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.