenberg has invited me to come and learn more about the possibilities of electronic books. I'd like to help her turn her cartoon art into inviting experiences on any kind of page, wood pulp or pixels. And do the same for myself with my art and words... It kills me that it is all changing. I'm sure they said the same thing when Gutenberg's presses replaced the scribes. The Book is dead, long live the Book! This is my world, goodbye and hello.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

To the bookfair

I'm in a Bolt bus heading to Washington. The view is snow on ice on snow but in a break from all the storms, bright skies are giving my retinas more sun than I've seen in a month. Sharp shadows and very long smokestack plumes are pointing my way and that small high from sunlight, feels happy, yes.

I just launched a redesign of my website and have a stack of new business cards to hand out to anyone considering my design/writing/drawing services. My last site was looking horribly dated. It was 10 years old, in web years that is like using papyrus to advertise. People would say things like, "nice covers buried in there." Right. Huge thanks to my husband Jim who made epic trek to Brooklyn to pick up the cards from the printer on a day of slush and wind while I worked in an office for a client.

It was a week of little sleep, in my quest to finish an illustrated map for a Mary Gordon novel, being published by Knopf, I had two nights I worked until 5am, the other 3 nights until 2am and had to go into freelance job on Wall St.

Cool. Bus is pulling into a weighing station. Do light thoughts help?
Good news, I've been Invited to read with Jeannie Beaumont at the Perfect Sense reading series in June at the Cornelia St. Cafe. More details to come.

I look forward to helping at the Marsh Hawk Press table, finally meeting some of the authors and publishers of Benu Press and running into thousands of my fellow poets of whom I know quite a few from workshops, readings and the life in and around books.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Flu and one new year's resolution.

It is tempting to think of illness as a metaphor or languid literary excuse to read. I am here to report that my first flu in 15 years was lacking in romance and opportunity to improve my mind. No stoic was I, nor bedside philosopher, rather, I was a many faces of Eve amalgam of Dopey, Sneezy and Grumpy and the new dwarf, Bitchy. My brain was stupid. My dreams were stupid. I watched stupid TV shows and had trouble following the stupid commercials. A week of hacking and fever finally brought me to a point where I could read a book and watch old movies as long as they didn't make me laugh due to sore ribs. Jim came down with it too and we were so sick we sort of flopped and growled at each other. New year's resolution, now that I don't have health insurance and a job that gives me free flu shots, I pay the local drug store to give me one every damn year, period.

I started working again yesterday. Slooooowwwwly.

"That's a really nice monitor," said Caitlin's friend Jon. Did I mention I got sick while I had house guests and my daughter was visiting for a week before her semester abroad in Italy. (Both daughters did semesters in "I" name places 5 characters long, India, Italy...Hey wait, I went to China last year, that's 5 letters too. Maybe the mapmakers insisted on short names to fit on the maps?)
"It is, isn't it?" I said looking at the apple screen, a 27-inch beauty.
"What are you working on," he asked politely.
For me a loaded question. Book stores closing down, people blithely announcing they will never read another paper book. My livelihood as a book designer undergoing a potential extinction...the need to get used to digital editions and web production.
"I need to learn how to design websites, lots of them," I replied.
We both gazed at the site I was designing in photoshop.
Jon mentioned he liked the background color. Something tells me I haven't caught the first crest of avant guard with this design. But he is 20, I am not designing this site for a 20 year old art major.
No, the one good thing to remember is that whatever the platform, I still have a good feel for giving clients what they want and need.

When Jon went with Caitlin to the Brooklyn Museum, I wrote a poem. I began a new blog for reviews of books I read. I thought about how good it feels to have a mind that works again.